It was midnight on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem's Manger Square, when I, a Jewish woman, stood in front of the Church of the Nativity and brought myself to some spiritual peace that I could not have imagined.
My steaming breath glowed in the aura of the bright lights all around. Strains of "Silent Night" struggled to resound across the square. But that night was anything but quiet. The sound of conflict is never far away in this part of the world.
My inner turmoil was also with me as I approached the Church of the Nativity. All I could think of was that we'd not come very far in 2,000 years. We're still fighting among ourselves. The major religions -- Christian, Islam and Jewish -- that are here in this this ancient town are still at war.
I bowed as I entered the Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance to the church, created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters. The low ceiling forced even the most important visitors to dismount from their horses before entering the holy place. Accompanied by a soprano rendering of "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful," I descended a narrow flight of stairs to the Grotto of the Nativity, a small rectangular cavern. A large silver star on the floor is said to be the very spot where Jesus was born.
I took a deep breath, trying to bring that very scene to life. Instead, the musty air compounded with the darkness signified the stalemate reached. Ordinary people still struggle to live together in peace and compassion, paralyzed by a centuries-long conflict. Not only the Israelis and Palestinians. The press had also reported repeated brawls among Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic monk trainees at the monastery over respect for others' prayers, hymns and even the division of floor space for cleaning duties.
There are three sites holy to the different religions in the small town of Bethlehem: the Church of the Nativity, Omar's Mosque and Rachel's Tomb. I realized then I was standing at the nexus of a spiritual triangle, sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Despite the tensions, the essences of the messages were the same.
On the one side was Omar, the second Rashidum Muslim Caliph who, after he conquered Jerusalem in 637, issued a decree protecting the Church and Christians. He respected the beliefs of others.
On the other was the matriarch Rachel. She'd become a symbol of faith and hope after showing us that there was a quiet way to confront obstacles and sorrows. I didn't remember Rachel's entire great love story, except that she and Jacob waited 14 long years to marry, and then she'd struggle to conceive. Sadly, she died in childbirth on their way to the Promised Land.
The third was Jesus, who gave birth to Christianity and preached about the triumph of love over evil and hate.
This was the trio that filled the square. Standing there in this sacred space, I realized that I could take these spiritual guides with me. I'd brought myself to some spiritual peace that I could not imagine -- an openness to understand the beliefs and history of others. During the festive season I plan to visit local holy places of other religions. What if all of us did the same and found solace and inspiration in visiting the holy shrines of traditions other than our own? Would the world be more embracing of what often seems like The Other?