One of the common aspects of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land – and this my wife and I have discussed and find we share in common – is the particularity of certain experiences. There are inherently overwhelming experiences, such as kneeling beside a priest in the actual sepulchre of Christ, and reading names aloud for him to remember in the proskomidie, as he prepared the bread and wine for the Divine Liturgy.
(For the non-Orthodox reader, the proskomedie is a service done prior to every Eucharist in which the bread and wine are prepared. The priest puts a particle of bread on the paten for every name of the living and departed being remembered that day in the service – in some settings the service of preparation –proskomidie – can take as long as the liturgy itself.)
But I would have to say that it was that particular experience which stood out for me from the larger context of that night’s Divine Liturgy. It was not that anything else was less important – indeed everything was inherently overwhelming – but that a particular moment was the vehicle in which my heart was pierced and I became aware of the encounter with God.
I have written at other times about the difference between particularity and the general and that it is in the particular that we, in fact, encounter God. My pilgrimage has only served to underscore that understanding within me.
I also had an experience which underscored the negative side of this insight. The general – especially when it is an presented in an abstract form – makes an actual encounter with reality and truth difficult, perhaps impossible. This has largely been brought home to me through my experience of art in the Holy Land. Not all shrines in this land are under Orthodox control, nor governed by an Orthodox understanding of iconography. In some cases (not all) I have seen Christ, the saints, and the particular reality that each represents, abstracted to something general and universal, and thus an ideation that is more imagination than a presentation of the truth.
The doctrine and Tradition of the Holy Icons, understands them to be as particular as Scripture itself. An icon does not say something in general, but, within the rules of its artistic grammar, says something or makes present something that is exceedingly real, describeable and particular. An icon of Christ is particularly an icon of Christ and not an abstraction of Christ nor an ideation of Christ. It is an image of “He Who Is,” which is clearly written on every icon of Christ (usually in Greek or Slavonic abbreviation).
The entire experience of pilgrimage would make no sense were the reality we seek a generality and not something quite particular. It is thus that as the Patriarchs of the Old Testament encountered God that they gave place names to mark the encounter. Whole towns in this land bear names that were given over 3,000 years ago, by men who encountered God in a way that changed their life – changed this land – changed history – and continues its impact into the present.
Israel did not proclaim a faith in an abstracted God, but in the “God of our Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The Christian claim is that it is this God of Israel and no other Who is incarnate as the God/Man, Christ Jesus.
The character of my pilgrimage is marked by very particular stories – particular places – particular people – a particular phrase that is spoken. It has been marked by an extraordinary hospitality, where I found myself called forward and into the altar of the House of God, to take my share as a priest with other Orthodox priests.
I have now shared in services here in Greek, Slavonic and Arabic, with the gracious allowance of my small contribution of English. We celebrated the Liturgy on Sunday in Nazareth, in the local Orthodox Church which marks the site of the well where Mary first encountered the angel Gabriel (it is St. Gabriel’s Church). The account of this first encounter is in the Protoevangelium of James (a book outside the canon of Scripture but often accepted as containing much of value within the Tradition of the faith). St. Gabriel’s community in Nazareth consists almost entirely of Arab Christians who have been in this land from very early times. The congregational participation was amazing! I do not think I have ever heard an Orthodox liturgy that was as loud! The sense of enthusiasm that filled the whole of the service was quite unique. It will not be forgotten. Neither will a chance conversation with a group of Orthodox youth from across this part of the Mid-East who were also having a retreat in Nazareth that weekend. They had many political questions to put to this American priest – for which I had little answer. It is hard to tell them that the powers that be have almost no concept of Orthodox Christianity – its history – its current vitality – or its interests. These were youth in dismay. May God help them in the difficulties they face.
The particular character of this pilgrimage is already creating “favorite” places in my heart – places I hope to see again before the week is out and we return home. What I rest in, is the assurance that wherever I am, God will make Himself known in particular ways – at home as well as in the Holy Land. It does not make pilgrimage a useless event – but rather says that we are always on pilgrimage – looking for the “heart’s true home.” And that home will always come to us in ways that can be tasted, smelled, touched, remembered, but not abstracted.
Glory to God. I pray for you all with each day.