Holy Places…

I’ve been at a lot of them this year. Some felt, or at least I understood them as, holy, while others I had to be told they were holy, sacred, important…

I visited some holy places in Haifa. Haifa is a port town in Northern Israel on the Mediterranean Sea, running from water’s edge up and over the biblical Mt. Carmel. While there, I visited the Baha’i Gardens with its 19 levels of garden terraces that adorn Mt. Carmel starting at its base and continuing for one kilometer up to the Summit. It’s quite lovely and unbelievably meticulous in its design and maintenance.

Before you enter the gardens, you are reminded that this is a holy place… (It’s actually the second most holy site in the world for the Baha’i.)


And the gardens are impressive …

I also visited Elijah’s Cave which is at the base of Mt Carmel not too far from the Baha’i Gardens. As I walked through the Birthright presentation that was going on just outside the cave, I overheard the leader remind the group that this site, this cave of Elijah was important to Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze alike. The sign reminds visitors of its sacredness…


It’s a simple cave, rather forlorn, with few visitors …

I also visited the Stella Maris Monastery Church with its “traditional” Holy Lands Christian approach of building a church over some remnant of something old once used to house someone from scripture. This church is built over Elijah’s cave. … Oh I already talked about Elijah’s cave you say, well this cave is the one Elijah lived in; the other one is where he hid out after killing the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18-19), report the traditions…

I am not knocking the varied interpretations and understandings of holiness or their connections to history but instead wondering about how we perceive and understand what is holy. How do we know that we are walking on holy ground or breathing in a holy place? Does something have to be connected to a biblical figure, a religious text or an oral history to be holy? And if it is connected, must it automatically be holy? Elijah killed 450 prophets of Baal and then fled to go and hide, holy?

What if the assertion of one’s groups understanding of holy conflicts or even somehow harms another group? What happens when defending all that is holy becomes something riddled with mockery, manipulation, strife, and violence? Are we then making what was once holy … un-holy?

As much as I continue to enjoy walking through these various interpretations of holy, taking in their beauty, mystery and lore, I can’t help but think about the history and theology of each of these holy places that led them to be considered holy by some or many … and with those thoughts come to the tenuous reality that the holy and the un-holy seem to be inextricably intertwined …

Full Moon

Jesus you are everywhere…I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard about Jesus while visiting a Swami when we took a stop on our 14 km Hindu pilgrimage walk around the Mountain of Shiva from 8 PM – 1 AM with about 500,000 other pilgrims. Unbelievable! I was blown away…

I was planning and looking forward to this Full Moon walk (which happens during every full moon.) I had heard it was a mass of prayerful people walking, walking, walking barefoot, quietly sometimes singing, orderly but in mass, and that it was something you have to see to believe. My “advisers” were right.

The official map, which you do NOT need, because everyone is going in the same direction (actually you will have a rather difficult time going the opposite because of the volume of people – you just have to keep moving) … anyway the map lists about 40 holy sites along the way, you can stop at any, all or none of them. We made a few stops, not many but clearly the highlight was visiting with Suriyalingam Swami, a Brahmin priest (Hindu.)

He invited us all into his home which was a room of maybe 7 x 10 feet with no furniture; he already had three other men sitting with him. All nine of us, a pastor, a priest, theological students and volunteers, came in and sat on the floor with them.

We’d all barely settled on the floor when the prayer and praise of Jesus began. Suriyalingam Swami claimed that Jesus might be saying to us (the collective us) “I am looking for you, why are you not looking for me?” He retold the story of a crucified Christ beautifully and with passion. He led us in the Lord’s Prayer and asked that we come to visit him again because when we do, we bring Jesus to him.

Jesus you are everywhere.

Differently Together

Even with all that I don’t understand and find downright puzzling about Hindu Temples and Ashrams, I have still found them to be surprisingly inclusive and welcoming … welcoming to the tourist, the spiritual seeker and those of every faith. Since I have been in India, I’ve been welcomed, blessed and fed by residents and caretakers of Ashrams and even prayed for by name by a Brahmin Priest. None of this was done to gain favor or to convert me, but instead because we meet strangers and friends on the journey of life, why not welcome them …?

For your presence is a blessing and your presence is an offering; not in the way that one should never give or support but in the way that a relationship is nurtured in presence; presence to others and presence to God.

I have met devout Christians who live in ashrams here in Tiruvannamalai as unquestioned Christian members of the community. I am intrigued by a space like an Ashram (which might be more akin to a retreat center or meditation space, it is not a Temple or a church.) Ashrams allow a space to be differently together seeking God.

I wonder if more followers of different faiths could seek God differently together, maybe we wouldn’t fight about our different faiths and understandings through violence, judgment and hate … maybe we could instead be more of a blessing to each other.

A wall inside the Quo Vadis Interfaith Dialogue Center.

The Arunachaleshwar Temple in the middle of Tiruvannamalai. Looks something like an Old Testament description of a temple…

The rather popular, with the Westerners and Indians alike, Sri Ramanasramam Ashram.