ISA Organizes a talk on the Spirituality of the Holy Land

The Institute of Spirituality in Asia (ISA) held a public lecture on the theme “A  Spirituality of the Holy Land: Images of the Holy Land.”  The event  was held on May 14, 2016 –  a  day before Pentecost Sunday – at the Titus Brandsma Center in New Manila, Quezon City.

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Mr. Mark David Walsh, a facilitator of biblical studies, faith formation, and adult education, served as  resource person. Since 2009 he has been a visiting faculty member at the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies (IFRS), Quezon City, and spent 2011 living in the Philippines.

Walsh is completing graduate studies in theology and went to Bat Kol Institute, Jerusalem.  A resident of that city, he is an associate of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion and works at their Centre for Biblical Formation there. He has just been appointed program coordinator for their English Language programs.

Present-day Holy Land covers Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Syria but the speaker said that for the past 2,000 years, it has had Christians coming as pilgrims following the footsteps of Christ. Earlier than that – since the time of the first temple – Christ’s fellow Jews have been journeying to Jerusalem.

What makes the land holy, and how  can biblical text and the traditions for interpreting them  help people understand the Holy Land? And how can non-pilgrims make a pilgrimage of the heart and mind in their own land, which is also holy?

“The land and the people have been shaped by the Bible,” said Walsh, “and the Holy Land has shaped the Biblical text and the  people who lived there – and us sometimes, without we knowing it. This talk is from the Holy Land to the holiness of the land.”

Described in his curriculum vitae as a keen walker and photographer, the resource speaker used pictures from his walking tours and travels, as well as maps, editorial cartoons, biblical verses, quotations from Thomas Merton and Alan Watts (among others); hymns and songs such as one by Woody Guthrie (Holy Ground);  and moments of interactions among the participants themselves.

Walsh used pictures of the wilderness looking down the Dead Sea to show the influence of the land on King David writing Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”). David having been a shepherd himself, at times he also had to rescue his sheep from the wilderness and hills of what is now modern-day Jordan, once a part of Palestine.

`Though I walk in the shadow of thevalley of death…’ can be exemplified by the picture of a dark valley which has a shadow even in midday.

Walsh pointed out, “There is not much life in the hills and wilderness there, but there is life because of water in the springs and rivers which mark them. `By restful waters he lays me… ‘

It was in the wilderness of Beer-sheba where the prophet Elijah, a warrior of God who triumphed over the 400 prophets of Baal but who was hounded by Jezebel, fled. 

“This is Sinai in Egypt,” said Walsh, “and in a cave, Elijah fasted but was awakened by an angel who asked, `What are you doing here, Elijah?’ This question of God is also important for all of us, and we should reflect on it.”

Elijah looked for God In the wind, earthquake and fire but found the Eternal in a gentle breeze – or in some other texts, in sheer silence or in a voice of fragile silence.  According   to Walsh, the wilderness may be the only place quiet enough for one to hear the voice of God.

“Awe and wonder at creation begins with the cessation of activity,” Walsh explained, “and a spirituality of the Holy Land needs moments to stop and behold what is present and to see what is beyond the edge of the screen, as in photography. Something sacred is always afoot but we often miss the moment. No space is free of God. A sense of spirituality of awe and wonder makes us aware of God in all things. This is the call of mystics.”

The land is the fifth Gospel, it has been said, and Walsh traced along maps of the bodies of water the places where Jesus had undertaken his ministry.

“Galilee was fertile and a place of healing because of hot springs thousands of years old, and a third of the Gospel had Jesus healing people. He was in touch with his environment, and many of the stories on him had to do with agriculture. He was a person of the land.”

It was in Caesarea Philippi – a city built by a son of King Herod at the base of Mt. Hermon, the source of snow which fed a number of rivers –where Jesus asked Peter,  “Who do people say I am?’

“This question is also for the person reading Mark 8: 20-30,” explained Walsh. “It is the same as `What are you doing here, Elijah?’ ”

It was also in Caesarea Philippi where Jesus said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church… “ which, according to Walsh, signals papal history  and also the search for the divine in the history of the created world as God asks, “Am I something more powerful and transcending empire?”

Walsh also cited God’s creation of Adam – a word which can also mean breath or spirit (adamah) – and of God’s embracing Moses (who had led the Israelites from slavery to the Promised Land) and then taking the breath of life away from him.

Lastly, Walsh referred to God being in the burning bush and asking Moses to walk unshod on sacred ground (Exodus 3: 1-10), which could be asked from everyone.

He also quoted Leviticus’ admonitions to treat everyone, including aliens, justly and fairly “or else the land will vomit you for defiling yourselves.

He pointed out, “Climate change, pollution – the land will not tolerate violence and abusive behavior.” #

Pinky Choudhury