Maybe next time I’ll just stay home.
Every time I make a pilgrimage, it seems, I come home a little disappointed, deflated, let down.
I climbed Mount Sinai one time with my 19 year old nephew. We drove a rental car from Jerusalem and arrived at the base of the mountain well after midnight. We climbed for about two and half hours, along with a few hundred other pilgrims, and we arrived at the summit in time to see the best sunrise of my life, a stunning view over the Gulf of Aqaba.
The incense wafting over from the tiny Russian Orthodox Church at the top of the mountain seemed to confirm that we were in a holy place. Unfortunately, my thrill was short lived.
Shortly after getting home, I found that TIME magazine had published an article on biblical archaeology and identified at least seven mountains in the Sinai peninsula where Moses might have received the Ten Commandments. The mountain my nephew and I climbed is the most popular site, true, but hardly the only possibility. I’ve been disappointed ever since.
Tour guides are often to blame. Not content to repeat the myths that brought us in the first place, they seem to take perverse pleasure in offering an alternative version of the story, which is seldom as interesting or inspiring as the original.
I remember taking my daughters one summer on the “Sound of Music tour” in and around Salzburg, Austria, something that 300,000 or so pilgrims do each year. If I had known that our guide would point out dozens of historical and geographical errors in the movie, I might have added another cathedral to our itinerary instead of the bus tour. I haven’t been able to enjoy the movie since that visit. (Trust me, you don’t want to see the tiny church where the Captain married Maria. Big letdown.)
I could give more examples, but the most recent occurred last week in Wittenberg, Germany, where I had gone to see, among other things, the church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses.
(Don’t read further if that story is inspiring to you.)
I’m not a Lutheran or even a huge Luther fan, but I can grudgingly admire the courage it must have taken in 1517 for a lowly monk to challenge the mighty Roman Catholic Church. I used to get chills.
As it turns out, according to our guide, Luther’s days as a lowly monk were long over by the time he drew up his 95 theses. He had settled comfortably into a teaching position at the University of Wittenberg, was married to a woman he was crazy about, and even had a bunch of children. In other words, he was a slightly overweight (artists definitely agree on this point), middle-aged university professor who lived in one of the town’s nicest homes when all of this happened.
But it was still an act of courage, wasn’t it?
I wanted so much for that to be true but, alas, our tour guide quickly (and happily?) undercut my fantasy. It turns out that the customary way to prepare for a disputation – or academic debate – was to post your main points in advance. Luther would probably have been too busy for this chore, given his heavy teaching load and love for drinking beer, that the assignment would have been left – most likely – to an assistant, even the custodian. The church door (now bronzed) was nothing more than the community bulletin board.
I had my picture taken there just the same.
The pilgrimage – a journey of moral or spiritual significance – has been important over the years to most religious traditions. Visiting modern Israel has been an exciting and inspirational destination for me over the years. I confess that each time I go I am thrilled beyond words. But each time I hear the words “no one is sure that whatever is supposed to have happened on this site actually happened on this site,” my enthusiasm wanes a little.
Please understand the point I am doing my best to make. Because I have been to Israel, I will never read scripture in exactly the same way. I have a much better sense for references to “wilderness,” for example, than I ever had before. And seeing the Sea of Galilee with my own eyes has been a life-altering experience. I cry every time I go.
But my idea of pilgrimage has had to change.
I don’t know all that many Muslims, but the few I’ve known over the years have never expressed disappointment in the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. Making this particular pilgrimage, of course, is one of the five pillars of Islam, an expectation for every Muslim, and every single person I know who has gone has been deeply moved by the experience. (I’m guessing their tour guides are better screened than mine have been.) Just being able to do it, to have gone, seems to be enough.
And it would be unexpected – wouldn’t it? – to hear a Muslim say, “I don’t know. That didn’t do much for me.” In other words, the thoughts I’m expressing here might not be quite as welcome in Muslim circles.
So, what are pilgrimages for?
If you go somewhere to have everything you’ve ever dreamed, thought, or imagined confirmed, you’re likely to be in for a terrible disappointment. Your tour guide will make sure of that. On the other hand, if you go with a willingness to learn and grow and have your faith deepened, it’s always possible that the experience will be worthwhile. That’s been true for me.
Having seen where Luther was born, where he lived for most of his life, where he taught, where he preached his last sermon, where he had his heart attack, and where he died (three weeks later), I can honestly say that I’m so glad to be a Calvinist.
So, yes, it was a good trip.
(Photo: Yes, that’s me outside the church in Wittenberg, and those are the doors, now bronzed, where Luther’s 95 theses were posted. With the 500th anniversary of the event coming up in a couple of years, the entire church is undergoing an extensive renovation.)
(Update: Dear alert reader, Yes, I know it’s not possible to drive a rental car from Israel to Egypt. But I try to keep these posts to 400 words or less. What happened was that we left our rental car in a hotel parking lot in Elat, walked through the border crossing, and hired a Bedouin taxi driver for a last leg of the trip, which is an interesting story all by itself. Dear other alert reader, Yes, I realize that the Sound of Music was a movie loosely based on a true story, so our “pilgrimage” was to the various places where the movie was filmed. The church was still unimpressive.)