John Twisleton enjoys a well-written contribution to Christian spirituality which takes the outward phenomena of the Holy Land as the foundations for its probing and challenging meditations
Challenging Questions from the Biblical Landscape Andrew Mayes
SPCK, 141pp, pbk
Just as sacraments engage Christians with Christ via sanctioned materials, so engagement with the terrain of the Holy Land has power to speak to faith and build it up. There is a qualification though, as any pilgrim swiftly discovers, in the unseemly rivalry of religion found there alongside age-old Christian devotion. Andrew Mayes’ book title Holy Land? captures this tension and the book itself draws from the author’s experience of it, through time spent as Director of St George’s College, Jerusalem, as well as his knowledge of Christian spirituality from both historical study and his own experience as a parish priest.
Fr Mayes provides meditations on the land – caves, mountains, lakes, deserts, etc. – and Jerusalem itself as he ‘unlocks holy sparks amid the world’s brokenness’ aiding actual or spiritual pilgrims. It is a well-written book, helpfully structured, with some excellent word pictures of Lake Galilee, the Judean desert, and so on. In dealing with the interfaith tensions the author is just and creative. In his reflections on walls he treats the protective sixteenth-century wall of Suleiman, the Wailing Wall and the contemporary separation barrier before elucidating how walls have been chipped away in the Holy Land historically, as by St Francis, leading into a spiritual challenge to face things that stop us becoming the people God wants us to be.
Experience of dark places in the light of Christ is drawn in as the author treats the caves of Moses, Elijah, Bethlehem and Jesus’ resurrection. A recurring theme is the challenge to look below the surface both in viewing the land around
us and in our own soul. It is significant that St Peter’s invitation to ‘put out into the deep’ (Luke 5.4) is given at the sea side, challenging us to leave behind the security symbolized by land for the uncharted waters associated with deeper discipleship.
Many hymns are based on Holy Land geography. Mayes picks up on the excessive spiritualizing of ‘Away in a Manger’ as he reflects on the plight of Bethlehem’s poor. “I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.’ Perhaps we should be looking down, not up: down to those in the gutter, those who are marginalised and cast out’. In the reflections on mountains their military significance is noted and how the struggle for control of the land today is about capturing control of high ground. Who though is in overall charge? ‘How can the political need to be ‘in control’ be transformed into an attitude of mutual trust and openness to the Other?’
In his reflections on the desert the author draws on his knowledge of the desert fathers to illustrate the spiritual benefits of stillness, silence, detachment and receptivity. Again superficiality, the scourge of all ages, can be purged by solitude permitting, as Merton writes, ‘the gradual emergence of the true secret self in which the believer and Christ are ‘one Spirit”.
‘How can I face the darkness? How far can I forgive? Dare I be alone with God? Am I ready for change? What is my mission?’ These are some of the challenges the reader is faced with in a book that takes the outward and visible phenomena of the Holy Land and makes of their ambiguity a far from ambiguous call to inward and spiritual development and the building up of Christian faith. ND