Oh the Places You’ll Go: Praying or Spectating? (part 1)

Reflections from Dr. Howell

If you ask Christians who’ve never been to the Holy Land, but think about it, and hope to go one day, Where would you want to pray while you are in Jerusalem? Where would you expect to have a profound spiritual experience? Top 2 answers would be “the Wailing Wall” and “the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” Once I’ve taken people to both places, they inevitably express some disappointment and frustration with both places. I think that very feeling might tell us something about what prayer is, and isn’t.

They don’t really call it the “Wailing” wall any longer, just the “Western Wall.” I did see a woman there once – not at the outdoor plaza, but in the underground tunnel along the same way – literally wailing, sobbing, Bible pressed to her face. I wondered what her wailing was about. I thought to try to comfort her. I felt a twinge of envy. Had I ever prayed so deeply?

The wall, so sacred to Jews and really everybody, religious or not, is crowded. You have to jostle a bit to find your spot. Praying as you face a massive stone wall is – unusual. I see folks just resting their head against the wall. Of course, little slips of paper with names and asks of God are pressed into the crevices between the stones. My mind flits from praying to wondering what happens to all these bits of paper? Turns out, they are removed a couple of times each year and buried in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives – unread, except of course by God.

The Wall is a smorgasbord of various religious habits and customs. I find I admire the guys dressed in black with long hair opening their big Hebrew books on portable desks. Their praying is like study, the discipline of reading longs prayers in concert with thousands across the centuries. And so: what is prayer? An experience? Something that works? Maybe here I see it is an act of simply showing up and honoring God. I told the teenagers I took to Israel that Jesus must feel quite honored that we would come so far just to check out his spaces, his home, where he did what he did for all of us. He was more frustrated with the crowds than we could ever be!

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the spots where Jesus was crucified and then buried, is even more crowded and chaotic. People push and cut in line. The priests have to be firm, and they have to be to maintain order. A tower of Babel of languages being spoken by the crowds pressing toward Calvary. Your time at Calvary is brief: pray now, quickly, the line is surging forward. Often we don’t even get the chance to pray at Jesus’ tomb: the line is regularly 3 hours long. Do you wait and blow the whole day?

People take selfies and group photos. Here, more than anywhere else, I worry about us missing life because we’re so fixated on getting a cool pix of life to garner likes and views on social media. Security is required, and in both places you see vividly the tensions among the religious as to who’s valid and who’s not so much so.

In both places, you’re spectating (or even coping) more than praying – which is lovely in its own way. What if no one came? What if only people who look and sound like me came? The constant crowds of people who’ve saved for a lifetime and travelled across the globe to feel their feet on this ground: what greater witness could there be to the sacrifice and hope we find in Jesus?

I think in these chaotic, disappointing places, and in the surprising, holier places, you realize some of what prayer is like for God – on the receiving end. A cacophony of chatter, yet each word uttered a thing of beauty to be heard, tolerated, cherished. The chaos is what Jesus witnessed during Holy Week and during his own trial, and gazing down in agony on the cross. He prayed right there – so why do my prayers need to be in serene, sweet locations?

At the Western Wall, or the Holy Sepulchre, or right where you are today, when you pray, you’re placing a marker, a stake in the ground. There is some graffiti scribbled on stone under the ground of the Holy Sepulchre, just decades after Jesus’ death. Pilgrims had traveled to the place. I do not know if they were disappointed or moved, or if they even survived the journey back home. What they wrote was simply this: “Lord, we came.” Prayer in the exasperating holy places of the Holy Land, and prayers back home, remind me that it’s really something I do to honor God, to connect with God, to materialize in God’s space and say “Here I am, Lord,” and “Lord, we came.”