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Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity.

Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity. By Brouria Bitton-Asbkelony. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. ISBN 0-520-24191-6. Pp. xvi + 250. $45.00.

During the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, church fathers and other prominent Christian monks and leaders defined the concept of topographical holy space, not only in Palestine and Egypt but elsewhere in the apostolic world, and debated whether journeying to holy places was essential not only for the development of a Christian's faith but also for his or her salvation. To what degree, if any, was seeing and possibly touching the relics of holy men and women (often hermits), the tombs and remains of martyrs and apostles, and especially the holy places of the life of Jesus--such as the holy Cave of the Resurrection, Golgotha, and the site of the Ascension in Palestine--necessary for a Christian's salvation? Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony in this insightful book provides a new answer to this complex question. Her response involves refuting a current scholarly belief that the uneducated populace generally were the pilgrims in late antiquity to holy places, while educated Christians, including churchmen and women, generally eschewed pilgrimage. In her words, "a simple assumption of a dichotomy between popular and elite religion in late antiquity is no longer possible" (2).

It is no longer possible because Professor Bitton-Ashkelony nicely, persuasively, shows that Patristic writers such as Origin and Augustine did not divide Christians into these two classes as regards the phenomenon of pilgrimage. Nor was there a difference between the Eastern and Western Catholic Church in this respect. The actual tension was "between local sites of pilgrimage on the one hand and Jerusalem on the other, as well as with the pervasive dilemma of earthly sacred journeying to encounter the divine versus interior journeying to an inner space" (4). Bitton-Ashkelony reminds us that pagan religions had usually located divine presence in any number of local places, such as those of Apollonian oracles, rather than everywhere--and that Christianity in late antiquity was in the process of shaping its identity as a response to the question of whether God and Jesus could be found everywhere, in the individual "temple" of faithful believers (2 Cor. 6:16), or whether the divine was present crucially in local and / or central (Palestinian) places. Church fathers and writers of late antiquity show little or no ethnographic curiosity about holy place; instead, they focus on either the therapeutic value of holy places for salvation or their textual worth for instructing the pilgrim in the development of his or her faith. Rather than the communitas (fellowship) of medieval pilgrimage, an alienation from the world necessary for self-transformation was a goal of pilgrimage in late antiquity. Christian pilgrimage in late antiquity, Bitton-Ashkelony argues, arose from "a process of locating the Christian collective memory ... all the while advancing a collective sense of identity through the visual" (29).

Time again, the author reminds us that nothing in the New Testament imposed pilgrimage upon believers. Bitton-Ashkelony claims persuasively that church fathers and influential monks and bishops either advocated local or Palestinian pilgrimage (or both), or rejected one or the other (or both) to suit their acquisition or maintenance of ecclesiastical power, generally over competitors or those souls for which they were responsible. Sometimes, like Jerome, they shifted from approval to disapproval and back to approval again within their lifetime, as the strife of ecclesiastical power dictated. The story of pilgrimage in late antiquity, thus, is a tale of all-too-human holy men's existential needs. Bitton-Ashkelony successfully develops this argument through five chapters, titled "Basil of Caesarea's and Gregory of Nyssa's Attitudes toward Pilgrimage" (30-64), "Jerome's Position on Pilgrimage" (65-105), "Augustine on Holy Space" (106-39), "Pilgrimage in Monastic Culture" (140-83), and "Local versus Central Pilgrimage" (184-206).

Both Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Basil of Caesarea promoted pilgrimages to the tombs and relics of miracle-working martyrs, sometimes to those of local Cappadocia cults, rather than a journey to Jerusalem or Bethlehem. Gregory urged believers to perceive the martyrs as "advocates, intercessors, ... and ambassadors ... from all misfortune" (37), even though drunkenness, prostitution, and dancing were usually part of the panegyrics to the martyrs. Basil and Gregory railed against these excesses, focusing intensely moreover on similar vices in the later fourth century sometimes accompanying pilgrimage to holy places connected with the life of Jesus (39). The author suggests that Gregory's and Basil's advocacy of local pilgrimage was designed to bolster local churches for which they were responsible. "As a result of the strengthening of the local cult, the authority and reputation of these leaders were enhanced in the eyes of the local people and those in neighboring cities" (43). When Christians of late antiquity went on pilgrimage, whether local or central, they often did so to acquire a monastic paidea, or education, from a holy man. This seems to have been the purpose of Basil of Caesarea's journey to Jerusalem. The miracles supposedly worked by local martyrs strengthened the local bishop in his resistance to heresies and church adversaries. Furthermore, pilgrims to Palestine often never came back to their local ecclesiastic, having been converted to a monastery or church of a Palestinian prelate.

Not surprisingly, Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, in his debate with Gregory of Nyssa, recommends pilgrimage to Palestine rather than the tomb or relics of a local martyr. There, authentic miracles, such as a luminous cross seen in the sky over Golgotha, or the holy wood of the True Cross, might be seen and even touched, with all the advantages to the strengthening of faith. Jerome initially emigrated to Palestine, where he began an urgent search for a deeper understanding of scripture by visiting holy places there. Jerome settled in Bethlehem and vacillated in his opinion of the primacy of Palestinian holy space versus those defined by local cults of martyrs and holy men. Bitton-Ashkelony concludes that Jerome's views on pilgrimage were those "of a Christian thinker of stormy temperament contemplating the relatively new idea of sacred topography and its role in Christian life, while [he] himself was a central player in the arena of local church conflicts" (71). Jerome at first justified pilgrimage to Jerusalem by quoting Gen. 12:1, God's first command to Abraham to "Leave your land." This church father differed from Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea, for whom only the heavenly (rather than earthly) Jerusalem had significance. Later, Jerome radically revised his opinion about the value of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, succumbing to the quandary that if God, as Paul claims, is present everywhere, then He cannot be specially restricted to the holy spaces of Palestine. Bitton-Ashkelony, however, shows that Jerome's ecclesiastical arguments with John, Bishop of Jerusalem, beginning in the year 394, mainly account for his volte-face, arguments that became so heated that John barred Jerome from church premises and the liturgy in Jerusalem. Thereafter, Jerome abandoned his advocacy of pilgrimage to not only Palestine but also to local tombs of martyrs (90-91), choosing instead to assert that the souls of genuine believers constitute authentic Christian holy space. Early in the fifth century, near the end of his life, Jerome nevertheless became a proponent of pilgrimage to the Roman tombs of the martyrs and apostles, which he had often visited and venerated as a young man.

Bitton-Ashkelony notes that Augustine never directly refers to the phenomenon of pilgrimage in his writings nor did he visit any of the pilgrimage destinations, such as Rome or Jerusalem, of his time. For Augustine, believers were aliens in this world, journeying always regardless of their actual destination according to the spirit within directing them toward their heavenly Jerusalem. He interpreted the holy places of Jerusalem in the terms of Pauline allegory as existing within the temple of the believer, with no reference to where he or she physically stood or walked. Still, Augustine indirectly endorsed specific, local pilgrimage to his community Hippo after the relics of Stephen the Protomartyr were relocated there from Jerusalem, an act the contributed to the spread of cults of martyrs in North Africa. Augustine accepted the reality of miracles occurring at the tombs of martyrs such as that of Stephen in Hippo, according to Bitton-Ashkelony because he wanted to combat the remains of North Africa pagan rites by suggesting that Christian miracles continued to occur in the fifth century, long after the apostles' deaths (130).

In her penultimate chapter, Bitton-Ashkelony portrays the extensive monastic culture of late antiquity, especially in Egypt, and enumerates the reasons for pilgrimages to monasteries and the dwellings of charismatic figures (including saints). Such travel often was a devotional act whereby the monk transformed himself into a more ascetic, holier man partly by learning from a charismatic figure at the end of the journey. The perpetual pilgrim could spiritually become an alien in this world by literally becoming a journeying stranger. This kind of pilgrimage made possible "a long combat against enemies surrounding the monk in order to reach the goal of apatheia ... the state of the soul entirely liberated from its passions" (152). Abbots who felt threatened by the loss of their monks through pilgrimage argued that this pilgrimage could more meaningfully occur by being allegorically inner rather than literal. The final, short chapter of this book consists mostly of contemporary anecdotes illustrating many features of the debate over local versus central pilgrimage, with the conclusion stressing the new concept of a Second Jerusalem, which in late antiquity was sometimes. Constantinople, other times the town or city of a miracle-working local martyr or holy man, and finally even the residence from which the "pilgrim" never departed as he or she explored the landscape of his or her inner temple of the Lord.

Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony in Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity has included a wealth of references to the letters and other writings of ecclesiastics and monks of the period, especially Jerome and Augustine, to document her argument, as well as to past and present scholarship on her subject. She is objective in her method, and her style is always clear, never tedious or jargon-ridden. This volume could well be the definitive study on this subject. If this book has a weakness, I cannot identify it. Readers of Christianity and Literature who specialize in the literature of the Renaissance but especially that of the Middle Ages will find this book useful. It ought to be read in conjunction with, actually as a preface to, Grace Tiffany's recent Love's Pilgrimage: The Holy Journey in English Renaissance Literature, in particular with her first chapter, "The Protestant Pilgrimage," which describes the development of an inner spiritual pilgrimage out of the actual pilgrimages of the Catholic Middle Ages. Bitton-Ashkelony's book reveals that virtually all of the components of pilgrimage, as an actual and a personal inner journey, as well as the manifold benefits and dangers of this phenomenon, were present from the beginning in the debates of late antiquity and the surprisingly wide-ranging, complex opinions of the churchmen who first defined and mapped it.

Maurice Hunt

Baylor University
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Author:Hunt, Maurice
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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