It’s more than a week now since I returned to Dorset from the Holy Land, and I’m still struggling to put into words how the trip has affected me.
In Christian terms, the phrase “Holy Land” is usually defined as the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, occupied by present-day Israel and Palestine. It is a Holy Land, though, in very truth, the stone of it, pinned, as it were, to the centre of all that has been made… despite all the centuries of pain and loss, the brokenness, all the politics, the violence, occupation, dispossession; despite all the hope and all the longing, this place is holy in a way quite unlike anywhere else I’ve been.
None of this is to be understood on a historical, nor a cultural level. The encounters with what must be God himself in this place have been unlike anything I’ve felt anywhere else. This is an unmediated land, where the light falls inescapably between then and then, in the place of now.
I had expected a weight of history, a sense of passing cultures—Canaanite, Israelite, Roman, Islamic. I had expected to be startled by a sense of place, moved by memories in the density of stone. I had expected a new angle on the Gospels, perhaps some illumination of the Messianic prophecies they claim to fulfil. I had not expected to walk straight into God.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.’ Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’
We read this passage as it appears in the Lectionary, and somehow we don’t (well, I don’t) expect such an encounter ourselves. And yet this describes exactly how I felt in some places in that Land.
It is easy, somehow, to see how the early Church Fathers came up with the doctrine of the Trinity. The presence of Christ is so strong in places such as Jacob’s Well, where he talked with the Samaritan woman (John 4.1-54), or the place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where he restored Peter (John 21). The work of the Holy Spirit was plain in incident after incident, in the continual illumination of Scripture as we read our way through our journey, pausing to pray and to read at each stop on the way. But there were times, too, especially in the two afternoons we had to ourselves in Jerusalem, when I was able to be alone, where there was a crystal immediacy that would, save for its measureless mercy, have overcome the little human consciousness as the sun overcomes the brief flowers of the high Judean wilderness. Even then, though, it was difficult even to know what one had known, for lack of words.
I know that for myself I can’t be the same man I was before this trip: that the ancient tales of pilgrimage, the sense that the Holy Land is a place one must visit at least once in a lifetime, have all come true. I’m aware that all this might sound like hyperbole to those whose faith is rooted at home, in deep relationships, the steady pattern of worship. It might seem hyperbole even to some of my fellow pilgrims, or at least like speaking of what should remain hidden, and I’m not really sure myself whether I ought to be so public with these inner things. But I do know that the opposite is true. We are often far too reluctant to speak of God as real, or of what is sometimes called mystical experience as if it were a present possibility for the ordinary Christian like me…
We can have ideas of God, but God is not an idea. We can dream of God, not to mention encounter God in dreams, but God is not a dream. We can hope for, long for God, but God is not wishful thinking. God is real, far more real than we are, and somehow, and for some reason beyond our capacity entirely to understand, he has made this beautiful, tragic, dusty place somewhere he will, if we are even slightly open to him, become to us as David Jones once said, the “actually loved and known.”