Dirty water

Every morning as I open my bedroom curtains at the Deanery in Southwark I look out on one of the iconic rivers of the world – the River Thames. William Wordsworth was in London and wrote a sonnet after looking at the river. ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’ is a beautiful evocation of the river at that time.

Nicholls, Joseph, 1692-1760; View of Westminster Bridge
Westminster Bridge by Joseph Nicholls


Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

T S Eliot saw it differently in his poem ‘The Wasteland’ written 120 years later.

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

But the Thames is only one iconic river that has inspired poets and painters and people. The Nile, not just for an Agatha Christi murder, but for the romance of a river so long and rich and lined with history. The Tiber, the Rubicon, the Ganges, the Mississippi – the world is crisscrossed with rivers that are carriers of history.

Today we headed out of Jerusalem and into the beauty of the Judean Wilderness, that stretch of barren and rocky land that marks the descent from the city to the valley in which one of the most important rivers flows – the Jordan.

The severe beauty of the Judean Wilderness


To mention the name brings hymns to mind, characters to mind, Old and New Testament figures and events. It’s a river that forms a modern political boundary between Jordan and Israel, a river that was a boundary in biblical Israel, a fording place for returning exiles, the place of baptism, the place of John the Baptist and Jesus.

The religious imagination works overtime as we imagine the Jordan and all it represents in the story of our faith. The African-American Spiritual ‘Deep River’ first mentioned in print in 1876, sung in the movie version of ‘Showboat’, made famous by Paul Robeson, is the archetypal expression of faith and hope connected to this river sung by people looking for their own exodus.

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?
Oh don’t you want to go to that promised land,
That land where all is peace?
Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

So when you arrive at the Jordan River east of the ancient city of Jericho it can be a bit of a disappointment.  The river is narrower than in the imagination, shallower, slower and dirtier. This can’t be the river that we have been talking and singing about! But it is!

The water extraction policies of both Israel and Jordan have removed a great deal of water which would naturally flow down the river and feed the now shrinking Dead Sea beyond. But to be honest it has never been an impressive river.

You may have had this one


When I was a child I had a Ladybird Book called ‘Naaman and the Little Maid’.  It told the story of Naaman. It was one of my Sunday School prizes. The story is told in 2 Kings 5. It begins by setting the scene

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. (2 Kings 5.1)

His wife’s servant girl (the Little Maid of the Ladybird Book) was an Israelite who had been captured in a raid.  She told her mistress that there was a prophet, Elisha, in Israel who could heal her Master. So Naaman gets permission to go and find the prophet and ask for healing.  The Prophet asks him to bathe seven times in the Jordan.  When Naaman hears this he’s furious.

Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ (2 Kings 5.11-12)

As we looked into the waters of the river today where we had come to renew our baptismal promises you knew what he meant.  But in the end he was persuaded to do as the prophet said and was healed.  We renewed our promises and some entered the water and were spiritually and physically refreshed.

The Jordan today


Not everything is as we sometimes imagine it to be and we can be disappointed when our religious imagination has run away with itself. But into this water Jesus entered and

‘a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.11)

God can work through the dirty water of life even through the dirty and often disappointing water of my life and bring me, bring you, to the Promised Land and that perfect river that flows through the city.

Almighty God,
we thank you for our fellowship in the household of faith
with all who have been baptized in your name.
Keep us faithful to our baptism,
and so make us ready for that day
when the whole creation
shall be made perfect in your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.


The desert a city

It was the writer D J Chitty who described the Judean wilderness in these terms ‘the desert a city’. He was writing about the phenomenon in the 5th – 6th centuries which, during a period of relative stability for Christians, involved many men and women making their way into the deserts of the Middle East to embrace what was a hard and, over the years, a more dangerous life.  A holy man, an Abba, a holy woman, an Amma, would attract hundreds to themselves, to live close by them in community, to benefit from their wisdom, to encounter God in the extremes of environment and daily living, in the extremes of spiritual discipline.

There are only remnants remaining of those glory days, but today I visited two ancient monasteries in the desert that formed part of this ‘desert city’ and still have resident monastic communities.

The journey into the Judean wilderness and to the area where these monasteries exist means entering the Palestinian Authority and driving beyond Bethlehem and the Shepherds Fields at Beit Sahour.  Soon the villages end and the vast tracks of smooth but almost barren hills take over.  This is very much the wilderness of the temptations.  Stones are scattered over the hills.

The tempter came and said to Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’ (Matthew 4.3-4)

You can imagine many hermits sharing in that temptation and more besides.  Abba Daniel said of Abba Arsenius

‘He lived with us many a long year and every year we used to take him only one basket of bread and when we went to find him the next year we would eat some of that bread.’

The Father was surviving on something more than bread and that level of austere living was being played out across the region and, indeed, amongst our own Celtic saints.

The Monastery of Mar Saba

The first sight you get of Mar Saba are two towers poking up amongst the hills.  Then you approach down a winding road.  This monastery, founded by St Saba, began to be built in 483.  It is in many ways the Mount Athos of Judea and with St Catherine’s in Sinai one of the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monasteries.  Sadly, it is only open to male visitors, though women can look down upon it from one of the towers.  There are now 20 monks in the community, where at times there have been over 400.

The monastic buildings cling to the steep sides of the Kidron Valley.  Having crossed it in Jerusalem it is strange to discover it again here and with water flowing in it.  On the opposite side of the valley can be seen hermitages built into the caves and the original cave dwelling of St Saba. It is phenomenally beautiful and peaceful, as is the monastery itself.

The Kidron Valley

You enter the monastery itself through a small doorway guarded by a monk who also hands out cards and gifts of holy oil to the women who can go no further.  The steps inside lead down to a courtyard.  The first thing you see is an octagonal chapel dedicated to St Saba.  His body is actually in the main monastic church but he is also venerated in this holy space.

The Chapel of St Saba

The main church is large and contains the glass-topped ‘coffin’ that holds the saint’s relics.  The church basically dates from 501 though it had to be restored, as did much of the monastery, after an earthquake in the 19th century.  Out of the chapel you enter the Lateral Narthex which is decorated with more icons.  From there you gain access to the gallery near a monastic logia which looks onto the Kidron Valley beneath you.  It is utterly spectacular.

The Kidron from the Monastery

Back across the courtyard is the Chapel of St Nicholas.  This is thought to be the original cave church which had a natural apse, a space for a sacristy and enough external light for St Saba to declare it to be the church for the community.  The sacristy contains the skulls and other bones of the monks who were martyred by the Persians in 614. It is a gruesome reminder of the reality of life here and justifies the rather fortress-like appearance of the monastery.

One of the most famous members of the community was St John of Damascus, St John Damascene, one of the Doctors of the Church.  He died at Mar Saba in 749, though his body is now lost having been taken from the monastery by the Crusaders. St John wrote prolifically but he is most remembered for combating the trend towards iconoclasm in the church of his day. This was begun in 726 following an edict by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III.  It St John of Damascus, writing at Mar Saba, who we have to thank that the churches of the Orthodox tradition are full of the most wonderful icons and frescos.

In his ‘Apologia Against Those Who decry Holy Images’ he beautifully expresses the importance and role of images in these words

The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to the literate, that an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to the sight as words to the ear; it brings us understanding. … They were images to serve as recollections, not divine, but leading to divine things by divine power. (Apologia Against Those Who decry Holy Images Part I)

His arguments won the day though through a plot hatched by Emperor Leo III involving the Caliph in Damascus, the saint was wrongly implicated in a plot and had his hand cut off so he could write no more.  But after prayers to the Theotokos, to whom the main church is dedicated, his hand was restored.

No iconoclasm here


This monastery is full of wonderful images, including the guest room to which we were invited for coffee.  At this point I have to confess that I’d secreted myself into a group of Romanian pilgrims.  It is easier for groups to get in than individuals so I discovered.  The Monk offering me hospitality asked if I was a Christian. ‘Yes’ I answered ‘a priest.’ ‘Catholic or Protestant’ he asked. ‘Anglican!’ I replied. ‘Oh, Anglican!’ he said with joy. ‘Welcome, Holy Father!’. It transpired that the Romanian priest leading his group of pilgrims had visited the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield and was friends with Fr Nicholas Stebbing CR.  So I was quickly included in the group photograph.

But to my shock instead of ‘cheese’ these men shouted out – for my benefit – ‘Brexit!’ Then we all laughed – which was probably the right response!!

‘Brexit!’ – no wonder we look so glum


There was a lot of laughter and I was reminded of another story of the Desert Fathers, a story associated with Abba Anthony the Great.

A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked.  Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did.  The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so.  Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again  and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God.  If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break.  Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words “the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away.  As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.

Driving back we passed the Monastery of St Theodosius which is on the edge of the village of al-Ubeidiya. The community resident there is made up of nuns and so all can enter.  It was founded in 476 by Theodosius the Cenobiarch and contains his tomb. The buildings have been heavily restored but contain wonderful frescos.  One shows the martyrdoms suffered in the area.  In one scene some are being beheaded, others stabbed, one man is strung up upside down. An angel rescues a soul floating up from the flames. In the church is a cabinet containing more skulls and bones from the martyrs.

Graphic scenes of martyrdom


What was amazing however was to discover in the complex a cave called Metopa, the Cave of the Magi.  The tradition is that the three Wise Men took shelter in this cave during the first night after leaving Bethlehem.  They had given their gifts to the new-born Jesus.  But then we read

Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2.12)

Saying prayers in the Metopa


This cave was on the road they left by. I was reminded of T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ (that draws so heavily on a sermon by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes). The poem concludes

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

In this desert city where death stalked, life reigned.  There was birth and death all around, the birth we receive through baptism, the death that brings us into life. It was a marvellous journey back into time, within time.

for the Abbas and the Ammas of your church,
their wisdom and courage,
their devotion and sacrifice,
we thank you.
May I not be afraid to enter the desert
knowing that even in the driest place
you will refresh me.

Many mansions

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vespers’ (properly called ‘All-Night Vigil’) is for a great many people their only contact with the evening office as celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was for me.  So when I was told by a friend who lives here in Jerusalem, and who has Russian heritage as part of her background, that at 5.00pm on Saturday, Vespers takes place in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, I decided that I had to go. It was a decision I didn’t regret and a new experience that I will treasure.

The symbol of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society

The Russian Church officially arrived in 1844 and began to establish itself, under the auspices of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in a number of ways and places. Before I attended Vespers I had already been to two of their churches in the city, the Alexander Nevsky Church with its wonderful archaeology and yesterday to the Church of St Mary Magdalene where Princess Alice of Greece, mother of Prince Philip, is buried (I asked if one could visit the tomb but was firmly but politely told by a nun that it was family only – I decided I couldn’t blag my way into that one!)


The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity consecrated in 1872 stands in the Russian Compound which is on the edge of the ultra-orthodox (I mean Jewish in this instance) district of Mea Shearim and the bustling Jaffa Road. Around it are buildings, now abandoned or in other use, which testify to the size and importance of the Russian presence in Jerusalem.

The Cathedral is indescribably beautiful.  Outside it is white and clean with distinctive towers and domes.  Inside the walls and central dome are covered with frescos, everywhere there are icons, the central chandelier is massive and the iconostasis with its golden doors hints at the glories beyond. As I arrived there were a few people gathering and bang on time the liturgy began.

Breath taking beauty


In a gallery above our heads a small choir of nuns responded to the deep tones of the deacons and priests, the singing was beautiful, the tunes of the chants, the constant repetition were absolutely transporting.  More people arrived, at times a great many people.  We stood there in the nave, moved to this side and that by an MC who cleared the way for two deacons with thuribles who, on a number of occasions, made sure that every part of the church and every person was censed. Every so often the doors in the iconostasis would be opened and all the lights put on, the bishop (it could have been the Archimandrite) would appear in a wonderful crown and cope and do something, more clergy would appear, there were processions, the book of the Gospels brought in and finally all the congregation anointed using what looked like a very high class paint brush.

The congregation is anointed


To be perfectly honest I didn’t know what was going on – but it was wonderful.  It was like glimpsing something of what the world was like and what heaven might be like. I was amazed at how everyone knew their part and played their part from a little boy dashing round extinguishing and relighting candles throughout the liturgy, nuns ordering the nave, deacons and priests each with a role, bishops and most of all the people making the sign of the cross, bowing, more times than I could comprehend.

It took two hours to get to a point where it seemed to have ended – but there may have been more! My feet ached, my back ached but it was something I will not forget. It made 30 minute Choral Evensong in choir dress seem pretty minimal but as Jesus said ‘in my Father’s house are many mansions’ (John 14.2) and this was certainly a splendid one.

‘We thank thee for the lights that we have kindled’


I quoted T S Eliot as part of my reflection on being in that place of prayer on the Mount of Olives.  I apologise for quoting him again, but from a different poem, ‘Choruses from The Rock’.

We thank Thee for the lights that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
О Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!

It describes for me something of that experience of Vespers. Did it matter that I didn’t know what was going on, moment to moment? For me, no.  Something more important was happening, God was being glorified and we were worshipping. I don’t always have to understand.

God of the many roomed mansion,
for the breadth and beauty of your holy church,
we give you thanks and praise.

Where prayer has been valid

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.

The Church of 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.

Familiar words


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.

A thin place of prayer


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.

Walking across the Kidron Valley


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
every day.