Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Finding the place, it was, you may say... UNsatisfactory #pilgrimage6

Perhaps one should limit exposure to holy sites? Maybe it's possible to overdose on them, so that their power is diluted? Perhaps the impact of the Resurrection had already done all the work that I might have hoped for. Perhaps I was simply not paying proper attention.
For whatever reason, our visit to Bethlehem left me rather forlorn.

We'd journeyed there by way of Shepherds' Field, sung carols and celebrated the Eucharist there (though I was sad to realise that here, like so many of the holy sites, women are unable to preside - a real issue for S. & E., planning a parish pilgrimage later in the year) then looked across at Bethlehem - absolutely not a little town, but a sprawling city. And so the cherished imaginings of decades began to be demolished, little by little.

One problem, of course, was daylight. Bethlehem of my imagination "BomI") exists only under the stars. It's a place where everyone has only one destination, where you are inexorably drawn towards the birthplace.
But Real Bethlehem, reached mid-afternoon (after a beguiling interlude in an icon shop, which all but undid such pension plans as I have, as I wrestled with a deep longing to buy a 19th century icon of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem...2 weeks on, I'm still not sure if I am relieved or appalled that common sense triumphed) is a different matter. When you picture yourself visiting the birthplace of Christ, you somehow don't imagine that journey beginning in a covered car-park. It was all a bit bathetic, really...

Then the Church of the Nativity. We stoop to enter, and find ourselves almost immediately swept out of the way as an Armenian Orthodox liturgy is about to begin, a rite of censing the holy places that demands that tourists and pilgrims stand aside. This isn't a problem, as it provides time to arrive properly, to acclimatise and try to enter the mystery. 
It's a beautiful space, with stunning icons, but somehow there seems to be less room to pray, less expectation that this might be our agenda. But maybe that's me?

Delightful moment as the censing party moves behind the iconostasis, and two small children are released by their mother, to scamper joyously over the polished marble, completely at home and relaxed. They would have been quite at home in the B.o.m.I and rekindled my hope that I might be closer to the holy than I'd feared...but in the event, the experience of being herded down the steps under the sanctuary, and the jostling of a noisy group whose plans for the afternoon don't seem to include any element of worship is too much for me. At the centre of the star that marks the traditional site of Christ's birth is a hole, to enable pilgrims to touch the rock...At the time, this isn't clear to me - and as I kneel to venerate the spot, the hole represents something missing for me, that sense of God's proximity that overwhelmed me in Jerusalem but is strangely absent here today.

It's all a bit too much like a viewing of the crown jewels in the Tower of London...part of a tourist trail which exists in parallel to the worship going on above. Whereas in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I felt certain that within all those competing varieties of prayer there was room for me to take my place, here the experience was quite different. As I tried to pray for a brief moment, around me people were taking photos, and the liturgy upstairs went on its own unswerving way regardless. For me it seemed a far cry from the warm, embracing holiness I'd encountered in Jerusalem.

We're hurried on our way, to see where St Jermone undertook his mammoth work of Biblical translation. This feels much better - a place to pause, to be still, and, it turns out, to have a better view of the manger grotto, through a peep-hole in the cavern wall. Maybe a glimpse of the intangible mystery is actually the "right" experience here. Who knows? 
It seems ironic that the carol that is echoing in my head throughout this visit is "In dulci jubillo" - with its note of longing "O that we were there". Even as I stand in this place, there;s a sense of exile, of something missing. I'm probably just Perhaps I'm simply looking for the wrong thing, or from the wrong perspective. As we're about to leave Jerome's cave, I find the Great "O" antiphons inscribed on the wall. 
They confirm my sense of longing, that same longing that floods my being every Advent, so that actually, I do manage to pray, even here, even now...

1 comment:

altar ego said...

I resonate with your disappointment. I was in the Holy Land two months ago for the second time after a 20-year gap since my first visit. On the first trip Shepherd’s Fields was my favorite of all our stops. I could picture it that holy night, looking out over the fields. This time I truly wept looking at the same landscape, now overgrown with settlements. The lone hillside that remains untouched probably won’t be in another five years, and my heart breaks.

Every place is enshrined to the max, which simply doesn’t connect with my own spirituality, though I have come to appreciate the veneration and reverence that is part and parcel of the orthodox traditions. I was honored to meet several of the leaders of those traditions on this last trip, and it helped me understand their devotion, as well as their commitment to maintaining these holy sites.

The only place I got to celebrate was out on the Sea of Galilee, not under anyone’s ecclesiastical control, and that held its own joy. And in spite of the disappointments there were holy moments, mostly experienced through the other pilgrims with whom I traveled, in soaking up history, of understanding why Jesus’ companions were weary at the top of Mt. Tabor on the occasion of the Transfiguration (arduous climb!).

It sounds like you found connections, for which I am glad. Being there is a jolt to one’s spiritual system.