We waited under stark, white neon to ride up to the Prayer Tower. I was still tingling all over but also feeling washed out, as if I’d had a good cry.
Eventually, steel doors shuddered open. A smell of engine oil and stale clothing wafted out. They opened again at the top floor of the building to reveal Jerusalem twinkling through a picture window, like fairyland at our feet.
We joined a dozen or so people, sitting in a large, loose circle under dimmed lights. I did not know what we were waiting for or what to expect. I had never been to a Prayer Tower before.
‘Hi, I’m Chanelle.’
A young woman in jogging pants sank down at our feet in a limber position that spoke of ballet. There was a still quality about her that I immediately found engaging.
I slithered off my chair to join her on the floor.
Terry did the same. ‘The Holy Spirit came upon my friend tonight. This is her first Christian experience.’
I was not very happy with her words. She spoke as though I’d already bought something when I felt I was still only window-shopping. I needed some time to think things through.
Foremost in my mind was how a defection to Christianity could turn me into a leper in my Jewish life. My family would view me as a traitor, the members of the South East London Women’s New Moon Group that I myself set up would throw up their hands in horror and I was pretty sure my congregation would expel me.
A Star of David hung from Chanelle’s neck. I wondered if she was Jewish. Probably not, I decided. Terry always wore one and she wasn’t.
‘What’s your name?’ Her accent was South African.
She looked at me levelly and I found myself telling her, ‘My marriage fell apart after my husband couldn’t cope with me getting sick. My kids are all grown up. I’ve been hoping, through this trip to Israel, to find a purpose for my life.’
‘You will dance again,’ she said. Laying a hand on my shoulder, she began to pray for me.
Terry laid a hand on my other shoulder.
Chanelle asked God to allow me to trust and wait for His sign to show me my path. She finished, ‘Please, Lord, take this woman as your obedient bride and give her rest. And, when the time is right for her, bless her with a new, earthly husband.’
Where had this come from? A new husband, or even a boyfriend, was not on my agenda right now. Since the break-up of my marriage, I’d found it impossible to go out with a man.
In the last month, I’d worked up to arranging two coffee dates through an internet dating site. Both were disasters. Unsmiling and ill at ease, I had grilled the men like I was interviewing them for a job. I had no idea how to behave on a date.
After the second fiasco, I cancelled my membership. A pop-up protested that it still had two months to run: was I sure? Yes, yes, yes.
Oblivious to my amazement, Chanelle swivelled her legs around and sat cross-legged. After considering me for a moment, she opened the bible on her lap. It was weighty and well-worn, with blocks of yellow highlighter and ballpoint pen scribbles across the pages.
Her hair hung down in long curtains as she read Psalm 37, a psalm of King David. It was quite long but she made no apology for that. I enjoyed what it said.
‘Trust in the Lord and do good, dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.’
Also: ‘Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.’
I wondered what the desires of my heart really were. Though I put on a brave face of managing alone, I had to admit that, deep down, I wanted to feel valued by someone dear to me. Throughout my marriage, and particularly through my darkest years, my ex had managed to make me feel the opposite. I yearned to be treasured, like the woman of Proverbs 31: Her children arise and call her blessed, her husband also and he praises her.
Chanelle read, ‘Commit your way to the Lord, trust in Him and he will do this.’
There was that word ‘trust’ again, a hard thing to do.
And ‘commit’. I had trembled tonight during the worship, my heart had been moved, I had felt compelled. Even so, inside the barriers were still up. The idea of switching camps on the strength of a fuzzy feeling defied logic. I was not the sort of woman to throw herself headlong into something.
‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.’
It would be good to be like Chanelle, calm and unhurried, to speak in a voice that was soft and even, to radiate kindness.
She closed her eyes. Her lips moved. She thumbed through her bible to the New Testament Book of Luke.
‘I want to read you the Virgin Mary’s song of celebration,’ she said. ‘She was thanking God for what the Holy Spirit had sent her — the baby Jesus in her womb. Mary was a brave woman. She wasn’t married and would have faced disapproval on every side. She could even have been stoned.’
This was a second reference to babies in less than an hour. Perhaps Chanelle chose this text because of the baby shoot of faith inside me. Or perhaps she was aware of the disapproval I would have to deal with, if I became a Christian.
As she read, I imagined Mary, praying on her knees, as Christians do, (though, come to think of it, she would have been Jewish), filled with both joy and fear, as I was now.
‘For the Mighty One has done great things for me.’
Was He doing great things for me, too? The idea that I might be that special to Him was new and exciting.
Chanelle closed her bible and prayed quietly for a moment. ‘I think what you need is to be wrapped in a cloak.’
A surge of joy and wonder went through me. ‘A cloak is very meaningful to me! Cloaks come up twice in the biblical Book of Ruth. She’s very dear to my heart. Ruth is my Hebrew name. I love her loyalty and perseverance.’
More than this, I’d spent a large part of my time here in Israel gathering material for my final major project of a Certificate in Graphic Design I was taking at London’s University of the Arts: I was going to layout and illustrate the Book of Ruth.
I’d photographed the landscapes Ruth might have walked through on her journey from Moab and checked out her lifestyle of 1000 years Before the Common Era at the Israel Museum.
Chanelle nodded and smiled, seemingly not the least bit surprised to have come up with a suggestion that was so meaningful to me. She got to her feet, hitched up her tracksuit bottoms and went off to look for the cloak she had in mind.
As I waited, I thought about cloaks in the Book of Ruth. When she first met Boaz, who would become her redeemer and husband, he asked God to spread His protective cloak — sometimes translated as ‘wings’ — over her. Later, when things between them seemed to be stalling, she went to him at the threshing floor and asked him to spread his cloak over her. By this, she meant she wanted him to marry her.
Cloaks still cover Jewish brides today. When my eldest son, Jeremy, married, he planed wooden poles and draped his prayer shawl over them. During the ceremony, he and his Canadian bride, Alicia, stood together underneath it. The prayer shawl symbolised that he was taking her under his protective wings.
It struck me that the two cloak prayers in Ruth, one for God’s protection and one for marriage, were echoed in the twofold prayer Chanelle had prayed over me tonight.
She returned after a short search with a beautiful satin cloak the colour of the vivid green mineralised waters of the Dead Sea.
Across the Dead Sea, a few days previously, I had gazed at the mauve mountains of Moab, Ruth’s homeland, in present-day Jordan. I had imagined her and Naomi, her mother-in-law, picking their way down one of the steep pack trails that hugged the gullies. Beside them, thundering waters, swollen from the winter rains, rushed down to the lowest place on earth.
Crossing over to where I stood, whether via the Jordan River shallows or by means of the ferry that once conveyed travellers across the Dead Sea, would mark the first stage in their journey to a new life and new hope.
Chanelle draped the cloak over me, shutting out the light. ‘There.’
I might have been at the bottom of the sea myself, for all the muffled sounds about me.
She patted my shoulder. ‘You just stay there, nice and cosy.’
As I sat in the dark, initially feeling a little foolish and wondering how long I was supposed to do this for, a creeping sensation began to inch through my body. All the scars from all the surgery I had began to ache. It was the strangest thing, as if every dead or damaged part of me was coming to life again. It was a good ache. It made me want to cry.
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Genre – Faith Memoir
Rating – PG
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