To be a pilgrim

To be a pilgrimBridie Stringer

In the light of the Holy Father's encouragement to visit holy places during the Year of Faith, Bridie Stringer offers her reflections on a recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The author is a catechist within Portsmouth Diocese and a visiting lecturer at St Mary's University College, Twickenham.

This was always going to be a trip with a difference. Rather than proceeding to Luton Airport in the manner of a tourist, I joined the coach party of pilgrims at a service station on the A3. This was a parish pilgrimage not a package holiday, and the majority of people knew one another. The parish priest who led the group had permit- ted some outsiders, myself included" in all there were 53 in the party.

Flight into Israel
Our flight to Tel Aviv was punctuated with the usual bouts of snacks and offers of Easy- jet merchandise. We had however not calculated for prayer time which was announced half-way through the flight. This enabled the Orthodox Jews on board to congregate at the appropriate time to recite their communal prayers. One of the toilets at the rear of the aircraft was decommissioned temporarily to stem the flow of traffic and the cabin crew seating area was also vacated so that the devout Jewish gentle- men in their black overcoats and hats could gather together for their characteristic bowing rhythmic prayer. I noticed that a couple of men on the periphery of the group held a whispered conversation throughout the proceedings and one spent prayer time texting on his phone. I surmised that perhaps his contact with God was more Ethernet-based than transcendent.

Our arrival in Jerusalem was particularly memorable with our walk through the city's Lion Gate and our first encounter with the Via Dolorosa. These names are ingrained in the religious DNA of Christians and to actually experience the sights, sounds and smells which Jesus probably encountered was profoundly moving and an invitation to deep reflection, albeit interrupted by calls to step aside in order to let rather dusty and dented cars negotiate the narrow streets. Our accommodation in the Ecce Homo Hospice, run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion placed us at the heart of the Jesus story. In the cellars of the Hospice is to be found the Lithostrotos or stone Pavement, associated with the judgement of Pilate upon Jesus. Here in the bowels of the building are large paving slabs which date back to the Emperor Hadrian (of the Wall) who recycled the stone after the destruction of Jerusalem. One of the slabs retains evidence of the game of King, which the Roman soldiers routinely played on their prisoners in order to torment and abuse them. In Mark 15. 16-20 there is reference to the soldiers dressing Jesus up in a purple robe, crowning him with thorns and making fun of him before leading him out to die. In the cool underground chamber of the Lithostrotos, the pilgrims were clearly moved by the tangible remnants of the Roman soldiers' game. It was a sombre reminder that agents of the state can be given permission to indulge in systematic abuse and my own thoughts turned to Abu Graib and the shameful degradation of Iraqi prisoners.

Bells and smells
On our first morning, the pilgrims' visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre took place amid a clamour of visitors from all over the planet. I would guess that there is probably no time in the year when this shrine is devoid of visitors and noise. I had expected a cacophony of different languages and bustle but I had not calculated for the bells. I have no understanding of the principles which bell forgers apply in determining the tone and sonority of bells but I have to confess that the bells at the Holy Sepulchre cannot be adequately described in the written or spoken word. They evoke a primal and visceral response which almost reduced some members of the group to tears. In the same way that military drumming is designed to quicken the heartbeat, the bells at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were almost heart-stopping. Added to which, hundreds of Croatian Orthodox nuns and priests arrived in the square, clad in their familiar black habits and bearing herbs and olive branches before processing into the Church. Inside the Church, the encounter with the site of the tomb was less momentous. The Eastern Orthodox propensity to hang countless lights and incense burners in holy places does not resonate with my own spirituality and to me it looked like so much liturgical 'bling'. Also being urged quickly through the shrine by a monk bearing a striking resemblance to Rasputin did little for my sense of awe and wonder. It was only afterwards, when I reflected quietly in my room that I could begin to harvest meaning from what I had experienced.

To the garden
In marked contrast, our visit to the Garden of Gethsemane the following morning with its ancient olive trees afforded us the opportunity to engage with the stillness of the garden and to appreciate that the trees could possibly have been those under which Jesus had prayed for the cup of suffering to pass him by. Normally visitors are not permitted into the actual garden, which is within a fenced area, but our canny party leader managed to persuade one of the Franciscan friars in charge of the site to let us in so that we could pray and sing a hymn. The next striking visit of this second day was to a site named 'The Garden Tomb' which is super- intended by lay evangelists. Unlike the visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this was a much more thought-provoking experience. The Garden is owned and administered by The Garden Tomb (Jerusalem) Association, a Charitable Trust which is multi-denominational and based in the UK. It does not claim to be the authentic tomb of Christ, but instead, simply presents itself as a possible site of the Lord's burial and resurrection based on archaeological evidence unearthed in the late 19th century. The site comprises a burial chamber and a wine- press, leading many to believe that this was once a rich man's garden, possibly that of Joseph of Arimathea. The fact that the custodians of the site allow pilgrims to explore it fully without ushering them through with indecent haste makes it seem all the more authentic. I think it fair to say that the majority of the Hampshire pilgrims were deeply impressed by this simple garden and the gentle but persuasive case which the guide presented for the site.

The route taken
I think it important that we began in Jerusalem and then moved on to Galilee and not the other way round. Many pilgrimages begin in Galilee but the striking contrast between its verdant abundance can only be fully appreciated after travelling through the cruel aridity of the Judean desert on the way down from Jerusalem. We had the intensity and clamour of Jerusalem first and, having seen the utter desolation of the desert and the lifelessness of the Dead Sea, we could appreciate the teeming fullness of the Sea of Galilee and the place where the Lord and his followers prepared for their life of witness. Our Sunday Mass was held at the Church of the Primacy of Peter, around a little outdoor altar with tiered stone seating for the congregation. There, with the sun sparkling on the Sea of Galilee and with a simple sculpture of Jesus commissioning Peter to 'Feed My Sheep' in the foreground, we had our Eucharistic celebration. The gospel reading of the day was Mark 7.31-37, the healing of the deaf man with the speech impediment. The opening of this gospel gave us a geographical context that we would probably otherwise have ignored, 'Returning from the district of Tyre, he went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, right through the Decapolis region.' Having pored over our maps for several days, this did not seem to make geographical sense.

Why go to the Decapolis region via Sidon when Sidon is in the opposite direction? It became clear that Mark was using geography for a theological purpose to show that the ministry of Jesus and his Good News were for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. As Catholic Christians about to enter the Year of Faith, this message gives us pause for thought about how those who cannot hear the Lord's voice and cannot yet speak his message clearly can be helped by us, the Gentile locals, to encounter the healing love of Christ.

Group dynamics
Clearly in a multifarious group, there will be those with whom one has an immediate affinity and there will be those who have little in common. As a pilgrim group there is a keen awareness of a common purpose and co-responsibility. In our case, this played out in the roles assigned to the group members each day " those who collected in the entrance fees for various sites, those who were the day's back-markers, ensuring that those who were counted out were counted back. Like the Canterbury Pilgrims of Chaucer, some shared details from their guidebooks about what we were about to see and there was an opportunity to compose and share our own short stories about the life of Jesus, starting with Joseph and Mary meeting Boaz and Ruth in Tesco's! Initially our sharing of our own lives was quite superficial, but as the days went on, we were privileged with the joys and sorrows experienced by our fellow pilgrims and we had a real sense of ministering to one another and giving of ourselves. One of our most poignant informal liturgies on the wonderful roof terrace of the Ecce Homo Hospice was held as the sun went down. We sat in a circle and passed a large wooden cross around the group, praying aloud if we felt moved to do so. This was followed by the passing around of a candle and the opportunity to reflect on Christ as the Light of the World. Our words were interrupted by the Muslim call to prayer from the nearby minaret and, rather than regarding this as a nuisance, we felt that we had all been called to pray and praise. We and our Muslim brothers and sisters were gathered together to pray rather than gathering to pray together.

I was struck by the variety of ecclesiologies operative within the pilgrim groups. Those from Latin-American and Spanish and Italian pilgrimages seemed to be led by clergy who were keen to show their clerical credentials " dressed in black shirts and Roman collars, even in temperatures in the mid 30s. I noticed a particularly hot and bothered bishop dressed in his purple clerical shirt but with his collar open. We even encountered some clergy in cassocks. Our priest leader did not wear clerical clothing and there was no diminution in his status as a result. Many of the East European groups processed from site to site reciting set prayers and litanies. Our group did not do so, tending to exchange our own thoughts with one another in small groups. I was reminded of Wordsworth's account of his ascent of Snowdon in The Prelude

And after ordinary travellers' talk With our conductor, pensively we sank Each into commerce with his private thoughts.2

In other words, we did not need to have every response mediated through set-piece liturgy controlled by clergy. We were given space and affirmation to explore the experience and its meaning for us as individuals and as the community of the People of God. For this I am sure we were all most grateful. Where it was appropriate, we immersed ourselves in communal reading of the scripture which related to the particular site and sang hymns which had been chosen special- ly for our visit. Parry's Jerusalem became the definitive hymn for our Jerusalem experience and I will never be able to sing it again without being transported back to the city over which Jesus wept and longed to gather up rather like a mother hen gathers her chickens.

For those who are contemplating a visit to the Holy Land, may I commend the following prayer, based upon a Jewish prayer and adapted, which the Hampshire pilgrims recited daily: May the God who called our father Abraham to journey into the unknown, and guarded him and blessed him protect us too and bless our Pilgrimage. May his confidence support us today. May his spirit be with us on the way. May he lead us back home in peace. May his presence be our companion, so that blessings may come to us, to be inspired by the words and works of Jesus Christ whose presence travels with us, the Pilgrim People. Amen3