In 1994 my wife and I took a group of teens on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The shared experience of travel and prayer in that place deepened our spiritual life and friendships that remain to this day. I can recall every place we visited. But the Church of the Resurrection (or, as it is called in the West, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher) stands out even after the passing years. This church has been a place of pilgrimage from the 4th century and it has remained largely unchanged.
In places like The Church of the Resurrection connections open doors that remain shut to those without. We had connections. We, all 50 teens and leaders, were led down a long staircase. On the walls were crosses and sayings etched into the stone by pilgrims over the hundreds of years. The stairway ends at a locked door that leads to the quarry where stone was gathered to make the church we were in. St. Helen found the Cross of Christ in this same quarry. But our find laid undiscovered until 1971. Behind yet another set of locked doors is an Armenian chapel. There on the wall is the carving of a ship left by some of the first pilgrims. The etching has a description in Latin that reads, Domine Ivimus. Some scholars believe it to be a version of Psalm 122:1, meaning “Lord we shall go.” Our guide translated it, “We have arrived.”
For millennia Christians, and most people in most religions, have been making spiritual pilgrimages. We were granted access to the same room where, beginning with St. Helen, so many saints have stood and prayed. Pilgrimage to holy sites and holy places connect us with the great cloud of witnesses. All of Christian history is an account of men and women making pilgrimage not only to Jerusalem but also to monasteries throughout their own lands. Why do people go on pilgrimage? We go to recover and rekindle what we have trouble keeping aflame in the world: our faith. We go to renew and restore our hearts. I head off soon for what I am calling a 24-hour monastery reconnaissance. I head to the Saint Paisius Monastery in Safford, AZ to put things in order for my mission’s parish-wide retreat. But I go hoping to arrive as a pilgrim.