23 November 2009
The Door-Keeper of the Holy Sepulchre
I have been trying to wrap-up my time in Israel and to fit in the last few things on my “To Do” list. I only have a week left! Today I decided to try to complete my walk of the Via Dolorosa, the path that is venerated as Jesus’ journey from condemnation through crucifixion to resurrection. These are the 14 Stations of the Cross that wind through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and end in the Holy Sepulchre. Most pilgrims make their journey along the Via Dolorosa rather superficially… remaining on the street. However, all the stations along the route (with the exception of #8) have at least a small chapel associated with it. The problem is… the chapels are usually closed except for a few hours (sometimes only minutes) here and there. Over the course of the past three months, either by luck or by happenstance, I had managed to find ALMOST all of the Station Chapels open at one time or another; but I was still missing numbers 5 and 6. Yesterday I had inquired with the shop keepers flanking these Stations and was told that my best bet to find these chapels open was to visit before 11AM.
That was my mission today! And by God, Providence or whatever-you-believe-in, I managed to surf the coat-tails of a well-connected Pilgrimage party into both of these chapels! The chapels seem to have been opened JUST for this party, and were closed as soon as the last person left… which happened to be ME in both cases! So, I have completed all of the Stations of the Cross and some of the extraneous churches along the Via Dolorosa like the purported Prison of Jesus, Judgment Gate and Church of St. Anne.
That left me facing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre once again… I was in the neighborhood, and it was still early enough for the church to be reasonably quiet. I decided to wander around the church one more time. After my visit, I was near the door and heading towards the exit, when I saw a familiar face in the crowd! I recognized Wajeeh Nuseibeh, the Door-Keeper of the Holy Sepulchre, from the many documentaries I have watched about Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre.
“Door-Keeper?” you ask, “What kind of a title is THAT?”
The Holy Sepulchre is uneasily shared by no less than SIX different orthodox Catholic denominations. NONE of the denominations trust the OTHER guys with the keys to the church! Something had to be done to keep peace! The answer was to give the keys to a neutral MUSLIM family! The position and responsibility has passed from father to son for at least the past 800 years, and probably the past 1400 years!
I quote the Nuseibeh’s family website:
”[The Nuseibehs ]…the family which since Caliph Omar accepted the keys of Jerusalem 1400 years ago, has been the Muslim family assigned the custodianship of the keys of the Holy Sepulchre which included in addition to opening and the closing of the door of this most venerable church at dawn and dusk, the adjudication of differences between various Christian denominations over traditional rights within the church.”
This guy enforces the famous “Status Quo”!
I’m not sure that anyone who has NOT visited the Holy Sepulchre can FULLY appreciate how tough a job this is! The tension between the various denominations and in the church itself is palatable. You can cut it with a knife! The Priests have been known to squabble over the smallest of perceived slights.
This saint-of-a-man keeps the occupants from fisticuffs MOST of the time! He was a rock star in my book before I ever met him! In the flesh however, he far exceeded my expectations!
I walked over to him and greeted him quietly in Arabic, “Aasalaamu Aleikum.” (“Peace be with you”)
He smiled the most angelic of smiles and responded with, “Wa-Aleikum Aasalaam.” (“And also with you!”)
This was nearly the full extent of my Arabic! But it served me well! Mr. Nueseibeh invited me to sit down with him on the bench near the door. He then asked my name and extended his hand to shake mine!
I had NOT been expecting THAT! I have come to accept that, as far as most devoutly religious men of ANY faith in the Holy Land are concerned; I have a perpetual case of “cooties” and should NOT touch any man, lest I give them “cooties” as well! Actually, it’s not just ME; it’s all women outside of immediate family. That just happens to MEAN me!
Mr. Nueseibeh and I talked for about twenty minutes. He asked me where was I from? How long I was in Jerusalem… three months, was I writing a book? Was I alone? How do I like Jerusalem? Where I am staying? Am I married? Do I have children? What do I do for a living? He asked all the usual Jerusalem questions… here, perfect strangers feel compelled to ask what we might consider to be somewhat personal questions.
After taking care of the “formalities” and establishing that he was, indeed, the Door-Keeper, we moved on to some more “interesting” subjects.
I noted how tense the atmosphere in the church was… he tactfully said nothing! He asked me if I am a Christian. I gave a snapshot of Unitarian Universalism and confessed that I personally do not believe in the Divinity of Jesus… that I think Jesus was a wise and important man, but I do not believe he was divine. Mr. Nueseibeh said that this was similar to the Muslim point of view. In a couple of different ways I stated that I thought that when religion is used to help people to become better human beings, I was in favor of it, no matter which religion it might be. We seemed to be in complete agreement on this subject of tolerance.
Once he had determined that I was not Christian, he became a little more open and noted that the priests in the Holy Sepulchre are now mostly foreigners who come for a specific length of time and then go back to their country of origin. He said that it used to be different… and his very slight inflection seemed to indicate that he did not feel this was an improvement! He did not say as much outright, however!
When I noted that I have a lot of compassion for how difficult a job the various priests must have, he agreed that there are more and more people coming to the church and many of the visitors were now tourists and tour groups, rather than pilgrims.
I did not want to take up too much of his time, so I made an excuse and began to end our conversation. I asked him if he would mind if I took his picture. He not only posed for me, but enlisted the help of another woman to take a picture of both of us together… and again he made the point of shaking my hand in the photo! This was a rather big deal for him!
I wanted to be sure that I got his name correctly, so he went to a little closet that seems to be “his” and got me one of his business cards… with his home phone and email address. He also wrote-in the address for his personal family website… a website designed to help “[Nuessibeh] family members who, in consequence of the 1948 and 1967 conflicts in Palestine find themselves dispersed in so many countries, as indeed do most other Jerusalem families.” He said that he did not normally give his website address out, but he could tell that I was a “good” person! How sweet! I gave him my card in exchange.
I don’t know how to adequately describe the sense of peace and calm this man possessed and exuded. I felt as though I was sitting in the presence of “Healing” personified. The man positively glowed! I can’t help wondering… is it genetics or circumstance that makes this man so “saintly”? Has his whole family, for the past 1400 years, been THIS good at making peace? I suppose they would have to have been, wouldn’t they? Personally, I was in AWE of the man!
In the end, we agreed that “Inshallah” (God willing) we would meet again… Amazing! The man tops MY list for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize!
Aasalaamu Aleikum! Peace be with you!