Written by Mikayla Journee
Photos by Ben and Mikayla Journee
I like religion. I get it. I get what it does for people and I get that humans need answers. I don’t practice a religion. But I understand that humans need a god, or some equivalent, to make sense of who they are. I love ritual and symbolism, but don’t need to practice this myself to believe in their validity.
I’m becoming quite comfortable with my own sense of spirituality and my openness to different ideas and concepts of life. I have a comfortableness with the idea of great undefinable unknown.I think that there’s space for the currently secularised mainstream to find an easy way of talking about spirituality without a whole lot of heavy handed symbolism, paraphernalia, cliché New Age language or inappropriate cultural and religious appropriation that dominates this space. I think that we’re heading in the right direction. I think people are once again seeking a groundedness to something more meaningful, and we’re just figuring out a way to do this in a healthy way.
Everyone understands energy. If you’re into sports, then go to a live game. If you’re into music, then go to a live concert. If you’re into Jesus, then worship together in a Church. If you're into pilgrimage, then walk the Camino de Santiago. Whatever it is for, there’s something magical that happens when people come together in a shared experience. This can happen on a small scale, or a large one, and it has the potential to both bind, and unravel communities.
Since university, I have been interested in comparative religion, and more recently have begun to define my own understanding of spirituality and human nature. Going to Jerusalem felt like an important and natural next place to journey to, given since finishing our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a couple of weeks earlier.
I didn’t come to this place with a neutral perspective (and as much as one might try, no one ever does anyway!). I grew up in a Christian home. And though our family’s church going years were a long time ago, those foundations don’t disappear. My identity was built on Christian values. I also grew up in Aotearoa New Zealand, where, though a secular country, Christianity is the most common religion. Further still, I studied European Art History for many years, with a mostly Christian subject matter and iconography, and still teach in that area today. So, the religious stories I know most are those related to Christ and art. But this was my background, not my purpose. We were there for more than that. We were there to experience it all and learn as much as possible.
Jerusalem is an incredible place – and it has been very very hard to put all the complexities and importance of this place into words. Jerusalem is special, in a mind blowing, thought provoking and often unsettling way. Religion is talked about there – you’re asked what you believe, you’re asked which side of the line you lie. People wear their religion clearly. And there’s no such thing as neutral. It’s a place that kind of forces you to own your own beliefs, and acknowledge your biases. It was a healthy challenge for us.
We kept our list pretty short for our 10 or so days in this holy city, so we could just let the place happen to us and absorb and learn as much as possible. I’m glad we made that decision. We didn’t want to take a formal tour of the city, and be told what to think. We wanted to just feel our way through it and seek the things that were going to be meaningful to us.
We also didn’t really have anywhere else we wanted to go in Israel. We weren’t interested in Tel Aviv and its busy beaches, and there were other important religious sites around the country that we could have visited with day tours, but we were there for the Holy City. The small, weighty piece of land that’s driven people to do awful things to make it, and keep it, ‘theirs’ for millennia… and with angry zealousness for the last 100 years. So that’s basically all we did, aside from a day trip to the Masada fort and the Dead Sea, we spent our time in the city – where we stayed in a couple of different locations - and we wouldn’t have done it any other way, and would probably do the same thing again.
Our timing for heading to Jerusalem was interesting.
A few days before we were due to fly into Ben Gurion, Israeli forces destroyed a lifeline tunnel in Gaza Strip, killing 10 members of the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad resistance, and 2 fighters for Hamas. The news channels reported that Palestinians were clear on their intention and entitlement to retaliate. We were a little tense, and we didn’t tell our families about it, assuming and hoping they wouldn’t have heard about this event through mainstream New Zealand news channels.
A few short weeks after we left (and just handful of days ago), President Trump decided to announce Jerusalem as the true capital of Israel.
We arrived in Jerusalem on the 31st October. It was a couple of days before the centenary of the Balfour agreement, and there had been (Israeli) celebrations the weekend before. We didn’t plan that, and we weren’t actually even aware, but we were made aware – and rightly so – almost as soon as we arrived. The regular airport process had irregularities. There was no stamp in the passport but a removable ticket instead, so you could hide the fact you’d been there. There was all encompassing political propaganda promoting Zionism on every wall of the airport. And that was all before we even got to Jerusalem. We had chosen a budget hotel near the Herod’s Gate. We’d chosen it because, first and foremost, it was one of the cheapest accommodations we could find, and because it was close to the Old City, the Garden Tomb and Gethsemane. We were aware it was close to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and aware that we were on the West Bank side of the line on Google maps, but not quite sure what that would mean in reality. It didn’t take long for the hotel owner to ask us if we were there for the celebrations of the Balfour agreement the weekend before, along with the British and Kiwis and Australians that had come for it. We replied that no we weren’t here for that at all. He relaxed, and expressed his gratitude, and thanked Allah that not everyone was there to celebrate the Palestinians’ greatest heartbreak, and then welcomed us warmly to his country and from there referred to Ben as ‘my brother’. It was palpable, and we were instantly humbled and brought intensely into the present. We were in Jerusalem.
When we relocated to another guest house in West Jerusalem, it was like being in a different city. There was light rail and newly paved boulevards. There were rowdy Jewish teenagers that could be heard down the street at all hours of the night. There were crowds of people playing the public piano, literally all the time. There was also quite a few young men (and I mean very very young men), often not in uniform, walking around the streets with automatic weapons slung over their shoulder. There was an instance early one evening where we wlked past a young man sitting on a bench, watched over by police, arms and face covered in what looked like self-inflicted wounds. Things were also unsettling. There was plenty that didn’t seem natural, or calm. In hindsight this part of town seemed to be forcing something, and we could feel the dark underbelly of the city and the tensions just below the surface every day.
We absolutely loved being in Jerusalem. We were pretty relaxed when we were there, but the city and its people weren’t. And even though the atmosphere was generally more tense than spiritually enlightened, it also felt like a special special place. As we stood outside the church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives, looking back toward the Old City and the brilliantly white, dusty, sandstone buildings and cemeteries, as we walked the path Jesus walked when he carried his cross, and as we stood in his prison cell, as we wandered the bazaars of the Muslim quarter, wishing we had another suitcase to fill, as we ate Arab bagels and drank Arabic coffee, and devoured shakshuka and a million pitas with falafel and hummas, as we took in the city’s history at the museums (with a critical eye), and ultimately as we observed people in their sacred spaces, we took it all in. As uncanny and unreal as it was to be there, we felt Jerusalem – as it has been always and as it is now.