A great many of the places that I’ve visited since I arrived in Jerusalem have been new to me, not all but many. However, this morning I set off to do a walk that is very familiar. I took the #275 bus which goes from the East Jerusalem Central Bus Station, just up the road from the Damascus Gate. The bus takes you to the village of Al-Tur which is where a visit to the Mount of Olives begins. I got off the bus and made my way to the little Chapel of the Ascension, a small, round Crusader church which also serves as a little mosque. There were the usual crowds there. That, to be honest, is one of the problems with visiting the Mount of Olives. For many pilgrimages this is where the first day begins, on the Mount taking in the views of the Old City and especially the Dome of the Rock on the other side of the Kidron Valley. But that means that you are with a huge mass of people. I sat there for a while listening to the languages being spoken all around me. It’s as though, on this palm route, a passage from the Book of Revelation has come alive
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7.9)
As I emerged from the Chapel of the Ascension I was behind a large group of Russian pilgrims and they led me somewhere I hadn’t been to before – perhaps the biggest emporium of pilgrimage gifts and stuff that I’d ever seen. The ‘Mount of Olives Bazaar’ stands just opposite the Church of Pater Noster. It’s obviously popular with Russians (it is close to the Russian Church of the Ascension) as all the signs were in Russian. But I wasn’t in buying mode, so I escaped and got ahead of the shoppers by going straight to the Church of the Pater Noster.
There’s been a church on this site on the slopes of the Mount of Olives since the 4th century when St Helena ordered the Church of the Eleona, from the Greek word for olive grove, to be built. That church was eventually destroyed and the Crusaders replaced it with one dedicated to the Pater Noster, the Lord’s Prayer, because of the tradition that in a cave on this spot Jesus taught his disciples the prayer that binds Christians together and also spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem. So the emphasis moved on this holy site from its location, the olive grove, to this place of prayer and teaching.
It’s now a French Carmelite Monastery and the rebuilt church and cloister dating from the 19th century contain the text of the Lord’s Prayer in more than 160 languages, including, I noticed, Braille. It’s lovely to watch groups suddenly finding their language on one of the walls and gathering round it for their photograph.
The actual church is nothing to write home about to be honest (unless that is where your language is recorded) but what was delightful in there was being able to see through the grille on the south side of the chancel. If you sit on the front pew on the north side of the nave you can do this. The wooden stalls in that part of the monastic church are just visible and Carmelite sisters can be seen silently moving about their work and their prayers. As luck (or grace) would have it it was the Feast of St Teresa of Avila when I visited. She was the great reformer of the Carmelites in the 16th century, a friend of St John of the Cross and a woman of such deep prayer and mystical experience that her whole body was enraptured by God.
I wandered around the place. It was all familiar and, to be honest, a bit noisy. But I then noticed off to the right a path leading away from the church and cloister which was obviously free for pilgrims to use. I wandered along it. It leads from the babble of languages into the Olive Grove after which Helena named this place. At the far end, and obviously only recently constructed, there is an outside altar and a curved bench seat. The whole ‘chapel’ would seat 40-50.
I sat there for a long time. It was so quiet. As you look past the altar there is a wonderful view of the Old City, framed by the olive trees. It was calm and beautiful, a blessing. It seemed to me that the place really is about prayer and the words of T S Eliot came back forcefully to me
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. (Four Quartets : Little Gidding)
Putting off sense and notion seems to be such an important element in the whole business of praying, of being able to pray as pure response to the infinite love of God. In one of her books, St Teresa of Avila wrote
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
I don’t know whether Jesus just wandered this way, or sat down and responded to the disciples asking them to teach them to pray (Luke 11) or paused here and talked about the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24) – maybe it’s all true. But what I do know for certain is that sitting there, all alone, a million miles away from that big Bazaar and the crowds looking for their language and the hundreds gazing at the view, it felt like that real place, that thin place, as we often refer to them, where ‘prayer has been valid’.
It was such a blessing and such a new experience in a so familiar place.
I continued the journey down the Mount of Olives, stopping at Dominus Flevit and calling into the Church of St Mary Magdalene with its iconic golden onion domes and so seldom open. I then decided to continue on the route of the Lord’s triumphal entry and head for what would have been the entrance to the Temple. This meant walking across the Kidron Valley and past Absalom’s Tomb that I had visited last week. A relatively new path and series of steep steps lead you down and up the other side to bring you out to the Dung Gate and the way into the Western Wall Plaza, as it’s called. It’s a great walk to do but it was sitting in that olive grove that was the surprise blessing of the day. It has taught me that the God of Surprises always has another blessing waiting for us and what is unexpected is often exactly what we were needing.
God of the thin place,
of the unexpected blessing,
thank you for surprising me today
with your presence and power.
May I be prepared to be surprised