The first in our new series of pilgrimage stories comes from Bess Crider:
At Bethany in the Holy Land, I felt the knowledge of Jesus Christ move from my head to my heart.
I have been a Christian most of my life, actively pursuing a faith that is real, sincere, earnest, honest, and true. I became Orthodox in 1998 at age 41 and continued my faith journey.
But it was in 2010, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Orthodox Tours, led by Fr Ilya Gotlinsky, that I had the remarkable experience that I count as one of the most important in my life. Initially, I did not share this experience broadly, as it felt too profound and deep, but now I feel able to speak of it openly.
We were visiting the small Orthodox School of Bethany, run by nuns of the Ecclesiastical Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church, located near Jerusalem, near the wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories. Over 400 girls attend school here–Christians (although their numbers are diminishing) alongside Moslems–receiving an excellent education under difficult circumstances.
On the school grounds where the sisters had decided to build a playground, they uncovered an ancient church: large paving stones from the Roman Road along which Christ would have traveled many times, and pillars from a basilica. Another find from the site was especially remarkable: a large smooth stone with an inscription in Greek, “Where Martha and Mary heard from the Lord about the Resurrection of the dead and the Lord.” The early Church literally marked for remembrance the very stone where Martha met Christ when He was coming to Bethany for Lazarus’s death! This was where, in John 11, we hear Martha declare her faith to Him: “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is come into the world.” Martha, the active one of the two sisters, ran back to get her sister Mary, and scripture says He waited where Martha had met him–on that very stone.
The church recovered the stone, carved the inscription, and treated it as a relic by building an altar it, and then enclosed it inside a church. After the Persians destroyed much of Jerusalem, including this church, in 614, it lay under rubble until the sisters of the Orthodox School of Bethany uncovered it. They have since built a small chapel over the stone.
My patron saint is Martha. When I became Orthodox, I had no question about which saint should be my patron. I am a busy servant and helper by nature, even though my heart yearns to be a Mary, I “get worried by so many things”. Martha is mentioned many times in the New Testament, which makes her accessible to us Protestant converts. John writes in the Gospel, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Who would not wish to be a Martha, loved by Christ?
When we visited the school as part of our tour, of course my spiritual senses were heightened. While our wonderful guide, Mother Maria (formerly Sister Martha), was telling us the history, I slipped away to have a private moment in the small chapel. When I was on my knees in front of the inscribed stone, it suddenly came to me that Jesus had real feet, dirty feet that were callused and travel-weary, feet had that stood on that very stone. He was no longer just a concept in my head, a construct of years of scripture reading, a historical figure to be studied, a theological idea to be contemplated. He was a real person who lived in a particular moment in time on this earth. I felt my understanding of Christ make a huge shift: to know Him as one knows a friend, family member, a spouse, or a child. But not just as a person who lived 2000 years ago, but as “the Christ who is come into the world.”
I might have decided to visit Bethany in the hope of getting to know my patron saint better. However, she directed me to the “one thing needful”: a relationship with Jesus Christ. But not a rational, history-based relationship, but one with a real person, the Person of Christ.
Bess Crider lives in a small town in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband of 44 years. They raised 3 children and are blessed with 6 grandsons. Attending a Greek Orthodox Church 40 minutes away, she has served on the Parish Council and sings in the Byzantine Choir. She has many interests and hobbies, including soap making, cooking, travel, anything to do with fabric, and plays the hammered dulcimer. But her deepest love is iconography, both painting and study. Fortunate enough to find an exceptional mentor in 2004, she uses her learning to educate others as well as provide hand-painted icons for the many converts in her parish.