Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Sacred Threshold in Jerusalem, an overnight at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Nightly the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher shuts to visiting pilgrims and tourists. At nine o’clock in the evening, after the final Pilgrim is ushered out its private side emerges out of the mysteries of its inner spaces. Many years ago, in a Summer visit to this Holy City, I had the opportunity to experience this sacred place due to the persistence of a new friend met while staying at a Hostel in the midst of the Old City of Jerusalem.

To stay overnight at this, one of the most holy of sacred places in Christianity, individuals or small groups may ask to remain in the church after-hours to worship and mingle if they make the request to the attendant at the entry. Doing so, sets in motion a complex ritual interchange between the various factions residing in the Church to gain its approval. Latin Catholics, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Coptic and Ethiopian together share the Church. Each has their own distinct sacred precinct whether in the nave, the apse, side galleries or up on the roof or in the bowels of this most sacred place. In order to approve entry after-hour a representative of each faith must be asked and the issue debated together with final approval by the Latin priest. This is evocative of the collaboration and friction felt daily while experiencing the Church’s holy spaces.

After much bantering in a variety of languages, they granted our request. We settled into old wooden next to the doorway to observe the ritual closing of the great wooden doors. Four men from various faiths work together. An Armenian pushes the door closed. It is locked by a Greek Orthodox from the outside. A small hatch in the massive Medieval door is opened and a ladder used in locking the door is pushed through from the outside. A Latin receives it and leans it against the aged., pockmarked wood where it lies until being used again to open the door later in the evening. I drew the door from the inside while watching the ritual of closing the door for the evening.

My friend and I split up to pursue our own personal explorations within the Church. The darkness of the night amplifies the candlelit shadows and eerie quiet due to the absence of the hordes of visitors wandering its spaces. The lights are turned off. My footfalls echoed off the ancient stone columns and walls disappearing into the vaulted darkness above. I walked around the various shrines alone with quiet thoughts feeling the cloak of silence and darkness so different from the day.

A quietude settled into my own thoughts as I sat watching candlelit icons and statuary set upon altars waver and flicker in their shadows. I drew only a little and thought deeply about my mother whom I lost to a valiant struggle with cancer a few years before. Sitting in prayer-like reverie in the wavering candlelight, I slowly realized I had traveled so far to not only chart and describe sacred place and space in this holiest of cities, but also to come closer to the soul and memory of my mother whom I dearly missed. I came to mourn her death while loving her life.

Somehow, I felt, coming to Jerusalem, I could come closer to her here due to its sacred and mysterious qualities and the direct physical connection to the holy in this sacred city. The primal spaces of the Old City, built of stone and standing for so many millennium, stood for me outside of time while fully of my time and place. Walking the narrow streets and pathways in and around the Old City, I imagined the many lively histories gracing these doorways and ancient surfaces layering over one another.


Jennifer @ ApproachGuides said...

Wow! I had no idea that you could stay overnight in the Holy Sepulchre. We have been there many times, but never knew about this great opportunity. This is something to look into on our next visit. Thanks!

Stephen M. Frey said...

Jennifer, I must offer a caveat. My experience was some time ago back in the mid 1990's. Things may have changed. It's best to check with locals you know and ask around for how to do this. Why it was so unique for me was it felt like when the doors closed at 9pm to the public, the rest of the night and morning were for the local faiths represented at the Church to worship privately in their faith communities.

I really felt the power of prayer especially when witnessing the around the clock praying by nuns and religious at the tomb of Christ in the candlelight. It was a reverent experience.

Please be respectful of the sacred.

Anonymous said...

what is going on at the top of this page?