Jerusalem – Heaven and Hell

I am taking the day off from the pilgrimage (my wife and others are in the vicinity of Jericho today). I have stayed behind to allow my back and some swollen feet to mend – they are already better after much needed sleep – and I wanted to use some free time to offer a reflection or so on my pilgrimage to date).

There has been at least one profound moment in each day of the pilgrimage – but yesterday and the early hours of this morning (Jerusalem time) were events almost beyond description.

We began the day in Bet Sahour – the “Shepherd’s Fields” near Bethlehem. The parish is a newly-built Orthodox Church with wonderful iconography. Beside it are the archeological digs on a series of Churches going back to the early 4th century.

Later we were in Bethlehem. Despite the onslaught of vendors whenever you leave the confines of the Church, the experience was profound. We have had tremendous freedom of access to sites (the presence of Met. Kallistos has likely opened doors for us). I have been able to enter the sanctuary and venerate the altar of every Church we have visited.

The shrine of Christ’s Nativity is that strange mix of knowing where you are and how important it is and yet also being aware of crowds and the crush of pilgrims. But there were many moments of especial significance.

In the late afternoon we were at the Monastery of St. John (Moscow Patriarchate) for the Vigil for the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (everything is Old Calendar over here). To our great surprise and delight, after the Metropolitan entered the altar, a priest came out and invited the three OCA priests in our party to enter the altar. Nuns in the sacristry provided vestments and we shared in the Vigil, taking part particularly in the Polieley. The choir of nuns were utter ethereal in their beauty – the service in Slavonic perfection. It is very hard to describe the sense of arriving at a holy place and suddenly being extended such hospitality. It was like the welcome of the Prodigal Son.

After a light supper and brief nap, we walked across Jerusalem (after midnight), arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were expected. Met. Kallistos concelebrated with Archbishop Aristarchos, one of the members of the Holy Synod in Jerusalem and an old acquaintance of the Metropolitan. Again, the hospitality and access granted to us was overwhelming. I was able to enter the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, as were many of our group, kneel by the priest who was performing the Proskomide (the preparation of the gifts) and give him the names of all those I wanted remembered in the Liturgy.

There is a very small chapel at the entrance to the Sepulchre with an altar. At the Little Entrance, the Bishops and clergy processed into that chapel and the Liturgy continued from inside the structure that surrounds the Holy Sepulchre itself. The clergy, both those in our group as well as priests of other pilgrim groups, were able to enter the small altar area and receive communion. The inner experience of this unimagined privilege is beyond my words.

We shared refreshments with the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre after Liturgy and were shown the room containing the holy relics – which is beyond description. Several of us found our way up to the chapel of Golgotha and were able to venerate the rock beneath the altar that marks the spot where the Cross of Christ stood. I can only describe the evening as a Pascha. For though every Liturgy everywhere is always a Pascha, it is also inescapably and palpably so to receive communion at the tomb of Christ. It will doubtless be an image that will feed my heart for a long time to come.

My wife and I, finally returning to our residence at St. George’s College at 5 a.m., reflected together on the day. It was a journey from Christmas to Pascha, Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre, with an utterly heavenly visit to the Monastery of St. John, which marks both the birthplace of the Holy Forerunner, as well as the site of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (all of which are very special in our family). It was a day that neither of us could fathom and only gave us the reminder that the past 10 years of our lives (the years we have been Orthodox) have been blessed beyond anything we every dreamed when we began this journey.

Our focus has not been on our own “experience” of the places we visit, but rather on the prayers we are carrying with us. And yet continual unexpected joys meet us with a kindness and hospitality I would never dream of demanding.

One of our party last night commented as we left the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we had been blessed indeed. He recalled the experience of St. Mary of Egypt who had not been able to cross the threshhold of that holy place because of her sins. The hand of God held her back. It became the occasion of her conversion.

“We actually crossed the threshhold!” he commented, recognizing in that simple act the mercy of a good God towards sinners such as ourselves.

The wonder of this land is very much like the wonder of the world everywhere. The Holy is given to us constantly, even though we find ourselves surrounded in tragedy and confusion that seems insolvable. Everywhere you look the political reality of this troubled place is evident, and yet the places most Holy on this earth are here. It truly is like the human heart – where the treasuries of everything are to be found – both of evil – and of paradise itself. The struggle for everyone in this place – as the struggle for everyone, everywhere – is to enter paradise rather than to make of their life and this world a living hell. May God have mercy on us all.

Comments

  1. says

    Father Stephen,

    It sounds as though you are having a wonderful time and are being blessed by your visit. I pray that you continue to enjoy the rest of your time there and you continue to be blessed by the visit.

    Regards

  2. Fr Nicholas (Hughes) says

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    How very vividly I remember my own pilgrimage now almost 20 years past..and how it literally changed my life. You will never read the Bible the same, and the blessings will continue for the rest of your life. A blessed continuance of your pilgrimage and safe voyage home!

  3. says

    please . . . PLEASE! post some pictures :0)

    a very somber day here:

    The Beheading of the Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John. The event is told in the Gospels, and cannot be told better here. [Today is kept as a strict fast day, on whatever day of the week it falls. Because the holy Forerunner’s head was brought to Herod on a platter, it is a pious custom not to eat anything from a plate or platter today.]

  4. says

    Father Bless!
    I am blessed by hearing of your pilgrimage – it has made my day. Thank you for sharing it and for the encouragement the sharing gives…
    Godspeed on the rest of the trip!
    Pray for me,
    handmaid Leah

  5. says

    Photo (my access to technology is limited and only today was able to load photos onto my laptop). The current photo is serving Vigil at the Monastery of St. John for the Feast of his beheading. Typical liturgical jitters, I’m holding my candle in the wrong hand. Difference between serving here and the Greek service at the Holy Sepulchre – Russians are clear about which hand you hold your candle in. The Greeks seemed much more casual by comparison – though the piety of both is quite evident when you are with them. And the hospitality of all was beyond compare. The pilgrimage is maintaining a blog site here with many photos to enjoy. If you’re patient, they’ll have a whole page of just photos. There is a “button” for photos. The writing is by various persons on the pilgrimage.

  6. says

    Father, bless,

    What a beautiful liturgy and this reflection on it is so well written, thank you. And, so humbling to have followed from the Nativity to the Crucifixion.

  7. says

    Please include me in your list of those prayed for.

    I had the chance to interview Bishop Kallistos twice in regard to my script about Tolkien and Lewis. He had brief encounters with both of them, but all that seems dull compared to the incarnation you all are encountering right now.

    It’s a miracle that these sites stay perserved.

  8. shevaberakhot says

    Father,

    I keep thinking of our Lord when He says: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 5:53).

    Transfiguring into our lives, He turned it all into endless streams of living water.

    Such profundity.

    Bless.

  9. Lana Balach says

    Father Stephen,
    Father bless.
    Thank you. Your words and experiences are such a blessing. I found a link to your site on Father Milovan’s blog and am so grateful that I clicked on it. I can’t wait to read more about your daily blessings and miracles.

  10. says

    What a life-altering, blessed beyond all measure, experience. Father, please pray for those of us in the Houston area and all other areas that are about to get hit by Hurricane Ike. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

  11. Mary Lowell says

    Dear Father,

    God willing, I will follow your footsteps next month, October. I am reading every thing I can to prepare myself, but an inspiring conversation with one of the participants in the 2008 icon-painting workshop in Maggie Valley (which you attended in 2007) gave me a foretaste that no book could have conveyed. He said that the events of Holy Week and Pascha took place in such a small unit of land, about a quarter of a mile from one point to another, and that Bethlehem is visible from Golgotha. Thus Our Lord could see the place of His birth from the cross.

    Marvel and wonder!

    Your Servant in Prayer,

    Mary

  12. james says

    Father Bless,

    As an OO I have to ask this, as you visited the various Holy Places, did you see or come across OO monks , priests etc ?

    James

  13. says

    I met several Armenian priests at the Holy Sepulchre. Their service followed just after the Greek Orthodox service. But we did not have a chance to interact. We were supposed to go this afternoon to Vespers at St. James Armenian Orthodox Church, but circumstances (it’s Friday afternoon and much Muslim foot-traffic make travel difficult).

  14. Jovana says

    Father, I have been reading your blog for two/three weeks now off my cellphone (I do not have a computer currently) and your posts touch me so deeply. I have been Orthodox since before I was born, my father is a priest, but he never pressured me into anything :) Finally, after more then twenty one years of only living half of my life completly. I decided to accept God, without any question, and completly. Your posts inspire me. I was saving up for trivial things, a new computer, better belongings but now the way is set out before me: Pilgrimage! Thank you, God Bless & please keep me and my family in your prayers.

  15. says

    “….Russians are clear about which hand you hold your candle in….”

    This made me smile. If it weren’t for the Russians, spiritually, it’s possible we would have all ended up in Scranton instead of the Holy Land, in our hearts.

    (Not that Scranton is a bad place…but it’s not the Holy Land…)

    Fr. bless! Know that our hearts travel with you as we read of your adventures!

    Much love in Christ to you, your wife, and all on the pilgrimage,
    Suzanne

  16. BlueBook says

    Father Stephen,

    I have been greatly enjoying your observations of the Holy Land. My wife and I have been studying here in Jerusalem for a year now and have been following your blog for about two years. I especially enjoyed your observation about experiencing the Holy amidst “tragedy and confusion that seems insolvable”. That is so accurate.

    May God grant you many more glimpses into the Holy during your stay here. And thank you for blogging.

    Vernon