Focusing on the Holy

What is Holy?

Seems like a good question for Holy Week in the Holy Lands…

Sure there are stories and realities of chaos, disagreement and fundamentalism around business, politics and religion. All you have to do is read a newspaper anywhere in the world to know that. Stories abound that emanate anything but holy.

But to so many, this is the Holy City; Holy City to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Different stories and not so different stories run through the beliefs and traditions of these three Abrahamic faiths.

I’ve been in this holy place for six days and despite what could feel rather un-Holy, I appreciate its holiness. There are things you could see and feel anywhere…

A cute kid leading a Palm Sunday procession

Running into a friend – Pastor Ladd

But a lot you can’t. You come to the Holy Lands as a Pilgrim to join in and be part of something larger and longer than yourself. To join in something that through the millennium has been destroyed, rebuilt, forgotten and refortified; to take a step in faith among the faithful and not so faithful, to just be and to walk where literally millions (if not billions) of fellow believers have walked before.

Palm Sunday – walking from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

Palm Sunday – walking through the Lion’s gate into the Old City (Jerusalem)

This is the land where my faith, Christianity, as well as others were born. I can’t help but to think of this land somewhat like a parent or maybe better like an aunt or uncle to our faith, it (or they) might be eccentric and hard to understand but it is vital to the fact that we exist, it is full of stories and love and deserving of our attention and respect. Holy Lands – you have two months of my undivided attention.

While I am here I may come up with many unholy thoughts and words … so for now, this Holy Week, I want to focus on what makes this place particular, a testament, a pilgrimage destination and hence, Holy.

Looking up inside the church of The Holy Sepulchre.

Peeking in at the women’s side of the Western (wailing) wall.

A view of the Dome of the Rock.

Joy, sorrow and the basics of everyday…

Welcome to the Ganges! The holy river of Northern India where one trip thru the city of Varanasi on a boat will reveal a whole spectrum of human realities and ritual both religious and benign…

The holy city of Varanasi is all at once picturesque and haunting, powerful and intimate… All the sights, sounds and smells to someone like me create a real clash or dare I say, cacophony, but to the faithful believer the rhythmic harmony of life is played out at the Ghats of the Ganges. There is a never ending stream of bather’s lathering up, what seems like the entire cities laundry being washed, cows coming to cool themselves, bodies being burned for Hindu cremation, garlands of flowers placed in the river for hopes and dreams, children playing, people working, and a ton of wide-eyed tourists not sure of what to make of it all.

It’s a microcosm of the India I am learning to love, where everything that we neatly characterize and separate in the west collides expectantly as a natural rhythm of life here. Now I don’t want to sound overly romantic, because believe me some of the aromatic qualities of this rhythm are definitely not romantic, in fact they can be just plane foul. But there is something real and raw about life here; in so many ways it’s right in front of you. And you get to decide what you’ll do with it…

Will you concentrate on the stacks of timber used at funerals?

Will you get caught up in the architecture or the landscape?

Will you notice the religious bathers and the women who want their photo taken?

Will you see the faces of these happy kids who found some things that most of us would throw away and made it into the best toy a young boy could hope for?

What will you see?

Full Moon

Jesus you are everywhere…I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard about Jesus while visiting a Swami when we took a stop on our 14 km Hindu pilgrimage walk around the Mountain of Shiva from 8 PM – 1 AM with about 500,000 other pilgrims. Unbelievable! I was blown away…

I was planning and looking forward to this Full Moon walk (which happens during every full moon.) I had heard it was a mass of prayerful people walking, walking, walking barefoot, quietly sometimes singing, orderly but in mass, and that it was something you have to see to believe. My “advisers” were right.

The official map, which you do NOT need, because everyone is going in the same direction (actually you will have a rather difficult time going the opposite because of the volume of people – you just have to keep moving) … anyway the map lists about 40 holy sites along the way, you can stop at any, all or none of them. We made a few stops, not many but clearly the highlight was visiting with Suriyalingam Swami, a Brahmin priest (Hindu.)

He invited us all into his home which was a room of maybe 7 x 10 feet with no furniture; he already had three other men sitting with him. All nine of us, a pastor, a priest, theological students and volunteers, came in and sat on the floor with them.

We’d all barely settled on the floor when the prayer and praise of Jesus began. Suriyalingam Swami claimed that Jesus might be saying to us (the collective us) “I am looking for you, why are you not looking for me?” He retold the story of a crucified Christ beautifully and with passion. He led us in the Lord’s Prayer and asked that we come to visit him again because when we do, we bring Jesus to him.

Jesus you are everywhere.


Well actually there are many many Ashrams here. Are you familiar with Ashrams? I mean more than seeing the movie Eat, Pray, Love…? Ashrams are places of spiritual hermitage. It is an Indian and a Hindu tradition. I have visited many of them since I have been here. They’re mostly peaceful, reverent, introspective and respected places.

There is also a Christian Ashram Movement. Mostly connected to the Catholic Church, these Ashrams are Christian, Indian and peaceful, reverent and introspective as well. I just returned from one of them. Shantivanam.

It is a two-bus trip about 6 – 7 hours south of Tiruvannamalai that I managed to make because of my traveling companion Sister Sanjeevani who was returning to her Convent which was across the street.

Shantivanam has Fathers and Brothers who maintain basically the life of a hermit. There are three daily services and much time for quiet.

Even the meals are in

I was the only guest for the 3 days I was there. It was lovely and peaceful yet I am certain I am not called to the life of a hermit … though that wasn’t really in question was it?

How is your family?

Many said to me before I left, “If you get invited to an Indian wedding you have to go.” Only four days in India and there I was … at an Indian wedding … I was wrapped in layers and layers of yards and yards of fabric with a sparkling necklace and matching bangles on each wrist, all acquired on the first day of my arrival for about 900 rupees (that’s about $20 USD.)

The wedding was held at the largest Arcot Lutheran Church in town. The bride was the daughter of the senior pastor of the church. There were about 800 – 1000 people present. It was a pretty big deal, as I understand all Indian weddings are … lots of ritual, lots of food, lots of glitz.

One of the ladies here at Quo Vadis Vimala, explained to me that you need a crowd at weddings because the size of the crowd has something to say about your relationship to others. Those present are offering support and blessing to the couple and the family just by being present. It’s a very communal concept, not at all individual, just the way everything else Indian is here. (There are many westerners here, in later posts I’ll comment on that reality and their approach to Tiruvannamalai.)

The idea of individuality is quite literally a foreign concept. Where in the west one might greet another with the question, “how are you doing today?” Here in India the question would not be asked, and if you did you the person being asked the question might not even know what to say. Instead the question of greeting is, “how is your family?” It’s not about me, it’s about the family of which I am a part.

So, how is your family?