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Starting Point

In the Old City as in life, we travel together


It was Friday afternoon and our small tour group had just finished the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. We decided to leave through the Damascus Gate. This would entail passing through the market section of the Muslim Quarter, which, like such markets anywhere in the world, was a glorious mix of sights, sounds and smells.

As the streets narrowed and rose toward the gate, the press of bodies became thicker, the pace slower. Numerous arches overhead created a visual darkness that shifted attention to other senses. I became separated from my group and thus, freed from concern about anyone else, was able to give myself to the experience.

In front of me for a while was a little girl with dark, inquisitive eyes. She looked up and back at me briefly, and I smiled and lightly touched her hair before a shift in the configuration of the crowd took her away. On my right was a very short old woman, veiled and gowned from head to foot. She used her elbows and her packages to push her way through, creating a wake behind her in which several younger women trailed.

Glued to my back was a tall man. I could not see him and I had no idea whether he was enjoying or merely tolerating this accidental physical intimacy with a female body, but I can attest that this contact did not lessen in the slightest for the 15 minutes it took us to proceed through the labyrinth leading to the gate.

The strangest and most moving encounter took place with the man to my immediate left. I noticed him just as we were beginning the final ascent through the last dogleg of the gate, when unfiltered light was within sight. I felt his right hand move toward me, and wishing to save him the disappointment of finding only used tissues in my pocket, I positioned my left hand to intercept him.

To my astonishment he very softly took my hand in his. I was making this pilgrimage with a commitment to openness, so I neither startled nor drew back, but accepted the touch and allowed my hand to rest there. We continued that way, lightly swaying, until we burst into the open air on the sidewalk in the new city. The spell was broken; the man disappeared; my hand was warm with surprise.

Even though I am an introvert and dislike crowds, this experience spoke to me at a level below personal preference, at a place of deep human truth. Here in Jerusalem, moving upward toward the gate, all our bodies pressed together, I recognized our common journey toward salvation. No one gets there alone, without being carried, buffeted, pushed, caressed by others. Whatever our destination, whether we call it enlightenment, individuation or planetary healing, we travel there together, by half-steps, the differences between us paling into insignificance. Now and then, the collective human soul greets itself, divinity acknowledges its relational nature, one hand touches another.

Mary Vineyard writes from Albuquerque, N.M.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999