Life can be hell in the Holy Land, and is likely to get even more trying now that Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As soon as the President made his intentions clear there was talk of another intifada. The Holy Father and Mrs May voiced their concerns, and the mayor’s office in Bethlehem ordered that the lights on the Christmas tree in Manger Square be switched off. Even before Trump had officially declared his intentions, protesters in Bethlehem were burning pictures of him.
Yet none of the underlying tensions of the place made much impression on me when I was in Jerusalem as a pilgrim last month. Of course, the security wall lowers one’s spirits, but I was part of a coddled set of pilgrims. We were driven everywhere in an air-conditioned bus and were not required to negotiate with border guards or to get out of vehicles and “assume the position”.
I have Mrs Reid to thank for the coddling. Mary (as I like to call her) had long wanted to walk in the footsteps of Our Lord, and when in the summer she saw an advertisement for a trip to the Holy Land led by a priest we know slightly, she said: “Let’s go.” And, in due course, off we went.
The priest was Fr Martin Edwards, the self-deprecating and liturgically conservative PP at St Mary Magdalen, in Wandsworth, where he says Mass in both forms, but always ad orientem. On this pilgrimage, however, he used only the old form, the traditional Latin Mass.
To make matters even better, Fr Martin was accompanied by Jeff, a world champion altar server from Washington DC. Jeff is part Filipino, part Chinese and part Russian, and as you would expect from that robust mixture, he does not do wilting piety. He kisses the biretta, to be sure, but he does not make a meal of it. He turned out to be the star of the pilgrimage, after Fr Martin himself. (Such is Fr Martin’s star quality, by the way, that on the day after we arrived in Jerusalem he was made an Honorary Canon of the Holy Sepulchre.)
We attended Mass daily and said the rosary and the Angelus on the tour bus. When we weren’t praying we were laughing. Our wonderful Palestinian guide kept us informed … and entertained. In fact, he gets the prize for best joke of the pilgrimage. “If Adam and Eve had been Chinese,” he said, “there would have been no Fall … because they would have eaten the snake.”
In eight days we took in just about everything the Holy Land has to offer, including mosquitoes and excellent prunes. It was a truly joyful experience. We were a mixed bunch, about 40 strong, and once we had disposed of shyness and mental reservation we got on very well. You felt that dozens of small acts of charity were being performed every day by your fellow pilgrims. There were no theological or ideological arguments, or at least none that were accompanied by gratuitous violence. Any disagreements – about, say, Strictly Come Dancing or Amoris Laetitia – were laughed off. Not all the pilgrims were traditionalists; indeed, not all were believers. Two brothers were there not to pray but to support their elderly mother in her pilgrimage. They were agreeable fellows, and one of them wore a baseball cap decorated with the flag of Cuba and a photograph of Che Guevara.
The spiritual experience that has stayed with me was Mass on Remembrance Sunday. It was said in a chapel on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock dominating the skyline. At the end of Mass we sang the National Anthem. I am not a nationalist – I am a Catholic – but I was moved.
It got better. A few days later we sang Faith of Our Fathers. It was only the second time I had heard the hymn in perhaps half a century. In using it, of course, one must exercise prudence. Consider this verse: “Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, /Were still in heart and conscience free;/ How sweet would be their children’s fate,/ If they, like them, could die for thee!” If you sang those words in the wrong company – in earshot of, say, Richard Dawkins or Stephen Fry – you would very probably be done for encouraging suicidal tendencies in children, which in turn might count as child abuse.
For all the beauty of Israel, especially the north, and the glory and majesty of the holy places, Jerusalem was the jewel for me. We did the Stations on the Via Dolorosa and prayed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We also did the Wailing Wall. The ultra-Orthodox in their strange black hats and black overcoats went about their obscure business in a temperature that was pushing 90 degrees. It’s hard not to feel sympathy and admiration for these people, since they don’t give a fig for “educated opinion”. In the eyes of observant secular humanists they must seem as “silly” as Catholics in a Corpus Christi procession.
I loved the Holy Land, and now feel great sympathy for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. They are all of them in an impossible position. It is becoming increasingly hard not to believe that when Armageddon arrives, the starting pistol will be fired in Jerusalem. Perhaps it has already been fired.
In any case, go to the Holy Land while it’s still there. I shall certainly return, God willing.
I sat next to Fr Martin on the flight home. We exchanged a couple of jokes and then Fr Martin said his Breviary. When he had finished, he put on his earphones and spent the rest of the flight watching Family Guy on the seat-back screen. I stared idiotically at the flight path on my screen, read AN Wilson on Darwin and wondered whether my constipation would lift when I got home. Maybe those prunes weren’t so good.