As I prepare for a week-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land this question is becoming ever more pressing. As a result I’m feeling slowly suffocated by the cavernous empty space of my suitcase which leads me to gently kick myself for deciding to embark on this visit.
My deliberations as to what to pack points I suspect to a deeper anxiety about how one actually prepares for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I am not sure what worries me most, the fact that I’m a pilgrim virgin and hence have no point of reference for any of this or that the destination is the Holy Land rather than say Lourdes.
I’ve visited the Holy Land on numerous occasions on work over the years, but never as a pilgrim. My visits have normally been fact-finding missions entailing meetings with a range of religious, civil society and political actors as well as visits to various Church based projects on the grounds. My preparation for these visits usually entails plenty of advance reading and meetings with relevant stakeholders here in the UK.
I’m sure that over the years I’ve unwittingly walked all the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, but I’ve never done so intentionally as a pilgrim. Even if I had walked them in one go, I’m not sure that my experience would constitute an act of pilgrimage. I’ve always been intrigued and respectful of those who journey long distances to travel such a path, but I’ve generally found their experiences closed off to and somewhat separate from my own encounters with the region.
The prospect of sailing on the Sea of Galilee possibly singing kumbaya as Israel faces an existential threat from Iran while the Palestinian quest for statehood recedes yet further into the horizon makes me feel distinctively queasy. I should stress here that since I know those responsible for organising this pilgrimage this scenario is most unlikely.
As I reflect further on the week ahead, I wonder whether my unsettleness stems from the tension that might exist between the spiritual and the contextual.
Is it possible to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem without in turn reducing the city to a religious theme park?
Is it possible to walk faithfully through the meandering streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, as our Lord once did, while also engaging with the indigenous Christian communities of the region for whom Jerusalem remains a living but contested holy city?
How when visiting the Mount of Beatitudes does one read the Sermon on the Mount? I suspect that a Arab Palestinian Christian reading might be different from mine or for that matter those that I travel with. Same words – different meaning. How does one negotiate and make sense of all of this?
I have little doubt that my forthcoming pilgrimage to the Holy Land will lead me to see the region in a different way and that’s no bad thing, but it still doesn’t help me tackle the looming question of what to pack. Maybe it’s best just to put the suitcase away and to travel lightly with the old trusty rucksack and in so doing be open to whatever new experiences come my way.
I suspect that so long as I have a Bible and my computer to hand I should be able to survive and make sense of whatever lies ahead.