Christians pray near candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

CNS FILE PHOTO | AMMAR AWAD, REUTERS

Christians pray near candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

April 9, 2012
JUDITH SUDILOVSKY
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

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 Sepulchre.

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.

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.

PILGRIM WEEPS

"I never thought I would be here in Jerusalem, but God gave me this," Tesfamichael said. "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 Sepulchre 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.

"For me this is the mystery," she said. "Christ was laid down here and it is his humanity. Every year my faith is renewed with new details."

PALESTINIAN CHRISTIAN

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."

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.