Lent is a privileged time of interior pilgrimage towards Him Who is the fount of mercy. It is a pilgrimage in which He Himself accompanies us through the desert of our poverty, sustaining us on our way towards the intense joy of Easter
—- Pope Benedict XVI, Lenten Message 2006
Onward, fellow pilgrims! Let’s TO EASTER!
As part of my Lenten preparation, I’ve decided to reconnect with a text that I only read portions of during my time in undergrad. It’s called “Egeria’s Travels,” or “The Pilgrimage of Egeria” and it’s a first-hand account of a fourth-century Spanish woman, presumably a nun, who travels throughout the Holy Land.
The text of “Egeria’s Travels” has quite an interesting history, as do all ancient manuscripts that survive today. It seems that at one point, her text was fairly well-known, especially in Medieval Spain, since a 7th century monk gives reference to it in a letter. We know that a copy was held at Monte Cassino in the 12th century, because Peter the Deacon used it as a major primary source for his book on “The Holy Places,” though he does not quote her text directly. Unfortunately, however, we find no reference to her text after this. It was not until 1884 that the text was rediscovered in the Codex Aretinus, an 11th century document also composed at Monte Cassino, but housed in a library at the Brotherhood of St. Mary’s in Arezzo, Italy. Yet the text was not copied completely: the Codex only contains about 1/3 of Egeria’s original text (the middle part). Why only that section was preserved is unknown, since we can reconstruct from Peter’s text many parts of her travels that are not accounted for in the Codex. Where did Peter’s copy go? Are there any other copies yet to be found? This is why we all still need good librarians.
The travelogue itself is a fascinating peek into the mind and life of a fourth century Christian woman. We know very little about Egeria herself (what her background was, how she came to read and write), but we come to know a bit of her personality as we read about all the holy places she visits and all the holy men and women she encounters. She’s very grateful to her guides, familiar with Biblical texts, inquisitive and supremely trusting. Egeria seems to possess an incredible amount of stamina and remarks occasionally about older people who cannot join her on certain excursions. She also has a keen ear for liturgical phrases and takes very seriously her responsibility to guard the Christian mysteries (the sacraments) from any hostile person who might intercept her messages en route back to Spain.
Perhaps most striking for the reader are her accounts of her participation in specific Jerusalem liturgies which eventually spread to all of the Western Church (e.g. the celebration of Palm Sunday before Easter, the veneration of the cross on Good Friday). These celebrations were strange and new to her, so for a 21st century Catholic who has participated in them every year since birth, her accounts give a fresh new look at what has become rote for most of us. Yet in the midst of novelty, the reader experiences a deep sense of connectedness with the ancient Church. Through Egeria’s words and experiences, we in turn experience a profound sense that while many things have changed in our liturgy, many things have been preserved.
I am hoping that walking with Egeria through her pilgrimage in Jerusalem will enable me to contemplate my own pilgrimage to Easter through these next 40 days. I hope to learn not only the facts of her travels, but also to learn to approach these liturgies with open eyes and a renewed sense of wonder at not only the “historical Christ,” but the active Living Christ, who watches over all of us through the Life of the Church. A Church which is a family of people, interconnected for better or for worse, traveling together to the Bridegroom.
So if I’ve managed to pique your interest in my new (old) friend, Egeria, I suggest finding a copy of her travels (I’m currently reading Wilkinson’s 1999 critical edition) or even clicking the link above to go to a free online translation. I’m sure she’ll have something unique and special just for you to meditate on as you continue your journey.