By Father John Weldon Hardenbrook
"Where do you go on a pilgrimage?"
"Is going on a pilgrimage something I personally should plan for? "
A few years ago my family and I took a ride around San Jose, California, to look at the places where I had grown up. There was a touch of nostalgia in seeing all of those sites again for the first time in many years.
My uncle and aunt's house on North 16th Street was still standing. We moved there in 1945 from Everett, Washington. When we lived at that house my sister, my cousin, and I used to jump on empty soup cans to flatten them for metal to be used for the war effort. The gnarly old pepper tree was still there, too. I hated it because my mother used to spank us with its thin, flexible branches.
The house on 33rd Street in East San Jose had many memories--like the day my dad tackled a peeping Tom outside our house and the police camel or the times Miss Bozzi drove up in her 1924 Model T touring car to baby-sit us kids. When we lived at the house perched above a grocery store on North 14th Street. they chopped down a tall tree outside that contained my hidden tree house. To my dismay, it all came crashing to the ground, revealing all my mother's missing pots and pans. That was also the house where I watched from the second-story window as my Dad, in tears dug a grave for his old dog that had died.
Then we drove to South 17th Street and saw two old houses next door to each other; our family had lived in both of them because my father moved us next door to drop our rent from fifty-five to forty-five dollars a month. It was a rough neighborhood with lots of stories to tell.
The ride that day was a personal pilgrimage of memories and nostalgia. It was good to go back to my roots and to touch base with where 1 had come from. You might even say there was something sacramental about driving around the old neighborhoods and looking at those familiar landmarks. It reminded me of God' s ever-present Grace, leading me through the days of my life and protecting me by His mercy from year to year. Being there also helped me to get a better perspective on who I am today, to be reminded of my own history, my mortality, and the rapid passage of time.
We Christians of the latter twentieth century live in an age which is badly in need of regaining contact with a holy, yet sadly neglected heritage. Fragmented and divided, modern Christians seem often to exist in a confused state of cultural and spiritual amnesia. No wonder! Most Protestants in North America have no memory or knowledge of the fathers, martyrs, and saints of the historic Church-our spiritual ancestors and heroes of the Faith.
We who were raised as Protestants were taught to ignore the history of the Church from the second century to the Protestant Reformation. In contemporary pop evangelicalism, only the first century Christians and our present culture have any meaning. Nothing in between counts. American-bred Christianity has cut off its spiritual ancestry and is noticeably adrift in doctrine and worship. And this spirit of disconnection from the past infects the lives of American Orthodox Christians as well.
So how do we reconnect? I believe that God has provided us with a soul saving antidote for life in this confusing and perplexing day and age. What we need-perhaps even for the sake of our own salvation-is to reestablish contact with our Christian past, to reconnect with our roots and the historicity of our Faith.
I believe there is no more direct way to make such a connection than to take a spiritual trip back home-a pilgrimage to the early sites and holy places of our common heritage. If at all possible, we should make every effort, at least once in our lifetime, to travel to one of the many countries which have been blessed with so many sacred places-beginning with the Holy Land itself, where the sepulcher of our Lord is, and which has been protected and venerated by the Orthodox Church for nearly two thousand years.
The knowledge and experience that come from being present at such holy places-places which relate to our spiritual heritage-can have a great impact on our lives and bring about a spiritual clarity that could never be gained through reading books. Such journeys fall under the category of Holy Pilgrimage, and have been part of the Christian experience since the Church began. This is the topic of my article, and of this issue of AGAIN. I WHAT IS A PILGRIMAGE? A pilgrimage may be described as a journey to a holy place for a spiritual motive. Such journeys were commonplace for the people of God throughout the history of biblical times, as well as the early Christian era. They are as old as the places chosen by God to manifest Himself, such as in Jacob's dream (Genesis 28:10-22).
Remember, when Jacob awoke from his sleep he said, "Truly, the Lord is in this place and I never knew it! How holy this place is! This is nothing less than a house of God; this is the gate of Heaven !" Rising early in the morning, Jacob took the stone he had used for his pillow and set it up as a monument, pouring oil over the top of it. He named the place Bethel, but before that the town was called Luz.
Bethel, Shechem, Mamre, Gilgal, Shiloh, Mizpah, and Gibeon served as holy places for people to come and worship-Jerusalem becoming the focal point after King David brought the Ark of the Covenant there. In fact, all adult males were required to go to the Temple three times a year-at the Feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. The feasts continued to offer pilgrimage for Israelites during and after the exile.
Christian men and women have, from the very earliest times, undertaken journeys to venerate places sanctified by the life of Christ, by the lives of the saints especially the martyrs -- or by miracles. The early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea writes of a second-century pilgrimage of Bishop Melito of Sardis (A.D. 160) and a third-century pilgrimage of Bishop Alexander of Cappadocia to Jerusalem. Eusebius and other Church Fathers all chronicle the pilgrimage made by Saint Helen, the Christian mother of Constantine, and her finding of the Cross, the Holy Sepulcher, the place of the Nativity, and the place of the Ascension from Mount Olivet.
One of the greatest accounts of pilgrimage is the journal of the pilgrim nun, Egeria, from Spain, who visited all the holy places in the Holy Land, describing them and the liturgical celebrations in Jerusalem, which "were the same as" what they were doing in Spain. Egeria worshipped in monastery churches atop Mount Hermon, Mount Nebo and Mount Sinai. This was in A.D. 395, mind you! Her pilgrimage is similar to many taken at that period in history.
In fact, the historic Church has always blessed pilgrimage as a support for the Christian life. It is a way of participating in the faith and struggles of those who have gone before-our ancestors in the Faith.
HOLY PLACES AND HOLY PEOPLEI was privileged to take my family to Europe for an "ancestors pilgrimage" just before my children graduated from high school. To make the trip possible. my son and daughter worked hard to pay for their own airfare. In England, we visited an Anglican Church (Ss. Peter and Paul) where my mother's father had been baptized and attended parish school. This beautiful church was originally, in the eleventh century, an Orthodox (Saxon) parish. When we visited it still had an iconostasis with icons.
My great-grandfather left this parish in rebellion because they did not renew his pew for him-and became a "dissenter." He founded a Baptist Church in the next village and preached there for fifty years. Most of my mother's family are presently Baptist because my great-grandfather did not get his pew renewed. What a lesson on how our ancestors affect what we believe and do! They are supposed to affect our lives. That is why it is imperative to connect with the spiritual ancestors of the historic Church.
It will profit our souls to visit those special places that have been imbued with the grace-filled life of holy saints. Just being there affects our souls. I've been blessed to travel to many holy places especially in Russia. The most profound impact on my heart was experienced in the caves of the Pskov Monastery, where 10,000 monks, priests, bishops, royalty, saints, and people of God are buried.
I found myself touching the sandal of a monk who died in the seventeenth century; I looked at his uncorrupted braided ponytail and began to sense deeply the plight of my own mortality. I was overcome with the reality of death and how short life on this earth really is ...just a moment and it is over. I wanted to stay there the rest of the day. I wasn't finished bathing my soul with the grace-filled presence of so many lives who died to this world to live for Christ. I prayed for the grace of God to carry this moment with me in my soul. to use each moment, each minute, hour and day, to live for God by His Grace, to put away sins-and to love God and every human being I meet in this life. Words cannot describe that moment in my life. It was an encounter with spiritual reality.
The Middle East, Greece, Romania, Turkey, Poland, Russia, and other nations are blessed abundantly with holy places like Pskov.
What makes pilgrimages doubly blessed is to go where there are not only holy places, but holy people as well. These people are especially found within the ancient and holy monasteries of the world ... or I should say, of "another world."
PILGRIMAGE ON AMERICAN SOIL
Because we in the "new world" have produced few of the deep saintly lives which give rise to holy centers of Orthodox faith and practice, there are only a limited number of p]aces to go on holy pilgrimage here on this continent. But by God's grace, this small list is growing. Let me speak for a moment to Orthodox Christians who are desiring to find a deeper expression of their own faith here in North America.
One can tread the path of Saint Innocent, or visit the holy relics of Saint Herman, the newly glorified Archpriest Alexis Toth, or the resting place or the newly glorified Iakov Netsvetov, who was canonized at Sitka, Alaska on October 1 X, 1994. Other holy people who graced North American soil, such as Saint Tikhon, Saint John Maximovitch, Father Sebastian Dabovich, Bishop Raphael Hawaweeny, or Mother Alexandra, have left their footsteps in the sand for us pilgrims to follow.
There are also a growing number of Orthodox monasteries in America, where you can go to immerse yourself in prayer for a few days and benefit from the society of men or women who live their lives this way. Some monasteries sponsor occasional retreats or seminars; many have annual celebrations on their feast day to which large numbers of pilgrims come. Individual visitors are generally welcome at other times as well.
There is a growing phenomenon of miraculous and wonder-working icons being manifested in various places. Read the account in this issue of AGAIN by Father Douglas Wyper of just one of those icons, the Weeping Icon of Cicero, Illinois, and you will learn why a pilgrimage to such an icon can be for North American Christians what it has traditionally been for Orthodox Christians of the Old World for centuries-a truly life changing experience.
In my own humble opinion, due to the desperate spiritual need for holy pilgrimage in our land, we may need to start by creating our own places to visit. For instance, we might acquire acreage within a two-hour drive from our parishes, build a shrine (gazebos work well) with holy relics, and invite well-known holy fathers as well as local clergy to come and teach. Let people gather in a "camp-out" scenario with little expense for the whole family. I believe thousands of people would respond to that kind of pilgrimage. Who knows, this kind of beginning could provide the seeds for the rise of monasticism throughout North America, as well as being a great way to evangelize others to the Orthodox Faith.
WHO SHOULD GO ON PILGRIMAGE?
Everyone. We have discovered that most of our people who have gone on a pilgrimage have returned to their parish with a deeper faith and understanding of Christ and His Church. Especially the young people. Nothing --not even good "youth programs" -- can accomplish what pilgrimage does for the hearts of the youth. This should be our "program," or at least a part of it. We should make it possible for any of our youth to make pilgrimage where they can also make a sacrifice of labor to those places with physical needs.
You may be thinking to your self right now, "How can I afford to make a pilgrimage-especially overseas? It's all I can do to put food on the table for my family as it is!"
Most American families manage to save up for a family vacation each year. Instead of planning a trip to Disney world or the Grand Canyon next summer (the sort of vacation you need another vacation to recover from!), consider visiting Alaska, the cradle of Orthodoxy in North America. If your vacation budget is more along the lines of a family camp-out within a day's driving distance of home, do some research and find out if there is an Orthodox monastery nearby. Most monasteries offer limited accommodations for guests or will allow you to camp out on their grounds, asking only a freewill offering in return. Many are located in beautiful settings which combine with the spiritual resources available to thoroughly refresh the soul.
But do consider making an effort td go on pilgrimage to one of the lands where Orthodoxy has flourished for centuries even if it is only once in your lifetime. With sacrifice, with determination, many individuals, couples, and even families can work towards a pilgrimage which very well might change the entire course of their lives. One young man in our parish is currently collecting recyclables from parish members to finance a trip to Mount Athos with his father. You can save a surprising amount by just depositing your change in ajar at the end of each day. Or give up a favorite luxury, such as your morning doughnut or evening glass of wine, and put away the money you would have spent on it (before you're tempted to spend it on something else!). These are small things, but they add up.
And you may not need to save as much as you think. Although the high cost of airfare is impossible to avoid. there is no need to rack up thousands of dollars on expenses once you have arrived at your destination. It is not necessary to fly first class, or to stay at the finest hotel in town. Many monasteries offer accommodations and food to pilgrims which, though simple, are more than adequate. Instead of renting a car, use local trains and buses, or the traditional pilgrim's method of transportation-your feet!
If it is poor health rather than financial difficulty which gives you pause, keep in mind that thousands of sufferers over the centuries have received healing through the intercession of saints whose shrines they have visited. God honors the dedication of those who seek Him in this way.
Pilgrimage can be the most rewarding spiritual adventure and retreat from this world for your soul. North American Christians must reconstruct this pillar of life in the Church if we are to experience the spiritual life to the fullest.
May God bless your efforts to draw closer to Him through holy pilgrimage.
Reprinted from AGAIN magazine Vol. 18 No. 1