The day was hot, the sun scorching, and throughout my weeklong trip to Israel, I was reminded that I typically handle blazing heat with the same grace and poise as my Northern European ancestors. In other words, I was dripping sweat and praying for shade.
The walk down the Mount of Olives, while beautiful and another I-can't-believe-I'm-here experience, was crowded with pilgrims and beggars and the noise of street vendors selling religious trinkets. On this last day of our tour through Israel, I hoped for some peace and quiet and room for spiritual reflection. I hadn't found them yet.
The week in Israel stimulated my intellect (remembering thousands of years at the center of human history), appealed to my senses (beautiful country, incredible food), deepened my biblical understanding (I'll never read the Bible the same way), and elicited a rainbow of emotions (from the Sea of Galilee to Nazareth, the Western Wall, and Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial). And while it was an incredible trip that deepened my spiritual understanding, I didn't feel as if I really encountered God himself in a special way. I was hoping to do that on the last day as we visited the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, walked the Via Dolorosa, and saw The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb, two different places revered as the spot where Jesus was buried and resurrected.
So I was glad when we entered the Garden of Gethsemane and discovered a place of peace, relative quiet, and mercifully, shade. I started to pray for a spiritual experience that would top off this incredible week, for a sense of God's presence, for a revelation of some kind.
We had a few moments to sit alone; just what I needed. I looked around at the olive trees, smelled the plants and flowers next to me, and thought about Jesus and his disciples coming here to watch and pray. I thought about how the disciples kept falling asleep and missing the significance of what Jesus was telling them. And then my mind—like the disciples'—started to wander, and I realized the place wasn't quiet after all.
I heard traffic—with horns honking—on the busy street outside the garden. I could still hear the crowd and the street vendors on the other side of the wall. The fact that I had come to Israel and was ready for a spiritual experience that day didn't matter to anyone else. Life was going on. At first I found this annoying—it didn't fit my idea of the sacred; it wasn't conducive to what I wanted to experience with God. I wanted to imagine Jesus sitting in this very garden, and the noise of life was messing with the authenticity of my experience.