An Atheist in Bethlehem

by Trudie Haywood

A leap into the unknown Israel


Rooted to the spot, I tried to focus my thoughts and get out of the crowd which was swarming around me. Desperate to see the spot where Jesus was born, hundreds of tourists from around the world were attempting to skip the two hour queue, in order to reach the most sacred point of their pilgrimage. I was hot, and thirsty, and had to get out of the crowd surrounding the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A man claiming to be local guide took me by the elbow and led me towards a door, saying that if I paid him he could help me skip the queue. Dehydrated and exhausted, I acted against my better judgement gave him some money, just to get him away from me. He threw me roughly through the door and slammed it behind me. Someone put a thin, white candle in my hand. I caught my breath and blinked hard, and took in my surroundings. The dark, damp room felt like a cave, and people were fighting to get to the front. I peered through the crowd and saw it: a small, dark spot on the ground. The surroundings were grand, all marble and gold and red, but that was it, a small, dark spot. And I knew it was the spot where Jesus was born. My camera stayed in my bag so as not to anger the locals, who were frowning and muttering in the direction of the tourists and their flashes. I followed the other people carrying candles down some stone stairs, thinking it was the exit. My mind quietened, and I realised I could hear chanting. We had walked deeper underground, into a white cave, and robed monks were stood on a step above us, chanting. The sound echoed around the cave, and consumed us. The monks continued to chant, and led us down even further. I found myself in a crypt, surrounded by devout Catholics, listening to melodic Latin chanting which calmed me in a way no modern mindfulness methods ever could. For the first time ever, this atheist felt an affinity with a religion. The crowd slowly led me out into the world again. The other tourists were swarming, and noisy, and took incessant pictures. I felt calm, and grounded, and knew that Bethlehem was exactly where I was supposed to be on this day.