In late May of this year, Brother Simeon and I were fortunate to make our first pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. We spent two weeks visiting the major sites and shrines associated with Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints of the Holy Land. It was one of the greatest pilgrimages of our lifetimes, second only to our “all-India” pilgrimage in 2003, full of unexpected blessings, new perspectives, and a kaleidoscope of interesting new friends.
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PART 1—Bethlehem and Jerusalem
“Whoever has wished to go has already started on the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” Stephen Graham, author
As many of us have experienced, when a great blessing and spiritual opportunity is about to come into your life, there arises the intuition and expectancy that Something Big is about to happen. And when you’re traveling to a place like the Holy Land, the mere mention of a trip there awakens an intuition in those around you, as if deep within they understand this is a trip they need to take themselves. The simple mention of our pilgrimage caused many friends and acquaintances to light up and take a personal interest in our visit, almost as if we were traveling on their behalf.
We began at the beginning: in Bethlehem. Through the generous help of Issa, a Palestinian Christian friend in Albuquerque, we arranged to stay our first night in the Holy Land at the Saint George Hotel, owned by one of the largest and oldest Christian families in this holy city. Driving through the checkpoint around midnight, past the famous (or infamous) wall and through dark and deserted streets, after twenty hours of travel…we had arrived.
The next morning, as we crossed the paved stone courtyard of the Church of the Nativity, I asked our guide Saadi if he was a Catholic or an Orthodox Christian, he laughed and explained he was Muslim, and hoped we didn’t have a problem with this. And of course we didn’t. We made two visits to Bethlehem, and as we became more familiar with our hosts and other residents we surprised to discover that the common Western image of the West Bank is inaccurate. Christians and Muslims can and do live in harmony in Palestine, common victims of a very difficult situation, trying to cope the best they can from day to day. One of the fondest memories of our trip is the Palestinian Christians and Muslims who became our friends.
The Church of the Nativity is large and spacious, but the entrance certainly is not. Barely forty inches tall, the Door of Humility is an opening in a bricked-up larger arched entrance, through which one bows deeply to begin one’s journey into the temple. And it also served the very practical purpose of preventing Crusaders from riding their horses into the church(!).
Contrary to the common Western image of a stable, Christ was born in a cave. In fact, throughout our trip we discovered many of the major sites of the Holy Land were natural or excavated caves and grottos. Beneath the Byzantine Orthodox church which is the main shrine in the Church of the Nativity lies a small cave chapel, and beneath the altar is a silver star marking Christ’s birthplace. Before we descended into the cave chapel, we offered our prayers before the famous icon of the Virgin of Bethlehem, much beloved by the Christians of the Holy Land, who smiles benignly on all her children.
The Holy City
Thanking our Bethlehem hosts, we made the short drive to Jerusalem for our first experience of the Holy City. As we walked through the Jaffa Gate into the Old City we found ourselves surrounded by the aura of its rich history. Within its high walls, wandering the narrow stone-paved lanes on the way to our first destination — the Church of the Resurrection which houses the holy sites of Christ’s passion and resurrection — it was clear that we were in a new and wonderful world.
Close Encounters of the Orange Kind
It also was quickly clear to us that we ourselves were something new for the Holy City. As we looked ahead to our trip, we had some reservations about how we would be received in the Holy Land, especially in the West Bank and in the very defined and stratified religious culture of Jerusalem. Several friends of ours who had already made the pilgrimage assured us that we would just be one of the many “religious folk” that are seen throughout the Old City, and would attract no special attention.
As we made our first walk to the Church of the Resurrection we discovered that any apprehensions about our reception and any expectations about blending in with other pilgrims were both wrong. Throughout that day – and throughout every day of our pilgrimage, everywhere – we were approached by clergy, pilgrims, local merchants and just about everyone else curious to learn about “the orange monks,” who to their first glance looked like Buddhists wearing crosses. Our first encounter was a group of Russian pilgrims, led by their priest, eager to learn what we were. The elementary Russian I’ve learned served me well, and once they understood our spiritual pedigree – a form of Orthodox Christianity with its roots in India – they were delighted. Our running joke for inquirers was that if we charged five shekels to answer every inquiry and ten shekels for every request for permission to pose with us for a photograph, we would return to our monastery as millionaires!
To touch is to believe
The first thing you encounter in the Church of the Resurrection as you pass through its great doors is a large, weathered stone slab set in a shrine on the floor before you, surrounded by large hanging votive lamps and candlestands: the Stone of Anointing. This is the stone on which Jesus’ body was placed after the crucifixion, when Saint Joseph of Arimathea and the others of Christ’s holy company prepared the holy body for entombment (some believe this is the actual stone, others say this is the true location, but that this slab was added during the 1810 reconstruction).
To see is to believe, and at this spot to touch is to believe even more. Throughout the day pilgrims kneel and bow at this stone, calling to mind Christ’s sacrifice, touching their lips, their foreheads, and their rosaries, prayer ropes and precious personal items to the stone to partake of its blessing. Once we saw an enthusiastic pilgrim giving himself a “blessing bath,” wiping the stone with this hand, then passing his hand over his head, wiping some more and then opening his shirt to “wipe the blessing” across his chest, and repeating this for his neck, back, and even under each of his arms!
More touching, more believing
To the right of the Holy Stone two narrow stone stairways ascend to the Shrine of Golgotha. Behind a small marble altar are life-size icons of the crucified Christ, flanked by the Holy Virgin and Saint John the Beloved, all elaborately adorned with sculpted silver covers donated by the Tsar of Russia in the 19th century. Pilgrims take turns entering on their knees into the small space beneath the altar, where they can place their hand into the hole which is believed to be the spot where the Holy Cross was fixed into the stone hill of Golgotha.
“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent” (Matt. 27:50-51).
On either side of the altar are two large glass cases covering the huge rocks of Golgotha with large splits in them. Recent archeological research has shown that these splits in the mountain rock extend down to its very root.
I’ve given a brief description of what you’ll see with your physical eyes. But the greater vision is seen with the eyes of the heart. For hundreds of years scientists, skeptics, and even the faithful have asked, “How do we know this is really the spot?” The enormity of what occurred here speaks loudly in the hushed silence of this shrine. Even a scoffer like Mark Twain, who despised what he considered the “claptrap” of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, could not deny what his soul told him when he visited the shrine during his travels abroad: this is The Place.
In the midst of death we are in Life
Descending back to the main level of the church we continued our journey of holy “first meetings,” passing a tall stone shrine called “The Fainting” commemorating the spot where the Virgin Mary and the holy women stood looking upon Christ’s agony, and an altar nearby where the myrrhbearing women stopped short before the open sepulchre of Christ, surprised to find the great stone closing the tomb had been rolled away and an angel was sitting upon it, who announced to them Christ’s resurrection.
And then we came to the spiritual heart of the church, the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre. We had seen many photos of this over the decades, but to be in its presence, to enter inside it and pray, is to know in a new and fuller sense, which of course is the whole point of pilgrimage. Passing the narrow main door of the shrine we entered into a cramped ante-room, at the center of which is a waist-high stone pedestal topped by a glass case in which there is displayed the remaining fragment of the stone that originally closed the sepulchre, called the Angel’s Stone.
A monk from the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre (who are the guardians of the shrine) supervises the pilgrims, allowing three at a time to enter the narrow and low entrance to the tomb itself. We bowed, entered, and knelt before the long narrow marble slab that covers the actual stone where Jesus’ body lay, and from where he rose again. This is surely the holiest place amongst all Christian shrines, shining with the light of Christ’s resurrection and the prayers of millions of pilgrims who have come here over the millenia. Our experience here was similar to our first visit to Dakshinewar in Calcutta, when for the first time we saw the domes of the Kali Mandir as our boat travelled up the Ganga. We had stepped out of time; history was no longer the past, it was a living, breathing, present reality.
We were fortunate to have found a hotel immediately inside the Jaffa Gate, just a short walk to the Church of the Resurrection. So every day we were in Jerusalem we spent time there, sometimes visiting more than once. The Byzantine Church hymns refer to this spot as “Thy Life-Giving Tomb,” and we always experienced this was true.