I used to live in Jerusalem. I lived there with my wife and our children in in the 1990s when I served with St. George’s College as the director of their Desert Program. Our home was an apartment in East Jerusalem on the top floor of a boys’ school run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. In the early dawn, we would be awakened by an over-amplified “call to prayer” sounding from a nearby minaret, and on Fridays, as the sun drew near the horizon, the Shabbat horns would wail to signal the approaching Sabbath. The polarities were on both sides of this patch of Christian Anglican ministry in a land disputed and sacred.
In 1983 I made my first trip to Israel. It was a tour. A decade later, at St. George’s College, Jerusalem, I discovered the difference between being on a tour or part of a pilgrimage. In general terms, the difference is one of design and intent, and can be detected in the itinerary by who the group will meet (or not), the selection of places to be seen (or not visited), and how time, scripture and prayer will be incorporated into the excursion.
Since the 1990s, I have facilitated more than 45 programs of pilgrimage for clergy and laity throughout Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and the Sinai. I continue to lead programs of Christian pilgrimage each year. For the person seeking to travel to Israel, it is important to identify: are you looking for a tour or a pilgrimage?
Tours to Israel tend to offer a compressed, fast-moving overview of select sites. Tours “show” people places, feed them well, keep them comfortable, ensure shopping opportunities and a return to the travellers’ hotel by 5 p.m. for cocktails. Tours tend to be eight to10 days. One sees “sites.”
A pilgrimage is designed to host participants into an encounter with a sacred geography (its story, peoples and less-trod ways), giving time for prayer and reflection. It invites its participants to be willing to immerse themselves in the full scope of a setting in anticipation of sacred encounter and inner transformation. It is therefore a risk. Tours are safe and reassuring. In pilgrimage, people choose to expose themselves to new information, to be at the edge of their comfort and at the edge of their familiarity, in order to be at the edge of God. A pilgrimage takes time, typically 13 to 15 days. In-depth experience is sought.
Tour groups typically stay at hotels, whereas those on a pilgrimage will stay at a Christian pilgrim guest house, where one can enter into the prayer of that community.
A tour bus will stop at the edge of the Judean wilderness for a quick photo-op and to purchase Bedouin bracelets. On a pilgrimage, one is taken into the Judean wilderness as dawn breaks, to sit on a barren hillside enveloped in warm stillness and a beauty that stirs the soul. Scriptures will be given for reflection, and silence requested to enable individuals to engage the landscape where Jesus once walked and wandered and wrestled.
Some tours, such as FAM tours, are significantly underwritten by the Israeli government to create affordability and attraction so that a controlled commentary can be presented, which subtly reinforces the goodness of the state. Tours that include sites typically used to demonstrate Israel’s historic claim on the land, such as Meggido and Beit She’an, can be signs of tours with a political intention. On some tours, participants are told they cannot shop on the Via Dolorosa (Arab Christian shops) and are taken to shop in West Jerusalem (Israeli shops). On some tours, Christians are no longer taken into Bethlehem but to a nearby hilltop, with added commentary to bolster fears of Palestinians.
A pilgrimage will ensure that you meet the “living stones” of the present Christian community. When you are taken to Nazareth to pray in the Church of the Annunciation, you will also take the two-minute walk up the street to the Anglican Christian community of Christ Church. (It is surprising how many Anglican groups on Canadian tours are never told there is an Anglican Church in Nazareth-nor one so near.) On a Christian pilgrimage, your guide will have prearranged an opportunity to meet a member of the local Anglican community so that you can learn about our partners in the gospel and their mission, work and life. On a pilgrimage, you will likely worship with the local Anglican Christian community, either in Nazareth or in Jerusalem at St. George’s Cathedral. On a pilgrimage, you will enter Bethlehem because, as a Christian, you have to go through that wall to stand among your brothers and sisters in Christ.
On a pilgrimage, you will also visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. You will have a Jewish speaker from the Jewish religious peace movement. You will be moved, inspired, deepened and challenged, and you will be changed. Jesus asked Philip and Nathaniel, “What are you looking for?”(John 1:38). The traveller to the Holy Land needs to ask: “Am I looking for a tour, or a pilgrimage?
St. George’s College is a centre of Christian pilgrimage for the Anglican Communion. If you would like to know more about pilgrimage in Israel, Jordan, Sinai or Turkey, please feel welcome to be in touch.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Richard Le Sueur, rector at St. George’s Anglican Church in Cadboro Bay, Victoria, B.C., has facilitated more than 45 pilgrimages through Israel since 1992. He was former course director, St. George’s College, Jerusalem. He is also an adjunct faculty at Trinity Divinity, Toronto, and is president of Pilgrim Routes Travel Inc.