The streets are packed. Hordes of people move at once, criss-crossing over the smooth stone streets and deftly navigating down many stairs. Vendors shouting in Arabic call from all sides, selling vegetables, clothes, toys, herbs and household goods. The air is heavy with the smell of people and spices. Occasionally I get a whiff of something sweet rising off a platter of Baklava sitting temptingly outside a bakery, other times it’s the nausea-inducing smell of raw meat from the butcher that meets my nostrils. The whole experience amounts to a veritable symphony of the senses.
These are the streets of Old Jerusalem. Between the masses of jostling people and the slippery stone steps, it’s important to watch where you step to avoid falling. I try my best to focus on where I’m putting my feet, but I can’t. My head keeps twisting from side to side, trying to take in as much as possible.
The people themselves are a sight as well. Women in hijab pass Ultra-Orthodox Jews with black hats and long, curly sideburns. Christian pilgrims from all over the world wander by, wearing everything from shorts to saris. This city is a gathering place of people from all over the world, from vastly different cultures and places. Despite all the differences of geography, culture or religion, they all feel a need to be here. I certainly do. These streets offer me more than exotic sights and smells; they offer the inexplicable sense of belonging. Not belonging in the sense that I feel at home here, but belonging in the sense that, as a Christian, I need to be here.
Pilgrimage. I have always thought of pilgrimage as an old concept, something that Christians did in the past, but rarely do today. I certainly never imagined myself going on a pilgrimage. Even when I made the decision the travel to Israel/Palestine this spring with the MCC Yella tour group, I didn’t see myself as setting off on a pilgrimage, but simply on a trip to explore the historical sites and the modern political situation of the area. It wasn’t until our last week in Israel, when we arrived in Jerusalem, that I realized I was on a pilgrimage.
What is a pilgrimage? Certainly, it is a journey to a sacred place, but it is more than that. It is an act of devotion to God, an act of worship, though not one we frequently discuss in the Mennonite Church. We tend to view the Church as a community of believers, not as a building: it’s about the people, not the place. It follows that, as less emphasis is put on places as being important or holy, pilgrimage ceases to play a role in worship. But while pilgrimage is first and foremost about visiting a holy site, the Church, as a community of believers, also plays a huge role in pilgrimage. When you journey to a holy site, not only are you journeying in solidarity with Christians all over the world, but also with all Christian pilgrims, past and future, who have and will make the same journey. We all come from different places and speak different languages. We all have different reasons for our pilgrimage, and different experiences while on it, but we are united in our common act of worship, our common journey to this sacred place.
But what makes pilgrimage a form of worship? In many ways, it can be seen as a very self-indulgent act: an expensive flight half way around the world simply to see Jerusalem with your own eyes. Some amount of self-indulgence is evident in any trip, and as someone with the travel bug, it’s a type of self-indulgence of which I am guilty. But pilgrimage is more than simply a trip. To me, it is similar to prayer. It is a way of communicating and connecting with God, of trying to understand what He wants you to do. It is a way of opening up to God and allowing Him to work wonders on you. Pilgrimage is prayer, but it is prayer using not only your words and thoughts, but your entire being, energy and time.
Prayer is ground into the bedrock of Jerusalem. You are woken and ushered to bed daily by the Muslim call to prayer. Orthodox Jews walk to and from the Western Wall at all hours, trying to pray as close as possible to the Holy of Holies. Christians walk the Via Dolorosa, some carrying a cross, others simply their bibles, praying along the way. God has touched this place in so many ways. It was here His presence lived, in the inner most court of the Jewish Temple. It was from here Muhammad ascended to heaven to discuss prayer with God. And it is here that Jesus walked, ate, slept, died and finally rose. Every moment I stood in Jerusalem, I was aware of this fact, and I suddenly understood why so many people have felt the need to be in Jerusalem, why so many would fight to stay there.
It is possible to visit Jerusalem and ignore all that, to focus on shopping in the Arab souks, finding the best Falafel for the lowest price and exploring the thousands of years of history hidden beneath the city streets. But it would be an empty visit. You would leave without understanding why so many people are struggling to stay connected to this city, to live here and visit here. The city would be merely a pile of stones, built up and trampled down over hundreds of years. Once you have prayed in Jerusalem, the stones start to breathe.
Vanessa Snyder-Penner is an 18 year old university student from Waterloo, Ontario and a member of Waterloo North Mennonite Church. She recently took part in Yella, a tour of Israel/Palestine for young adults organized jointly by Mennonite Central Committee Ontario and Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.