There have been lots of funny comments about the (annual) fight which broke out between priests of the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Churches at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Church Mouse wrote “Easy to confuse the annual broom throwing festival with fighting at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem”; Bishop Alan of Buckingham headed his Twitter link “Affray in a Manger” and Bishop Paul of Hertford added “See how these Christians shove one another”.
But it’s not funny really. Scenes like this just give those who think Christianity is all rubbish another opportunity to portray us as obsessed with things that don’t matter, and more than slightly mad.
Part of the problem appears to be the desire to control access to significant places, which is not something confined to religious organisations, but which they seem to pursue with extra intensity.
It started me thinking about how I feel about ‘holy places’. I’ve haven’t been on a pilgrimage to a ‘holy place’ since I did the walk to St Alban’s Abbey on Easter Monday more years ago than I care to remember. I did once visit Lourdes when rain drove us away from the Atlantic beaches of France, but I was appalled by the streets full of tacky Marian souvenirs, and didn’t much like the church that was built near the spot where Mary appeared to Bernadette. Most of what I’ve heard and read about the sacred sites in the Holy Land has deterred me from making a pilgrimage there, especially a Jewish friend who reported the banks of the Sea of Galilee resemble the Costas of Spain, apart from the jets and helicopter gunships screaming overhead.
I’ve recently been reading ‘The Accidental Pilgrim’ by Maggi Dawn, which looks at the whole idea of pilgrimages and sacred places. She points out that pilgrimage to ‘holy places’ was not important to the earliest Christians, and began only after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire; in particular with the visits to the Holy Land of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, and her identification of the sites of Jesus’s birth, crucifixion and burial. It appears Maggi Dawn originally shared my suspicion of the standard ‘holy places’ but an experience in the Church of the Nativity (when its guardians were not fighting each other!) modified her opinions slightly.
I found myself agreeing with her judgement that it’s the journey, not the destination that is the important thing, and that the interior journey is ultimately more important than the external one. I myself have used a saying from the Celtic tradition which she quotes:
To go to Rome
is much trouble, little profit.
The King whom thou seekest there,
Unless thou bring him with thee, thou wilt not find.
But since we human beings are embodied creatures, place is important to us, and can help us make the interior journey. I’ve not found that help in Rome, or Lourdes or Canterbury or even in St Albans. But I did find a sense of the holy on Lindisfarne and on Iona (when there were not too many tourists around!) and also in small out of the way churches in England and Europe, where I know people have prayed and worshipped for centuries.
‘The Accidental Pilgrim’ has a picture of a maze on its dust cover. My favourite, quiet ‘holy place’ is the turf maze in the garden of Grey’s Court, a National Trust property near Henley. It’s called the Archbishop’s Maze, and was built to commemorate Robert Runcie’s enthronement sermon in 1980. This is not the sort of maze you get lost in, but, like the labyrinths found in some mediaeval cathedrals, is meant to be used as an aid to prayer. I find the pattern reflects the many twists and turns, and sometimes the dead ends, of our journey of faith. If you manage to visit it when there are not too many other people around, as you walk the paths towards the centre, you can become lost in thought; and when you reach the obelisk at the centre, you find it is inscribed with sayings and poems to prompt deeper meditation. This is my favourite:
‘Credo’ says the heart, upheld in circling hands;
The heart has reasons no reason understands;
Minds flashing messages fork and fall apart;
At the centre, stillness. ‘Credo’ says the heart.