Iron Age II A or B? Wait, Who Cares?
When I first started guiding, I wanted to unload as much as information as possible on unsuspecting tourists. Every site was like a graduate class. I had folders of notecards, photocopied archeological reports, and scholarly articles stuffed into a black bag on the bus that I could rummage through for more material. Part of me just loved all the stuff I worked hard to understand. Old stones, scholarly debates, ancient cultures, historical geography, plants, animals and the Biblical narrative fascinated me.
At the end of my tours, I ask my fellow travelers to share something personally meaningful with the group. I actually do not want them to think too hard, but to share from the heart. I have never heard anyone say they were really moved by the Iron Age II B ruins at Lachish or the debate around the dating of the Solomonic Gate at Hatzor. In fact, people have a hard time even remembering all the sites. What was the point of my information dump? Was I trying to manufacture Biblical scholars in a week?
A few years ago one of my groups started giving me a hard time for the answers I gave to questions. Apparently I am in the habit of saying, “Well that depends.” So the group started saying that for everything. “Anyone seen my water bottle? Well that depends . . . What time is lunch? Well that depends . . . What does the Bible say about this place? Well that depends.” You get the point. And what was the point of all the data, the original languages, the ancient stones and the archeological reports? What end was all this stuff supposed to be serving? Well that depends.
I do not know when I first heard that Pilgrimage was an ancient practice. Phyllis Tickle calls Pilgrimage one the seven ancient Christian disciplines, one that is almost totally lost. Pilgrimage is not only Christian but is also found in other great traditions. Even the word is alluring to me. To set off on an adventure, to be unsure of the path, to be surprised, to walk as a form of prayer, to be lost, to turn your heart toward a place and to the Mystery to which the place points is Pilgrimage.
I was looking for a new way into these tours. I knew they were rewarding for people but they could be richer. I knew the ancient pilgrim did not learn anything about the Iron Age. What were they after? What drew people to Israel and other places around the world? What was so attractive about Pilgrimage that people wandered hundreds of miles? These kinds of questions slowly turned my tours inside out.
When people share their experience of Pilgrimage, I am often surprised what people find meaningful. Every person’s story is different. What moves people is a moment alone looking at the Sea of Galilee, a Biblical story coming alive just by reading it in its setting, a sense that the mysterious wind of God is comforting them or challenging them, a prayer said alone as the sun goes down, shade in a desert canyon, a small spring in the wilderness. Often it is the landscape, the natural world, that so moves people.
The “word” of God, according to Genesis, is the natural world. In the ancient story, God speaks existence into being. It’s as if the “word” is in all this is, a living word. Might every thing on earth, every living being and stone and cloud formation and flower be the spoken word of God? Even now, coming into being? Just being outside in a world that is alive is one of the gifts of pilgrimage. And yes, a few dates and collapsed ruins and a little cultural background data are helpful. They help the ancient stories have nuance and color.
Pilgrimage is about responding to a calling. It is like the first calling of Abram to, “leave your country, your household, your father.” It is an unmapped adventure to, “a land you do not know.” You must leave the familiar in every sense of that word. And this requires intention. You turn toward God, with the intention of your heart, hoping to see a glimpse of this unknown land. So much depends upon intention.
When that intent is there and the heart is opened, no matter how small the crack, of course the natural world as God, as life, as creation, God’s primary revelation, seeps into the cracks. And perhaps by having that experience in Israel on pilgrimage, one can learn to open the heart and set an intention to be awake at home as well.
The power is when the heart opens to the unknown, the Mystery, and the wind. “Go out onto your heart, as onto a vast plain,” says Rilke. As James Finley says, "We are all called out onto a land we do not know and that land is our own hearts."