Journey to the Center of the World

SSJE's Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE

In late May 2018, I journeyed with forty pilgrims – members of the Fellowship of Saint John and Friends of SSJE – and Brothers Jonathan Maury and Nicholas Bartoli on a ten-day pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine, the sacred land where Jesus was born, where he ministered, and where he was crucified and resurrected. 

Our journey brought us to Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Savior, and to Nazareth, the tiny village where he grew up. It led us into the Judean wilderness, where we celebrated the Eucharist in dawn’s early light. It took us to the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and Tabgha, the place where Jesus fed the multitudes. It led us through the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem, to the Western Wall of the Temple, the Temple Mount, the Upper Room, and the Church of the Resurrection. We renewed our baptismal vows at the Jordan River and floated in the Dead Sea. We feasted on Middle-Eastern cuisine and enjoyed the generous hospitality of Palestinian Christians. We laughed and cried together. We had so much to talk about, but we also needed time alone and in silence to ponder these wonders in our own hearts.

We gathered first, as you would expect, in the Old City of Jerusalem. At the Church of the Resurrection – regarded as the most holy site in all of Christianity – a marble compass marks “the center of the world.” The reference is from Psalm 48:1, where Jerusalem is described as “the city of our God…beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth…the hill of Zion, the very center of the world…” Jerusalem is a focal point not just for Christianity, but also for Islam and Judaism. A short distance from this compass is the Western Wall of the Temple, the holiest site for Jews. Atop this wall is the Temple Mount, home of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into the heavens on his Night Journey. A tremendous amount of sacred and strife-filled history is encompassed within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Pilgrims experience this mix of energy. Jerusalem, and what surrounds it, is as fascinating and as complicated now as it was in Jesus’ own day.

The psalms speak repeatedly of “going up to Jerusalem,” this “city set on a hill.”  For many centuries before Jesus’ birth and since, Jerusalem and the Holy Land have been a magnet for pilgrims. Joseph and Mary, with Jesus, would have observed the great Jewish holidays, three of which were pilgrimage festivals, ideally spent in Jerusalem. Passover, in the spring, recalled the exodus from Egypt. Fifty days later, the “Feast of Weeks” was an agricultural festival thanking God for the fruitfulness of the land. In the autumn, the “Feast of Booths” was an eight-day harvest celebration marked by music, feasting, and dancing; which recalled the forty years the people of Israel spent in the wilderness. During this festival everybody was to live in temporary dwellings or “booths.”

Throughout our pilgrimage, we were companioned by a local guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, our cherished, long-time friend. Iyad is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, an Anglican and a licensed Israeli guide. His understanding of the history and geography of the region, of the Bible, and of the intersection of cultures, ancient and new, is brilliant. We Brothers complemented Iyad by leading worship and offering meditations along the way to help our companion-pilgrims make meaning of the many layers of revelation.

Every first-time pilgrim to the Holy Land arrives with at least some sense of what he or she will experience. A pilgrim may have their mind’s eye informed by museum artwork and stained-glass depictions of scenes in the life of Jesus. These scenes may or may not prove to be accurate depictions of the places and people we discover on pilgrimage. Usually not. We soon discover that the people of the Holy Land bear little resemblance to the Anglicized figures depicted in our Sunday School papers. We knew that, intellectually, before we arrived; but it’s a completely different experience to be immersed in a Middle-Eastern culture which, in so many ways, parallels the political, social, and religious landscape of Jesus’ own day. Pilgrims also bring expectations and biases, conscious or otherwise.

The SSJE Brothers serve as chaplains to the pilgrims, helping them to integrate and make meaning of their personal histories, of the biblical accounts, of the geography and culture, and of the present situation in Israel/Palestine. Sometimes, when visiting a particular place, we would say, “This is where the Church has remembered such-and-such happening,” e.g., a particular scene remembered in the Gospels. Whether or not the scholars are in agreement that this particular place is definitely The Place, nevertheless the site has been made holy, down through the centuries, by the countless number of pilgrims who have come there to pray and to worship. In SSJE’s Rule of Life, we speak of helping people “to pray their lives,” and this takes on a multi-dimensional meaning in the Holy Land.

A pilgrimage typically includes three experiences: leaving something, gaining something, and struggling with something. Many pilgrims will want to leave a concern, or leave a need, or leave a sin or a sorrow in God’s hands while on pilgrimage. The desire is for relief of this burden which weighs down one’s life. Many pilgrims are also looking to gain something: healing, hope, freedom, a sense of belonging, an insight that comes from “the eyes of one’s heart” being enlightened. Pilgrimage also typically includes a bonum arduum, an “arduous good.” There’s at least one thing about a pilgrimage that will be difficult for each person. Pilgrims following Jesus’ way will somehow get in touch with “the cost of discipleship.” The cost may have to do with one’s own internal “baggage.” The cost may relate to one’s memories, or hopes, or health, or to one’s fellow travelers. Pilgrimages are fascinating and transformative; they are not altogether easy. Sometimes they’re messy or overwhelming. Nonetheless, most pilgrims will say or sense that making a pilgrimage is something they really needed to do in their lifetime.

Whether or not you have the experience of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime in your lifetime, you may find it very significant to make pilgrimage a periodic practice in your life. You may be drawn to make a pilgrimage to some place or places that were significant to you, your family, or to others who are important to you. A pilgrimage invites you to recollect your life, or perhaps to make meaning of your life in and through a particular setting. A pilgrimage will inspire you to find freedom to be fully alive. To where are you intrigued to go on pilgrimage? God’s inspiration is behind your intrigue.

c & a w david

Br. David Vryhof

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