I am now back in Scotland.
In some ways, the past fortnight feels like a dream, like it never happened. I struggle to believe that it was only a week ago I was fighting to keep my balance at Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem as the crowds pressed on every side, standing so close to the man in front of me that I could feel his heart beating, feeling the breath of the man behind me on my neck, those odd intimate moments of shared humanity in the midst of a completely inhumane situation.
At the same time, however, I don’t feel entirely present here. I feel like I left my heart, my emotions — even my vocation — back in Palestine. It’s as though what I saw and did there was real, and here, this place is the dreamworld. I keep wishing I would wake up and find myself back in the West Bank. Because the ugliness of occupation may have distorted the breathtaking beauty of the land and its people, but it has not yet completely destroyed it.
I came back exhausted.
In many ways, I’d quite like to just pour myself a very large whisky, turn my electric blanket up high, and hide away in a darkened bedroom for a few weeks while I try to make sense of everything.
But I also came back angry.
I came back angry at the level of blindness and cruelty — both individual and systemic — that human beings are capable of. Angry at our inability to learn from history. Angry at our inability to forgive. Angry at our inability — or unwillingness — or reluctance — to cry out in the face of injustice, to shout on behalf of those who suffer.
And if I’m really, really honest, I came back angry at myself for my past selfishness, my past silence.
But I also came back confused.
Saying the words of the Eucharistic prayer at the Vigil Mass last night, I couldn’t connect them with anything I had recently experienced. Ok, if I sat down and thought about it, I could, but only cerebrally. None of it made sense.
What does my priesthood mean here? I asked myself as I walked out of Jalazon Refugee Camp in Ramallah. What do the sacraments have to say to the division and fear and hatred I saw in Hebron? I know there must be answers, there must be meaning, but I don’t know where to find it at the moment.
Today at High Mass, as we sang Advent hymns, I stumbled over the words
He comes the prisoners to release
In Satan’s bondage held;
The gates of brass before him burst,
The iron fetters yield.
He comes the broken heart to bind,
The bleeding soul to cure,
And with the treasures of his grace
Enrich the humble poor.
I thought to myself: this is lovely in a gentle, poetic, metaphorical kind of way. But God, where are you when actual walls need to be crushed in order for prisoners to be freed, when gates stand between people and their loved ones or livelihoods? What cure can there be for hearts broken by the shooting of children and souls bleeding at daily humiliation?
I felt dazed and disconnected after church today. I must have looked it. Because someone very wisely observed: It must feel like a bereavement. Like when you’re walking around, feeling this immense loss, and everyone else is just carrying on as if everything is normal, as if nothing has changed.
That’s precisely how it feels. My heart is breaking again and again. The tears well up when the weary and weather-worn and grief-stricken faces of the past weeks appear in my memory unbidden. My fists clench in rage as I recall the subtle ways occupation and oppression are draining the life out of so many communities in both Israel and Palestine.
I have many more stories to tell and pictures to share, and over the coming days, I’ll also reflect on some of the discussions I heard at the Kairos Palestine Conference in Bethlehem. There were a couple of talks so powerful and inspiring and disturbing that I felt certain I was in the presence of modern-day prophets. And that’s what gives me hope. That even now, there are voices responding to God’s call: Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.