This article will be published in the Summer 2018 issue of the Episcopal New Yorker.
Letter from a Pilgrim
by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
Pilgrimage is hard.
Pilgrimage is not tourism (although a tour company may book the arrangements for the trip and often provide a guide). Pilgrimage is not sight seeing (although you will see many sights). Pilgrimage is not comfortable (even though you may stay in nice hotels and travel in a climate-controlled bus).
Pilgrimage is arduous; it is not meant to be easy. Pilgrims strain as they seek, striving to come close to God. Sacrifices will always be demanded of the pilgrim, and these can take many different forms – financial, physical, emotional and of course, spiritual. The key for the pilgrim is trusting in God’s companionship on this very special journey, as new, difficult, and wondrous experiences bring the presence of the sacred near. If the pilgrim does her or his job right, life will be changed – permanently branded by the burning kiss of the Holy Spirit, given to all who truly seek God.
Three churches from the Diocese of New York joined together for a Holy Land Pilgrimage in January 2018; our group numbered thirty-five souls. Very few of us were in what could be called optimal physical shape for what promised to be a tough ten days: some members of our group have respiratory issues, several are diabetic, many have difficulty walking, and a number are north of eighty years old. One had been hospitalized in critical condition at Columbia-Presbyterian with flu complications less than three weeks prior to our leaving.
All of us were embarking on a pilgrimage beginning with a twelve-hour flight to Tel Aviv and a long drive to Tiberias, followed by daily activities beginning at 8 am and lasting to 6 pm or later, while expecting to be on our feet for most of the time. That is what we knew as we boarded the plane.
Here’s what we didn’t know: that we wouldn’t be just walking but hiking a good deal of the time, sometimes nearly vertically up city streets (in Nazareth to reach the Church of the Nativity), sometimes nearly straight down (from the top of the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley), often over weathered, unstable, rocky paths and wadis (at Megiddo, Beit Sh’ean, and Muchraka). We didn’t know we would be standing on endless lines in suffocating crowds of fellow travelers, pushing through the hordes while trying desperately to stay together in the narrow souk of the Old City.
We were warned that it was the rainy season – but none of the Israelis we spoke to could recall a storm as long and intense as the week-long wind and rain event we experienced while there. An Israeli friend of mine who I lunched with while in Jerusalem had trouble believing me – “It never rains at Masada!!” (We had nearly blown off of Masada the day before in a miserable, wind-driven downpour.) Nor did we know that the steep path down the Mount of Olives turns oil-slick slippery when wet – landing one of group who has serious back problems flat on the ground – fortunately injuring nothing more than his dignity. We were in a constant state of chill and dampness – not what one normally imagines when contemplating the Holy Land.
Ah, but the sites we visited blazed with the Holy Spirit, jolting the oh-so familiar words of Holy Scripture off the pages of the Bible and writing them deep into our hearts in letters of holy fire. The experience is profound, but impossible to express in human language. What follows is an attempt to explain the indescribable.
The pace and exhilaration of visiting holy sites accelerated day by day. There were far too many to mention, but here are some highlights: Sailing on the Sea of Galilee and kneeling at the water’s edge, the very place that some of the first apostles had launched their boats two millennia before. The recently excavated site of Peter’s house in Capernaum, a mere eighty feet from the entrance to the town synagogue where Jesus taught while staying in Peter’s home. A stunning chapel dedicated to women in the church at Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. The view of the wide, lush Jezreel Valley from Mount Carmel, where Elijah had defeated Jezebel’s priests of Baal. The stone in the Church of the Multiplication, where Jesus is said to have laid the bread and fish before feeding the 5000. The churches of the Annunciation and the Nativity, both redolent with the spirit of Mary and the overwhelming love of the Incarnation. The Western Wall, its massive Herodian stones still pressed hard by hands, heads, tears and written prayers. The Garden of Gethsemane, with its 2000 year-old olive trees, stoic witnesses to Jesus’ agony. The hushed, surprisingly small Edicule surrounding the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the traditional site of Calvary.
Are these sites “authentic”? Are they were the actual locations spoken of in the Bible? Some are, probably most aren’t. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is seeking and praying where countless others have sought and prayed to the same God. At most sites we were able to stop, if only for a few moments, and feel the presence of Spirit, despite the noise, rancor, sights and smells of contemporary life, especially in Jerusalem. The presence of Israeli soldiers in the Old City and the Moslem Waqf security forces on the Temple Mount, the constant din of hawkers shouting from the stalls lining the souk, the aromas of food and spices, the delivery vehicles pushing aside crowds in the streets, and the palpable sense of tension provided strong counter energy to the peace found in prayer at holy sites. It is not the purpose of this article to examine the current issues troubling the people of the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular, except to note that moments of stability and peace in this region have been historically few and far between.
All of us made it through the pilgrimage with no health emergencies, although some of us had to recover for some time from the stress and the strain – and in my case, food poisoning – after we returned. But many of us still carry a visible light from the experience. Some of us have burst into tears at hearing Bible passages that mention the sites we visited. All of us have been changed. Now I am not particularly given to sentimentality, nor do I believe that God is only to be found in certain geographic locations – we don’t get compensated for simply showing up somewhere where tradition says that a major Biblical event may have occurred. But God always rewards those who truly seek and sacrifice. That is what pilgrimage is about – seeking first the kingdom of God, no matter what the cost.
Pilgrimage is hard. But none of us would trade the experience for anything.