The Spirituality of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land


Chapter 2 Introduction Contents List

          It is ideal if one can prepare for a pilgrimage; and I don’t mean just packing. A few days of retreat in prayer and reflection would be beneficial. Probably most people who go on pilgrimage are on such tight schedules – how much energy it takes just to get away – that they often suddenly find themselves already on pilgrimage without having had a chance to wind down from their ordinary busyness. This chapter is an account of how my pilgrimage began, and how I prepared for it. I hope all prospective pilgrims will find herein some helpful suggestions.

          How did my pilgrimage get started? I was going over one of Archbishop’s Raya’s manuscripts with him, a section on the Holy Land. (He is a member of our community and the former Melkite Archbishop of Haifa and Galilee.) He turned to me, stared intently into my eyes, and said with a delightful twinkle, “How would you like to go to the Holy Land?” For the first millisecond I thought he was kidding; then it was obvious he wasn’t. I considered the question for two more seconds and then said, “Oh, all right! He offered to pay my way.

          I had always wanted to go to the Holy Land – what Christian doesn’t – but never really thought too much about it. In God’s time it might happen. This, it seemed, was God’s time. The Archbishop was planning to spend a year or so in Lebanon, working with the Melkite seminaries. Besides seeing the Holy Land, I would also be able to visit him in Lebanon.

          Lebanon was a war-torn land at that time, and it was doubtful if I would go there. It had, though, a very special attraction for me: Lebanon was the home of the patron saint of my poustinia, St.Charbel. He was a Lebanese hermit, a member of the Maronite Order. In 1875 he began the life of a hermit, dedicating himself to prayer, fasting, and manual labor. He “fell asleep in the Lord” twenty-three years later in 1898 at the age of 70. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI, December 5, 1965. When Thomas Merton first heard of him he wrote:

          Charbel lived as a hermit in Lebanon – he was a Maronite. He died. Everyone forgot about him. Fifty years later his body was discovered incorrupt, and in a short time he worked over 600 miracles. He is my new companion. My road has taken a new turning point. It seems to me that I have been asleep for 9 years – and before that I was dead. (Sign of Jonas)

          Actually, several months before this offer by the Archbishop, I had been thinking of pilgrimage. I was on holidays in Buffalo, N.Y., my hometown, and encountered a high school “March for Leukemia.” I thought to myself; “These marches are actually secularized versions of the Christian pilgrimage. There is the walking, the penance, the altruism, a destination, people are helped, and people help along the way (like the monastic hospitality for pilgrims.) It’s all there, only in a secular mode. It shows how fundamentally human the pilgrimage instinct is.”

          A pilgrimage is an act of devotion. It is not a holiday, not a sightseeing tour. (To repeat: one of the purposes of this book is to transform tourists into pilgrims. You may not find it at Tourist Information Centres.) Usually one goes on a pilgrimage for some special faith-purpose, as I mentioned above. As I began to pray about my pilgrimage the motive of thanksgiving quickly predominated. This was the Holy year of the Redeemer, 1983-84. Yes, it would be a pilgrimage of thanksgiving for my life, my faith, my priesthood, my Madonna House vocation, for having been saved – for everything I have received. (Chesterton said that an atheist has a real problem: when he wants to say thank you for all the blessings of life, there is no one to thank. I knew whom I wanted to thank.)

          Because of my love for solitude, my thoughts also turned to the desert fathers and the origins of monasticism. Egypt, Sinai and Mt.Athos came to mind. The Lord seemed to be leading me into a pilgrimage of origins, a pilgrimage to the sources of my desert vocation. Yes, a pilgrimage of thanksgiving, but not simply for personal favors: thanksgiving for Jesus and the Church, for St. Anthony and St. Pachomius, for St.Athanasius of Mt. Athos.

          A pilgrimage, a real pilgrimage! Had I ever really gone on one before? I remembered the shrines our family used to visit every summer. Before I was out of high school I had been to all the major shrines of North America: Auriesville, St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, the Jesuit Martyrs in Midland, Ontario, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. These were pilgrimages of sorts, but also part of our summer holidays. I certainly had a simple faith experience when visiting these holy places, and praying for favors as pilgrims do. No doubt many of the graces happen through osmosis: there are scenes from these visits indelibly imprinted in my religious memory.

          I can see, for example, in my mind’s eye, my father and mother, at St. Anne’s, going up the holy stairs on their knees. I remember the statue of St. Anne surrounded by canes and crutches – and even a few wheel chairs – left by the people who were cured. I remember the red crosses on all the tress at Auriesville, that recall how the Fathers used to teach the natives about Jesus. I will always see in my mind’s eye the awesome mosaic of the Pantocrator at the National Shrine of our Lady – I remember because I was frightened by its very stern visage. But these visits, as I said, were mixed with holidays and vacation things.

          Had I ever really gone on a pilgrimage, plain, simply, and unadulterated by holidays? No, I hadn’t. I began to get more excited. As the Lord kept drawing me into the mystery of pilgrimage, the thought kept coming to me, “Why don’t you go on a real pilgrimage – not on a vacation, but on an honest to goodness pilgrimage, with prayer and fasting and whatever else pilgrims do.”

          What do pilgrims do, how do they act, how do they travel? A real pilgrim walks. Well, since |I was going to the Holy Land and Mt. Athos it was obvious I couldn’t walk there from Canada. In all honesty, I think I would be able to walk, would like to walk. But I don’t have time.

          Time! Our lives are controlled by it. Pilgrims in the early centuries used to take years out of their lives to make a pilgrimage. Why can’t we! Because we don’t have time. We have schedules and commitments and appointments. Maybe some day I’ll be able to walk the whole way of a pilgrimage, but not now. Lord, have mercy on me! I’ll be flying into the Holy Land on El Al Airlines, and entering the holiest city on earth in a crowded sherut. My Master rode in on a donkey, and I’ll be riding in in a taxi.

          What do pilgrims do, how do they behave? In preparation I thought I’d re-read Catherine Doherty’s book Strannik (Pilgrim) and get some guidelines.

          “The preparations for pilgrimages were very simple. You had to get a bag made out of linen. In it would be a loaf of black bread and a little salt. Then there would be an icon on a cord hanging in front."

          That’s what I’ll do, wear an icon. When going on holidays I usually wish to remain incognito, and avoid people as much as possible. As I prepared for this pilgrimage I discovered a different spirit growing within me. It was a spirit of wanting to be known as a pilgrim, a positive spirit of witnessing to Christ during this Holy Year of the Redemption. I wanted this pilgrimage to be an overt act of faith in Christ, my Saviour. In a simple yet open way, I wanted to proclaim to people that I was a Christian on my way to the Holy Land, to thank God for sending his Son into the world. Wearing an icon would be just perfect to express this desire.

          I decoupage icons as a hobby. I found a small, 3x4 Russian icon of Christ the Redeemer. I decoupaged it and put it on a black cord. I’ll wear it everywhere. If people ask about it, I’ll tell them I’m a pilgrim on my way to the Holy Land. If it draws a blessing, I’ll praise God. If it draws anger or ridicule or scorn, I’ll praise God as well – or at least I’ll try to. Hostility to sacred symbols is growing these days.

          At table recently the topic of reactions caused by the silver Madonna House cross we wear came up. Several people remarked that our cross sometimes aroused anger and resentments. One of our men was almost attacked in the wash room of a bus terminal. Father Briere told us that when he went on pilgrimage to Russia, his clerical clothes caused a violent reaction from a man in an elevator. “The pilgrim must love those who hate him and be good to those who are not good to him, even to the point of giving away his clothing and belongings.” “It is part of the vocation of the Christian to bear the anger of the world” (Staretz Siloan). As I shall relate, I would have my own adventures with my icon.

          When people violently react to religious symbols like that, it is not the person wearing them whom is being attacked. It is the “anger of the world” to be borne for love of that person, and in reparation for the sins of the world which have caused such anger. “Lord, give me the strength to bear any such anger that shall come my way in union with your suffering for all the anger of the world on the cross.”

          “The pilgrim is totally open. He is not afraid of persecution. He accepts persecution because he is the follower of a persecuted God. A pilgrim is a person of pain. If he is not ready to accept pain, he cannot be a pilgrim."

          Jesus, help me to be a real pilgrim. Help me to bear any hardships in reparation for my sins and the sins of the world. Help me to identify with you, the Supreme Pilgrim, who came and walked our earth, and bore all our hatreds and scorn and misunderstandings. Lord, in some real way, you still walk the earth in your members, and you will be walking again in me. I unite myself to you. Walk with me, Lord, walk with me.”

          “Remember that pilgrims pray all the time.” Once, when I was in Catherine’s poustinia, I saw an eastern rite cloth rosary (chotki) hanging over one of her icons. I thought of asking her if I could take that along on my pilgrimage. It will be an aid to “praying as I go.” Sightseeing has no appeal for me right now. The only sights I’m interested in are within, and to be attentive to the graces God will have awaiting me along the way. I want to be attentive to the pilgrim plan he has for me.

          Two prayers began praying themselves in my heart even before I left. The first flowed from the scripture text, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” My prayer was simply, “Father, thank you for sending your Son.” I was moved to constantly pray this prayer of thanksgiving for the coming of Christ into our world.

          The second prayer was inspired by the text, “He was in the world, the world was made through him, but the world did not recognize him, did not know who he was.” Thus my second prayer was a form of the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us for not recognizing you.” I wanted to pray a prayer of mercy for the failure of humanity to recognize God when he came. Most of the human race today still does not know about, or love, Jesus Christ.

          “The function of being a pilgrim is first and foremost poverty, that strange kind of poverty that doesn’t incline too drastically or hurriedly to changes of life. The pilgrim views everything he has and is as belonging to God and his brethren.”

          I realized that a real pilgrim would go forth without anything but the bare necessities. I am not ready for that yet; maybe some day. What will I take along on this trip? One small piece of luggage that I can carry on the plane. Funny, if you ask that question sincerely – “What do I really need?” – you actually need very little. You need at least one change of clothes; most of the other clothes we take along are for “style.” A pilgrim should not be style-conscious. You also need some warm pieces of clothing for possible change of weather. So much for clothes.

          What about money? Here, I know, I lack faith. I will take along some money. Yes, it’s for security. Yes, it’s a lack of trust in God. However, I don’t have to use it like water. I want to buy some gifts from the Holy Land for people I love. Also, the pilgrim “”gives things away.” I will be attentive to opportunities for helping people along the way. No doubt the money the Lord has given me, through others, is not for myself alone but for those I will meet who are in need.

          “You gave alms to the poor and you pligrimaged to the holy places. The temptation of the pilgrim is that his hands will slowly form into fists so that he can hold only the gifts for himself.” “Lord, help me to see you as I pilgrimage along the roads, Help me to be generous as was the Good Samaritan.”

          When we are travelling in strange places without friendly contacts, without knowing exactly where we may be spending the night, often without knowing the language, it is very easy to be anxious. I know that I am being called to pray and be free from all anxiety on my pilgrimage, to really trust God for everything. I don’t want to be so anxious about my own needs that I fail to see the needs of others. "O Lord, let me not be like the priest on the road who passed by the needy. I will be praying for mercy because the world has not recognized you. Save me from being unaware of you in my brothers and sisters as I travel to the holy places. Let me recognize the needy strangers along the way as the holiest sanctuaries of all.”

          Who would be my patron on my pilgrimage? As the time for my departure approached it became clear that I would not be able to visit Lebanon. The fighting was too erratic, and thus too dangerous for travelling. This was a great disappointment, but it was prudent not to go.

          Since I would not be able to visit Charbel’s monastery and tomb, I would make him my constant companion on my pilgrimage; he would also be my patron. But how can a hermit be a patron for pilgrims?

          One of my favorite passages in Strannik inspired me for this choice: “I realize that the pilgrim is one who also stands still. It is not easy to stand still. It requires a tremendous faith in God that is almost unshakeable. Yes, a pilgrimage is also standing still. You will stand in perfect stillness because your hands and feet are nailed. You are unable to walk. That’s a pilgrimage, too. In fact, it is a supreme pilgrimage. In a way, it’s a crowning of pilgrimage.”

          The supreme pilgrimage is this perfect stillness before God that comes from having traversed the unimaginable distance between the soul and God. Charbel probably never travelled very far from his hometown; certainly he never left his home country. He has become for me the perfect icon of the God-traveller. The unimaginable distances in interstellar space are nothing compared to the interior distances to be travelled to the heart of God. Charbel would be a perfect patron for my pilgrimage. He achieved the goal of all pilgrimages – union with God. He lived perfectly the poustinia of the heart, became the perfect pilgrim in his endless standing still before the face of God in solitude.

          I have a precious relic of Charbel given to me by Archbishop Raya. In 1950 Charbel’s body was exhumed because a liquid was seen seeping from his tomb. Among other features of this investigation, the cedar bottom of his coffin was found to have rooted away. Some monks who had known Charbel were present at this exhumation of his body.

          One monk had obtained some fragments of this cedar coffin. When Archbishop Raya last visited the monastery he obtained some of these fragments for me. They are among my most prized possessions. I will take them with me as I pilgrimage; and if the Lord so wills, use them to bless people along the way.

          “St. Charbel, you who never travelled beyond your borders, travel with me on my pilgrimage. Obtain for me the grace to always be on this supreme pilgrimage of perfect stillness, in the airports, in the buses, on the streets, in the restaurants, in all the journeyings which are before me.”

          The community was particularly excited about my going to Mt.Athos. Not that it is more important than the Holy Land. Many people from our community have been to the Holy Land, but no one has ever visited Athos. Our great love for Eastern Orthodoxy endears this holy place to us. Staretz Silouan (whom I quoted earlier) was from the Russian Monastery of Panteleimon on Athos. He is a special favorite of ours. Also, the icon of Christ from the Serbian Monastery of Chilandari is one of our favorites; we have a print in our island chapel.

          In one of the books I read about Athos (by Loch), the author was speaking about the tourist problem, about “the tourist who was ousting the pilgrim, the sightseer who ran up and down either coast of the Mountain in a motorboat. But in this motorboat age is it possible to find numbers of men whose fullest way of self-expression in the world is to be found by withdrawing form it?”

          This withdrawal is a vocation for some people; it has been my way for most of my adult life. It may not always be. But I have a great desire to touch the places where this way of life was born, in the lands of Anthony, Pachomius, Athanasius and Mar Saba. They founded schools of holiness that have lasted many, many centuries. “Behold, those who practice alms and completely show their love of neighbor by bodily things, are many in the world. But those who beautifully serve in solitude and have intercourse with God are scarcely to be found” (Isaac of Syria).

          Being a member of one of the new ecclesial communities in the Church, I also wanted to explore the answers to this question: What are the ingredients of permanence that allow a community to last a thousand years! What does it take for a way of life to endure for so long? And what is the fascinating beauty of the desert that makes it an eternal attraction? I had read much about Athos. Now I wanted to touch it and see it.

          This pilgrimage, even before it begins, is already proving to be some kind of turning point in my life. I think it has to do with deeper solitude. In reading about Charbel these last few days I discovered that he entered deep solitude when he was 47 years old. I just turned 47 a few weeks ago. In some ways I’m in the prime of life. I’ve edited and written books. I guess I could keep doing that. But there’s some new stage I’m approaching. Deep solitude has always been the great desire of my heart. I believe I’m ready. I want to give these best years of my life to the direct seeking and service of Christ in solitude. Maybe my touching the deserts now will be the final grace and push.

          “Jesus, the Supreme Solitary on the Cross, enlighten me. Saints John the Baptist, Anthony, Pachomius, Euthymius, Sabas, Theodosius, Chariton, Hilarion, John Maron, Athanasius of Athos, Nil of Sora, Seraphim of Sarov, Theophane the Recluse, pray for me. If I am to follow you here in the northern thebaid of the New World, intercede for me.”

          Two days before I left, on the eve of our Foundation Day (the anniversary of Catherine’s going into the poor sections of Toronto), I went over to see her, to get her blessing for my pilgrimage. She was alone. One faint light gave a calm and peaceful atmosphere to her cabin. I bowed to the icons and greeted her as I always do, “peace be with you.”

          “Oh,” she said, “off on your pilgrimage!” I said, “Yes, and I’ve come to ask your blessing. In your book Strannik it says that pilgrims should get a blessing from their parents. I seem to remember that you forgot to get this blessing when you set off as a youngster from your home in St. Petersburg.” (She related this story in her autobiography. As a young child she set off on a pilgrimage. When she got lost, and the police brought her back, her parents simply said she forgot to get their blessing, so they didn’t know where she was.)

          She put her hand on my head and prayed quietly for a few moments. Then she said, “It’s going to be a wonderful pilgrimage. Wonderful.” She removed her hand from my head, and then I said, “Catherine, do you have a word for me for my pilgrimage?” She remained silent for a minute or two, then said, “Explosion! God is going to explode you into himself. I will pray to Our Lady that she obtain this explosion for you. Yes, explosion!”

          I said, “That’s a wonderful word. Thank you.” I then told her this was going to be a pilgrimage of thanksgiving, and that I was also thanking God for her and all she had done for me. I said I would see her in five weeks. She smiled, and I kissed her.

          I started to leave the room, but then I turned abruptly and asked her if I could take with me her Eastern rite cloth rosary, her chotki, to pray with on my pilgrimage. She said, “Sure, but bring it back!” I said I would, and quietly slipped out the door and returned to my poustinia.

. . . o o o . . .

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