IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CHRIST: REFLECTIONS FROM A PILGRIM
Our guest writer, Grace, is a member of the Franciscan Young Adults. In December 2019, she joined Fra John-Paul Tan OFM, Fra Derrick Yap OFM, and a group of young adults on the Sequela Christi pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rome, and Assisi, travelling in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. This post reflects on her experience there and was originally published on the blog Surprising Grace. The photographs accompanying this post are her own.
5.25am. I (not a cold-weather person by any means, and definitely not an early-morning person) trundle out of the hotel in the cold, my hands encased in gloves and shoved into my jacket pockets. I am joined by a few pilgrims, but for the most part, we’re too tired to talk. As we walk away from the hotel and get closer to our destination, the stones beneath our feet get older, our path more steeped in history. When, for a brief moment, we make a wrong turn in one of the Old City’s many alleyways, the brief sight of another group of foreigners is enough to orientate us. This early in the morning, in this place, we could only have one destination: the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
Latin High Mass begins at 6.30am. Pilgrims sit on pews brought out for this hour, set out around the empty tomb itself. Although we are early, the pews are quickly filled, and we are relegated to the back; I end up sitting next to a blonde lady who is murmuring the rosary with her head bowed. Through the great skylight above me, I can see that the sky outside is still dark; the air is still, and lends itself to nothing louder than a whisper. And so we conduct our conversation, when the lady next to me finishes her rosary and smiles up at me. She is from Michigan, and has never been to Singapore. “What I love about the Catholic Church,” she whispers, looking at the congregation around us, “is how universal we are.”
I reflect on her words as the Mass begins. As the inscrutable words washed over me, understanding comes: not of the words per se, but of the format, and of the great flood of history which brought our forefathers to Christ, formed the Church, and finally washed up a tiny pilgrim from a hot island many hours away, shivering in the early morning under a newly breaking day. It strikes me weeks later, as I sit at home writing this reflection, how my experience at my first Latin High Mass could be a metaphor for the whole pilgrimage: at once utterly familiar and totally foreign.
You are Christians, our Israeli tour guide loved to say, and for Christians, this is your homeland.
I had not expected to feel such a connection to a land so far away from home. Then again, I had not expected many things about this pilgrimage, not least the fact that I would be a participant thereof. I signed up at the eleventh hour, after a weekend in which many things came together and made it clear that I should go. During one of our pre-pilgrimage sessions, when Fr Derrick asked us to share in small groups why we thought God was sending us on this pilgrimage, I shared that I simply did not know. All I knew was that God had clearly opened a door and I had walked through it. What awaited me on the other side was anybody’s guess.
This sense of anticipation – of a door that had been opened – proved to be very stressful for me in the first few days of the pilgrimage. I hurtled from site to site, falling on my knees and wondering if this was where my long-awaited Epiphany would hit me like a meteorite. And, when said Epiphany did not come, I wondered why such a great treasure had been placed into my hands when I could not understand it. I visited a lot of holy sites in this way, listening to the biblical significance and histories of those places, and wondering why I had been sent there. Until we hurtled at last, down the Via Dolorosa, and into the Holy Sepulchre itself, where we stood like sardines in a line to touch the rock where our Lord Jesus Christ had been crucified. An excellent place to be dealt an Epiphany, if ever there was one.
When my turn came, I crouched in the tiny space below the altar, acutely conscious of the fact that every second I spent praying (or thinking such self-conscious thoughts) was a second someone else stood in line. I crawled in and unexpectedly came face to face with an icon of our Lord, which had been placed above the rock. The sudden togetherness in the cramped darkness shocked me into stillness. In that tiny space, in the darkness, I whispered in my heart, “It’s just you and me, Lord.”
The responding silence awoke my self-consciousness. I crawled back out and went around to where there was a space to pray. Still facing the rock, I went on my knees and bent my face to the cold stone. I closed my eyes. Just you and me, Lord. And I heard a voice ask, “Grace, am I not enough for you?”
Am I not enough for you? I started crying without knowing why. A great warmth filled my whole body, and yet I would not immediately term it as a sense of comfort; I felt overwhelmed, and overawed. In that space with my face to the ground and my eyes closed, I felt at once the greatness of our Lord, and the smallness of a place where He and I could be alone together, and the enoughness of that. Just you and me, Lord. My weaknesses – my pride – my resentment – my anxieties – yes, my stresses about Feeling an Epiphany! – Your greatness. Your incredible being. Your mercy. Your love. Your enoughness.
The fact that intimate closeness and incredible disparity of greatness could co-exist in one relationship was one of the mysteries of the trip for me. My anxiety about feeling an Epiphany began to fade, and in its place grew an overwhelming sense of gratitude at where the open door had led me. In every place I laid down my fears in a spirit of prayer and thanksgiving, and the memory of the voice at the rock followed me as we continued our journey: through the Holy Land, following the footsteps of Christ, and then on to Rome and Assisi, following the footsteps of those who had similarly heard a voice and followed wholeheartedly. I am enough for you.
The sights which met my eyes were completely new to me. Yet, I began to see that the God who had worked there was the same God who had spoken to me at the rock and who journeyed with me still. In a similar way, I felt connected to the people who had walked there; separated though we were by time and genetic make-up, we had arrived with the same baggage of anxiety and loss, and met the One who was great enough to hold it all. I was stunned by the universality of our experience. Totally foreign and yet utterly familiar.
The wonder of the long-awaited Epiphany being a Person and not an Idea is that the pilgrimage continues even after I have come home. As I write, it has been precisely a month since we first touched down in Tel Aviv. I don’t completely know yet why I was led there, but the image I have is of an open door, and of the path beyond being lit by golden daylight one stone at a time. I embark on this path with an attitude of open-ended gratitude. I am thankful, not for the answers which have been revealed to me, but for the delight of an adventure with God – my God, You are enough for me!