The ancient and bustling Old City of Jerusalem was filled with the frenetic activity of a Friday afternoon. History hung heavy in the rarified and holy air as the faithful hurried to houses of worship in preparation for their respective sabbaths. Christians wandered the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, a series of winding and cobbled streets that marked the path of the crucifixion. It was here that a battered and bleeding Jesus Christ shouldered a heavy burden, making his way to a divine fate atop the hill of Golgotha.
On this autumn afternoon American author Maureen Paschal appeared no different from the other pilgrims who made their way from distant and varied corners of the earth. The heady September breeze blended the aroma of sizzling shwarma with the scent of exotic oils that wafted from the ancient markets. Maureen drifted through the sensory overload that is Israel, clutching a guidebook purchased from a Christian organization on the Internet. The guide detailed the Way of the Cross, complete with maps and directions to the fourteen stations of Christ's path. "Lady, you want rosary? Wood from Mount of Olives."
"Lady, you want tour guide? You never get lost. I show you everything."
Like most Western women, she was forced to fend off the unwanted advances of Jerusalem street merchants. Some were relentless in their efforts to hawk their wares or services. Others were merely attracted to the petite woman with long red hair and fair coloring, an exotic combination in this part of the world. Maureen rebuffed her pursuers with a polite but firm "No, thank you." Then she broke eye contact and walked away. Her cousin Peter, an expert in Middle Eastern studies, had prepped her for the culture of the Old City. Maureen was painstaking about even the tiniest details in her work and had studied the evolving culture of Jerusalem carefully. So far it was paying off, and Maureen was able to keep the distractions to a minimum as she focused on her research, scribbling details and observations in her Moleskine notebook.
She had been moved to tears by the intensity and beauty of the 800-year-old Franciscan Chapel of the Flagellation, where Jesus had suffered his scourging. It was a deeply unexpected emotional reaction as Maureen did not come to Jerusalem as a pilgrim. Instead, she came as an investigative observer, as a writer in search of an accurate historical backdrop for her work. While Maureen sought a deeper understanding of the events of Good Friday, she approached this research from her head rather than her heart.
She visited the Convent of the Sisters of Sion, before moving to the neighboring Chapel of Condemnation, the legendary location where Jesus was given his cross after the sentence of crucifixion had been passed by Pontius Pilate. Again, the unexpected lump in her throat was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of grief as she walked through the building. Life-size bas-relief sculptures illustrated the events of a terrible morning 2,000 years earlier. Maureen stood, riveted, by a vivid scene of haunting humanity: a male disciple as he tried to shield Mary, the mother of Jesus, to spare her the sight of her son carrying His cross. Tears stung at the back of her eyes as she stood before the image. It was the first time in her life she had thought of these larger-than-life historical figures as real people, flesh-and-blood humans suffering through an event of nearly unimaginable anguish.