By Abigail Waldron, Clark University, Bus 6 The stone under my knees was chilly against the jeans I was wearing. I was under the shrine of Christ, the spot of the crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the middle of Jerusalem. I had never met any other Christian who had been to Israel. How was I supposed to act? Was I supposed to bow first? Was I supposed to make a cross first? Did I freestyle a prayer? Pushing my questions aside, I ended up ripping off my necklace holding my high school class ring, a personal relic of mine, clutching it against the ground and stuttering out a Hail Mary. This moment was too large, and I knew I was not properly processing where I was.
My relationship with religion is complex, tiring, and aggressive at times. When asked what my religion is, I am at a loss for words. Culturally, I am Catholic. I received a Roman Catholic education at Bishop Feehan High School. We were taught the scripture, lessons, encyclicals, history, and morality of the Catholic faith. Following through with what I was taught, I have fulfilled many of the sacraments. I was fully immersed in Catholicism, the religion of my family. Yet, the connection that I felt was to the spirituality, not the Church. I found faith, not necessarily religion.
My narrative falls under a Christian space, due to my belief in Christ. But my own faith is a compilation of beliefs I hold to be true. My faith is derived from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, in addition to Christianity. Religion fascinates me and learning about other religions has reinforced my own unique faith, allowing me to grow morally as I try to be a productive and loving part of humanity. I believe in Christ, yet how I live my life is based on tikkun olam, a rabbinic teaching in Judaism. My faith is a melting pot to which I am still adding.
Back at the shrine of Christ, I looked at this historic spot, where the actual cross had once been raised to punish Jesus and I am bothered. This is the spot where the Son of God died at the hands of humans. This is the spot where Jesus was humiliated and questioned God. This is also the site where Jesus suffered and went through immense amounts of pain, with blood pouring out of him onto the very rocks I looked at. The rock was exposed through the glass, but the shrine was covered in red décor, gold jewels, and elaborate images of the Holy Lamb of God. Next to the rock, a portrait of Mother Mary stood with the base of the painting covered in jewels, rings, and gems.
Mother Mary was a teenage virgin when she was divinely impregnated. She was a woman who lived such a simple lifestyle that she gave birth in a meager manger on her travels. She was not a woman of wealth. Yet, here she was memorialized in expensive jewelry, something she would have never had in her life. It was wrong. I looked back to the crucifixion rock itself. This was not right either. This was not the site that Jesus saw when he suffered. It was not supposed to be elegant, grandiose, and beautiful. It was terrifying, embarrassing, and extraordinarily unsettling for him. How was I to properly pray to such a tragic holy site when there were expensive goods of value on top of it, glittering, dazzling, and distracting me from what actually happened here?
Leaving the Church, I realized that this is not the feeling I was expecting. Already, my experience with my own faith had been complex on this trip. Finally, I was in a Christian holy site, and because it connected completely with the basics of the faith I felt most, it was supposed to resonate with me. Instead, there was such a heavy melancholy within me. This felt like a cover-up for a holy spot that I wanted in its most raw form. I wanted to see what Christ saw, not this glamour that the Jesus I know would not appreciate. I did not want the beauty of a shrine to cover what God’s Son had suffered on. I walked into the Church expecting a feeling of belonging. Instead I was unsettled and uncomfortable.
Walking back to the hotel, we stopped at some stores alongside the road approaching the Jewish quarter. On the side of the road I looked at my dead phone, wishing I could take a picture of the gorgeous layout of stones that lined this road. Sliding down the wall, I rested on a stone staircase, which was curved towards the middle from thousands of years of people walking on it. I re-tied my filthy white Converse sneakers, and looked back at the ground.
That is when it hit me. These streets and stairwells, buildings and city planning were all what Jesus saw in its raw entirety. These stones were curved because so many had walked here. Maybe some of them questioned religion as I do. Perhaps another twenty-year old woman, also lost in the complexities of religion had walked on these steps. Perhaps she saw Christ walk the Via Delarosa towards the crucifixion. Perhaps she read the scripture as I had. Perhaps, she was just a woman like me, needing a little rest after a long morning. Who knows? But what I do know for certain is that people at the root of the faiths that I love and learn so much from walked these streets before me.
The Church of the Sepulchre is a historic site and one full of religious importance. I saw a holy spot covered by a shrine that was unsettling to me, but that is only one perspective. This city of Jerusalem itself is a holy space, and parts of it are covered up, just as the rock was. Unfortunately, it is not always covered with beauty as it is in the Church of the Sepulchre. Instead of beauty, the holy site of Jerusalem has been covered by the bloodshed, oppression, and suffering of many people from different backgrounds throughout time. But it still stands. There is a resiliency to this city. Sitting on the stones of that staircase made me realize that Jerusalem itself is a holy site because of the faith that drives people here, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. The holiness of this land is magnetizing, drawing people in. It is resilient because it is a city many find worth fighting for. The conflict within this land has covered this amazing city with things that no one wants to see it covered in. But beneath it all, it is the land that so many love and aspire to keep alive.
So, sitting on a damp stone stair in the middle of Jerusalem is how I found the connection to the holy land that I was looking for. I continued sitting on those stones thinking about those who came before me. Those who saw the beauty of the land, raw and untouched. Those who covered the land with bloodshed and pain. Those who reclaimed and lost the land again and again. Those who found solace, refuge, and safety in this land. But beneath all the covers of violence, identity, or claim that we place on Jerusalem, it is a holy site regardless of what happens on top of it.
Abigail Waldron is a sophomore at Clark University, currently studying International Development, minoring in Women and Gender Studies. On campus, she is a Junior Mentor Coordinator for All Kinds of Girls, a mentoring program for the youth in the city of Worcester, a Peer Adviser for first-years, and a Consent Advocate.