Yesterday, a number of us from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture had the privilege to sit at table with “a man from Galilee,” Archbishop Emeritus Elias Chacour, a man many people the world over call Abuna, or Father. It was not the first time I had met this holy man–for indeed, that is precisely who and what he is. I did so 9 years earlier, in Ibillin itself, the Galilean village where Abuna’s practical efforts for peace at the Mar Elias Educational Institutions have contributed to the well-being of thousands of students in the area. If Elias Chacour is a new name for you, then make haste to secure a copy of his book Blood Brothers, his memoir of growing up in a Palestinian village at the tumultuous time of the modern state of Israel’s creation, and the best entrée into his gospel-suffused mind besides time with the man himself.
Yesterday, Abuna Chacour recounted stories to those of us gathered, some of them familiar to us already, but still worth repeating. One in particular struck Steve Garber and me as worth retelling to our own circles of influence, namely the story of Chacour’s long persistence in attempting to gain building permits for his educational institution from the Israeli authorities. With the help of his friend, former Secretary of State James Baker, Chacour was finally granted permission to build. In response to this reality, Abuna repeated a memorable line, one he has uttered to other audiences as well: “The shortest route between Galilee and Jerusalem is through Washington.”
At face value, this is a very sad reality. An Israeli citizen (who is, Abuna notes, a Palestinian Christian Israeli Arab–all very true) should not have to call upon high levels of American political power to secure permission to build a modest gymnasium for village children in the Galilee. The conflict between Israeli and Palestinians affects daily realities for all caught within its maddening clutches, including Israelis of Arab descent. What Chacour conveys when he talks about the strange path between Galilee and Jerusalem is a startling fact. It is intended to wake the listener to hard political realities and the weary convolutions of life in the conflict. And it does just that.
Yet, embedded within this line is also another reality, one that is both hopeful and true, if we have ears to hear it.
After this luncheon, Steve and I shared a moment of debriefing, and he told me of a conversation he had recently with a person of considerable influence who was in the process of reading his latest book, Visions of Vocation. A well-read individual, this person admitted that Steve’s book was difficult not because the writing was dense, nor the concepts particularly hard to grasp, but because the book was inviting the reader into a deeper faithfulness, into being more fully the person God made them to be right where they were, in their workplace, in their own spheres of influence. The book was calling, as in fact it was intended to do, for this person to surrender any remaining division between their “sacred self” and their “secular self,” an unholy bifurcation that the very notion of vocation seeks to heal.
Long ago, another holy man named Tertullian once quipped another memorable line about two cities (and has been quipping it ever since by means of dabblers like me): “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” His point was not about political power, as Abuna Chacour’s was, but about the grounds and process of philosophical inquiry and knowledge. Well-versed in Stoic philosophy, Tertullian intended to make plain that Christianity was not simply a path towards truth, as philosophic inquiry claimed to be, but Truth itself; a truth that finds us and puts an end to foolish, worldly, even heretical seeking. Any form of seeking that claims to be faithful, but is not, and cannot be because it is not surrendered to Christ.
Of course, beyond this, Athens, the so-called “secular,” and Jerusalem, “the sacred,” have a great deal to do with each other, and God may exploit the worldliest of wisdom to draw people to himself. When he was in Athens, Paul himself sought to reason with the Athenians that their longing for the divine pointed to their God-given longing for the true God, a God not of gold or silver, but located in the person of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:16ff). The many idols of the city pointed to this longing, and in a way, Paul reasoned like an Athenian, laying bare the Athenians’ longing for what it was, and showing them the way out of the dead ends of Athens towards the bright city of Jerusalem.
Any place that we are tempted to call “unholy,” or secular, very well may be the place where God has found us, placed us, and calls to us to be his person. It is from there that we hold the lamp and invite others to journey to the holy city, figuratively, the New Jerusalem. Within that place, in that “secular city” among those we may think of as “secular selves,” God invites us to live a Christ-suffused life that calls to others as well, that points them to the surest, safest, shortest path to Truth, to Being Found by Him. Their longing for Him is unquestionable, but they may not know the way.
Whether in the exalted corridors of political power, or in the dark corners of the most forgotten places on earth, God is capable to using us for his purposes and for the good of those around us, as we seek to be faithful to him. The thoughtful reader who wrestled with Steve’s book was, truly, wrestling with that ever-relevant question; one not unlike Chacour’s, or Tertullian’s if we give it a twist: What does my life, my city, have to do with Jerusalem? How may the contours of my life be a means by which God’s Truth shines more clearly, illuminating the path of peace, or identifying the short route to the New City?
Long ago too, there was once a man from Galilee too who himself took an unusual path to Jerusalem. He passed through towns and villages, announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God, preaching repentance, and drawing people from all around to himself. News about him spread far beyond the borders of Roman-occupied Palestine, and passed through the Decapolis cities and beyond. The great powers were afraid to admit that they trembled at his authority, this Prince of Peace, this King of Kings. When Jesus finally entered Jerusalem, his entrance was perplexing and characterized by great humility. The rest of his time in Jerusalem is well-known. He came to seek and to save that which was lost, and he gave his own life in doing so.
It is no surprise that God in his own wisdom will use places of great power to serve–to serve–the humble, the down-trodden, or the poor and oppressed. It is a powerful truth that the thoughtful reader of which Steve spoke is likely called to be a “short route” to Jerusalem from his own place of influence. The shortest route to Jerusalem, dear reader, can be right where you are. Ask him to show you the way.
Photo: Alex Bruda