Thursday, November 29, 2012

Holy Land

(Map is from, as my Bible and scanner are in a garage far from me)

I wrote this essay last year, when Palestine first approached the UN with a request for observer status. I think it's as true to how I feel today as I ever have. You are free to disagree, but let's stop bombing and killing each other over this landscape.

The maps in my childhood Bible had impossibly brilliant turquoise seas and green ridges within the yellow deserts that reminded me of turtles. I read many books with maps of magical lands and it took a long time to realize that the biblically crisp drawings were of real places, and further, that their mysticism stood a test of time that Mossflower and Middle Earth did not.

Maps of the Middle East draw boundary lines of a space overrun with passion, a place made holy through timeless wonder and faith. That the land of “The Holy Land in Biblical Times” is the same land shown in newscast insets as Palestine fights for the dignity of statehood slays me. To cradle such strength of belief must require some certain intangible power—I believe in this landscape. It at once a mythic story land, a political minefield, and where people as ordinary as me get up each morning to live their lives. That the reality of the land in those disparate, historically distant maps is thick and rich and still green with life opens my heart.  To think of these layers of time and history and faith embedded in the contours of the land beneath the map, layers built by folded hands and covered heads and belief-bent bodies…the cumulative weight of all this faith makes my weightless soul fly from my body while my feet root deeper to the earth.

What is miraculous to me is that not one, not two, but three ways of believing in the scope and creation of the world sprang from this soil. It is not the particulars of these faiths themselves that sanctify the land, but rather that such a trinity exists, all knotted, rooted in the same soils. It would be spectacular enough if this landscape brought even one person to live in grace.

The power of belief fascinates me. I do not have faith in any particular religion myself, but I take faith in religions’ existence, particularly in the plurality of forms that holiness takes across the world. At heart I can’t understand how the multiple sanctities of the Middle East are not held to enhance, enrich, the value of the land—make the sum holier than its parts? How can faithful disrespect the fervor of another, particularly if their beliefs grow from common ground?

When I lived in Montana, I went to Glacier National Park several times. Everyone I ever saw at the head of Lake MacDonald did the same thing--skip a few stones and then ask whoever else is around to take their picture with the turquoise lake and the impossible ice-cream peaks of the mountains looming behind their small bodies. I know I did this. How many family scrapbooks are filled with the same pictures against the backdrop of famous monuments and scenic vistas? I used to think that it was trite—all these identically postured tourists. But, lately, I’ve felt that the number of people who bear such witness vastly magnifies the wealth and depth, the beauty and history, of a place. The very ordinary nature of appearing in thousands of photographs across the world makes Lake MacDonald more beautiful to me. Perhaps a fractal of each person’s faith the place has been left behind, amid those brilliant stones. The line between witnessing sublimity in landscape and sensing religious awe blurs.

The Holy Land may be the same as the countless beautiful moments on the shore of a cherished lake. The stones of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Mecca are literally touchstones of faith for millions. Somewhere in the folds and layers of the maps that try to prescribe the enigmatic land, respect and respite for the struggles that define each faith can be found. It is not redrawing, but settling the layers in concert with each other—think of the see-through pages of a child’s anatomy book. Here are the bones, layer the veins atop, the page of vital organs and then the skin until the strange shapes becomes human once again.

Places are not holy. We make landscapes holy through our belief that they are so, through our love. No place is as beloved as the Holy Land, no map more layered. The complexity is the strength and I stake my faith in the full promise of the land.

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