by Ruth Everhart
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 172 pages
Longing to glimpse the mystery of faith again prompted Ruth Everhart to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She writes that faith had never not been a part of the ordinary landscape of her life. It was as familiar as her mother’s hands. In the complicated landscape of life in the Holy Land, Everhart hoped to find much more than simple validation of the faith she already knew. She was ready to wrestle and be wrenched like Jacob at the Jabbok if necessary. “Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land” chronicles her outward journey and her inward spiritual journey.
The immediacy of the present tense allows readers to travel alongside her, to feel heat and persistent thirst, and to touch cold, hard stone. The Dead Sea stings the skin, while the Sea of Galilee soothes like silk. We smell crowds of sweaty people and the odors of cooking food. We taste cucumbers and tomatoes, communion bread and wine. There are nuanced shades of beige everywhere. As we pass through the shadow of the wall dividing Israel and Palestine, the words “separate and not equal” come to my mind, and they are heavy with meaning.
Simple experiences like being enfolded in the leafy branches of an olive tree lead to deep reflection: What did Jesus think about when he sat beneath an olive tree like this one? A pair of sparrows recalls Jesus’ words, “Look at the birds of the air.” In a land so divided religiously, the sight of an inscription that reads “All people everywhere praise God. All people in heaven everywhere praise” moves Everhart to tears.
With Everhart we meet people of different faiths, people at different places within the same faith, and even some with no faith at all. We are there when she presses her cheek against the Western (“wailing”) Wall, and peers into the deep, dark eyes of a baby girl whose mother is pressing her against the wall. We watch as she receives the kiss of peace from a Palestinian grandmother in a church called “Holy Family.” Everhart’s decision to wear shorts on a free afternoon visit to the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem foreshadows the most soul-wrenching, Jabbok-like encounter of the trip. As I read it, I draw in my breath.
Along the way Everhart recalls other journeys, like the one that led her out of the Dutch Reformed Church of her childhood to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), where women can be ordained. She grapples with herself and her call. She asks a question all religious leaders need to ask: “I have given my whole heart to ministry. But have I given my whole heart to God? They are different things.”
Poignant prayers throughout and thoughtful questions for Bible study and reflection add to the book’s riches, making it an inspiring resource for ministry. But most of all, read alone or together in a group, this beautiful book will help seekers to “move from one place with God to another place with God,” which is what a pilgrimage is.
MARY HARRIS TODD is pastor of the Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, N.C. Visit with her at The Mustard Seed Journal.