Today, on a boat, in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, we met Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s girlfriend. Actually we met her several days ago but we found out about the Ferlinghetti connection today. Hearkening back to JMHP, Part 2: “God will always surprise us.” -- The Rt. Rev. Sulheil Dawani. Who goes to the Sea of Galilee to meet the girlfriend of, the author of “Coney Island of the Mind, the beat poet who made the other beat poets famous?!?” Werner Heisenberg and Bishop Duwani agree: Reality is, at its heart, unpredictable and delightful.
But that didn’t happen until late afternoon. The day was engaging long before that. Our bus headed East from Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea. At last we came to the desert wilderness I had expected in this Land of the Holy One. It is a “ferocious landscape” (Belden Lane) somewhat similar to Nevada, but distinctive. There are occasional groves of date palms. The dates are used to make honey such as the honey in which John the Baptist dipped his crispy locusts. In the Spring, there are also wildflowers, but basically, ”it’s a desert out there.”
We drove North through that desert, then on through the mountains of Samaria into the rolling green hills of Galilee. At the Sea of Galilee we stopped to visit the Mount of the Beatitudes, a seaside mountain where the Church has long commemorated the Sermon on the Mount. Actually the Sermon on the Mount is a collection of Jesus sayings artistically and theologically arranged by Matthew, but it is a work of spiritual genius and deserves to be commemorated. The beautiful gardens and the octagonal church built to honor the Sermon are fitting.
Venerating holy places is like reading Holy Scripture. Different parts of Scripture must be read in different ways. Some texts are history, others are poetry, some are rules, others are prophecies, and some are cries of passion. Just so, some places are holy for historical reasons. Something important really happened here. Others are holy because of the prayers that have been said there for millennia though no special events are associated with the place. But there is a special dynamic in religion called “sacred geography.” I learned about sacred geography while studying Hinduism from Dianna Eck. A spiritual truth is conveyed through a narrative, which may be historical, fictional, or a mixture “partly truth and partly fiction” – but the point is it contains a spiritual message that cannot be stated as a flat two-dimensional abstraction. It must be expresses as story. There is an art in weaving and telling sacred story. When it is done well, we then go on to construct a sacred geography for the story. We say, “Ram was born in this place.” “The Buddha meditated and was enlightened under the branches of this tree.” “Jesus was born in this place.” If we have designated a place as part of the sacred geography and honored it by association with the story that bears a spiritual truth, the place comes to bear that truth as well. So it is with the Mount of the Beatitudes.
From there we went north, north, north to the borders of Lebanon and then Syria to visit the region of Caesarea Philippi. There are two reasons visiting this place. First, in this area three rivers, fed by the snow melting off the Golan Heights, converge to form the River Jordan. Far be it from me to suggest that this three becoming one is a natural metaphor of the divine nature. Second, this is where Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answered, “ You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God.” I am somewhat mystified by why Jesus took his disciples so far north to ask this question. It would have been one long walk from his home base in Capernaum!!! On another occasion, they walked all the way to the region of Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon – even further. He did cover some distance on foot.
We then headed back south into Galilee and visited Capernaum. There is a ruin of a 4th Century synagogue believed to have been built on top of the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus worked his first exorcism. By the way, my friends of a skeptical bent, recasting Jesus as a wisdom teacher who did not actually do miraculous healings, exorcisms, and other such unscientific things is a case of western modernist cultural imperialism – rewriting the story to fit our worldview, to keep it in our comfort zone. Those who believed in Jesus were unanimous that he worked miracles. No surprise in that. But the people who did not believe in Jesus were also unanimous that he worked miracles. They just denied it was by God’s power he was doing it. When it comes to miracles, I don’t know what’s possible and what’s not. Take it out of my cultural context and I am even less prepared to say what’s impossible. Bottom line: Gabriel said it to my satisfaction, “With God, all things are possible.”
Around the old synagogue are older ruins of houses going back to Jesus’s day. An Orthodox Church is built over one such ruin of a house. The church has a glass floor so one can look down into the ruin. Christians have long regarded this house as the home of Peter’s mother-in-law whom Jesus healed of a fever right after the exorcism in the synagogue. History or more fictional sacred geography? This is somewhere in the middle. Could be true. It’s a house next door to the synagogue. No one can say for sure.
From there we walked down to the rocky beach near the synagogue, which means near the site of the 1st century village of Capernaum. On this beach, the first disciples were mending their nets when Jesus said, “Follow me” and they did. You can’t say the exact spot where their boat was situated, but it’s a short distance along the beach, easy to walk the length of it – easy to know that right along here, the Kingdom Mission began when Jesus said, “Follow me.” That’s history.
Then we took our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. It’s a pretty big lake, as I had imagined it would be. The hills come right up to the lake as I had been told. But those hills are taller and greener than I had imagined, a truly beautiful place. The day was enriched by a good exegetical reflection on the Beatitudes by Brother Mark and a moving reflection on storms in our lives given by Dean Graham Smith while we were on the Lake. And that brings us back to where we met Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s girlfriend.