Guest series by Jason A. Baguia
In the garden of Gethsemane outside the walled old city of Jerusalem, stones speak. There, in the shade of an olive tree that a pope once planted, someone had used white stones to spell peace.
Peace. Shalom. Salaam. The word cries out to the men, women and children of the land, for even on days when Israel and Palestine spare the global news headlines, disquiet reigns within and between the states.
Kate, whom I happened to meet when I sat by the garden on one such day confirmed what I had begun to suspect. A spirit of discord has possessed many of the youngest kids in the Terra Sancta.
She had come over from Hamburg in Germany, and before that, from Ukraine, her home that she preferred to keep from the spotlight if conflict alone drew to it the world’s eyes and ears.
Passing through one of Jerusalem’s narrow, pilgrim-smoothened pavements, she walked into a group of boys at play. When they noticed her, they all motioned as if to kick her in the rear.
It did not really matter, she told me with a smile and hand wave. Oh, if only she did not share the story after I recounted to her how some of the boys chilled my own spine.
Before I found the Basilica of the Agony, I had been looking for Lion’s Gate that led to it. I turned here and there, climbed and descended steps using a hostel-issue map as best as I could. The old city can be a labyrinth, its streets a meandering course of sunlight shining down between roofs, shadows that huddles of houses tall or over passages cast and colors of everything from rosary beads, shirts to rugs sold in rows of shops.
Turning to a small alley, away from the sound of shopkeepers fishing for patrons and the smell of bread fresh from bakery ovens, I came upon a boy. He had black hair and dark, mischievous eyes. He would probably go to fourth grade in the fall.
He looked at me and aimed at my face a toy pistol.
I looked at him, smiled and kept walking. I kept walking and came across his playmates. They all toted toy guns. I kept walking till they all stood behind me, kept walking when I heard the click of a plastic trigger and felt one pellet ricochet off my left sleeve.
One boy shouted at the others. The first one? Did he stop his friends? Did he feel a touch of remorse over cold, violent play? I could only hope. I did not look back.
Summer shone at its peak over the gated Gethsemane and the basilica that loomed over it. Beneath the ancient olive trees, amid a gentle breeze, orange roses, purplish hollyhocks and pale corn binds danced.
I had been sitting on a bench, resting my back against the basilica’s outer wall, enjoying the lush churchyard view when Kate walked by with a camera. She took pictures of the garden.
“Excuse me. Would you please take my picture?” She asked when she noticed me.
I said “yes” and indulged her request, asking where she would like to appear in the frame. I took the shot, returned her camera and told her to check if she liked the photograph. She did.
By and by we asked each other for our names and places of origin. She came from the Ukraine. Did she come from Kiev? I asked. From Kharkiv, she replied. I smiled, embarrassed that I had not heard about Ukrainian locales apart from Kiev and Donetsk.
News of conflict in the latter region made Ukraine recognizable today, she said with a note of sadness in her voice. But as my encounter with the gun boys showed, no news at all, as she desired, does not necessarily mean good news. Journalistic silence merely masks the causes of conflict that persist between the bombast.
Who taught those children to aim guns at people’s heads? Their parents? Scenes of strife to which they grew accustomed? Did I even need to ask? The city of peace and of the Abrahamic faiths showed itself hostage to a cult of weaponry. Armed soldiers and cops guarded the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a streetcorner on a stretch of the Via Dolorosa and the Lion’s Gate.
When Kate left, I entered the Basilica of the Agony. Its facade, bearing an image of Jesus at prayer, faced the walls of the conflicted old city. I knew the words of the Lord’s petition. Father, take this cup of suffering from me, but let not my will, but yours be done. Who will teach the sons and daughters of the Holy Land this prayer for vulnerability?
Inside, the stained glass turned the afternoon light into many purple shades. Three mosaics greeted me. The one on the central apse depicted Jesus at prayer on a slab of stone. The actual stone lay in front of the altar, enclosed in a metal crown ornamented here and there with figurines of birds and a chalice.
Two millennia have passed. The drama of pursuing peace continues here today. Many who chase concord repeat the error of Judas Iscariot and the Roman soldiers who came with him to the garden to seize the Prince of Peace.
“Am I a hardened criminal,” he had asked, “that you should come take me by force?” “Live by the sword and you perish by it.”
“Who do you look for?” He asked his would-be captors.
“Jesus, the Nazarene,” they said.
“I am he,” he replied. A second mosaic in the basilica captured this scene. The artist bathed the Christ in dazzling light. Those who came to arrest the Lord of hosts fell back when he identified himself.
The wielder of arms recoils when peace shows forth his face. His gaze indicts the heart. Why fight with your brothers for peace or secure serenity with arms when your war should be against your own flesh, the decadent world and the evil one? Peace comes with his own sword, ready to cut and strip away the decrepit, old selves of those who yearn to drink from the cup of life and fly.
But we are Peter, James and John. We shun vulnerability. We sleep, as the artist showed them in the mosaic, distant and deadened, though close enough, if awake, to see our prince sweat and bleed his prayer of self-surrender. Or we are Judas, the man on the left mosaic, drawing close to the Nazarene to kiss him. Our kisses seal our treachery to peace.
Nevertheless, we do not have to flee. John’s heart for his master and closeness to Mary eventually made him brave the way of sorrow until he stood with her at the foot of the cross.
The basilica at the foot of the Mount of Olives also goes by the name “Church of All Nations.” Catholics from several countries donated their resources for the church’s construction. The mosaic on its facade aptly points to Jesus as the mediator between all nations and our heavenly Father.
This is the way to peace, in Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, standing, praying in the breach between heaven and earth that is the real dissension, letting down one’s guard and taking pains to gather and embrace everyone. The way calls for a modicum of trust, and in the city over which Jesus wept, when one stays long enough, the haze of tension sometimes dissipates to reveal spaces of hope. I saw them in the children who say “Hello. How may I help you?” and in vendors who uttered words of welcome to pilgrims and tourists without hectoring them into their shops.
Hours later, I needed to find my way out of the city and back to the hostel. At Saint Francis Street, a gentleman came up to me and asked, “What are you looking for?”
“The Jaffa Gate,” I said.
“I am going there,” he replied.
We walked together. He asked me where I came from. The Philippines, I said. I gave him my name. He introduced himself as David. David had an uncle who left and settled in my home country long before his birth. He never saw his uncle. He had been around the world, to Latin America, to the United States. He ran a grocery with his brother, got tired of the business, moved around some more and came back to Jerusalem.
We came to the gate. “Welcome to Palestine,” he said. “This is not Israel.” I did not argue.
A little boy came over and tried to tie a red string around my left wrist. David stopped him. The gesture apparently entailed that I give the boy money. I walked through the gate. In a niche in the wall, a woman dressed as an angel played the harp. The boy caught up with me and tried anew to give me the string.
“It is for school,” he said. “It is hard to go to school.”
I had no money to spare. I patted the boy on the head.
In the garden, Jesus once prayed for deceiful and sleeping friends. In that sanctuary named after the pressing of olives, even stones speak peace. What was a newcomer to divided Jerusalem, someone who knew little of the city apart from its mediatized strife to do? I gave my name and a handshake to a man who used to be a stranger, died inside over young boys who played death, offered a bittersweet smile to a girl from war-torn Ukraine, left a light touch on a boy who wanted to go to school. Perhaps, perhaps, for each visitor to drink the city, its glories and its woes is for him to take it one tiny step into the way of peace.
Jason A. Baguia is a mass communication instructor at University of the Philippines Cebu. He is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism, media and globalization under the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus education program.