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William L. Fox, 33°
Grand Archivist and Grand Historian of the Supreme Council, 33°
1733 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009–3103


Photo of the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Jerusalem at the portal of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by William L. Fox, 33°
A notable Mason minister reflects on his visit to Israel as sponsored in 1998 by the Knights Templar.

In distant centuries, the people abiding in the land of Israel heard the prophets’ best hope echo across sun-baked valleys and dry streambeds. It was always a plea for wisdom, that rulers would serve the people’s best interest with integrity, patience, and long-term commonsense. What might such a day resemble? One dreamer of the better moment in a nation’s seeking said it will be "like the shade of a great rock in a weary land" (Isaiah 32:2).

The novice traveler to Israel perhaps anticipates finding an old, tired place washed up and burned out by the rising and passing generations. The landscape is certainly strewn with ancient ruins and time-beaten vistas. It is a hard-scrabble land, austere and unforgiving if misunderstood. And yet, first impressions, while often accurate, can also be the result of preconceived and innocent deceptions. Israel, instead, vibrates with life, but life in search of a protective shadow.

The first-time Holy Land tourist from the United State expects to see around every corner some part of a familiar scene. Thinking in a kind of reverse déjà vu, I pictured in advance a Bedouin herdsman leaning against his shepherd’s crook, a head-bobbing camel crossing a desert expanse, or an exhausted little donkey drinking from a stable trough, thus confirming the way it was supposed to look after years of imagining the land from one’s reading of the Bible.

The reality, of course, is that in modern Israel, a palpable measure of vigor, rather than fatigue, overtakes the picture in one’s head. During the 1998 Knights Templar Holy Land Pilgrimage, I joined with clergy colleagues from across the United States, to find many instances of old familiar texts being matched exactly to what I was seeing. I discovered, in spite of Israel’s present-day efficiency, "the shade of a great rock" in a variety of terms. And what did I see from beneath the stones of Galilee, Palestine, and Judah? Here are some reflections I have organized while sitting, months later, in the shade of memory.

On February 2, 1998, I took my place in a privileged group of almost 80 ministers for a travel experience that began for each of us with an incredible invitation. Every single minister who eventually comprised the group had been approached by a Mason and asked, "Would you let me nominate you for an all-expenses paid trip to Israel?" The tour was organized, according to Masonic principle, without regard for any individual’s denominational allegiance or theological orientation.

The Grand Encampment of Knights Templar, over a period approaching twenty years, has sent hundreds of ministers on pilgrimages to Israel without the contingencies of return favor, strings, or obligation. Less than ten percent of my group were Masons, and in fact there were more women clergy than Mason ministers in the entourage. Further, there were more than a dozen ministers representing Christian denominations that often have been ill-disposed to Masonry. The fact of Masonic sponsorship of the journey, however, was played pianissimo in typical Masonic understated modesty.

Notably, there was never once heavy-handed outspokenness about the merits of belonging to Masonry. Instead, the sponsor’s purpose spoke for itself by an example of religious tolerance and the joy of camaraderie. Advertising Masonry was clearly not the Knights’ agenda for organizing the annual tours. Rather, kindness and goodness served as the principle motivations that afforded ministers so rare a travel opportunity. More importantly, ministers who knew little about Freemasonry, experienced first-hand one of the Fraternity’s best virtues, the open hand.

The professionally guided tour of Israel began on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias and Capernaum. We stayed at a comfortable kibbutz for two nights in accommodations much less Spartan than one might expect. From our lakeside quarters we fanned out during the day to explore a breathtaking hillside view called the Mount of Beatitudes, the ancient landmarks in Tabgha (site of an early Jewish-Christian community), and the Arab city of Nazareth so full of Christian associations that it is now being spruced up for the Millennium celebration.

While the area around Galilee continues to provide significant archeological treasure for Biblical scholars, there are huge black basalt stones that indicate the far off evidence of primeval volcanoes. In essence, the unusual black stones matter to the tourist, too: one has to understand the geology of Israel before the archeology makes sense. It is a country that is part of a much larger topography called the Rift Valley, forming the Syrian-African Axis from Anatolia, Turkey, down through the Jordan River Valley, to Lake Victoria in Tanzania.

Porous black stones dot the landscape of the provinces Jesus and the first Christians travelled, but basalt was not considered appropriate material for important public structures that once stood on holy points of interest. White stones were used, for instance, in building the exquisite synagogue in Capernaum, long ago left in ruins, but now an open-air tourist attraction. The large white stones forming walls, pillars, and decorative friezes would have been quarried elsewhere and transported across a rugged terrain along the Via Maris, a heavily traveled ancient road beginning in Lower Egypt that extended to the Euphrates Valley of modern Iraq.

Great stones and stonework represent a deeply embedded tradition of excellent building throughout rural outposts and mountaintop retreats. The excavations at Megiddo, overlooking the Jezreel Valley, site of famous Biblical warfare, reveal a 7,000 year-old history, the layered presence of 20 cities. World War I ended in the Valley of Jezreel with the defeat of the Turks by the British under General Allenby (nicknamed "Lord of Armageddon"). Across the green, once bloody valley, standing upon Mt. Tabor, are 13th century Crusader ruins surrounding an abandoned Benedictine monastery. In 1929, the Franciscans built a famous Barluzzi-designed church on Mt. Tabor that would be the envy of many major cities.

The journey moved next into the city of Jerusalem. There the stones cry out, projecting from the past a constant hope against trouble. The eye-filling stones dominate and embrace the Old City. They impel the "arrows of desire," a desire for flight in "a chariot of fire" over the city walls and surrounding hills. William Blake completes his soaring thought that nothing is finished "till we have built Jerusalem."

The city itself is a great stone in a weary land. Behind and within the glistening white building stones, cut and hauled from Solomon’s quarries, stand obvious symbolic meanings on which everything now hangs—past and present; war and peace; sacred and profane; hope and despair. One senses about Jerusalem that the place only begins to make sense in the clues held in the stonework. The St. Stephen’s Gate of the Old City, for example, is marked by the Crusader lions carved in the stone wall. Lions and stones have a particular association in the history of Christian martyrs. Nothing about the stones of Jerusalem is irrelevant.

Jerusalem is a city of parallel realities. The idea of the holy is a physical reality for many who visit. For Jews it is the Western Wall, building blocks left in place and left over from the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman forces in 70 A.D. For Christians it is a stone slab at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on a giant rock foundation. For Muslims it is the El Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

In all three Abrahamic faiths, the act of touching the stones of Jerusalem—a wall, a column, a boulder—is no mere abstraction. A city of sacred pillars, thresholds, and stones invites the most natural human instinct for reassurance. It is a living metaphor, a great rock in a weary land. Nevertheless, the Jerusalem question is explosive because the greatest reality of the city is its aura of myth coalesced in the stones. Archaeology and nationalism, therefore, are inseparable parallel realities.

Jerusalem is a city of paired opposites. It is a city, consequently, of near misses. The first century coexists with the twentieth century; it is simultaneously timeless and urgently modern. It misses easy arrangements of understanding. As a city of intersections, streets built for ox carts must bear the heavy traffic of trucks and buses. Old ways and new demands are dangerously at odds.

Tension is prevalent and visible. Friendliness on one corner may turn to indifference on the next. Holy men in long grey beards stand to cross the street with young men and women shouldering assault rifles. As it has always been, Jerusalem’s inhabitants often coexist as the "haves" and the "have nots"; the proximity of aspiration to conflict is remarkably close.

One afternoon while in a little antique shop, I witnessed a heated exchange of bitter words between the proprietor and a police officer. I assumed this was not the first day this particular fight had erupted between the shop owner and the authorities. The argument this time was over a trash can left out in an alley, which the storekeeper insisted was not his. The escalating verbal fisticuffs were on the precipice of violence. Soldiers then showed up, brandishing automatic rifles. I was cowering in the loft of the shop during the fracas. The air cleared and so did I.

Later, I returned to the shop out of dual consumer and pastoral curiosity. Not surprisingly, the owner was gone for the day. I asked the young, well-spoken clerk left in charge about his life in Israel. He was an Arab, educated in a Christian school, who considered Bethlehem his home; Bethlehem is part of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Because of his circumstances of birth, he had to live within certain legal restrictions that affected all his prospects for work, housing, and transportation.

I asked the clerk, given the unfavorable limitations placed upon him and what I had observed that day in the shop, what did he most want to accomplish in life. I predicted to myself, naturally, that he ought to express a desire for a college education in the United States. I was admittedly leading the witness in this conversation. Unexpectedly and unhesitatingly, he responded, "I love Jerusalem. My greatest dream is to live in Jerusalem and own a souvenir shop."

It is a city where people pray and meditate all day long, doing it as naturally as any routine human activity. And yet, it is a city armed to the teeth. It is a city of anguished looks, of people who have known or expect cruelty done to them. Even still, you see dancing in the streets on a Saturday night at the conclusion of Shabbat.

Jerusalem is a city of transcendent beauty. Overlooking the skyline from Mt. Scopus, across the stony Kidron Valley, the light dances off the whiteness of Jerusalem’s distinctive stones. Light changes all day to provide artists a subject that is both a dream and a high challenge to master.

It is a city of beautiful sounds and smells. The sacred spaces and the market stalls are brought together unlike any city in the world. Here there are two spheres of transaction—the business of prayer and the business at hand, intermingling and flowing together from a common source of rhythms.

Along the streets in the old city there is the intoxicating smell of grinding coffee, the sight of Arab sweet tea being sipped, nuts and dried fruits on pushcarts for sale. The aroma of brazier fires roasting meat mixes with tobacco smells and the mustiness of leather goods and rugs.

Stone churches and open doors are easy to find. Clergy often possess finely tuned instincts of the glorious in the smallest details. From inside a Jerusalem church, the hymn singing may boom and resound. On the last note, a penetrating silence is signalled and, then, in the quiet sanctuary the song of sparrows adds a grace note through an unclosed window.

Jerusalem is a city of mystery and purity; it is a place where even the fragrance of rain on the time-polished stone walks has continuity with people of the city 2,000 years ago. You set foot in the ancient city, a beautiful anachronism, as if its sense of time displaces your own. Visiting Jerusalem is disorienting, like coming out of a movie theater in daylight. You enter a stranger, but your guide keeps saying, "Welcome home." When you leave Jerusalem you are not the same. The ordered stones and random outcroppings form lifelong boulders of impression.

For a weary world and its tired travelers the shade of a great rock is alive with the power to renew and give strength. For pilgrim ministers, much gratitude extends to the Freemasons who led them to a land of shadows, stone, and light.


Note: Ministers interested in this program should contact their local Commandery. For general information or reference to a local Commandery, contact: The Grand Encampment of Knights Templar, 5097 N. Elston Ave., Suite 101, Chicago, IL 60630–2460.
William L. Fox
is a professional historian and an ordained minister. His dual career placed him in successful pastorates in Washington, D.C., and Pomona, Calif. He has been on the faculty of the School of Theology at Claremont (Calif.), Montgomery College (Md.), and Howard University (Wash., D.C.). Dr. Fox recently authored a one-volume history titled Lodge of the Double-Headed Eagle: Two Centuries of Scottish Rite Freemasonry in America’s Southern Jurisdiction. He was appointed Grand Historian and Archivist of the Supreme Council in January 1995.