The Spirituality of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land


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          The main purpose of this book is to foster a true spirit of Christian pilgrimage by sharing what the Lord taught me on a trip to the Holy Land. Although it is specifically about the Holy Land, I believe the attitudes described can be helpful for any Christian pilgrimage.

          From the earliest centuries Christians began to make their prayerful way to the sacred places where Jesus lived, suffered, and appeared after his resurrection. They wanted to say thank you for his coming. They wanted to ask for a healing, or a special favor. Sometimes they went in reparation for their sins; or perhaps they simply sought a deepening of their faith. Whatever the reason, pilgrimage was one of the forms taken by Christian love and devotion.

          There is a great deal of tourism today which goes by the name of pilgrimage. Very often, attitudes of tourism and pilgrimage are mixed. However, I believe the interior attitudes between these two are very different. With this book I seek to deepen the interior attitudes of pilgrimage, with the prayer that all tourists to sacred places may become pilgrims.

          What is a pilgrim? In pondering this question I asked myself, “Was Jesus ever a pilgrim?” The Son of God came to teach us the mysteries of the kingdom, what our hearts should be like in the presence of the Father. Was he ever a pilgrim?

          Yes. St. Luke tells us that “his parents used to go up to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover” (2:41). The key to understanding Christian pilgrimage is to enter deeply into the dispositions of Jesus as he went to Jerusalem every year. But not only the Lord’s dispositions: those of Mary and Joseph as well, the most devout pilgrims in salvation history.

          What must have been the gratitude, the praise, the devotion of Jesus as he travelled to Jerusalem every year, to thank his Father for his great deeds on Israel’s behalf. Is it too far fetched to hear Jesus, his Mother, St. Joseph, and their relatives, singing as they make their way along the roads, “I rejoiced because they said to me, ‘We will go up to the house of the Lord.’ And now we have set foot within your gates, O Jerusalem.” With what profound joy and gratitude Jesus must have sung that eloquent pilgrim song! (How often do we imagine him singing? He must have had a good voice!)

          It’s a long walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Hot too. I’m sure Jesus’ thoughts turned to Israel’s trek through the wilderness, and to the final crossing over the Jordan into the Promised Land. His fatigue and thirst and other inconveniences were offered to the Father in a spirit of sacrifice; that is an important part of pilgrimage.

          Our minds can piously imagine many things that Jesus might have done on his pilgrimage, but there is one feature of his journey we know from the scriptures to be absolutely true. It may be the most important aspect of all, the one the Spirit most wanted us to know about. When Jesus went on pilgrimage to the holy places, he lingered, for days, to pray, and to be present to his Father.

          There is an Eastern mentality that pilgrims to holy places do not just come and go but remain at the shrine for several days, waiting for the Presence to be revealed. The Lord could visit the pilgrim with a healing, a blessing in the heart, a renewal of faith. They would often literally camp around the shrine or near the sacred place, “waiting for the Presence.” (Several years later, when visiting the main shrine of Our Lady in Sri Lanka, I saw this phenomenon: hundreds and hundreds of tents encircled the shrine. They were enjoying Our Lady’s presence for several days.)

          A real pilgrimage, as an act of devotion, has its origins in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is a “prayer in motion,” as it were. Like prayer, it is not in the first instance something we have decided to do (although it is that), but a response to an invitation of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit calls us on our pilgrimages, and he, therefore, has a plan for us. And just as prayer is most of all a listening and a responding to God speaking to us, so a pilgrimage is most of all an attentiveness to the Spirit’s inspirations along the way. I will have more to say about this in the course of the book.

          Jesus was always perfectly attentive and attuned to his Father. He could only do or say what he heard the Father doing and saying. And when he got to Jerusalem, what did he hear the Father saying? The Father told him to linger at the holy places, and to forget about schedules, even if it would worry his dear mother. There are more important things sometimes than keeping schedules. Here, in the holy city of Jerusalem, the Spirit told Jesus to stay for a while, to pray, to be about his Father's business, to discuss the scriptures with the doctors of the law.

          It should be the same for us. When we go on pilgrimage the Spirit says to us: “Forget about schedules! You have embarked on a timeless journey, come to eternal places, where the mysteries of your redemption fill the air. Here are no timetables. Listen, and wait for my Presence.”

          Shortly before I left on pilgrimage I asked one of the priests here –actually my very best friend, Fr. Emile Marie Briere, (who has since gone on the great pilgrimage to the Father) – I asked him for a word for my pilgrimage. He prayed for a moment and then said: “Be present to the Holy.” It proved to be a very profound word for me; it was very close to this eastern concept that I have just mentioned of “waiting for the Presence.”

          According to my faith, I was going to the holiest of places on earth. “Take off your shoes, for the places are holy.” These shrines are saturated with the presence of Christ, with the mysteries of his salvific life. It is of the essence of pilgrimage to, like Jesus, linger, be present, enter into the divine atmosphere of the shrines. Our Western minds have lost much of our belief in sacred atmospheres, sacred places. (Pope John Paul II has written about “sacred space.” There are places filled with a Presence because God, or our Lady, has acted there in a definite way. Just as we often put up memorials on the spot where people have died, or performed some outstanding deed, so, where Jesus lived, or where God acted (ex. Sinai), gives the place itself a special presence.)

          To anticipate somewhat with an example. I was praying in the Cave of Bethlehem one afternoon, and a tour came through. After giving the usual little speech on the historicity of the site and so on, the guide then said: “And now, before we leave, in order to create a little atmosphere, let’s sing one verse of `O Little town of Bethlehem.’ I thought to myself, “If there is one place one earth we do not have to create any atmosphere about the birth of Christ, it is in the actual Cave of Bethlehem! The Presence is here; the sacred mystery of the Birth saturates the air. All you have to do is wait on the Presence, be present to the holy.” Of course, they sang, but I felt it detracted from the sacred atmosphere that permeated the Cave.

          To return to the Lord’s pilgrimage: even before we begin speaking about his interior attitudes on pilgrimage, we have the very significant fact that he made one. Sometimes people say that it’s not necessary to make pilgrimages. God is present everywhere; Christ is present everywhere. And so on. That’s true, of course: it’s not essential to make pilgrimages; most people will never get to the Holy Land; even most of the saints never got there. All true. But this is not to say that making a pilgrimage to a holy place cannot be a grace-filled experience. It is one of the legitimate acts of Christian piety; indeed, it is a universal religious phenomenon.

          To counter this negative or indifferent attitude towards pilgrimage, I want to speak briefly about some attitudes that tend to downplay pilgrimage as a source of grace, and as a means of growing in faith. In our day – at least in the west - public signs and manifestations of faith are dwindling. Pilgrimage is one of these public manifestations that needs to be revitalized. (Islam has made the pilgrimage to Mecca one of the great corner stones of its religious observance.)

          There is a letter by one of the Fathers of the Church that gives classical expression – of all things - to some of these negative attitudes towards pilgrimage. Curiously enough, that Father is Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.) I say “curiously enough” because this rather negative letter of his “On Pilgrimages” struck me as very uncharacteristic of him. (If you’ve never read anything by him, please don’t take his remarks in this letter as typical.) He is a very gentle, human Father in his writings. One of his great themes is the soul’s journey – pilgrimage – back to God, out of Egypt, through the desert, and into the Promised Land. (See his Life of Moses.) I would have thought that he would have had beautiful things to say about a journey to the Holy Land, but he doesn’t. And I was surprised.

          I think maybe that he really didn’t want to go to the Holy Land! He was sent there on some ecclesiastical business, and he had a bad experience. He lists all the reasons why people do not need to go to Jerusalem! If you have any of these attitudes – presumptuous of me to contradict a Father of the church – I would like to persuade you to drop them.

          The first obvious point Gregory makes is that Christ is not more present in Jerusalem than in Cappadocia (read New York or London), so why go there!

          What advantage is reaped by him who reaches those celebrated spots themselves? He cannot imagine that our Lord is living, in the body, there at the present day, but has gone away from us foreigners; or that the Holy Spirit is in abundance at Jerusalem, but unable to travel as far as Cappadocia.

          Secondly, as a proof that Christ is not more present in the Holy Land than in Cappadocia, all you have to do is see the sinning that goes on in Palestine:

          Again, if divine grace was more abundant in Jerusalem than elsewhere, sin would not be so much the fashion amongst those who live there. Well, in a place where such things go on (he lists many kinds of sins) what proof, I ask, have you of the abundance of divine grace?

          (In our times of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, his argument would have even greater force.)

          Thirdly, a pilgrimage to the holy places is no guarantee that your faith will increase:

          We confessed that Christ who was manifested is very God as much before as after our sojourn at Jerusalem; our faith in him was not increased afterwards any more than it was diminished. Before we saw Bethlehem we knew his being made man by means of the Virgin; before we saw his grave we believed in his Resurrection from the dead; apart from seeing the Mount of Olives, we confessed that his Ascension into heaven was real. Our own places are far holier than those abroad.

          And then he makes the point that you don’t have to go anywhere to grow in faith:

          Wherefore, O ye who fear the Lord, praise him in the places where ye are now. Change of places does not effect any drawing nearer unto God, but wherever thou mayest be, God will come to thee, if the chambers of thy soul be found of such a sort that he can dwell in thee and walk in thee.

          Finally, if you go to Jerusalem with sin in your heart, it will profit you nothing:

          If thou keepest thine inner man full of wicked thoughts, even if thou wast on Golgotha, even if thou stoodest on the memorial-rock of the Resurrection, thou will be as far away from receiving Christ into thyself as one who has not even begun to confess him. Therefore, my beloved friend, counsel the brethren to be absent from the body to go to our Lord, rather than be absent from Cappadocia to go to Palestine.

          And his final objection that veers towards over-kill: we share more deeply in the Spirit through our faith, “not in consequence of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

          In modern jargon, he seems to be working for a Cappadocia travel agency! I would like to think that St.Gregory was having a bad day when he wrote that letter. I would like to believe that elsewhere in his lost correspondence he described the more positive effects upon his life of visiting the places where Christ lived and died. It’s hard for me to believe that such a great Father of the Church, who loved Christ so much, could have gone to the holy land without any positive results.

          I cite these negative remarks of Gregory – true though they are – because they are a classical expression of attitudes that may be keeping some Christians from appreciating the grace of a pilgrimage. I am not comparing myself to Gregory of Nyssa (!) but my experience of the Holy Land was just the opposite of his; and it has also been positive for millions of Christians down through the centuries. I recognize the obvious truth of what Gregory says, but surely it is only part of the truth, a one-sided teaching about going on pilgrimage to Palestine.

          For it is also true that you can combine faith with visiting the holy places. If you can come to Christ in New York and Cappadocia, you can come to him in Nazareth and on Golgotha. Neither should we minimize the fact that Jesus never walked bodily in Cappadocia, but he did walk the paths in Nazareth. Places where God himself walked have a special grace.

          From first to last, Christianity is incarnational: it is not a mystical doctrine elaborated by some unknown thinker in some unknown place. Our faith is directed to God who became Man, and who was born somewhere, lived somewhere, died somewhere, and appeared in certain places in his resurrected body. What Christian would not desire to see and touch such places!

          The key to pilgrimage, therefore, from first to last, is faith. I didn’t need to go to the Holy Land to increase my faith; but going to the Holy Land did increase my faith. Yes, the Cave and the Tomb are empty. In one real sense we don’t even need them to be accessible. (We certainly should never have shed blood to get them back.) But I’m so grateful to God that they are available to us. We don’t have to go to them as part of our salvation: for us, Christ is risen and present everywhere. So, yes, we can come to him anywhere, any time. But it was wonderful to walk where he walked, and to see what he saw.

          And, yes, when you come to the Holy Land you see that the place is full of sinners - like Cappadocia and New York. I wasn’t really scandalized. I didn’t expect to see some miraculous land of bliss, reflecting the paradise of the new creation. Especially these days. I just wanted to touch the land Jesus made holy by living on it, and I did. Faith is the deciding factor; faith is everything.

          To anticipate once again. One afternoon, in that same Bethlehem Cave, I was praying alone. A young man came in, wearing shorts, with a backpack and camera strapped over his shoulder. He stood in front of the Crib area with a rather pained and frustrated look on his face. After a few minutes he came over to me and said, “Is this it?” implying by the tone of his voice, “Is this all there is?”

          With heroic restraint I said, quietly, “Yes, this is the traditional spot where Christ was born.” That’s all I said, but I thought to myself – and felt like saying – “Listen, the Mother and Child are not here except through faith. Use your faith. If you think it’s no big deal now, you should have seen it 2,000 years ago!”

          He went back and continued to stand there for another minute or two, and then left. He never knelt down or made any outward sign of faith. Then he walked away quietly, and, I think, a bit disappointed.

          This young man became a symbol for me of those who come to the shrines with grandiose expectations, but without much faith. But it’s true: the Cave isn’t much to look at, the tomb is empty, and our poor human efforts to beautify the places where God lived and walked are often very disappointing. Yet, to the eyes of faith, they are extremely beautiful: Christ is still present, weeping in Gethsemane, glorious on Tabor, and resting in his Mother’s arms in the Cave. Faith does not ask, sadly, “Is this it?” but exults with a statement of fact: “This is it!” Faith is the key to pilgrimage.

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