Holy Souvenirs from the Holy Sepulchre
Besides seeing the amazing architecture and artistic decorations of the church itself, visiting religious sites always gives me the opportunity to learn about cultural practices. Major destination churches teach me what it means to be a pilgrim by watching how people interact with the place. Maybe more so than regular tourists or travelers, pilgrims understand the personally transformative aspect of their trip and want share it with others after they have returned home.
The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a holy place for all Christians and as a result, you have a lot of unique worship practices and customs coming together there. Still, everything is rooted in a deep faith and desire for connection to the divine in the church, no matter what language was spoken. Whether through prayers or “making” souvenirs, I also saw a deep commitment from all pilgrims to bring the holy experience back home with them.
It was very obvious that pilgrims were trying to connect their experience in the church with loved ones back home. While in line to visit the Tomb of Christ, I noticed one older Russian woman pull out a list of names. The paper looked like it had been folded and refolded many times. Names had been added in blue, and then black, and then blue ink again making me imagine that she slowly compiled the list before she left on her trip so as not to miss anyone. Maybe she even asked around to see if anyone needed some special, powerful prayers from the holiest site in Christianity. As we waited in silence, the older woman focused on the list. I could almost hear her prayers for her family and community back home.
There is a long tradition of seeking relics in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The remains or personal items of saints are venerated because they remind us of and bring us closer to these holy men and women. The holiness of the individual is believed to be associated in some way with the object. A everyday item like a cloth, wooden cross, or candle can also be made into Tertiary Relic if it come in contact with a holy object or place, or is lit by holy fire. These objects are believed to convey some of the holiness from their source.
As with any tourist destination, the streets leading to the Holy Sepulchre are lined with shops selling candles, crosses, rosaries, icons, holy oil, or anything else you might want to bring home. Many pilgrims were touching these objects to the holiest part of the Holy Sepulchre, such as the Stone of Anointing believed to be where Jesus’ body was laid after being removed from the cross. While objectively this act may look superstitious, I think it is quite touching. These pilgrims want to bring something “holy” back to their loved ones. The desire to bless and share with family goes beyond the typical purchasing of tourist gifts and really underlines the spiritual aspect of the travel these pilgrims have undertaken.
Beeswax candles are a major part of Orthodox worship and are used for prayers, illuminating icons, and in services. There was a long line of pilgrims lighting large packages of candles from a sacred candle beside the Tomb of Christ. After just a minute of letting the small candles burn, they would extinguish them in a massive, cone-shaped snuffer which was covered with a thick layer of wax from decades of use. I imagine these precious candles were brought home and distributed to family. Monetarily, one thin beeswax candle is probably not worth much, but as the saying goes with gifts: it’s the thought that counts. And there is a lot of sentiment and the best intentions behind these candles blessed candles from the Holy Sepulchre.
I really loved the Holy Sepulchre. The architecture and decorations were very beautiful, but I was most impressed with how visitors acted in the space. This was not St. Peter’s in Rome with thousands of people gawking and taking photos. These visitors were pilgrims (or at least very respectful tourists) and they behaved in a way that demonstrated that. If anyone was waiting in line or getting bumped by the crowd, it was because there were prayers to be said, crosses to touch to holy places, or candles to light. I realized that no one was there alone. Each person was actually visiting for all their friends and family who couldn’t come. It makes sense that what their religious culture and tradition teaches them about bringing the experience home is what you seeing being done in the church.
I love your description of the Russian woman with her list of names. My visit to Chartres felt very different from other cathedrals I’ve visited because it was full of pilgrims and not just the typical tourists. Made it seem a little more special.
Thanks! It’s amazing how much impact the other visitors can have on one’s experience. In some places you can just feel the reverence. (And other places are just zoos – I’m looking at you St. Peter’s in Vatican City…)