15 September 2008
I have been away from computer access the last few days here in Nazareth. Yesterday we were in Cana, Capernaum, the Sea of Gallilee and the Jordan. Today we go to the Mount of Transfiguration and Qumran and return to Jerusalem. My heart overflows with many things, some of which I will share soon. Thank you all for your continued prayers. We are daily blessed.
One of the common aspects of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land – and this my wife and I have discussed and find we share in common – is the particularity of certain experiences. There are inherently overwhelming experiences, such as kneeling beside a priest in the actual sepulchre of Christ, and reading names aloud for him to remember in the proskomidie, as he prepared the bread and wine for the Divine Liturgy.
(For the non-Orthodox reader, the proskomedie is a service done prior to every Eucharist in which the bread and wine are prepared. The priest puts a particle of bread on the paten for every name of the living and departed being remembered that day in the service – in some settings the service of preparation –proskomidie – can take as long as the liturgy itself.)
But I would have to say that it was that particular experience which stood out for me from the larger context of that night’s Divine Liturgy. It was not that anything else was less important – indeed everything was inherently overwhelming – but that a particular moment was the vehicle in which my heart was pierced and I became aware of the encounter with God.
I have written at other times about the difference between particularity and the general and that it is in the particular that we, in fact, encounter God. My pilgrimage has only served to underscore that understanding within me.
I also had an experience which underscored the negative side of this insight. The general – especially when it is an presented in an abstract form – makes an actual encounter with reality and truth difficult, perhaps impossible. This has largely been brought home to me through my experience of art in the Holy Land. Not all shrines in this land are under Orthodox control, nor governed by an Orthodox understanding of iconography. In some cases (not all) I have seen Christ, the saints, and the particular reality that each represents, abstracted to something general and universal, and thus an ideation that is more imagination than a presentation of the truth.
The doctrine and Tradition of the Holy Icons, understands them to be as particular as Scripture itself. An icon does not say something in general, but, within the rules of its artistic grammar, says something or makes present something that is exceedingly real, describeable and particular. An icon of Christ is particularly an icon of Christ and not an abstraction of Christ nor an ideation of Christ. It is an image of “He Who Is,” which is clearly written on every icon of Christ (usually in Greek or Slavonic abbreviation).
The entire experience of pilgrimage would make no sense were the reality we seek a generality and not something quite particular. It is thus that as the Patriarchs of the Old Testament encountered God that they gave place names to mark the encounter. Whole towns in this land bear names that were given over 3,000 years ago, by men who encountered God in a way that changed their life – changed this land – changed history – and continues its impact into the present.
Israel did not proclaim a faith in an abstracted God, but in the “God of our Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The Christian claim is that it is this God of Israel and no other Who is incarnate as the God/Man, Christ Jesus.
The character of my pilgrimage is marked by very particular stories – particular places – particular people – a particular phrase that is spoken. It has been marked by an extraordinary hospitality, where I found myself called forward and into the altar of the House of God, to take my share as a priest with other Orthodox priests.
I have now shared in services here in Greek, Slavonic and Arabic, with the gracious allowance of my small contribution of English. We celebrated the Liturgy on Sunday in Nazareth, in the local Orthodox Church which marks the site of the well where Mary first encountered the angel Gabriel (it is St. Gabriel’s Church). The account of this first encounter is in the Protoevangelium of James (a book outside the canon of Scripture but often accepted as containing much of value within the Tradition of the faith). St. Gabriel’s community in Nazareth consists almost entirely of Arab Christians who have been in this land from very early times. The congregational participation was amazing! I do not think I have ever heard an Orthodox liturgy that was as loud! The sense of enthusiasm that filled the whole of the service was quite unique.
It will not be forgotten. Neither will a chance conversation with a group of Orthodox youth from across this part of the Mid-East who were also having a retreat in Nazareth that weekend. They had many political questions to put to this American priest – for which I had little answer. It is hard to tell them that the powers that be have almost no concept of Orthodox Christianity – its history – its current vitality – or its interests. These were youth in dismay. May God help them in the difficulties they face.
The particular character of this pilgrimage is already creating “favorite” places in my heart – places I hope to see again before the week is out and we return home. What I rest in, is the assurance that wherever I am, God will make Himself known in particular ways – at home as well as in the Holy Land. It does not make pilgrimage a useless event – but rather says that we are always on pilgrimage – looking for the “heart’s true home.” And that home will always come to us in ways that can be tasted, smelled, touched, remembered, but not abstracted.
Glory to God. I pray for you all with each day.
16 September 2008
Today, walking and weaving our way through the streets of Old Jerusalem, shops on each side of the alley, the smells of a rich mixture of spices and a thousand other things, shop-keepers calling with eagerness to the “foreigners” passing by – we were on a free morning, and there were gifts to be found.
We came across another pilgrim, separate from our group, who took us to a greater gift. In the environs of the Holy Sepulchre Church, there are two small chapels that are used for the local Arab Christian congregation. That chapel’s treasure is quietly situated in a corner of the rear of the Church.
No sign announces its presence. It is an icon of the Mother of God – indeed – the icon which hung at the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that spoke to St. Mary of Egypt, when, as a young harlot, she was unable to cross the threshhold of the Church. That moment led to her conversion and her immediate entrance into the trans-Jordan desert.
Everything here, things that have filled the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints who have populated this area, are amazingly proximate. Nothing is a terribly great distance. The desert is only a hill away from Jerusalem.
But winding through alley ways and shops, we found the Icon of the Mother of God through which God showed mercy on Mary of Egypt. It stood at the border of the grace of God. God’s grace, of course, has no border, except the stoney heart that refuses Him hospitality. But He knocks on that stoney door with great persistence.
I knelt before the icon and prayed for our stoney hearts – the many places in our lives that have created borders for grace. St. Mary of Egypt pray to God for us!
I have stated – not tongue in cheek – that “I am an ignorant man,” and I have also added that “I am a man still in need of a Savior.” These things do not change on a pilgrimage but become only clearer. The most difficult of all pilgrimages is the pilgrimage to the heart and finding there, not only the treasuries of paradise, but also all the garbage stuffed there over the decades. At times I am a fool, and like the childish boy who sat in the front of class. Other times – well – there are other times.
The Great Pilgrimage is our journey from glory to glory into the image of Christ and this is marked by sin and confession, forgiveness and the restoration that is the Father’s great mercy.
The strange politics of the Holy Land, marked by Jew, Palestinian Arab and Christian, Druze, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox are not merely the left-overs of history the flotsam and jetsam of a land that has had too much religion. It is the collection of centuries, gathered by mankind, not only in his search for God but in his hatred of his brother. And the hearts of people here are no different than the hearts of people everywhere. I have been here long enough to see that I am not a pure-hearted pilgrim, but just another sinner on the bus, with as much nonsense in my soul as the next.
And yet the pilgrimage goes on, for we have no other help than God and we, if we wish to truly live, can only come running to Him. It is strangely fitting that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared by many groups – Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, etc. It is strangely fitting because our sins have brought us to the silliness in which we stand. None of this lessens the truth as proclaimed – but it underscores but the confusion among Christians and the fact that there truly is only one Sepulchre, even as there is only One God. And all of us put our hope in Him.
Tomorrow they take us up on the Temple Mount. There are strict rules which govern such a visit – not all of which delight me as an Orthodox Christian – but the Christians who live in this land constantly bear the burden of restrictions. Thus I will try to refrain from complaining.
There cannot, it seems, be one sign that says, “The Pilgrimage to the Heart” – 30 shekels. The price of admission to that Holy Place usually costs so much more, and I don’t think I have enough to visit that place very long. Please pray that this poor sinner, distracted with his own shadow and his own sin, find the way to make the Great Pilgrimage, wherever it occurs.
We leave Saturday and get home sometime Sunday. That likely means that some regularity will return to the blog. I have much to do when I return home. I have writing to finish and my parish work.
Father Stephen Freeman I am very pleased because you have traveled in the Holy Land and because your heart is full of joy. Your joy is my joy. All the happiness from my part and from presbytera Gianina, my wife, for you and for presbytera Elizabeth and your whole family and believers from your parish.
Father Dorin Picioruş