As holy as Holy Land pilgrimages are, they are also, concomitantly, very human affairs. The humans who make these journeys make meaning of them as well. They move through these spaces with bodies that have sore feet, smell the incense, bump into fellow pilgrims, and get sunburnt on an archaeological dig. They craft their own narratives and share their own perspectives through photos and stories. There is also, on every trip, conflict and miscommunication. Indeed, as important as the holy sites of a pilgrimage are, equally so are the human sites which seek, explore, and interact with them.
I recently accompanied a group of evangelical Lutherans on a Holy Land tour with the group Educon Travel (read about their "7 Principles of Christian Travel"). Along the way I enjoyed participating, leading devotions and studies, and also observing the group as we "walked where Jesus walked."
To assist my understanding of the human phenomenon of pilgrimage to the Holy Land I read two books: R. D. Kernohan's The Road to Zion: Travelers to Palestine and the Land of Israel for historical perspective and Hillary Kaell's (Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia University Montreal), Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage for an ethnographic lens.
Pilgrimage to the "Holy Land" has a long history. The first recorded pilgrim to the Holy Land was a bishop named Mileto, who hailed from Sardis in Asia Minor. His journey occurred around 160 C.E. and Christian historian Eusebius, writing in the 4th-century, shared that Bishop Mileto visited those locales “where the Scriptures had been preached and fulfilled." Others such as the anonymous Bordeaux Pilgrim, the excitable Egeria (a.k.a. Etheria), the Roman widow Paula, and German friar Felix Fabri left journals that recount their adventures and experiences in the footsteps of the Bible.
Yet, it wasn't until after the end of the Six Day War that the throngs of modern pilgrims began to flock to Israel and Palestine. Kernohan shares that "one result of the Israeli conquest was a decisive victory in the battle for pilgrims and tourists. Probably more Christian visitors have come to the Holy Land in the [latter half of the 20th-century] than at any other time in history." (149)
Indeed, since the 1950s, millions of U.S. Christians have traveled to the Holy Land to visit places in Israel and the Palestinian territories associated with Jesus’s life and death. Millions of others come from Africa and Asia, Russia and Europe, Latin America and Oceania.
Questions abound? Why do they come/go? Why do they come in such numbers? How do they react to the encounter with other religions and customs there? What's the cost -- financially, personally, culturally, politically? How do they interpret the trip before, during, and after? How do they cope with the dissonance between dream and reality? How do they seek out "the holy thing behind the seemingly holy place?" (Kernohand, 154) How do they wrestle with the juxtaposition of sanctity and commercialism in simultaneity? How do they collate through politics and particular personages who are want to share their opinion on Palestinians and Israelis and Muslims and Americans and more? What links are there between home and away, pilgrimage and every day life?
Considering why the influx today, Kaell chose to analyze how the growth of mass-market evangelical pilgrimages emerged out of changes in U.S. Christian theology and culture over the last sixty or so years, including the growth of the small group movement, the development of an entire industry of Christian leisure travel, and changes in Jewish-Christian relations.
Essentially, Kaell boils all the questions above into one -- what does it mean for 21st-century U.S. Christians to return to "the source" - in her words "walk where Jesus walked" - in the context of their everyday faith?
Kaell drew on five years of participant observation and interviews with pilgrims before, during, and after their pilgrimages. She tracked Catholics and evangelicals, but for the purposes of this blog we will focus on her findings about evangelicals.
What she discovered was that the pilgrimage is a hybrid harmony between holy and human, divine and mundane. The journey that pilgrims take, and the interpretations that they give to their experiences are tied to the ordinary, the everyday, and their roles, rituals, and realities at "home." Not only do pilgrims grapple with the tension between the material and the mystical, commodification and religious control, the home and the "Holy Land" during their journey, but also betwixt and between places like Apache Junction, AZ and the Arab Quarter in Jerusalem.
I found Kaell's reflections to be eerily prescient. Frequently, as I read the book on the bus or in my room at night I would laugh out loud as I recollected a moment from the day that passed that proved a perfect illustration for a perspective that she offered.
For example, Kaell was discussing how the "image of Israelis as American-style pioneers persists today, which, by contrast, means that Palestinians can be construed as dangerous 'Indian' interlopers." (Loc. 872) That day, I'd not only heard our tour guide refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of "cowboys vs. Indians," but had heard one of my fellow travelers talk about Jordan as "the Wild West."
To me, this not only illustrated how guides are "conscious of their unique opportunity to shape the group's outlook...therefore [spending] significant time promoting their political/theological ideologies" (Loc. 1002) but that "spiritual interest in Palestine, including the Christian interest in the tradition of pilgrimage, will [remain] one of the constant factors" in this ever-changing situation. (Kernohan, 158) Knowing that U.S. Christian perspectives matter in the Middle East -- both politically and poetically -- it is important therefore for groups of pilgrims to be intentional about their engagement with such issues, taking in both sides and hearing divers perspectives from Jews, Christians, and Muslims who live in that context every day.
On that point, I was also drawn to the interstices of U.S. Christians' encounters with other religions. Christian pilgrims struggle with multiple religious "others" in the context of contested space in the "Holy Land." From the Orthodox jostling for their moment to grace the spot where Jesus was born to the Roman Catholics who booted us out of the wedding chapel at Cana to the adhan, or "Muslim call to prayer" rousing us to wake in the mornings, many pilgrims struggle with denominational and confessional fault lines. Mostly, pilgrims feel that their experience is the authentic one. After all, Muslims weren't here in Jesus' day -- why should they distract us now? Catholic and Orthodox Christians are all about rituals, I will stick with my private, personal, evangelical piety. Copts? I have no clue what to do with them. I feel for them as martyrs at the hands of ISIS, but I would condemn them as heretics if they got in my way. To be sure, evangelical pilgrims vie for space in the Old City and at the Church of the Holy Nativity and draw on centuries of battles to wrest control of the "Holy Land" from "infidels" (Muslims), "schismatics" (the Orthodox), and "legalists" (Catholics) to stake their claim.
It was difficult, nigh impossible, to interject any grand opportunities to share my insight and background from, and in, religious studies during the trip. While there were those who asked sincere questions of Muslims and Druze, Copts and Zionist Jews I could barely get a word in before my inquirers interjected with their own perspectives and interpretations informed by their own news consumption, e-mail discussions, and experiences from home. Granted, I too was headstrong with my views and opinions as I listened to our tour guide woefully represent Muslims and express what was to me an errant perspective on the religion and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Just as my compatriots were not to be moved, I too remained recalcitrant. Negatively, this meant that divisions were doubled-down and fault lines morphed into fissures. Positively, for some, the trip came to exemplify and perhaps positively reinforce, recent shifts toward ecumenism and pluralism.
As Kaell noted, ne'er did we let this boil over into full blown conflict. This trip was far too expensive and important to let interfaith rivalries or political opinions ruin our time. After all, this is a "holy" trip...even though other humans are unfortunately on our buses, in Bethlehem, and in our bedrooms.
Related to the point above about transporting our previous perspectives from home into our experience on the pilgrimage, Kaell concludes by discussing various dualities throughout the book - particularly those between domestic relationships at home and global experience traveling to and in the Holy Land. Insightfully, she shows how each pilgrimage derives its power and relevance from the interaction and tension between the two.
Just as their trip through Jesus' backyard is significantly shaped by their home life, so too upon their return the "Holy Land" is remembered, reordered, and reconstructed "according to the subjective interpretations and cultural expectations" of home. Likewise, pilgrims use their encounters and experiences in the "Holy Land" to decode their spiritual lives back in the U.S. They are forced to reimagine their spiritual struggles, feelings, and physical encounters in the context of the domus. In the interplay between before and after, over there and right here at home, both places are reinterpreted and reshaped. Pilgrims often find that just as they struggled to find the holy in the "Holy Land" -- as ruins disappointed, churches were too busy, and some experiences too commercialized for their liking -- so too they strive to find the holy at home. Just as the numinous evaded their reach in the places where Jesus was himself was they find it hard to brush up against him in their church, in their small group, or in their daily life.
In this way, pilgrimage simply serves as the microcosm of the mundane, as a journey into the everyday, but in a far away place. As a parallel to the odyssey of lived piety at home it can often leave pilgrims more frustrated than illuminated. Yet, at its best, this voyage can turn us into regular religious site-seers who turn their senses to appreciate the divine intimations that percolate in the everyday. If truth be told, not only are pilgrimages of this sort an encounter with the divine, the religious "other," a potent political situation, or crotchety companions, these peregrinations are engagements with our own spiritual selves in relation to the world we live in -- near and far, local and global, at home and in the "Holy Land."
With that said, this gives us an opportunity to learn that our world is evermore one of compressed space and time, where the global and the local interact and intermesh on regular occasions, and there may not be as much difference as we thought between home and the "Holy Land." On the negative side, we may be unhappy to discover that the divine evades us on our pilgrimage. From the glass-half-full perspective, we may find that the sacred, in all its multifarious manifestations, was waiting for us back at home.