Israel 2011 — Impressions of Israel 6 — What is a Pilgrimage?

        Our trip was billed as a pilgrimage, under the spiritual leadership of Father John Allard, a good friend. People make pilgrimages all the time, especially to Israel where there are so many important Biblical/religious sites. Was it worth it? Could a modern-day person be truly changed by a visit to this ancient land?

            A pilgrim can be defined as one who makes a journey to a holy or sacred place as an act of devotion. I have discussed pilgrimages with people who have gone to places like Lourdes, Fatima, Medugorje, Santiago de Compostela, etc. All of these journeys have several things in common: the destination is a place important to the particular religion, and the journey involves a searching for spiritual fulfillment or awakening.

      As a non-religious person, what did I hope to accomplish by making this pilgrimage? Was I trying to rediscover religion? Was I merely pretending to participate in something I had no interest in? Was this really a journey for my wife who believes strongly? Actually, my decision to participate was based on my long-standing desire to visit the Holy Land, as a traveler, not necessarily as a pilgrim, since Biblical events have so influenced the history of the world.

     Examples of this history include the following. On this trip we saw a the ruins of Roman city which is still fairly well-preserved (Caesarea); we saw a retaining wall from King Herod’s great temple in Jerusalem; we visited a church which was begun in the 4th century by Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena; we saw evidence of the Crusades; we saw locations described in the Old and New Testament which focused on some of the greatest names in the history of religion (Abraham, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ); we walked along 12th century city walls (Jerusalem); we spent time in a city which claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited urban area on earth (Jericho); we listened to and watched videos documenting the most horrific case of genocide in the history of mankind (Yad Vashem); we explored the site where one of the greatest examples of courage and mass suicide took place (Masada); we witnessed “concrete” examples of the modern-day conflict between Moslems and Jews on the West Bank. For me this was truly a journey through history.

     So, was there any spiritual benefit for somone like me? Yes, as a matter of fact, there was. Having been raised Catholic, it was enlightening to actually see the places mentioned in the New Testament and, in a sense, to relive events like the Sermon on the Mount, the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, and the Nativity. Literally, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, one of the world’s great heroes, along the Via Dolorosa, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and to Caiphas’ house, was awesome and inspiring. 

     A trip to the Holy Land makes the Bible come alive. The places and events have a new meaning and become crystallized. Any person who is or was religious should make their own “pilgrimage” here, before Jerusalem is destroyed again since the forces at work in this country today are not likely to go away soon.

     The other major spiritual aspect for me involved attending Mass each day on our trip. Father John was extremely eloquent and adept at personalizing each location and its meaning. We all came away with a better understanding of the events in the life of Jesus Christ and how they relate to mankind as a whole and each of us in particular. He constantly expressed his wish that each of us would be changed by the experience, and I think we all were, in our own way. Travel is always life-changing!


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