Hear in the Holy Land | Bethlehem | I

Unfiltered Thoughts on ‘Pilgrimage’

“Ohh littttle towwwn of Bethhh-le-CRANE!”

For the last leg of my pilgrimage here, I’m staying at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which is just a 10-minute walk from the checkpoint leading to Bethlehem.

My first jaunt across the separation wall to Bethlehem was with the intent to visit some of the holy sites, and to spend a day in reflection there before setting out for other planned ventures.

A few hours in, I was definitely reflecting, but not quite in the way I had romantically envisioned. After sitting down at Afteem, a great local restaurant here, I thumbed out this unfiltered and emotional (and perhaps overzealous) note on my iPhone:

I’m in Bethlehem. And I feel so frustrated right now.
Cab drivers and tour guides are haranguing me, seeing my white skin, hearing my English tongue. They are exceedingly friendly but they don’t hear what I’m saying — they hear past me and into a prospective day of sight-seeing that they have in mind for me. The solicitation is incessant. It isn’t the Arab hospitality I experienced in Nazareth or Nablus.
There’s a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that we did this to Bethlehem. We the West. We who as an entire culture have become so obsessed with consumerism. We have come to Bethlehem to do homage to the birth of our Saviour, but we haven’t brought gifts like the Magi did in our cherished Nativity story — we’ve simply brought our appetites. And in turn, the Palestinians have commodified our pilgrimage. And given the economic difficulties they’ve experienced of late, who can blame them for making what they can off our greed?
Then there’s the pilgrim population itself. I know it sounds harsh, but at this point I dare not call them pilgrims. They’re tourists. They act selfishly, swinging their cameras and stupid selfie-sticks around, ignorant of those around them, apathetic to the next guy wanting to get the right frame. They bump into you and cut you off and talk loudly in areas that are supposed to be dedicated to silent prayer. They’re not interested in seeing or hearing — not, at least, in traditional terms; they’re interested in exerting their wills on this place so that they can have their moment, capture it on a screen, and then Instagram it to the vicarious #FOMO observers back home.
I’m trying to see. But flash-bulbs and selfie-posers and brochure-waving guides keep obscuring my view. I’m trying to listen. But the din of local cabbies and Western invaders is drowning out the holy noise of this bustling little town of Bethlehem.
And to think its not even high season.

I don’t exactly regret these words, as I think there’s a whole lot of truth in them. But there’s a sort of irony here that you may well have already detected. Perhaps one might even call me a hypocrite.

There’s more irony for me in Bethlehem than just its Banksy pieces…

To Pilgrim or to Tourist…

The reality is, I wasn’t really paying attention to what was in front of me—instead, I was looking for what I wanted. I wanted contemplation and silent prayer; I wanted to partake in holy awe alongside other similarly-minded pilgrims; I wanted more of the kind Palestinian hospitality I have so learned to love during my travels these past couple of weeks.

I suppose I may be hammering this subject ad tedium during these little writings of mine (but I really don’t care—I just think it’s that important), but I have to acknowledge once more that getting what you want is just not what pilgrimage is about. That’s Tourism. Pilgrimage is about having eyes to see and ears to hear what is there rather than what you want to be there. This is not what most of my fellow foreigners in Bethlehem were doing—but it also wasn’t what I was doing. Many of them got exactly what they wanted, and probably went home happy and gratified tourists. I didn’t get what I want, so I got all mopey.

But at the same time, I kind-of-sort-of was being a pilgrim—at least partially. As you can see by my note above, I was most definitely noticing what was in front of me—I was just cross and grouchy about it. Nonetheless, I did bear witness to the faces of Bethlehem I wasn’t looking for—like the ‘tourist attraction’ face and the ‘commodification’ face—and I made note of it.

I suppose, in my case, it all comes down to surprise. You may remember that I quoted Len Hjalmarson in my first post; Len asserts that, while tourists hate to be surprised, pilgrims love it. In the end, then, I was probably more of the former than the latter.

Sad face :(

Ends & Means

Please don’t read me wrong here—I fully believe that many travellers who visit places like the Nativity Church have genuinely worshipful moments when they witness them. There were probably even a few folks there who weren’t even taking pictures, much less selfies. But for the majority who were, and for the great chunk of them who were socially oblivious about it, one must consider the cost.

That foreigners get to come into Bethlehem and visually memorialize their presence at Christ’s birthplace is good.

That some of them experience rich spiritual connection with God while doing so is great.

But do the ends justify the means?

Is the selfishness I see in so many visitors here okay because of the spiritual boon they’re trying to attain?

Is the apparent ignorance of how our tramping and stamping into Bethlehem has affected its culture excusable?

What about our terrible cluelessness about Bethlehem’s current climes—i.e., what about the three refugee camps surrounding the city, the ugly imposing separation wall on its northern border, the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets lying around the streets, the stringent checkpoint process made all the more stringent for Palestinian citizens…? Is our blissful ignorance allowable simply because “we’re just here for personal/spiritual/historical reasons”?

I, for one, don’t think so.

This is not about politics. It’s not a case being made for Palestinians over against Israelis. It’s about us—the foreigners, the Christians. How we do pilgrimage should bear witness to Christ—whether it’s driving a few blocks to church on Sunday morning to meet with Him and His body, or flying halfway around the world to visit the place of His birth. Jesus served humbly and self-sacrificially, He loved ‘along the way,’ and He was most certainly not ignorant of the times.

Granted, this is really difficult—especially when we’ve been culturally reared to become tourists and consumers instead of pilgrims and servants. If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I’m repeatedly failing at this as I go.

May God grant us the desire, the courage, and the strength to slowly turn and go against the grain.

The Song of the Magi

Anaïs Mitchell has been providing much of my soundtrack here (I shared her song “Two Kids” in my Nazareth post), and, to be honest, she keeps bringing me dangerously close to embarrassing tears while listening along in public transit.

If you have the time to hear and contemplate, check out her “Song of the Magi” below. Here she sings about the contrasting images of Bethlehem—between the idyllic Biblical advent narrative and the current gruelling reality.