In the days between soccer games, we decide to do some sight-seeing in the Old City of Jerusalem. RHJ has done this many times before – most recently, just before I arrived in town – but he arranges a tour without complaint.
We visit the City’s different quarters; we make our way towards the Western Wall; I am there to place prayers in the cracks for the friends who have sent them on to me but I am hesitant in offering up my own written prayer. This feels too familiar; too much like the Tibetan Bells at that Monastery in China nine years ago. There, you could tell your prayer to the monk and he’d write it on the clapper of a clay bell, then the freshly made ornament would be hung in the temple’s gazebo until it disintegrated or was smashed. That was how your wish was supposed to come true – in the breaking down part.
Back then, I had gone to the Far East to rid myself of my longing for Frederic and I prayed on the bells that he and I would be happy together, ever after. Not since my high school sweetheart had I wanted anyone as much as I wanted Freddy; never had I loved any complicated, complete man the way I adored him. But we were both flawed people in the middle of messy divorces and I’m not sure we could help ourselves, even if we could have seen what we were doing to each other. So now I make it a point not to wish or pray with that kind of specificity.
As I am lost in thought about wishes and prayers, our tour guide takes us around the Old City’s sights, and eventually we reach the plaza where the Western Wall is located. By this point in our trip, I have come from the camino in Spain; through the portal of the Cathedral of Santiago; by way of a late night argument at the Old Train Station in Jerusalem; up, down, over, around, and through the football fields at Bayit Vegan. I am an exhausted and unlikely pilgrim who is Just Hanging On; trying to rid herself of longing for certainty and stability and embrace the mess of the moment. I am trying to Become Whole; I am trying not to lose my head, and yet, at the same time, do exactly that.
Men’s and women’s prayers are separate at the Wall, and our tour guide waits with me as I approach on the women’s side – first, to write out the few words I want to say; and then to place them inside the cracks. After I am done, we retreat back into the plaza where men and women can mingle.
We leave the square, and we finish walking around the Old City. We start to head out towards the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate. It is then that I realise where we are; where I am. We had entered the City just down the hill a bit, in the Armenian quarter. And now, we are walking past the Cathedral of Saint James – the site of the Martyrdom of James the Greater – where inside the Sanctuary, Saint James’s head is buried under the altar beneath a red marble slab.
In a flash, I see that I have traced the steps of the body in reverse – I have come from the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain where the body is entombed, to the Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem, where everything happened. I found the heart before the head; I found Santiago before Saint James – the vulgar before the Greater; the remote mission before the home base.
I am so obsessed with doing things perfectly; in order – in things making sense. But here I am, having completed this voyage so messily; so haphazardly. I have begun at the end and ended at the scene of the crime. How did I get here?
We do not enter the Cathedral; I do not even make mention of the thing I have just discovered. We part ways with our tour guide just outside Jaffa Gate, where a group of young soldiers are unstrapping their guns, which they cannot bring inside the City on their cultural day off. And we walk away from the Old City; away from the walls, to our lunch in Mamilla in a modern shopping plaza, where I eat salmon and soba noodles for the third time that week
The thing I do not realise at the time is the utility of brokenness. I am too arrogant; too dense to understand that we pray at the Wall because of the cracks in it; that we wish on the bells because they break down. I cannot fully fathom that I have just traced the broken pieces of a saint – finding his body in the land of my family and his head in the homeland of the man I love. I have perhaps been on the wrong pilgrimage all this time – I have travelled these different paths to try to make myself whole again, and I do not understand that first, I need to find the beauty in being broken.