Forever pilgrims

Last week our parish celebrated the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul was a pilgrim of sorts: anyone whose life is about pressing on toward a goal, and forgetting what lies behind, is someone on the move. Paul’s life and witness tells me that he knew that God, too, is always on the move. Here’s a bit of what I had to say last Sunday:

For most of us, conversion is slow and subtle. This is as much true for whole communities as for individuals. Maybe more so. One of my favorite ways of talking about conversion in our Anglican tradition is the distinction between pickles and pop tarts.[1] More than a blinding flash of heat, light, or sweetness, we are converted and formed by swimming in holy brine, if you will, by showing up and engaging in weekly mass, daily office, and life shared in community over a long period of time. It is in this context that we might have glimpses of the reign of God, and discern our own calling as individual disciples and as a community.

(Paul’s furrowed brow is my favorite.)

Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that Paul’s philosophy can be summed up in the words “I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead.” This reminds me of Norman Lear, who said that the two words most important to his life and work were “over” and “next.”

One way to be faithful is to keep moving.

For years, the instruction to Paul to “Go into the city and there you will be told what to do” was on St. Paul’s parish letterhead, as an affirmation of our identity as an urban parish. It is good to remember, though, that once Paul got to the city, he sat there, blind, for days, with no idea what awaited him. Paul’s conversion includes waiting around for the Holy Spirit to reveal what’s next. It didn’t happen the moment he fell off his horse.

Anyone who has been on a pilgrimage knows that it is this combination of forward movement and waiting, clarity about God’s call and confusion about what to do and where to go next, that is part of the journey. May we all find eager and gracious companions along the way.

[1] This metaphor came from Ellen Charry at a 2003 Affirming Catholicism conference.

When in Jerusalem…

Coptic Madonna and Child


Razzouk family stamps

Several of our pilgrims came to the Holy Land already planning to get a tattoo as a lifelong souvenir, and several more decided to get one once they’d hung around Razzouk’s, a tiny cozy shop just a block away from the Gloria Hotel where we stay in the Old City.  The shop has been in business since the 1300s. The Razzouk family are Coptic Christians, and many of the tattoo stamps used in place of a printed stencil are centuries old, inspired by traditional coptic images.  Kierstin Brown’s Madonna & Child is a good example.  Long before the Crusades, the Copts claimed to be the “the original pilgrims” to the Holy Land, and etched a tiny cross on their inner wrist to indicate their identity as faithful Christians during a time of strife and mistrust. Several of us got these tiny wrist crosses (which Wassim Razzouk took less than two minutes to create—how painful can it be?). The traditional Jerusalem Cross is seen everywhere throughout the city. While it has in the past been referred to as the “Crusaders Cross,” it is also recognized in Jerusalem as the Jerusalem Cross, the Jesus Cross, the Pilgrim’s Cross, and the Franciscan Cross. The identification with the Crusaders is troublesome to some, and yet it is perhaps an opportunity to reclaim the image from a particular era for all the centuries since, including ours.

Jerusalem Cross

Christians are a very small minority in the Holy Land, and make up less than two percent of the population in Jerusalem. Especially for those of us who inhabit the Pacific Northwest, where so many of us find ourselves reticent to share about our faith, wearing the symbol of our faith on our arm in such a committed way is a way for us to show solidarity with Christians who struggle in this Holy Land with all of its challenges, as well as to proclaim our faith to those around us in our own settings.

Day Seven (or Eight?): Living Stones

We’ve quickly moved into a space where time runs together. This happens on vacation, pilgrimage, silent retreat, backpacking trip. It’s hard to keep track of details, and yet the richness of experience continues to flow. This is as it should be.

On Sunday (which was more or less the eighth day), we worshiped at St. George’s Cathedral, and visited afterwards with its Dean. Kevin Meadows offers this reflection on the day:

This morning we attended Mass at St. George’s Cathedral, the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Jerusalem. The Very Rev’d Hosam E. Naoum, Dean of the Cathedral, officiated the Mass and provided the sermon. We had a chance to have tea and coffee with him and several parishioners afterwards. He shared with us a brief history of the Cathedral, an overview of the Diocese of Jerusalem, as well as the diocese’s ministries here in Jerusalem.

The Very Rev. Hosam Naoum and Mother Sara

The Diocese covers an amazing, and amazingly complex, geography – including not just Jerusalem, but also parishes in Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. He spoke of the ministries they provide: health care services, educational programs and other humanitarian work. He also spoke of the role of the Diocese, and Christians in general, in ongoing peace and reconciliation efforts between the various religious groups and nation states wrestling for control of this land. While commenting on what drives him in this work, he noted that we are a people of hope. “And remember,” he said, “right near here is the empty tomb.” The empty tomb is the source of hope at the center of our faith and at the center of the day-to-day lives of people living, working, and praying in Jerusalem. It is this hope, the Dean was quick to remind us, that inspires him and many other Christians in the region, in spite of devastating conflict and struggle. Christ has risen!

And this relates to a final ministry Reverend Naoum mentioned – the role of the diocese in supporting the pilgrimage of Christians like us. In talking about pilgrimage, the Dean distinguished between encountering what he called “ancient stones” and “living stones.” The ancient stones are the ones we visit, snap pictures of, and read about in pamphlets or books. The living stones, however, are the lives of those impacted by an encounter with the story told by the ancient stones – the story of hope. And what distinguishes our pilgrimage from a mere Holy Land tour, is that we are here to encounter not just the ancient stones, but especially the living ones. We have been blessed to encounter many such living stones while here, as we did while visiting the children at St Vincent Creche/Orphanage; listening to Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb speak of the role of Dar al-Kalima University in changing the lives of the Palestinians students who attend; or listening to the stories of our fellow pilgrims, especially as they describe their encounter with this place.
Ghassan, our tour guide, has said several times that a given site may or may not be the actual place where this or that biblical event happened. The importance of these places lies not so much in geographical accuracy or specificity, but how these places have given birth to a story of hope that transcends time and place, changing the lives of those who believe. It is the story of this place that has meaning, not just the physical location. Being so near these sites merely provides us a more enlivened encounter with that story, the story of the greatest hope of all.
For those of us who are blessed to be on this pilgrimage, I pray that our experience here may make us living stones, perhaps just a little more so than the start of our pilgrimage. For our loved ones, family and friends reading this blog from a distance, I pray that your lives too are changed by your own encounter with the story of hope, even if it you are reading this from a bit further away from these ancient stones.
Kevin’s fellow pilgrim Heidi McElrath offers remarkably similar–but well worth sharing–reflections on living stones: 
The dean (the first indigenous dean, he told us) says pilgrims to the Holy Land who do not meet the local church have come to see the dead stones – the one rolled away from the tomb, the one that Jesus prayed on in Gethsemane, the ones that form the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Assumption – but they forget about the living stones, the faithful who make up the church today. These Palestinian Christians have a hard road to walk. The dean explained that though he is Palestinian, he carries an Israeli passport and cannot visit churches in several countries in his diocese, including Syria and Iran. The bishop himself has just visited the episcopal church in Damascus for the first time in almost 6 years (it is still thriving). My 40 minute bus ride to church pales in comparison.

Pilgrims, too, are living stones

As I look around at my fellow pilgrims, I think how they are, too, are living stones. These people I have the honor to love and live with, these are the stones of my church. You who are in Seattle and you who are far away and you who make up the faithful wherever you live. You are the living stones. Seeing you, speaking with you, praying with you, riding a bus with you and a scouting out pomegranate juice with you — these are actions that make pilgrimage a lifelong endeavor.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here to see these “dead “stones, these ancient foundations of the faith that have been built upon over and over and over, that have been prayed on for millennia. I’m grateful for the chance to celebrate the Eucharist with believers in Jerusalem. I’m grateful (eternally) for the living stones I get to take back to Seattle with me and those who are waiting for our return. I’m grateful to be on a lifelong pilgrimage together every single day.

Mother Mary

From Elizabeth Schroeder:

My heart was broken wide open today.

We visited the St. Vincent’s Crèche orphanage in Bethlehem today. We learned a little about the circumstances of how these beautiful children came to be at the orphanage. They are the children of women who became pregnant out of wedlock or through unapproved marriages. These would include women who have been raped or molested.

In the culture in which they live, these pregnancies in these circumstances would be seen as something that would bring dishonor to their family. And so the family has the option to kill the woman who is found pregnant when she shouldn’t be. In order to avoid the risk of death, these women choose to place their children in an orphanage instead.

But, they have to hide their pregnancies. Even in baggy robes, pregnancies become apparent at a certain point. And so, most of these women have cesarean sections, at 34, 32, even as early as 28 weeks to avoid detection.

This is incredibly early for these babies to be born. At 28 weeks, a baby might need significant help to survive. The mother is subjected to a major surgery and then has to hide that too.

In the US, among the birth community, the subject of obstetric violence has become a discussion topic. Women are often bullied into allowing hospitals to do things that they do not want for themselves or their babies. In Palestine, women are making this horrible choice in order to save themselves from death because of the societal implications.

After we heard the talk from the Mother of the convent, and after we spent time with some of the children, we went into their church and celebrated Eucharist. I struggled with the feelings of incongruity as we sang Christmas hymns that didn’t even seem to want to deal with the messiness of Mary’s childbirth experience, much less the horrifying things we’d just heard. Somewhere along the tour we heard that there is a mother at hospital right now, preparing to give birth, just to relinquish all rights to the child.

I looked up at the white, pristine, pure statue of Mary, beatific in her expression, and railed against her in my mind. How can she be so content there, high on the wall. How dare she be so clean in the face of all this messiness. How could she not roll up her sleeves and help? Be a mother to all mothers, Mary!

I sobbed like I’d never stop. I thought of that woman giving birth, and I prayed for her.

Day Six: Bethlehem

The separation wall

Friday in Bethlehem was a full, rich, and hard day. We began with a visit to a portion of the Separation Wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem covered with murals and graffiti, the art of resistance. We then visited the St. Vincent Creche, an orphanage where we visited with its director and dozens of children, and shared mass together there. Before lunch, we went to the Daral-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture to hear a presentation that was both stirring and extremely informative about the situation in Bethlehem for Christians, as well as about the facts on the ground about resources of land, water, electricity, etc., for Palestinians throughout the region. After lunch we visited the Shepherd’s Field, and sang and prayed in the cave near where the shepherds likely heard the announcement from the angels about the birth of our Savior. After the morning, it was good news many of us needed to hear.

Ryan was very popular at the Creche!

Elizabeth Schroeder has written a separate post about the experience at the Creche. Stephen Cherry blogged about his experience of our day here.

What follows are some words from our many reflections on this intense day.

  • Jesus’ perfect love casts out fear. It’s just jolly hard to get hold of perfect love.
  • Berlin. Belfast. Bethlehem. Brownsville.
  • The sea is so vast and my boat is so small.
  • It’s a very different sea from Galilee.
  • The news all feels really bad, but there’s something hopeful about a room full of Americans hearing it, listening and witnessing.
  • There is an element in all that we saw of the tragedy of some people’s desires leading to others’ suffering.
  • Seeing the things we’ve seen here (the separation wall, the discrimination, the economic disparity) makes it easier for us to recognize it at home.
  • We’ve been following Jesus on this pilgrimage, but it also seems like we’ve been following Mary.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Day Five: Loaves, Fishes, and Fishing for People 

Today we said goodbye to the Sea of Galilee, but not before several powerful stops along the shore and a memorable boat ride. Once again, pilgrim Joe McDermott provides his reflection on the day:

Five Loaves & Two Fish

One of my favorite books as a young child was about the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes as told from the perspective of a young boy. As we read in Matthew 14:13-21, a crowd numbering 5,000, plus women and children, were gathered near the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus preach. As evening grew, the disciples wanted to disperse everyone so they could go to the nearby villages to get something to eat as they had nothing to feed them. Jesus instructed them to feed the people. The young boy in my storybook offered what little he had – 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus prayed over the food and it was broken and shared. The entire crowd ate their fill and there were 12 large baskets when they collected the leftovers. The small amount the small boy shared, after Jesus’ blessing, miraculously fed the entire crowd. A supernatural miracle for sure as I understood it.

I will always remember how I was struck by an interpretation of this Gospel story when I heard it for the first time – years later as an adult. Perhaps it wasn’t a supernatural miracle that the 5 loaves and 2 fish fed 5,000 plus the women and children. Maybe the real miracle was that the crowd all had bits of food they were hoarding to themselves. The miracle was that one person’s small offering inspired others to share. The miracle was that people shared, both of their abundance and of their necessity, and together there amounted to 12 baskets of abundance. I recognize this understanding as the miracle – that when we all share generously everyone has their fill and there is an abundance.

Today, on the third full day of our being together on pilgrimage in the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine, we began our day at the Church of Heptapegon. On this site from 28-350 AD the Judeo-Christians of Capernaum venerated a large rock upon which Jesus is said to have laid the bread and fish before He fed the 5,000 plus women and children. By about 350 AD the rock was used as an altar at the very center of the church built on this site, built by a Jewish nobleman from Tiberius some venerate as Saint Josipos. In roughly 480 AD a Byzantine church with a rich mosaic floor was erected at the site with the venerated rock placed beneath the altar. During the Persian invasion this Heptapegon Church was destroyed and faded into oblivion. After the Muslim conquest (638 AD), Christian activity ceased around the Sea of Galilee for centuries. It was in 1932 that the ancient church ruins were excavated by Fr. Andreas Evarist Mader SDS and team. The mosaics were found surprisingly largely intact. In the early 1980s the ancient Byzantine basilica was reconstructed.

After visiting the church, our pilgrim group gathered down at the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Mother Sara celebrated a moving outdoor Mass. The setting was inspired, sun-drenched lakeshores Jesus walked. In his sermon, Fr Rob acknowledged the historical places we are visiting – where Jesus walked and lived and demonstrated his divinity. But he ever so warmly called us to not only take in the history we are so surrounded by, but also to be at least as mindful of the Living Christ who is with us on this journey. Jesus among us. Jesus within us. Jesus in one another. And so very much alive today.

Day Four: Nazareth and Galilee with Mary and Jesus

The altar at Duc in Altum Church, with Galilee in the background

We began the day in Nazareth and ended on the Sea of Galilee, the weather changing as often as our location. The end of the day was lovely and full of light, and our pre-dinner sharing felt the same. Heidi McElrath shared her experience and I asked her to write it down to share with all of you.

*

When I was young, I remember being told that Mary was also young. When I’ve been scared, I remember being told that Mary was also scared. When I’ve talked of my desire to be a poet, I remember being told that Mary, too, was a poet. I always found comfort in the thought that God could take someone so weak — someone like me — and use her to enact salvation in the world.

The church of Mary’s Well

Today, we stood in the Basilica of the Annunciation, in the house where tradition holds that Mary was visited by Gabriel, where Jesus’s human body began. We dipped our fingers into the well where Mary collected each day’s water. We walked the land of Jesus’s formation—shaped, drenched, and witnessed by Mary.

The narthex of the Duc in Altum Church

We visited the archaeological site at Magdala—home to another famous Mary—and the beautiful Duc In Altum chapel. The entryway to the building is a huge atrium, held up by eight pillars inscribed with names of our church mothers—Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Salome, Martha and Mary—and one is blank to represent “women of all time who love God and live by faith.”

I have never known so significant or beautiful a space dedicated to the spiritual work of women. To stand on the holy shore of the Sea of Galilee in a room surrounded by the maternal pillars of our church was overwhelming.

Once the majority of our group had left the building, Kierstin, Adrienne, and I took an extra moment to reverence the space and the women it represented. I wished desperately to remember even one setting of the Magnificat that I used to sing so regularly. All that came easily to mind were these lines:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

I have come to see that yes, Mary was a young, scared, poet of a girl, but she was also a bold, revolutionary thinker who worshipped a God who wanted to overthrow hierarchies and class systems. Mary was invested, even before Jesus was born, in feeding the hungry, taking down the mighty, exalting the meek, and she shared this with her son.

This is the Mary who birthed Jesus, who taught him to speak and walk and live. This is the Mary who is our first example of the Christian life.

Heidi, Adrienne, and Kierstin

So with confidence, we three twentysomething women spoke loudly in this room of our mothers: Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

I pray that we can see ourselves reflected in this bold, revolutionary woman, who formed our Savior, who was scared and young and poetic and helped God turn the world upside down.

Amen.