Pilgrimage

Pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher kneel at the Stone of Unction, where Christians believe Jesus’ body was anointed after crucifixion. Photo: Evan Simko-Bednarski

Pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher kneel at the Stone of Unction, where Christians believe Jesus’ body was anointed after crucifixion. Photo: Evan Simko-Bednarski

JERUSALEM — On our last full day in Israel, a Sunday, I walked the Via Dolorosa, the street in Jerusalem’s Old City that Christians believe traces Jesus’ final walk to his own execution.

It was a day that Professor Goldman’s advice about the trip came in particularly handy. He had told us that we would be traveling in three capacities at once: as tourists, as pilgrims, and as journalists.

For most of the trip, I found myself shifting among those roles on the fly, often occupying all three in the space of as many minutes. As one of the photo editors for our trip, I often found myself approaching everything twice. At Christian holy sites, I fell into a rhythm while photographing worshippers: cock the shutter, lean in, compose, snap, followed immediately by hang camera on shoulder, cross yourself, kneel. I took many pictures of people praying, and then I prayed, trying not to think of the pictures that people might be taking of me.

In that tripartite identity, there was a tension for me between observation and participation. One school of thought on religion reporting holds that your own beliefs have no place in your work, to the point that they shouldn’t be shared with those to whom you’re speaking. Another view is that people share belief best in conversation, and that reporters have to give of themselves to get.

On that last Sunday, I finally let myself be a pilgrim. Our group woke up early to visit the Temple Mount, also known as the Haram al-Sharif. It’s the third holiest place in Islam, and a place so holy in Judaism that some Jews won’t set foot there, absent cleansing rituals that they are no longer able to perform. A few of my colleagues stayed behind as we ascended the Mount for that reason. Their religious identity took precedence in a way that I admired—they took a break from being journalists so that they could be proper pilgrims. So, when we left Haram al-Sharif and the group broke for a few hours to report and grab lunch in the Old City, I decided that I wanted to do the same. My trusty Nikon went into my bag, my pen went into my pocket, and I went off looking for the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa.

Via Dolorosa is Latin for “way of grief.” As early as the 8th century, Christian pilgrims followed the path between the Mount of Olives, where the Bible says Jesus and his followers prayed the night he was captured, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is thought to be built over Calvary, the hill where Jesus was crucified. Over time, walking the path became a solidified ritual, and spots along the way became identified with parts of the crucifixion story. These spots are known as stations. There are 14 of them, and they are represented through artwork in most Catholic churches.

In Christianity, the notion that God became human is an important tenant of faith—the omnipotent creator of the universe experienced the very human and mortal limitations of suffering and fear and despair. The Stations of the Cross, for me, focus on that very human Jesus—this is a man, arrested, tried, and condemned in the span of a day, forced to carry his own implement of execution up a hill to die.

I started at the second station, where Jesus is given the cross. The Via Dolorosa continues on straight from there for a long while. I passed antique shops selling icons and the old city’s ubiquitous souvenir shops with enough kinds of beads and shawls to assist in whatever manner of prayer one preferred, and thought about what it must be like to be handed one’s own cross, about why anyone in such a position, human or divine, would continue to walk forward.

At El Wad ha-Gai Street, the Via Dolorosa takes a sharp left. At that corner is the third station, where Jesus falls under the weight of the cross for the first time. I had been in the old city for three days now, and I knew how far off the Church of the Holy Sepulcher still was. The thought of stumbling at that point under the weight, with a crowd pressing around, was grim.

I felt an identification with Jesus and his suffering, even though I did not grow up in a particularly observant household. I grew up nominally Catholic. I went to a Jesuit-run Catholic high school where I studied theology and the exegetic study of texts, but after that and, frankly, to this day, I rarely go to church. Nevertheless, by the time I reached station four, just a hundred feet or so beyond the third I was hit by a wave of emotion—at the fourth station, Jesus, condemned, sees his grieving mother in the crowd.

From my Bible studies, I do know that many of the elements of the stations of the cross are, strictly speaking, non-canonical—that is to say, they are not mentioned in the four Gospels of the New Testament; they don’t have a scriptural basis. There are three times that Jesus falls under the weight of the cross on the Via Dolorosa. None of these are mentioned in the Gospels. Neither is the encounter with his mother. Rather, these anecdotes come from various traditions and are gathered together in this ritual, and interspersed with scriptural anecdotes to create a human pictures of a condemned deity.

As I walked the short distance to the fifth station, where the path turns away from El Wad ha-Gai Street and begins to turn uphill, I bumped into my friend and colleague Rachel, one of my observant Jewish classmates who opted not to visit the Temple Mount that morning.

Ophir, our guide for much of the trip from the Interfaith Coordinating Council in Israel, would later mention his concept of “holy envy”—the idea that you see in a Religion that is not yours something that you would like to bring to your own sense of spirituality. Earlier in the week, Rachel and I had begun a long conversation about text and language and interpretation in religion, and she introduced me to the concept of the “70 faces of the Torah,” the notion that there are multitudinous coexisting valid interpretations of the sacred text. At the time, I had half-joked that in the history of Christianity serious differences in interpretation usually “simply lead to another church.”  And so the 70 faces of the Torah became my holy envy.

For the next hour, Rachel and I walked the Via Dolorosa together, and as I would tell her the story behind a given station, she would ask me questions about Christianity, which I would try to answer, and then I would ask her about Judaism. Parts of the crucifixion story that hadn’t made sense to me (Jesus being laid in an above-ground tomb just off of the crucifixion site, for example) made perfect sense to Rachel, who could explain the necessary rituals that would not have been performed by the apostles, who were Jewish, during Passover. My meditation now had a travel partner, each of us playing the role of Virgil through one another’s traditions, and in that way teaching each other about our own.

By the time we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the conversation had branched off from the crucifixion story and we were discussing tenants of faith and tradition, discussing God the omnipotent and God the personal.

The fourteenth and final station of the cross is Jesus’ tomb, the one from which Christians say he rose three days after his crucifixion. It’s housed at the opposite end of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, inside a cuboid structure called the Aedicule that pilgrims gather around to touch, pray and leave candles. As Rachel and I stood outside of the sea of pilgrims— two reporters, a Modern Orthodox Jew and lapsed Roman Catholic—a handful of priests came through to clear the way for the procession of Greek Orthodox priests in flowing green robes, coming through in celebration of Sunday mass. As the Greek Orthodox procession passed, replete in what Professor Goldman would refer to as the “smells and bells” of a high church, I realized that I had rarely felt closer to my religion than I did here, standing in the highest church of the Old City, discussing texts and traditions with a friend.

In the end, the identities aren’t separate at all. Observation is, by necessity, participation. To report on religion, one needs to engage in conversation. To report on pilgrims honestly, we must know what it’s like to make a pilgrimage. To report on the beliefs of another honestly, we must be intimately familiar with our own. And that reporting can be a two-way street: learning from another can teach you a lot about yourself.

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