On Pilgrimage to Jerusalem Part III: Destination: The Holy Sepulchre by Jonathan Parkes Allen

This is the final installment of a three-part series documenting the author’s experiences in Jerusalem. Part I, “Islam: The Streets of the City,” can be found in our January/February 2019 issue; Part II, “The Conflict: Outskirts of Jerusalem,” can be found in our April 2019 issue—Ed.

There are certain moments in life for which you anticipate your response beforehand, play it out in your mind, and inhabit it from afar emotionally and imaginatively. When the moment finally comes, if it comes at all, sometimes what you imagined and what you actually experience matches, for good or ill. Sometimes it does not, and you are left trying to make sense—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually—of the disconnect.

My first visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church that is in many ways the physical-spatial center of Christianity in this world below, was such an experience of disconnect between the imagined and the actual. As an Orthodox Christian and a historian, I had thought about and emotionally invested myself in this sprawling maze of a structure many times before, knowing both its long, complicated history and its spiritual, emotional, and symbolic resonances at the heart of my faith.

I

I was in Jerusalem in large part in order to complete a pilgrimage to this great and holy place. I had expected to have an experience akin to the one I’d had when I first visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Nothing in my studies or in my imagination had prepared me for just how overwhelmed I would be by that space with its accumulated past and meanings, even in its current condition as a much-contested museum functioning as neither mosque nor church. Crossing the threshold and passing under its soaring dome, I wept openly and repeated the Trisagion—Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us—under my breath, otherwise speechless.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Hagia Sophia sit within their surrounding landscapes in different ways. The Hagia Sophia still looms above the Istanbul skyline as it has since its construction, the visual centerpiece of the city, referenced in virtually every Byzantine and Ottoman structure built afterwards. The Holy Sepulchre, in contrast, is nestled within a fold of Jerusalem’s Old City. The urban fabric presses up against the church, obscuring it from view, and its great dome is visible only from certain vantage points. It is only when, on foot, you make a sharp turn on the main narrow street leading into the courtyard that it suddenly appears.

Your approach to the church is dominated by an asymmetrical, Romanesque façade. One of the two great doors is blocked off, as it has been ever since Saladin retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. Crowds of people are milling in the courtyard. Clergymen and tour guides are scampering about, corralling their charges and listing off historical facts, some of doubtful validity. A cat or two might be perched at the upper part of the courtyard, serenely observing the goings on.

The careful observer will spot a short ladder leaning in a window of the façade, a silent testimony of the conflict over custodianship of the holy places that led to the Crimean War in the 1850s. At some point before the war an unknown person placed the ladder below the window. At the conclusion of the war, all of the various churches that laid claim to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were obliged to respect the “status quo” in terms of the use and modification of its space and physical fabric unless they could all agree upon how it should be changed. Hence, the ladder has remained exactly where it was left before the agreement, a constant reminder of the complexity and conflict that has so often beset this church (and, one might add, Christianity as a whole).

On my first visit to the Holy Sepulchre I arrived in midmorning, long after the doors had been opened by the Palestinian Muslim caretakers and the crowds had begun streaming in. I slowly made my way through the arched door, stopping to admire the centuries of pious graffiti etched into the walls. Within the church, I encountered the great slab of stone on which it is said that Christ’s body was laid in preparation for burial. Other pilgrims, mostly Ethiopian Orthodox, were quietly venerating the stone, anointing it with sweet-smelling oils and lighting candles. I joined them. My emotional reaction was just as I had imagined it would be: tears, and an intense feeling of closeness to Christ and to my Christian brothers and sisters from around the world gathered here in a shared love for our Lord.

I entered the main chamber in which stands the Aedicule, a free-standing chapel carved from the living stone that once surrounded Christ’s tomb, empty at the center. I found myself passing into a great ocean of devotion as a large crowd of mostly Eastern European pilgrims moved slowly around the Aedicule toward its entrance. There was a great reverence and sense of communion in this movement, with most of the pilgrims quietly fingering prayer ropes—the Orthodox analogue to the rosary.

As I walked alongside the wall of the Aedicule, my hand—like the hands of so many of the pilgrims before and behind me in the crowd—pressed against the wall. Its stones were worn smooth by many years of other hands pressed against it. In this moment I felt truly Orthodox, in a way I don’t think I ever had before. I am a convert to Orthodoxy, having grown up an evangelical Christian, and like most converts I have struggled at different points with the convert’s zeal and the convert’s feeling of not truly belonging. But here, surrounded by Slavic-speaking Orthodox pilgrims, repeating the Jesus Prayer as I held my hand to the wall behind which was Christ’s tomb, I did not feel like an outsider at all.

Finally reaching the little platform before the entrance, we filed in, one by one, full of anticipation. Along with a couple others from the crowd, I at last found myself standing in the tomb, and knelt to kiss the stone slab marking the spot where Christ’s body once lay. No sooner had I venerated the tomb than a couple of tourists (or so I appraised them) barged in, smartphone cameras blazing, chattering away, having cut the line and squeezed past the black-robed cleric stationed at the entrance. The cleric followed close behind them, gesticulating and speaking angrily. He pushed everyone out—pious and irreverent alike—and ushered in the next in line. I found myself outside the tomb, my visit rudely cut short.

I fought back a curse, then became angry at myself for getting angry in so holy a place. The other pious pilgrims and I had waited in line, patiently and reverently, for nearly an hour—to say nothing of the effort involved in getting to Jerusalem in the first place—only to have our veneration of our Lord’s tomb spoiled by line-cutting tourists eager for an Instagramable selfie.

Tourists, I growled, and as I wandered about the rest of the church (a huge and sprawling structure, built of the slow architectural sedimentation of the centuries), I silently marked out who I imagined to be the pious pilgrims and who the wretched tourists. I tried to fight back my frustration, realizing that I was upset because my expectations had been dashed, my desired subjective experience ruined. I found myself confronted not with the transgressions of tourists cutching selfie-sticks but with my own angry heart, my passions riled up right beside the very tomb of Christ. As much as I had hoped for an experience of pious rapture, mine instead became one of self-recognition. It proved just as powerful, and certainly more needful to the course of my spiritual pilgrimage.

II

My reaction at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was hardly unique. Travelogues of previous generations show that many Western European visitors to the church, from the 18th century onward, have come away feeling disgusted or disappointed by the anarchic atmosphere, the morass of devotions and touristic kitsch, the jostle of priests and deacons and monks from many jurisdictions, and the heavy smell of incense and the caked-on layers of candle soot. Racist and imperialist estimations of “the East” have heightened such sentiments even further.

These visitors imagined holy places as serene, clean, and orderly, none of which applied then or now to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Disappoinment and disgust were among the factors that led the British general Charles George “Chinese” Gordon to search for and “discover” the “real” tomb of Christ, the so-called “Garden Tomb” that now features on most Protestant visits to the Holy City. Clean, stark, quiet, the Garden Tomb—despite having little to no historical claim to be the tomb of Christ—fit Gordon’s idea (and the ideas of many of his contemporaries and their descendants) of a holy place. Such an idea remained stubbornly present with me during my visit to the church, even as I felt myself to be “truly Orthodox.”

The carnival-like, chaotic atmosphere that pervades the Church of the Holy Sepulcure and that so rankled 19th-century observers—and me too, as it turned out—has a long history. In the Orthodox liturgical cycle, we receive a reminder of this history every Lent in the story of the fourth-century saint Mary of Egypt. Mary was a prostitute, and she is described as joining a caravan to Jerusalem in order to ply her trade among the pilgrims. Making her way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre out of curiosity, she tried to enter but found herself stopped as if by an invisible forcefield. In the end she became a great ascetic and saint, commemorated with her own feast day in Lent alongside such luminaries as Saint Gregory Palamas and Saint John Climacus.

Among other things, Mary of Egypt’s story is a reminder that the press and tumult of “profane” tourists about the church, some with very mercenary motives indeed, is nothing new. Those very “sinners”—perhaps even the line-cutters that so enraged me—can and do become not only conventionally pious but even venerable saints, transformed by the power of God. This is a power equally at work in messy and chaotic holy places as it is in the messy and chaotic lives of those who visit them.

Ultimately, as my shattered expectations reminded me, pilgrimage is not about cultivating feelings or personal reactions. It is, at root, about reaching a concrete physical place, a place in which God has “broken into” history in a special way, and there participates in the life of that place alongside other pilgrims. God’s power and grace do not reside in one’s subjective experience or lack thereof, and in this sense holy places are much like sacraments. It is not that our emotional reception does not matter—it does, if not precisely in the ways we might immediately think—but that the divine grace and power that are operative through these material things are not dependent on our feelings about them. An encounter with the holy works on you, not the other way around. This is especially true when you encounter it alongside other people who are, like yourself, complicated and messy: sometimes holy, sometimes not, motivated by everything from pious love to simple curiosity to mercenary greed.

III

As I made my way out of the Church, my head and heart full of conflicted impulses, I paused for a while to examine the graffiti carved in the arched stone of the doorway. Graffiti is not really the right word for it, as until quite recently it was entirely acceptable in most parts of the world to carve words and symbols into the surfaces of sacred places. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “pious graffiti” is also found in the form of Crusaders’ crosses, etched in the steps leading down to the Armenian chapel; the inscriptions on the front façade are a diverse cavalcade of languages, scripts, and symbols, Latin crosses jostling with Russian Orthodox ones, Armenian and Syriac and Greek and many other tongues running alongside and across one another, their letters carefully carved into the stone by hands long vanished from the earth.

The content of these inscriptions varies, but a translation by Sebastian Brock of a Syriac etching gives a representative sample: “Remember, O Lord, the deacon, your servant, ‘Isa.’ Isaiah, s[on of] the priest. Have pity on him in your compassion. Please, let everyone who reads [this] pray for him.” These inscriptions are meant to be seen by others, soliciting an ongoing witness of prayer linking past and present pilgrims’ lives together. Seen as a whole, the scroll of names, prayers, supplications, and symbols displays a vast community of Christian pilgrims coming and going through the ages, a “great cloud of witnesses” etched into the medieval stone.

The formation of the community of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre continues into the present. It is still a tangle of tongues and identities and intentions. The ensuing place looks messy, anarchic even, because it is made by real people from all manner of backgrounds and ages. They converge and leave their traces, some ephemeral, some lasting for centuries, in layer upon layer of devotion and love, anger, lust, and conflict. Yet they are all oriented, in way or another, toward that empty tomb at the heart of it all.

Before concluding my first visit to the church, I added, in my own small way, to the material layers of devotion. It is no longer acceptable to carve on the surfaces of churches (why is another story entirely), but, as at many holy places around the world, people leave bits of paper with supplications and names written on them. Before departing, I had asked my priest for a copy of the parish prayer list with the names of those in need of supplication. In the lower part of the Golgotha chapel, carved into the living stone where Christ was crucified, I unfolded the little paper, prayed for each person on the list, folded it back up, slipped it into a crevice alongside lots of other similar papers, crossed myself, and turned to leave.

Even though it had not turned out exactly as I had imagined and hoped, my pilgrimage nonetheless was joined to those of the vast multiude before and, God willing, after me, continually accumulating in this strange, contested, but holy and powerful place at the world’s center, the sign of the transformative power of the self-emptying Savior whose body once lay within the now gloriously empty tomb.

Jonathan Parkes Allen is, among other things, a PhD candidate in the history of the Middle East at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he is completing a dissertation on the history of Islamic saints and sainthood in the early modern Ottoman Empire.

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