My 2017 pilgrimage to the Holy Land began more as an escape than a spiritual journey. A friar at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, who is a friend, told me he was leading a 10-day pilgrimage and asked me if I was interested.
I’d heard his tales of biblical places that had long sounded familiar yet were distant: Jerusalem, Jericho, Capernaum. They were on my list of places to visit. “Perhaps during retirement,” I’d told myself – long in the distance. One day, however, I signed up for the pilgrimage in haste. I was stressed and was looking for a way to slow down my hectic pace.
A Bird Basks in the Sun along the Sea of Galilee.
For better or worse, I didn’t have expectations about the trip I was about to embark on. Arriving to the Israeli coastal town of Netanya on the Mediterranean coast, I realized I hadn’t even packed a Bible. But that’s the beauty of the pilgrimage – you really don’t need one because in a sense, when you arrive in the Holy Land, you’re in the Bible itself.
“You’ll never look at the Bible or sit in church listening to the Gospel in the same way again,” a friend had told me. I wish I could say I have great knowledge of the Bible, but the truth is that I don’t. I do, however, pay attention during Mass, and so parables, maps of the area, historical facts, and archeological clues our chaplain and our guide shared along the way, leading us in the physical and spiritual footsteps of Jesus and his disciples, seemed more like the pieces of a puzzle I had put together before.
The Chapel of the Ascension.
I remember a particular moment, thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I’m eating fish by the Sea of Galilee,” which, by the way, is not a sea but a lake. I thought of Jesus and his friends eating by the shore, sharing laughter and fellowship, much in the same way I was doing with my fellow pilgrims. Touching the receding water, I tried to find him and his friends in the ancient rocks. Instead, I found them throughout the land, in the kindness of the local citizens and in the stories the Messiah and his disciples left behind for us, their spiritual sons and daughters, who were there not just to see a new place, but to learn more about them so that we might better imitate their example.
Boats filled with Pilgrims near the city of Tiberias along the Sea of Galilee.
After all, a pilgrimage is different than a trip. The day begins with God present in prayer, but also with Jesus present in the landscape, present in the daily Mass. He’s rarely away from the experience. I could see his joy in the smile of teenagers who passed by on hoverboards during a breezy night walk in Nazareth and his sorrows in the Via Dolorosa as we prayed the Stations of the Cross along the cobblestones of Jerusalem.
The Old City of Jerusalem at Dawn.
I pictured him with Mary and Joseph when we crossed the Judean desert in an air-conditioned bus, wondering how long it had taken them to cross it and thinking of the discomfort they must have endured.
Though the region where Jesus and the early Christians roamed is now dotted with modern cities such as Haifa and Tel-Aviv, the Franciscans of the Holy Land, who have cared for the area’s sacred sites for over eight centuries, also have been faithful to their architectural integrity. Their care and maintenance helps pilgrims like me get the most accurate glimpse possible of the physical world Jesus and his disciples inhabited and realize that neither the Bible, nor Jesus, is an abstraction. Like Thomas, I needed to see it and touch it to understand it better.
A Pilgrim waits for a bus near Mt. Tabor in Lower Galilee.
A few weeks after I’d returned, we heard during Mass the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who climbed the tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he entered Jericho. I remembered our guide pointing to a tree in the ancient city. Though no one knows which one was the exact tree, he pointed to one that likely resembled the one Zacchaeus climbed. I remember thinking during Mass, “This is not an abstraction. It really happened.”
Join Franciscan Holy Land Pilgrimages (and their 800 years of unique and expert experience in the Holy Land) on an upcoming pilgrimage, or organize a pilgrimage for your own group! To choose and book the tour that is just right for you- visit the Franciscan Holy Land Pilgrimages website.
All Rights Reserved, 2018. Photos and text by Rhina Guidos