In January, with Brexit rallies stirring outside, I participated in the lunchtime Holy Communion Service in the nave of Westminster Abbey. During the sharing of the Peace, I turned around and realised that our small gathering was being watched by tourists from behind the red ropes. It was disconcerting for a moment. I had come to worship, not to be a player on the tourists’ stage. Later, in that glorious space, I began to ask “But when does a tourist become a pilgrim?”
The question stayed with me as I followed a route from London to Cadiz, Jerez, Athens, Corinth and the Holy Land. It was in the latter part of the journey with companions and guides barely known to me, that I began to hope for a shift in the commentary and questions, from “What, when, where did they say it was?” to “What did it mean?”. I imagined that the tourists watching Communion in the Abbey may have been asking both sorts of question.
At sites in Galilee, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, hundreds of photos were taken as the guides created a mosaic of geography, genealogy, archaeology, architecture, history, art and narrative. This was not a tour specifically for Christians and at times I felt “roped off” by the commentary, kept in the tourists’ domain with limited opportunity to enter into the meaning, the mystery. Perhaps I was expecting what Rowan Williams describes in his poem Stations of the Gospel:
Poured from this stone the water
Stings, the mind lurches, suspects
But the guides’ work was to inform tourists. Anything more was up to me and beyond me. At some point on the journey, I returned to my Kindle copy of Williams’ Being Disciples. He reminds us that discipleship is to do with expectancy and with ‘staying’. Williams draws on John’s account (John 1:36-39) of Jesus’ response to the disciples.
‘ Jesus saw them following and asked “What do you want?”. They said “Rabbi, Where are you staying”? “Come”, he replied, “and you will see”. So they went to where he was staying, and spent that day with him.’
Williams reminds us that “staying” here takes on a sense of “abiding with”, the kind of openness and readiness that changes us perhaps, from tourists to pilgrims.
Beyond the colourful mosaic created by the guides, I remembered to refocus on the ways in which events and sites had shaped hearts and minds at a particular time and ever since. Like many other churches in the area, the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha is a reminder that generations of early Christians kept alive the memory of Jesus’ presence there, commemorated and enshrined for us to witness in our own way. Perhaps Rowan Williams’ analogy of birdwatching brings us close to what is going on:
“The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view”.
A new acquaintance had asked for a souvenir for a Christian friend at home, something “that Jesus might have touched”. It was a serious request but I had no idea about what would happen to fulfil it, especially for a stranger. Beyond Tagbha, after lunch at a kibbutz on the shores of Galilee, I wandered away from the group, open to what I might find. The water was calm and clear with tiny spiral shells gently rolling in and out. I put my hands in and gathered some, hoping they might make some kind of a connection. Perhaps for the stranger (whom I will never meet) they will become more than shells from a lake – a souvenir, a coming again, a kind of witness to what happened in this place.
Through this experience, I sensed that perhaps the way of the tourist differs from the way of the pilgrim through the pilgrim’s willingness to “climb the ladder” before them, to be ready to climb like Jacob was and to enter the mystery, realising that
The Lord is in this place and I did not know it.