As my pilgrimage comes to its end, I’m flipping quietly through my mental postcards. What through line can I draw among them? What coherent meaning?
Where to from here?
Visiting the Holy Land during Lent — that was powerful. My understanding of Lent has been pretty rudimentary. I know it’s a penitential season. It makes sense that, as those of us who call ourselves Christian anticipate Good Friday and then Easter, we reflect and repent. It seems logical to make some symbolic gesture of self-sacrifice. Like many others, I’ll typically give something up for Lent, and then chastise myself when I fail (there was the year, for instance, when I gave up pork — no small thing for the swine-loving Chinese!—and then conveniently forgot that pancetta and prosciutto are both pig).
But here’s what I began to wonder while I was in Jerusalem: What if I’ve got it wrong?
What if the hardest thing in my spiritual life is to accept the abundant life that Jesus promises? What if the biggest challenge, for some of us who struggle with the sins of self-loathing and shame, is to receive love and to feel joy? Could — should — penitence look different? Might it mean wallowing less and embracing more?
As I’ve noted throughout this series of dispatches, we don’t embark on the pilgrims’ trail with new hearts, minds, and bodies. We take the scarred and wounded vessels we already have. For me, this pilgrimage came during a year of reckoning — the months before this trip involved serious soul-searching and wrestling with longstanding pain and trauma.
I’ve already written a little bit about the morning we spent at Yad Vashem, trying to absorb the heart-rending stories of the Holocaust. It was hard not to juxtapose the systematic extermination of the Jews during World War II, with the hatred and prejudice that endure in the world today. By the time we emerged from the memorial, my mind was numb with sorrow, my cheeks streaked with two hours of tears.
Which made our group’s lunchtime feast that day all the more mind-blowing. When we walked into Yudale Bar, which is essentially a dining counter on three sides of the open kitchen, the Israeli dance music was already thumping. Pretty much the first thing we were served were shots of alcohol that looked like orange Gatorade. The way they poured wine — well, one serving resembled a vat more than a glass. And I don’t know how to explain to you exactly what Chef Asaf Serri and his team served us for lunch over the subsequent three hours. Is exuberance a cuisine?
You could taste elegance and refinement in the food: a herbaceous crudo served on slices of watermelon, with the sweet zing of balsamic; a beautiful carpaccio with parmesan and artichoke; jars of truffled polenta with wild mushrooms; a rib roast adorned with little but salt, pepper, and its own gorgeous fat. Yet nothing about the experience was precious. The chefs bantered — with each other and with us. They mugged for the cameras. A couple of times, they took pots and pans down from the overhead racks and handed them out so that we could bang them together and shout for joy. Just because.
When one of his sous-chefs noticed me taking lots of pictures from my side of the bar, she invited me into the kitchen for a better angle. As soon as Chef Serri saw me walk into the kitchen, he shouted, “What are you doing?”
Then his face melted into a smile, and he asked me to come over to his side of the stove. He took off his apron, handed me a spatula, and told me to start plating the next course, fish fillets braised in a deep red sauce studded with chickpeas and fragrant with Moroccan spices. For someone who loves to cook, it was an honor — and a huge joy.
Later, I stood outside the restaurant, in the Jerusalem sunshine, chatting with Chef Serri. I would not say that, after four shots and three glasses of wine, I was the most eloquent conversationalist. But I did manage to ask him whether every meal service was like this one. He grinned. “Of course!” he said. “Why not? We have to have joy.”
Then he said, “Let’s go across the street.” We popped into Yudale Bar’s sister restaurant, Machneyuda, where we said hi to the chefs and quickly downed another shot. It was arak, the bracing, anise-flavored Mediterranean liqueur—a tad medicinal, a bit bitter, and at the end of this meal, warming and clarifying.
We headed back to Yudale Bar, where the wide windowsill — which doubles as a long, streetside table — had been covered with aluminum foil. Chef Serri and his assistants began covering the foil with a riotous dessert. It was like a Pollock painting in 3-D: clouds of whipped cream and curves of coulis, chocolate and strawberries, nuts and caramel, crisp disks of phyllo and chunks of cake.
As we attacked the mess with long-handled spoons — and, let’s be honest, our fingers — this truth couldn’t have been clearer: The sweet and the salty are all the more profound when you have also tasted the bitter. And this is resilience and resistance.
We pray at the beginning of a meal to thank God for the food, but what if we thought of eating and drinking as acts of gratitude too? I wonder whether it might be the most powerful act of defiance against the demons that, for so long, have lurked at the back of my mind, whispering that the bread and water that God offers are not for me. To sit and to feast can be a gesture of rebuttal, too, against those who have tried to take their places at the head of the table while fencing off the rest.
In John 10:10, Jesus famously says that he has come that we might have life and that we might have it more abundantly. As my friend the Rev. Jes Kast-Keat has pointed out, the Greek word in that verse for “life” is not bios — physical life force, the basis of biology — but zóé — life that is divine and otherworldly, creative and beyond what we can already imagine.
To be honest, I don’t know that this pilgrimage strengthened my already shaky faith. It did strengthen, though, my sense that I need faith. It did reinforce my conviction that this ugly, scarred, and broken world needs the beauty, healing, and redemption that God promises. It needs zóé. In our fractious, violent societies, what might we do better to bring that about?
On the last full day of our pilgrimage, I was sitting in the back of a Jeep, bouncing along rutted dirt roads in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. This is disputed territory. Everywhere you look, there are reminders of war— bunkers, barbed wire, and, in the distance, the abandoned remains of the Syrian city of Quneitra. At one point, our driver suddenly stopped. To our left, behind a sign that said “caution: landmines,” a meadow was ablaze with dozens of crimson anemones. “Beautiful flowers,” he said. “Beautiful flowers in the minefield.”
Those spring flowers remind me that, while heartbreak and hatred may seem so powerful in our world, beautiful things are more resilient than we can understand. Perhaps, amid the sin of our own lives, our Lenten penitence should mean more mercy. Maybe my Lenten repentance means more grace. While so many Christians tend obsess about heaven and resurrection — life after death — what if we focused more on how to cultivate life and joy and beauty amid death?
So let me return to the question with which I began: Where to from here? Onward. Toward richer life. Toward greater love.