Not Every Traveler is a Pilgrim

NOT EVERY TRAVELER is a pilgrim, though both can be said to be looking around for something that is worth the risk of security. A traveler, it seems to me, either searches for artifacts or currency to bring home, or he makes the itinerary itself a kind of dwelling. Similarly, the Christian pilgrim ventures out in order to find his true home, only he knows it is neither in the steps of his schedule nor in any location in the world. She might find clues to where heaven once touched earth, kiss an altar that is dedicated to a sacred event, or she might suddenly feel a mystical connection to a bygone saint or an unseen angel. Knowing meanwhile that space can never make up for lost time, the traveler knows he has become a pilgrim when the energy of the sacred consumes his heart with longing for the invisible power, which he now somehow understands has called him there. The pilgrim, you see, is foremost distinguished by a fierce hunger for the holy, which already preceded his mere natural curiosity.

For ten days, I travelled with a group of almost 60 pilgrims to Israel and Palestine. My friend Fr. Ervin Caliente from St. Mary’s in Huntley invited me to co-chaplain with him through the various holy sites of the biblical Middle East. We left on May 14th and set off for Tel Aviv, the very day that the U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem. The political unrest was the last thing on my mind, though admittedly, it was the primary concern for my family. While I strongly dislike flying, the excitement of returning to the Holy Land as a priest trumped any other reason to hesitate (pun unintended). I was, once again, a pilgrim.

Once all of us had arrived in Tel Aviv, we took a 1.5 hr. bus trip straight to our first destination toward the other side of the wall separating Israel from Palestine, and into Manger Square, Bethlehem. After celebrating a quick Mass (quick, because the dining room was going to close on us soon), we spent our first night unpacking, soaking in the new air, the new culture, and the (ever same) bourbon, while we got to know one another as new friends in a strange land. Sitting about a couple hundred yards from where Jesus was born, we could now say we were on holy ground.

This year mid-May was special to the three large religions. The beginning of Ramadan, for Islam (Wednesday); Shavu’ot (also known as Pentecost), for Judaism (Saturday); and Pentecost Sunday for Christianity, all fell within the same week. To say that we will be travelling at the busiest time of the year to Jerusalem would be an understatement. It seemed to me that half the world was emptied and travelled to this near Mediterranean coast. The air was cooler at night, perhaps at the low to mid-70’s in the mountains near Jerusalem and Bethlehem but warmed up to reach over 95 during the day. The heat was only exaggerated once we travelled below sea level and into the Jordan River, Jericho, and the Dead Sea (but that story is for the next article).

For the next two mornings, I was woken up by the Muslim call-to-prayer at 3:30. No closed windows or stone walls could stifle the loud recorded chants coming from the nearby Mosque, which, interestingly enough, was built to be near the church of Bethlehem where Jesus was born, as it was also considered a holy place to the Muslims. I surmise that its minarets were designed to be heard louder than the church bells could ring. While I was not too happy to wake up so early, I did find it rather mystical, and even beautiful in its own way. This land is different from America, not so much by culture, though that is in fact true. It is different in the sense that, while America and Europe and all the developing world cities make even louder noises in order to drown out the still, quiet voice of God and to be heard only from interested prospects, commodities that we now are, the biblically ancient part of the world that I now stood in was interested primarily in being heard by God.

While most of us in secular culture look at the Holy Land as a place trifled by religious wars and hallowed tension, people from the Holy Land look at secular culture as a place seduced by ego wars and shallowed tension. I took great pleasure in just sitting back and absorbing the loud bells and chanted prayers of the churches and mosques; the devotion for the Sabbath by very pious Jews, who still remember how to keep the Lord’s day holy; the unique outfits of Hasidic Jews; the guthra and serwals worn by the Arab Muslim men, or the burqa and partial headscarves worn by the Muslim women; the many crosses and crucifixes that Christian pilgrims wore every place they went; the many Orthodox and Catholic Cassocks worn by the Christian priests, among whom I proudly wore my own. I wanted to absorb it all, and I took great comfort in seeing our own Christian brethren becoming more and more enlivened by the holy cites they visited and touched with their rosaries and religious articles. This was no ordinary tourist destination; we were on the land where Jesus walked, and you can still feel the echoes of his footsteps on the very stones that stood or laid buried beneath our knees.

We split our stay in the Holy Land in three locations: First, we stayed in the Palestinian territory of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. The Christians form a minority here; somewhere around 2 or 3% of the main population are Arab Christians, with a mix of a few other nationalities in between, not a few of which were Filipino. During our stay in Bethlehem for two nights, we visited the Bridgettine Sisters, and while travelling in and out of the wall dividing Palestinian territory and Israel, we visited the home of Mary in Nazareth where the angel Gabriel announced she would become the mother of God; the site of the well in the (then) little town of Nazareth, where Mary and the other women of her time would have collected water; the venerated location (Shepherd’s Field) where the shepherds heard the multitude of the angels announcing the birth of one “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger;” and the (purported) home of St. Joseph, where he fostered the care of the young Jesus. In our short stay, we also journeyed to the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah, where Mary visited her cousin who was pregnant with whom we now call John the Baptist. The rest of our stay in the Holy Land brought us to the territory of Galilee for another three nights. This was the location where Jesus mostly lived out his adult life before being crucified and rising from the dead on the slopes of mount Moriah, where Jerusalem rests, and where we stayed for our final three days during pilgrimage. The latter two locations will be described in the following two articles.

Many thoughts ran through my mind during these days, but only the following stands out to me now:
The hunger of the pilgrim is a consuming fire (cf. Heb 12:29), the heat of which inevitably becomes the same gasping desperation of the saints before they are made into gods. True happiness comes to those who discover in their hearts the heavenly Jerusalem, and who now pant and cry in their poverty, a desperate plea even to the silence of rocks and dust, for a mere taste of that strange other whom “no eye has seen, nor ear heard…” (1 Cor. 2:9) but whose voice is the beautiful enfolding and terrible curse of well-trained lovers.

— Fr. Matt Jamesson


Above (featured image): We celebrated Mass in the lower portions of the Church in Bethlehem in the cave where St. Jerome studied and interpreted the Greek Scriptures into Latin. Behind the cave wall is the location of Christ’s birth.

Pilgrimage - church of Visitation

Above – Location: Ein Karim – The Church of the Visitation, the traditional home of Elizabeth and Zachariah.

Pilgrimage - home of Mary

Above – A view from the second floor in the church in Nazareth. The structures in the image are of the remnants of the home of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Pilgrimage - ancient manger

Above – An image of an ancient manger. This is the type of manger Jesus would have been born in – a feeding trough for animals.

Pilgrimage - Fr. Matt and companions

Above – Fr. Matt and his companions.

Pilgrimage - Fr. Matt and camel

Above – Fr. Matt and his new friend!