This place is more than a symbol or indicator of ancient times. More than any place I’ve ever been Jerusalem is an anachronism. It feels unchanged and supremely supernatural. I can feel the presence of spirits in Jerusalem. There is something at work in this place that is not human. There is a greater struggle here—more than simple friction between men. Invisible sparks warm the air. Improbable currents of cold air chill me without impetus. The golden roof adorns the mosque. I sense the religious fanaticism. I sense the passion–the disdain for all things different and misunderstood. The intense devotion in this city is despicable and wonderful. It is all foreign to me. It doesn’t register–the uncontested beliefs. Is it faith or is it madness? The wailing wall is almost too much for me–Israeli soldiers, rifles slung at their sides, their hands upon the wall, heads bowed in prayer. The imagery is burned into me forever. This will never leave me. It will never leave me, the way these men pray for their souls–the way they seek forgiveness for the things they will do today. I stand near the wall with them. I stand behind them, and behind the rabbis and the children and all those who wait in line to come here and pray at this wall—is falling and obliterated by time. People come here to pray at this wall. The wall is sorrowful. Is the wall wailing or is it the people?
Then, less frequented, but more breathtaking for me–the Garden of Gethsemane, but it no longer looks like a garden. It is not what I imagined as a young boy–a vast, beautiful garden with many trees, overgrown and lush. No, this is a very simple plot with scraggly trees growing out of red rocks. But I imagine this as it must have been once, before it was modified by two thousand years of mankind—instead, filled with beautiful, arching trees that shaded the Lord Jesus when he fervently prayed. I find myself wondering about it all. I am silent and staring into nothing—no, staring into my mind and my imagination, finding the script of events—the way this all looked, trying to understand how a man could be troubled more by the prospect of complete separation from holiness than the physical pain of crucifixion. He is here, on his knees, next to me right now and I see him praying, and I am trying to interrupt him, to save him or something.
I’m telling him, “But you’re going to be betrayed–everyone is going to betray you,” but he is not listening to me, he is just praying, and it is so intense, he is praying with such fervor and the drops of blood, he is squeezing them from his head and his veins emerge against the crimson stain of his skin and suddenly I am stricken, unable to speak to Jesus because I am the betrayal and Judas and Peter when the cock crowed thrice. I am seeing it now—the flagellum against his back, the bagging of his head and the punches. Being punched in the head and never knowing where it’s coming from is such a terrible feeling, you know. I am seeing all the pain inflicted and the humiliation and I’m trying to imagine (because I can’t fathom it) how this was the easiest part of it all. I’m trying to comprehend this and for a moment I have the tiniest glimpse into it—into the abomination of desolation—the rending of the veil between the inner sanctum and the outer courts of the temple—I get it for a moment because I feel the anguish that accompanies the guilt from all the wrongs I’ve committed and now here I am in this garden, this fucking garden just feeling awful and tearing up a bit, but trying to be tough and failing miserably, because dammit, I’m getting it now—how awful this must have been, the way that he bore the world’s sin (we always say this) we always repeat these same sentences and say trite things but we don’t get it (do we?) the way that he took on the shame and guilt I feel now, that I carry around with me—he took it all upon himself and those same feelings for billions of other people—anyone who has lived or ever will live and I get it. The pain and anguish and guilt of all us people—fucking people—all at once time. The pressing, compressing darkness that must have surged and overwhelmed him, what that kind of feeling must have been like for a man who committed no wrong—this must have been incredible—the way it crushed him—a bug—the smallest bug disappearing beneath the infinite weight of a rock—the kind of burden that reduces you to nothing but darkness in seconds. How the demons must have been laughing in that moment, the way they believed they had won. How they must have been celebrating this victory in hell—loving the darkness and the weight and the heaviness, the heaviness, the heaviness.
The garden though, is not the end of the journey for me. The Via Dolorosa lies ahead and I am walking toward it in Old Jerusalem and I am a little nervous. My legs tremble and I am hesitant to take more steps. As I walk I can’t help but lose water from my eyes because I can feel this—the closeness for some reason is around me—this inescapable presence is here. There must be so many ghosts here! So many spirits or angels or divine beings dancing, fighting to remember something here—fighting to ensure that people are not forgetting that a cross was drug here and a blood trail—drippety-droppety-drop—drippety-droppety-drop. The way it was carried, his side ripped open from the lashings, so weak, unable to walk, falling, unable to lose the crown because of the thorns fashioned circular, rooted in his skull. But he presses on slowly, persevering, never stopping, but slowing, slowing like the blaze of a star nearing the end of its life, and finally he falls for the second time, and oh god, his mother is watching this (how could his mother be watching this?) and his disciples, they pick up the cross for him and this is some kind of parable isn’t it, like take up your cross and follow me or something? But here we are and Simon of Cyrene comes along and he is helping Jesus up Mount Golgotha with this wooden weight and Jesus keeps falling over, staggering, barely making it, but he knows he must because this is the way it must happen, his mission, he must be nailed to the cross, and I am seeing it, watching him, and I’m ascending this mountain, which is really more like a hill, but it’s moot because the man was beaten and had nothing with which to make this climb and I’m climbing right next to him, I mean damn, I can see this so clearly, the way I am climbing next to Jesus, and I’m splitting the illustration between Jesus and all the people standing on the sides spitting and cheering and crying and people have no idea what they are watching or doing or why they’re doing it. But all of a sudden we’re at the top, looking out over the city and they raise him up after the stakes are driven through his wrists and feet and they drop the cross in the ground and the earth quakes and his body shudders and the lightning snaps and right before he is about to give up his spirit to take on the all-consuming wrath of the fire and darkness, the darkness, my darkness, he asks, prays for forgiveness for his persecutors and turning his head as far to the right as possible—until another ragged man fills his view, tells the thief, “Today you will join me in paradise.”
And it’s funny you see, so damn funny, because all day my friends have been wondering—wondering why I’ve been silent.