Once again, we’ve been in study mode—two classes and another session with our instructor on Islam. Illness has begun to creep in among us, laying one of us out for a couple of days, and giving others unusually deep or wheezy voices that persist far beyond the morning; thankfully, most of us have to this point stayed reasonably healthy and functional. We are gearing up for the Christmas celebration here, and it has every promise of being an exceptional year (though for many of the American-born seminarians at least, it is the first year away from home and family for Christmas).
Our sessions on Islam have been somewhat frustrating, as Islam is a notoriously difficult belief system to lie out in systematic form. Part of our learning has been to absorb the vast and varied reality of the Islamic worldview and practice, very little of which makes immediate sense to adherents of western Catholicism. Islam is by no means monolithic—much less so than Catholicism, or even Christianity; when we ask what it is that Muslims believe about this or that issue, there is very little that an introductory session can offer to plumb the many interpretations that exist. As an analogy, imagine explaining what Christians believe about salvation to a friend unfamiliar with Christian doctrine, who could no more than guess at the meaning of the words “Protestant,” “Orthodox,” and “Catholic,” and who approaches religion as a vague mixture of magic and pop psychology. In many respects, we are worlds apart.
For these and many other reasons, the discipline of being here in the Middle East is difficult to sustain. It requires a perpetual restraint against gut reactions and generalizations; to step into this world is, for many of us, a more radical transition into unknown territory than ever before, and when in unfamiliar territory, there is a temptation to resort to accustomed modes of thinking. The culture, language, history, and temperament of the land and its people are truly unique, and while there are many points of similarity, the differences can often be startlingly broad. Simply adjusting to the fact that the Qu’ran is broadcast for general consumption at tremendous volume five times a day requires special flexibility and patience for those of us accustomed to the general secular tone of the West and suburban noise ordinances.
The countdown to our departure from Bethlehem is winding down, and many of us are hitting the shops to make our purchases before taking off. The shop owners have become familiar faces in our movement about the city, and the more savvy among us have become quite adept at discovering the finest goods at the lowest prices. Many of us have saved for months, if not years, for this trip, and there are ample opportunities to acquire fitting items to commemorate our pilgrimage and enjoy for years to come. A number of us intend to acquire chalices and other liturgical goods, and all of us are accumulating many gifts for friends and family. There is a sense that it’s very possible we will only be here once, and there’s no reason to let a good opportunity pass us by.