There is a sign at the entrance of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that reads:
We are hoping that:
If you enter here as a tourist, you would exit as a pilgrim.
If you enter here as a pilgrim, you would exit as a holier one.
It’s a fitting and powerful reminder for the millions of people who come in and out of its church doors every year. So many of us travel so far to visit the Holy Land. We make travel plans and find traveling companions and save up money and ask time off from work and maybe even read books in preparation. But all too often, when we get there, we forget the most important preparation of all: our hearts. Have we come all this way to be tourists, or to be pilgrims?
Millions of us travel to the Holy Land each year hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the One we follow. We go there to put our feet on the places made known to us in Scripture, to walk where Jesus walked, to find a home in the homeland of our faith. And the most important thing we bring with us is our presence, our attention to the deep and meaningful things that led us there in the first place. We want to be pilgrims, not tourists. But how? Here are three distinctions to ponder.
A tourist is an outsider. A pilgrim is an indweller. A tourist tends to encounter at a distance, looking more through the lens than the heart. A pilgrim travels with his whole self, seeking to indwell the place he beholds. Tourists remain separate from the place they travel. They are visitors, just passing through. They don’t belong there. But pilgrims understand that they are connected to the place, even if they make their permanent home elsewhere. If we travel to the Holy Land knowing we belong there, knowing we are walking in the footsteps of a story that includes us, we will find meaning in the connections we make there, and the resonance we feel there. With open hearts, we will allow the place to indwell us, rather than just pass before our eyes. Set down your camera, your journal, your guidebook. Be attentive to the soul of the soil.
A tourist is harried. A pilgrim is carried. Pace matters on pilgrimage. You are not in a contest to determine who can see the most sites in a matter of days. You will not win a prize for the number of punches you get on your national parks card. If you’re considering a trip, find one that emphasizes a restful pace, one that allows time at each site, and time for reflection between them and after them. When it comes to pilgrimage, choose quality over quantity. While tourists focus on ticking off a to-do list, pilgrims focus on following the movement of the Spirit and the presence of the Holy. We are carried by it. We don’t rush in and out of sanctuaries, snapping a few photos and scurrying back to the bus. Pilgrims savor the sights and smells. They dawdle. They stay awhile. They rest.A tourist is seeking recreation. A pilgrim is seeking re-creation. As in much of life, intention is at least half of your experience. You will see what you are open to see. Tourists seek entertainment, maybe even escape. They want a good story, or an Instagram-worthy picture. They want to see and do, and they want to be seen doing it. Pilgrims, on the other hand, are seeking something deeper. They travel in the hopes of nothing short of re-creation, transformation, illumination. They are open to encountering the Holy. And because they are open to it, they will likely find it. (Those who seek will find, those who ask will be answered.) If you are planning a pilgrimage, set your intention before you go. Seek first the presence of the Holy, and you will likely find that many other things will be added.
In Genesis 28, Jacob was himself a traveler across the Holy Land. As he lay down to sleep, he had a dream of God’s presence. God said to him,
Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
In that moment, Jacob became a pilgrim. He became one the moment he recognized the presence of God around him.
Pilgrims know this deep and beautiful truth: God can be found everywhere. God indwells this good earth, no matter where we travel. If we have eyes to see it, and a heart that is open to the presence of God, we need not be at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to experience it.
But if we do happen to find ourselves inside its sanctuary, let’s light a candle, find a quiet spot for reflection, and stay awhile. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. May we know it to be true, deep in our pilgrim bones.
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.
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