I began to accumulate accounts of other pilgrim travel to the Holy Land shortly after our first visit to Israel in 1994. Whether they were vintage or contemporary in nature, reading about other men and women’s experiences helped me to vividly remember the places I had been and the things I had seen and done. And even though I’ve now returned multiple times, I can still draw emotionally closer to these sisters and brothers in Christ – and spiritually closer to God – when I imagine the particular joys and challenges of their journeys.
One of my earliest purchases was a lovely little book written by Henry van Dyke called Out of Doors in the Holy Land: Impressions of Travel in Body and Spirit. Van Dyke was a Presbyterian pastor, university professor (Princeton), author, poet, hymn writer (the words to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”) and political statesman. He didn’t visit the Holy Land until he was almost sixty years old; he wrote that he didn’t have the money or the time when he was a young man, and after he’d acquired a bit more maturity, he was afraid of “disenchantment” – that his faith might be shaken or destroyed. But when a brush with death (unclear whether his own or another’s) renewed his joy in life, he welcomed a friend’s invitation to go to Palestine.
Van Dyke was an avid nature-lover and his poetic portraits of the countryside are exquisite. Can’t you just imagine you are camped along with him as he describes his first morning waking up by the Sea of Galilee:
In the freshness of the early morning the sunrise pours across the lake into our tents. There is a light, cool breeze blowing from the north, rippling the clear, green water, (of a hue like the stone called aqua marina), with a thousand flaws and wrinkles, which catch the flashing light and reflect the deep blue sky, and change beneath the shadow of floating clouds to innumerable colours of lapis lazuli, and violet, and purple, and peacock blue.
But what I most identify with is Van Dyke’s description of his awakened personal faith. In the preface he extended a word of wisdom to his readers that I would also extend to anyone who contemplates a similar journey to this awe-filled and Spirit-inhabited land:
The second thing that I would have you find here is the deepened sense that Jesus Himself is the great, the imperishable miracle. His words are spirit and life. His character is the revelation of the Perfect Love. This was the something new and wonderful and welcome that came to me in Palestine: a simpler, clearer, surer view of the human life of God.
That’s exactly what happened to me on my first pilgrimage. A few months before, God had started working in my life to woo me back to my evangelical roots. Four years at one of our denomination’s most liberal seminaries had turned me into a shallow “progressive;” I discounted much of the biblical witness and I wasn’t really sure that Jesus had been a historical person.
But as I walked where He had walked, as I considered the archeological evidence for scriptural truth all around me, and as I allowed His Spirit to whisper to my spirit, my simple childhood faith was reborn. “It really happened!” I must have thought that to myself – or even said it out loud – dozens of times while I was there. That’s what makes a pilgrimage so special, and so different from a “garden variety” vacation. And I want every Christian I know to have the opportunity to experience the same.
Even if you never visit Israel and the other holy sites of the West Bank, Van Dyke’s book would be a lovely summer read. And it’s available for free download at the Gutenberg Project in html, text, epub, kindle and other electronic formats. Enjoy!