Driving in, you might be pretty much anywhere in the Mediterranean. The streets are full of kids, loitering outside McDonald’s and playing on their phones. Traffic moves at the pace of a snail with lumbago. Inside dusty, yet still sleek cars, drivers drum away their frustrations on the steering wheel, or crook an arm through their open window, a cigarette sending a trail of smoke to sign the air. Their passengers sprawl impotent, half-dead, devoured by congestion and the waste of time.
Shop windows lure the eye with bright lights and garish displays.Here and there, old men (straight from central casting) have been deposited in the white plastic chairs that are sold by hawkers every summer. They cradle their walking sticks, and smoke cigarettes, and look at the world through quiet, liquid eyes.
We check in at the Betharran convent, surprised to find no nuns. It is apparently a house for a group of French priests, so at least we can look forward to good food.
The stone basement chapel is wonderfully French: the sacrament is reserved in a construction at the west end behind circles of multi-coloured glass. The altar is built on an asymmetrical stone frame, with a Holy Family icon perched at one end and two pendant glass candle-holders at the other. The French may not have the design flair of the Italians (I think back to what I saw in Italian monasteries when I was a novice with CR), but their work is always interesting and quirky.
Behind the altar, a large window depicts the face of Christ. It is not, perhaps, a great work of art; it is, in fact, quite clunky, like a massive paint-by-numbers in different shades of brown. Yet it has a directness and an inescapability that are a great aid to prayer. VENI SEQUERE ME, it commands: ‘Come, follow me.’ And it does rather feel that if I can’t respond more fully to that call here in Nazareth than elsewhere, I may be in a degree of difficulty.
But I remember that these Nazarenes were precisely the people -his own, to whom he came- who were least able to follow and believe in him. And if their proximity ensured no direct route to belief, then our living at such remove in time and space need erect no barriers to it. The question for the pilgrim is whether spending time in the Holy Land makes that process of following Jesus more or less likely or (as opticians always say) about the same.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Like the effects of the French Revolution, it’s too early to tell.