SSJE HOLY LAND PILGRIMAGE
April 20- May 1, 2016 // Personal Reflections by Scott Christian, member of Saint James’ Episcopal Church, Warrenton, VA & the Fellowship of St. John, Cambridge, MA
Two students asked a rabbi, “Why does God command us to put the word of God on our hearts. Why did God not say to put God’s word in our hearts?” The rabbi responded, “We are commanded to place the word of God on our hearts because our hearts are closed and the word of God cannot get in. So God commands us to place the word of God on our hearts. And there it sits and waits for the day when our hearts will be broken. When they are broken, then the word of God will fall gently inside.” This parable was shared early on by one of our leaders, and this pilgrimage indeed broke open my heart. We talk of God-moments in our lives; these were God-days.
In the spring of 2015 within weeks of announcing my retirement from teaching, I received an email from the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, MA, where I go on retreat for a week every summer, announcing that four of their Brothers were leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Though I had never seriously considered doing this, I figured this was a nudge from God so I immediately signed up.
What I didn’t fully appreciate until I was on the pilgrimage was the double bonus I received—not only was I making a Holy Land Pilgrimage, additionally, the four SSJE Brothers- Curtis, Luke, John and Jim-framed it skillfully, with a balance of scripture reading and singing, meditations each day along with occasional silent times to allow our hearts and minds to process what we were seeing, political discussions, and joyous Eucharists celebrated in various churches as well as in the Judean desert and the hills around the Sea of Galilee. And they always extended that delightfully Episcopalian invitation to participate, which gives you the freedom to follow your heart and choose another path. Our local guides were two very engaging and knowledgeable men: Iyad Qumri, a Palestinian Christian who has been made an honorary Canon in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and Mark Stanger, who was a Canon in the Diocese of San Francisco before he felt the call two years ago to live and work in Israel/Palestine.
A friend asked me innocently, “Since Christianity is spiritual, why is it important to physically go to the Holy Land?” In softball when a pitcher lobs a slow one right across the plate, you swing for the fence, “Our faith is not based on abstract beliefs but on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as most Virginians have made pilgrimages to Mount Vernon and Monticello, they can also tell you not just who their first ancestors were in the Commonwealth, but where they lived.” Our identities are rooted in place, and part of the power of the Incarnation is that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew during the Roman occupation of his land.
Our pilgrimage was centered in Jerusalem and its environs with a 2-day trip to the Nazareth-Sea of Galilee area, driving north close to the Jordan River through Jericho and returning through Samaria. We stayed at the St. George’s Pilgrims Guesthouse located in East Jerusalem which was only a short walk to the Damascus Gate, which leads you into the Old City. Providentially, not only was it Passover when many Jews from all over the world come to Jerusalem, it was also Holy Week in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Despite the large number of people in the city, thanks to our experienced guides, we avoided most crowds. Of course, they did have us leave at 5 a.m. three mornings!
So what exactly broke open my heart? Here are a few stories.
I’ll start with St. George’s where we stayed, which was founded in 1820 as “The London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews.” This was “a period of evangelical fervor when many believed that the conversion of the Jewish population to Christianity would usher in the second coming of Christ.” From those beginnings St. George’s has transformed itself into a small but vibrant Anglican community led by a Palestinian Bishop with services in both Arabic and English. Additionally the Diocese of Jerusalem’s primary mission is schools and hospitals, including one in Gaza, and 80-90% of their students and patients are Muslim. Now here’s a faith community that has adapted its mission to the realities on the ground, which might be an example for some modern American congregations!
On a single day at or inside the walls of the Old City, we visited one of the holiest sites for each of the three Abrahamic religions, which involved passing through two security checkpoints. First we prayed at the Western (“Wailing”) Wall, divided for men and women. These stones date back to the First Century B.C.E. when King Herod the Great built a retaining wall around the Temple. For present day Jews the Wall is the place they can worship which is closest to the Temple Mount, where tradition places Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. And Jews have continued to experience God’s presence near this site for over 3500 years! On the last day of my pilgrimage, I returned to the Wall and witnessed a beautiful scene. A group in the corner of the men’s section was celebrating a Bar Mitzvah, and at one point the men lifted a young boy in a chair and were dancing around holding him up. Then a number of women got up on chairs next to the fence separating them from the men, and they lifted little girls over this fence so that they could participate in this celebration. For me it represented the exuberant nature of the Jewish faith, as they appeared to break the rules to include the whole family. My heart breaks open.
Next we went up on Temple Mount, which the Muslims call the Haram, where centuries ago they built the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque. This is the third holiest site in the Islamic faith, as it is from the rock located inside the dome where Muslims believe Mohammed went on his night journey and received the Five Pillars of Islam. When we first arrived it was tranquil, but then a small group of about twenty Jews walked in chanting, escorted by about the same number of armed soldiers to make sure they didn’t make a bigger scene. These Jews objected to a mosque built where their Second Temple had stood until the Romans demolished it in 70 C.E. And yet there have been periods in the 1500 or so years that these three faiths have shared Jerusalem, when they have lived in mutual respect, and I suspect for some, in loving relationships. This city can’t belong to one faith; it must be shared. Why is that so difficult? Crack goes my heart.
Then after lunch in a local restaurant right off one of the narrows streets in the Old City, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (or “Holy Mayhem” as one guide described it). Inside are the traditionally recognized sites of Jesus’ Crucifixion and his tomb. Six different Christian groups literally compete for space, and the disagreements among the various Christian sects got so acrimonious, in 1852 they gave the key to the church to a Muslim, whose descendants have been opening the doors each morning ever since! However, seeing Christians from all corners of the globe- Korea, Ghana, Mexico- many prostrating themselves in worship, made me realize how much bigger Christianity is than I had ever imagined, and what a powerful grip Christ’s love has on so many people’s lives. Two billion people worldwide proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ, and I was standing at the physical epicenter of this devotion. Paradoxically, due to the ongoing political tension and violence in the area, the percentage of Christians who actually live here is less than 2% of the population. Therefore our presence, with Jesus as the Supreme Peacemaker, is so desperately needed. It’s too much to wrap my mind around. The crack in my heart opens wider.
One of those 5 a.m. mornings we boarded a bus for Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. Iyad knew a Roman Catholic priest who was leading a mass at 7 a.m. Though the public typically can’t enter until 10:30, we toured and then fully participated in the mass in the grotto where tradition says that Jesus was born. Having been turned away from RC Communions all my life in the States, here I was in Bethlehem receiving a wafer on my tongue from a priest speaking Italian! The crack expands.
After breakfast in Bethlehem we walked up to and along the 26-foot security wall that the Israeli government has built around certain Palestinian areas in the West Bank. A Dutch group had printed dozens of huge metal posters and nailed them to the wall. Each one told how a Palestinian’s life had been adversely affected by the wall. A few in our group openly wept, and Iyad had his own story of flying back from the U.S. when his mother died, but then not being able to drive the last forty miles to the funeral because of a closed Israeli checkpoint. One night we had an Israeli explain the positions of the various Israeli political parties on the security question and the Oslo Agreement. Few people see any progress for peace in the near future. Big crack.
On another of those 5 a.m. departure mornings we drove northeast out of Jerusalem to Wadi Qelt. We exited the bus and in the faint twilight walked to the top of a mountain and watched the sun rise over the Jordanian desert and mountains in the east. Halfway back down at a small campsite, with Bedouin children waiting patiently to sell us souvenirs, we celebrated Eucharist. Looking to the north, we saw a road that linked Jerusalem to Jericho. Here is the setting for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Neither the priest nor the Levite hurrying to Jericho stopped; it was the Samaritan, the unclean one, who stopped and cared for the victim. We saw the desolate road, the parable hits home, and God’s Word “falls gently inside” my heart.
Standing outside the Church of the Beatitudes, we looked down the hill towards the Sea of Galilee and we could see the contours of the land that form a natural amphitheater, perfect for outdoor preaching. One author called this land “The Fifth Gospel.” We then walked halfway down, stopped under a tree that shaded a makeshift altar, and our joyous band of pilgrims broke bread, praised God and sang hymns, just as Jesus and his disciples did two thousand years ago.
Back in Jerusalem we visited Mount of Olives and stood in the Garden of Gethsemane, where on Maundy Thursday Jesus would have looked out across the Kidron Valley at Jerusalem, where just outside the city walls he would be crucified in less than 24 hours. Near this spot among olive trees Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Christ’s love for us pours over my heart.
Having spent ten days in intimate communion with 35 other pilgrims, my heart was overflowing with gratitude for their fellowship. It occurred to me that God’s truth is too big for a single individual either to understand it or to live it. As Eugene Peterson wrote, “Scripture knows nothing of the solitary Christian.” Community, most powerfully expressed in the Holy Eucharist, is absolutely essential to our faith. As a fellow pilgrim said, “Every time I sat down for a meal, I was happy to be next to anyone and to hear their unique story and to appreciate their God-given gifts.” Can you imagine a church where everybody walked in, expecting to share a pew, and eager to sit next to and get to know a fellow parishioner? Now there’s a vision of heaven on earth!
So back home, how do I keep my heart open to God’s Word? I had four big take-aways from the Pilgrimage. First, as our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says repeatedly, “We’re Jesus people… [who are] crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God―like Jesus…and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” Now I can close my eyes and picture the places where Jesus healed and taught, was killed and resurrected. And I believe more strongly than ever that Love wins.
Second, Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the modern Centering Prayer movement, wrote, “All difficulties in life arise from the monumental illusion that God is distant or absent.” The thoughtfully woven framework that the Brothers created for our pilgrimage gave us the freedom to experience Christ in powerful and ever-present ways. At their monastery the Brothers follow a similar daily pattern, which they call a Rule of Life, and they use the metaphor of a garden trellis, “without whose support and strength, the plant could never grow so wonderfully beautiful, unruly or unique.” And that’s a holy paradox which the Brothers encourage us all to live into—structuring our days to include prayer and study, solitude and fellowship, serving and singing, which will give us a newfound freedom to live a full and balanced life.
Third, I am blessed beyond measure to be part of the Saint James’ faith community. When each pilgrim introduced himself to the group on the first day, I shared that I came to the Holy Land with so many prayers and so much love expressed from so many people. The possibilities at Saint James’ for building relationships, making connections, and offering our gifts—all in and for Christ’s love– are boundless. I simply need to lead with my heart.
Fourth, the pilgrimage cemented my belief that the 7.4 billion inhabitants of Earth are all God’s children and my sisters and brothers in Christ. A former Anglican Bishop of Pakistan, Mano Rumalshah, “who resides and ministers in the Peshawar, a community on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a refuge for the Taliban and one of the most hostile settings on earth,” said that when he created a peace group, he didn’t want to call it “interfaith,” since that typically called to mind divisions—Hindus, Christians and Muslims. Instead he called it Faith Friends—letting “faith be the magnet of our relationship.” In that spirit of unity, I return home more committed to the work of our local chapter of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. The overwhelming turnout that we organized to protest at two anti-Islam meetings in my hometown can be one little pebble’s ripple on the lake that reaches the opposite shore.
In conclusion, if it’s not obvious by this point, I would recommend that anyone who can find the resources and time should at least consider a pilgrimage. I would be honored to sit down and talk with anyone about my experiences in the Holy Land. Despite the tensions that exist there, I felt safe the entire trip.
[Thanks to the following pilgrims who allowed me to use one or more of their photographs to supplement mine: Karen Bird, J. C. Snead, and Pat Beamish]