Our tour of Israel and Palestine was full of wonder and curiosity and food for thought. When friends at home would ask about the experience, I didn’t really know where to begin. So, I started writing about it through each of the five senses.
My initial response to the trip was total exhaustion and appreciation. Fully rested now, a fond sense of gratefulness remains.
In the chapter on smell, I suggested that the sense of smell may be the least voluntary of the senses, since smells enter our nostrils with or without invitation. Touch, however, sits at the other end of the spectrum. In polite society, I don’t have to touch anything I don’t want to touch. Thanks to unspoken rules of personal space, I don’t have to be touched.
Our tour guide invited us to touch things at various sites throughout the trip. Strangely, I don’t remember seeing any “do not touch” signs. Rather, if it’s not behind a rope, it probably shows the wear of countless hungry pilgrim hands.
Of all the things presented to pilgrim hands, I touched something I shouldn’t have. Sitting in a busy plaza in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, I got all sentimental when I noticed the stray cats. This doesn’t seem sensible, I know, but I had recently adopted a cat and was well on my way to crazy cat-lady status. So when I saw these dirt-matted strays, my brain did not register, “Ewwww, filthy vermin!” but “Awwww, kitty cats!”
I noticed one cat weaving around my chair legs, so I reached down and stroked his dirty head two, three, four times. On the fifth stroke, his fat, little face spun around—like Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist—and he clamped his fangs on my hand. It was at that moment I realized he could be diseased. Quickly, I coated my hands with sanitizer and breathed heartfelt thanks that it didn’t break the skin.
Touching a stray animal doesn’t make sense, but it makes even less sense in light of all the things I didn’t touch.
In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity, built on the cave where Jesus is believed to have been born. Beneath the altar is the Grotto of the Nativity, draped in brocade and plated with marble and silver. Its focal point is a 14-point star on the floor that pilgrims are invited to touch. When it was my turn, I quickly took a picture and stepped aside—not a conscious choice not to touch the star, just a snap decision.
On the Via Dolorosa, fifth station of the cross, I didn’t put my hand in the traditional handprint of Jesus.
At the Western Wall, I stood ten feet away and watched. Men prayed at one end, women at the other. Some wailed while others prayed silently. Some tucked written prayers into the cracks, while others spread out their palms against the stone like they were being frisked.
I noticed my friend, forehead pressed against the wall in prayer. When she turned around, tears streaming down her cheeks, my throat tightened at the sight of her face, and I was struck with guilt. While I had been standing there—ever the observer—collecting precious observable data and having an internal debate about Western Wall culture, my friend was having a holy experience with God.
When our time was up I felt a twinge of regret at not touching the wall. Why not just touch the things that are there to be touched? Maybe I didn’t want to seem superstitious or devout in a weird way.
However, nearly everyone else touched these things and didn’t look weird at all.
Maybe I was afraid I’d be overcome by some embarrassing spiritual experience.
However, no one else was slain in the Spirit upon contact.
Maybe I wanted to experience something spiritual but was afraid of being disappointed by the plain old natural.
Avoiding disappointment is my usual mode of operation; but what’s the harm in touching something that pilgrims are traditionally invited to touch?
I don’t believe in granting supernatural power to objects.
But why am I being such a stick in the mud?
Still, I felt just a twinge of regret because I believe God’s message to exiles pertains even now: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). The when is clear; the where is wherever you are. But just because I disagree with the sign’s implication—that in this wall the Divine Presence dwells—it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t meet people there every day. God meets people who seek him, at the Western Wall or in the shower, at the Holy Sepulchre or the breakfast table.
God’s presence can be sought anywhere, grand to bland. God is present not only at the Grotto of the Nativity but also at the Dead Sea, with its brackish, chicken-stock water. God is not static or limited. Rather, God’s presence is portable, carried in fragile, commonplace clay jars—that is, people. Not just people in Jerusalem or the U.S., but people all over the world. And while there are Promised Lands and chosen people, God continues to love the world—persistently.
I thank God I didn’t get rabies from the cat.
Also: thank you, God, for the opportunity to travel.
I’m so grateful to have seen the blue sky Jesus saw and touch the bodies of water that Jesus touched.
Even so, you don’t have to make a pilgrimage to Israel to find God. God is=s as present as your face, as your hands, as your seeking heart.