Saturday, July 05, 2014


‘Five gospels record the life of Jesus.  Four you will find in books and one you will find in the land they call holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.’   (With Jesus Through Galilee: According to the Fifth Gospel (Corazin Publishing, 1992) by Fr. Bargil Pixner OSB (1921 – 2002), Benedictine monk in Jerusalem’s Dormition Abbey)

Many of us will be familiar with the practice of Lectio Divina, that encounter with scripture which enables us to enter more deeply into a relationship with the Word of God.  It’s a practice that has been described as:  "divine reading" and describes a way of reading the Scriptures whereby we gradually let go of our own agenda and open ourselves to what God wants to say to us. …
The first stage is lectio (reading) where we read the Word of God, slowly and reflectively so that it sinks into us.  The second stage is meditatio (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us.  The third stage is oratio (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God.  This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.  The final stage is contemplatio (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts.  We simply rest in the Word of God.  We listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice.’  (Order of Carmelites)

Our Pilgrimage to the Terra Divina (Holy Land) invites us to notice, savour and wonder at all we shall encounter through the Land called Holy.  And the Land is divided into fertile valleys and barren hill, rocky places of ancient solitude that have provided the stone which generations have used to build homes and sanctuaries; memorials to those who have walked and worked, lived and died for millennia.  The stones have witnessed it all and bear the imprint, both physically and spiritually, of the story of the peoples who have inhabited these places to which pilgrims will be present.  And generations have sensed that this land is holy, chosen and precious in the sight of that God they sought; which witnesses to their longings and desires and for God’s in-breaking.  T.S.Eliot reminds us of the way we need to approach such places:
                  If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
sense and notion.  You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.  You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.  And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
(Little Gidding – The Four Quartets)

Pilgrims to the Holy Land are visitors in the midst of peoples whose ancestors came from distant lands – Arabia and Assyria, Persia and Babylon.  Then, later, from Poland and Lithuania, Russia and America, Georgia and Armenia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece.  All drawn to this Terra Divina in search of – something.  Domination or sanctuary or security.  Thousands upon thousands whose pilgrimage brought them here. 

But it’s not just the cultures of different peoples pilgrims encounter but their stories as well, their hopes and dreams, desire for meaning, for purpose – for God.  I think it was the Israeli author, Amos Oz, who observed that here you can live in any country at any point in history – 16th century Poland or 5th century Ethiopia, 20th century America or 7th century Armenia.  This Land embraces a plethora of identities, cultures, histories, religious practices, dreams and desires all jostling for a place.  And pilgrims join them, for a brief moment, with their own identities, cultures, histories, religious practices, dreams and desires. 

This co-existence of peoples has gone on for thousands of years, sometimes peacefully, sometimes in conflict.  Perhaps, in Christian terms, the place where this is most apparent (as might be expected) is at the heart of our Faith, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  A heart which has pulsed with the life of different cultures and peoples for two thousand years.  Some pilgrims are shocked at the experience of a church beating with difference, held together by observance of the ‘Status Quo’, a decree of the Ottoman Sultan Osman III in the 18th century that preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of various sites important to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, to their current holders or owners.  To enter the heart of our faith can seem foreign, strange and exotic – different at every turn.  Indeed, so foreign did this feel to 19th century British Protestants that they created their own ‘Garden Tomb’ who’s sensitively landscaped pleasant paths give a sense of re-assurance to those who, having noticed what they encounter in the Holy City, find the experience disturbing.  But we are invited to lay aside our own story and seek to be detached from where we have come from in order to be present to what is revealed.  For pilgrimage is: ‘a setting forth, a leave-taking from the familiar, from familiarity.  A trip into the unknown, both interior and exterior.  A moving away from what is known into what is unknown but longed for.’ (Following the Milky Way: A Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago by Elyn Aviva)  To taste and see, relish and savour, notice and wonder until we encounter the Word which speaks from and to the heart.  “Come and see” said the disciple Philip to Nathanael (John 1: 46)  And that’s the invitation addressed to all pilgrims as they prepare to step aside and journey into this land chosen by God to be a particular place of revelation for Jews, Christians and Muslims – to all who are open to be changed by a Divine Encounter.

John-Francis Friendship
July 2014

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