Today I joined a small group from the church youth group on what was billed as a "mini-pilgrimage" to the National Holocaust Memorial in DC. I have never been before, and this year, Holy Week did seem an appropriate time for such a pilgrimage. Now I'm back to reflect just a little on the experience - hoping that the "blogging process" will help me put a shape to it.
It's spring break in DC and the place was really crowded with groups of young people. How was this a "pilgrimage?"was my first question to myself My working definition of the attitude to bring a pilgrim, rather than a tourist, comes from T.S. Eliot's great pilgrimage poem, "Little Gidding." Visiting the chapel where Nicholas Ferrar and his companions formed a religious community during the English Civil War, Eliot writes,
"You are not here to verify,/ instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel/Where prayer has been valid."
That is, pilgrimage is about entering the experience and the place, and finding where God is there. (Not just learning the history - which in this case is numbingly awful) Walking through these exhibits "makes it real" - we're invited to remember the real people killed in the holocaust, their stories, their lives. The Memorial bears witness to the awful combination of state-sponsored genocide and a long history of ugly and widely accepted racist anti-semitism. On the face of it this does not seem to have much to do with the "valid prayer" of Eliot's pilgrimage vision. Indeed the question: "Where was God in all of this evil" reverberates inevitably as you walk through the vivid and beautifully constructed exhibits, the terrible images, the terrible stories of the Nazi era, those who were its victims and those who carried out the horribly named "final solution". In Holy Week, as we reflect on the Way of the Cross, it is both distressing and convicting to reflect how the same tradition that tells of the compassion and love of Jesus, going willingly to the Cross (in the fourth Gospel especially) has been retold in ways that furthered and deepened the anti-semitism that made so many Germans-- and Americans -- indifferent to the horror was happening to the Jews of Europe. It seems so utterly contrary to the message of the gospels to blame the "other" -- the Jews-- for the Cross. The only prayer that has been valid in this place and time in history seems to be that of the psalmist: "My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?"
But of course that is also the prayer of Jesus - who is God Incarnate -- from the Cross. This realization also brings me deeper into the story we are telling in Holy Week. We dwell on the horrible details of Christ's Passion to remind ourselves what human beings are capable of; We try to imagine a God who willingly takes flesh and comes to a world where someone is capable of driving a nail into the hands and feet of a fellow human being -- and who suffers that, with a radical compassion of the One who suffers with us, longing for our wholeness despite what we do.
This is the mystery I've come up against, taking this pilgrimage today. If nothing else, it has forced me to bear witness to the suffering that goes on and how easy it is to become complicit in the infliction of suffering. This pilgrimage made it real, in an experiential way, forced me to see what we are capable of. The Cross does that, too -- and also tells us something about the love of God for us, and what kind of truth-telling and clarity of vision about ourselves that love demands of us.
I don't have words for what that "something" is -- but I am seeing, on the Eve of Maundy Thursday, that this was an appropriate pilgrimage for me to make, this Holy Week.
- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.