Thursday, October 31, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: The Road Home, and Onward

 Blest land of Judea! thrice hallowed of song,
Where the holiest of memories pilgrim-like throng;
In the shade of thy palms, by the shores of thy sea,
On the hills of thy beauty, my heart is with thee.

- John Greenleaf Whittier, "Palestine"
~ ~ ~

            Our time in Israel had drawn to a close. After leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we returned to our hotel where a lovely farewell dinner had been arranged for our group. Then it was back to Ben Gurion airport, where we waited bleary-eyed for our midnight flight back to Boston. The travels back home went by in something of a blur; I don’t remember much of it at all—not the flight, nor the bus ride from Boston up into Maine, nor my long drive from the bus station back to my own hometown. But I do remember the joy of coming home, of seeing my wife and kids again, whom I had missed deeply, in a way that I hadn’t quite realized until that very moment. And then, as I recall, I immediately went to bed and slept for fourteen hours. 
            My pilgrimage to the Holy Land had been a wonderful experience: in many ways, it had far exceeded even the highest expectations I had for it, giving me many surprising and magnificent works of grace along the way. For months thereafter, the memory of Israel (and Galilee in particular) exercised a strange gravity on me, rather like the experience of being in love: it kept coming to back to my mind, in all the in-between moments, with peaceful fondness and unabated longing.
            But it wasn’t until after I came back home that I began to realize that something had happened to me in Israel. I had gone there longing for transformation, for a taste of long-sought holiness, and I had hoped that it might come for me as it had for Mary of Egypt in ancient days: as a single, blazing moment of sanctification run wild. Now I was slowly discovering, day by day, that something was different in me, but it wasn’t as if a new, unforeseen work of grace had been sealed and accomplished there across the sea; it was more like the realization that the hidden seed of some mighty thing to come had been planted quietly in my heart, and I was beginning to see the first gentle blade of verdure break the soil with a tenderness that was both simple and astonishing.
            There were several distinct ways in which I came to notice that a new growth had begun. I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest. My days in Israel had come and gone without any kind of clear transformation-experience, so I was expecting the same old battles and the same old stumbles when it came to re-entering my daily life. Nothing led me to believe that my nagging little wrestlings with the simplest of temptations would ever go away. But after a few weeks, I realized with some astonishment that I was suddenly doing a good deal better in most of the areas I had been working on: temptations seemed easier to brush off, virtue seemed to fit more naturally as my customary habit of life.
            For several years I had kept a weekly checklist that was shaped around my personal rule of life, formatted so that I could formulate weekly scores for the progress I was making. In the two years before going to Israel, I labored and scraped just to hit scores approaching 70 in my weekly practice; but in the months after Israel, I was effortlessly producing 90s and 100s. It was an exultant time, a precious taste of exactly what I had longed to experience: the sweetness of a life lived in ever greater conformity to the pattern of Christ’s own radiant holiness. The feeling has faded somewhat since then, and some old battles are still battles, but those months after Israel remain a sweet reminder to me that the pilgrimage continues, and that the homeland that I long to find is a very real destination, out there waiting for me.
            But there was even more growth to come: growth that not only encouraged my desires, but helped me re-orient my perspective entirely. I came under the conviction that my quest for holiness was driven (at least in part) not so much by the deep delight of pursuing holiness’ beauty, but by a sense of discontentedness with myself. And in those wild, heady months of spiritual vigor after my Israel trip, I was reminded once again of the depth of Jesus’ love for me. I was at home, reading a passage from one of my favorite books, Dame Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, when all of the sudden I had an image spring into my mind so powerfully that I might even dare to call it a vision. It was an image of Jesus, sitting on a rock in the shade of a tree, and I knew at once that we were back again in Galilee. And as I looked at him, and he at me, I could feel his wordless invitation pulsating through my soul. I stepped close to him, and reached out, took my head in his hands, as one would to a beloved child, and then held my head to his chest. It was a breathlessly intimate moment of radical acceptance. That was all there was to the image, but it was so powerful in all its silent, infinite understanding, that it drove me to my knees in tears. That single experience, more than any volumes of treatises penned on the love of God, taught me the reality of his love. He could look at me—the same “me” that I saw with disgruntled disaffection, riddled with petty inconsistencies in my lukewarm attempts to live as a dedicated Christian—and he loved that very “me”—yes, as hard as it is to believe, he loved me! I began to learn that I would need to find ways to love myself, including the self that I very much did not love, because that was precisely who Jesus loved.
            Author Christine Pohl notes that we, at times, choose to give our attention to what we think is an ideal, even if it does not really exist, rather than learning to embrace the “real” that is right in front of us. When we do this in our sexuality, we call it pornography. So what should we call it when we obsessively pursue an unreal ideal of our own spiritual self? Spiritual pornography, perhaps. Is that what I was guilty of in my longings for holiness? Perhaps, at least a bit. Some of my desire sprang from a distinct yearning to be closer to God, and some of it was the agony of having to live with the darts of sin striking around me…but there was a large part of it, too, that was simply a sense of discontentment with myself. So perhaps, to my shame, I had set up an idol of a hoped-for, future, saintly self. Now I was being reminded, by a series of hints that were remarkable in their gentleness, that perhaps I needed to rest in Jesus’ love, and to start giving thanks for who I already was, before I could heal unto holiness.
            The medieval writer Bernard of Clairvaux, in his book On the Love of God, writes that there are four levels of love that one can attain. The simplest love, sometimes indistinguishable from selfishness or pride, is to love oneself for one’s own sake. The second level, as experienced by many new converts, is to love God for one’s own sake (i.e., for the consolations of joy, peace, and hope that one feels in relationship with God). The third level, and the one that most people think would probably be the highest, is to love God for God’s own sake—captivated by his glory. But Bernard puts one level higher even than that: the fourth and highest level of love, he says, is to learn to love oneself for God’s sake. And that, my friends, is the pilgrimage I am on.

~ The End ~

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Photo of the Week

Now be my heart inspired to sing
The glories of my Savior-King,
Jesus the Lord:
How bright his beauties are!

- from Isaac Watts' hymnographic rendering of Psalm 45

Monday, October 28, 2019

Quote of the Week

"Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; 
Prayer is the greater work."

- Oswald Chambers, early 20th-century pastor and writer, 
author of My Utmost for His Highest

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Lord, Pour Out Your Spirit (Prayer Anthem)

(Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto, Wikimedia Commons)
These past few months we've laid out a challenge at church to take a year to commit to concerted prayer for revival--that is, for a fresh movement of God's work in and through us, and reaching our community in new ways--and this new hymn was inspired by that commitment. Its verses lift up successive prayers for our church, our local area, our nation, and the world. In its repetitive nature, it fits with my "prayer anthem" genre of songs--designed to be easily memorized and sung as a prayer any time of day or night without having to look up the words. The tune here is that of the classic hymn "More about Jesus" (with a slight tweak to the timing). I originally posted a slightly different version of this song a couple months ago, so if you'd prefer to use the original, you can find it here.

Lord, Pour Out Your Spirit (Revival Prayer)

God of our hope, we raise this prayer,
Placing our church beneath your care:
Here in this Body have your way;

Reign in this very place today!

     Lord, pour out your Spirit!
     Lord, pour out your Spirit!
     As we proclaim the Gospel call,
     Lord, let revival's fire fall!

God of our hope, we raise this prayer,
Placing our homes beneath your care:
Here in this city have your way;

Reign in this very place today!


God of our hope, we raise this prayer,
Placing our country in your care:
Here in this nation have your way;

Reign in this very place today!


God of our hope, we raise this prayer,
Placing our world in your care:
In all the nations have your way;

Reign in this very place today!


Saturday, October 26, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

I should like to speak with you, my God,
And yet what else can I speak of but you?
Indeed, could anything at all exist
Which had not been present with you from all eternity,
Which didn't have its true home
And most intimate explanation in your mind and heart?
Isn't everything I ever say really a statement about you?...
What could I say about you except that you are my God,
The God of my beginning and end, 
God of my joy and my need, 
God of my life?

- Karl Rahner

Friday, October 25, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Glory Be to God

This week's work is a Trinitarian hymn of praise. It should fit most tunes with an meter. I've set it to a version of the tune associated with a little-known work of the early 20th century, the "Brigade Hymn" (composed by the founder of the boys' discipleship program called Christian Service Brigade).

Glory Be to God

Glory be to God our Father,
Maker of all things,
Fountainhead of love and power:
There is none like him!

     Praise be ever to our Maker,
     Praise be to our Lord!
     May his glory fill the earth,
     Both now and evermore!

Glory be to Christ our Savior,
Sacrifice for sin;
He has triumphed in his death
And when he rose again!

     Praise be ever to our Savior,
     Praise be to our Lord!
     May his glory fill the earth,
     Both now and evermore!

Glory to the Holy Spirit,
Counselor and friend,
Comforter and giver of
His blessings without end!

     Praise be ever to the Spirit,
     Praise be to our Lord!
     May his glory fill the earth,
     Both now and evermore!

Glory be to God forever,
Blessed Trinity,
Infinite in joy and mercy,
Grace and unity!

     Praise be ever to the Father,
     Spirit, and the Son!
     Glory to the One-in-Three,
     The endless Three-in-One!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: The Center of the World

Dearly beloved, there are many true testimonies concerning Christ… The blessed place of the manger bears witness… The River Jordan bears witness. Of all seas, the Sea of Tiberias bears witness… The holy wood of the cross, still to be seen among us today, bears witness… Gethsemane bears witness… Holy Golgotha, which rises above us here, bears witness. The Holy Sepulchre and the stone still lying there bear witness… The holy Mount of Olives from which he ascended to the Father bears witness… Can anyone now fail to believe in the Christ whom their testimony supports?

- Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 10

~ ~ ~

          The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a wild, bewildering, fascinating maze of a church. It has a number of immensely interesting features beyond its two main draws of Golgotha and the empty tomb. I had put in some study beforehand, so I thought that I could find my way around well enough. Together with Onus, I set out to explore the church’s halls before returning to our group. Our first stop, one that often goes missed unless you know what you’re looking for, is a little archaeological site at the back of the church. Behind the Edicule and its winding line of pilgrims, just past the pillars, there’s a room designated as the chapel for the Syrian Orthodox Church (one of six denominations with at least some measure of direct control, including, in order of the prominence of their claims, the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, the Armenians, the Copts, and the Ethiopian Orthodox).
          Oddly, one wouldn’t know this was an active chapel, because it stands almost empty, in a state of dilapidation that makes it look unused—in that, it is perhaps a poignant symbol of the tragedies of war and desolation that have surrounded the Syrian church in this decade. But just to the side of this chapel, there’s a little nook, barely higher than a crawlspace, in which you can see two ancient niches that belonged to first-century Jewish tombs. Here’s why they are important: they offer definitive archaeological proof that the area of the quarry around Golgotha and the tomb were actively being used for Jewish burials in Jesus’ day, just as the Gospels claim. The presence of these two tombs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre give significant credence to its historical claims.
          From there we walked around the far side of the church, taking in the beauty of the artwork in its Catholic chapels. Some of the areas seemed to be in the midst of reconstruction work, but we found our way around the outer ring of halls, taking in chapels dedicated to the soldier at Jesus’ crucifixion and to the event of his scourging before being taken to the cross. It was at this latter chapel that we encountered a large group of Russian or Eastern European pilgrims. They would go up into this little side-chapel and then rest their cheek on the marble top of a little podium. I later discovered that this was a traditional act of reverence for the low pillar that lay encased within that podium, the pillar which, according to tradition, was where Jesus sat during his tortures at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers during the trial.
          We followed that group down a flight of stairs, where a gorgeous low-level chapel decorated in mosaics and icons and chandeliers dazzled our eyes. Another flight of stairs led down from that chapel to yet another, lower area, that marked the place where (so the story goes) Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, led an ancient form of an archaeological dig and managed to find the preserved remains of the True Cross. I have no particular way to gauge the veracity of that tradition, but I found the spot historically interesting, and I was moved by the evident piety of the Orthodox women in the group next to us.
          Perhaps the loveliest part of the church, aside from the Edicule and its pillared rotunda, is the central nave and its dome. The nave was barred against entry, but one could still peer through the doorway into it. Above the old stone hallway was another dome, slightly smaller than that over the Edicule, but this one had an interior painted with a classic, beautiful portrayal of Christ as the Pantokrator (Ruler of All). In the hall of the nave itself are two great thrones, one of which is the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, and office that traces its descent all the way back to James, the brother of the Lord. And in the floor on the center of the hall is a little marker, which I had learned was meant to designate the central axis-point of the earth. This place, “the navel of the world,” lying as it did between Calvary and the empty tomb, could make a fair claim at being the central geographic point in God’s salvation-history of the world. (In fact, the church also has another historically-dubious oddity that speaks to this idea: there’s a little spot dedicated to Adam himself, because of an old Christian folk-tale that Adam and Eve had died and were buried under the patch of ground that would eventually be called Golgotha; and that when Jesus died on the cross, his blood trickled down through a crack in the rock and onto the skull of the progenitor of the race: the new Adam’s sacrifice saving the old Adam from the power of death.)
          Onus and I prepared to leave the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and as we approached the entrance, I saw that the usual crowd around the stone of Jesus’ burial-preparation had dissipated; so we took the opportunity to step up to it, kneel down, and in a very un-Baptist-like moment of impulse, to incline our foreheads down against the cool, smooth stone where so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ had poured out their expressions of love over the body of our Lord.
          As we walked back out into the bright sunlight of late afternoon, once again I thought of the cry of the angels that had pounded through my heart as we looked at the Edicule an hour before: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!” The church was a marvelous memorial to the most important events in my faith; but that’s all that it was. The Lord who was crucified there to my left, and who was laid dead on the ground there by my feet, and whose lifeless body was buried off to my left—that very Lord had risen in triumph on the third day, and now he was alive and rampant in the world and in my life.
          There’s a line from an old play, “The Trial of Jesus,” that has stuck with me for some time. The centurion who had overseen Jesus’ death is questioned about it after reports of his rising broke out across the city. “Do you believe he is dead?” asks Pilate’s wife. “No, lady,” responds the centurion, “he is at loose in the world, and nothing will stand against his truth.”

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Photo of the Week

There is a safe and secret place beneath the wings Divine,
Reserved for all the heirs of grace; O be that refuge mine!
The least and feeblest there may bide, uninjured and unawed;
While thousands fall on every side, he rests secure in God.

- verses 1 & 2 of the hymn "There Is a Safe and Secret Place," by Henry Francis Lyte, 19th cent.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Quote of the Week

"Nothing can bring greater happiness than doing God's will for the love of God."

- Miguel Febres Cordero, late 19th-century Ecuadorian Catholic cleric

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

God our Father, we thank you for the world and for all your gifts to us: for the sky above, the earth beneath our feet, and the wonderful process which provides food to maintain life. We thank your for our crops, and for the skills and techniques needed to grow and use them properly. Help us to use your gifts in the spirit of the giver, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- J. R. Worsdall

Friday, October 18, 2019

Hymn of the Week: A Lighthouse of Mercy

This week's new hymn is a prayer that we--as individuals, families, churches, and the global Body of Christ--will be active and effective in shining the light of the Gospel. It's written to a slightly modified version of the tune to the early 20th-century hymn "Nothing Between."

A Lighthouse of Mercy

I want to be a witness for Jesus,
Shining his light by word and by deed;
Lord, let your Kingdom come as in heaven;
Here is your servant: O Lord, send me!

     Lord, make my life a lighthouse of mercy;
     Let your light shine in all that I do:
     May the lost see the joy of your Gospel,
     Leading them homeward, leading to you.

Lord, may the grace of your love be with us,
Filling the moments of daily life,
So that with friends, with family and neighbors,
We may reflect your radiant light.

     Lord, make our home a lighthouse of mercy;
     Let your light shine in all that we do:
     May the lost see the joy of your Gospel,
     Leading them homeward, leading to you.

Let your great love fill this congregation;
Lord, bless this church with fruits of your grace:
Pour out the pow'r of your Holy Spirit,
That we may follow all of your ways.

     Lord, make our church a lighthouse of mercy;
     Let your light shine in all that we do:
     May the lost see the joy of your Gospel,
     Leading them homeward, leading to you.

In all the nations, Lord, may your people
Live as ambassadors of your reign:
Shining your light, declaring your praises;
'Til every knee will bow at your name!

     Lord, make your saints a lighthouse of mercy;
     Let your light shine in all that we do:
     May the lost see the joy of your Gospel,
     Leading them homeward, leading to you.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: Jesus Came with a Wild Surprise

Around [the Sepulchre] holy men had prayed for many generations since Eusebius, and Macarius, and Jerome, and Sabas… Many thousand dying sinners and dying saints in all countries and all times have looked to it with the last straining gaze of their dim eyes, and died with smiling countenances turned toward the tomb… Pilgrims from far lands have laid their burdens down on its rocky floor, and prayers and tears have hallowed it…as the memorial of more earnest faith and adoration than any other spot of ground on this side the pearl gates.

- William C. Prime

~ ~ ~

          A few years ago, when my oldest son was very small and just learning how to string sentences together, he had once decided to make up and tell his own “Bible story” after our evening devotional time. So my little pajama-clad boy, wiggling with excitement as he talked, told a story of his own invention about Jesus and the disciples. I don’t recall much of it now, except for a single line that has always stayed with me: “And then Jesus came in with a wild surprise!” This is the story of the wild surprise that Jesus gave me in Jerusalem. 
          Our final day had led us all over Jerusalem: from the far end of the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where we barely had time to see a single chapel—that of Golgotha—before being pulled out again to go to the Garden Tomb, north of the Old City, and thence to the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem, and then a walk from the southern gate all the way in to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Now, after all this, we saw that there was still time remaining before we had to be back at the hotel for our farewell dinner. Not a great deal of time, but enough to rectify our earlier haste: we could go back again to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I hadn’t dared to even put hope in this possibility earlier in the day. 
          It’s a little hard to describe the delight I felt without making it sound a trifle overwrought; but the fact that my dearest hope for the entire trip had been snatched away and then, as if by a work of providential grace, returned—it was the greatest in a long series of winsome surprises that had met me on my pilgrimage. And in this case, it seemed to be so exactly appropriate that it smacked of being staged. What better way, really, to experience the church that houses both Calvary and the empty tomb than to begin by only visiting Calvary, experiencing the sorrow of thinking that that’s the end, and then later, miraculously being given back the wonder of the whole thing, empty tomb and all?—it was rather like seeing, albeit in a very distant and minimal way, the experience of the disciples from their desolation at Calvary on Good Friday to the “wild surprise” of the empty tomb on Sunday morning. 
          We came again the wide plaza nestled between the church’s nave and transept. I gave a brief thought to another of my monastic heroes, the great church father and theologian John Damascene, who had spent years in that very plaza, working in humble obedience to his abbot, who had asked him to give up writing theology in order to sell the monks’ reed-woven baskets. As much as I was struck by his brilliance, that story left me even more deeply struck by his humility and grace. 
          About half of our group, exhausted by the day’s walking, decided not to enter the church again, but remained sitting on the steps outside to wait for those of us who went back in. This time we turned left inside the main doors, past the place where pilgrims were placing lit prayer-candles to create a little sea of light. Then we strode through the circle of massive pillars that ringed the rotunda, pillars that had stood there from much earlier generations of the church’s architecture (all the way back to the Byzantine Empire), and into view of the Edicule. 
          There is no real parallel to the arrangement inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; it looks as though someone has built a little church building inside the much larger church. Beneath the great dome, with sunlight streaming down upon it, is a little closed-sided chapel of stone, complete with its own steeple, pillars, and inner chapels. It is permitted for pilgrims to go inside the Edicule and to spend a moment or two within the tomb of Christ itself. But, as was the case in the Church of the Nativity, the space inside is so small, and the experience in such high demand, that a massive line of pilgrims forms, winding all the way around the back of the Edicule and moving forward only by inches and hours. I was breathless with wonder at standing there, in the rotunda with the Edicule. This was the spot where I had imagined myself as I thought ahead to my pilgrimage, and now I was here. (Perhaps because photography is not usually permitted inside the tomb itself, I had never seen a picture of its interior, and so I had never imagined myself actually standing inside the Edicule itself). 
          As we joined the vast line and began waiting for our turn to enter, a strange thing happened. I was delighted, so delighted, to be there, but it suddenly struck me as a light and little thing, of vanishingly small importance compared to the living reality of what had happened there. Over and over through my mind, a verse from Scripture was sounding like a trumpet. It was the question of the angels to the women who first approached the empty tomb on Easter morning: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen!” I looked around the line of people waiting to get in, saw the mix of weariness, joy, and expectation in their faces. I thought briefly about trying to start a chorus of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but thought it better to keep the trumpets in my soul to myself, and let quiet awe reign in the cathedral of the empty tomb. 
          The line was moving at a barely measurable pace; in half an hour we had made it less than a quarter of the way around to the entrance. But, having already brought to reality my imagined expectation of standing in that space, and with the cry of the angels’ question ringing through my mind, I didn’t feel as though I actually had to go inside the tomb itself. For some reason, it had never been part of my expectations for our visit to the church, and so it didn’t seem like much of a loss to let it go. And I thought of our weary, footsore friends waiting patiently outside. I knew they would stay there for as long as it took and offer no word of complaint to us on our return, but I still thought that it might be the better measure of love not to drag out our stay there to its longest, patience-cracking duration. Besides, with the time that we had left, there was no guarantee that we would even make it through the line by the time we had to leave. And if we stayed in line, we would certainly not get to see any of the rest of the massive church, and that was a fate I could not countenance: I, who loved history and loved churches, wanted to drink as much of the great, ancient place as I could. So, after a quick discussion with Onus and the others, we left the line. I did manage to peer inside through the single open window in the Edicule, into the little antechamber known as the Chapel of the Angels, but I did not go into the tomb itself. Like the apostle John on his first approach to the tomb, I “looked inside, but did not enter” (Jn. 20:5). I was content with the joy of simply having been there, within the great rotunda that I had dreamed of seeing. With relish and delight, I turned away to make my circuit of the great church, and to drink in its glories.