work FOR the people
—liturgy in the world—

Michelin Guide for Wooden Wheels

Michelin Guide for Wooden Wheels

Tourism, and its antecedent, pilgrimage, is a privilege of both wealth and peace. Without both of these, it is at best known as “exile.” Constantine I provided a measure of both with the beginning of the end of persecution in the Edict of Milan in 313. Not long after, the sound of footsteps and horse hooves wending their way to Jerusalem could be heard plodding through Asia Minor.And what’s a trip without a diary with which to remember it? The earliest of these diaries comes quite soon after St. Helena’s discovery of the relics of the cross and the inception of Constantine’s great building projects, an anonymous pilgrim narrated his journey from Bordeaux to Palestine. The trip can be dated to 333; the Contantinian complex that would become the Martyrium and Anastasis (the basilicas on the sites of Jesus’ death and resurrection, respectively) was partially completed, as was the church on the Mount of Olives, but few buildings in the rest of Jerusalem were under construction. The Basilica in Bethlehem appears to be done. Our friend from Bordeaux wrote a typical itenerarium (a list of places visited and a log-book of where he stayed) with a bit more detail around Jerusalem. He (or she, for that matter, we don’t know) was interested in places, but the only indication that people are part of religious observance in Jerusalem is a mention of the wailing wall.

"Sapsaphas Madaba". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Sapsaphas Madaba”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

The most famous of our pilgrims, Egeria, made it to Jerusalem fifty years after the Bordeaux Pilgrim—sometime in the early 380’s. Compared to almost any other pilgrim in the first millennium, Egeria was a “sacristy rat;” she could smell a procession at 1000 yards, and happily wrote about many of the liturgies in which she participated. It seems, from reading her diary, that all that happened in fourth century Palestine was a continuous worship service—particularly during Lent. When we combine her diary with another (fairly unique) writing, Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechetical and mystagogical lectures, given about 350 (halfway in between the Bordeaux Pilgrim’s and Egeria’s visits), we have a very rich picture of the time around Easter in the second half of the fourth century. And it’s a picture that leaves us exhausted. The weeks before Easter are a time of almost non-stop formational activity—almost as if this were “spring training” for the author of Hebrews’ “race that is set before us.” There is a “once in a lifetime” character, not just to the baptism of the catechumens, but to the whole experience of Jerusalem and the passion of Jesus.

This ascesis—training for a race—is clearly part of what happened in Jerusalem, at least until it came under Muslim control. There is a lectionary from the middle of the fifth century that has readings for most of Egeria’s services, for example. However, this isn’t the whole story.

Within ten years, we have another tour guide: Paula, a patroness of Jerome, the irascible translator of the Vulgate, followed him to Bethlehem and wrote about her trip. It’s interesting that we pay so little attention to her diary as compared to Egeria’s. While Egeria’s travels languished, seldom copied, and as far as can be told, otherwise ignored, until their rediscovery in the nineteenth century, Paula, and her diary, entered into continuous popular culture. That the Chaucer has the Wife of Bath visit—in order—the same sites as Paula in the prologue to her tale is just the easiest example to find among many. Her diary comes down in two forms: a letter to a friend back in Rome, and Jerome’s editing of her itenerarium. There are few references to structured liturgies, except for the daily prayer of the monastics who lived near or in the holy places. What is overwhelming is the impression of the ministry of hospitality of these religious. There is a constant refrain of “We came to …, We were told of the importance of the place …, We joined in meals …, We prayed with …”

Hospitality. Daily prayer in holy places. And the veneration of holy places in the context of their place in the cycle of the year. These three principles tie together these early narratives of Jerusalem and its environs. What we see in Egeria, Cyril, and the Armenian lectionary of Jerusalem is not the ritualization of a lex orandi—an eternal liturgical gravitational law—but rather an improvisation in a very specific place of Jesus’ new law of love, of service to neighbor and alien so that they can be be part of the community of his transforming grace. Even with Egeria’s compulsive religiosity, the purpose of these dwellers in the land of Jesus shines through: to help pilgrims come so close to Christ through the sacrament of place that they might remain his forever.

Jacques Derrida gave an intriguing lecture, “Hospitality,” (in Acts of Religion) in which he explores hospitality and hostility. Following his thought, we could think of the fourth-century Palestinian Christians as “deconstructing home” so that it opens, as gift, as incorporation, to the pilgrims. I wonder if some of those pilgrims held that home hostage as they took these rites, out of place, (to pinch a phrase from ritual scholar Ron Grimes) and emplanted them elsewhere. Maybe the Bordeaux Pilgrim and Paula (and Jerome, for that matter) understood something Egeria didn’t: Is the Holy Week experience something that one can only receive as a gift? Does “doing it for ourselves” turn it into an act of hostile possession, making us hostages to a ritual? A Michelin three-star meal on the west bank of the Saone in Lyons won’t keep until I get home to Seattle. Imitating Cyril in San Francisco just might be as misguided.

Next post: The menu in Jerusalem.

Leave a Reply

    Powered by Wordpress. Redesign Theme by RT