ONE OF the very few experiences I have had which could be thought to border on the mystical happened in the al-Aqsa mosque. I was in Jerusalem, researching a television programme. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I was exhausted. The decision to wander into the sanctuary on the Temple Mount was more to get out of the sun than for any historical or cultural reason.
Once there, however, I was overwhelmed by the sense of space and coolness. The building was sheer peace.
As I lingered, words from Stephen Langton’s hymn to the Holy Spirit came into my mind: “Thou in labour rest most sweet, Thou art shadow from the heat, Comfort in adversity.” I experienced the presence of God as a presence-in-absence; a life-giving withdrawal that sheltered and nourished human beings in all their frailty. It was all so utterly different from the busy, cluttered chaos of the familiar Christian sites.
I stayed longer than I meant to, and came out strangely refreshed. The words of Langton’s hymn now come with the memory of that merciful dark space.
The al-Aqsa mosque has been the flashpoint for violence between Palestinians and Israelis for many years — a violence encouraged by the odd psychotic Christian seeking a Messianic destiny. To Muslims, it is the third holiest shrine in the world; to the Jews, it is the Temple Mount, and includes the Western Wall.
Ariel Sharon’s provocative appearance on the Mount in 2000 triggered the second Palestinian intifada. Rumours earlier this year that the Israelis planned to alter the status of al-Aqsa triggered the current violence, while Palestinians have proposed that the whole of the Temple Mount should be regarded as a Muslim shrine and put under international oversight.
We don’t help this bitter conflict by our instinctive rush to defend Israel, or to wave the Palestinian flag. Christians are guilty of this as much as others, and we need, perhaps, to learn some humility. Yes, the encouragement of illegal settlements is wicked, but so is the drip poison of anti-Semitism in Palestinian schools. Both sides have a just cause, and both can claim that most odious mark of modern sanctity, victim status.
When I think about the seemingly endless conflict in the Holy Land, I try to hold in mind the sheltering interior of the silver-domed mosque; the shadow from the heat built on the site of the Jewish Temple. The only prayer can be that the mercy that God has repeatedly shown to all the children of Abraham will finally overwhelm not only our hatred, but also our self-righteousness.