How the Holy Land hit me

  • November 30, 2013

During a recent six-day assignment to the Holy Land I often referred to the landscape as being 50 shades of beige. But despite the vistas being stuck on one small section of the colour wheel, I couldn’t stop pressing the shutter on my camera. I took more than 1,700 photos despite attempts to be selective.

Before this trip, I’d never been to the Holy Land, the Middle East or, for that matter, anywhere overseas. So what presented itself through my camera was all new to me. My first impression was that everywhere I looked, it looked the same.

As someone who spent much of their young career covering hockey, I know that eventually the novelty of capturing the relatively same image wears off quickly. Yet this never happened in the Holy Land. Instead I found myself drawn to the land and its people.

Like many visitors, I arrived in Israel with a preconception of its streets being charged with division, if not conflict. I wasn’t expecting to be kept awake at night by sounds of war, but I did expect to witness division between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities. But none of that was evident in the places visited by our group.

I couldn’t stop trying to capture all of it on my camera. A curious person by nature, I pondered what it was about the Holy Land that instantly won my affection. It was not until speaking to a seminarian at Domus Galilaeae, also known as the House of Galilee, on the fourth day that an answer began coming into focus.

“What are the elements to say, yes, it is something beautiful?” asked seventh-year seminarian Mattia Seu. Then he answered his own question. “Harmony of course — and harmony comes from the relationship between the different.”

That simple statement stuck with me for the entire day. That night in Nazareth I reflected on it while sifting through the dozens of photos I’d taken. I was struggling to determine what exactly it was that kept catching my eye. Doing so led to an epiphany.

More than just the contrast of colours, lines and shadows, I was allured by the striking contrast of landscapes, cultures and faith that could be captured in a single frame.

I was drawn back to the first place we stopped, Mount Olive. Looking back into Old Jerusalem, in the distance was an array of Muslim mosques and Christian churches, and in the immediate foreground was the ancient Jewish graveyard. While standing atop this “mountain” — which may only be a hill by geological standards but, as our guide said, “in Israel every stream is a river, every hill is a mountain and every bush is a forest” — the Muslim call to prayer filled the air above the Old City of Jerusalem, as it does several times each day.

We witnessed this harmony of faith and cultures again inside Old Jerusalem. We were at Temple Mount, the site of the Western Wall, a sacred site of the Jewish faith.

A fellow Canadian Catholic journalist sought to join a large crowd in tucking a prayer note inside a crevice of the ancient wall. He was having trouble finding a spot when an orthodox Jewish man approached.

The stranger escorted him inside the covered section of the wall, which according to our guide is essentially a synagogue, to show him an empty section in which to leave his note. Then, as my colleague slipped the folded paper into the wall, his new Jewish acquaintance prayed over him in Hebrew.

The power of this gesture didn’t strike me at first; at the time I was wondering why a Catholic tour had even stopped here. But then I saw the harmony, the harmony of time and place and the harmony of two men of different cultures and faiths uniting in prayer.

What struck me about the Holy Land, although unconscious of at first, had little to do with the physical landscape but rather the genuine attempts at harmonious co-existence of people rooted in respect. I hadn’t expected to find that. Such harmony is not everywhere to be found, of course, but neither is it difficult to find.

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