“Widening Rings of Being”: Lessons in Humanity from the Holy Land

On a ledge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem lies a small wooden ladder called the “immovable ladder.” Legend has it that in the 1800s, an unknown person accidentally left the ladder there after performing some maintenance work. When it was discovered, the six Christian sects who care for the church (and who had divided the stewardship tasks with bitter dispute) could not determine who should remove the ladder because they did not know to which sect the unknown person belonged, and no sect wanted to anger another. Thus, the ladder remains to this day, a sad symbol of the inability of humankind to transcend pride and human folly, even in one of the holiest places in the world.

This past summer, I was able to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams of spending a semester studying and praying in the Holy Land—a sacred space of profound meaning in the tradition of Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. Moved by the stories I studied in the New Testament, I had wanted to travel to Jerusalem since I was a child, and this desire had grown stronger as I grew in age and faith. It is no wonder, then, that upon my wondering disbelief upon arrival, I could only find expression in the words of Orson Hyde:

My natural eyes, for the first time, beheld Jerusalem, and as I gazed upon it and its environs, the mountains and hills by which it is surrounded, and considered that this is the stage upon which so many scenes of wonder have been enacted where prophets were stoned, and the Savior of sinners slain, a storm of emotions suddenly arose in my breast, the force of which was only spent by a profuse flow of tears.[1]

My first couple of months in Jerusalem were indeed overwhelming—but also in a way I had not fully anticipated. The Holy Land is arguably the most contested piece of land on earth in both ancient and modern times, and the tensions are tangible. At first, I could not find my way out from under the pressing weight of pain and hurt that pervaded the city. It was so strange to feel deep spiritual stirrings at sacred sites such as the sign of the cross while standing next to young Israeli soldiers hauling huge guns, scanning the crowds for signs of violence. The irony was heartbreaking and inexplicable. Often, riots would break out at the Dome of the Rock (a site holy to both Jews and Muslims), or a stabbing would occur just outside the city gates. At these moments, we would remember, amidst the beauty of transformative spiritual experiences, where we actually were—a land torn by sectarian violence.

The longer we stayed in the Holy Land, the more we began to understand its brokenness: full of religion, but wanting in human connection. Immersed in ritual, but unable to extend hands of friendship across faiths, across cultures. Our compassion for the hurts and wrongs of the past deepened as we saw Muslim Arab youth suffer behind separation walls and Jewish mothers rock their small children and weep at the Western Wall for their lost temple. Stories upon stories of injustice, sorrow, and pain. It was, most acutely, a storied and wounded land.

But the story that touched me most profoundly was that of Rachel’s pillar, which our professor related to us on a grassy hill just outside of Bethlehem. According to Christian tradition, Jacob and Rachel were almost to Ephrath (modern day Bethlehem) when “Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour.”[2] After passing through the sobering and perilous journey that all women undertake to bear a child, Rachel passed through the veil of this life and into the world of eternal slumber. Jacob, heartbroken at the death of his beloved wife, built a pillar in her memory to mark this place of many sorrows.

Our professor told us that a monument currently stands as a testament to Rachel’s sacrifice and the sacrifice of all women over the spot where this is believed to have occurred. But what touched me most deeply was learning that today, women of all faiths—Muslims, Jews, and Christians—gather to the monument to toss candy and pay homage to mother Rachel, a beloved and revered figure in all three faiths, and to pay tribute to all of the women who have passed through the valley of the shadow of death to deliver others. I was deeply moved as I reflected on this story and considered the beautiful solidarity of the women who, from vastly different circles, set all differences aside to come together in a moment of true vulnerability, beauty, humanness.

When I reflect on the wooden ladder—on the barriers that separate us and our seeming inability to overcome them—I also remember that beautiful, stiflingly hot Sunday afternoon when two friends and I stepped with humbled reverence into the quietude of the upper room in the Jewish Quarter and sang a hymn with the words, “As I have loved you, love one another,” and a German tour group of another faith entered the room and stood in silent reverence until we had finished, and then asked us to please sing it again. And then to keep singing. I recollect the smiles of the young Jewish girls who eagerly pulled us into their circle to dance as they welcomed in the Sabbath and the Muslim father and son who taught us how to pray. I consider a tender experience sitting on the stone benches of St. Peter’s church singing hymns of our faith and watching as a Roman Catholic family from Italy quietly entered and sat in the back, listening. I remember the awe that I felt seeing tears stream down the teenage boy’s face, moved by words he couldn’t understand, who approached us afterwards and in broken English said, “I felt something. I felt.”

And I remember the lines from the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi, whose moving poetry seemed to underlie my every experience as I read and pondered it during that sacred time in the Holy Land:

There is a community of the spirit…
Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
Live in silence.
Flow down and down in always
widening rings of being.[3]

Our politics are different, our faiths are not the same—old feuds resurface and refuse to die, and wounds refuse to heal. But in the midst of the darkness of persecution and discrimination, the bright flame of hope reminds us that human connection is not lost, that the love that connects us all will triumph. That in the end we are all brothers, or sisters, and that the power of humanity continues, even in such a dark and craven world.

May we weep with one another, always, and may empathy pull us through the hard times to more whole and gentle days of understanding and peace. And may we hold onto, with increasing strength and compassion, the humanity that is within each of us.

This post was written by Moe Graviet, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.


[1] Hyde, Orson. A Voice from Jerusalem. Albert Morgan, 1842, pp. 7.

[2] The Bible. Authorized King James Version, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2002, pp. 54.

[3] Barks, Coleman, translator. “A Community of the Spirit,” The Essential Rumi, Castle Books, 1997, pp. 3.

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1 Comment

  1. Garrett May says:

    Thank you for sharing about your experience in the Holy Land. You made a terrific comparison between two artifacts, the immovable ladder and Rachel’s pillar, that are emblematic of the communal potentials of belief. I wonder what artifacts we are leaving behind that encourage unity over division.

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