Last weekend, my husband and I escaped Israel to Athens for a weekend of rest and respite. I say guiltily because our country is bleeding, our soldiers are dying, hundreds of thousands are living like refugees in their own land, and our children are fighting this war for us. But we needed to go. We’d each just lost a parent, and we needed to gasp in some fresh air before we drowned.
We spent the days wandering around the narrow streets of the city, walking for miles and miles, stopping only to rest on peeling iron chairs to sip coffee or eat a souvlaki. At night, we got lost in the flickering lights that heralded the coming of Christmas, strung gaily across trees and streetlights. Athenians came out in droves to shop for gifts, squeezing their bodies and bags into these narrow streets, walking up and down with sleepy children who gazed in awe at the lights, the crowds, and the huge bunches of helium balloons found on every street corner.
And I got angry. Irrationally, yes, but angry just the same. I was angry that these people could laugh and celebrate and do mundane things like shop for the holidays while, just two hours away, my country was howling in pain. The more we walked that night, the angrier I got, until I felt the crowds closing in on me. I felt lightheaded and claustrophobic. I needed out.
And just as I felt I was about to faint, the crowd seemed to open up for a moment, and I found myself standing in front of a modest stone building, the wooden doorway illuminated by a gentle yellow light above it. But what drew my eye through the door was the light of hundreds of flickering candles. The sight was almost primal, and I felt my entire soul from within pulling my body through that door. I knew I needed to be in that place, at that time.
I entered the church apprehensively. At first, I was disappointed to find that many others had had the same idea and were seeking refuge from the manic crowds outside. There were Japanese tourists clicking away at the magnificent ceilings and aaahing rather loudly about the beautiful stained-glass windows. Families were moving from alter to alter, crossing themselves in front of statues, and urging little children to say Amen. There were too many people crammed into a building this small, and I could feel my heart racing again. I looked around and saw a dark, quiet area of the church, away from the crowds but with a clear view of the main floor. There were five chairs in the area, and I sank into the one farthest from the opening, so that I felt myself melting into the darkness and the silence. My heart steadied, and I found myself breathing in the tranquility of my private, sacred corner. My eyes moved across the ceiling, taking in the colorful murals of saints and angels, of holy men and holier babies. I was so absorbed in this beautiful artwork that I was startled to hear the weary sigh coming from a bearded man sitting on a chair in front of me. I recognized him as the priest I’d watched earlier, moving around the church in his black cassocks and the stiff cylindrical kalmavkion head covering, speaking softly to the many people who approached him, fondly tousling the hair of little children, and making the sign of the cross more times than I cared to count.
In the dark, the elderly priest looked no different from a rabbi, and I recognized instantly that the low tone of unrecognizable words coming from his mouth was a prayer. I sat there in silence, watching him, not wanting to disturb his prayers. He must have felt my eyes on him because he turned around and stared back.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“You’re not intruding,” he said in a heavy Greek accent in a voice that sounded like it was coming from deep within a cavern. “If anything, I am intruding on your prayer.”
I remained silent.
“Please continue,” he said. “I am sitting here only to take a rest from the congregation. But I will pray for my congregation from here.”
“And I am praying for peace in Jerusalem,” I blurted.
I don’t know where that came from. I wasn’t praying for anything until I opened my mouth to him. Since October 7th, God and I weren’t the best of friends, and if I said anything to Him, they were usually words of anger and hurt.
Yet there, in that dark sanctuary, in that foreign land, in front of a clergyman that wasn’t of my religion or culture, I found my heart crying out for peace in Jerusalem. For the return of children to their mothers’ arms. For the safety of soldiers. For tears to dry up. For happy music to play in the desert once more. For the traumatized hearts of my people to feel whole and content once more.
I found myself sobbing silently. The candlelight swam in front of me through a haze of tears that dropped from my burning eyes, so that I felt like I was surrounded by a sea of soft yellow light.
The priest looked at me for a long moment. Then he sat down and said in a low whisper. “Then I will pray for peace in Jerusalem too.”
We both sat there in silence, broken only by the sound of my hand brushing away the tears, and his weary sighs through his whispered prayers.