North, South, East or West?
Thoughts for December from Shirley Rowlandson
Ever since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated by those “faraway places with strange sounding names”; the opulent Orient, the colourful Caribbean, the mystical Middle and Far East, the majestic Mediterranean and the amazing Americas.
With my husband and family, I have been fortunate to have visited many of these places and am very grateful for the opportunities afforded to me. On cold dark nights, I can take out my memory book and once more soar over the Nile river at sunrise in a hot air balloon (never again!); I can leave my stomach behind and take a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon for a champagne breakfast (never, ever again!!), fish for piranha on the Amazon river, view the Amalfi coast from spectacular Ravello, savour a Singapore sling in the magnificent Raffles Hotel and walk the Nevsky Prospect in beautiful St. Petersburg. There have been serious moments too, particularly the eerie stillness of Auschwitz/Birkenau and the grim remnants of the Berlin wall.
I am sometimes asked to name my favourite destination; not an easy one to answer. If pressed, I would have to say that the country which always calls me back is Italy and the city which captures my heart is Venice; it is breathtaking and unique.
However, were you to ask me “where did my soul stir and my spirit sing?”, then the answer is clear. Nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of Jerusalem seen from a vantage point on the Mount of Olives high above the Garden of Gethsemane. The city shimmers golden in the heat, as the familiar bible stories come to life. Jerusalem is an assault on the senses, a cacophony of the most wonderful sounds, sights and smells; the crowded Via Dolorosa, the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are just some of the places where you can walk in the footsteps of Jesus and his disciples.
In stark contrast, the Galilee with Capernaum, the Church of the Beatitudes and the Baptismal site on the River Jordan is a haven of tranquillity.
Visiting the different aspects of the country of Christ’s birth, life and death was very special but the defining moment for me, especially at this time of year, was in the crypt of St. Jerome in Bethlehem. Set beneath St. Catharine’s Church, next to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square it is where the Holy Family hid before their flight to Egypt.
We were a disparate group of fellow travellers with different beliefs, religions and race but when, led by our Jewish guide Moshe, we sang together the lovely carol Silent Night, we were united by a common bond of peace which transcended our differences.
On reflection I was reminded of a story written by a journalist friend of the late, great Mohammed Ali. One Christmas Day Ali telephoned his friend to wish him a happy Christmas; Ali’s friend commented it was ironic that a Muslim was wishing a Jew the joys of a Christian festival and he added, “ there is a message there if anyone cares to listen “. How right he was!!
Would that the world might listen and remember the true message of Christmas brought to us by the Babe of Bethlehem on that first silent, holy night so many years ago.
May our Christmas be blessed and joyful and our New Year be filled with love and hope.