The roller coaster of extremes of emotion and understanding moves on apace.
With a non-stop programme of guided tours, lectures and discussions carrying on over meals and coffee breaks well into the late evening there have been a lot of words to enjoy, to reflect on. It’s very easy to sink under the weight of those words. Sometimes words fail you; and sometimes they seem inappropriate.
Today was one of those days.
But without words you won’t get a taste of today.
So let me start at the end of the day and work backwards. That way, I can leave you without words and in silence.
To begin at the end
Before the chocolate and the very end of the evening, I hope to enjoy my first bit of ecumenical table tennis. Apparently, the Roman Catholic monk from Sri Lanka is quite some player. That remains to be seen.
It’s 8-45 and I have just emerged from a conversation that began over the meal table back at 6-00 with friend Phil from Gloucester and others too! It ranged over the world of the New Testament, touched on the Cotswolds and Roman Britain and was (as those who know me well can imagine) great fun!
Prayers at beginning and end of the day
At 5-30 we had had a lovely, quiet time of evening prayer for 25 minutes. Led by Celia who works on inter-faith relations for Churches Together in England and lives in a (?) Foucalare Community, it was a much needed peaceful time. It had been good at 7-00 this morning to begin the day with a morning communion service led by Janet Tollington, a member of staff at Westminster College Cambridge and a URC minister. It was good to have a service that touched our tradition of communion by having unfermented wine. In a strange way I appreciated that … and the way it was valued by everyone else too.
She had reminded us that in a couple of days we will mark the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, at the hands of the Nazis as the war drew to a close. A pacifist, opponent of the Nazi regime, he had been involved in a bomb plot to assassinate Hitler that failed. And had been imprisoned. As one of those implicated in that plot he was executed as the war draw towards its close.
Our reflections centred on the martyrdom of Stephen and the invitation of Christ to draw our spiritual sustenance from him as the bread of heaven.
Immediately before those prayers, we had just had an hour and a half in the company of Dr Petra Heldt, a Lutheran theologian who had specialized in the theology of the early church and clearly fallen in love with the Orthodox Church.
Christians in the Holy Land
Dr Heldt's talk was aimed at giving us an understanding of the Orthodox church and its nature. How pleased I was that Felicity had lent me a marvelous introduction to the Orthodox Church by a friend of hers called Gillian Crow. [Gillian Crow, Orthodoxy Today (SPCK, 2008)] Reading the book and listening to the lecture his evening and the following discussion made me realize how a little bit of that Orthodox understanding of the faith and of the church had seeped into me when I had studied with Kallistos Ware back in the early 70’s. His successor as Priest in the Orthodox church in Oxford, Fr Ian is at this moment at the next computer to this one!
She was attempting to help us see through the eyes of the Orthodox and realize the very different way of thinking they have and the very different ways of thinking there are in the Middle East.
It was so helpful in appreciating the different ways in which people look at something we might think of as so basic, human rights.
every speaker so far had prompted us to laugh with a note of derision at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as a place where the division of the church was all too apparent. That’s because we think of Christian unity and Ecumenism in a particular kind of way.
Dr Heldt saw in that church not a sign of disunity, but a remarkable sign of unity. Here in that place people had prayed since ? 326. Those continual years of prayer gave that place a very special sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In that place many different streams from Western and Eastern Christianity meet and share. And there oneness works in a remarkably effective way. The occasional clashes, often arising when priests who have been fasting for a long time are coping with massive numbers in a very confined place, lose their patience and momentarily fall out with each other.
This accorded with the views of the group who had stayed over night in that church as they had reported that sense of reverence, sincerity and prayerfulness that had immediately been present as the tourists went and the place became once more a place of deep devotion.
Dr Heldt invited us to see the specialness of that ‘holy place’ through the eyes of the Orthodox. For us in the West it is described as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of Christ’s Tomb. In the East the same church is known as the Church of Resurrection.
Wonderfully different and powerful insights into the nature of the church and its unity, the importance of ‘place’, the focus on the glory and the grace of God, the very thought that God became human that we might by God’s grace take on divinity.
My words are running away with me and I am running out of words.
Stimulating thinking. A wonderful invitation to see things through other people’s eyes and so to seek a deeper reconciliation.
That lecture began at 3-30.
A Quiet Afternoon
Prior to that I had enjoyed my first after dinner snooze of the fortnight. Considering the early starts, full days and late finishes that’s not bad going! I had also enjoyed going out of the main door by reception to the side of Tantur that looks down on the Checkpoint and the separation wall with Bethlehem.
It was good just to sit and reflect.
It was good to have space.
After that morning communion we were on the coach by 8-30 and arrived at Yad Vashen at 9-00. When we were told to be back on the bus by 12-00 it seemed a long morning.
The time flew by. And by the end had to be hurried.
Yad Vashen is the Holocaust memorial.
I was struck by the repeated use of the word ‘murdered’. And I was struck by the stories of people. Not numbers. People. People just like me.
Words cannot express what it felt like to be confronted with the reality of the Holocaust.
These are the words that came to my mind … and then the words that stand at the entrance to the vast gallery that contains the personal stories of each individual murdered in the Holocaust, a gallery that has yet to be completed. Those final words are by Benjamin Fondane and are entitled ‘Exodus’. After that … silence.
Benjamin Fondane was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.
6,000,000 did not die
6,000,000 people died
6,000,000 people did not die
6,000,000 people like me died.
6,000,000 people like me did not die
6,000,000 people like me were killed
6,000,000 people like me were not killed
6,000,000 people like me were murdered
6,000,000 people like me were murdered by people like me.
Remember only that I was innocent
and, just like you, mortal
On that day I too had a face
marked by rage, pity and joy,
quite simply a human face.