Have you ever found yourself looking around at your surroundings, unsure of how you got there? You find yourself wondering if this was a bizarre dream cooked up by an overworked brain and an active imagination.
Well even if you haven’t, I have.
Over the past two years I’ve moved 3000 miles across the globe to a new country, learnt a new language, immersed myself in a new culture, and, as of time of writing, spent almost two years in the military.
That’s enough to make anyone pinch themselves a couple of times.
The other day I experienced just one of these moments, and it was profound enough for me to try and put it down into words.
On Thursday September 26th I stood on a rooftop as the sun set over the old city of Jerusalem, singing Oseh Shalom (the Jewish prayer for peace) with a group of 20 people I had only met an hour before.
But it wasn’t just any group, and it wasn’t just any rooftop.
I found myself in the middle of a group of Jews, Christians and Muslims, standing on the roof of King David’s Tomb, all of us there for one reason. To pray together, learn from one another, and set aside differences in order to celebrate similarities.
Praying Together in Jerusalem is a monthly event where people of all religions gather together to learn, pray, and reflect, whilst in the company of those they may not usually have the opportunity to meet or talk to. When my friend asked me if I wanted to go with him to their September event I agreed, although uncertain of what exactly I was agreeing to.
After all, how can praying actually bring people together? Especially in a city such as Jerusalem, where religion has been the central focus of many tense clashes over the millenia?
But almost as soon as the event started I understood. On the walk over from Jaffa Gate I found myself talking to an American sent over by his church to volunteer in Israel for a year. I discovered that we didn’t even live that far from each other, and yet, we both lead totally different lives here. Whilst I am in the army completing my mandatory military service, he is living in Tantur, a Christian Sabbatical and Education centre near Gilo.
However, as I discussed his favourite place in Israel with him, and English Literature with his wife, it felt no different from any other conversation I have on a daily basis, because really, it wasn’t any different at all.
As the event started and we all split off into different areas of the rooftop to pray, I reflected for a second on where I was standing.
Here I was on the roof of David’s Tomb, arguably the most famous king of Ancient Israel and of the Jewish Tribes at the time. A clear evening gives a view all the way to the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa, the holiest Islamic sites in Israel. And The Tomb itself is nestled between various churches, visited on a daily basis by the large Christian population of Jerusalem.
It was here that I understood the exact significance of interfaith prayer. It is not in fact, a highlight of the differences between us. It is a celebration of all that brings us together, despite our differences.
Jerusalem is an ancient city, fought over time and time again by the three Abrahamic religions, all of us claiming it as ours. It has been the site of violence, confrontation and tension since time began. It has been besieged, attacked, captured, and recaptured, as we all lay claim to it in equal part. And yet despite this, it thrives, the three ancient faiths managing to live side by side, a delicate web of past and present tensions, swaying in the wind, held together only by the continued wish for peace.
As the sun began to set, the Muslim call to prayer rang out across the city, worshippers beginning to gather for their evening prayers. The Church bells harmonised alongside, clear and loud from all sides. And if you listened closely enough, somewhere far below a shofa was blown, reminding the Jews of the city to turn inwards to themselves as the Days of Repentance approached.
A mirror image of the city surrounding us, we gathered together once again, separate prayers finished. With the Jewish New Year fast approaching, a short explanation of how each faith views the New Year was given over, a representative of each religion explaining what it means to them.
The evening was finished with a silent moment of reflection, and a singing of Oseh Shalom, the prayer for peace.
In Oseh Shalom we ask for peace to be granted to all people. The chance for peace lies in all of us. It lies in the smallest moments, in the conversations between people we wouldn’t usually find ourselves talking to. It lies in opening our eyes to the skyline of our city, in appreciating the ancient mix of cultures that make Jerusalem the beautiful, precarious place that it is.
We currently stand at the twilight edge of the year, and everything hangs in the balance. The world is a more uncertain place than ever, with powerful people on all sides deepening rifts instead of building bridges. The next year stretches out before us, a blank page waiting to be filled. How we choose to fill it is up to us. Will we allow the rifts to deepen? Or will we choose to pick ourselves up and build bridges across the divide? Will we survey the view of ancient Jerusalem with love, or with hatred? Will we embrace the differences or fight to erase those we don’t agree with?
And as the symphony of the Jerusalem evening played itself out for me on that ancient rooftop on Thursday night I realised that in order to keep the three part harmony as strong as it has always been, I must become a part of it, actively weave myself into the centuries old tune instead of simply surveying it from the side.
My wish for the New Year is to be part of more opportunities to make the smallest of changes in the tiniest of places. To celebrate the similarities instead of fighting over the differences. And most importantly, over 350 sunsets await us in the year to come. Over 350 chances to watch the shifting skylines of Jerusalem, and to listen to the hypnotising harmony of an ancient city crying for peace. May we all find these moments in the year to come, and only find beauty and hope, not hatred and anger, in the holiest city in the world.