The talk below was given to the Living Stones Conference on 23rd October 2004. The Conference was dedicated to the memory of Fr. Michael Prior, a founder of Living Stones, who died in June this year.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the Current Context.
‘They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth……..Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time’. (Amos 5;10:13)
These words from the prophet Amos came to mind as I was thinking about my first and last pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Michael last Easter. I would normally count myself among the prudent who keep silent rather than the one who reproves in the gate, but it was difficult to stay on the fence in Michael’s company. I still have vivid memories of Michael walking up to the young Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem who were armed to the teeth and saying to them, ‘Are you not ashamed of what you are doing?’ Almost invariably they replied that they were not ashamed; debate would then begin and Michael would put them right on their history. And then he would make the rest of us feel equally embarrassed when he would inveigh against the Palestinian shopkeepers for trying to sell him Israeli army hats!
Michael had a way with words. In the week I spent with him I found his words to be incisive and challenging; he was not one to take the status quo for granted or accept the word of the establishment at face value, whether in political or scholarly discourse. There was a poetic side to Michael too. In the evenings he was as much at ease singing plainchant or a melody in Gaelic, or a smattering of Arabic as he was analysing the history of Zionism.
Michael exercised his priesthood in a prophetic way. The paradox of the prophetic ministry is that the prophet has only the word to rely on, as he tries to articulate the pain of those who suffer, and protest at what he sees as a gross injustice. For Michael, as many of you know, that injustice was compounded by what he saw as a conspiracy to use the Scriptures to justify the oppression of the Palestinian people. So Michael used his words in the service of those who lack a voice. But speaking the prophetic word is a risky business. When the prophet spoke, some thought him crazy, others a traitor. ‘Israel cries, The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad’. (Hos 9:7) ‘This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them’ (Jeremiah). Those who were going about their business in the souks of Bethlehem and Jerusalem did not find Michael to be the average tourist, and by the end, as we discovered, the State of Israel had found his words too dangerous to be heard by their people.
My trip with Michael was the first time to make a pilgrimage with ‘Living Stones’, and it made me think about what it means to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land at this time. Back in the early eighties I lived for a year in Jerusalem, and since then I have returned with groups of seminary students or accompanying parish groups. When I first thought of going out with a group, one of my teachers wisely said to me, ‘Before you organise a group, make sure that you tell people straight up what kind of experience they will be having’. Those who primarily want a holiday will not appreciate being woken early to be first in line for a Mass at one of the holy places, and the pilgrim will not necessarily be enamoured with large doses of Israeli military history.
These words are particularly apt in the present political and economic situation in Israel/Palestine. Different groups with different interests are trying to encourage people to start going there again. The Israeli economy badly needs income from tourism, while a Palestinian priest said to us last Easter, ‘Come to the land, come and see us. And with the shrines empty, this has never been a better time to come’.
Maybe the time has never been better to ask ourselves, ‘What do we go to the holy land for, and to distinguish between a journey that is primarily a holiday and a pilgrimage? Pilgrimages, like other activities, can very easily be subsumed into the ethos of consumerism, and just become part of the leisure or tourist industry. You do the sites by day, and the clubs by night. You stay in a nice Western Hotel, insulated from the living conditions of the majority of the population.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land has its origin in divine revelation, and above all, for Christians, in the revelation of Jesus as Son of God. When Jacob woke up after his dream in Bethel (off limits at present?) he exclaimed, ‘How awesome is this place. This (stone) is nothing other than the abode of God, the gateway to heaven’ (Gen. 28 17). Long before Christianity the Scriptures testify to a conviction that God’s revelation has a tangible effect on the places where the revelation happens, something that perdures beyond the revelatory event. Next morning we read that Jacob took the stone that had been under his head and said it up as a pillar/shrine. The place of private revelation had been made public, and access had been given to others. So pilgrims come to remember, and to imagine - having come on a journey to a place where they feel reassured that they too can be touched by God. That journey is analogous to the human journey which, in the end can be described as a journey in search of God, in which memory and imagination play their part.
Christian pilgrimage specifically finds its motivation in the Incarnation. Just as Jacob’s revelation had a tangible effect on Bethel, even more so did the places where Jesus ministered and died become ‘holy’ ground, the goal of pilgrimage journeys. To touch these places was to touch (and effectively be touched by) Jesus himself.
However, if pilgrims came to remember, it was not in a spirit of nostalgia for the past. So we find pilgrims coming to make reparation for sin, or to pray for particular intentions, or to understand their Scriptures better. Whatever their particular motivations, pilgrims have sought to find in their holy places something that transcends the past and speaks to their present.
In contrast to Islam, making a pilgrimage to the Holy Places has never been an obligatory requirement for Christians. Christianity is not primarily about places but about communities of people gathered in the presence of the risen Christ. Where two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is present among them. In the Christian tradition Christ and the Church are closely related, so it is hardly surprising that the holy places in the holy land in the early days had a long association with the indigenous Christian community. I think of pilgrims like Egeria who travelled to Jerusalem and there joined in the liturgies presided over by the local bishop and listened to his preaching. To me there is something very strange about making a pilgrimage to the Holy Places and not encountering any indigenous Christians.
Yet in my experience it is very easy to come to the Holy Land, visit the Holy Places and go home again without ever meeting an indigenous Christian, let alone getting any sense of what is actually going on for the populations of which the indigenous Christians form a part. Most tours are accompanied by government approved guides who, with the best will in the world, do not know or understand Christian faith from the inside, let alone pilgrimage. Nor do some of them show much sympathy or understanding for the Palestinian population either, be it Muslim or Christian. My experience on the coaches has been that the tours are very much the guide’s show, with an appendix now and then for the spiritual leader to do his bit. In the present situation Christian groups will be brought by Israeli guides to places where Israelis feel safe. How long is it since any Christian group has been brought to Jacob’s well near Nablus? Even a visit to Bethlehem is now becoming problematic, and depends upon the whim of the soldiers on the checkpoints.
Not that the Holy Places themselves actually invite one to even think about the local church. The leader might meet a Friar from the United States or Italy or Ireland, but is unlikely to meet someone from the locality. (They may be there, but they will be doing the menial work behind the scenes). The group will have their Mass or other service and then move on.
If, as some of the local indigenous clergy assure us, this has never been a better time to visit the Holy Land, how are we best to use our time there? I believe that we need to establish a new culture of pilgrimage in which we recover a sense of that close relationship between Christ and the local church, so that a visit to the Holy places without any reference to real local Christian communities would become a contradiction in terms. At a very minimum this would require leaders to ensure that the Sunday worship of the pilgrim community happened at a place where the local christian communities worship, and alongside those communities. On my pilgrimage with Michael we went to Mass in a parish near Nazareth and afterwards we were invited to take coffee and see the various parish activities that were going on. This ‘exposure’ had a very profound effect on me, but I am aware that leaders asking to join a parish would require a certain sensitivity, so that a few parishes geographically convenient to the normal pilgrimage itinerary should not be imposed on or made to feel that they have to become part of a year round ‘hospitality industry’. Not all the parishes are as well set up to do this as the parish at Taybey which has overnight facilities, a beautiful church and an interesting story to tell. This may mean that pilgrimage leaders should be prepared to go off the beaten track if necessary.
However, even such a minimum gesture as sharing a Sunday Eucharist is easier said than done in the present climate. Many of the parishes that come under the jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarchate are in the West Bank. And many of them will be in areas that the Israelis will not ‘encourage’ foreigners to go to. Often the military will refuse to let coaches or minibuses past the checkpoints for reasons best known to themselves and rarely communicated to foreigners, and they will make trouble for a Palestinian driver. Often however it is possible to go through the checkpoint on foot, but alternative transport arrangements will have to be made on the other side. On our last pilgrimage we had to ‘go round the houses’ visiting two or three checkpoints before we could find a road into Taybeh, which is in a relatively peaceful area. It will take quite determined leadership to get into these places, because the commercial tours will tell you it is not worth the candle. For them, a half day or a day visiting a parish without any intrinsic ‘drawing power’ or coping with the problem of checkpoints will not seem like the thing to offer the modern tourist.
In other words, if few wish to change the culture of pilgrimage it is going to mean hard work on the part of leaders, and the risk of considerable frustration to participants. They will almost certainly discover that schedules are unlikely to run like clockwork, if at all, and that they will certainly be treated with suspicion, if not hostility, by the authorities. It would be hardly be right to advertise it as a holiday.
Those who will be willing to go on such a pilgrimage will go because they are motivated to perform a labour of love, in solidarity with the indigenous church. Such people will take the risk that it may not turn out to be ‘the perfect holiday experience’, even if they return home with a few interesting stories to dine out on. However just by being there they will be offering a prophetic sign, and may find themselves experiencing just a taste of the daily cross that is imposed upon the people of this region.