Danielle Shroyer’s new book “Where Jesus Prayed: Illuminations on the Lord’s Prayer in the Holy Land” is a collection of meditations on praying the Lord’s Prayer throughout her two week pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
On the second day of my two week pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we begin our morning at the Church of Multiplication in Tabgha. This simple church is where Christian tradition remembers Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. Our fearless driver, Tahir, pulls our white bus into the vacant parking lot and we file out one by one, our new pilgrim feet stepping with anticipation onto the pavement.
I enter through the arched openings into the sanctuary, the Galilean breeze wafting in from the shore like a welcome guest. We are the first to arrive this morning, and we have this holy space all to ourselves. I take my time moving around the perimeter, gazing toward the ceiling, pausing before the altar, and then just to the right of the altar, an icon of Jesus. I investigate his features, which are both angular and soft, as if he is unabashedly looking directly at you while being as relaxed as he could be about it. Nobody knows what Jesus really looked like, but I imagine his gaze to be exactly this: unnerving and calm, pointed and diffuse, so that you aren’t comfortable in his presence so much as riveted. I light a votive, breathe deeply, and pray the Lord’s Prayer, pondering how he multiplies so many things. Upon finishing the prayer, I find my way into a pew.
There is a lightness that feels shallow and empty, and there is a lightness that feels full and teeming with life. The Church of Multiplication is the second kind, to a degree I had never before experienced. The fullness of God and the abundance of God’s presence felt packed in every last molecule of oxygen.
My friend Renee comes and takes a seat beside me, and I can hear her breathing deeply, as if she, too, is feeling the power of the air. We sit like that for a few moments, suspended in kairos time, our feet on the 5th century floors and our souls in that fullness where heaven and earth meet.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a group of pilgrims entering the sanctuary, and for a moment I selfishly resent their presence, ending my near-private experience of the Church of Multiplication. They are dressed in black, many of them, and Renee and I nod and whisper to each other, acknowledging they must be Armenian Christians. Most of them are older, many of them elderly and walking with great effort. I watch as they do what I did, making their way around the space, finding their way to the altar, feeling joy and holy presence. Silently they shuffle this way and that, their feet swishing on the floors. They begin to gather at the altar, one after the other, until they stand in a semi-circle around their pastor who raises his hand for attention.
And then they begin to sing.
Music wafts through the sanctuary, wending its way between walls and pews and pilgrim ears. As they sing, they undulate forward, their black robes swaying like tolling bells. I cannot understand their words, but their souls are communicating with passionate clarity, and my soul is caught up in their song as it lifts up and out.
The song has the texture and worn edges of known liturgy, of something that carries with it history and memory and practice and so much time. Though I’ve just begun my pilgrimage, already I feel this will be one of its greatest gifts; I will be able to experience not only the history of the Holy Land, but the history of Christianity itself, including distant cousins I’ve never met or rarely see, whose clothes and language and rituals differ, but whose souls bear the same family image.
I stare down at the fifth century floors, upon which Renee’s feet and mine rest, a contrast of sixteen centuries that doesn’t look nearly that remarkable at all. And I listen to the song, the one that is claiming me despite the hundreds of years I have lived without it while my sisters and brothers have carried it so deeply in their own hearts. It’s a funny thing, time. It’s as if it doesn’t exist at all, here in the sanctuary of abundance. What is time, or distance, when there is nothing but love overflowing?
I imagine heaven, in whatever way we describe that Great Togetherness with God, feels the same.
As the song is completed, the robed pilgrims disperse once again, and I notice that other pilgrims have entered the sanctuary now as well. This group is larger, and far more boisterous, whispering excitedly in twos and threes throughout the chapel. Renee and I nod to each other and rise from the pew, a shared acknowledgment that kairos time has retreated back behind the curtain for now, replaced again with the tick-tock of the ordinary.
As we make our way outside, Renee nudges me and nods toward the icon of Jesus where a teenage girl is now standing, holding her arm at length to take a selfie. She pouts, clicks, and surveys her finished product. Apparently unhappy with it, she takes out her ponytail, shaking her hair and grooming it around her face, and takes another, and then another: pout, click, review. Finally content with the image, she walks on.
I cannot say for certain what that girl was experiencing on the inside, where prying eyes cannot see to judge. What I can say is what I experienced watching her: a punch in the stomach, followed by a sickening feeling at the base of my throat. Going from ancient communal praise to individualistic selfie portrait felt like a sad, cynical downward spiral.
Has it really come to this?
I do not want to sound like a cliched disapproving adult, upholding the virtue of the past while glaring slant-eyed at the prospects of the future. But I found it difficult not to wonder if, theologically, this is inevitably where individual-centered American evangelicalism has taken us. Here stood the last one hundred years of Christian history, in snapshot form. When we find ourselves gazing at Jesus, do we sing, or do we take a selfie?
Dear God, I hope we sing. What do you have to pass on to the next generation if your entire faith has become as individualized and particular as your phone settings? If we envision our theology as a collection of photographs, oh how much we lose if we replace an album of family portraits with endless pages of selfies. God has never been found through navel-gazing. And the kingdom of God is not something we pose beside, but something we live for.
After encountering the icon of Jesus, that teenage girl was content with the image she captured. But Jesus is not meant to be an image we capture. He is an image- the image of the invisible God, no less- that is meant to capture us. And when he does, we do not take selfies. We gather together, and we sing.
Danielle Shroyer is the author of Where Jesus Prayed: Illuminating the Lord’s Prayer in the Holy Land. She serves as Theologian-in-Residence at Journey Church, Dallas, an independent emerging community of faith. She blogs at www.danielleshroyer.com and you can find her on Twitter at @dgshroyer.