Alumni News: The haphazard and the holy in Israel

At left, Anna Bninski with two of her fellowship cohorts.

At left, Anna Bninski with two of her fellowship cohorts in Tel Aviv.

By Anna Bninski

After these past three seasons spent in the chaos of Rome—this jumbled proximity of gold-lined church interiors dimmed by incense, ferocious traffic in streets made perilous by scooters and dog droppings, and crowded sidewalks bristling with the wares of selfie-stick salesmen—the coincidence of the holy and the mundane should come as little surprise to me.

But Israel casts this contrast in a light all its own: many ethnicities, four quarters in the Old City of Jerusalem, three faiths, two national claims, and divergent practices directed at one God.

My fellowship cohort (a diverse and enjoyable collection of folks from four continents) spent the first several days in Jerusalem mostly at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where many Jewish professors and students welcomed us in their academic pursuits. Then, at last, we put down our pens and embarked on a walking tour of holy sites in the city.

Of course, this meant edging around other sightseeing groups, avoiding the occasional tourist-bearing camel, waving away many a tchotchke, and flipping through our program booklet to figure out which prayer we had meant to say where.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we joined an enormous crowd of pilgrims, all waiting for those 15 or so precious seconds allowed inside the tomb of Jesus. It was scarcely enough time to realize where I stood, abruptly hustled from the crowd outside into a stone room, miniscule, smoothed by thousands of reverent touches. It was scarcely time enough to kneel and think— here, perhaps here, after days of stillness he breathed again—before the custodian priest smacks the wall urgently, signalling that your time has expired and you must exit, post-haste.

On the Mount of the Beatitudes, overlooking Galilee stands a lovely, quieter basilica. But even here, in the midst of such serenity, practicality prevails. Next to a picturesque fountain with a welcoming Gospel inscription, inviting all who thirst to come to the water, stands a sign warning the faithful that to drink this particular water would in fact be unsafe.

There’s a beauty in all this, in the muddle of sacred and profane. The world humans inhabit has never been simple; confusions and injustices remain; one cannot and should not ignore the wide variety of walls that scar Israel. But through security checks and lost luggage, bus tours and ecumenical hassles people still come to witness and to locate the holy in their world, one way or another.

The River Jordan is neither deep nor wide nor cold, as hymns sometimes describe. But it is blessed with flickering fish, so small as to seem half-transparent where they swim in the muddy water. And I am grateful to have seen them there.

Anna Bninski studied religions and literature at the University of Virginia. Following a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, she came to the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas as a Russell Berrie Fellow in Interreligious Studies. She travelled to Israel with her fellowship cohort as part of their coursework in building bridges between traditions.

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