I imagine that some of you may be wondering why I titled this blog as I did. It is not Phifer’s Journey to Jerusalem or A Meandering Minnesotan in the Middle East. Instead, it is a somewhat obscure quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, I 59: “Go to the limits of your longing.”
This poem is of deep significance to me. I first learned of it about a year and a half ago in a season of deep stress while studying for the MCAT, taking classes, working as an ER scribe, and prepping for the bear that is the medical school application process. At that time, I felt like I was losing myself in a process that so often turns people into competitive, numbers-driven individuals. Rilke’s poem came to me at that time and reminded me that the process in which I was immersing myself was not motivated by selfish ambition or pride. Instead, it was a natural step in the direction of a deeply-rooted call I had sensed years before.
Before reflecting more, here is the poem in its entirety:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
-Book of Hours, I 59
Israel-Palestine is a place that made a powerful impression on me the very first time I visited on an archaeological dig in the summer of 2015. At that time, the combination of ancient memories, sacred veneration, current political conflict, broken relationships between communities, stark injustices, and more, captivated my heart and imagination. This fascination only deepened after spending three months in Haifa and a month in Bethlehem that following fall/winter, as well as a two week stint in January 2017.
But, really, why the Holy Land? The world is endlessly complex and compelling all over. Injustice permeates the U.S. Beautiful places exist much closer to home. The sick and ill are suffering, and I am putting off medical education for a year to accompany the Lutheran Christian community in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Frankly, I do not know. Perhaps it is the childhood hopes of a “land flowing with milk and honey” that were suffocated as I witnessed with my eyes the shocking visage of military checkpoints and graffiti-covered walls. Maybe I am still grappling with the role that my home country has played in the development and sustaining of this conflict. Potentially, I am struggling to discern how the one called the Prince of Peace taught and embodied a way to live differently in a world characterized by eye-for-eye violence.
“These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.”
I do know this: I am certain that the people I will encounter here in Jerusalem and the West Bank will tangibly embody the God who “speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.” I hope that, through their witness, I might better discern how to live faithfully in this fractured world. Further, here I am living far “beyond my recall” in a place where I will need to depend on the care and love of the people that comprise the community here.
In short, the limits of my longing have brought me back. I pray this journey might, in some small way, lead me closer to “that country they call life…[that is known] by its seriousness.” Further, I hope my reflections throughout this time would help each of you as you seek to live a life following the call to the limits of your longing. Finally, my aim is to, as faithfully as I can, tell the stories of the Palestinian Lutheran community in which I am serving and being served.
Please reach out to me at any time with questions or thoughts, as I hope that this will be a journey that we can all walk on together.