Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land

Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land

Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land

Ruth Everhart

B. E
, M
/ C
, U.K.

© 2012 Ruth Everhart
All rights reserved

Published 2012 by
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
2140 Oak Industrial Drive N.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan 49505 /
P.O. Box 163, Cambridge
3 9

17 16 15 14 13 12        7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Everhart, Ruth.

Chasing the divine in the Holy Land / Ruth Everhart.

p.          cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-8028-6907-4 (pbk.: alk. paper)

ISBN 978-1-4674-3745-5 (epub)

1. Christian pilgrims and pilgrimages — Palestine. 2. Christian pilgrims

and pilgrimages — Israel. 3. Palestine — Description and travel.

4. Israel — Description and travel. I. Title.

BV5067.E94 2012

263′.0425694 — dc23


Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quotations in this publication are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and used by permission.

For Doug



1. Uproot Me

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City

2. Time like Sand

St. Bart's Episcopal Church, New York City

3. Olive Trees and Sparrows

Mount Scopus, Jerusalem

4. Six Degrees

Saint George's Campus, Jerusalem

5. Opposing Forces

The Muslim Quarter, Old Jerusalem

6. Compelled

Saint George's Cathedral, Jerusalem

7. Sin-cere

The Dome of the Rock, Old Jerusalem

8. Sisters

The Western Wall, Old Jerusalem

9. Stone Cold

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Old Jerusalem

10. Birth and Death

Shepherds' Field, Bethlehem

11. Love Is Difficult

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

12. The Hope

Deheshieh, Palestine

13. Suspension

Masada and the Dead Sea

14. Flotilla

The Sea of Galilee

15. Multiply


16. Cheek to Cheek


17. Transform

Mount Tabor

18. Weep

The Mount of Olives

19. The Stations of the Cross

The Via Dolorosa, Old Jerusalem

20. Infidel!

The Muslim Quarter, Old Jerusalem

21. Open


Questions on Pilgrim Themes

Questions for Bible Study


is a lot like going on pilgrimage — in one sense one does it alone, but in another sense, the journey is possible only because of the company of fellow pilgrims.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to many people, including the following:

Brian Ide, for conceiving of the “Pilgrimage Project” documentary and my fellow pilgrims: JoAnne Bennett, Ashley Griffith, Charlie Barnett, Michael Ide, Jessica, and Shane, and cameramen Michael and John.

The folks at St. George's College in Jerusalem, particularly Dean Stephen Need, who was extraordinarily generous with his time and expertise.

The congregation at Poolesville Presbyterian Church, who encouraged me to find a wider audience for these reflections, and especially to Carolyn McFall, who bid high on the unfinished manuscript at a church auction. Also, many thanks to Vienna Presbyterian Church, which supported the documentary project, especially Ginni Richards.

My writing groups, who read countless drafts of these pages:

  • the Writing Revs: MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Carol Howard Merritt, Leslie Klingensmith, Susan Graceson, and Elizabeth Hagan.
  • WWW (Women Who Write): Susan Okula, Christy Bergemann, Lygia Ballantyne, Kathy Murray Lynch, and Phyllis Langton.

Deborah Oosterbaan, who helped me write the questions included in the back of the book.

Susan Baller-Shepard, who has been encouraging my writing since that day in the canoe in the late nineties. I can say, without exaggeration, that this book would not exist without Sue's support.

The monks at Holy Cross Abbey, where I wrote first drafts of many of these chapters in silence, under the baleful gaze of those beautiful black cows.

Everyone at Eerdmans, especially my editors, Reinder Van-Til and Mary Hietbrink, whose probing questions made this a better book.

My parents, Nicholas and Joan Huizenga.

My daughters, Hannah and Clara, who gave me a reason to come home.

My husband, Doug Everhart, who said “I married a writer” even when I didn't believe it.

The Holy Land Today

Modern Day Jerusalem

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City


Uproot Me

I am the bread of life.

OHN 6:48

of Saint Patrick's Cathedral make me feel small, which is probably their intent. If I wanted to, I could take the time to examine their bronze panels, which are embossed with religious figures. At least I could look long enough to find Jesus.

I glance at my watch. In less than three hours I'm to meet my fellow pilgrims, the strangers I'll be traveling with to the Holy Land. I'm ready, but I'm also petrified. I'm on that dangerous threshold — knowing just enough to sense the enormity of what I don't know.

Going on a pilgrimage supposedly has the power to transform a person's faith, but how, exactly? And when? And will it hurt?

I could just get the suspense over with. I could walk through these doors and become a pilgrim right now, a few hours early. This cathedral isn't on our group's official pilgrim itinerary, but it is a holy place. Besides that, it holds memories from my teenage years, when I lived with my family in northern New Jersey. On visits to New York City we sometimes stopped in Saint Patrick's. The yawning cathedral space made me feel displaced, which was unsettling. Mine was a churchgoing family, so sanctuaries usually
felt comfortable. But not this one. I remember the icons — a bloody Jesus and a smooth-faced Mary — and how even those familiar images seemed unfamiliar. It rattled me. If I couldn't connect with Jesus, who was I? It seemed my whole identity might shift. I remember wondering,
So, if I'd been born into an Irish-Catholic family rather than a Dutch Reformed one, would I have become a nun?
The thought had been as thrilling as it was off-limits.

The naïveté of those memories makes me smile to myself as I push against the cathedral door. I couldn't have guessed, back then, that in my quest to find the divine I'd be crossing religious limits — doctrines, ecclesiastical rules, or just the ideas in my head — my whole life. The door doesn't budge. I set my rolling suitcase upright so that I can use both hands, and push harder. Still nothing. Only then does it dawn on me that the door hasn't opened at all during my long reverie. Not a single person has come in or out. I look around and see the sign:

Pilgrims may be on a search for the sublime, but they still need to read the signs. I glance behind me, embarrassed, but this is New York City, and people simply stream by, oblivious. I'm grateful to feel invisible as I walk down the broad steps to street level, my suitcase thump-thumping an undignified retreat behind me. I realize I've just missed my chance to examine the great doors' bronze panels. Today won't be the day I find Jesus in them.

The cathedral's side door is swinging constantly on creaky hinges. It's battle-scarred and not nearly as grand as the front entrance. This door is for business, not show. I'm conscious of the size of my suitcase as I navigate the doorway. I packed as lightly as possible, but I can see already that any baggage is too much here. A pilgrim should be unencumbered and nimble. Even ascetic. One tunic was enough for the disciples, right? I pull my luggage across the threshold.

The cathedral is cool and dark after the bright sun of the street. The center nave is shadowy, and stretches high. My eyes follow a marble pillar up to the vaulted ceiling. The surroundings feel like a too-formal friend, but one I'm pleased to see. My love of sacred space has broadened over the years. I may still resist kneeling,
and I have never made the sign of the cross, but I love being in sacred space where I might catch the divine presence, lurking.

But this sanctuary feels like a tomb. It must be all the marble, pale and translucent, like it's cooling something dead. The stained-glass windows add a bluish tinge to the air. The only sense of warmth comes from the banks of candles flickering in their red glass holders.

Every time the door swings open, I feel a little sweep of street heat from the warm September day. People enter singly or in clumps: the faithful with their hopeful eyes, the jaded with their shopping bags, the curious with their craning necks. I step into the flow of traffic down the aisle. Side chapels beckon, each one promising a special path to the divine. I look, not at the statues or icons, but at the people who pause before them, who kneel, who light candles with long matches. All these trappings are unfamiliar to me, but I know they're the stuff of pilgrimage. I feel suddenly nervous and hot. I stop and lean against a pillar. The marble is so cool it feels damp. I turn my back to the pillar the way my cat would, pressing the length of my spine along the cool stone, rotating ever so slightly around the pillar.

Candles in a wrought-iron stand come into view, glowing rosily. Two women whisper and grin in front of the candles, their happiness palpable. They're dressed in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts; one shirt proclaims I
NY, and the other has a picture of a lighthouse. The lighthouse woman poses in front of the glowing candles, and I stare at the front of her T-shirt, trying to determine whether the lighthouse is one I know from Delaware or Virginia. Before I can decide, an Asian woman in a business suit steps in front of me, blocking my view. Even though the woman is small and the space cavernous, she is so close that I can hear her impatient exhalation. I glance at her feet, expecting to see high-heeled toes tapping, but she is wearing Converse sneakers. As soon as the women in T-shirts finish their photos, the businesswoman swoops in, lights a candle, genuflects, and leaves.

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