Dave & Judy Armstrong sharing a very moving moment: saying the Hail Mary at the location of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where the angel said those words to the Blessed Virgin Mary (October 2014)
[this is the Introduction to my book, Footsteps that Echo Forever: My Holy Land Pilgrimage]
“Pilgrimage.” I must confess that in my formerly evangelical Protestant mind, prior to 1990, the word conjured up images of semi-fanatical, curiously odd – yet nevertheless admirably devout – Catholics with long faces, crawling on their bloodied knees up St. Patrick’s mountain in Ireland, or those steps in the church in Rome (whose name I don’t recall offhand). Somehow – I thought, but did not yet comprehend – these people felt they had something to gain by punishing and torturing themselves.
The “pilgrim” to me; the first thing that came to my mind, was those old straight-laced folks with the funny hats and Anglo-Saxon names and somber faces, who came to America on the Mayflower in 1620 and had the first Thanksgiving so they wouldn’t starve to death.
I knew that pilgrimages had something to do with “holy places” (the idea of which I used to oppose: at least in the abstract) and, as I thought then, with the ghoulish, bizarre – if not idolatrous – practice of veneration of relics.
I’ve learned a few things in the last twenty-four years. The “holy place” is a thoroughly biblical notion. Jerusalem was and is a holy city (Neh 11:1, 18; Is 48:2). The temple in Jerusalem (gone since 70 A.D.) was a particularly holy place (1 Chr 29:3; Is 11:9; 56:7; 64:10). The inner sanctum of the temple: called the Holy of Holies (Lev 16) was the ultimate holy place in the world, and in Judaism.
Originally the wooden, treasure chest-like ark of the covenant was in the Holy Of Holies, and God was thought to be present there in a very special way, on what was called the mercy seat, in between two carved cherubim (Ex 25:22). It was so holy it could not be touched, and hence it was transported with poles that ran through rings on its side.
In fact, on one occasion, when it was about to fall over while being moved, one Uzziah merely reached out to steady it and was immediately struck dead (2 Sam 6:2-7). The men of Beth-shemesh also died when they simply looked inside the ark (1 Sam 6:19; cf. Ex 33:20).
Mt. Sinai was holy due to God’s tangible presence there, in the burning bush (Ex 3:5). Just before the Hebrews were to receive the Ten Commandments, God charged the people to not even touch the mountain, or its “border,” on pain of death (19:12-13). Even animals were included in the restriction!
God knew that people often have to learn the hard way. In any event, His special presence – considered apart from the fact that He is also omnipresent – imparts holiness (Dt 7:6; 26:19; Jer 2:3). Angels are called “holy ones” in Scripture precisely because of their proximity to God (Job 5:1; Ps 89:6-7).
That is a bare summary of what the Bible teaches about holy places. And lest anyone try to make the tired, foolish argument that all of the above is in the Old Testament, and as such supposedly “doesn’t count anymore,” the New Testament continues to refer to Jerusalem as the “holy city” (Mt 4:5; 27:53), and Jesus spoke of the Holy of Holies as “the holy place” (Mt 24:15; cf. Heb 9:3).
St. Peter refers to the Mount of Transfiguration as “the holy mountain” (2 Pet 1:17-18; cf. Mt 17:1-6). Protestants widely use the terms “Holy Bible” and “Holy Land”. In so doing, they tacitly acknowledge the notion of “holy things”: even though, if pressed, they may argue against it, as I once did myself.
According to the Bible and Catholic history and tradition, there is such a thing as a holy place or holy item. And that is the very basis of the pilgrimage (which is why I took a little time explaining it, and its biblical foundation).
As an evangelical Protestant (1977-1990) with a lively reverence and pious sense towards the Bible and the Holy Land, I could have, no doubt, traveled to Israel and experienced God’s presence deeply and profoundly, even if I hadn’t fully grasped the concept of the holy place. It wouldn’t have been vastly different from what it will be like for me now.
Yet the difference for the Catholic or Orthodox Christian and a few “higher” groups of Protestants, is that the holy thing literally conveys grace, as the sacraments do (though in a somewhat different sense, similar to what is called a sacramental (holy water, crucifixes, scapulars, etc.).
Thus, to travel to Jerusalem or other places where the events of the Bible and life of our Lord Jesus took place, is not merely to revel in its sublime historical significance, nor to try to “go back in time” or suchlike (as many of us love to do on vacations). It’s much more than that. Provided that a person has an appropriately open and willing heart, he or she literally receives grace, and becomes closer to God as a result.
That’s our little “theological lesson” and a backdrop to the upcoming pilgrimage. But getting back to a more subjective or experiential plane, I’d like to try to convey my thoughts and feelings at this vantage-point: almost exactly three months before I begin the pilgrimage. How do I conceive of it: having never really done such a thing?
I approach it by means of analogies: experiences that come closest to what I can only imagine at this point that it will be like. The one thing that keeps coming back to my mind is what it felt like to visit Gettysburg: the site in Pennsylvania of the greatest battle of the American Civil War (in July 1863). I’ve been there twice, and the experience was the same both times, for myself, as well as my wife Judy and my children who were with us. They were old enough the second time to understand much better.
The feeling (as best I can describe it) was a tangible sense of the presence of spirits and a sort of awestruck suspension of everything else; the realization that one was present at a profoundly solemn and spiritual place: a “hallowed ground” where unspeakably dramatic events involving bravery and noble and high ideals occurred; where thousands of men courageously died, and many thousands more were wounded: never to be the same again.
When I was there, I literally felt a sort of “spirit” hang over it: so real that you can almost reach out and touch it. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since, and I felt it – quite distinctly and unmistakably – two times, more than ten years apart.
Part of it, I suppose, was seeing the movie about it shortly before our first visit. That helped to “bring it to life,” yet if we had never seen the film, I’m firmly convinced that it wouldn’t have felt any differently, because the historical knowledge is essentially different from the spiritual experience.
Gettysburg is, I think, a “holy place” of a sort. By analogy, I believe that being in the Holy Land, in the very places where Jesus walked, and where David and Moses and Abraham and Mary and the apostles lived and followed God, must feel very much like that experience, and far more so. To be immersed in that for even a day would be an unspeakable privilege. But we will be there for fifteen days, on the trip and pilgrimage of a lifetime.
As a second analogy I would imagine that eucharistic adoration “feels like” in many respects what it is like to be in the Holy Land: precisely because of the eucharistic presence of Jesus. The closer one is to God, the more one has a sense of holiness and a profound sense of fellowship and unity with Him.
The third related analogy that I have in my mind, is various times of experiencing a “filling of the Holy Spirit” (Eph 5:18): many of them as a Protestant. On several occasions, usually when one or both of us was greatly upset about something, my wife Judy and I would pray for each other, to receive peace from the Holy Spirit.
And, lo and behold, it happened just about every time: a wonderful, unspeakable sense of peace and a sort of “spiritual ecstasy.” We don’t seek it; we’re not fanatical about trying to have experiences (it’s been many years now, I think). I rarely talk about it. But these experiences were as real as the keyboard and the desk in front of me as I write. No one could ever convince me that they were not real.
And that indescribably pleasant, blessed feeling of closeness to, or special proximity to God is how I imagine it will be in the Holy Land, where God became man and walked among us and died for us, and where Peter and Paul (transformed by God’s grace and what they had seen) ventured out to share the new gospel.
These are my feelings now. I’ve never been to such a holy place (unless we count Gettysburg as that: which to me makes sense). I’ve never been anywhere outside of the United States and Canada (though I’m very well-traveled in those two countries). Thus, this book will be a report of the journey of this 56-year-old (still fairly “youthful”) Catholic apologist, who has loved and studied and defended and shared about the Bible and Christianity; and more specifically, Catholicism, these past 33 years.
The book will be designed to have many different aspects, all woven together into a type of “adventure narrative” or spiritual odyssey. It will be a firsthand report of what I feel like as I travel to all these holy sites in Israel. That is the traditional pilgrimage account or, if you will, a diary. I’ll be writing at the end of each day in my hotel: recording my thoughts and feelings in a spontaneous manner.
Two other elements are more directly “apologetic” and draw upon my more usual writing styles and goals (what my readers usually expect from me). I will be detailing some of the exciting archaeological discoveries that have been occurring in Israel and Jordan, and almost literally revolutionizing the increasingly secular, non-believing field of biblical archaeology (at least for those willing to see).
For example, some of the very recent spectacular finds (only in the last 20 years) include the baptismal site of Jesus in Jordan, the City of David excavations in Jerusalem, just outside of the current Old City and next to where the temple used to be, another Davidic-period city at the Valley of Elah, where David killed Goliath, and what is believed to be Joshua’s altar on Mt. Ebal.
We may not be able to visit every last one of these sites, but I will still write about them a bit, even if we don’t, since they are such exciting confirmations of the Bible and of traditional Christian, Catholic faith (tying into the apologetics which is my specialty).
I’ll also be utilizing scriptural references to relate the places we visit to biblical history; along with the occasional exposition of the text. These, then, to summarize, are the four elements that will make up this book:
1) The pilgrimage and spiritual journey, written about in a very personal way: how I feel, what I (and others) experience; firsthand descriptions and impressions of these holy sites.
2) Survey of archaeological findings and their significance.
3) Citing of related Scripture, with occasional exposition.
4) A running narrative, tying it all together as an exciting journey or odyssey; an adventure (as indeed, it will inevitably be).
My hope is that a lively sense of the pilgrimage can be directly conveyed to you, the reader. Some of you may never be able to take such a trip. I probably never would have, myself, on my barely adequate apologist’s salary, but I was blessed by having most of my expenses generously, graciously paid for. And believe me, I know and understand very well the pain and longing and yearning of wanting so badly to take such a trip, for years, decades, but never being able to (till now in my case).
Whether you are never able to travel to the Holy Land or have been there, or plan to go in the future, the goal is to make our pilgrimage come alive for you: so that you can experience it vicariously (somewhat like watching a movie and becoming engrossed in it), and to educate the reader about the cutting-edge archaeological discoveries that are taking place.
Beyond that, we want to share and express the joy of being a Catholic and disciple of Jesus. In a world (even in the Church) where discussions and thoughts are often so negative, bitter, acrimonious, or cynical (just as they were in Bible times!), we are striving to present a positive vision of being a Catholic and follower of Jesus.
Heaven knows, almost all of us (save whatever saints walk the earth today) fall far short of the high ideals of the Christian life, but, having said that, in this book I hope to achieve some semblance of what St. Paul calls for us to be and to do:
Philippians 4:4, 6-8 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. . . .  Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
I hope you will join us now on our spiritual pilgrimage and additional quest after the best and latest exciting archaeological sites in the Holy Land. Apart from some research components that I’ll be working on before we leave, the narrative and “diary” beginning in the first chapter, will (of necessity) be written after we arrive in Israel: on 18 October 2014 (three months away, as of this writing).
These are preliminary thoughts and expectations. That will be the Real Thing.
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