Pilgrimage book weaves spiritual meaning with Holy Land geography

By Agostino Bono | Catholic News Service | May 3, 2021

This is the cover of the book “Holy Land Pilgrimage,” by Stephen J. Binz. The book is reviewed by Agostino Bono. (CNS photo/courtesy Liturgical Press)

“Holy Land Pilgrimage” by Stephen J. Binz. Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minnesota, 2020). 303 pp., $24.95.

A Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land is quickly impressed by the proximity of many holy sites associated with the life of Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher contains both the place of Christ’s crucifixion and his burial tomb. As walking was a major means of biblical travel, sacred sites often are a quick bus drive apart.

Another sharp realization is that many Christian sites are steeped in Old Testament history and the Judaic foundations of Christianity. Also notable is the importance to Islam of many places, as mosques have been built upon churches built upon synagogues.

So a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is not something to be done in a short time or as an excursion during a tourist visit . For a believer, the spiritual transcendence is part of the geography, countering any desire to skim over the region.

Early in “Holy Land Pilgrimage,” author Stephen J. Binz refers to the Holy Land as the “fifth Gospel” because it helps us understand the truths revealed by Christ as people  stand on sacred sites.

Pilgrims today can draw water from Jacob’s well as they read the Gospel account of Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman. Couples can renew their marriage vows at Cana, scene of the wedding feast where Christ performed his first miracle.

Enjoying the spiritual riches of the Holy Land — deepened by its historical, cultural and archaeological wealth — requires a learned guide. Binz is such a guide. He emphasizes the Christian spiritual dimensions of the sites while drawing depth from their historical, archaeological and cultural significance. He is an experienced tour guide and author of several books on the Holy Land and pilgrimages.

The book describes a pilgrimage as an ancient practice, a journey to a sacred place in search of transcendence. It notes that throughout the Bible, the journeys of God’s faithful are described as pilgrimages.

While the book gives weight to the historical, cultural and archaeological dimensions of the sites, the emphasis is always on the spiritual. The book starts with a lengthy examination of a pilgrimage’s significance and it details a novena in preparation for the trip.

Then, rather than a flowing narrative, the book is a series of essays — some with the aroma of a homily — on specific biblical sites. These are followed by short spiritual exercises: suggestions for meditations on the events and people associated with the sites, Bible readings and short prayer services emphasizing communion with God and his message.

After the essay on Nazareth, for instance, pilgrims are asked to meditate on the ways they see Jesus today in the streets of the place where he grew up.

The structure of the book makes it a worthy travel companion, allowing a pilgrim to supplement the information of a guide and to engage in prayerful rest at the end of the day, reflecting on the spiritual impact of what was seen. It also permits the pilgrimage to be an ongoing experience which can be vicariously lived once a person returns home.

For people who cannot travel to the Holy Land, the book also is a good backup. Besides descriptive writing, it includes numerous color photos, taken by the author, of the places discussed.

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Bono is a retired CNS staff writer.

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