What exactly is a pilgrimage? This is the first thing our group of VTS students and alumni were challenged to think about on the first day of our two-week Cross-Cultural Education Program (CCEP) in the Holy Land.
Our group was led by the staff of St. George’s College in Jerusalem to the sites that mark Jesus’ life as told in the Gospels from birth to death, resurrection and ascension. Some of the sites in Jerusalem, Judea and the Galilee are likely to have been the actual historic sites of Biblical events–others we are less certain about. It is not clear, for example, whether Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, the Church of the Nativity, which contains the grotto considered to be the place where Mary gave birth to Christ, has been visited by Christian pilgrims for many centuries. When the members of our group stooped down to touch the stone where it is said that the manger laid, a surface that so many other hands have touched before us, we could feel the power of the place–the power to bring us into communion with the saints of the Church, past and present, and to bring the Nativity story to life again in our hearts.
But pilgrimage is perhaps as much about the present as it is about the past. Here, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unavoidable. Indeed, as our St. George’s leaders reminded us, Christians–no matter how long they find themselves in the Holy Land–have an obligation to recognize this reality and to learn what they can about it. We were privileged to visit a refugee camp in the West Bank, where Muslim women fed us delicious Palestinian cuisine and told us about their organization, Noor Women’s Empowerment Group, created by and for refugee mothers of disabled children.
Holy Land pilgrimage is also in part about seeing how the three Abrahamic religions are at once intertwined and distinct from one another. When our group had the rare opportunity to go inside the Dome of the Rock, held to be the third holiest site in Islam, our tour guide pointed out a beautifully-painted palm tree on the wall. The tree recalls an episode in the Qur’an when Mary the Mother of Jesus (known as ‘Maryam’ in Islam) shakes a palm tree and is instructed by God to eat the fruit that falls from it after giving birth. There–in what I’d assumed would be a place that would offer more intellectual or aesthetic satisfaction than anything spiritual–there it happened that I had perhaps one of the most powerful spiritual moments of the entire pilgrimage.
Elizabeth Brinkley ’25
Postulant for Holy Orders
Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina