The Need to be Close
For a person of Christian faith, a pilgrimage to Israel can be a religious encounter on steroids. If you visit the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before his crucifixion, or touch the waters of the River Jordan where he was baptized, or walk along the Via Delorosa, the path Jesus took on the way to the cross, you may experience healing, an answer to your prayer, a spiritual lift or forgiveness for a grave sin in a way that cannot be replicated anywhere else on earth. It is on that expectation that the concept of pilgrimages is based.
Pilgrimages have been a part of world religions for millennia. In ancient times, the journeys to the Holy Land or other sacred places throughout Asia Minor were lengthy and full of dangers. You had to be pretty motivated to travel for months and years, risk hunger, hardship and attacks by thieves and murderers along the way while never knowing if you could actually reach your destination.
Ancient pilgrims would be awestruck and confused by today’s ease of travel. Now, we book everything online, fly to Jerusalem, check into an air-conditioned hotel, pick up a map at the local tourist bureau and hire a taxi to reach the Christian Quarter of Old Jerusalem. Bingo – pilgrimage accomplished! Isn’t a pilgrimage supposed to be full of hardship and struggle? How can you have a truly meaningful spiritual experience without the perils of the journey, any hard-core pilgrim from the Middle Ages would ask?
Christians go on pilgrimages for all kinds of reasons – and most of them have changed very little over the centuries. You might feel the need to give penance, be on a search for moral and spiritual significance, to have important life questions answered or experience the collective excitement of being with fellow believers. Others may go on the journey simply as an act of religious devotion, because they seek to establish a connection with God or to petition the Divine for a special blessing or favor.
The names of Israel’s holy places remind me of my life-long wish to visit the Holy Land, perhaps not as part of a pilgrimage but a strategy to work through a bucket list of spiritually significant locales on earth. But now that I am here, my hope for a memorable spiritual experience vaporizes with the ever increasing pushing and shoving by the hundreds of tourists and pilgrims around me. As I enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, instead of feeling a sense of awe, I am mostly concerned about losing my wallet to pickpockets, my place in the hour-long lineup, my guide who has just slipped out of sight and my mind in the noise, heat and human congestion all around me. Remind me again: why am I here? In this environment, any attempt for spiritual contemplation, establishing a connection with the Divine and visualizing what it must have been like to be here in the presence of Jesus, is simply impossible.
Still, looking around me, I seem to be the only one struggling. Wherever my eyes turn, I see pilgrims absorbed in the dedication to their faith, adoring, kissing, hugging and worshipping the sacred sites, while seemingly oblivious to the chaos around them. If anything, these are the most heart-warming and memorable of sights: a woman on her knees reaching to touch the rock where Jesus’ cross stood, a man writing a prayer note to be stuck between the rocks of the Western Wall, a wide-eyed child following in the footsteps of Jesus through the Via Delorosa. The need to be close to sacred places is one of the most powerful urges we have as human beings. But, in my humble opinion, with 2.2 billion Christians (1/3 of the world population) worldwide and only one Jerusalem, pilgrimages to the holy city have become impractical. Christianity’s sacred sites simply cannot handle these masses of devotees.
After my crowded experience in Jerusalem, I wonder why not more Christians convert to a religion with fewer members. With only 5 million adherents, the Baha’i faith comes to mind. Pilgrimages would be so much more pleasant. Instead of crowded, commercialized holy sites, the Baha’is have a mausoleum with beautiful gardens in Haifa to visit. Sounds like a good enough reason to make the switch.