By Jim Forest
Pilgrimage is the quest for what the Celts have described as “thin places.” Thin places have a way of slowing us down, even stopping us in our tracks.
A thin place is a place where ordinary matter seems charged with God’s presence. It may be a spot well known for a celebrated encounter with God, a place remembered for a key event in the life of Jesus, or a place linked with a great saint; it may be twelve time zones away or as close at hand or right where you’re standing. What marks any thin place is the time-stopping awareness of God’s presence. It doesn’t matter whether a particular thin place is known only to you or featured in hundreds of guidebooks. For you, that spot will be endowed ever after with a special significance.
Thin places, even when built of stone, seem to possess a kind of translucence. While awareness of the Divine Presence — in reality, everywhere — s forced upon no one, go to a thin place and an awareness of the holy often touches even the most skeptical and faith-resistant person. The walls of ancient churches seem to have been sponge-like in absorbing the prayers and tears of all who have come there. All that makes life opaque has slowly been worn away by so many pilgrims bringing their suffering, their longing, their prayers, their grief, their gratitude, their joy.
The most famous thin places are powerful magnets attracting pilgrims by the thousands or even millions. They come by foot and bike, car and bus, plane and train; they come alone and they come in crowds.
An encyclopedia of many volumes could be written describing all the world’s thin places. But for the moment let’s consider only three.
One of the most venerable of thin places is Mount Sinai and its surroundings. Moses got there on foot. Most pilgrims these days arrive by bus.
About 1300 years before Christ’s birth, Moses murdered an Egyptian who was abusing a Hebrew. Desperately in need of a hiding place, he fled to the southern Sinai, a desert region of narrow valleys and precipitous cliffs. There, beside a well years later, he met his wife Zipporah. While guarding his father-in-law’s flock near the same well, he experienced the miracle of the burning bush. Before his eyes a desert bush exploded with flame, yet wasn’t consumed. From within the burning bush, God called, “Moses, Moses!” Moses replied, “Here am I.” The voice spoke again: “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Finally the voice identified itself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The text in Exodus adds: “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” On that day Moses found the next step in his vocation: to return to Egypt and free his fellow Jews from slavery.
While the bush Moses stood before no longer burns, it lived a long life. Its progeny has survived to the present day. In the year 330, the Byzantine empress, St. Helena, requested the monks living in the area to build a chapel next to the site of the bush. Later in the same century, the Spanish nun Egeria was among pilgrims who came here. “There are many cells of holy men,” she wrote, “and a church on the spot where the bush stands, and this bush is still alive today and gives forth shoots.” The bush, quite large, still thrives within an enclosure adjacent to a chapel directly behind the basilica’s main sanctuary.
In the sixth century substantial donations from the Emperor Justinian made possible construction of a basilica and the fortress wall that still encloses the monastery. Even with this formidable barrier, however, the monks could do little in self-defense under siege. One of the wonders of the Christian era is that this vulnerable desert community has survived. Its principal defense is not its granite walls, but a document signed by the prophet Muhammad personally guaranteeing the safety of the monastery and its inhabitants. It is one of the principal treasures of the monastery library. For centuries, Muslim Bedouin neighbors who venerate both Moses and Mary and regard Jesus as a prophet have assisted the monks. As an act of gratitude and hospitality to its guardians, St. Catherine’s is the world’s only monastery to have a mosque within its walls.
The monastery opens its gate to visitors only three hours a day between 9:00 a.m. and noon. Praying at the place of the burning bush may be the pilgrims’ first priority, but they find much more to do both within the walls of St. Catherine’s and in the surrounding wilderness.
First of all, there is the iconography. The monks care for some of the world’s oldest and finest icons. Two hundred of them hang in a special gallery. Among the earliest is an image of the face of Christ that has a photographic immediacy. A sixth-century icon of St. Peter is so lifelike that, if smaller, could be used in a passport. That these icons have survived is thanks to the irony of the monastery’s being situated in the Muslim world and thus beyond the edicts of the iconoclastic Byzantine emperors of the eighth and ninth centuries.
Among the monastery’s less ancient icons is one from the thirteenth century of Moses taking off his sandals before the burning bush.
Outside the walls, Mount Sinai towers over the monastery. As it rises, it divides into three peaks, the most famous being Jebel Musa, the Peak of Moses. Mount Sinai seems not just to have risen but to have erupted out of the earth. It’s as barren a place as exists anywhere or earth.
Moses climbed the mountain on two occasions to speak with God. Regarding the second ascent, Exodus records: “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”
During those forty days Moses received the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.
In the first millennium, monks living on and near Mount Sinai created a 3750-step granite stairway that makes the ascent for today’s pilgrims much easier than it was for Moses. Pilgrims normally start the climb in the middle of the night so they can witness the sunrise from the summit. The small church on the top, on the spot where Moses talked with God and received the Ten Commandments, is about 1,600 years old.
Few places on earth are less favorable to a human presence than Mount Sinai and the surrounding area, yet countless thousands of monks have made this desert region, including the mountain heights, their home for more than seventeen centuries. At the same time, they have received and cared for a never-ending river of pilgrims.
No matter how brief the visit, no pilgrim can leave St. Catherine’s without being impressed with the astonishing tenacity of monastic life in such a dry, rugged, sun-battered setting. One need only read any of the collections of desert-father stories to meet some of the astonishing people who have made the Egyptian desert their home.
The best known monk of St. Catherine’s Monastery was St. John Climacus (or St. John of the Ladder), abbot of the monastery for many years until his death in the year 606, when he was in his eighties. He is the author of one of the classics of ascetic life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This is the only book that has its own icon, an image that with great economy summarizes the text: A thirty-rung ladder links the desert to the welcoming hands of Christ in heaven, but many are falling from it. The book is a kind of guidebook outlining the route to salvation for monks to follow. A ladder of thirty virtues begins with the renunciation of worldly life and ascends, rung by rung, through obedience, penitence, detachment, and humility to enter into love of God and neighbor and freedom from all that impedes that love. The book’s moral isn’t how easy it is to fall, but rather how important it is to get up and start climbing again after each fall. This is what generation after generation of monks at St. Catherine’s has been struggling to do.
While St. Catherine’s is among the most honored and impressive places of Christian pilgrimage anywhere on earth, the oldest and most important pilgrimage center for Christians is Jerusalem. Despite all its sorrows, Jerusalem remains a city crowded with thin places, chief of which is the Church of the Resurrection, as it is called by Orthodox Christians; or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as it is known to Christians of other traditions.
As is often the case with much-visited thin places, pilgrims often find themselves unready once they arrive, no matter how much preparation they have been made. Standing at the door of the Church of the Resurrection, many pilgrims are in a state of exhaustion and irritation rather than astonishment and exaltation. They have endured the wear and tear of simply arriving only to meet the obstacle of slow-moving lines once inside the church. Many pilgrims find themselves struggling to lay aside all their frayed nerves as they attempt to focus their thoughts on what happened there two millennia ago. After all this hard work, the pilgrim may not be in a receptive state. On top of that, there may be the disappointment of what time has done to such a place. Nothing inside the Church of the Resurrection looks anything like it did twenty centuries ago.
For most pilgrims stepping into that dimly lit, time-worn church, the first stop is the chapel on Golgotha, where Jesus gave up his life on the cross.
The Golgotha chapel, reached by ascending a narrow stone staircase just inside the main entrance, is dominated by a life-sized icon of Christ on the cross in front of which is a marble altar standing on four thin pillars. Dozens of candles burn constantly while numerous ornate silver lamps, large and small, hang from the ceiling. Glass panels on either side of the altar reveal the rough stone surface on which the cross was erected outside the city walls that stood nearby in the days of Roman occupation. (Following the city’s destruction in 70 AD, Jerusalem was rebuilt within new walls, at which time the western wall was moved further west, enclosing Golgotha.)
Cluttered as it is with pre-Reformation religious imagery, this chapel can be a disconcerting place for Protestant visitors. They may also be disconcerted to witness the physical veneration exhibited by pilgrims belonging to the older churches. Yet once inside the chapel, the most undemonstrative visitor tends to be moved by the climate of quiet, heartfelt devotion shown by pilgrims from the more ancient churches. Even a tourist with a head full of religious doubts may feel obliged to speak in a whisper. Visitors who regard the resurrection as nothing more than a pious legend may be moved by the realization that here, on this very spot, a man who had harmed no one — a man of mercy and healing — was stripped, nailed to a cross, and left to die while soldiers threw dice to determine who would take possession of his blood-stained robe. Nearly all visitors kneel in front of the altar, then reach through an opening in the marble floor to touch the rock of Golgotha.
Another significant resonance for this place is the tradition that Adam and Eve were buried at Golgotha, the very place where Christ was later crucified. In any icon of the Byzantine tradition, Adam’s skull appears in a tiny black cave just under the foot of the cross.
Leaving the Golgotha chapel, most pilgrims stop at the place where, according to Christian memory, Christ’s body was laid out before burial. The stone tablet set into the floor, placed there many centuries ago and now as smooth as silk, has received not only millions of kisses but also a river of tears and a nearly constant flow of perfume, the latter poured mainly by women pilgrims. Each day brings many hundreds of mourners who pause at this small area just inside the church’s main entrance. The pilgrims among them know the significance of this rectangle of stone on which no one steps, while tourists are mainly puzzled and perhaps embarrassed by the intense emotion they see displayed by the people kneeling there.
The next stop for pilgrim and tourist alike is the tomb in which Christ rose from the dead. It’s about thirty meters west of the Golgotha chapel and directly beneath the church’s main dome.
When Jesus was crucified, this was the Garden of Golgotha, full of olive trees and flowering plants. Many people were buried here. What was once a small and ordinary burial place — a simple niche chiseled out of a stone embankment, one among many — has become an elaborately carved, chapel-like structure. The surrounding embankment and the adjacent tombs have been completely cut away since the fourth century.
To accommodate pilgrims, Christ’s tomb has been made larger than it was. The structure encasing the tomb — called the Aedicula — now has within it both an outer and inner room, the latter with the narrow shelf, now covered with a thin sheet of marble, on which Christ’s body was laid.
Worn nerves and aching feet notwithstanding, pilgrims always find it a blessing to enter this constricted enclosure. At the very least, the Gospel accounts of the mystery of Christ’ triumph over death become more real. It probably crosses even the atheist visitor’s mind that what occurred here may not be merely an ancient fable. Something happened in this small space that every subsequent generation has had to consider — a mysterious event that has shifted culture and history and even altered the way we look at each other. The place of the resurrection continuously attracts people from near and far, touches both intellect and heart, providing a summons to live the rest of one’s life the freedom that comes from no longer dreading death.
The Church of the Resurrection is more than an enclosure for two sacred places. The pilgrim who has time will discover many unexpected surprises by wandering alone through this maze-like church.
One of my most memorable experiences inside this ancient church occurred during Easter in 1985. How fortunate I was! It’s all but impossible to get inside the Church of the Resurrection on Pascha. One must have an invitation. Providentially, George Hintlian, a leader of Jerusalem’s Armenian Christian community, had given me one. It was a precious gift. Each of the several Christian communities in Jerusalem is allotted only so many. Once the guests are inside the church, the doors are locked and bolted. The area immediately around the tomb is densely crowded.
At a certain moment the Patriarch of Jerusalem, having entered the tomb and been locked inside, lights the “holy fire.” Flame bursts out of the tomb’s small windows. The sealed doors are opened, and the Patriarch comes out bearing two candles which are then used to light the candles everyone holds. Few people hold only one; more often each holds ten or twelve. Each candle will later become a gift to a friend or relative who couldn’t be present. Meanwhile, guests utter cries of joy not unlike those one might hear in a crowded sports stadium at the moment a winning point is scored in a crucial game. As at a sports match, some exultant young men ride on the shoulders of friends. It’s an amazing sight. The space around the tomb quickly becomes hot from the proximity of so many people. So many living flames — so many people packed so tightly! Those who suffer from claustrophobia may find it slightly terrifying.
During the hours when we were locked inside the church, I twice retreated from the crowd to empty areas away from the tomb.
First I went back to Golgotha. How strange it is to be at a place normally crowded with pilgrims and to be the only one there. It is a rare blessing to be entirely alone at the exact spot where Christ gave himself for the life of the world.
On my second walk away from the tumult surrounding the tomb, I went as far as the east end of the Church. Walking down the stairway to St. Helena’s Chapel and from there to another deeper level, I entered the Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross.
While all visitors to the church visit the place of the crucifixion and the tomb in which Christ’s body was laid, far fewer visit this remote corner. Many visitors don’t have time. People often travel long and far to reach Jerusalem and then face a tight schedule once they arrive. As a result, they see relatively little of this huge, somewhat chaotic, ancient building with its many passageways, staircases, chapels and places of veneration. In fact, many Protestant tour groups, suspicious of relics and uncomfortable with devotion to saints, intentionally avoid this subterranean chapel. “The true cross? Found here?” one may hear a visitor say. “Hogwash! All these so-called relics! It was a hoax — just some old wood in the ground passed off as the real thing by swindlers.”
The pilgrim descends via a stone staircase. Step by step the air gets cooler and damper. One goes slowly, perhaps pausing to notice the carefully carved graffiti on the walls left by the pilgrims of earlier eras. Finally the pilgrim reaches an exceptionally quiet, womb-like area beneath the huge church.
There is something remarkable about the special quietness of this deep, damp chapel. Even when there is a steady stream of people coming and going, it seems to absorb and muffle every sound. The unhurried visitor can feel a numinous quality here that may be harder to experience in places where people are waiting in slow-moving lines. In a subterranean enclosure entirely abandoned at Easter, I found myself more aware of the risen Christ than when I stood outside his tomb. An ancient garbage pit has become the thinnest of thin places.
I was also aware of being in the footsteps of St. Helena, whose pilgrim journey in the year 326 inspired the discovery of the cross. Twenty years later, St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, declared, “[The Cross] has been distributed fragment by fragment from this spot and already has nearly filled all the world.”
Another thin place, goal of many pilgrims despite its size and remoteness, is the tiny island of Iona in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. This comma of land just off the southwest tip of Mull has been a place of pilgrimage for nearly fifteen hundred years.
In the course of walking Iona’s paths, you will find yourself standing on some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. The more imposing volcanic heights of neighboring Mull belong to a land just barely out of the baby carriage in comparison — a mere 70 million years old. Iona is vastly older: two-and-a-half billion years.
An Irish saint, Columba, put Iona on the map. In penance for his role in a bloody clan war, Columba, along with twelve companions, sailed away from his homeland in self-exile, arriving on Iona on Pentecost Sunday in the year 563. Walking across the island from what has since been known as Columba’s Bay, his group found an ideal spot to build a monastic settlement on the northeast edge of the island.
Iona is the probable birthplace of the greatest masterpiece of Celtic art, the illuminated Gospel text known as the Book of Kells. The book takes its name from a monastery in Ireland where it was later taken for safekeeping. It is now displayed in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
The wattle-and-wood dwellings the monks lived in fifteen centuries ago are long gone, destroyed by Viking raids between 795 and 806. During those years, 67 of the monks were martyred. At last the survivors packed up and returned to Ireland. All that remains from the early days of monastic life on Iona are several standing crosses, the tiny chapel of St. Oran, the adjacent graveyard in which many kings and queens of ancient Ireland and Scotland are buried, Macbeth among them, and the faint traces of foundations.
What today’s pilgrims find are the solid stone buildings Benedictine monks erected in the 13th century, when monastic life found a fresh footing on Iona: the plain square tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the rectangular masses of the several adjoining buildings are all of enduring gray stone with deep-cut windows under steep slated roofs.
The monks of Columba’s day lived a demanding life spent close to the elements. Columba’s monastic rule, later adopted by many similar communities, required that the monks own nothing but bare necessities, inhabit a place with but one door, center their conversations on God and the New Testament, refuse idle words and the spreading of rumor and evil reports, and follow every rule that governs devotion. They were to prepare themselves daily for suffering and death, to offer forgiveness from the heart to everyone, to put almsgiving before all other duties, and to eat nothing unless hungry; they were not to sleep unless tired; they were to pray constantly for anyone who had been a trouble, and to pray until tears came. They were to labor to the point of tears as well; or, if tears “are not free, until thy perspiration come often.”
Columban monastic life was far from sedentary. The monks of Iona traveled into the wilds of Scotland and, later on, much further as missionaries of the Gospel. They also served as a pacifying influence in a Europe of small kingdoms and constant war. Irish monasticism had a profound impact on the development both of Christianity and culture across Europe, even reaching to France, Italy and western Russia. Missionaries sent from Iona founded schools and communities, winning in the process such a reputation for holiness that, even in the sixth century, pilgrims were drawn to the remote isle from as far away as Rome. Tiny Iona became known as “the Jerusalem of the North.”
Much of the thirty-two years of life left to Columba once he arrived on Iona were spent preaching the Christian faith to the unchurched inhabitants of the highlands of northern Scotland. His preaching was confirmed by many miracles. He provided for the nurturing of his converts by building many churches and monasteries. He governed numerous communities in Ireland and Scotland that recognized him as spiritual father and founder. When not away on missionary travels, Columba resided on Iona.
Witnesses record that Columba never spent a waking hour without study, prayer or useful work. A lover of books from his early years, he was often engaged in the work of transcription. Reportedly he copied more than 300 books with his own hand. Two of these, The Book of Durrow, and the psalter called The Cathach, survive to the present day.
One of the most revealing of the many stories that come down to us about Columba’s life concerns a sword. It was the custom of people who visited him not only to seek a blessing for themselves, but also for some item of personal property. One day, without due reflection, Columba blessed a sword that was put before him, only to realize afterward that it might well be used in battle. He then gave the sword a second, more careful blessing, praying that the blade would remain sharp only so long as it was used for cutting bread and cheese but would acquire a dull edge if ever used to harm any living thing.
The medieval abbey seems as timeless as the island’s seagulls. So solid and undamaged does the monastery appear that it is startling to see old engravings showing the ruined state it fell into after the Scottish Parliament outlawed monastic life in 1561. The Act of Suppression came just two years before the thousand-year anniversary of the first monks landing on Iona. It was only in the last century that restoration at last occurred, thanks mainly to the efforts of a Presbyterian minister, George MacLeod, pastor of a working class parish in Glasgow. Inspired by MacLeod, pilgrims came to Iona not simply to admire the ruins and try to imagine what had once happened there, but to take part in the hard physical labor of restoration. The restored abbey in turn has greatly enlarged the number of pilgrims coming to Iona.
No doubt St. Columba rejoices to see Iona’s revival as a place of Christian life and a center of pilgrimage, one of the world’s thin places. He had a gift for seeing the future and knew one day there would be nothing left of his foundation, but he saw beyond that desolate time to its restoration. He left this prophecy:
Iona of my heart,
Iona of my love,
Instead of monk’s voices,
Shall be lowing of cattle,
But ere the world comes to an end
Iona shall be as it was.
* * *
Note: This is a chapter from Jim Forest’s book, “The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life” (Orbis). Endnotes removed.