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Jerusalem Bound: How to be a Pilgrim in the Holy Land

Book Review: Jerusalem Bound: How to be a Pilgrim in the Holy Land

Bob Robinson —

Rodney Aist. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020. xiv+202 pp. ISBN 978-1-725255-265, US$26.00.

With Israel performing very well in Covid recovery, and its pilgrimage sites now re-opening, visitors are already starting to crowd into the ancient sites and sights in the ‘Holy Land’ (the Byzantine term this book deploys for ‘Israel / Palestine / Jerusalem’). This excellent new volume wants to enable the Christian travellers among them to embrace a pilgrim spirituality. Its author, Rodney Aist, was already a youngish but seasoned pilgrim-traveller when he completed a British PhD in pre-Crusader pilgrimage to the Holy Land and he intends his volume – “unique among Holy Land resources” – to “equip Christian travellers with a reflective apparatus rooted in biblical, historical and contemporary images of the pilgrim life” (2). Aist does this by means of successive chapters that enquire into the motives of Holy Land pilgrims, the history of the Christian Holy Land, a deepened understanding of the holy sites, pilgrim practices, and material objects.

At the same time he is refreshingly candid about the challenges and disappointments of pilgrimage; he mentions gift-shops and contested ecclesial spaces, the noise and bustle of Holy Land travel with its throngs of camera - and toilet - obsessed pilgrims as he offers practical advice that includes “pilgrim fatigue” and even the “pilgrim economy” with warnings about its occasionally unscrupulous commercial exploitation of the unwary. All of these are woven into discussion of “the elusive nature of the Holy Land.” At the same time, the volume never loses sight of the distinctly Christian calling to pilgrimage as the traveller is called to develop a God-given “third eye” that enables the pilgrim to see beneath and beyond the surface of things: “God is the God of the pilgrimage, and the God of reflection on the pilgrimage” (167). There are calls to avoid a merely tourist mentality: “a tourist changes their environment; a pilgrim lets the environment change them” (41).

One perhaps oblique but important perspective has some relevance for Australasian readers of Stimulus reviews. Pilgrim travellers have no direct access to the events of biblical history; they can only look and try to understand through the eyes and “remains” of others: especially the unbroken testimony of churches on all the major sites. However, the sites such travellers come to see in the Holy Land are stewarded by streams of Catholicism and Orthodoxy (including Oriental Orthodoxy) that are foreign, puzzling or even at times distasteful to most Protestant and many Anglican pilgrims arriving from the (Australasian) Deep South, and many or most Asian, African and Latino pilgrims as well. They are left hermeneutically stranded and even a page or two of careful explanation would surely help ease at least some of the discomforts presented by centuries of accumulated pieties usually quite foreign to them; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one example of the problem.

Aist anticipates aspects of the problem by means of an exceptionally clear sixth chapter – “The History of the Holy Land” – that focuses on the long sequence of building, especially those constructions for which Helena, “the legendary darling of the Holy Land” (69) was responsible. The chapter concludes with well-deserved admiration for the churches and chapels designed by the Italian Franciscan Antonio Barluzzi (and they are helpfully listed). Chapter 7, “Understanding the Holy Sites,” is equally or perhaps more valuable for puzzled pilgrims (your reviewer’s heart-felt memories of discussions with majority-world pilgrims queueing in numerous places …).

The strengths of the volume should by now be apparent and they are enhanced by a number of appendices, a comprehensive bibliography and – almost as a summary of the volume’s distinctives – a lengthy compendium of key “Terms and Concepts” (161-77) from “Accountability,” “Adages and Aphorisms,” and the “Agendaless Pilgrim,” to the “Unfinished Journey” and the “Unified Landscape” of the Holy Land, by way of “Commemorative Credibility,” the “Fifth Gospel,” “Jesus as Pilgrim,” the “Noise of pilgrimage,” “Physical challenges” – and much more. The historical and archaeological pretensions of the Protestant “Garden Tomb” site are politely dismissed but not without noting that it offers opportunity for a kind of reflection not easy to sustain in Holy Sepulchre. And there are occasional flashes of humour: having tasted samples of contemporary “Cana wedding wine” purchased by enthused pilgrims, one appreciates the conclusion that the samplers “are said to be waiting for another miracle”! Not all readers will necessarily warm to four whole pages (119-22) under the optimistic heading “Blessings for the Modern-Day Pilgrim” on gift-shop mementos and souvenirs. The absence of an Index can be a little frustrating at times but very detailed contents pages partly offset that omission. In due course, an updated second edition might also enable the transfer some of the more abstract and theoretical discussion (some of it from Aist’s DMin programme on pilgrimage?) to his promised volume Pilgrim Spirituality: Defining Pilgrimage Again for the First Time.

This reviewer, having been a pilgrim-student in one of Aist’s “Palestine of Jesus” courses a decade ago, will warmly commend this book alongside Bargil Pixner’s With Jesus in Jerusalem and With Jesus through Galilee and Peter Walker’s In the Steps of Jesus. The guides by Walker and Pixner offer memory-sustaining pictorial content (plus maps and charts) that Aist hasn’t included – presumably to keep the price and bulk of his paperback version nicely economical, and perhaps to maintain focus upon the interior dimensions of the pilgrim experience. And one further comment: readers who have either already been to the Holy Land, and those who may never go, will find that reading this book enables a refreshing and even immersive “virtual” experience of pilgrimage; they too will become Jerusalem Bound. This volume is a splendid addition to the relatively few “must take and must read” companion guides; after all, “despite the uncertainties, Holy Land pilgrimage remains a pinnacle experience of the Christian faith” (83).

Bob Robinson is a Research Fellow Emeritus of Laidlaw College and over the past decade has guided five pilgrim tours through the Holy Land.