Journey in a Holy Land, A Spiritual Journey, by Pennington, M. Basil, O.C.S.O., Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2006, pp. 175.
Armchair travelling can be a very satisfactory way of passing long winter evenings, along with garden planning, garden reading, and seed lists from colorful catalogues. I was thinking of this kind of comfortable endeavor when I sat down to read this, the last book which the author was to write. My judgment was very wide of the mark. The subtitle, “A Spiritual Journal” only begins to hint at the book’s substance. And the richness it contains is really why I chose it as Lenten reading.
There is another reason: my brother suggested it. He has fond memories of Father Basil that go back to his childhood when he first met the huge, smiling monk up in St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer and was invited to join the grown-ups to see what the place looked like. Then there were other occasions when he accompanied my dad or my uncle to pick Father Basil up at the airport, returning from one of his many trips abroad. His warm friendliness as well as his frequent travels would be hard to forget. Both those characteristics are present in this journal.
But there is more, as well. Although he is well known for having made Centering Prayer accessible to countless people over the years, from his earliest days as a monk, Basil Pennington was engaged in writing, — on the early Fathers of monasticism, on monastic studies, on the Eucharist, on praying with Scripture — and travelling: first to Rome for additional studies, (he was there during the Second Vatican Council as a peritus,) then to India, to Latin America, to China, and even for a year’s retreat on Mt. Athos in Greece. The richness of these experiences and the friendships they invariably engendered, made for a keen interest in ecumenical and interfaith relations, and a deep understanding of Palestinian and Israeli concerns and their bearing on world peace.
This journey, — or pilgrimage, or retreat, — is chronicled in simple, day by day accounts that are both ample and engaging in their scope. Arriving in Tel Aviv and Joppa after having spent a short few days in Istanbul and Athens, he carries in his mind the travels of St. Paul, pausing to read and “center” that is, engage in Centering Prayer, before going on to Galilee and Capernaum, the area where Jesus first began his mission. This balance between reading scripture and praying it forms a motif during the entire month. Throughout the narrative, transcribed portions of the Gospel serve as background or impetus for prayerful reflection on significant sites and incidents along the way. His observations on his surroundings, what they might have been in the time of Jesus and what they are like in the present day are valuable for anyone looking for deeper insight into the holy places.
His account of his sojourn in Jerusalem, the Holy City, is particularly satisfying both for his vivid account of the locations and sacred buildings themselves, but also for his prayerful reflections. It is easy to imagine him bending his tall frame into the Holy Sepulcher, or climbing the Mount of Olives. And one senses his disappointment with the barrenness of the Upper Room, the Cenacle, even as he is able to bring out of the experience an enriched realization of the Last Supper and the Eucharist.
There are brighter spots, too, as when he describes the elderly Jewish men at the Wailing Wall who invited him to join them in prayer, or the young people in the kibbutz where he lodged briefly. Picking up hitchhikers along the way makes very immediate the problem of war and peace in that ancient land, but also the vibrant contribution to life made by people of all persuasions to their homeland.
Perhaps for me his voice resonated most clearly in the words he recorded following his visit to the Abbey of the Dormition on Mount Zion. Reflecting on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, thought to have taken place on that site in the years following the death and resurrection of her son, - the years of the early church, — Basil Pennington wrote, “All I want is that what remains of my life will be used exactly as your Son wants.” Following his untimely death not long after, his brother monks found the manuscript for this book sitting on his desk, ready for the publisher. I have just begun to read it for the second time.
Maureen F, McDermott
Ash Wednesday 2011