True, when I walk here the streets are different and certainly the buildings are no longer the same, yet something remains the same—something of the Jerusalem, the Bethlehem, the Galilee of Jesus’ day remains. And for me, long after the jet lag wears off and it stops being the most exciting thing in the world to meet another American, I remain in the Holy Land, I remain on a pilgrimage.
In my experience, most of the pilgrims who come to the Holy Land have only a few moments at a particular site before they must move along. They take a few pictures, reverence the spot, maybe sing a song, and then continue on their way to the next site. Much of the reason for this is due to simple necessity: when one has only seven or 10 days in the Holy Land, he or she must fit as much into those seven or 10 days as possible. And while this does seem to be a logical, and quite common way to go about conducting a pilgrimage, I’m not so convinced.
There is a sense in which pilgrimage is about doing and seeing and experiencing things, and that certainly has some truth to it, after all it wouldn’t really be much of a pilgrimage if I just sat on my couch at home. But is going on a pilgrimage about experiencing new things and seeing holy places, or is there something more?
The reality is that one is first a pilgrim, and then as a pilgrim goes and sees holy places and experiences Jesus in a new way. I think that the maxim at the entrance to the Church of the Nativity says it quite well: “We are hoping that: If you enter here as a tourist, you would exit as a pilgrim. If you enter here as a pilgrim, you would exit as a holier one.” And for me, this is what the experience, this time of pilgrimage, is all about. It’s about who we are as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, it’s about learning to just be.
Jesus spent thirty years being Son of God and Son of Mary before he began his public ministry. The disciples of Jesus spent three years being disciples, living and talking and eating with Jesus, before they went out to spread the good news. Mary spent thirty three years being misunderstood before the death and resurrection of her son finally showed the world that she did conceive by the Holy Spirit. A pilgrim doesn’t want to just see the holy sites, he wants to remain there and pray, he wants to be changed by the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, why do I need to go on pilgrimage to pray? We can pray to the one Jesus Christ in any place, and the Eucharist is the one Eucharist celebrated and reserved in any place. In that sense, there’s actually nothing entirely unique about the Holy Land. True, Jesus was born, walked, died and rose to new life in this land, on this ground. But He is just as present in Chicago, Ill., as He is in Rome, Italy, and he is in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.
No, pilgrimage is not about encountering a place where God is more present. In fact, it could be said that it is more about encountering a “place” where we are more present, more present to ourselves and to God. In the business of our ordinary lives, it is easy to be present to many things, we may even pride ourselves on being present to a whole bunch of things and people all at once. But only rarely are we present to ourselves, present to what is really going on in the depths of our heart, the depths of our soul.
And only rarely are we present to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts, the same Holy Spirit who lives in the heart and soul of every baptized person. But truly living, truly praying, that’s about presence, that’s about being present to God and self, that’s about resting with the God who loves us more than life itself.
Pilgrimage is thus about an outward journey that is undertaken in order to trigger an inward journey. This is the movement of the spiritual life in many ways: the inward journey to deeper relationship with Jesus, and this is true whether on pilgrimage or in the ordinariness of our daily lives. This inward journey to living always in the presence of God. And living in the presence of God means living always in the love and warmth of the Father.
Part of why pilgrimage has been such a significant part of Christianity for so long is that it is uniquely able to trigger just this sort of inner vulnerability to the love of the Father. Going on pilgrimage, being here in the Holy Land, so much of what I know is gone. What I’m familiar with, accustomed to: language, culture, cell phone; all of them are gone.
In many ways this is exactly the point: I have nothing else left but God, I have no one else to talk with but God, I have no other comfort but God. I have painted myself into a corner, the things upon which I depended to keep me going, to keep me sane, to keep me distracted and busy and stressed out and overworked, they did not come with me.
The outward journey of leaving behind everything, it’s about triggering that inward journey, it’s about giving myself the space to be vulnerable before Jesus Christ and His tender love. It’s about living an authentically Christian life.
Scott Nolan, pictured at left in the Holy Land, is a seminarian of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Mich.