When I was a child, I found myself at First United Methodist Church in Paragould, Arkansas, virtually every time the doors opened. And whenever my mother volunteered to help with some church activity, I’d sneak away to a little prayer room adjacent to the balcony staircase at the back of the narthex. The room had originally been meant for storage, but some family in the congregation once upon a time paid to have it adorned with carpet, a couple of chairs, and a prayer desk. For some reason, the first time I discovered the little prayer room it conveyed a sense of peace. I returned to it every chance I got. It is the first place I ever prayed, on my own, in the words of my six-year-old heart. It is the first place I considered holy, even before I could articulate a sense of what that word might mean.
Today, this very day, thirty-seven or so years later, I have visited three of the holiest places on God’s earth for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Early this morning, my fellow Christians and I were allowed to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on Haram Al-Sharif. The name means “The Noble Sanctuary,” and after Mecca and Medina, it is the third holiest site in Islam. The Quran says that Mohammed traveled to Al-Aqsa on his night journey, and from there ascended to heaven. Of course, the site is sacred to Jews and Christians as well. Haram Al-Sharif is built on the Jewish Temple Mount, and the temple itself was built on the traditional site of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. The Dome of the Rock is centered on that very spot. Not only were we allowed to enter (thanks to the good relations of St. George’s College), but we were also allowed to descend into the grotto below the rock itself and see the literal bedrock on which the three Abrahamic religions are built.
As heady as that experience was, scarcely an hour later I found myself leaning in prayer against the Western Wall, the last remaining portion of King Herod’s Temple Mount. The Western Wall is the only tangible connection between modern Jews and their temple forebearers, and as such it is the most sacred Jewish holy place.
Three hours after that, I walked, foot weary and emotionally exhausted, into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, whose precincts include the sites of both the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Attestation to the accuracy of the church’s location are very early, dating to the second century A.D.
All that is to say, in a day, in the city known for eons as the “center of the world,” I encountered the holiest sites and central places of prayer for the three religions that together make up the majority of the world’s population.
I’m still processing the experience, but this much I already know: Prayer is the key word. When we descended into the grotto at the Dome of the Rock, a lone woman was already there, devotedly kneeling and saying her morning prayers. (It’s little known in the Western world that the Dome of the Rock is specifically intended for use by women.)
At the Western Wall, Jewish men and women of all types engaged in intense and sometimes sobbing prayer, moving their bodies back and forth and pressing on the wall as if in desire to become one with it.
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I saw Christians of all stripes. At the Rock of Anointing, on which Jesus is said to have been prepared for burial, men and women remonstrated and kissed the stone. Around Golgotha, one could barely move for all the people praying in various postures. In ardent and sometimes anguished prayer, they brought with them their pains, sorrows, fears, and–yes–demons, and committed them all to the cross of Christ, in hopes that these men and women might rise from prayer as Jesus rose from the tomb, redeemed in new life.
As I prayed at the Holy Sepulchre, the distance of time and geography between the little prayer room at First United Methodist Church in Paragould and the holy city of Jerusalem seemed to vanish. The reality that God has been with me, behind and before a lifetime of prayer, no matter where I have been when I prayed, became palpable. The further truth became transparent that wherever women and men render their hearts vulnerable to God in prayer, that place is holy. And through the sacramental grace such holy places communicate, we become holy.
I am convinced that God offers us specific and profound thin places like Haram Al-Sharif, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre–or a little prayer room off the balcony stairwell of a small town church–in order that we ourselves may become thin places, that we may become sharers and receivers of God’s grace, even and especially across religious divides.
The sun shone brightly in Jerusalem today, and through the great oculus of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre bright rays poured on those who’d come seeking the Son of God. “He is not here,” the light seemed to say, hearkening to the words of the angel on Easter, “He has risen!” Jesus resides not in the holy tomb, but is incarnate in the hearts of all God’s holy children, most especially when our hearts commune–whether in yearning, sorrow, or joy–with God in prayer.