Renewal in the Desert - A Reflection from our Oblate

Michael Ida, an Oblate of the Order of Julian of Norwich, and also our parish treasurer, reflects upon our parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Sunrise in the Judean Desert before the Eucharist

I now know why early Christian monastics fled into the desert to find God. What at first seems like just a sterile and desolate wasteland is, on closer examination, a place of austere beauty and even abundance, where life lived on the knife-edge of existence instills everything with a clarity and focus that are sharp, clean, and invigorating. To say that the Holy Land is just a desert would be like saying that the Hawaiian Islands are just volcanic outcroppings in the middle of the ocean.

I expected that my first (and possibly only) visit to the Holy Land would be hectic, and I certainly was not disappointed. There is enough to see and experience there to fill a dozen lifetimes (let alone the mere twelve days that we were there)—no lounging by the pool with a beach book on this trip. If you have never been to the Holy Land, my advice to you in a word is to go. Even if you were vicariously following our progress online, there is no substitute for being there—for feeling the broiling heat, the relief of a cool drink, and the myriad other sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that Jesus almost certainly did during his earthly lifetime. We are physical beings, and the power of proximity, of being physically present on the same ground that Jesus was and experiencing many of the same sensations that he did, cannot be underestimated in bringing the gospels to life.

Beyond the physical, however, the most enduring insight that will remain with me is how, as fellow pilgrim Les Uyehara put it, “everything makes sense”: How the Biblical stories from both the Old and New Testaments now have faces—both the characters and the places—and how everything from the motivations of the characters in the unfolding drama to the awe and terror of encountering God in the wilderness can be understood firsthand. After feeling the unrelenting heat of the sun in a cloudless sky (so alike and yet so different from our own Hawaiian sun), hearing the distinctive crunch of the white limestone gravel under our shoes, and smelling the pungent and savory aromas of the open-air bazaars, I now see how Jacob’s encounter with God in the desert changed him for life; how alone and afraid Jesus must have felt while being held in an underground cell awaiting trial; and how utterly inadequate 30-second sound bites are in conveying the complex and volatile mix of history and emotion which swirls among the three Abrahamic faiths for which the land is holy.

As a lucky coincidence, the time that we were in the Holy Land also coincided with my profession anniversary as a Julian oblate. Monastics are very intentional about cultivating the spirit of sacramental living, of being aware of God’s presence in the in-between times—the most humble and mundane moments of our lives when we are alone save for God—and being grateful for that presence and the small graces that come with it that are so easy to overlook. It is therefore fitting that the event that I found most affecting did not occur in one of the many majestic churches we visited, or among the crowds of other pilgrims and tourists that were present almost everywhere, but among the members of just our group in the Judean desert. As we watched the sunrise in silence over the Wadi Qelt and felt the breathtaking reality of God’s presence as Jacob must have felt it after wrestling alone with God in the night thousands of years ago, we were joined by a Bedouin souvenir vendor and his young son what for them must have been the start of just another work day. As we proceeded to have what for me was one of the most moving Eucharists that I have ever participated in, the vendor and his son quietly went about setting up their wares in preparation for the crush of tourists sure to show up later in the day. When it came time to exchange the peace, the young boy spontaneously came around to each of us and joined in spreading God’s love and reminding us of the presence of Christ in the simplest of human gestures. “The simple enjoyment of our Lord is in itself a most blessed form of thanksgiving,” wrote Julian of Norwich, and our pilgrimage was, in addition to being a watershed and life-changing event, a reminder of how God works through the lowliest elements of his physical creation, and a renewal of the spirit of my oblate vocation: For all of which, I give humble and hearty thanks.

Michael Ida, ObJN

Michael Ida at the Western Wall

 

June 2016 Pilgrimage

The pilgrims enjoy some time in the guest house of St. george's cathedral in jerusalem.

The pilgrims enjoy some time in the guest house of St. george's cathedral in jerusalem.

Father Lillie facilitated another pilgrimage to the Holy Land this past June 2016 for 25 parishioners from St. Mark's. The pilgrimage was for two weeks, and it included time in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, and other Biblical sites. St. Mark's hosted a pilgrimage a few years ago with Father Lillie during the Christmas season. Photos from the pilgrimage may be viewed via the St. Mark's page on Instagram.

On Sunday, July 17 at 11:30 am there will be a Rector's Forum and Lunch in the Parish Hall when the pilgrims will share their experiences with the congregation.

Epilogue

So many thoughts are swirling in our heads from our experience.

We witnessed amazing faith from the local Christians. For many of us, worshipping in Zababdeh will always be a memorable experience. Even though there are so few Christians left in the West Bank, as well as in Israel, the Christians know their identity extremely well, and they are so proud of their faith. Learning how they survive could be important for Christians in the West, especially as we encounter an increasingly secular culture that is highly suspicious of organized religion. How does the Christianity survive in our current context? These Palestinian Christians might be able to show us how.

* * * 

Over the course of the pilgrimage, we also met with representatives of the Christian and Jewish communities. For the session on Judaism, we discussed how secularism means something different depending on the culture. Secularism in the United States is something very different than secularism in Israel, and both are quite different than the secularism of the United Kingdom or Ireland. (We had one pilgrim from England and one from Ireland who participated in our pilgrimage.)

Secularism is the United States often replies a strong rejection of anything religious, whereas in Israel, secular can still signify faith practice. In Israel religion is strongly tied into the state, as it seeks to be a Jewish state. They do not have the sense of separation between faith and state like we have in the USA. You might be secular in Israel, but this means you probably still observe the Sabbath in some way. We spent much time discussing these differences concerning the concept of secularism.

Our session on Christianity in the Holy Land was facilitated by a Palestinian Christian professor from Bethlehem University. If there was one concept that we understood from this session, it was the concept of everything being "religionized." He mentionned again and again that the Middle East had become "religionized." The problem with the Holy Land is that everything gets seen through the lens of religion, or somehow it is explained through religion. Nothing can stand on its own. Everything is seen as being a byproduct of one of the Abrahamic religions. This does not happen in other places. If two people get into a car accident, in most places it is just two people getting into a car accident, but in the Holy Land, it will somehow get wrapped up into religion. This "religionizing" is not helpful for the society.

* * *

For many of the pilgrims the Bible has now come alive. When we hear the stories from Scripture, we have a geographic landscape that helps make the stories more vibrant. Scripture has begun to make sense in a way that was not the case before our trip. Many of the pilgrims have a new appreciation for the Bible.

* * *

Now that the photos from the pilgrimage have been put onto the St. Mark's Flickr page, we have begun to reflect upon just how much we did while in the Holy Land. The pilgrimage was a real tour de force. We saw so much and did so many things. At the time we did not realize it, because we were enjoying such an adrenaline rush. Looking at the pictures a couple of months later, it has dawned on us that we really did a lot. Our schedule was intense.

For the sake of pilgrimage this is actually ok. Because your sense are heightened, you can do more and you can process more. What is actually essential is to schedule time after the pilgrimage to let the many experiences and images settle. Many of the pilgrims continue to relfect upon our experiences in the Holy Land, and this process will continue for as long as they have faith. 

Some of the pilgrims have already mentioned they would like to go back to the Holy Land. This is often the case. It is a fact that for many people you cannot visit the Holy Land just once. It is a place you return to again and again, whether your return is physical or spiritual.

And their excitement to return has spread to other parishioners at St. Mark's. It has been good to see and witness the pilgrims sharing their insights with others in the parish. The pilgrimage has fostered a renewed sense of sharing the faith among the parishioners. More are able to tell the story of Christ now that they have made this journey to the Holy Land. 

Emmaus

Today we spent the morning in Abu Ghosh at the Crusader Emmaus. The church is home to French Benedictines, and they have done an amazing job with the church and the surrounding gardens. It is one of the most beautiful places in the Holy Land.

Inside the church we were afforded the wonderful opportunity to celebrate a mass, and due to the fantastic acoustic, the mass was truly beautiful. Chanting the Our Father, as well as other parts of the mass, was an ethereal experience.

The Emmaus story is that wonderful post-resurrection story where Jesus greets some of his followers walking along a road. During the mass, we heard the story, and the homily related how this story is an example of the first Eucharist. The followers of Jesus hear the scriptures and then they break the bread together. When they break the bread their eyes are opened, and they see the Risen Christ. For those of us on the pilgrimage, it was also a mass that opened our eyes to see the Christ. Being at the end of our pilgrimage, we realized how much the eyes of our faith had been opened on this journey. We now can see Christ in new and different ways than before we entered this sacred land, and this is a true blessing.

For Father Lillie, it was also a special day, for this was the place where he did his retreat prior to his ordination to the priesthood, and he was able to celebrate the mass.

After the mass, we presented our guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, with a variety of gifts thanking him for his wonderful guidance these past two weeks.

Now we are preparing to make the long trip home. It has been a wonderful time, but we are also looking forward to returning home.