The occasion for this reverie came about during my first walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, deep in the Old City. Our accommodations at the Notre Dame Center are situated just outside the massive walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent back in the sixteenth century. Passing through the “New” Gate (so named for its creation 150 years ago) reveals an entirely different community than the broad streets and well-planned efficiency of the modern city. Stone pavement covers streets barely wide enough to admit a small vehicle. Shops and restaurants crowd against one another in fierce competition for small advantages in visibility from the walk. Signage is compiled from a smattering of English, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic alphabets, and vendors call out to passers-by with rudimentary greetings that sound more like commands. Religious goods of every sort are piled onto shelves sagging with age, surrounded by clothing and Arabian carpets hanging in the open air. Shops tunnel away from the thoroughfare like caves in a hillside. Sitting far in the back, barely visible behind the rows of shining menorahs, silver-clad icons, dull brass samovars, and elaborate tapestries, the shopkeeper takes his ease among the valuables ensconced beyond the reach of the swift fingers of thieves. Nowadays, fluorescent bulbs cast a harsh blue light over the merchandise and its khaki-clad vendors, but it takes little imagination to see their turbaned predecessors trimming the oil lamps and candles whose yellowy moisture would’ve softened these strange and wonderful sights.
To reach the holy places, one must push through these layers of commerce like so many veils draped over the city, concealing its true shape and form beneath their thick folds. It troubled me at first, to see all these people profiting off religion (in their own indirect way), but then again, it’s always been this way: our neat compartmentalization of sacred and secular is the anomaly. Religion is the lifeblood of this city, in more ways than one—and if we may speak of advantages and disadvantages in this regard, it does seem to amplify the intensity with which religion is lived. That is the case whether it serves as a positive or negative influence, for here I am beginning to see just how religion (much like war and eros), brings out the best and the worst in people. There are the scam artists swarming like vultures, ready to pick off unsuspecting tourists; then there are the clerical squabbles over territory within a church, periodically escalating into brawls; and then of course the zealots, the terrorists, the fanatics who kill for God. On the other hand, there are the hidden lives of oblation and fidelity and peace, the “love at the heart of the Church” St. Thérèse longed to be—conditioned by human limitation and weakness, yes, but nonetheless descending into the mystery as best as can be done this side of the Styx.
Framed on either side by these rivals, the great mass of humanity makes its way the best it can, neither despicable in violence nor outstanding in virtue. Yet each of us carries in our heart the loyalties and loves that drive our choices, and are pleasing in the sight of God to the extent of their interiority and their simplicity. These merchants who ride the city like barnacles and who once troubled me do not exploit religion for base gain—there are mouths to feed and bills to be paid. They sell because there are people who buy.
That I am one of them should be no cause for consternation. And if I learn a little for my loss of coin, what grounds do I have for complaint?