Do you need to go on a pilgrimage? Aren’t the local holy sites any good? / Pilgrimage

July 24, 2017
Priest Sergiy Kruglov

Source: Sergiy Kruglov
Why should one commit to a long-distance pilgrimage if Christ is ever present, – reflects priest Sergiy Kruglov

They are pilgrims, not tourists

It is the season of blessings in my church – when groups of elated, finely dressed believers approach the priest – “Father, bless us to go on a pilgrim trip!” Or, in case of those visiting us: ”Father, bless, we are pilgrims! We are on vacation and thought of visiting your church…”

One of my fellow priests would frown: ”Pilgrims! Why in the world are they called pilgrims? Why, in old times, I’ve read, they vowed to make a pilgrimage, they walked part of the way praying and, having once completed the pilgrimage, they were honored; those who traveled to the Holy Land were proclaimed honorable citizens of their own orthodox communities… And now these? Planes, comfortable hotels… In all fairness, the Orthodox tourists – that’s how they should call themselves.

I managed to smile back at him: ”Well, Father, you simply envy them! They are travelling leisurely, they have a vacation, while we are, speaking of finances, in a June and July drought”. To this, my fellow brother priest, I think, said nothing but sighed heavily.

“We’ve got to find out what relics we just venerated”

By the way, not all of those “Orthodox tourists” can rightfully be called Orthodox. There are tons of stories about the trips to some renowned holy sites, such as those told by Israeli guides: how our “Russo turisto” lay wide crosses over themselves while facing the Western, or Wailing, Wall, how they quiz everyone where to go to venerate the relics of Jesus Christ, or how they chip off the Oak of Mamre for souvenirs.

Or, something like a story recently told by my parishioners, how someone among their Moscow relatives kept on trying to get to the Holy Trinity-Sergius Lavra, how they finally arranged to make that trip and came there, how they stood a long line to the tomb, venerated it, lighted candles, gathered water in the holy spring, left very energized and kept on chatting away happily among themselves: ”Well, I told you – we should go to the relics! I feel my soul’s got purified! By the way, we should find out whose those relics are”…

And afterwards, of course, the Instagram pages of these tourists would get choke full of classic selfie albums titled something like “Me and Athos”, “Me and Jerusalem”, “Me on the Holy Canal of the Theotokos”, “Me and such-and-such church, holy spring etc”, and all of that mixed in between the steady stream of beaches, palm tress, and multi-star hotels…

Forgive me, Lord, for I do not want to fall into condemning anyone… Besides, it is not really about the tourists here – it is about Christians who adhere to the Church by their beliefs, not just in their name, who have read the Gospels, who learned about the prayer and fasting rules and use them, and who commune to the Holy Gifts – in all, making an effort to live their lives by God’s commandments.

Why do you go there?

I remember the times when I used to ask this question to my parishioners, true pilgrims, who came asking for a blessing to begin their pilgrimage: ”Why would you go?” Whenever I heard “Why, they have such holy relics there!” in response, I’d retort saying: ”But what about our own shrines, aren’t they less holy? Take Christ. He is with us forever. His greatest Gifts of His Body and His Blood are here, on this altar table, so why would you do a far-away pilgrimage?” Some folks would try to answer me somehow, others would just go awkwardly silent, while each and everyone would receive my blessing only to leave and go as planned…

Now, many years later, I am glad they went.

It is true that the material relics in the Church are part of the outer realm, and we as humans can be quite overtaken by the temptation, among myriads of others, to be carried away by these material representations. What then? Both the seen and unseen, in their own measure, is important to man who lies shattered in pieces under the weight of his own sins, to be born as one and without sin again, just as Christ called us to do. For He Himself did not shun taking on our flesh, since without Him becoming God incarnate, mankind would not have received access to the unseen or get to become citizens of Heaven.

Besides, the parishioners – and my pastoral experience over the years serving as proof, are not as naïve and bigoted as we priests often find it easy to look down with our typically arrogant preaching stance at. Folks can actually discern everything. So, they get it, like anything else in the world, that Orthodoxy is complex and multi-faceted.

There is an Orthodoxy of the cross and kenosis unavoidable for us in our lives same as Christ chose not to avoid Golgotha. It is always with us, as we are just beginning our own “Via Dolorosa”, following Him in His footsteps towards the Heavenly Kingdom and Resurrection, regardless of the length of our mortal life.

However, there is another kind of Orthodoxy, if speaking figuratively, bright as a gift-wrapped present, shining and ringing with that heavenly joy a human soul would shrivel and get depressively musty without.

Faithful pilgrims understand that there is never too much of this kind of joy, because one thing is to spend a week in Diveyevo, or near the relics of St. Nicholas in Bari or on Athos, and quite another – to live and slave away near these holy sites daily.

They seem to grasp one more thing: the Christian shrines represent a visible end of the world where the Holy Spirit dwells, and, once having venerated it with faith, they won’t stay the same as before, they’d change in some significant way and this pious transformation will have to be carried over on to their day-to-day life.

Having once traveled to the distant religious sites, one will never forget about the universality of Christianity and be relieved from the crusty blemish of ethnic religious snobbery and chauvinism. Once a prayer at a miracle-working icon has been fulfilled, one must protect the gift, putting it to work as a generator of positive changes in their life and the lives of the loved ones.

After a prayer at a saint’s relics, one won’t be able to ignore the necessity to learn any longer, transforming his or her experience in acquisition of the Holy Spirit in your own. These faithful are able perceive the fact that no shrines in the world protect us from evil and death unless we find ourselves prepared to put our trust in the Lord or make an effort to reduce our selfishness and increase in gaining love…

Got it! – I finally feel at home here

Personally, my contemplative analysis did not help me change my mind about pilgrimage – yet a trip to the Holy Land did. My friends have long and persistently invited me to go there, while I kept begging them off, sort of, why, since I am more keen on people, not stones, etc. etc… But they turned out to be more stubborn and one day I did travel there. As soon as I stepped on to that soil, it hit me that it is really sound and firm here. After I saw Jerusalem, gilded and lit by the rays of the rising sun streaming down from heaven (we were actually travelling uphill, coming from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem), it became clear: yes, here I am finally home, even though in my earthly life I may never even come back again.

I have found neither artifacts nor stones, but living stones of faith – my friends, and ever since, the words “Christ is amongst us” took on a concise meaning…

I came back a different person, the Holy Land took hold of me and became a part of my inner self that, as it turned out, I have always had missing, and there was no any other way to recover it but from going there…

So from now on, as I bless the pilgrims, I rejoice together with them over their sunny, easy-going cheerfulness. Believe me, I won’t rebuke them anymore for not doing it the way the old-fashioned pilgrims did – by walking: I did fly to Israel, or didn’t I?!…

I genuinely wish to all of them: may the protection of the Guardian Angel be with you! More importantly, come back safe and sound. What’s even more is to try to retain that change the Holy Spirit brings forth in you during the pilgrimage, lest you forget to share its fruit with others dear and near you.

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