This past Tuesday, along with my Franciscan brother, Friar Benjamin Owusu, I have been accompanying a group of pilgrims in the Holy Land. As I have written in this feature recently, pilgrimage is a special experience—for some, it is life-changing. No one makes a pilgrimage without being affected in some way.
If you want one word to describe pilgrimage, it easily can be encounter:
- with the land, the stones of memory related to our ancestors in the faith, and mostly importantly, Jesus himself;
- with the Word of God as it is proclaimed there;
- with the “living stones,” the people of the land;
- and, finally, with each other—fellow pilgrims.
Through all these, we encounter God.
I think the Holy Land itself speaks most loudly—if not always the most clearly. Mountains, desert, water, vegetation, cities, ancient ruins, confront the pilgrim. The land forces the pilgrim to adjust.
Today, I walked with one of our group who was breathing heavily as we climbed “Tell es Sultan” in Jericho, the site of ancient Jericho. As we took deep breaths, he commented that he thought the desert would be flat—not hilly! Deserts, he told me later, were not his thing—“not even close!”
“The stones are emblematic of this land—part of the culture,” another pilgrim said.
Of course, pilgrims are drawn to the “stones of memory,” the rock of Calvary, the Tomb of Jesus, and so many more. “Who am I,” a pilgrim marveled, “to touch these stones?” He felt humbled.
“It’s the common stuff that touches us,” another said—marveling on the simple fact that Jesus may have walked on the stones beneath us.
“They keep reminding us of Jesus,” one woman noted, much as things in our homes recall our loved ones.
At each holy place, we have read from the Scripture, most often the Gospel story. We try to evoke the memory of what Jesus said or did, on or near that spot. Our liturgies in each place mark the key events of salvation. “It brings you into the moment,” a pilgrim said.
Our pilgrims have met and interacted with the people of the Land. For some, it is their first encounter with Palestinian Christians, like the quiet, friendly man who drives our bus. They marvel at the various forms of dress among Orthodox Jews. On the first morning, the calls of the muezzin, from Jerusalem’s mosques at five a.m., awakened one of our pilgrims! Faith in God is expressed here in different ways among the three “Peoples of the Book.”
A member of our group bent down and kissed a woman in a wheelchair seated near the Anointing Stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “How did you get here?” my pilgrim marveled to the woman, and a moment of encounter followed. “It’s Christ in us,” she recalled later. Another said, “It’s finding Christ in our fellow human beings.”
Finally, in getting to know each other, our pilgrims are also discovering the Lord. People who were previously strangers share their common experiences of discovery, of helping one another, of shared prayer. “They’re not strangers, one of my group said, “because they love Christ. It’s a deep connection.”
The discoveries of pilgrimage will continue, as we journey into Jordan and later next week, the Galilee. I am praying to allow God to reveal new surprises as we continue.