My Encounter with Gates in the Holy Land

Debbie Allen is a current M.Div. student. She attended the recent pilgrimage to the Israel and Palestine region organized by CRCDS, entitled "The Holy Land and Its People." Below is the short version of an essay Debbie wrote following the trip that is adapted for public reading.

What happens when we walk through a gate? Who are we before we enter the gate and who do we become on the other side? How does the gate change us? In June, I had an opportunity to pass through many gates on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land led by CRCDS professors Melanie Duguid May and Mark Brummitt. Gates became a lens through which I could begin to understand what I was seeing and experiencing.

PALESTINE-BETHLEHEM-NIGHTIt was at Tel Megiddo that I first encountered the significance of gates. As we climbed to the top of this wind-blown hill where more than 20 cities were constructed over the course of 5,000 years, I was taken by the magnificence of its location on what was once known as the Via Maris, the international highway leading from Egypt to Mesopotamia. The immensity of the deep blue sky and the expansive view out over the Jezreel Valley were exhilarating. Our first stop was at the city gates. Tina, our guide, spoke about the importance of the gates not only for defensive purposes, but also as a social space, a market place, a place of judgment and execution, as well as a place of shrines. She mentioned biblical stories in which city gates were prominent, among them Proverbs 1:21 in which Wisdom cries out at the busiest corner, the entrance of the city gates; Ruth 4:1 in which Boaz goes to the gate to redeem the estate of Elimelech so that he can receive Ruth to be his wife; and II Samuel 18:24, 33 in which David sits between the two gates, waiting for tidings of his son, Absalom, and then goes up to the chamber over the gate to weep when he learns of Absalom’s death. These stories added to the richness of gate imagery, but it was Tina’s description of the gate as an ambivalent and a liminal space that captivated me. The gate was ambivalent, she said, because it was, at the same time, an entrance that provided access and the place of greatest weakness and vulnerability to invasion. It was liminal because it was a space between the inner and the outer worlds, a place of transition for travelers in which they briefly belonged to neither world and were therefore open and unprotected. The actual stone remains of the Megiddo gates no longer conveyed might or power, but in my imagination, I recreated their former stature and envisioned lively scenes of human activity moving in and out through this passageway.

The Old City in Jerusalem gave me many opportunities to walk through gates and experience the shift that takes place from one side to the other. Entering the Muslim Quarter through the Damascus Gate for the first time was like stepping into an alternate universe. Outside the gate, the streets were filled with the normal chaos of city traffic and merchants selling their goods with lovely views out over the hills in the background. On the other side of the gate, we were pressed up against each other in mysterious, dark, narrow alleyways covered with vaulted ceilings and lined with shops on both sides selling brightly colored fabrics, fresh fruits and vegetables, and pungent spices. Everything and everyone was in motion and resisting the flow of human commerce was futile, if not dangerous. Our exit that day was from the Jewish Quarter through the Dung Gate, a much smaller gate that was widened by the Jordanians to allow cars to pass. One theory attributes the name of this gate to the ashes from Temple rituals that were deposited outside the city walls. Another theory claims that the area around the gate was a local rubbish dump. At the Dung Gate, the contrast between inner and outer was different because of its proximity to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, holy sites for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. As we passed through the gate, we left behind a space infused with ritual and longing and entered a cosmopolitan world in which people seemed oblivious to the spiritual. The gate marked a dichotomy between sacred and secular that is frequently evident in modern society.

D-ALLENWe experienced a more sobering kind of gate in Bethlehem and Hebron where we had to pass through checkpoints. Checkpoints, like gates, serve as passageways in which decisions are made about who can and cannot enter. From Israel’s point of view, they act as a defensive strategy that carefully screens for individuals who are seen as a threat to Israel’s security. The fact that anyone can be turned back at a checkpoint gives the Israeli government power and control over everyone who enters its space. For Palestinians, the need to pass through checkpoints makes travel, work, education, and other aspects of everyday life overwhelmingly difficult, if not impossible. Many workers given permission to pass through the Gilo checkpoint in Bethlehem must arrive around 4 a.m. every day in order to get to their jobs in Israel on time. Often delays are caused by the number of gates opened by soldiers within the checkpoint and the frequency with which gates are closed. Going to work under these circumstances is not sustainable over time and has led to high unemployment rates in Bethlehem. While it was not a problem for us to pass through these checkpoints, it was deeply troubling to witness the dehumanizing impact of restrictions imposed on Palestinians. This experience led me to reflect on the question of how safety can be maintained without violating human rights, a very relevant question in the United States as well.

After visiting the traditional holy sites in Bethlehem and strolling through the market place, we had the profound experience of spending time in the Aida Refugee Camp that was established in 1950. To enter the camp, we passed through what is known as the Gate of Return, a large red arch with a huge key on top referred to as the Key of Return. The gate and key, as well as the graffiti words and pictures covering the eight meter high wall, expressed both lament and hope–lament over the Palestinians’ loss of community, family networks, and sense of place, but also the strong conviction that Palestinians have the right to return to their homes and the land from which they have been separated, and hope that return will become a reality. This message was brought to life by a young Palestinian man named Ali who passionately shared his story with us. His words evoked deep sadness and anger over all that he and his people had endured. I wondered what could be done to change these intolerable conditions and how those of us who were hearing and seeing these things could contribute to that change.

In preparation for our journey to St. Katherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, I decided to read passages from The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus who lived from the second half of the 6th century into the 7th and became the abbot of the monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai. It was in The Ladder that I discovered a reference to gates describing an internal, spiritual state rather than an external reality. In addition to other qualities, wrote John, monastic life requires stillness in body and soul. This can only be achieved by closing “the door of your cell to your body, the door of your tongue to talk, and the gate within to evil spirits….” Eastern Orthodox bishop and theologian, Kallistos Ware, interprets this to mean that the sanctuary of the heart must be attained by focusing our thoughts and desires and concentrating on a single point. The monks of St. Katherine’s have chosen to live in the rugged and barren landscape of the Sinai Desert in order to cultivate a single-pointed commitment to Christ. As my camel carried me up the dark, steep slope of Mt. Sinai to watch the sun rise, I pondered the difficulty of keeping “the gate within” open to new experiences and understanding, but closed to that which scatters our attention and weakens the claim God makes on our lives.

American poet, William Stafford, writes, "There’s a thread you follow. It goes among/ things that change. But it doesn’t change." Now that our pilgrimage is over, I feel challenged to discover and nurture the thread that is emerging in response to conflict and beauty, harsh realities as well as inspiring people and beautiful landscapes. Deep impressions were made. Now it is time to find the narrow gate that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:13-14). The wide gate, we are told, is easy, but leads to destruction. The narrow gate is hard, but leads to life. I pray that God will enable us all to find a way through the narrow gate that leads to peace and justice in the Holy Land.