"Even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ of old." - Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov
May God in the plenitude of his love pour upon you the torrents of his grace, bless you and keep you in his holy fear, prepare you for a happy eternity, and receive you at last into immortal glory. Amen.
The passage back to Westport had
gone quickly, with fair winds and bright skies over the sapphire sea. The
children had watched, entranced, as silver-streaked dolphins danced in the
curling foam around the bow, and as gulls and shearwaters wheeled down in arcs
that nearly traced their wingtips in the water. But more entrancing still was
the presence of their prince, whose dignity and grace filled the ship with an
intoxicating mix of gravity and lightness of spirit, all at the same time.
Prince Halbrinnon had chosen to ride back on the Wellspring along with Kobi, Mack, and the children. And filling the
horizon behind them was the great fleet, their white sails shining in the
sunlight so brightly that the dawn seemed to come from two directions at once.
When they sailed into the harbor of
Westport, they saw the sleepy town spring into action, alarmed at the
approaching armada. Sailors ran back and forth across the docks, and some of
the smaller ships hauled anchor and tried to speed away around the edges before
the great fleet came to rest in the calmness of the bay. But there was no
resistance; no army there to meet them. All was just as they had left it a few
The disembarkation took quite a long
time. With so many ships, it was a full day before all of Prince Halbrinnon’s
army was assembled and ready to march. The children watched all the
arrangements with quiet wonder, and the more they watched, the more the prince’s
greatness was magnified in their eyes. It wasn’t the army that made the prince
seem great, though—it was the fact that even though he came to these shores
with such evident power and authority, there was nevertheless an overwhelming
humility about him. He seemed as simple and gentle and kind as any penniless
shepherd from the hills; and yet he somehow combined that aspect with a regal
majesty that took their breath away.
The journey back to Arrens was far
less eventful than their earlier trip down that same road had been. Whereas the
children had previously encountered dangers at every turn, now, with the prince
beside them, even the dangers seemed to bow down in their presence.
Lady noticed it first. They came to
the barren expanse of the burning lands, and at first they regarded those low,
dusty ravines with fear. The memory of that place was still fresh, and the
terror it invoked welled up inside them as they looked out over the
still-charred countryside. But then something strange happened. First, orders
were given out to ensure that no one in the army struck a spark during the
passage, and then they began to march over the sandy high road. The children
were walking at the head of the column, together with the prince, Mack, and
Kobi. And as they walked, a ripple of color flashed in the corner of Lady’s
vision. The first thought that raced through her mind was that the flames had
been ignited, that she was seeing the orange rush of fire off to the side. But
as she turned her head with a gasp, she realized that it was something else
entirely. A wave of color was indeed sweeping over the ravines, but it wasn’t
fire. It was the gentle opening of a thousand flowers all at once, as their
bright petals radiated out in the bright morning air. Oranges and reds and
yellows were there, just as in the flames, but now other hues too—blues and
greens, purples and pinks, all flashing like radiant jewels. The wave of color
followed them across the canyonlands, as new rows upon rows of wildflowers
pushed up and opened with each step that they took. The boys had seen it now
too, and they watched in wordless wonder as cascades of color washed over the
black and dead horizon. Wherever the prince stepped, life burst out all around
him in a symphony of joy.
They didn’t quite know what to make
of this. They pointed it out to Kobi and Mack, who each drew a sharp breath of
awe as they marveled at the sight, but they had no explanation for it. Then the
children asked the prince, who looked over the rainbow beauty of the fields and
then simply laughed. And when he laughed, a flutter of doves and hummingbirds
appeared, zipping along the verdant tracks of the canyonlands like a thousand
sunsets racing toward their rest.
There was nothing to do but to drink
in the beauty and then march on. So on they marched, and day passed into day.
Everywhere they went, the land around them, which had been hard and deadly only
a few weeks before, now seemed to be a riot of celebration.
And by my calling a homeless wanderer of humblest origin,
Roaming from place to place."
- opening lines of the anonymous 19th-century Russian spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim
~ ~ ~
happened, the place where we were standing was just a stone’s throw from the
traditional site of Simon the Tanner’s house (pictured above). We didn’t go down to it, but it
was clearly marked with writing above the door. It was easy to imagine Peter
embracing his friend down at the end of that little alleyway, tucked back from
the main road; easier still to see him praying on the rooftop and to have the
vision of the unclean animals drop down into his view from the broad blue dome
of the sky, just as the gull had dropped down for me a few moments earlier.
There we were, level with the rooftops, in a city on a hill that overlooked the
sea, and it felt as though the sky was all around us, and at any moment a
celestial vision might break upon our gaze.
paused there to have our first service of worship in the Holy Land. Our trip
had been designed to include short segments of corporate song, prayer, and
reflection at each of the notable sites along the way. And so everywhere we
went, we eleven wayfarers would pause to gather in a circle, sing a hymn, hear
a recitation of a biblical story, and say a short prayer. Each of us had been
assigned two different New Testament stories to narrate during our pilgrimage,
with the exception of Rob and Onus, who, as tour organizers, had a few extras
assigned to them. I had also been thrust into an informal role as a worship
leader; Onus would often ask me to guide the singing. I was happy to do so when
I could—our guidebooks gave us traditional hymns to sing, sometimes with
slightly adapted lyrics, and though I didn’t know all of the selections, we
were able to get through most of the recommended ones. And so I found myself on
a sun-washed street atop Jaffa’s ancient promontory, calling out the notes to “There’s
a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” Onus led the service with a narration of Peter’s
humility I must confess that I labored against my pride and self-will in these
mini-services. Rather than using them as moments of sacred contemplation and
worship, I allowed myself to get hung up on all the things that rubbed me the
wrong way. First, I was irked that the trip made no provision for worshiping
with an actual church community in Palestine, even though we were there over a
Sunday. We were coming to the Holy Land as pilgrims of the risen Lord, and yet
we were ignoring the most sacred locus of his presence in that place: not the
ancient sites, but the living, vibrant Body of Christ. The profoundest, most
deeply spiritual moments of all of my many travels had come as I worshiped and
fellowshiped with my brothers and sisters in Christ from all different corners
of the earth. I longed for a chance to go to church in Israel, and I was
heartsick to think that it wouldn’t happen. I think that was a noble desire.
Unfortunately, though, it led me to resent our little pseudo-services, rather
than trying to enter into them in a spirit of humble receptivity. The second
main thorn of annoyance for me was my brother Onus. Don’t get me wrong; I love
him deeply and was profoundly grateful for his presence. But it’s a difficult
thing to take your brother, with whom you grew up in the fires of pride and
sibling rivalry, and to try to submit yourself to his ministry as a pastor. The
leap from regarding him with the edge of loving, cynical irascibility due to a
know-it-all older sibling, to regarding him as a shepherd of my soul, was
rather a large one to make. And it wasn’t helped by the fact that the other
members of the journey held him in the deepest respect, apparently blind to his
manifest older-brother-ness. So, unfortunately, I had a difficult time entering
into the spirit of our little services, and I can’t say I tried all that hard.
But the fault is mine, and reflects rather poorly on the breadth of my
character. For who can say what richness of experience I missed by holding
myself closed to the graces God might impart through the annoyance of my
brother-pastor and our traveling-marketplace version of a church?
"Thus receiving in a divine revelation the loveliest standard of truth [i.e., the Bible], let us preserve the treasures lying therein, adding nothing to it and in no way diminishing or distorting it. If we watch over the Scriptures we ourselves will be watched over by them, guarding them and being guarded." - (Pseudo) Dionysius the Areopagite, a prominent writer and theologian from the period of the early church fathers (Painting: "Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers," by Antoine Caron, c.1570)
I thank you, Lord, for all the sins which I have not done, because you restrained me. I thank you for the sorrow I have felt for all the sins I have done. I thank you for all the people I have met, both friends and enemies. And I pray for them all, that they may all be your friends.
Those final moments of sailing into the royal harbor were a whirlwind of excitement and expectation. Halbrinnon had shaken off the identity of a solitary traveler, and now he walked with all the authority, dignity, and honor of the Great King's son. The two ships they had taken from Westport sailed smoothly into the harbor, where they took up positions on the front line of the vast royal war-fleet.
Preparations began immediately to sail out again. The Prince disembarked to meet with an official on shore, and he invited the three children to accompany him. After they had been rowed to the end of the longest dock, they climbed up and walked behind the Prince across the boards. One after the other, in single file they came: Prince Halbrinnon, Joe, Sim, and Lady. At the far end of the dock, where the waves met the sandy strip of beach, a single man stood waiting. He was tall and lean-boned, with a long brown beard and a mop of bushy hair. He had a peculiar gleam in his eye as he watched the Prince approach.
Halbrinnon turned to the children. "This is my cousin," he told them, "and a faithful servant of my Father."
The bearded man smiled kindly at them, then turned his attention back to the Prince. "Are you ready?"
"I am," said the Prince, bowing his head.
The man reached out a hand and placed it on the crown of Halbrinnon's head, then closed his eyes and breathed out a whispered prayer. When he was done, he reached into a leather satchel that was slung around his side and produced a gleaming silver helmet. It was a beautiful, glimmering piece of armor, which swept up into a hard yet graceful peak. And around the circle of the top of the helmet ran the golden frame of a royal crown, built into the armor itself. The crown was crafted with long, flowing lines and studded with precious jewels. It was clearly the helmet of a great war-leader, and just as clearly the sign of a rising king.
"Go forth," said the cousin, as he placed the helmet on Halbrinnon's head, "in the love of your Father, and in the power of his kingly spirit."
The Prince raised his head and looked into his cousin's eyes with a fierce and powerful love. "Thank you, friend," he said, reaching out to grasp the other man's shoulder with a strong grip of brotherly affection.
Then he turned, drew a deep breath, and looked back out to sea, with the fleet of ships riding calmly up and down on the waves before him. His eyes flitted down to the three children standing there, regarding him with unhidden awe.
"My loyal adventurers," he said, kneeling down to share the level of their gaze. "Sir Mack told me a few minutes ago that he made you royal squires of the King's house."
"That's right!" said Sim. "He wanted to show us what it meant to be a knight like him."
"But he said he can't make people knights," Lady added. "Only squires. But that's okay; we like being squires."
"Indeed," the Prince smiled. "From what I've heard, you three have proved to be better than any other squires Sir Mack ever served with. And with your permission, I would like you to come into my personal service."
"You mean that instead of being Sir Mack's squires, we would be your squires?" Joe asked.
The Prince nodded. "Mack has already given his permission. In fact, he told me as we were sailing in that you have really been my squires from the very beginning, always with your hearts set on finding me. So, yes, you would be the three squires of the Prince of Arrens. And, what's more, I hope that you would also be my friends."
"We're already your friends!" Sim laughed. "How could we not be?"
Halbrinnon broke into a broad grin. "Just so. So will you follow me?"
"To the ends of the earth!" said Joe bravely, his eyes suddenly bright with tears.
"And even farther!" Sim added.
"Prince Hal, I would follow you anywhere," said Lady. "Anywhere and everywhere, forever and ever and ever."
"And I," said the Prince, "I will always keep you with me. Forever and ever and ever."
He held out his hand, and the three children placed their hands atop his.
“Count all the years of your life, my friend, and if you are
anything less than a century old, I will pledge you my word you have not lived
in all those years so much as I lived in the short time I was in [the Holy Land].”
- William C. Prime, from Tent Life in the Holy Land
~ ~ ~
We still weren’t quite in the Holy Land, properly speaking. We had yet to walk through the null-scape world of an airport terminal, which could just as easily have been in Toledo or Taipei as Tel Aviv. But already the excitement was mounting. I knew the ground beneath my feet was the ancient town of Lydda, the place that gave the world one of its greatest Christian heroes: the mighty and valorous Saint George. With a quick thought to the legacy of the faithful old soldier-martyr, I crossed myself and followed the group through the terminal. And there, as if in a special act of welcome designed particularly for me, I saw my first of Israel’s many fabulous ancient relics: a giant stone mosaic layered with intricate images of birds. I gave a smile and continued on. We had to go through the tiresome rigmarole of passport control, baggage claim, and customs—an experience in the way other cultures don’t always share American concern for fairness and expediency (I was frustrated to find that I ended up in the one passport line among a dozen that was moving at a tenth the speed of all the others). But after all that was done, we were escorted out to the waiting area, where our tour guide (whom we’ll call Norah) gave a brief welcome and led us out into the streaming sunlight of the Palestine sky.
It was bright and warm and reminded me of Africa. A silvery little bus was waiting for us by the curb, and behind it a row of flowering bushes brightened up the concrete pillars of the arrivals lane. But the first thing my eyes went to, naturally, were the birds. I was three seconds in the Holy Land, and had already seen three new species: zipping over the concrete barrier, the unmistakable flash of a Red-rumped Swallow; and there, flying over the pillars, the familiar shape of a corvid, but with a striking gray cloak slung about its shoulders—a Hooded Crow; and then a flurry of motion as three yellow-gilded, starling-esque birds danced around the tires of a row of parked trucks—Common Mynas. I had pored over my field guide of Middle Eastern birds and had researched the most likely sightings at each location of our trip, but I had set my expectations fairly low. Since I knew that all my birding would have to be done “on the fly” as it were, in and around the planned activities of the tour, I was thinking that I could hope to get about twenty new species: at least ten, or I would be disappointed, and I would be very happy to get thirty. But this initial burst of birds, the very second I stepped out of the terminal, gave me an inkling that I might have set my hopes a bit too low.
While the bus pulled away from the airport, we were introduced to our guide and driver via a microphone system onboard. Norah, an Israeli woman of about fifty, had a sharply intelligent gaze and a pleasant, rambling frankness in the way she talked. Our driver (whom we'll call Najji), although he knew a bit of English, was a striking contrast to Norah’s loquacity. He looked to be in his thirties, and he had a bright smile that carried winsome hints of shyness. He was a Palestinian who had grown up in Jerusalem, and it quickly became evident what an asset it would be to our experience of the Holy Land to have our two closest companions come from both the Jewish and Palestinian communities. They both worked for a local company, Near Eastern Tours, owned by a Palestinian Christian family which prioritized hiring from all sides of Israeli society. Norah was secular in her personal beliefs, but she had a deep and evident sympathy for matters of faith, as well as an extensive knowledge of both the Jewish and Christian legacies of that land. I’m not certain whether Najji was a religious man, but I got the impression that he was—but whether a Christian or a Muslim, I could not say. I did my best to engage him with some of the Arabic greetings I remembered from my mission service in North Africa more than a decade before—a gesture that made him glow with pleasure—but our interactions did not go much deeper than that. Both of our partners were kind and skillful in their vocation, and their presence was a continual blessing along the way.
Our first stop, a short drive from Ben Gurion airport, was the old city of Jaffa (Joppa). Its aged brown buildings clustered on a prominent hill that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea—one of the few high points along that coastline, and no doubt originally built for its defensible position. The current structures only dated back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire (I say “only,” since that era is yesterday in the history of Palestine, but of course all of those buildings are older than pretty much everything in my home state of Maine.) The aspect of the town, however, had probably not changed much in three millennia of its existence. It was easy to imagine the Prophet Jonah slinking down the narrow streets toward the quay, hoping to avoid the watchful eye of God; or Peter enjoying the hospitality of Simon the Tanner and gazing out over the foam-crested waves from the flat rooftop of his house.
Najji pulled our bus to the curb near the high point of the old city, where we disembarked and began to look around. I had written a scene or two set in Jaffa when I was a teenager, penning an adventure story set amid the battles of the Third Crusade. I tried to imagine the city as it had looked with defensive battlements on every side and the armies of Europe encamped around it, and with my hero Martin looking up at the old town with a curious and conflicted gaze.
But then something interrupted my reveries: a gull floated by above my head, and I knew it at a glance from my study—Yellow-legged Gull, species number four. And then a White-spectacled Bulbul in a tree across the street—five. And then a pair of turtle-doves and a laughing dove—six and seven. No, I had seen laughing doves in North Africa, so it wasn’t a new species. The count was still six.
All the while, my tour group was doing something that I was supposed to be paying attention to. They had gathered around Norah as she explained some of the history and notable sites of the ancient town. I was surprised and bemused to hear that it was reputed to be the site of the fantastical legend wherein Perseus rescued Andromeda, who had been lashed to a rock by the seaside and guarded by a dragon. Perhaps it was fitting that the town that saw the unchaining of that mythical captive was also the one that saw the binding chains of race and nationality drop away—the chains that had kept Jonah from going to Nineveh and which had made Peter surprised to hear of a Gentile’s faith. But here the call of freedom to both Nineveh and the Gentiles found its voice, and the old dragon that wanted to keep the peoples of the world bound felt the sword of God’s grace.