Seth Donald: Finding Christ in the Holy Land

By Jeannie Babb

“I would describe the Holy Land as a place full of contradictions. It quickly defies expectations.”

Seth Donald, T’15, a candidate from Jennings, La., always viewed his seminary experience as a migration—a process that would take him far from home and return him, marked and changed by the journey. When he was named a Griffin Scholar in Easter semester of his middler year, that journey took a new turn.

Donald traveled with fellow Griffin Scholar Joe Woodfin T’15, to St. George’s College Jerusalem for a program of education, worship, and travel to numerous sacred sites. The sense of space stands out in his mind as a revelation from the pilgrimage.

“People are spatial. We’re not this dualistic body-spirit: we’re both. We need a sense of place.” Donald saw how the spiritual can be triggered by the senses—something to see, smell, and touch. He describes Eastern European pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “Some of the pilgrims would kiss the rock where Jesus was anointed, or would prostrate themselves on something. And there’s something to that. There’s something to the sense of place in a real physical way that can draw you closer.”

He emphasizes that these sensual gestures are acts of faith, but not the basis for our faith. “Jesus isn’t on that piece of marble. He’s not there, He’s risen.”

Reflecting on the trip, Donald considers the implications of what he experienced. “It’s not that I saw Christ on that slab of marble. It’s more that I saw Christ through my fellow pilgrims. In such a short period of time, we became so close. That’s where Christ was revealed to me.” The group at St. George’s College included about 30 pilgrims, with only half a dozen coming from Sewanee.

“We shared these experiences and really felt like pilgrims rather than tourists.” Donald distinguishes pilgrims from tourists based on intentionality. “When you’re a tourist, you go somewhere for an enhanced experience, or you go to see something and take a picture and leave, or to shop, or ski. I think a pilgrim goes with the intention to draw closer to God in some way. In some sense, it is the intentionality of the experience rather than the experience itself.”

In addition to his fellow pilgrims and others at the holy sites, Donald was enriched by his encounters with the Palestinian Christians hosting and teaching at St. George’s. He says, “I’m not sure if I gave a lot of thought to the presence of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land before the trip. I knew there was an ancient church there, and of course there are many sites that are owned by the Western church. But I never thought about the more indigenous Christians.”

The program at St. George’s College included a lecture on the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land. “The decline in the number of Christians has been precipitous. Yet I don’t think the numbers of Christian pilgrims that go to the Holy Land have decreased.”

What struck Donald most was not the tension in the Holy Land, but the difficult peace being lived moment-to-moment by individuals of various faiths. “Different ethnic and religious groups are bound to this particular place by emotional, religious, and cultural ties. They are forced to deal with one another in a confined space, rubbing against cultural differences with friction that often produces highly flammable sparks. Peace is elusive; sometimes it works and sometimes it does not. On a less violent level, peace can also be hard won within the factions of the broader church. A place where differences are lived out in close proximity can be found at the very site of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial, where a church has been located since the fourth century.”

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