The Meaning of Pilgrimage – Almoutran
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The Meaning of Pilgrimage

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This speech was delivered by
His Grace Bishop Demetri

at the 2000 St. Thekla – St. Raphael Pilgrimage
at Antiochian Village – September 8, 2000

In behalf of His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP, and their Graces, Bishops Antoun, Joseph and Basil, and the director of this center, Father Michael Masouh. I want to welcome you to this year’s St. Thekla and Saint Raphael Pilgrimage. This is an historic occasion, in that we will be offering our veneration and prayers of intercession, not only to the Great Protomartyr St. Thekla as it has been for the past 21 years, but also to the newly glorified St. Raphael of Brooklyn. I will be speaking briefly later in my presentation about their lives.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who have worked so hard to organize and bring about this year’s pilgrimage. I wish to thank the director and the staff of the Antiochian Village, and the clergy of the Pennsylvania deanery who are our hosts this weekend.

I pray that all of us will benefit spiritually from what we experience during this pilgrimage. I urge each one of you to take advantage of every minute that you are here, to strengthen your faith and spirit, as well as old and new friendships. After this presentation, try to find a priest to hear your confession so that you may start your pilgrimage the right way.

This evening, I want to speak to you about THE MEANING OF PILGRIMAGE. This is a very important topic, not only because we are on a pilgrimage this moment, but also because “pilgrimage” must be recognized as an important part of the spiritual life of all Christians. I will be speaking about:

· the reasons that motivate Christians to go on pilgrimage,

· what makes our journey a pilgrimage,

· and how it can play an important role in our spiritual growth.

· I will examine the meaning of sainthood, and in particular, the Saints that we will be honoring during this great pilgrimage.

Through a better understanding of the meaning of pilgrimage, I hope to be able to enhance the spiritual benefit you may gain during this pilgrimage and to impress upon you the vital part pilgrimage can play in our spiritual life as Orthodox Christians.

1) Why Do Christians Go on a Pilgrimage?

All of us present here this evening are on a pilgrimage . . . each of us have traveled some distance, whether it be great or small, leaving our homes, our work, our friends and families behind to come to this Holy Mountain to satisfy some need and desire to make a holy pilgrimage. This is what we all have in common here today. Something that we do not necessarily hold in common is our own personal reason for coming.

As diverse as are the persons who make pilgrimages, so are the many good motivations for deciding to make a pilgrimage:

· Some are seeking inspiration, out of a desire to gain a new perspective, or change of mind and heart.

· Some are deeply questioning their life’s purpose, seeking God’s divine will.

· Some are committed to the idea and practice of pilgrimage. They may not know why they are making a pilgrimage, but are following their feelings and intuition.

· Some seek to purify their hearts, replacing confusion with clarity.

· Some want to take the time to place themselves in the proper setting so that they may concentrate on a particular subject, or put into practice a direction given to them from their spiritual father.

· Some are doing penance.

· And some simply want to calm their minds and find the peace that only communion with God can bring.

I am not going to guess what your personal reason may be . . . your reason for coming is yours alone . . . between you and God . . . but your purpose for coming will shape the way in which you will benefit from your journey.

2) What is a Pilgrimage and Why is Pilgrimage Important to our Spiritual Growth?

· What value is there in making a pilgrimage?

· How can it be of benefit to us?

· Why should we make the effort, when we can stay at home and pray, without all of the expense and trouble?

I am certain that this line of reasoning is the chief reason that most Orthodox Christians in America do not give consideration to planning or making a pilgrimage, as you have. There seems to be a general forgetfulness of the time-honored practice of Christian Pilgrimage, one that is as old as the Church herself. In her two millennia, Christians have made journeys for their spiritual benefit:

· to places where Our Lord lived out His life

· to places where Our Lord, His Holy Apostles, and the Saints who came after them, performed miracles for the glory of God

· to the places where these holy men and women of God lived their lives

· and to the holy places where their relics are enshrined.

It is not difficult to find accounts of Holy Pilgrimages in the early Christian Church. The early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea writes of a second-century pilgrimage of Bishop Melito of Sardis, and a third century pilgrimage of Bishop Alexander of Cappadocia to Jerusalem. We are all familiar with the accounts of Saint Helen, the mother of St. Constantine, and her pilgrimages to the Holy land, which resulted in the finding the True Cross . . . the place of the Nativity of our Lord . . . the Holy Sepulcher where our Lord was laid . . . and the place of the Ascension from Mount Olivet. All of these sites have remained places of pilgrimage where millions of faithful people have come since their blessed re-discovery.

It profits our souls to visit those special places that have been imbued with the grace-filled life of holy saints. Just being there affects our souls. While we are there, we should be moved by what we experience to resolve to use each moment, each minute, hour and day, to live for God by His Grace, to put away sin . . . and to love God and our brothers and sisters. This is truly an encounter with spiritual reality, and we benefit from that encounter.

With this understanding, we can accurately define the word “pilgrimage”. A pilgrimage, then, can be described as a journey to a holy place for a spiritual purpose. Some may focus on the journey as being the central and significant part of a pilgrimage. They may be thinking of long and sometimes difficult trips to far off and exotic lands. To a non-believer, these attitudes make a pilgrimage sound more like a vacation or a pleasure trip.

Certainly, focusing on the travel itself is not proper for an authentic pilgrimage. Unfortunately, our American society has taught us to look for the entertainment value in everything we do . . . even in our worship. My brothers and sisters in Christ, a pilgrimage is not a vacation . . . it is not holy entertainment. If this is your focus when you make your pilgrimages, you will have your benefit the moment you arrive and depart, and nothing but memories and some photographs to show for it.

The true focus of a pilgrimage is, of course, its spiritual purpose. I am not saying that the journey itself is not important. The journey serves the spiritual purpose, and not the other way around. The journey is an integral part of the spiritual purpose because of the character of its sacrifice, its intensity, and its witness to the True Faith.

Our pilgrimage begins the moment we decide upon going. At that moment, we begin our prayers to God that our journey will be beneficial to our soul . . . that it be one that will bring us closer to God, and closer to our goal of uniting with Him. This is how we establish the spiritual purpose of our pilgrimage. In this manner, everything that happens from that point until our return home will come to serve our spiritual purpose.

3) The Pilgrimage That we are Now Attending . . .

Now let us turn our attention for a moment to the Holy Pilgrimage that we are now experiencing. As I have said, all of us had to journey to get here . . . that fact is certain. But what is the spiritual purpose in our being here?

We all know that this pilgrimage is dedicated to Holy Martyr St. Thekla, who is called “Equal to the Apostles”, whose Feast is observed on September 24th, and to Saint Raphael of Brooklyn whose uncorrupt body is present here and enshrined on this holy mountain.

As the time for this pilgrimage approached, each of us were expectant that we would be enriched spiritually by our journey and participation, but we may not have known in what ways.

This is a particular kind of pilgrimage in that we are not visiting the place where Saint Thekla lived out her life, or where the miracles that were performed through her took place. The same is true for St. Raphael. Even though we are not journeying to Maaloula, the town where the monastery was built on the site where such miracles took place and where she is entombed, or the places that St. Raphael lived and worked, we are still in the presence of these great saints. This is because of the Holy Shrines that have been founded here in their honor on this Holy Mountain, making their presence a reality.

The familiarity with the lives of these saints enrich us with the spiritual experience of these remarkable individuals, who more zealously than others embodied the Gospel in their life. Here are so many clear examples of living faith, courage, and patience. To this purpose, I would like to offer a brief description of their lives, which will demonstrate their worthiness to be venerated as Saints.

4) Sainthood

In St. Thekla and St. Raphael, we can see the all of the attributes that defines sainthood. The title “saint” means literally a “holy person”. As we are taught, we are all called to be saints. However, from the earliest time in the Church’s history, certain outstanding men and women have been recognized after their passing from this life as having attained deification, or in other words, union with God. The test of this is centered upon a careful examination of the life of the individual.

If their life is found to be an exemplary model of Christianity because of their singular faith and work for the glory of God, the Church identifies that individual as a Saint. When these rare individuals are given this distinction, they are designated worthy to be venerated because of their holiness. It is then that the Church recognizes that they can be prayed to as intercessors to God for our health and salvation.

5) The Holy Martyr Saint Thekla, Equal to the Apostles

St. Thekla was born in Iconium, which today is in central Turkey. She was born of prominent pagan parents, and was betrothed at the age of 18. At the same time, St. Paul had come to Iconium with Barnabas to preach the Gospel to the people there. St. Thekla had the opportunity to listen to St. Paul for three days and nights, which is recounted in the document entitled The Acts of Paul and Thekla: “From . . . the advantage of a window in the house where Paul was, [Thekla] both night and day heard Paul’s sermons concerning God, concerning charity, concerning faith in Christ, and concerning prayer; Nor would she depart from the window till with exceeding joy she was subdued to the doctrines of faith.” After hearing St. Paul’s sermons, Thekla became a Christian and vowed to live her new life as a virgin, in asceticism, so that she could dedicate her entire life to Christ.

Her mother was enraged that Thekla had turned away from her betrothed. She was beaten, starved, and turned her over to the local judge to be burned. When St. Thekla was to be burned, God preserved her from the flames. After that miracle, St. Thekla followed St. Paul to Antioch. Many other miracles happened around her . . . she was persecuted for her Christianity and condemned to be eaten by wild beasts, but they would not touch her. Her steadfast faith frustrated the authorities, so she was freed. She then began to preach the Gospel and brought many to Christ. With the blessing of St. Paul, she then retreated to a solitary place near Seleucia where she lived for a long time in asceticism.

God granted her the gift of healing, which she used freely, which also brought many to the Christian faith. Again, this is reported in the Acts of Paul and Thekla: “A good report was spread everywhere of Thekla, and she formed several miraculous cures, so that all the city and adjacent countries brought their sick to that mountain, and before they came as far as the door of the cave, they were instantly cured of whatever they had . . . and many were enlightened in the knowledge of Christ.”

The doctors in Seleucia were jealous of her healing power, so they sent some young men to assault her, hoping that if she lost her virginity, she would lose her miraculous healing power as well. Thekla fled, but seeing that the young men were about to capture her, she prayed to God for help in front of a gigantic rock. The rock opened and hid her. This open rock became the cave in which she spent the remainder of her life and eventually became her tomb.

St. Thekla is called “The Protomartyr among Women”. Usually, we think of a martyr as someone who has died for Christ. Yet St. Thekla lived to a ripe old age and died a peaceful death. So what does “martyr” mean in her case? The word martyr is a Greek word, which means witness. A Christian martyr, therefore, is someone who witnesses to Christ in his or her life. She is also called isapostolos or “Equal to the Apostles”. As I said before, in St. Thekla, we can see all of the attributes that define sainthood.

6) Saint Raphael of Brooklyn

Now, I would like to turn our attention to the newly glorified Saint Raphael of Brooklyn. As all of you know by now, was glorified in May of this year, by the Church. It was a great blessing for me to take part in that holy and historic event. This new saint is dear to the heart of all Antiochian Christians in this country, because of his pioneering missionary efforts at the beginning of the twentieth century. We are twice blessed, because the relics of the newly glorified St. Raphael of Brooklyn are enshrined here on this Holy Mountain.

Some of us may not know about this holy bishop that is now worthy of veneration as a saint, so I will take this opportunity to tell you about him and his ministry:

Our Holy Father Raphael was born in Syria in 1860 to pious Orthodox parents. He was a good student with a great appetite for learning, and in 1885, he was ordained a deacon as a result of his devotion and studies. His burning desire to study led to his being granted permission to continue his theological study in Russia. While in Russia, he was ordained a priest and elevated to the rank of Archimandrite in 1889, and placed as representative of the Antiochian Patriarchate in Moscow. To his credit, he was a bold defender of the Antiochian Patriarchate. Eventually, he was invited to come to the United States in 1895 to become the pastor of the Arabic community in New York. This was the beginning of the work that God had intended for St. Raphael.

As he zealously tended his flock in New York, he became aware of the many groups of Arabic Orthodox Christians scattered across this continent. Out of love for his God and Faith, he recognized that they would soon be lost to other faiths if they were not given the opportunity to worship as Orthodox Christians. He always upheld and defended the spotless Faith, which was “delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). In the summer of 1896 undertook the first of several pastoral journeys across this country. He set out to visit these communities, providing them with an opportunity to worship, confess their sins, to have their children baptized and their daughters and sons married as Orthodox Christians. To assist in their worship, St. Raphael was given permission to produce liturgical material that was distributed to these budding communities. Ultimately he was given permission to bring priests from Syria, and to identify educated and worthy laymen who were candidates for ordination to be pastors of these newly established missions.

In order to meet the needs of this growing Church in America, Archimandrite Raphael was elected to be Bishop of Brooklyn, and continued to be the head of the Syro-Arab Orthodox Mission in North America. On the Third Sunday of Great Lent in 1904, St. Raphael became the first Orthodox Bishop to be consecrated on American soil.

One of his first acts as bishop was to produce a new publication that would bring to his people information on doctrine, worship, and the life of the Church when he was not able to be with them. He called it Al-Kalimat, a publication that all of us know as The Word Magazine.

During twenty years of faithful ministry, Bishop Raphael continued to nurture the missions and parishes he had planted, and helped them to grow. At the time of his death, the Syro-Arab Mission had thirty parishes with 25,000 faithful.

In all of his accomplishments, St. Raphael remained humble . . . he considered himself an “unworthy servant,” yet he did perfectly the work that fell to him.

As we witnessed in hearing some of the highlights of the life and ministry of St. Thekla, we can also see that the life and ministry of St. Raphael is one that inspires us to devote our lives to Christ, as he did so unselfishly.

7) Conclusion

When we make a pilgrimage to honor these great Saints of the Church, St. Thekla and St. Raphael, or any Holy Pilgrimage for a spiritual purpose, there are many things that we can do to make our experience spiritually beneficial.

First, we take time to learn about the lives of the saints we are honoring, as I have just imparted to you. As I have said, we are ALL called to be saints. To help us work toward this lofty goal, we have individuals whom the Church has recognized as true saints for us to model our lives after. As we see in St. Thekla’s and St. Raphael’s life, there is much that we can emulate as we improve ourselves spiritually, seeking our own deification. The example of her dedication to Our Lord, and the steadfastness of her faith in the face of persecution should be an inspiration to all of us, as we seek to become all that God wishes for us to become.

Second, we take this opportunity to venerate these great saints at their Holy Shrines and before their Holy Relics. Remember, in veneration, we are not worshiping them. In our veneration, we give respect to presence of God and the Holiness of their lives. In their relics, we find that matter has indeed been deified, and through our veneration of them, we give glory and praise to God.

Finally, as we gather for prayer, we ask that the Saints we are honoring will intercede with God for the salvation of our souls. How wonderful it is that we have someone who is united with God to be our spokesperson, seeking for us His blessing and help.

Fr. Anthony Coniaris once wrote “Although saints are not substitutes for Christ, Orthodox Christians believe firmly in the communion of saints. By this we mean that the Church Triumphant in heaven is not insensitive to the needs and sufferings of the Church Militant on earth. The two churches remain connected through the bond of love which is expressed through prayer. The communion of saints is a communion of never-ending prayer.”

Thus, besides our Church Family on earth, we belong to a larger family of God, which includes those who have gone before us. We are united with those in heaven. We call this the Communion of Saints, that is, the union of all who share in the life of Christ, whether on earth or in the other world.

You can now see what a great blessing it is for us to be here on this Holy Pilgrimage, here on this Holy Mountain. This is how we gather the spiritual fruit of our effort to make this journey. This is why it is vital to our spiritual health that we as Christians make Holy Pilgrimages. Consider yourself now to be Ambassadors for God when you go to your homes. Tell your family, friends and fellow parishioners about your experience here. Tell them about the true value of making a Holy Pilgrimage, and encourage them to do so. Pilgrimage must be a part of the spiritual life of every Orthodox Christian.

It is my prayer that each of you will return to your homes enriched and revitalized after what you will experience this weekend. During your stay, you will be given many opportunities to learn more about your faith at the various workshops. We will have many opportunities to pray together, and you will have time to pray and meditate in private at the shrines and chapels that are here. And you will have the opportunity to spend time in fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ; bound by our single spiritual purpose . . . to seek union with our God.

It is my hope that each of you will have a spiritually rewarding pilgrimage… and I look forward to spending the coming days with you in prayer and fellowship. Thank you, and may God bless all of you!