2012 is still young, but the year has already proven to be a spiritually enriching experience, and there’s still much promise. Before describing personal spiritual experiences, it seems necessary to give a bit of context: My mother was Jewish, my father Catholic, so as a child I received the “best of both worlds” so to speak, though receiving much more Catholic education. In college I began my affiliation with the Episcopal Church, along with other meditation practices. When strangers question my religious affiliation, my response is that I’m a Catholic Buddhist Episcopalian Jew. This obviously raises some eyebrows, but for one reason or another I have never felt a conflict between the seemingly opposing systems in my personal life.
In January, I went to Israel on Taglit-birthright, a free trip to Israel for Jewish youth. Being in a place unlike any other, completely surrounded in sacred energy and ancient history, is beyond what any words can possibly describe. Being able to put a place to a story strengthened my zeal and placed my religion in perspective. (Faith is absolutely necessary, but having something tangible never hurts!)
The story and land of Israel is shared by so many cultures: Egyptians, Romans, Jews, Christians, Muslims; the land is equally as varied, from the bone-dry pure sand deserts of the Negev shared with the Bedouins, to the lush fertile northern borders shared with Syria. I was in Israel for 12 days, so naturally some experiences were more profound than others. After 18 hours between planes, we drove to the Hebrew University (atop Mount Scopus), and caught our first glimpse of the ancient holy city of Jerusalem, its’ defining white stones gleaming as gold in the sunset. We broke bread and had wine with prayers, a welcome emotional and spiritual respite after such a long journey, one that had been much longer for the faithful of the past. The trip to Kotel, “the wailing wall,” was equally profound. People crowded towards the wall and around in each other, leaving hopeful prayers wedged into stone and bathing in the sacred atmosphere of the ancient temple, with the Islam Dome of the Rock directly behind, and eastern chanting coming from yet another direction. The knowledge that so many had passed on in hopes of one day seeing the temple struck me, while I, a privileged American college graduate, stood there, not any more or less deserving. The Mount of Olives, a mountain with extensive Old and New Testament significance, was another early stop, with thousands upon thousands of Jewish, Christian, and Islam graves all waiting in hopeful expectation for the resurrection of the body and final judgment. The remainder of our trip was spent between a Kibbutz and Bedouin tents, in an interdependent communal atmosphere where the stranger is welcomed and all look out for one another. The (strangely) most profound experience for me was our visit to the mountaintop ruins of Masada, even though I had never heard the story before. The history behind it is extremely extensive, but boils down to a group of early Zionist Jews who were equally unsatisfied with the perversion of rabbinic leadership and Roman rule, and escaped to a mountain to live out their ideals. They were pursued by the Romans, ever paranoid of any rebellion, and ultimately killed each other (since suicide was outlawed) rather than succumb to slavery or death by Roman soldiers. But something on this mountain holds an air of reverence, of awe, of remembrance; to the north you can see the faint glimmer of Jerusalem, to the east is the Dead Sea, and all around is lonely barren sand. In this environment we sang a Hebrew song of remembrance and goodbye, while dancing in a circle with locals. Everywhere in Israel we travelled, we still experienced that same warm welcome and kinship with the local people.
Fast forward from January to March, and time for the Episcopal Migration Ministries conference. I went with a group of very intelligent, articulate, open-minded young adults, which would help ease me into the challenging days to come. It was a completely new experience, being at a professional conference with much older folks, and surrounded by Episcopalians. Being so far out of my element and comfort zone required a great deal of patience, but with the compassion and understanding of others, I made it through and learned a lot both professionally and personally. I had my first experience saying Compline, which really touched my heart. Reverend Kim Jackson came to talk to our young adult group on our second night, and her words gave me a better framework for understanding. Some of the questions she posed, applicable to both the conference and real life, were:
How can you turn ignorance into light?
Where does God want us to shed the most light?
Are we serving selflessly, or serving self?
Are we active contemplatives, or contemplative activists?
Where can your life use some untangling?
Where do you fit in the story?
These are all questions I’m still wrestling with, and ones I don’t think I’ll ever forget, and far more profound than any professional experience attained. Maybe we’re all refugees, pilgrims, and wanderers in life, looking for welcome, safety, a home, a church, a community, a better life, personal fulfillment, or simply basic nourishment. Maybe it’s our fate as humans to wander and search endlessly until we rest in peace, and even then, maybe we shall just lie in expectancy, along with all of the faithful buried on the Mount of Olives. Whether we are shedding a bright light alike those serving the refugee community, or softly glowing while engaging our own communities as a local advocate for whatever cause we choose, we have a fire to keep burning, a road to keep walking, and a responsibility to both God and neighbor; we are indeed our brother’s keeper, and by no means the protagonist in our story.