Mother of Pearl
An exclusive poem by Ruth Padel
Come in. You'll have to bend, the Doorway of Humility
Is four foot three. We interpret this in many ways.
Some say the little entry, such a massive structure
(Touch the inside wall, you touch the start of the Church
Herself), reminds us of the upset times (four centuries longer
In the world than your Abbey at Westminster)
Through which it has, till now, survived. The basilica you see, Sixth-century AD, designed for Emperor Justinian,
Is only the second church. Constantine and his mother
Built the first in 325 – for Mary Theotokos, which means
"Giving Birth to God". Our saint is the Mother
In labour. Not the Madonna, though her lily's a native flower:
White hands of leathery velvet in the limesinks of the north.
(You're free. You could go and find them in bloom now...
But I mustn't wander.) See these wood hatches, set in paving
Of the nave? Lift one, look down. That snake-skin glimmer,
Flicked with coffee, black and rose: tesserae, cut in 324
For Constantine. Like a carpet, aren't they? Geometric
Loops of bitter chocolate, cinnammon, beige. That's the first floor
(Patches were destroyed last week) over which Justinian built.
He walled the town, but for his church he wanted triple doors.
You can see their outline. Wide; welcoming, wouldn't they have been?
They were blocked in to stop fourteenth-century Ottoman knights
Galloping Arab stallions up the nave. Our nave! The journalist
Who came last week called it a sacred grove. (Or a grove
Of sacred shadow, I forget.) Four rows, eleven pillars each.
Yes, the colour's strange. Bloody roan, you might say.
Khaki-ginger. Touch them. Run your hand down.
That's redvein sandstone, local, quarried from hills
Where fruit trees of the Bible are – must be – in bloom.
Almond, apricot, walnut, mulberry; purple mousse
Of Judas trees in flower. This is the season, Passover
And Easter, when Judas hanged himself. See the high shimmer
In petalled capitals on every column? Our town
Works mother-of-pearl. We understand vulnerability,
How to incise and it not break. It's up there, between the plumy tufts
Of stone, which glitter when the lamps are lit. We're saving oil;
The nave is dark today. In normal times, my brother's shop
Against the convent (where the tanks are), under shadow-teeth
Blond steps hewn by crusaders, is a haven from the sun.
We sell translucent earrings carved like birds, fish, dragons.
The crusaders learned gardens here
And the word for paradise. We thought they had lank hair
And were unclean. The crypt! Steady – take my hand
Through Justinian's bronze doors. Don't be afraid: it's dark,
Low, steep, yes; narrow (twelve metres by three);
But Greek Orthodox run this part and they make sure,
Even in times like these, there'll be a candle.
In the Bible it's a stable where He's born. Here they say
The stable was, or it was in, a Cave. In 135 AD,
To stop the rumours of rebirth (and the might of vulnerability,
Every dictator's nightmare, wouldn't you say?), Hadrian decreed
That this Cave, and the grove of evergreen oaks outside,
Was consecrate to the pagan god Adonis. But Helena,
Constantine's mother, found a Manger made of clay
In the Cave's rock-wall. They built the whole basilica
Above it. Like the Three Kings, the founding mother and son
Were late-comers to faith. The Bible says it's never too late
To come to who you truly are. The ground is full of little
Caves. In the one next door, from 385 until 420 when he died,
Jerome turned the Bible into Latin. Little tombs in this one
Here, mark the Slaughter of Innocents outside.
Western painters have imagined Herod's men
Killing Bethlehem children. Did you see Schindler's List?
I picture Herod on that horse above our town, watching
His soldiers on a white-black scene, bayonetting small blind
Doors, dragging kids from under beds. Manger Square,
Through which you came, so black with machine guns now,
Is normally a white bare glare. That's where it happened. All
The mothers of Bethlehem one by one, their mouths torn open,
Screaming for their sons. The one that got away was born in here.
In a few spots the stone's rubbed through, but all the Christian
Rulers of the world have lined this Cave with costliness.
Helena sleeved the Manger, centre of our faith, in silver. Justinian
Plastered marble on the floor, walls, roof. You like this orange-flame
Brocade, the outer curtain? My aunt stitched gilt knots in that cloth.
The inner one, sky-blue like the cupola of heaven, with ice-lace
Angels, came from the isle of Cos. In 1717 a silver star was set
In marble underneath, to mark the place of birth.
Fourteen wavy points: a catherine wheel, a rolling starfish, lit
By fourteen silver lamps, to represent communities
From the Christian world who worship here. We are sustained
By every heart upon the planet. That's why you're here, isn't it?
Yes, the marble's yellow, almost urinous, where screws that tamped
The star have let in water. Too bad – that's the place, my friend,
The exact spot where He emerged on earth. Here, facing each
Other across the Cave, are Altars of the Manger and the Magi
Where Wise Men stood in complicated robes to worship Him.
Did you see the Shepherds' Field outside the town? That's where
The sky lit up. Cards for Western Christmas tint the scene with snow,
But it happened in our landscape, twist-toffee olive-roots
Blushing in angelglow, our flowers dormant in the winter ground:
Broomrape, sunrose, sparrow-wort, Yeruham iris, logo of
The Society for Protection (I belong to it, you may have guessed)
Of Nature here in Israel. We sell olive-wood figures for a crèche:
Three different kings, a camel, donkey, ox; a shepherd boy,
Pet lamb around his shoulders, racing to tell the news.
Our church is part of Bethlehem. Convents have grown all round
Like satellite bulbs about a single snowdrop. From the air it looks
Like ivory carved from a single tusk. Our small white town
Must be the most destroyed in history. But each time it fell to dust
The church survived. Have you ever thought what 'sacked the town'
Must mean? How men, Nazis, Crusaders, Herod's soldiers, go beyond
Their brief? Persians did that to us in 614, but clocked
The Wise Men's clothes on these Byzantine
Tesserae, respected holiness, left the church alone. In 634,
The town surrendered to an Arab siege. They built a shrine
In here for Muslem prayer. In 747 the town was dust again.
Earthquake not man this time, but again the church was spared.
Come the eleventh century, Crusader mayhem fizzing
In the West, there was feeling against Christians here.
But Al-Hakim left the church untouched for the Muslim shrine.
Everyone feels the sacred. You do, too? Or don't you? In 1099,
Before the West's invaders took Jerusalem, Tancredi rode
To Bethlehem, to secure this church with Baldwin of le Bourg,
The First Crusader King, crowned on Christmas Day
1101. 1187, his kingdom fell and Latins left, but Salah al-Din
Allowed a few priests back to tend the Christian runes.
Khwarizmian Turks destroyed the town in 1244
But left the basilica alone. Like everyone; till now. By 1350
It looked like this, ramparted, castle-fortified. An armoured heart
Is what it's had to be and (listen!) has to still. Yet in those days
The West gave money to defend the church.
Philip of Burgundy gave pinewood, England's Edward IV
Gave lead. Are you leaving us? I thought you were a friend.
If my voice sounds weak, I'm not myself today.
Have you got all you came for? Just the tour? The story of this church
Is yours, too. Your story. I'd have taken you to my garden,
Shown you flowers of the Bible, which belongs to everyone.
White asphodel, blue alkanet, rose crowfoot, crown
Anemone. What happens to the man who has betrayed
His moral anchor or its earthly image,
Glances at altars, tesserae, fringed brocade,
The crafts of holiness, then walks away
From the take-the-ghetto scene? If you come again, you may
See only mother-of-pearl-dust, tinsel rubble, the heaven torn
Back like a bolt of mourning cloth on a market stall,
And all the darnels of the Bible in their glory.
Holy Thistle, spiny zilla, Syrian
Acanthus, grey nightshade, Christ Thorn.
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, April 2002