The Spirituality of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land


Chapter 7 Chapter 5 Contents List

Around 10 a.m. I took a sherut back to Jerusalem. I returned to Ecce Homo and packaged some gifts to mail to Canada. By the way, this is easier than carrying your gifts around with you from place to place. It’s a bit expensive, but well worth the cost. They arrived in Canada safe and sound.

          I spent the rest of the day and evening unpacking – but not my luggage. “Unpacking” is my favorite expression for one of life’s most essential functions. In GK Chesterton’s The Well and the Shadows he has an essay entitled “The Case for Hermits.” He writes: “The reason why even the normal human being should be half a hermit is that it is the only way in which his mind can have half a holiday. It bears the most resemblance to the unpacking of luggage. Many of us live in a luggage van, or wander about the world with luggage we never unpack at all. For the best things that happen to us are those we get out of what has already happened.”

          On the one hand there are the experiences of life, and on the other hand the unpacking, the digesting, the assimilation of what has happened. We speak of “superficial experiences.” In one real sense, most of our experiences are superficial if we do not assimilate them into the deeper core of our personality, or reject them from the core if we don’t want to keep them.

          For too many people life is a jumble of experiences that have never been assimilated. Their internal life is like a luggage compartment of unpacked suitcases. Much confusion about “who we are” comes from our failure to unpack. Our internal experiences have not been sorted out. Of all the things that have happened to us, we literally do not know which we want to incorporate into our deeper being, and which we do not. It is no wonder we don’t know who we are.

          No doubt, after one returns from a pilgrimage, many hours are spent in the telling and the reminiscing. But there should be time for this even on the pilgrimage itself. It is so easy to be continually on the go, caught up in planning, travelling, seeing, packing and unpacking (luggage), that one spends no time at all assimilating precious experiences after they happen, and before they fade into the dim consciousness. (Of course, such time for reflection is not part of most tour schedules!) I allowed myself time to do this on my pilgrimage.

          The poet Wallace Stevens put it this way: “I don’t know which to prefer, the blackbird whistling, or just after.” Over and over again I found the “just after time” spent in my room, visiting the holy places interiorly, as enriching and precious as the actual events. (Well, maybe enriching and precious in a different way.) Pilgrims need this kind of time as another way of savoring the |Presence.


The next day, Saturday, October 29, I took a sherut to Jericho. I wanted to visit the Monastery of the Temptation and walk around the desert area where Jesus fasted and was tempted by the devil. Arriving in Jericho I walked the several miles out of town and up the mountain to the monastery. Because of my appreciation for the desert, the mystery of Christ in the wilderness has a special significance for me.

          In scripture, the desert is the place where God often reveals himself in a comforting, caring way. “Desert,” in the scriptures, most often connotes for us the terrible theophanies on Sinai, the punishments meted out to the rebels during the exodus, and the temptations of Christ by the devil. But if you read the whole of the scripture with a different focus you will note that most of the time the desert is a place of comfort and consolation. One story – my favorite – is about Hagar’s expulsion into the desert in Genesis 16.

          With great reluctance and regret, Abraham expelled Hagar, his concubine, into the desert because of the jealousy of Sarai. It was there that “the Lord’s messenger found her by the spring in the wilderness.” The Lord tells her to go back, suffer Sarai’s abuse, and he will make of her descendants a great people. This was a great consolation indeed. Not only that, but the vision of the Lord is not terrifying: “To the Lord who spoke to her she gave a name, saying, ‘You are the God of Vision.’” She meant, “’Have I seen God and remained alive after my vision?'’ In Hebrew the place was called Beer-lahai-roi, which means "the well of living sight, the well where one can see God and yet live."

          Elias is comforted in the wilderness. And even Moses’ burning bush experience is awesome – holy – but not terrifying. More often than not, God reveals himself as a God of consolation in the desert, leading his people as a protecting Father with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

          Jesus goes into the desert mostly to pray, to commune with his Father. He was to teach the people that when they wished to pray they should go into their secret chambers, close the door, and pray to the Father in secret. I believe that Jesus went off alone every day to commune with his Father. He loved to do this. So, at the very beginning of his public ministry, he goes off into the wilderness to commune intimately with his Father. He goes also to confront Satan. But the scriptures say that he first had forty days of deep prayer, and then he was tempted. In other words, his experience in the desert was mostly intimate communion with his Father.

          Here I was at the site where Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to conquer the first enemy blocking our return to paradise. Here, in this desert, Jesus won for us all our battles against Satan. Satan was definitively defeated here. He only continues to have power because people do not believe he has been defeated. Satan knows he has been defeated. He keeps people from believing in Christ lest his defeat be revealed. His power is built, as always, on lies. I was walking now on the field of one of the greatest victories of all times.

          I arrived at the door of the monastery and rang the bell. St. Helena built this monastery of the Temptation in the 4th century. The door was opened, not by a monk, but by a Muslim caretaker who had been working here for twenty years. I learned, during my visit, that only five monks were here at the present time. I never saw one of them. I was again led, as usual, into a beautiful church filled with icons. Some of them were 600 years old. After reverencing a few, I was led up a stone staircase and shown a rock formation surrounded by vigil lights and icons. I was told that this was the traditional spot of the temptation of Christ. I asked if I could pray here for a few minutes, and he said yes.

          I prayed especially for an absolute belief in Christ’s victory over evil spirits, for discernment to know when they are tempting others and me, and for courage in combating them should people come to me seeking the power of Christ in my priesthood. I have been involved in some actual deliverances in my priestly ministry. During those experiences I have had powerful confirmations of the victory of Christ.

          I prayed that everyone would believe that what Christ did here in the desert had absolute and unquestionable finality. Satan has been conquered; his power is broken forever. He knows that, but do we? Unfortunately, we do not. And because of our lack of faith in Christ’s victory, we continue to give Satan power that has actually been taken away from him. In Christ’s victory we have already conquered. May we believe more firmly that his victory is completely in us, especially in our combat with evil spirits.

          When the caretaker returned he told me that the monastery is practically deserted. Young men come, but the life is too hard for them. He said a hermit presently lives in one of the caves near the monastery. I knew it would be impossible, but I asked anyway, if I might visit him. He said it was impossible! I thanked him and left.

          As I walked down the mountain I found a little cave of my own where I sat and prayed for a half-hour. Here, in this silence, in this desert place, was the confrontation between Christ and Satan. “O Christ of the wilderness, may your victory have its full sway in me. Help me, in your name, to meet and conquer the evil in me and around me. I believe in your total victory. Help my unbelief!”

          From my little cave near the top of the mountain I looked out upon a vast panorama – “all the kingdoms of the world.” Just opposite from where I was I could see other caves in the hillsides. Is that where the hermit lives? Again, I asked for a share in the spirit of the desert fathers, those giants who lived here in the desert of God. In my own poustinik life, how far I am from this absoluteness! Here there is nothing but God. How my spirit longs to have nothing but God.

          Christ’s fasting of forty days came to mind. I tried to enter into this mystery, praying for the grace of true penance. He spent weeks out here, eating nothing at all. What power was in him! No wonder the demons were afraid he would despoil their kingdom. I recalled what the devil had said once to St. John Vianney: “If there were six people like you, my kingdom could not stand.” Of course, the devil’s a liar! Still, could it have been true? We possess an immense spiritual weapon in fasting. How few of us have the courage and generosity to use it.

          What also came over me as I was sitting in this little cave was a deep sense of the dignity of the human person. Our spirit is meant to rule supremely over every other aspect of our being. How we allow this image and likeness of God that we are to be dragged down by all sorts of idols and addictions. We were meant to rule over all creation, and we allow all of creation to rule over us. “O Christ of the Desert, give me a greater portion of your Holy Spirit so that I might be restored to your true image and likeness, and reflect better the great dignity of the human person.”

          I continued my walk down the mountain and back to Jericho, where I grabbed a taxi to Jerusalem.

          This was to be my last visit to the City of David. Early in the evening I once again climbed the Mount of Olives. I met my Arab tourist-agent friend and went to his home for a chat and a cup of coffee. Then I returned to my strolling and praying on the Mount.

          I received a tangible grace that evening. My thoughts turned again to the loneliness of Christ. Catherine, in one of her writings, has a poignant phrase about this aspect of the Lord: “Nobody knew who he really was, inside of himself.”

          As I was pondering his immense aloneness he spoke a word to me of how I might console him. He said that every act of penance I perform would console him in his loneliness. I have always believed this, but this evening he confirmed this truth in my heart. I promised him something that evening, and put a symbol of this promise in one of the trees on the Mount. The wind has surely blown it away by now, but for me it will always be there. Whenever I am tempted to go back on my promise, I see the symbol I placed in the tree that evening.

          He also spoke a word to me about meditating on his Passion. I am weak in penance and bearing the cross because I no longer meditate very much on his pain and wounds. We emphasize the Resurrection so much these days – I do myself – that we have forgotten about the Passion. In The Way of the Pilgrim, every time one of the pilgrim’s friends was tempted to strong drink, he would read a passage from the scriptures. This would fortify his friend against alcohol.

          The Lord said to me that the remembrance of his Passion could become just such a strength for me. He said that if each time I was tempted to go back on my promise of penance, if I would open the scriptures and read a section on his Passion, that this would fortify me in my resolve.

          Sunday morning I spent two hours at the liturgies in the Holy Sepulchre. At a Spanish Mass on Mt. Calvary I noticed the people touching and kissing everything, just like the Orthodox! Then I went to the Cenacle for the last time.

          My meditation that morning turned to the holy community that used to meet here. Imagine celebrating the Eucharist with Our Lady, the Apostles, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Cleophas, Lazarus, Martha and Mary – all in one room! What must have been the depth of their faith and love! Imagine them sharing about Jesus’ life, about his resurrection appearances, about what he said to them on various occasions. And the Spirit was moving powerfully in them to help them understand everything he had told them. Since then, have there ever been such Eucharists!

          I prayed especially for our little ecclesial community of Madonna House, that we too would continue to be a strong faith community, joyful in our belief in the Resurrection, and courageous in bearing whatever trials the Lord might send our way.

          For several days I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to contact again Fr. Raphael, my friend I met at Emmaus. On my way to catch the bus from Bethany that morning a car stopped to let somebody out. It was Fr. Raphael! This was truly a gift from the Lord. The very next day I was planning to leave for Galilee, and I was hoping he could make some arrangement for my accommodations. I was not disappointed. Right there on the street he wrote out for me a letter of introduction to his Franciscan brothers at the church of the Primacy of Peter in Tabgha. Then I hopped on a bus for Bethany.


I arrived around noon. The church was closed. There was a sign outside Lazarus’ tomb that struck me right away as both appropriate and a bit funny – “Always Open.” It’s been open for 2,000 years. Once Jesus opens a door, who can close it! So I went in.

          The stairway must have been 25 or 30 feet down into the ground. I arrived at the tomb proper on the bottom level, lighted only by a single bulb hanging from a cord. A young couple was sitting there, silently. I sat down also. In a minute or two they rose and went back up. I was left there alone.

          I started to take out my New Testament, to read the passage of the raising of Lazarus, when the light went out. I panicked for a moment, thinking they might be locking the door. I called out, but not too loudly, as I remembered the sign outside saying the tomb was open all day. I guessed, rightly, for I could still see daylight coming in at the top of the stairs. They had just turned out the light.

          Another adventure. So here I am in Lazarus’ tomb, in absolute darkness, except for that faint shaft of light coming down the stairs. It only took me a moment to realize that this was somehow another special gift from the Lord, to be sitting here in the darkness in the tomb of Lazarus. And it was a gift. The Lord drew me into a very profound meditation about death.

          Here is where Lazarus lay for several days, perhaps right where I’m sitting, wrapped in embalming cloths. The air presently was a bit heavy, but I’m sure nothing like those days when, as Martha said, “surely there is a stench by now.” Here he lay – one day, two days, and three days. Where was he? Where was his soul?

Then, on the fourth day, a strong, commanding voice penetrated the rock: “Lazarus, come forth!” It wasn’t a wish, or a prayer made with a hope in mind. It was a command. And this body, this corpse, this inert matter that had been lying here for four days, began to stir. There was a squirming, an expanding of the cloth bands, and then, with slow but determined efforts, the legs slowly swing down from the stone slab onto the ground. The Voice keeps commanding – “Come forth! Come forth! Come forth” – (or was one command enough?). It is the Word of the Word calling, the Word through whom everything was made, the Word who creates by speaking. And nothing can resist his commands.

And this being –Lazarus by name – that is once again fully human, obeys the Word, and slowly moves towards the slight rays of light encircling the stone at the entrance. He still cannot see; he sees by hearing. The stone has been rolled way by now, and the light of day is pouring in, but he sees only the Word. He steps out into the light. His friends, also in a daze at what is happening, unbind him and let him go free.

Such it will be for me. I will be buried in the earth, in a dark coffin. I will be in my priestly clothes. Then, one day in timeless time, I will hear, from the lips of the risen Lord, what Lazarus heard: “Robert, come forth!” And from wherever the separated parts had been, they will all coalesce through the creative power of the Risen Lord. And I will rise from sleep and go to him.

I sat in the tomb, in the dark, for an hour. I kept hearing, “Robert, come forth!” I knew that if I were faithful to Christ for just a little bit longer, I would certainly one day hear those words. Then, nothing in the whole universe would ever again be able to prevent me from coming to Jesus. That Voice, that Word - “Come forth!” – would draw me through darkness, through sin and death, through all the layers of reality separating me from God, and pull me,  like the gravity of the moon pulling a space capsule, into the arms of Christ. That Sunday morning, in Lazarus’ tomb, I received a solid assurance that I too would rise from the dead.

We view as morbid the practice of the ancient monks, piling up those skulls in Saba’s monastery. They consciously kept the thought of death ever in mind. One of them wrote: “As bread is the most necessary food, so is the memory of death among other virtues. It is impossible for a hungry man not to recall bread; likewise for the man to be saved, it is impossible not to recall death.”

We write this off as anti-life, pessimistic spirituality. We are the blind ones. We had been held captive by the fear of death, and Christ has freed us from this fear (Heb. 2:15). In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernst Becker showed how this denial of death is the cause in us of much of what we label “original sin.” We live with emergency brakes on. We are moving towards death with the speed of light, but we make believe we will never arrive, that we will live here forever. We even wish it were so.

The fear of death, paradoxically, makes us afraid to live fully. The ancient monks knew this. They faced death as something good, as the passageway to true life; “from the shadows into the truth,” as Cardinal Newman put on his tombstone.

After an hour in the tomb I decided to leave. There was a bit of light, so I slowly made my way up the stairs and out into the sunlight. As I emerged I heard in my imagination, “Unbind him and let him go free.”

A young woman, the caretaker of the tomb, saw me and said with a gasp, “You were down there! I didn’t know!” I just smiled. Would she ever have let me stay down there for an hour in the dark for my meditation? For some reason I was very hungry, perhaps from my long imaginative journey. For I felt as if I really had just gone on some immense journey and back. I went and had lunch.

Farewell To Jerusalem

I returned to Jerusalem and visited once again the churches of the Flagellation and Gethsemane. I also spent two more hours on my beloved Mount of Olives. When I pray now I often join my prayer to Christ who is somehow still spending whole nights there “in prayer to God.”

When I returned to Ecce Homo I was invited by Sr. Donna to have supper with the Sisters and spend my last evening with them. It was a gracious offer and a delightful way to end my stay in Jerusalem. The Sisters of Sion have dedicated their lives to special mission – that the people of Israel might one day come into the fullness of their inheritance – Christ. Their founder was a Jewish rabbi who was converted to Christ in Rome through an apparition of our Lady. That could do it! The Sisters were always very helpful in assisting me and in making my stay fruitful. May God bless their work!

I rose early on my last day in Jerusalem and went, with my packed luggage, to a Latin High Mass at 6:30 A.M. in the Holy Sepulchre. On this, my last visit to Calvary, I offered myself in some new way as a victim in union with Christ. By our baptism we are all sharers in his victimhood, but perhaps priests in a special way are drawn into this mystery.

At the end of a retreat once the priest said, “Now don’t make any resolutions. You won’t keep them anyway. Just try to be attentive to the grace of each day.” So I didn’t make any resolutions. I simply made a deeper gift of myself in union with Christ on the Cross who is our High Priest and our Victim. I prostrated one final time before the Cross of my salvation, and then I departed for Galilee.

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