Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pilgrims' Progress In The Church Of All Churches

You come to Jerusalem a few times, and you actually have people to look up. On Tuesday afternoon Kathy and I went first to the Armenian Quarter and Sami Barsom's tailor shop. He was making tea for a visitor, the Rev. Shemun Can, assistant to the Syriac Orthodox archbishop in Jerusalem, and he invited us to join them.

I'd met Sami twice before. He was gracious enough to say he remembered, if not my name, the shape of my face. While we sat and talked, he waved at two Orthodox Jews who walked past his shop and warmly greeted an Arab who came in to introduce his fiancee. When they left, Sami smiled and said, "He said he met me 10 years ago and asked if I remembered him."

The muchtar, or top lay leader, of Jerusalem's Syriac Orthodox, Sami prides himself on talking to everyone. A recently published collection of his articles for the Jerusalem diocese's magazine contains pictures showing him practicing his faithful personal diplomacy with prominent Israelis and Palestinians alike. "We follow Jesus Christ," Sami says, "and he calls us to be in peace with one another. So what else can I do?"

It isn't that he hasn't experienced the alternative. Both his and Fr. Shemun's families fled Turkish persecution in 1915, when, as Sami told us, Assyrians and other ethnic groups were engulfed in the Armenian Genocide. "The Turks said, 'They're all like the Armenians, they're all the same'," Sami said with a dismissive wave. His family settled in west Jerusalem and moved to the Jordan-controlled Old City, he said, in the aftermath of Israel's 1948 war of independence.

Fifty-one years ago, he opened his tailor shop right around the corner from St. Mark's Church, seat of Jerusalem's Syriac Orthodox archbishop and one of the places touted (as reliably as by anyone else) as the site of the Last Supper. Most of his customers, he said, are Anglicans and Episcopalians. Among the consequences of his abundant hospitality is that most of them probably abandon any thought they may have had about negotiating a price. We left with a handmade green stole (good for the whole season between Pentecost and Advent) and some extra gifts from Sami, including something for the St. John's Altar Guild as well as a postcard containing the Lord's Prayer as set down in Fr. Shemun's exquisite Syriac Aramaic calligraphy.

Our inevitable next stop was the irresistible Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where we watched an elaborate Epiphany mass at Christ's tomb that looked as though it was being overseen by none other than His Holiness Karekin II, supreme patriarch and catholicos of the Armenian Orthodox Church (that's he in the background in the above right photo, with the black hood and crosier).

After Kathy got another chance to say a prayer inside the Edicule, we ran across a procession of friars that was moving from chapel to chapel around this most mysterious and chaotic of churches. Among them was a distinguished-looking priest who put us in the mind of our two-year-old promise to try to say hello to the Rev. Fergus Clarke, Jerusalem-based buddy of my friend and church history professor Charlie Frazee. Making our way to the Franciscans' corner of the church, we asked about Fr. Fergus and learned that, sure enough, that was he in the holy procession. So we waited, listening as the Latin chant echoed through the church, coming closer minute by minute. Just as they swung toward the entrance of Christ's tomb carrying their candles and amid swirling incense, an organ began to play in support of their plainchant, as glorious a moment of liturgy as I've ever experienced.

The monks offered two more rounds of prayer, including a highly ritualized censing of the Mary Magdalene chapel and the veneration of the consecrated elements in the Chapel of the Sacrament next door. Fr. Fergus (at left in the above right photo) welcomed us graciously in the sacristy and cheerfully admitted he knew Charlie from his days as a parish priest at St. Joseph's in Placentia, California. Indeed he said he'd mailed him a letter that very morning. He said a blessing over us and my new stole and invited us back to see him, and we marveled again at how we felt so at home in this faraway place where God seems so close.

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