The Spirituality of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land


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          The day for departure arrived. It was Sunday, October 16. I finished packing my small suitcase and put on my pilgrim travelling clothes. I had decided to wear a tan clerical shirt and brown suit, enough to give my priesthood visibility without looking forward to wearing blacks in the heat and dust of Palestine. Before leaving the poustinia for the community Mass, I prayed for a passage from Scripture. It was the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. This word about the lonely and suffering Christ proved to be one of the two major words spoken to me on my pilgrimage. Then I went to the chapel.

          I wanted to give my leave-taking, and my pilgrimage in general, a communal dimension. I didn’t want it to be simply “my pilgrimage” but a pilgrimage in the name of the community. So I put my little pilgrimage icon on the altar before Mass in order to have it blessed by nearness to the Sacred Gifts. The psalm for that Sunday appropriately enough was 122: “I rejoiced when I heard them say, `Let us go to God’s house. And now our feet are standing within your courts, O Jerusalem.” (I don’t know, maybe the schola picked that text just for me. Surely the Lord did.)

          The readings also were very providential. The theme was persevering prayer. The Old Testament lesson was the story of Moses with his two arms raised in prayer during the battle with the Amalekites. This is the traditional symbol used by the Church for the contemplative life: One arm is prayer, the other is penance. As long as the Church, especially in her contemplative orders, continues to pray and do penance, the Church wins the battle on the plains of the world. I believed this pilgrimage would be a deepening for me of my vocation to prayer and penance within the Church. Some of the places I was planning to visit – monasteries in Palestine, on Mt.Athos, the Carthusians in England – what were they but the continuation, down through the centuries, of that prayer of Moses upon the mountain.

          The Gospel that day was the story of the unjust judge whom the widow would not leave alone until he rendered justice. It, too, was a word about persevering prayer for my pilgrimage.

          During the silent pause after communion I got up from my seat, took the icon off the altar, and addressed the community: “Most of you know that I leave today on my pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Mount Athos. I want you to know that I take you all with me, and that I am going in your name as well as my own. I am going to put on my pilgrim icon now, and then kneel before the icon of Christ. My pilgrimage is in honor of Christ the Redeemer, in thanksgiving for his redemption, and in reparation for our unbelief. As priests come around and pray over me, I invite you to pray also.” Then I knelt down with my little icon around my neck for the first time. The priests prayed over me their prayers of protection and blessing, and the community joined in as well.

          I think it’s appropriate if, before people go on a pilgrimage, they can receive some public blessing, say, in the parish church. It would help to revive pilgrimage as a true devotion in the consciousness of our people.

          Shortly after I sat down again, one of the women of our community, Rejeanne, came over and kissed my icon. It was a lovely gesture that brought home to me the holiness of my adventure and the reverence with which the community was accompanying me. Before I left that day several other people kissed my icon. One had tears in her eyes. Another said, “We’re all going with you.” This reverencing of my pilgrim icon by members of the community was their way of consecrating my journey. I received many different kinds of reactions to my icon on my pilgrimage (which I will relate), but no one graced it with as much love as my own sisters and brothers on the day of my departure.

          Another thing I did to give my pilgrimage a communal dimension was to put up an envelope on our bulletin board marked “Intentions for Fr. Wild’s Pilgrimage.” Prayer for others is an important part of a pilgrimage. Our friend, Gregory of Nyssa, might have protested, “You can pray just as well in Combermere as in Jerusalem; and your prayers don’t have more value in |Nazareth than in Ontario.”

          Well, yes. But there’s another instinct from God at work in us. There is something special about having a friend of yours pray for you at the crib of Bethlehem. We don’t need to make it into a profound and complicated theological problem. We know we can pray anywhere for anybody, and that God is everywhere. (Okay, St. Gregory, we know all this!) But we’re thrilled in our hearts if somebody speaks our name to God on Calvary, or inside the Holy Sepulchre. Praying for people makes them present. By praying for someone in the tomb of Christ, we bring him or her there. Through our prayer for others we bring them with us on our pilgrimage to all the holy places. And I don’t care what St.Gregory thinks!

          So I did this. These intentions were a sacred trust to me. I made a promise to pray through them every day, and I did. I knew them almost by heart. It was another way of bringing the community and all the intentions in their hearts, with me. Intentions were dropping into the envelope right up until the moment I left.

          That afternoon I went by car to Ottawa and stayed overnight at St. Paul’s seminary. Already on that first ride I began praying the Jesus prayer on Catherine’s chotki. I read a few passages from the only book, besides the New Testament, I decided to bring along with me, The Way of the Pilgrim. This is a modern classic about a Russian pilgrim who was in search of an answer to the question, “What does it mean to pray always?”

          What was I seeking? A deeper faith in the Incarnation. A new burst of life. I felt I was approaching some new crossroads in my life, and I hoped that Christ had some graces waiting for me in the Holy Land. My life was more than half over. Was I going to die like I am now, without ever coming really close to God, without ever really understanding very deeply what Christ had done for me? Without ever having thanked him  adequately?

          Monday morning I celebrated Mass. It was the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Antioch was in modern Lebanon. “St. Ignatius, pray for the peace of your homeland and countrymen. And help me to witness to Christ on this pilgrimage as you witnessed to him on your way to martyrdom in Rome. Oh, obtain for me from our great God and Saviour something of the courage that made you write: `Let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread.’” My God, how powerful is your grace to put such actual desires into the hearts of your servants!

          Walking around Ottawa that day I received the first of many stares and glances at my little icon. I must admit that I always had some apprehension in wearing it. Doubts came into my mind about offending the Jewish people by wearing it. ”But why should they be offended? Jesus was Jewish. Even if they don’t believe what we believe about him, they should be proud of him as one of their own, one of great religious teachers of all time.” Thus did I encourage myself.

          I took an afternoon bus to Mirabel airport outside of Montreal. I kept saying the Jesus prayer and “Lord have mercy on us for our lack of faith in you.” Going through the countryside of Quebec, we passed a rather large roadside crucifix. A crucified Man on the side of the road. What do people think when they see such an image? “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, but the world did not know him.”

          The pilgrim in my book is up to 12,000 Lord-have-mercies a day a day. Not bad. I read a passage from my New Testament where it says that Christ was angry, but also “he felt sorry for them because they were so obstinate.” It seemed an apt description of the human race in the light of the Incarnation. As Paul says, “The human race has nothing to boast about to God.”

          I received a good word from the Lord about my icon that rests uncomfortably upon my quivering and tremulous breast: “Everyone in the world is your brother and sister, just like the people who kissed your icon before you left. Instead of worrying how they will see you, have the eyes of faith to see them properly. If everyone were freed from their ignorance and blindness, they would all kiss your icon. With the eyes of faith, see them kissing your icon in their deepest heart. And pray for them that someday they actually will.”

          I was subjected to a rather intense – courteous but intense – interrogation by no less than three different Israeli immigration officials. I was asked the same questions by three officials, each one higher in authority. Maybe my pilgrim garb seemed too artificial. And then, I had only one piece of luggage for five weeks abroad. (Maybe they’re not used to real pilgrims!) Maybe clerical clothes are one of the more common disguises these days. I don’t know. I didn’t blame them, really; they were just doing their job. Planes are being hijacked, and they deal with terrorists all the time. This was my first personal contact with Israelis. Already I felt some of the tension and stress they live under. No, I didn’t blame them.

          After finally passing through the security check and walking into the waiting room, I found myself already in Israel: Everybody seemed to be Jewish except me! My first impression was, “These are all Jesse’s relatives.” Exodus came to mind, and all the migrations of the Jewish people down through the ages, too many of them enforced by Christians. But it was a joyful migration this evening. People were excited and happy to be travelling to Israel. “Next year in Jerusalem.”

          It was an El Al night flight, non-stop, Montreal to Tel Aviv. There were hundreds of people on board, and it would take 9 1/2 hours. I sat next to a very friendly Jewish man with whom I toasted “To Life!” with our dinner wine. (Like Catholics, the Jewish people believe that everything that God made is good.)

          We chatted on and off, nothing too serious. The plane was crowded, and most people seemed to know each other, or were making friends quickly. I dozed a little but was too excited to really sleep. The crowded space gave me a sense of the mass of humanity into which Jesus had come.

          My friend next to me knew I was a priest, and that I was going to the holy places. As he woke from one of his dozing periods he said (and he must have been pondering this for quite a while): “Judaism and Christianity are not really all that different. We both worship the same God.”

          I tried to judge if it was an important question for him, or if he was just making conversation. It seemed important, so I said: “But what about Christ? We believe he is the Messiah and you don’t. Isn’t that a big difference?” “But he can’t be the Messiah,” he said, “because when the Messiah comes, everything will be wonderful.” “But,” I said, “isn’t that a kind of magical view of the Messiah? We believe that everything would be wonderful if people did what the Messiah told them to do. Surely the world isn’t just going to become wonderful without our participation.” He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t pursue it any further. That was the only serious religious conversation we had. It was brief, but I think it was an important and very pointed exchange.

          I remarked at one point about the skullcaps worn by many. “That’s a sign of reverence for God, he said. “Your pope has one.” I mustered up the courage to ask him if he thought my icon would be offensive to Jewish people. He said a very definite, “I don’t think so,” which cheered me up. I was wearing it then.

          The captain announced that we were now flying over the entire length of Yugoslavia. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “maybe Our Lady is appearing to the children right now!”

          For the past several years, since June 24, 1981, there have been reports that our Lady is appearing to some children in the town of Medjugorje. The apparitions have not been officially approved, but neither have they been disapproved. From the testimony of many people who have been there, including priests from Canada and America, they sound authentic. She is calling her children to prayer and penance for the world. I asked her – as I was flying over – to bless my pilgrimage and to accompany me along the way. I had toyed with the idea of trying to go to Medjugorje, but decided not to. (Two years later Our Lady arranged for my twin sister and I to be in the room with the children during the apparitions. Maybe Mary remembered my prayer on this flight!)

          There was only an hour and half to touchdown in Jerusalem. People began to get more excited. (Maybe it was the first time for many of them as well as for me.)  The noise-level rose. (As well, there was lots of excitement in the heavens when the Son of God leapt down from his throne and “touched down” in our Lady’s womb. Thousands of galaxies in the universe and our God decides to visit us. I will be dropping down from about 35,000 feet. The Word came – from how far away?)

          Landing, customs, and taxi to the Via Dolorosa. As soon as we drove through the Lion’s Gate I knew we must be on the Via Dolorosa. So I told the driver to stop. How could I drive in a taxi onto the Via Dolorosa! I couldn’t put those two realities together in my heart – a taxi and the Via Dollars. From the directions I had received I knew I was not too far from the hostel of Ecce Homo where I was going to stay. I could walk the rest of the way – like a pilgrim.

          I knew the driver was over-charging me, but I gave him even more, to his great consternation. “If anyone takes your cloak, give him your tunic as well.” I was flooded with the sense of the holiness of the Via Dolorosa, so was in no mood to haggle with a taxi driver. Being on the holiest street in the world for the first time, I was neither going to drive onto it in a taxi, or get upset over money!

          It was night; I was tired. But I was on the Via Dolorosa. It was still awesome – tiredness, luggage, time of day and all. Asking a few directions, I arrived at Ecce Homo, which was run by the Sisters of Sion. I breathed a sigh of relief as they recognized me and led me to my room.

          Before I went to supper I walked out onto the roof and for the first time in my life saw a panoramic night view of Old Jerusalem, the holiest city on earth. It’s one of those places you’ve read about, meditated on, all your life, but probably never expected to see. The symbolism of it all was overwhelming. I just stood there in the warm, quiet night and let thousands of years of history impact on my soul. Then I went to supper.          Before retiring – I hadn’t really slept for over 35 hours - I had to confront one of the persistent temptations of pilgrims: requests from others to socialize and do tourist things. Tourists are far away from home. If they encounter someone from their country they want to “get to know you.” (I always avoided like the plague people who were about to say, “Hello, I’m from Chicago. Where’re you from.”) This was never a real temptation for me, but it’s a temptation that pilgrims can fall into if they are not vigilant; or if, from a misguided sense of kindness you feel “you can’t refuse”; or, if through a lack of discernment, you think this is an invitation of the Holy Spirit!

          Thus, at the places where you’re staying, you begin meeting people at meals and in the normal comings and goings. This can’t be avoided. But out of their need some begin asking you to go here and there, spend time socializing. Often they are lonely and in need of companionship.

          Pilgrims need to be kind but firm here. You have come to pray, and to follow the Holy Spirit. People have to respect that. (Tourists will not understand!) You can’t be a prayerful pilgrim if you’re tied down to travelling around with people and get over-involved in sightseeing. This is not part of what the Spirit is asking of you.

          For example, the very next morning a guest asked me if I wanted to go to such and such a place with him. I said no thank you. A bit surprised, he said, “What are you going to do your first day in Jerusalem?” I said, “Well, I don’t know what other people do, but I’m going to pray.”

          There was a temptation that first morning to rush out the front door and begin dashing around Jerusalem. After all, I had never been in this Holy Land before, so hurry up and get to it! I had to restrain myself, or rather the Holy Spirit came to my rescue. Why was |I rushing out? I already was in a holy place, Ecce Homo. Slow down! Be present to the Holy!

          I went to the small chapel that overlooks the large church below. I celebrated – alone – a silent, long, prayerful Mass. It was the feast of Isaac Jogues and the North American Martyrs. Here, for the first of many times in the Holy Land, I raised the Blood of Christ over the city and the country. On the pavement below me, the Lithostrotos, this Blood had been spilt for me in great abundance.

          The Holy Spirit instructed me on that first morning that my daily celebration of the liturgy was the most important act I could perform as a pilgrim, and to be faithful to it. He had brought me here to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, not for sightseeing, not to “make contacts,” but to pray.

          As I reflected that morning on the Blood of Christ spilled on the pavement below, I remembered something that occurred once during a liturgy. The chalice was being handed to people as they came up to receive the Precious Blood. A woman took it, then accidentally dropped the whole chalice on the floor! She was understandably emotionally distraught, and began crying uncontrollably.

          I was sitting close by. I can truthfully say I was not upset; it was an accident; Jesus was not upset. But it has become for me a dramatic image of what, through our sins, we have actually done with the Blood of Christ – splattered it all over the earth. Now, this morning, I was close to the spot – I still hadn’t gone down  – where this spilling of his Blood was not an accident but a barbaric, wilful act of creatures towards the most loving Person who ever walked our earth.

          Then, after Mass, I went down to the Lithostrotos, the actual pavement where Jesus had been brought from prison, scourged, and mocked by the soldiers – by us.

          The question of whether this or that place was the “actual, historically exact place” of Christ’s passion, birth, and so on, never bothered me. Let the archaeologists worry about it. As I descended to the Lithostrotos some maps and archaeological evidence was on the walls. About to touch such a holy place, I was in no mood to read about it. It’s a temptation for pilgrims to allow the problem of “is this the exact spot” to disturb your mind and heart, disturb your prayer.

          The Holy Spirit instructed me as to the key to “this problem.” I believe in the Incarnation. I believe this is the Holy Land where Jesus walked and suffered and rose again. The sacred drama happened in this land somewhere. The whole land is holy. I would kiss every inch of it. I would gladly kiss every inch of every stone uncovered.

          The same with his birth and all the other events of his life: he really was born in Bethlehem, so there’s a holy cave there somewhere. The whole Sea of Galilee is holy because he walked on it and calmed it somewhere. Every mountain in Palestine is transfigured because he was transfigured on one of them somewhere. Somewhere he said, “Blessed are the poor.” The actual place doesn’t really matter. I plead agnosticism. For me, the actual place is where I meet Christ in faith.

          The archaeological literature about the holy places is interesting; I read some of it, but not much. Maybe some day, but not now. I never prepared for the visitation of a holy place by reading the literature. I had come to pray, not study, not acquire information. On this first visit all I needed was my faith.

          Thus, on my first day, as I descended to the lowest level of Ecce Homo, where the stones from the Roman courtyard of the time of Christ have been excavated, the first thing I did (and I did this at all the holy places on my arrival) was prostrate on the ground. What else is appropriate when you arrive for the first time in your life at the place where Christ was scourged and mocked as a fool for love of you? I kissed the pavement many times. I knelt and prayed. I sat for hours, meditating and praying and being present to the Holy.

          For the first time in my life this mockery and debasement of Jesus as part of a cruel game seemed the most absurd of all his sufferings for us. The flogging was an ordinary punishment; even crucifixion was a normal form of execution. But being made a fool of as part of a game!

          The game was called “The Game of the King.” The soldiers were given a prisoner to make sport of. Dice and chance were involved. At the end of the game the poor victim was killed. Jesus allowed himself to be used in one of our senseless, mindless, cruel games. What an abasement for the King of the Universe!

          One of the graces I received at the Lithostrotos was greater courage to live the Gospel no matter how foolish people thought I was. How often I have avoided the following of Jesus because it involved being considered foolish and ridiculous in the eyes of others. “Lord, cover me with your mantle of foolishness. May I never refuse to follow you because of human respect.”

          While praying at this sacred place of Ecce Homo I witnessed for the first time what would become a common scene during my visits to the shrines: a tour! I may as well get off my chest here all the uncharitable thoughts I had about these tours. So here goes. (Again, I’m sure this present book will not be recommended by tourist agencies.)

          Usually a tour would consist of twenty or thirty people. A guide would be with them. The people file in, then the guide gives a short speech on the history of the site, and so on. The people may look around for a few minutes, take some pictures, and then be hurried off to the next site on the tour. Sometimes a little time was left for prayer; but often not.

          I don’t know if any of these people ever come back to the sacred places after their tours. Perhaps they do. I hope so. But I suspect, because their time in the Holy Land is so limited, and there are so many “sites to cover,” they are not able. I’m sure that for many people the first time they set foot in a sacred pace is on one of these tours. I thanked God every day I was not on one.

          I just could not imagine myself coming, for the first time in my life, into the courtyard where Christ was mocked, and listen to a speech by a tour guide; and then having to file out again in a few minutes. How could anyone do that! Here you are, in the holiest places on earth, and you file in and out in fifteen minutes.

          Even to witness this touring was a great sadness to me; as I said, I couldn’t imagine being involved in it. Aren’t these people aching to pray and adore; do they not long to spend some quiet time in reflection? Doesn’t their whole being desire to be silent and meditate on these sublime mysteries of our faith? How is it possible to rush through these places so haphazardly?

          I realize that not everyone can go alone on a pilgrimage as I did. (Although I think many more people could do it if they were willing to put up with all the inconveniences. Or maybe go in twos and threes.)

          Somehow the spirit of pilgrimage has been sold out to the guides and the tourist agencies. Do these people on tours want more time to pray and wait on the Presence? If so, why don’t they inform the guides of their intentions? After all, it’s the people who pay. Why can’t they “call the shots” and demand an hour of prayer at each of the shrines? Better a few shrines prayerfully than many without prayer.

          In an attempt to “get through everything” thousands of people every year are rushed through the shrines like crowds going through turnstiles at a football stadium. How much prayer is lost! I know many are praying in their hearts, and probably would like to stay longer. But ten minutes is all the tour guides allow. These people have come halfway around the world to visit these places, and ten minutes is all they get! It was always very sad to see, very sad indeed.

          People who arrange the tours should make it clear to the agencies what it is they want. Surely they should want quality time on a pilgrimage, not quantity. See less and pray more. Don’t rush through these sacred places as if you’re touring a museum. Prayer and time for reflection is everything on a pilgrimage. I spent hours in many of the holy places, and saw half a dozen tours come and go in the space of these hours. “When do they pray?” I thought to myself.

          Oh, I’m sure they receive some kind of blessing. They go back home with a rich store of memories and experiences. They will have photos to look at. But they will never again have the opportunity to pray on Calvary, or at the Holy Sepulchre, or on the Mount of Olives. This is the uniqueness of a pilgrimage: to be able to linger at the holy places like Jesus did when he wen up to Jerusalem.

          If this book could change one tour to the Holy Land into a pilgrimage, it would be worthwhile. If I could convince one organizer of a tour, one agency, to allow more time for prayer at each shrine, instead of dashing off to “see the next shrine,” it would have been worth all the effort.

          One evening I was walking on the Mount of Olives. I met an Arab who worked for the Jewish tourist agency. I was expressing to him some of the above concerns. He simply said: “Tours are not for praying, they’re for making money.”

          Have Christians sold out the spirit of pilgrimage to the spirit of tourism? I think we have. The pilgrims pay the money; they should be able to control the tour. All you have to do is threaten that you’ll find another agency that will meet your requests. I’m sure they will accede to your demands.

          Another advantage of going alone, or with only a few others, is that, if you stay long enough you can hear what the tour guides say for free. I heard at least one explanation at each place just by being there over a period of time. (Without any pretentiousness I can say I could have given a better commentary!)

          If you can, go on pilgrimage yourself, or with a few. The places are easy to find; everybody knows where they are. Why do we need a guide to lead us to places everybody knows about! Make an adventure out of it. It’s fun to seek out places. And you can read the commentary in the guidebooks, if you’re interested. That’s where the guides read it. Be courageous. Trust God. Move at your own pace. Linger and pray. Enough. It’s off my chest. I promise not to mention it again!

. . . o o o . . .

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