I have now taken two pilgrimages in my life: one to England a few years ago, and another this summer to the Holy Land. The trips were fabulous, each very different and each quite powerful. After returning home I have been lucky enough to connect with folks who themselves have been pilgrims. They tend to skip past the usual travel inquiries (How were your flights? What was the food/hotel/weather/shopping like?) and get to the heart of the matter: Were you changed? If so, how?
Pilgrimages lend themselves, by design, to deeper experiences than leisure travel ever attempts. Treasured by all faiths, a pilgrimage is a very special kind of journey that is meant to be even richer spiritually than physically. Pilgrims travel for a million individual reasons. Some hope to spark their faith, to learn (or relearn) to pray, or to kindle their hearts and awaken hope. Some seek forgiveness, others seek answers. The reasons vary with every traveler, but it always has something essential to do with one’s soul opening up to some kind of change.
As I look back at my time in Israel and Palestine, I have been surprised about what moved my spirit most deeply. Before I left I expected one of the holy sites would provide the biggest spark. I was part of an exquisitely wonderful class through St. George’s College Jerusalem, a place and people I cannot recommend highly enough. The class was designed to visit many of the holiest places in the Christian faith. I was most eager to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, the olive grove just outside the walls of Jerusalem where Christ prayed before he was arrested. But I also was yearning to pray in Bethlehem and the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee and Calvary and inside the empty tomb. Each was remarkable and powerful. I was primed to have my soul moved by these places.
Surprisingly, the sites themselves never did that for me, though they understandably do so for many others. Rather, I was awed and inspired, time and again, by the stunning realization that at every holy place I was surrounded by a host of other Christ-followers who, like me, had also made great journeys to be nearer to God. Neither I nor my class was alone at those holy sites, we were not alone in our faith, and we were not alone in our conviction that the love of God is a healing balm that is transforming the world. This was exhilarating and empowering — the feeling of learning something in your bones that you’ve always known in your mind.
For example, in just one hour at the Jordan River, I saw and heard Christians from Nigeria, Egypt, Thailand, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Israel — and the United States, of course. This only counts the handful of folks I personally chatted with. We all were there, Pentecostals, Protestants, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox of every type, and more still I am sure. Down by the Jordan and across the Holy Land, the whole world had come to pray. The breadth of languages and religious expressions were breathtaking, but our common unity and our common humanity in Jesus Christ was overwhelming. I got goosebumps, I shivered with joy in the June heat, and I knew the Holy Spirit was alive in that place and in places all over the world.
My encounter of the Lord’s presence had far less to do with where I was praying than with who else was praying there. It is an ironic lesson to learn on a pilgrimage halfway across the world, but that is exactly what happened. I traveled a great distance to the holiest of lands to have my spirit reinvigorated by a simple truth I had long known: our faith is and has always been ultimately about people — not places, buildings, things, or doctrines. I was glad. My soul shifted, once again, closer to the presence of the living God.