Summer 1992, Vol.44 No.2, pp. 173-176

Belden Lane:
      Sacred Place as Axis Ordinarii

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Dr. Belden Lane is professor of historical theology at St. Louis University. Known for his theology of stories and of landscape, he is author of numerous articles and of Landscapes of the Sacred.

ERNEST Renan, in his celebrated Life of Jesus, spoke of the Holy Land as a "fifth Gospel, torn, but still legible." Its acrid smells and utterly ordinary, even repugnant images lent form and solidity to a story that had often seemed, for him, "to float in the clouds of an unreal world" (61). Such is the nature, I suspect, of all true pilgrimage. Its provocative energy is less toward the spiritually uplifting, than toward the profane and commonplace. It upholds a Chalcedonian christology by its absolute insistence on the full humanity of Jesus Christ. Pilgrimage, at its best, is never an escape from the mundane pattern of daily life. The pilgrim seeks not to be inspired and distracted by the fascination of faraway places. Pilgrimage, properly conceived, is a reintroduction to ordinariness.

This was, more than I had anticipated, the nature of my own recent pilgrimage to Israel and Egypt. I had gone to the Middle East in search of sacred mountains and desert monasteries, gathering research for a book on desert and mountain spirituality. Having never been to the Holy Land, I longed to visit great places, to encounter great things, imagining myself coming home at last to write out of all those important experiences. Instead, I was reminded once again of the artificiality, if not danger, of this very distinction between so-called great experiences and simply ordinary ones.

Sue Bender, in a recent book on the simplicity of Amish life, speaks about the tendency many of us have in our culture to despise the ordinary. We divide the world, she says, into two lists -- things that are creative, exciting, and fulfilling, on the one side, and things that are dull, ordinary, and monotonous, on the other. We try to avoid, or rush through, the latter as much as possible, so as to devote ourselves to the former. Life becomes a frantic effort to choreograph all the exciting experiences we can gather, while driving out the demons of dull ordinariness that threaten us with simplicity (5-7).

Rushing off to "sacred places," far from the humdrum tedium of life at home, we imagine the holy always to be elsewhere. It is a fundamentally false dichotomy we draw between important and unimportant places or things, imagining the one always to be novel, romantic, and engaging, the other repetitive and boring. What struck me as a pilgrim in Israel, "walking in the footsteps of the Savior," was not at all the grandiose, but precisely the repetitive and boring, the wholly unromantic and commonplace. Mies van der Rohe is right to insist that "God is in the details" -- in children begging for mastic, the smell of garbage beside a falafel stand, teenage soldiers with automatic weapons. These are the images of the "fifth Gospel."

I was impressed by the height of the climb involved in walking from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, by the bitter taste of water in the Dead Sea, by the leathery touch of a woman's hand reaching for coins at the Damascus gate. The most important experiences were the simplest, even the most discomforting. Walking three times around the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem was less significant than sitting at table in the Ecole Biblique, my eyes fixed on my plate, listening in embarrassed silence to the eloquent French spoken by the Dominican fathers around me. Attending mass at the beautiful church on the Mount of Beatitudes was nothing compared to sitting alone in a field of red poppies at the foot of the hill, watching a long line of birds flying into the sunset toward Tiberias. Ascending Mt. Sinai was far less moving than talking with great difficulty to a bedouin boy without shoes in the desert the day before. It was this concretized experience of pilgrimage that impressed me most being stripped of language, reduced to closer proximity to the earth, summoned to justice.

The sacred place, properly entered, becomes an axis ordinarii, a means by which all places can be perceived as holy. It draws one to simplicity. The image of the pilgrim, in the history of pilgrimage literature, is most often that of the simpleton - the apparent fool who stumbles along, asking the simplest of questions in a strange country, with an unfamiliar language. Naivete befits the pilgrim. He or she becomes someone entirely ordinary, reduced to asking the most basic questions about everything. This was why Parcifal the pilgrim of medieval legend failed at first in his quest for the holy grail. Having happened, by chance, into the castle of the Fisher King, at the holy place of his deepest dreams, he was afraid to make a fool of himself by asking questions. In the process, he lost the grail and made an even bigger fool of himself in his effort to appear sophisticated and knowing. He forgot the first rule of the pilgrim, not to be ashamed of his posture of unknowing.

I passed by many tour groups in the Old City of Jerusalem. Wearing iridescent orange caps or carrying red umbrellas, these pilgrims in polyester knelt to take off their shoes in front of the Dome of the Rock. They listened intently to the tour guide, snapped pictures, hurried for a few minutes into Abd al-Malik's stunning building, then on to the bus for lunch in Bethlehem. Modern pilgrimage is often like that. Hurried, canned, overstructured. Today's pilgrims have the finest cameras, the best equipment. They often are serious, intentional, eager to squeeze every new experience for all it is worth.

I was tempted to smile at them, these ludicrous figures in the orange hats, priding myself on traveling alone, not being so obviously a foreigner. But I came to realize that it was they who bore the marks, at least, of true pilgrims - ostensibly set apart as the unknowing, the uninitiated. Traditionally in Christian history, the pilgrim was distinguished from others by the clothes that he or she wore, marked with the symbol of the seashell. The pilgrim is the simple one, moving slowly across the land toward the fuller meaning of his or her baptism. Thoreau once argued that the proper gait of the pilgrim is a gentle "sauntering," an unhurried walking that allows entry to the space through which one moves. The word saunter, in fact, derives from the medieval experience of traveling á la Sainte Terre (592).

The meaning of travel is invariably discerned only at home -- far from the exotic place of one's pilgrimage, back in the simple routine of one day following another. The incarnation is nothing more than that -- simply a matter of God being here, in the utterly ordinary, in all the smells and images that call us back to the limits of language, the feel of the earth, and the cry of justice. Here it is that the Christian theologian must set up camp, in the rank fields of the commonplace. After all, as William Temple, the late Archbishop of Canterbury used to say, "It is a great mistake to think that God is primarily interested in religion." All of life is sacred -- the ordinary no less than the grand.


Bender, Sue. Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991.

Renan, Ernest. The Life of Jesus. New York: Modern Library, 1927.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Walking" (1862), in Carl Bode, ed., The Portable Thoreau. New York: Viking Press, 1947.