Hello, dear readers, from your recently returned pilgrim! That’s right, your traveling teacher got to take another trip off of her bucket list. When I first starting teaching almost 10 years ago now, I never realized how the summers off would open up my world so literally. Each summer (since I learned how teachers should use their summers) has been spent at a new international location: Greece, Morocco, and Australia (just to name a few).
But, you say, it isn’t summer, and you’d be correct. When I saw a trip to the Holy Land advertised in my church bulletin last year, but saw that it was scheduled for February, I was determined to make it work no matter what. Because teachers get so many breaks and weeks off in the summer, we don’t get vacation. We get three personal days and that is it for the year other than sick time. I tried to pitch to my principal that since I am a Scripture teacher and I work at a Catholic School, this should be professional development time, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Regardless, I did get the time off to go (even though it was unpaid leave) and I did get to book my trip of a lifetime.
A trip to the Holy Land bears so much weight for so many reasons. Everyone says “it’s the trip of a lifetime.” Add onto that that you are a Scripture teacher. That you used to live in a convent. And that you told your parents about it and they want to go with you. This, my dear readers, only adds to the pressure of this trip really needing to meet that expectation of “trip of a lifetime.”
I really tried not to put any expectations on the trip since there was so much weight to this trip already. Regardless of how things went with our group or our flights, I was going to see the places that I teach my students about. I was going to walk close to places that Jesus at one time walked.
Now, I am not disillusioned that these places are ACTUALLY the places where tradition asserts that these moments in Christ’s life happen. I know that a lot of these Churches were built on guesstimates. But it was still going to be good enough for me to go to the places that for 1700 years- since the 4th century when Constantine and Helena made Christianity a world wide thing- people have come to worship and honor and remember Jesus.
Our trip was a 10 day tour and about 3 of those days were spent with travel. We flew to Frankfurt (7 hour flight) and then to Tel Aviv (4 hour flight). Israel is 7 hours ahead, so by the time we got to Tel Aviv, it was just time to go to bed. We got to see the coastal city a little before bed and before we boarded our bus for our true adventure: the cities in Northern Israel around the Sea of Galilee and then making our way down to Jerusalem.
I will spare you the play by play of each day, but rather, this post is going to be about where I “felt” God during this trip. I feel like one does a pilgrimage like this for the main reason of “feeling” God’s presence in these places. And, again, that is a lot of pressure to put on a trip. There are so many factors that come into play. For example:
a.the people you are traveling with. For us, that was a doozey. Lots of old, American travelers who I wasn’t quite sure had ever left the country before. That was a lot to take in and of itself. Oof.
b. timing. Turns out February is a great time to travel to Israel. It is like their Springtime. A little bit of rain, 50 and 60 degree weather, lots of vegetation in bloom. Our tour guide made sure to get us to as many places as possible each day (despite the aforementioned American travelers who are used to being on their own time schedules that I can only assume means moving at the slowest pace possible with no regard for anyone else) but moving at such a pace meant not getting to spend as much time as I would’ve liked taking in all of these seriously momentous locations.
c. the political backdrop. We all know that the Middle East has been in conflict since biblical times and it definitely played a role while we were there. I felt safe always while in Israel, but crossing the Palestinian border meant having us switch guides to have someone from the State of Palestine show us around Bethlehem and seeing big signs and barbed wire around borders warning Israeli citizens about their entrance into Palestine. On my free day, I really wanted to return to the border to see some street art by the artist Banksy that is there, but my guide warned against it. He said no cab driver would take me there for less than $150 and even then it was a toss up as to what the climate would be like.
All of these factors I tried to not let taint my bucket list experience of seeing and experiencing the places that we have read about in Scripture for centuries. But we are human.
I said I wasn’t going to give you all a play by play of each day, but rather, perhaps describe some of my “God moments” while on the trip. On our first day, I believe we were all looking for that “God moment” right away. Some of us did get it when we arrived in Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene. This is apparently a newly excavated city. It was “discovered” I think as recently as 2011. The skeptic in me had lots of questions. I couldn’t believe that for centuries people had walked this land around the Sea of Galilee and built churches on so many sites where Jesus was said to have walked, but we are just now discovering this land we have heard of in Scripture? I tried to put the questions out of my mind and just take in that FINALLY after 2000 years, a Church was going to be dedicated to the women in Scripture.
I will say, the priest that we heard describing this new Church that is built for “the dignity of women” was still condescending. I wish I could say that was a surprise, but we know better, don’t we ladies? The Church they have built in Magdala is very modern and has a room where there are pillars for each of the women mentioned in the Resurrection narratives which I thought was nice. There is an “empty” pillar with no name on it for the women who are pillars in our faith. Also a nice touch. It was still hard to listen, though, to a man speak about how this room and this Church was meant to “teach women about their dignity”…as if it was our fault that our dignity had been taken from us for centuries.
I was clearly too much inside of my head this first day. I was questioning the legitimacy of this place, this excavation, the intent behind all of it, judging those in my group…and then…
Bam! I fall to my knees on the 1st century rocks beneath my feet.
Our guides had been telling our 60+ aged travelers for hours to be careful on the 1st century stones and who is the one who takes the dive? One of the youngest ones.
I was humiliated, of course, to be in a group of 60 somethings and to be the one who took the dive that everyone saw and continued to ask me about for the rest of the week. I was also legitimately concerned about my ankle that immediately began to swell and hurt to put pressure on. But as I got onto my feet, we were taken into a chapel that is dedicated to the woman who touched Jesus’ garment in Mark chapter 5. This has been one of my favorite Scripture passages since I learned about how Mark wrote his Gospel while studying in the convent.
Image of chapel at Magdala with mural of woman in Mark 5 touching Christ’s garment. Also note unstable 1st century floors…
After I had my fall and this humbling moment and the visiting of this chapel, I got my head into gear. I asked God to change my attitude, to make me physically and spiritually well, just like the woman in the story.
We ended our first day with Mass in another chapel in this Church at Magdala with an altar shaped like a boat. There were windows behind it that overlooked the Sea of Galilee. The modern altar I thought was, of course, significant and really helped us get our minds around that we are here, in Galilee, where so many of these miracles happened.
Altar at chapel in Magdala overlooking Sea of Galilee.
The readings for Mass that day were also part of my God moment on this first day. The first reading was Hebrews 12:1-3, a passage that my personal blog is literally named after (http://hebrews121-3.blogspot.com. No joke) and the Gospel reading for that day was the woman with the hemorrhage. Our priest assured us that those were the actual readings for the day, not chosen just because we had seen the chapel inspired by that reading.
Later in our journeys, we would be having Mass and reading the passages from Scripture associated with those places we were in, but on this first day, I believe that my fall, those readings, were my first “God moments” of the trip. God was helping me to get my head in the right place and assure me that this trip would be anointed if I would get out of my own way.
Other places where I unexpectedly felt God’s presence:
– Mary’s home in Nazareth. I have always struggled with my relationship with Mary and again, my skepticism tells me that the house dedicated as “her house” in Nazareth couldn’t possibly be THE actual house, but for some reason, I felt very at peace there and didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay and pray and offer up all of my prayer intentions there.
– Pater Noster in Jerusalem. This is a church built in dedication to where Jesus gave us the Our Father. The Scripture scholar in me once again was dubious because the Mount of the Beatitudes is dedicated up by the Sea of Galilee and in Matthew’s Gospel, the Our Father is given in the same Sermon as the Beatitudes, yet here we were miles and miles away from that Mountain. But as our guide took us into a 1st century burial place on this mountain- the Mount of Olives where Jesus also Ascended from- and we said the Our Father together, I felt a connection to the place and to Our Father.
– the Holy Sepulcher. No surprise that I felt the Lord’s presence here as it is the Church where it is said the tomb of Christ and the rock of Calvary are located. I felt Christ’s presence as we said Mass next to the place where people can touch the rock said to be where Jesus died. I felt His presence specifically when we said the Creed together during Mass. It reminded me of how Christians have said this Creed of faith for centuries and to be at the place where much of our Creed takes place-“suffered, died, and was buried”- was a moment.
– Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It may not be surprising that I felt God’s presence here, being it is the place where God gave to us a Savior, but I am much more of an adult Jesus kind of girl instead of a baby Jesus girl if that makes any sense. I was also having some very human moments as we waited for hours to see the place of the manger. I was frustrated with humanity as we waited and people around us pushed and I was also frustrated with a woman in our group, but once we finally got into the cave of the Nativity, I felt God’s presence at the place of the manger. I don’t even remember taking pictures there and was surprised later to find some on my phone because I think I had some kind of out of body experience while there.
– Church of the Visitation. Surprisingly, another Mary place! Mary was really coming through on this trip for me. I felt her peace and presence at this place where it is said her cousin Elizabeth and husband Zechariah lived. It was also the birthplace of John the Baptist. We did this on the same day as Bethlehem and it was cool to have visited the birthplace of Jesus as well as the birthplace of his precursor, John, on the same day.
There is so much more that I could say about my trip, but I am still processing much myself. One of the biggest takeaways that I will leave you with is this one:
As we were in Nazareth in the home of the Holy Family where Jesus was supposedly raised, I was letting my humanness get the best of me again. People were pushing, there wasn’t much space, people in our group were frustrating me and so then I was frustrated with myself that I wasn’t “feeling” anything there.
In that moment, I thought: “here I am in the Holy Land and I have had more intense ‘God moments’ back home.” But maybe that’s just it. And that is the beauty of our faith: you don’t have to be in the Holy Land to “feel God.” He truly is present everywhere. And for me as a Catholic, I believe He is present in the Eucharist which happens every time at Mass. That idea that God is truly present everywhere gives me much hope and I hope that it does for you, too, dear reader.
I am grateful to have had the experience of a lifetime with this trip. I can now picture and imagine geographically where much of the New Testament and some of the Old Testament took place. But our God is not limited by time and space. He is everywhere. And apparently I had to go to the Holy Land to really learn to appreciate that.