In the Garden of our Heart

The Holy Land, it is said, is a microcosm of the world. It is certainly a microcosm of the Middle East – but I’m willing to accept the idea that it is also a microcosm of the world. And if that is the case, then it is also a microcosm of the heart of man. It is in thinking about this that insights and revelations have come.

There is no denying the presence of the Holy in the Holy Land. Everywhere you turn, there is a sign on the road (just a normal road sign) pointing to something that you can also find in your Bible. It is, after all, a Biblical land. It also has all of the religious confusion that marks the world in which we live (and which marks our impure hearts as well). The Church of the Ascension was long ago destroyed (I cannot remember whether it was the Persians [probably] or later muslims [doubtful] for there is now a small mosque built over the site of Christ’s Ascension.) The stone from which He ascended remains open for veneration by all (Christian and Muslim alike, though there were no crowds the day I was there). There is an altar outside the mosque where the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is allowed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy once a year (on the feast of the Ascension). I venerated both the rock where Christ stood and the altar outside the mosque.

But there is also the jumble of the Middle East everywhere you look. Shops, beggars, hucksters, people just trying to get by – the “tourist” aspect is always present, even when you’ve come as a pilgrim.

I wonder to myself how often my faith is more that of a tourist and less that of a pilgrim. To attend the Divine Liturgy as though it were somehow outside of me, something to be seen or heard, while I remain aloof. You may think it’s hard for a priest to do – but I assure you it can be done (I do not brag, but confess).

On such days, what is our communion? I know what it is from God’s side – it is His Body and Blood, a live-coal “burning the unworthy.” But a tourist remains unmoved by the mystic fire that burns his soul.

Traffic in Jerusalem is always amazing. There are general rules, but also large things like Tour Buses that simply do not fit on the streets and yet must. I think of the snarl of ideas and thoughts that do not course easily through my head as the traffic jam increases and the horns of buses shout for attention.

And all that we do – all that we think – all that we say or feel – all is done in the presence of the Holy. A great comfort came to me in Bethlehem (where I was almost mugged on the street except for the intervention of a kind police officer). The comfort was that the world was no better or different in any particular way when Christ was born. The city was crowded, the politics a mess, and yet angels were singing to shepherds and the very Word of God was entering our breathing world in the flesh. God who first breathed life into us, was now taking His first breaths of created air – and continued until “He breathed His last.”

In the course of those breaths nothing changed outwardly. The world was still a jumble and confusion only with a directed purpose to kill God.

But with that last breath everything changed and can never be the same. Whether the eyes of a tourist will ever understand, the pilgrim knows. The pilgrim bows. The pilgrim weeps and kisses, sings and prays. The pilgrim will enter the Divine Liturgy and recognize paradise and eat the Bread of Heaven.

O God, keep me a pilgrim.

12 Responses to “In the Garden of our Heart”

  1. john Says:

    What an interesting idea to ponder. I wonder how the “garden tomb” unearthed in Jerusalem plays to the analogy. There is something about the heart of Orthodoxy v. Evangelical Protestantism to ponder there.

  2. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    “To attend the Divine Liturgy as though it were somehow outside of me, something to be seen or heard, while I remain aloof. You may think it’s hard for a priest to do – but I assure you it can be done (I do not brag, but confess).”

    Actually — I do know. It’s all too easy, even for a priest, who has to keep one eye on the altar boys and one ear on the choir, and be aware of anything unusual going on in the congregation, like the old ladies who fast too harshly and collapse as a result. A lot of priests I know serve Liturgy during the week, just so they can retain that sense of pilgrimage. But then, they have the “luxury” of being full-time priests. God grant that we may see a time when the full-time priest is the norm, not a luxury!

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    John,

    I think it’s possible for someone to approach the Garden Tomb as a pilgrim. But it has no archaelogical support for it actually being the tomb of Christ – evidence points to it being a “1st Temple” (previous to 586 B.C.) tomb, whereas Scripture says our Lord was buried in a new Tomb.

    I think too few people are taught anything about pilgrimage, with the result that tourism becomes its substitute.

    There is a “Forest Gump” quality to our culture. Having my picture made with the Patriarch of Jerusalem had some of that quality about it, I must confess, mostly because I could not believe I was standing where I was standing, etc.

    Our culture is quite strange when it comes to its understanding of the self and of personality – the result being very unsatisfactory. Protestant Evangelicalism is probably the most responsive religion to current Western culture, and therefore most deeply affected by it. But though I find it problematic, I do not see it as a choice that is made very consciously.

    One of the advantages of Orthodoxy is its slight remove from mainstream culture. It gives an opportunity to stand back and see some things that might not appear otherwise.

    It is also possible for Orthodox Christians (as I mentioned in my piece above) to be as much a tourist as the next Christian. There is no cure for the human heart other than daily struggle to remain in the grace of God.

  4. Robert Says:

    “O God, keep me a pilgrim.”

    Yes, may we remain faithful until that blessed Day.

  5. Stephen W. Says:

    “One of the advantages of Orthodoxy is its slight remove from mainstream culture. It gives an opportunity to stand back and see some things that might not appear otherwise.”

    I agree so much with this statement. Coming originally from an evangelical background and now being Orthodox, I feel that I can see certain things that others (mostly family members) can not always see. When one is so intertwined in the culture of the day it is difficult to know where culture ends and worship begins. So many things seem to be designed in order to make a person comfortable. The ironic thing is that most of these devices and conveniences only make me more uncomfortable, because there are certain things that should not be simultaneous with worship (in my opinion). To me this ties in with your idea of whether or not we are pilgrims or tourists, when we visit church or when we search our hearts. Many churches today (not all) appear to cater to the tourist, with coffee bars and other conveniences during worship. I love coffee by the way and even worked in a coffee shop at one time, but I can wait until I have partaken of the Mysteries to partake of java bean.

  6. Robert Says:

    Stephen W.

    I totally identify with your take on things. Java after church! 😀

  7. Karen C Says:

    “But with that last breath everything changed and can never be the same. Whether the eyes of a tourist will ever understand, the pilgrim knows. The pilgrim bows. The pilgrim weeps and kisses, sings and prays. The pilgrim will enter the Divine Liturgy and recognize paradise and eat the Bread of Heaven.

    O God, keep me a pilgrim.”

    Father bless! How beautifully expressed! I have read that what was once the valley of Gehenna–which was an unholy and unclean garbage dump and smoldering ruin of rotted carcasses in Jesus’ day, shunned by all pious Jews, is today a beautiful cultivated public garden . . . Can you confirm or deny this report from your journey? If it is true, it also now stands as a living monument to the truth of what you have written here. It speaks of the undoing of the wreckage of the Garden of Eden made manifest at Pascha.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Modern day Gehenna indeed looks more like a golf course. Many thoughts in the vein went through my mind as we drove past.

    In contrast, the Brook Kedron, which flows past the Monastery of Mar Saba and down to the Dead Sea, is today the sewage effluent of the city of Jerusalem. Thus you can sit on the serene balconies of Mar Saba and hear the water running, but it’s nothing you would want to get near. This, too, is a commentary on our life after Paradise.

  9. Barbara Says:

    Dr. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for these thoughts on pilgrimages and the difference between being a pilgrim and a tourist. I have also been thinking a lot about what it means to be a pilgrim lately.

    I recently watched a documentary on pilgrimages to Assisi, Italy, the location of many holy places associated with St. Francis and St. Clare. One of the guides talked about pilgrimages as the return to holiness, rather than the search for holiness. I’ve been thinking a lot about how our individualistic mindset makes us inclined to create our own path, forgetting that Christ and all of the Saints have already shown us the Way, the Truth and the Life. We simply need to return.

    This summer I had the opportunity to be a pilgrim in Greece. One of the things you find out about Greece right away is that your stay there will be filled with stair climbing, and that there is almost always something beautiful and Holy to venerate at the top of the stairs. I had so much gratitude for the stairs and so much awareness of how many had climbed before me. In spiritual terms, I like to think that Christ provided the stairs and the Saints are those who have climbed the stairs before me. I know that’s not an original Orthodox thought, but the experience of climbing in such Holy places made the thought more real for me.

    However, that same documentary on St. Francis and St. Clare also talked about the descent required for all of us as we decrease and Christ increases. Hmm…more food for thought….

    One of our guides, Nicholas, on the Island of Patmos also helped us understand what it means to be a pilgrim when he thanked us for venerating his island rather than just visiting it.

    Barbara

  10. Luke Says:

    What a beautiful post. Thank you, I’ve been following this blog for a while and read about your pilgrimage with great interest. I myself started a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I wanted to walk all the way from Switzerland to the Holy Land. During the weeks of walking, the external goal to see Jerusalem became an internal one. The desire to reach the City of God in all its fullness if that grace might be granted to my poor soul. I made it to Istanbul than I had to stop and return to Switzerland. Before that I had the honor to spend half a month on Athos. The monks made me understand better what it means to be a pilgrim. I long so much for Jerusalem, I’ve never been there, but I can imagine how it must be to leave this place, there’s rarely a week where I do not weep about this separation. Truly, may God keep us pilgrims.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Luke,

    What an intrepid way to make the pilgrimage! When I was a young man I had an acquaintance from Switzerland who came to America and intended to hitchhike to Venezuela (this was 1971). We tried to explain to him that there were not probably roads to take him where he wanted to go. But he was fearless.

    Your desire is certainly greater and worth the walk – but you were truly blessed to hve spent the time at Mt. Athos – itself a worthy place of pilgrimage.

    We were told that in the Middle Ages fully one-third of all pilgrims to the Holy Land died in the effort. Compared to we moderns, they did “extreme pilgrimages” as we would say in America.

  12. SuzyQ Says:

    I really enjoy your blog!
    This was a beautiful post.

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