From the Editors: Last week, Archimandrite Theodosius, Hieromonk Juvenaly and Larisa Belikov, matushka of Protopriest Yaroslav of the Cathedral in San Francisco, met with the Bay-Area youth registered for the youth pilgrimage “In the Footsteps of Moses.” Fr Theodosius opened the meeting with the following speech:
I would like to begin my brief address with a famous quote from a Russian elder, a podvizhnik [spiritual laborer] of our time: “According to one of the oldest traditions, our forefathers were created of Palestine; the soil of Palestine was the material, the clay out of which the body of Adam was created, just as marble is the material used by a sculptor. The exiles from Eden found their home in Palestine. In Palestine, the salvation of mankind took place. Where Adam was first created, the Second Adam came, Who with one of His hands grasped Heaven, and with the other, held Earth, which had been rent asunder, and once again united them. Here, in Palestine, the final phase of the history of the world will take place, its final chords will resound.”
It is insufficient to simply wish to go to the Holy Land. Our intentions must correspond with the will of God. Man chooses his path, but the Lord determines his way. If the Lord wills that we go there, we must view this as Divine Providence. Many supporters and people who have prayed for the holy places of the East were never able to travel there. One example is St John of Shanghai and San Francisco the Miracle-worker. Asked about the Holy Land, Mount Athos and Kiev, St Seraphim of Sarov replied "He who walks along the Kanavka stream in prayer and reads 'Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God' one hundred and fifty times finds all he needs: Athos, Jerusalem and Kiev!" Those who heeded these words in faith were thus satisfied.
In our day, it is a special gift from above for young people to make this pilgrimage. Do not rejoice that your friends are going with you, but that the Lord is calling you to this special service which will be revealed after your visit to the Holy Land.
St Nicholas the Wonderworker, finding himself in the Holy Land, greatly desired to stay there the rest of his life. Even now, in the Arab town of Beit Jala, not far from Bethlehem, over a cave where he prayed, there is a splendid church dedicated to St Nicholas. But the Lord designated another obedience for him.
The same applies to to St Gregory of Acragant, who obtained his higher spiritual learning from the elders of Egypt and Palestine and was blessed by them to accept his episcopacy, but only in his native town.
According to an ancient Christian tradition: "When a major life decision faces you, turn to God, visit the Holy Land, pray where our Savior lived, and you will receive that which is beneficial to your soul."
I would like to supplement the name of this pilgrimage, "In the Footsteps of Moses," with the words of Prophet David from the Book of Psalms: "Order my steps in thy word: and let not any iniquity have dominion over me" (Psalms 119:133).
The Lord has allowed me to spend several years in the Holy Land. I would like to share some thoughts drawn from my experience. If you approach each holy site with prayer and piety, then you will be internally transformed, but if you abandon prayer and forget what is most needful, then you will be met by certain temptations. One must pay particular attention to oneself in the Holy Land, and tend to the inner movements of your soul, since Heaven (that is, the Jerusalem On High), is especially close to the earth there.
Your pilgrimage this year begins in the land of Egypt. "Out of Egypt I called My Son," we read in the Old Testament Book of Hosea. It was not because of the prophet's words that the infant Christ was in Egypt; the seer saw with his spirit this event as it would occur. In ancient days, the impiety of Egypt was compared to that of Babylon. St Nikolaj Velimirovic speaks of how this land was transformed after Christ's appearance there: "In Egypt, the most brilliant and heroic monasticism in the Christian Church blossomed, headed by St Anthony. In Egypt, much innocent martyric blood was spilt; is it not enough to mention the names of the holy virgins Barbara and Catherine? Egypt produced the finest theologians and Christian thinkers. Egyptian Christians endured a terrible struggle with the greatest of heretics, Arius, finally humbling and defeated him and thereby enriching the Church with an invaluable victory. The Egyptian draft of the Creed was confirmed by the Ecumenical Councils in Nycea, and St Athanasius of Alexandria shone like the sun in the once dark lands of the Pharaohs."
Even today, local Egyptians revere the place where the Holy Family lived. They point to the tree under which They rested and quenched Their thirst, drawing water from a miracle-working wellspring.
Most remarkable to pilgrims is the Monastery of St Catherine, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the summit of which is crowned with a church where the faithful can partake of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. Prophet Elias secluded himself for a time in one of the mountain's caves. An Orthodox chapel adorns the site of his labors in the desert. A supplemental altar of the main monastery of St Catherine allows entry to women. Within it is a silver star, marking the place where the Burning Bush grew. Those who wish to enter the altar must remove their footwear first, as God said to Holy Prophet Moses: "Draw not nigh hither; put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."
After a moleben at which everyone venerates the relics of St Catherine the Great Martyr, all receive as a blessing a silver ring, the significance of which is seen in the life of the saint. St John of the Ladder was the abbot of this wondrous monastery. In a skete not far from here he wrote his work "The Ladder."
Making the trip from the Sinai Peninsula to the first Israeli town in a late-model bus, you naturally will not experience the physical demands endured by the Jews during their forty-year exile in the desert. Still, you will get a hint of the sufferings of God's chosen people on the road to the Promised Land.
I advise everyone to keep a journal to record your experiences every day of your pilgrimage. It will help you preserve the fullness of everything you saw and felt in the Holy Land. Some pilgrims publish their writings, and this allows them and others to sense the special holiness of these places. I have often read such published journals. After reading them, a strong urge to visit the Holy Land would develop in my soul, which, to my joy, the Lord has allowed me to do.
Everyone has a different experience when visiting the Holy Land, but as a rule, Orthodox pilgrims bravely and patiently endure all hardships. Before visiting one holy site or another, prepare yourselves. Every Orthodox pilgrim should have a Bible and a map. It is advisable to read some biblical or historical information about each place you visit. Then you will have a clear picture of the events that occurred there. All young people should remember to wear appropriate clothing.
When you visit Galilee you will have the opportunity to be blessed by immersion in the waters of the Jordan River. For this reason, you should bring with you a long white shirt, like a baptismal garment. This can be purchased in our Mission's monasteries or in Greek Orthodox shops. As a rule, priests are not permitted to swim in the holy stream, but swimming is allowed in the Sea of Galilee, where one finds "Peter's fish." There is a tradition of a triple immersion in the Jordan River with the singing of the troparion to the Baptism of the Lord: "When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son! And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ our God, Who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee!"
The primary duty of each Orthodox Christian visiting the Holy Land is to pray. The holy sites of the Promised Land will bring you a new, more profound understanding of inner spiritual life. Reading the Gospel after you return home will give you the sense of having been an eyewitness of the historic events in the earthly life of our Savior. The memory of this pilgrimage will remain with you your whole life, and some will have the desire to return to the Holy Land. Then the words of the Prophet David will apply to us: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning" (Psalms 137:5).
June 17/30, 2007 Archimandrite Theodosius
A few practical notes: