At this point, it’s been two weeks since we came back from Jerusalem, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Everyone asks me what we saw and where we went. This is hard to answer, it’s a little like saying you went to Disney; while Disney is one place, it also has an incredible amount of rides and attractions, and each person has his favorites. Like Disney, Jerusalem is special because each person is seeking a different adventure, a different sight to behold. We saw awe-inspiring things–Jacob’s Well where the Lord met St. Photini, St. Peter’s house, the Sea of Galilee, St. Savas’s monastery, and even celebrated the Liturgy at the Tomb of Christ–but it was the people that we met that changed my life. They provided context.
How to Pilgrim
When I went, I only knew a few things about the Holy Land, mostly that it was originally Canaanite, populated by the Israelites, the Lord lived there, the Jews were expelled, the state of Israel was founded in the 1960s, and that areas of the region are now divided between Palestinians and Israelis. When asked about my expectations for visiting the Holy Land, I responded that I was excited to visit the Holy Sepulchre and the Jordan. What those places really entailed was beyond me; I was just excited to go.
But when I got there, I realized that I didn’t really know what was going on. I mean, I knew the biblical stories, but it was a little hard to figure out what was going on. It’s a little like when you visit your friend’s parish, and it’s definitely the same liturgy, but it’s also clearly not yours. They might do the entrances a little differently, sing “Lord have mercy” in a different tone, or maybe they just venerate their icons differently. You definitely know how to cross yourself and how to say the creed, but you’re a little disoriented.
That’s kind of how it was for me. We would walk along the street, and were suddenly in a holy place. I’d cross myself, venerate the site, and kind of just look at it for a few minutes. When we went to the Holy Sepulchre, it was pretty impressive, because I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I mean, few things are more foundational and important than where Christ died and then rose. We went into the first chamber, venerated the stone which the angel rolled away, and then four college students crammed into the Tomb itself. Then, we slowly backed out of the Tomb, and moved on to other sites.
It wasn’t until we went back to the Holy Sepulchre, two nights later, to celebrate the Vigil that I got it. When we walked in, the stone which the angel rolled away was now an altar table, and the place where the Lord lay was the table of proskomide. It wasn’t just that the Lord sanctified this place, but we were now sanctifying it. There was a participation in these holy places. We offered up the gifts, and He gave them back to us. Just as Pascha is sometimes too sublime for words, holiness transformed the place.
Meeting the Saints
In the Coptic Church, on Pascha before the Resurrection Reenactment, we sing a hymn called “Kata Ni Khoros,” and it begins with, “What is this I hear? It is a harmonious symphony, coming to my ear.”
I once heard someone say that “A saint is someone who keeps trying.” It’s a comforting thought, and a powerful reminder that the saints are just like us (James 5:17). And yet, I also met saints, who were not just like me.
We met people who, like St. Paul, knowingly walk into danger, for the sake of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:22-29). We met all sorts of saints–priests, monks, nuns, a principal, and even just gatekeepers. Every single one of them was impacted in some way by the holiness of the places surrounding them. Where the Lord met St. Photini, there was a man who told me the things I did; at Bethany, I met a woman who was filled with the Lord’s activity; at the Russian monastery of St. Mary Magdalene, I met a woman who left all to follow Him; and at the Monastery where the Lord fasted and prayed, I met a man who spent his life in unceasing prayer for the world. They greeted us with smiles, told us of the miracles surrounding their environment, and grace just flowed from them.
What surprised me most though, was the diversity of people that we met. The priests, monks, nuns, a principal, and gatekeepers weren’t competing with each other to be the holiest in the Holy Land. They were simply themselves. One monk we met built an entire church and wrote all the icons, and another nun just prayed in her monastery. One nun went on field trips with her students and taught at her orphanage, and one priest just stayed at Bethlehem, in order to anoint pilgrims and hand out icon cards. Instead of clashing, each person did their own job, with humility. They were a harmonious symphony, who offered their service to God, who then gave me the blessings of their labor.
The trip was surreal. I saw amazing sites and met incredible people, including the other students and trip leaders who accompanied me. As a brief aside, there is an amazing depth to those surrounding us, and one benefit of the trip was how humbling it was.
We adjusted to the time difference very quickly, and we liked to joke that we were so exhausted that any time difference was just negligible. Nevertheless, halfway through the trip, we all realized that the trip would end. This was the scariest moment of the trip. Once we arrived back in the states, we would no longer be in the process of being a pilgrim. And that’s exactly what happened. When we got home, immediately people began asking me what I saw, what I learned, and where I went. And I could see that my answers weren’t always sufficient. St. Paul tells St. Timothy that now that he is a bishop, to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). I’m not a bishop, but now I have to put into words what I saw. It is now time to begin processing this life-changing exercise.
At first, I was a little scared. Would church still feel powerful? What would it be like without having caves or holy sites or the bodies of incorrupt monastics everywhere I go? But then I got my answer pretty quickly. When we returned, I visited my friend’s home parish before we returned to Pitt. I have celebrated the liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre, seen the light atop Mt. Tabor, been immersed in the Jordan River, and drank from spring where the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Theotokos the incarnation of the Savior of all creation. And yet, when I went to Holy Trinity in Stroudsburg, I stepped into a river of fire and was lifted up to the heavens. It was one of the most sublime liturgies I have ever attended. The people there, none of whom had ever been to the Holy Land, beheld the Lord with their own eyes upon the altar table, and reverently bent to meet Him who lifts us all up.
The beginning of the liturgy is not “Blessed is the Kingdom,” but is the line that precedes it: “Now it is time for the Lord to act.” As St. Photini says, “[the Messiah] will tell us all things” (John 4:25). In the meantime, I can only speak of what I saw, and be assured that not only is holiness still alive, but that now it is time for the Lord to act.
A junior at the University of Pittsburgh, Daniel is studying psychology, history, religious studies, and Arabic, and serves as the Secretary for the Pitt/CMU OCF chapter. In addition to taking way too many classes, he loves church humor, and has the beautiful talent of being able to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.