What is a Pilgrimage?

I have been thinking about the definition of “pilgrimage” ever since we have been in Israel, and today’s travels provide a great opportunity to say more about that. What makes a pilgrimage? Surely, one important part of the definition is the place to which/in which one travels. Can you make a pilgrimage to the bank, or the post office, or the card store? Certainly not in the literal sense of the word [If I have been guilty of claiming a pilgrimage to Nordstrom in the past, I repent.]. But then, a pilgrimage is not only about the place–if I had come to Jerusalem to watch a soccer match, or for a friend’s wedding, surely that is not a pilgrimage, either. A pilgrimage is also about the pilgrim. I emailed my husband John [who knows way more about all of this than I do], and here is what he said [sorry to quote you directly, darling–I hope you were giving me the good stuff in your quick email!] “A pilgrimage is an outward journey reflecting an inward journey.  So, I suppose in a group, some could be on a pilgrimage, and some not.  It depends on whether one chooses to be a pilgrim or not.  A pilgrimage opens us up in a new way to God’s activity in the world, reminding us of the Spirit’s movement and work in God’s people through time and in our own time.” Nice, right? So, a pilgrimage not only requires a “holy destination,” a place sanctified in some way, it also requires a “holy person”–holy not in the sense of sinlessness or moral rectitude, but holy in the sense of being open to God and God’s work in one’s life. So, a pilgrimage is defined both subjectively and objectively–both pieces are needed. And, I think what John said is very true for this trip: Isome of our group feel deeply and strongly that they are on a pilgrimage–and they are. And others of us do not have that sense, and for us, this is not a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage requires a particular orientation to one’s travels–simply going to a certain place is not enough. Now, for me, however, I want to add another piece to that definition–and I’ll let me husband tell me whether I am completely off-base here or not! I freely admit that I have not felt that this is a pilgrimage for me–but only up until today. Today, at one particular point in our trip, I felt very strongly that I was a pilgrim–and that was when we came to Masada. Odd, right? I’m a Christian, not a Jew, so how can Masada be a place of pilgrimage for me? Hold that thought, while I tell you a bit about Masada. Masada is not mentioned in the Bible, and indeed, almost all of the information we have about Masada comes from the historian Josephus. Perhaps you know the story. Masada is a mountaintop fortress [the word Masada means fortress in Hebrew], that was first built in the late 1st century BCE; but it was really Herod the Great that made it what it was–building it up and fortifying it around 31 BCE. He was ready for anything, with deep cisterns for water, and great storehouses for food. It had a beautiful dovecote [doves were used for fertilizer (their poop, that is), meat, and eggs],a synagogue, and multiple palaces. It is on a mountain plateau 1500 feet above the Dead Sea, and the complex itself covers a 1,000 ft by 2,000 ft rectangle. [All this information, by the way, was shared by one of our best students, Traci Bowman, in her presentation on our way there]. Herod himself never lived there. Instead, its primary residents were a community of Jews who had fled Jerusalem when the temple fell in 70 CE. According to Josephus [who, I must admit, is not fully reliable: “historian” back then had some different connotations than it does today; and elaboration, exaggeration, and bias were not anathema to the recorder of history], the Sicarii, who were a radical group of Jewish assassins, had taken control of Masada in 66 CE. Thus, when Jerusalem fell, Masada was established as a community of Jewish hold-outs, who refused to compromise with Rome. Josephus records that there were 967 in all. [It believed that there were some Essenes there as well.] The community held out for three years, while the Romans systematically went through the country wiping out all other traces of Jewish resistance, until finally Masada was the last rebel stronghold left. [And, if you have seen it, you know why: it really does look impenetrable]. In 73 [or 74], the Romans came and laid siege to Masada, building an enormous ramp up to the walls, which they then battered and set to flame. Finally, when it was clear that the rebels could not defeat the Romans, the leader of the group, Eleazar Ben Yair, gave two stirring speeches to his compatriots [can you tell I am sympathetic to Josephus here?!], convincing them it would be better to die free than live as Roman slaves. It thus was agreed that they would cast lots, choosing ten of their men to slay everyone else, and then one final man who would slaughter the other nine before killing himself. This they did, but before their deaths, they set fire to all their possessions except their food–sending a final message to the Romans that they had not been starved out, but that they had chosen death over bondage. Obviously, however, not EVERYONE died, otherwise, we would not have their story! There were two women and five children who were found alive, and it is their story, as recounted to Josephus [and recorded by him], that has survived. Masada was identified in 1842, and excavated in 1963-1965. There is some interesting nationalistic drama about the excavation, which I will not go into here [suffice it to say that apparently, some archeologists even today also sympathize with Josephus!]: more important to know is that Masada has a strong hold on many Israelis today; and it stands as a symbol of rebellion, a fighting spirit, and an unwillingness to compromise or give in. [As Traci noted, it functions somewhat like our “Remember the Alamo.”] Still today, one of the elite military units goes to Masada to be sworn in, and the slogan, “Never again shall Masada fall” speaks volumes about the length to which some Israelis, at least, are prepared to go to hold onto their land. OK, so, having said all that, you may well be wondering, “And what about this is ‘pilgrimage-like’ for me?” It’s a good question, but one I have an answer to, thanks to my solitary walk up the Snake Path to the top, and my walk down the Snake Path to the bottom. I think I have mentioned before that since I have been here I have read “The Dovekeepers,” a fictionalized [but accurate, as far as the information we have goes] account of the fall of Masada. I loved the story itself, and having specific people in mind [even though they were fictional], and specific stories to reflect upon, added a rich layer of understanding for me when I was there. Thinking about the sacrifices those people made, simply traveling through the desert [60 miles or so] itself, and the deep, deep faith that drove them to give up everything they had, everything they were–it moved me, somehow. [And, again, the fact that they had sought sanctuary in this high, steep, remote place, this mountain of solitude, only added to the appeal for me.] So, I had already decided that rain or shine, I was going to walk the path; and while I was walking [and good weather, by the way–and reciting Psalm 121, too], I realized that for me, a necessary part of a pilgrimage is the physical experience of the place–I need to feel it in my body. It is not enough for me to get out of a bus at a certain location, and walk around, cognitively processing, aesthetically appreciating–even spiritually acknowledging–a particular site. I need to feel it; I need to touch it, breath it, walk it–I need to know it in my flesh, not just in my heart or in my head. And, despite what John may or may not say, I think I am on to something here. There is a reason why physical hardship has been and continues to be a part of pilgrimages in religious traditions all over the world: why so many people travel on foot; why so many people fast; and why so many people physically re-enact events from the past [think of the Hajj, for example]. A pilgrimage, in my view, is actually a great witness to the whole person God has made: we are not just souls, we are not just minds; we are physical beings with flesh and bone, and when we seek God in holy places, we come to God with all that we are, and experience God in all that we are. [And, after all, isn’t a pilgrimage all about God dwelling in physical places? Pilgrimages are physical paths to God, so to speak.] So today, in my element of heights, steep ascent, and crisp air, I felt myself on a pilgrimage to seek the God of high places, the God of fierce landscapes, the God of silence. It was the best part of the trip for me so far. After that experience, I was deeply, deeply content, and the rest of a great day was just icing on the cake. [I was going to say “gravy,” but for a vegetarian, the image doesn’t really work.] From Masada, we only had time to drive past En Gedi, and as we did, we heard the story of David hiding from Saul in a cave somewhere near there, and then sparing Saul’s life [proving his mercy by cutting off a fringe of his garment]. Then we drove to Qumran, where we had lunch, and then walked around looking at the caves [of course, all of the scrolls themselves are in the National Museum, along with every other historical object of value in the country, from what we have seen thus far!]–the caves are beautiful, and it is hard to imagine how anyone ever found the scrolls at all. The hills look to be impossible to climb, even by goats, let alone a goatherd! [Again, Qumran was where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947. These Scrolls date from the mid 3rd century BCE to the second half of the 1st century CE; and they contain copies or fragments of every book of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of Esther. They were left there by the Essene community, a sect of Jewish ascetics, who went out into the wilderness seeking a pure community of true faith. The community was destroyed by the Romans in 68 CE, and before they were killed or captured, the Essenes hid the scrolls in the caves.] Then, we drove to Kalia beach on the Dead Sea–and on our way, we saw a herd of camels. This, I must say, was very cool! And, whatever one calls a camel-shepherd [a camel-herd?], we saw him, too! The Dead Sea was lots of fun–many people had brought their bathing suits, but I was content to take off my tights & wade in it up to my knees–the mud felt good on my feet! [Have a mentioned already that I only brought skirts & tights on this trip–no pants? It has worked out great–skirts pack small & wash up really well; but our guide Steve told me at one point that in all his time leading trips I am the only one who has ever done it in skirts! My inner fashionista was pleased at this.] At the beach, we saw Israeli soldiers there–again, carrying what seems like weapon overkill to me [overcompensation, perhaps?]–because Jordan is just across the Dead Sea. When the beach shuts down at night, it becomes a DMZ. Another jarring reminder of the strife that continues today. Our final stop was Jericho–and the first thing we did was spend an hour shopping in this really amazing gift shop/bazar–Marty had been telling us about it for days! They had the most beautiful glass from Hebron, all hand-made, as well as hand-made pottery from Hebron, too. AND, the most beautiful scarves I have seen thus far. Let’s just say purchases were made & leave it at that! There were beautiful peacocks walking around outside as we crossed the street over into the archeological site. Jericho claims for itself the title “oldest city on earth” [even though I imagine that is debatable, depending on the criteria used!]. In any case, however, it is a very, very old city–with habitation dating back at least to the 8th millennium BCE. Lots of important things in the Bible happened here: the walls falling under Joshua’s leadership; the spring Elisha sweetened [which still nourishes the city today–and modern Jericho is a beautiful city!]; the encounter with Zacchaeus; and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness [the Mount of Temptation looks down on the site], which happened somewhere in the general vicinity. We think. The neatest “rock” we saw [my general term for something old & of archeological significance] was a Neolithic tower dating to roughly 8,000 BCE, which some consider to be the oldest human structure extant anywhere in the world. Again, I’m sure that is debatable; but I think “really old” is enough–it doesn’t have to be “oldest”! That was the day, and it was fabulous!

One thought on “What is a Pilgrimage?

  1. This is helpful to me. I was thinking a lot about this on the trip, especially as I saw how our group interacted with some of the sites in contrast to other pilgrims we encountered along the way. A sign at one of the churches we went to said something along the lines of, “if you enter as a visitor, may you leave as a pilgrim. If you enter as a pilgrim may you leave as a holier one.”


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