The walls of Jerusalem are in ruins
And its gates have been burnt down
The verse literally refers to a time of exile when most Jews had been deported to Babylon while the Holy Land was left, to their minds, desolate. Allegorically though it can be read as a reflection on the near universal human condition. Jerusalem stands for that citadel which is our inmost self and where we keep a guest room more or less fit to receive the Holy Spirit. The walls are our defences against outward attack and the gates are the entrances and exits over which we should be able to exercise control. For most of us most of the time we are in exile from ourselves, our guest room is unfitted for its intended purpose, our defences are easily overthrown and we willingly engage in commerce which we would do better to shut out of our lives.
In what sense can we speak of an inmost self? Buddhists, who engage themselves in the task of entirely disproving the existence of a self as such, frequently resort to the evidence provided by our capacity to observe the transient nature of everything within the internal realm of our bodies and minds. It is true, that which we can observe is transient, that which does the observing, however, is the inmost self. It is the platform from which we view objects, persons, our own existence and God, our Creator. Or, at any rate, it is the platform upon which we should take our stance but too often we allow it to be overwhelmed by the passions and desires of the moment. We exile ourselves from the peaceful haven of stillness not by being busy per se but through accepting the business on which we are engaged at, as it were, its own valuation of itself. That is, a film on Netflix or an urgent piece of work or a demanding portion of chocolate cake insist that they are the most important thing in our lives at this moment and demand our full attention and energy. When they have finished with us they pass us along to the next damn thing and so we are hustled from urge to urge, action to action and our inmost self knows us no more and we do not know her.
Our walls should be the psychological and physical barriers we erect to keep out this endless onslaught of distractions, worries and irrelevancies. The good habits we form, the company we keep, the acts of will which we make, renew and adhere to day by day. This is not only a difficult work of construction but a trying and sometimes tedious business of maintenance. It is easier to allow a breach to be made than it is to repair it afterwards, and the repaired section may have been permanently weakened. We can say that these walls are thoroughly ruined if our daily experience of life consists of total exile from the citadel of our inmost self because we are so totally absorbed by the transient and earthly without giving thought to the eternal or the transcendent. After the second Temple was destroyed Jews were allowed back into Jerusalem one day a year so that they could mourn and weep over the ruins. Our own occasional (very occasional) remembrances of that most real, most vital part of our inward existence resembles these annual days of grief.
Even the most unsociable of humans (meaning, of course, me) are designed by our Maker to be creatures of relationship. By which I mean that it is intrinsic and necessary to our nature to both give and receive love. Therefore our walls, when we have them, require gates. Through these flow our relationships with the objects of our love and their relationships with us. Through them too flows the necessities of everyday life, work, leisure, trade. Yet they have the potential to close as well as to open and if we will it to be so they can remain, like the doors of Moria, shut to anyone or anything unable to say ‘friend’ in the language of peace and love. All too often though the fires of lust and desire which burn within us destroy these gates and they are left open so that even the most hostile of persons, ideas or things can enter into the heart of our city to freely indulge their passion for destruction.
Although it is at its best and most suitable in the midst of the citadel our guest room has, by the grace of God, one quality most necessary to our fallen nature. It can travel with us into exile. Which is to say that wherever we are in life’s journey, however much we have become alienated from our inmost self, we still retain the ability to turn, to experience conversion of mind and heart and to invite the Blessed Holy Spirit to visit us at this present moment. However shabby and dilapidated that room has become He will not disdain to enter it if we sincerely invite Him. When He comes He can make all things new. It may be a long and sorrowful journey back to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of walls, gates, citadel and Temple may be the painful work of decades. Yet He will be with us, His rod and His staff will comfort us, surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
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The painting is a detail from The Doors of Moria by Jeshannon