She Followed Her Dream
Egeria traveled far to get closer to God
by Kevin and Louise Perrotta
“Hey, Egeria, I hear you visited the Holy Land.”
“Yes. I always wanted to make a pilgrimage there.”
“Was it dangerous?”
“Sometimes. In Egypt, the army gave our group an escort because of bandits.”
“Sounds like a real adventure. How long were you there?”
“About three years.”
A conversation like this must have replayed many times when Egeria the nun returned from the Middle East to her convent in northwestern Spain. Such a long trip would be unusual today. When Egeria traveled, around the year four hundred, it was truly amazing. People in her part of the world remembered it for centuries (see box).
Eventually, people forgot about Egeria. But then, about a century ago, her travel diary turned up among some old books in an Italian library. Written for her sisters back home, it describes the traveling nun’s experiences at the holy places at a time when Christianity had only recently become legal and the monastic movement was just getting off the ground. In fact, through her bubbly commentary, Egeria is one of the few women of that ancient
world who speaks to us today in her own words.
Egeria’s journal is a rare window into the life of the early church in the Middle East. It is also a glimpse into the heart of a woman who made unusual efforts to meet God in his word.
In the fourth century, long trips were grueling and hazardous—and, well, long. Nowadays, you can fly from Madrid to Tel Aviv in half a day. Her trip involved weeks of donkey-riding across Spain, then weeks more on small, primitive ships sailing to the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. You can understand why she writes of “achieving” the journey to Jerusalem.
Egeria’s main goal was the Holy Land. There she visited Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethlehem, and most of all Jerusalem, where she stayed for months at a time, soaking up the atmosphere and joining the crowds celebrating the liturgies and going in processions through the streets.
Egeria also visited Constantinople, the new Christian capital of the Roman empire (Istanbul today). She went to Egypt twice. And she traveled to Edessa, in eastern Turkey, to see where God first called Abraham. Downplaying this as a kind of side trip, she wrote the nuns, “Believe me, loving sisters, no Christian who has achieved the journey to Jerusalem misses going also on the pilgrimage to Edessa.” She must have counted on their ignorance of geography. By road, Edessa was about a thousand miles from Jerusalem!
Meeting the Lord
Why did she go?
Egeria had read her Bible, and she thought she would understand it better if she saw the places where biblical events had occurred. After one description, she wrote: “I know that it has been rather a long business writing down all these places one after the other, and it makes far too much to remember. But it may help you, loving sisters, the better to picture what happened in those places when you read the holy Books of Moses.”
The sisters must have been serious Bible readers. Egeria mentions the tombs of Eleazar, Phinehas, Amos, Obadiah, and Eli without feeling she needs to remind her sisters who these Old Testament characters were. Could one make the same assumption, writing to Catholics today?
But Egeria didn’t want to just see the biblical sites—she wanted to get more deeply in touch with the saving events that God brought about there. Mainly, she went to pray. “It was always our practice when we managed to reach one of the places we wanted to see to have first a prayer, then a reading from the book, then to say an appropriate psalm and another prayer.” If a priest was present, there would be a celebration of the Eucharist.
Upbeat and Humble
Like any entertaining travel writer, Egeria had an eye and an ear for detail. The seafood along the Red Sea is quite good, she reported, and the shells along the shore are pretty (the trail meandered so close to the sea that the camels’ feet were sometimes in the water). The boys’choir in the church in Jerusalem sings the Kyrie Eleison very loudly.
At one point she observed that “all around the mountains, caves have been carved out. If you just took the trouble to put up some curtains, they would make marvelous bedrooms.” No thought of snakes and scorpions! But that is typical of Egeria. She never pays attention to the negative side but is constantly upbeat. To her, every valley is impressive, every mountain beautiful.
If—as must have happened--Egeria encountered unfriendly people, she didn’t let them get her down. From her journal one gets an impression of the Middle East as a kind of Christian Lake Woebegone, where all the clergy are good teachers, all the monks are courteous and hospitable, and all the lay people are above average in piety and faith.
She would have been a great traveling companion.
But Egeria had more than a sunny disposition. Her appreciation was rooted in humility. A typical journal entry reads: “We set off again—as indeed we did every single day—giving renewed thanks to God for his goodness in showing us all the things we wanted to see, and so much more than we deserved.”
Egeria’s enthusiasm never flagged because her trip was the fulfillment of a great desire. This comes through clearly in her visit to Mount Sinai.
As the cluster of mountains around the mount came into view, Egeria wrote, “I never thought I had seen mountains as high as those which stood around it.” Undaunted, she added, “We had been looking forward to all this so much that we had been eager to make the climb.”
Eagerness, of course, did not make the mountains less steep. There was no path. One simply clambered up as best one could, starting up with the foothills. You go ”straight at each one as if you were going up a wall,” Egeria told her sisters:
And then straight down to the foot, till you reach the central mountain, Sinai itself. Here then, impelled by Christ our God and assisted by the prayers of the holy men who accompanied us, we made the great effort of the climb. But I was not conscious of the effort—in fact I hardly noticed it because, by God’s will, I was seeing my hopes coming true.
It was a Sunday morning. At the summit the group celebrated the liturgy with monks from nearby caves. Where God’s glory had come down on the
Israelites, they read the text from Exodus—“on the very spot!” Egeria exulted. That day’s entry brims over with joyful gratitude—both to God and to the area monks who“so kindly and willingly welcomed so unimportant a person as me . . . and, what is more, took me round all the biblical sites I kept asking to
What’s Your Dream?
Scholars find Egeria’s journal a trove of information about historical matters. What comes through most powerfully to me, though, is Egeria herself. And there is one thing in particular we admire about her.
An exuberant song in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat proclaims, “Any dream will do!” Yet we all know that some dreams are shallow, meaningless, even bad. Not every dream will do.
Egeria implicitly proclaims a better message: If a dream contains an invitation from the Lord, it’s worth pursuing to the ends of the earth.
We’ve seen people respond to this kind of dream. We have friends who have organized an evangelistic ministry in eastern Europe and central Asia.
Another friend started a relief and development organization that channels help to needy people in the Caribbean and Africa.
Other friends have pursued dreams closer to home. One started a Bible-reading magazine at his dining room table. Others started a Bible-reading
magazine in their garage. An acquaintance launched a Bible-sharing ministry at the county jail; others founded a problem-pregnancy counseling and help center. Others established a volunteer-staffed medical clinic for people lacking medical coverage.
Each of these people had a dream—from the Lord. Each of them has encountered hard stretches— mountains so steep that climbing them felt “as if
you were going up a wall.” But like Egeria, they’ve had those mountaintop moments, when you realize that “no journey is difficult when God gives you the
gift of seeing what you hoped to see,” of accomplishing what he invited you to accomplish.
An icon of Egeria, by a modern Russian iconographer, shows her returned from her journey. She is looking intently--not into the distance, but
inward. We suppose she is remembering the places where God’s word became more alive for her. More than that, we sense Egeria’s journey has led her nearer to God, whose heavenly kingdom she ponders in her heart.
Looking Back on Egeria
Three centuries after Egeria visited the Middle East, a Spanish monk pointed to her as someone who put his fellow monks to shame for their
lukewarm commitment to their religious rule. With a bit of condescension, but real admiration, Valerius wrote:
"We revere the valorous achievements of the mighty saints who were men, but we are amazed when still more courageous deeds are achieved by weak womanhood, such deeds as are indeed described in the remarkable history of the most blessed Egeria, who by her courage outdid the men of any age