By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service
JERUSALEM — As Easter approaches, it can be a daunting task to find a quiet moment of contemplation at any of Jerusalem’s holy sites, but it is especially so at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Throngs of pilgrim groups and tourists with cameras pack the church, posing for photos at the spots where Jesus was crucified or laid in the tomb. Some place souvenirs on the sacred sites for a blessing.
But at the Stone of Unction, which commemorates the anointing of Jesus before burial, some faithful find the noise from other visitors fades away. The smell of rose water with which the stone is periodically bathed permeates the immediate vicinity.
Here is a place and a moment when they can feel the strength of prayer.
Teame Tesfamichael, 24, a Catholic refugee from Eritrea, was oblivious to the flashing of camera lights and the jostling of other pilgrims who had come to touch the stone. At one corner of the stone he slowly knelt, bending from the waist down to place his forehead reverently on the stone. His lips moved in silent prayer as his hands clasped the stone’s edge. He kissed the stone, then again placed his forehead against it. He did this several times. And as others came and went, snapping their pictures and placing their souvenirs on the rock, Tesfamichael remained in prayer.
“I have no words to express what it means for me to pray here,” he said after he finished praying. “More than anything, I feel the one who died here for me. I feel humble to be here … I am so simple,” he said softly.
Several years ago, Tesfamichael fled Eritrea, crossing the Sahara Desert to Libya. There, he tried unsuccessfully to reach Europe before crossing back to Egypt and finally reaching Israel via the Sinai Desert.
He has lived in Jerusalem for three years and said he comes to this spot often to give himself strength.
“I never thought I would be here in Jerusalem, but God gave me this,” Tesfamichael said. “When I come here I get my mind relaxed when things are difficult. He died for me and I want to cry here like one of his disciples.”
A contemplative Catholic nun from Belgium who lives in a Jerusalem cloistered community said she comes to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher once a year to be “closer physically to the mystery which happened here.”
“It is to touch my faith,” said the nun, who asked not to be identified, as she gazed on the Stone of Unction.
“It is not only a spiritual thing but also a physical thing, and I imagine myself one of the people there,” she said. “For me this is the mystery. Christ was laid down here and it is his humanity. Every year my faith is renewed with new details.”
Though this rectangular slab of stone has been smoothed by centuries of prayer and devotion, the actual stone itself dates only to 1810, said Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a New Testament scholar at the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem. He said the tradition of the stone first appeared in the 12th century.
Esperanza Qumsieh, 38, is able to visit the church and the stone twice a year, at Easter and Christmas. As a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, West Bank, she receives an Israeli travel permit to cross into Jerusalem via the checkpoint 15 minutes away.
She knelt by the stone and, bending her head, she closed her eyes and prayed. Next to her a tour guide marched in with his group of pilgrims, and some Russian women with their hair covered by kerchiefs jostled to get a place next to the stone.
“When I come here I am happy and peaceful,” said Qumsieh, who is Greek Orthodox. “I feel something in my heart. I have to stay here and pray.”
One tour guide coached an Indonesian pilgrim how to put the newly purchased boxes of crucifixes atop the stone. The guide took a large wooden cross out of one of the boxes and placed it on top, then took the pilgrim’s camera to snap a photo of him.
A Russian mother and her two young children knelt and placed their foreheads to the stone. The mother urged the children to place their crucifixes on the stone and took them out of their packing when the children failed to do so.
“If you want to pray, you pray also in such situations, even in such commotion,” said Paolo Floris, 61, who was on his 15th pilgrimage to the Holy Land from Rome with his wife, Marina, and their Neocatechumenal Way pilgrimage group.
Amid the din of visitors, Primitivo A. Cruz, 62, a member of St. Mary Parish in Bordentown, N.J., knelt and placed his hand upon the stone, closing his eyes. He said later that he came with his friend, Reynaldo Deguzman, 65, who recently suffered a stroke that affected his speech.
Cruz, who originally is from the Philippines, said he expected to encounter such crowds as Easter approached.
“When I pray, I tune them out. Also, in the Philippines we have miraculous places with a lot of people,” he said. “I came to celebrate the land and help my friend strengthen his faith in Jesus. He is looking for healing. I know Jesus is always helping me.”
Deep in prayer, Shizuko Pieta Hanson, 64, knelt before the stone, head bent and eyes closed. She prayed for her sisters who are stuck in poverty and for God to help her to be selfless and better serve others, she said later.
Originally from Japan and now a member of the Holy Spirit Parish in Annandale, Va., Hanson said she converted to Catholicism a decade ago. With tears in her eyes, she said she was very grateful to God for bringing her to this spot.
“He took all of our sins and, with that, he gave us all a second chance. It is love,” she said. “As I go home I will pray and meditate quietly on the experience. I will take strength from this. Faith is not something of the past; the belief is here and now and we have to act on it, so that is what I am praying for.”