A review of
Chasing The Divine In The Holy Land
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2012.
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Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon
When I asked a veteran traveler for advice just before my husband and I took our first trip to Israel, he said, “Make sure you stay awake.” Though he was offering me a suggestion about how to circumvent jet lag, his words spoke to our entire travel experience. Travel pushes us to be awake and to be present to each moment in ways that our everyday workaday lives often do not.
Pilgrimage transforms those present-in-the-moment travel experiences into a quest to touch the eternal. My husband and I have been to Israel five times in the last four years, and each trip has been an awakening. Though we were there for ministry-related meetings, each trip was pilgrimage for us. I suspect few travel to the Holy Land without becoming pilgrims during the journey, even if they board the plane planning simply to be tourists.
Presbyterian pastor Ruth Everhart was invited by a documentary crew to be one of the 7 clergy members filmed as they participated in a pilgrimage tour of key Christian sites in Israel. She decides to accept the invitation, noting, “…After a lifetime of doctrine, I’m getting tired of words about God. Maybe that’s the deeper reason for going on this pilgrimage. I want to find a different way to believe. I want to embody my faith, not just think it.”
Everhart’s book, Chasing The Divine In The Holy Land, is an introspective diary of her journey. Her vocation, placed squarely in the Reformed tradition, often had more to do with answering questions for others rather than being able to sit with her own. Though she occasionally references conversations with her fellow pilgrims, the book is focused on the inner work she does as she visits the places where her Savior lived, died and rose again.
Readers join Everhart at the beginning of her trip, as she gathers with other pilgrims in New York City. I could almost hear the gears of her soul begin to shift as she laid aside her Reverend role and participated in worship at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. She found herself swept to the front of the church to receive communion. The act was not “Catholic kosher” since non-Catholics are barred from participating in the Eucharist, but it was an honest expression of her hunger for God, and set the tone for her entire trip.
That hunger comes through her words every step of the journey. The group landed in Tel Aviv, then made their way to the Old City in Jerusalem before heading to Bethlehem. Next, they visited a Palestinian refugee camp, then traveled to Masada and the Dead Sea. They moved north to several stops in Galilee before heading back again to Jerusalem to visit the sites associated with the final days of Jesus.
Everhart does the work of a pilgrim as she allows ancient sites and the modern people she meets during her travels to push her toward new ways of thinking:
The Jews have a tradition of arguing with God, and I feel a bit envious. We Calvinists don’t do that. We elevate God so high that we dare not approach. Instead, we assert our adoptive claim as God’s elect, then scramble to prove ourselves worthy of its benefits and blessings.
Will I still be a Calvinist when this pilgrimage is over? The bus rolls along while my thoughts tumble. It’s ironic that I want to tussle with God over problems that started when people felt they had some sort of special dispensation that allowed them to tussle with God.
Tussle she does, and many of her matches have to do with the effects and limitations of her theology. The tidy and tightly-organized Western Reformation theology upon which Everhart has built her life don’t always transplant neatly to the Middle East, she discovered. A visit to a West Bank refugee camp, led by a guide named Jihad Ramadan, was anything but a theologically-tidy experience for Everhart. “All of a sudden it strikes me,” she writes. “This conflict is about land. Holy land. How have I not fully comprehended this before?”
There is, of course, another side the story of the conflict. Or, put more correctly, there are a number of other sides, because this is the Middle East. As I read, I found myself wishing that the tour organizers would have given the pilgrims some time with representatives of the Jewish community living near Gaza, for instance, as well introducing them to believers doing reconciliation work in the region. At the same time, I recognize that a 10-day whirlwind tour like the one Everhart took can’t be much more than a rushed overview experience.
But what transforms her whirlwind tour into pilgrimage is the way the experience continues to unfold long after the suitcases are unpacked and life returns to it’s regularly-scheduled “normal”. As countless others who’ve journeyed to Israel during the last 2,000 years have discovered, each one for himself or herself, pilgrimage changes the pilgrim. Everhart recognized as she traveled that the experience would change the way she read her Bible. How could it be when she waded into the Sea of Galilee, stood on the Mount of Olives, or walked the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa?
As Chasing The Divine reminds us, those kinds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences aren’t meant to satisfy us, but are given to help us recognize how hungry we are. Everhart did the work of a pilgrim as she opened herself up to honest questions about her theological assumptions and spiritual history as she traveled the Land. Her beautiful, frank writing make this an enjoyable and unsettling read. The unsettledness is the gift of the book to readers, because the kinds of questions Ruth Everhart allowed herself to ask on throughout trip about who God is and what she truly believed about him are the kinds of questions that can transform any one of us into pilgrims, no matter where we live or travel.
Michelle Van Loon is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, and maintains a blog of her own at michellevanloon.com.