I hopped on the bus at 2am, and after a sleepy flight to Tel Aviv and a musical bus ride to Emmaus, I stood before ancient ruins surrounding an altar. This marked the very spot where it is believed that the Resurrected Jesus revealed Himself in the Eucharist to two of His disciples (Luke 26). It happened all that suddenly, and as swiftly as the sentences I used to describe it. And such were the nine days of my pilgrimage in the Holy Land. It was all a whirlwind—seeing so many places in so little time. And at the sites we were able to meditate and worship at, those tangible holy sites seemed yet somehow unreal and ordinary. There seemed to be a disconnect, between the graces offered to us and the physical places before my eyes. I do indeed mean to convey a sense of dullness that was included in my Holy Land experience. I want to be honest about it. But also let me clarify: I loved my time in the Holy Land. It was truly amazing (or, shall I say, “Emmaus-ing”). But what made this experience so amazing for me? Let me ask an even broader question: what would make anyone’s experience of any place truly amazing? These questions can be answered in the same way: an encounter with an other.
That is what I see reflecting back on my time in the Holy Land: the best experiences we can have are of others. Even locations themselves- every nook and corner of creation- expresses in some capacity the Holy Trinity. The Holy Land is distinctly special for basically this same reason: namely, the Person Who descended there and those who experienced/encountered Him. The Incarnation-when Eternal and Omnipotent Being became finite and vulnerable man—will never be fully comprehended. When I looked upon the ruins of Caiaphas’ palace and descended into the dungeon where Jesus spent the darkest night-while these certainly moved me toward faith and love of the good God—it barely scraped the essence of the mystery. But I was blessed to do so. In my deficiency of spiritual insight, in my disconnect, I was able to sit there with Him, in His desolation.
God has united Himself to us by coming to us in a specific place. However, because Jesus came so we might be united to God through Him, He is now accessible all over the world. St. Theresa of Avila one time told her sisters that they were more blessed to sit before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament than St Mary of Bethany was to sit at His feet. This is the even better “better part.” Not to drink from Jacob’s Well, in a crowd of bustling pilgrims, trying to imagine the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman there. I did that. I had intensely looked forward to Jacob’s Well for months. I identify much with the Samaritan woman, and remember when Jesus crashed into my life. But being there, I did not feel a connection. It was more joyful and profound to converse with my companions on our long walk to the Mount of the Beatitudes, where we had holy Mass. All of creation is not as profound as one human being. We are the ones that can be springs of Living Water, not Jacob’s Well, a literal hole in the ground.
It was incredible to behold the city lights surrounding the Temple Mount, to walk the road to Emmaus in the heat, and to bask in the water of the Sea of Galilee. How can I describe the privilege of being able to receive Communion in the Sacred Tomb, to venerate the rock at Golgotha, to pray the Joyful Mysteries in the hill country of Judea? My mind could not compute these things, my emotions could not express them, they were beyond me. But in order to appreciate the goodness of any experience– the taste of falafel (not awful falafel), the scent of incense, the sounds of children playing, the vision of sunset— first, we must be at peace with others and ourselves, or else we cannot find any goodness in anything. Jesus drawing near to those disciples on the road to Emmaus— that is what sets our hearts afire.
One of my favorite experiences, like this Emmaus encounter, was in Nazareth, a dirty and poor town, rather unpleasant. Such is the place our Lord became flesh, which expresses a lot about where He chooses to break into each of our personal lives. That day in Nazareth, I had been wishing for a Miraculous Medal; I thought about asking other pilgrims if anyone had extras; I also looked inside a Catholic shop to see if there was one I could purchase, though in vain. Three fellow pilgrims and I walked along the dirty, desolate cobblestone streets- along our way, we spotted a Friar walking along nearby. “Father!” one girl from my group called out. We spoke with him, and he walked with us. “Will you give us a blessing?” she asked, before he departed. Delighted to encounter students from his alma mater, he smiled, responded positively, and added, “I have a bunch of Miraculous Medals if you would like!” Enthusiastically, I replied, “Yes!” Then he gave us a blessing, with the Sign of the Cross in Chinese; when asked, he shared with us that he had been serving the underground Church in China until recently. This tiny interaction was one of the most joyous for me.
I would like also to relate some encounters I had in Nablus, a Palestinian City of 300,000, majority of whom are Muslims, with a Christian population of 600. Who would have thought this obscure city, one that is not unfamiliar with political violence, would become one of my favorite places I have even been. I think it was because of the people– the school girls who asked us if me and my companions had boyfriends and who took pictures with us for their Snapchat, leading us through the marketplace to their favorite dessert shop; the elderly parishioner who thanked us for our presence and coming to her tiny parish, calling us a gift from God and a great encouragement; the young adults who hosted me and two of my friends, conversing with us on their rooftop well into the night, and eating a traditional Palestinian breakfast there with us in the morning. These moments were the mixtures of minds and hearts. While the settings afforded the opportunities, they were imprints, inventions of the people who lived there, and for the sake of those people. I want to go back for the people.
These little anecdotes, like many others which I could also recount, are all almost irrelevant to the holy sites around where they took place. I am not a gnostic—I do know the physical world is relevant. Indeed, I am Catholic: the physical reflects the spiritual, and the spiritual can elevate the physical. But do you know what the spiritual reality is? Spirit is personhood. That is the heart of the Holy Land: namely, the Sacred Heart, “which beats for you, in time and in eternity, in sync with yours.”
I went to the very spot where our Lord said, “…the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.” Ironically, I believe the same Jesus wanted me to come to that exact spot. But not so that I could receive some passing feeling of connection or elation related to the place. But in order to encounter this Him, who is available to us independently from holy ground and gushy feelings. An experience like this, one away from the sites, was another one of my favorite: It was when Father Anthony, our shepherd and guide, had the bus pull over on the side of the desert road (not the same time we pulled over for a “male emergency,” that was a different time) and we all climbed a hill overlooking the Jordan valley and the sandy mountain range across it, and sang praises to God, encountering Him in our hearts, in the emptiness of that remote place, away from it all.
Our Lord did choose a specific place to come to us, but now truly He is as present here as He is in the Holy Land. And so, I know, I am capable of encountering God even in my local McDonald’s. Not to say that some places aren’t holier than others; not to say that some places aren’t more apt for our souls (or bodies, as McDonald’s proves). What I mean to convey is this: the person who is my local hamburger flipper is more sacred than the empty tomb– that dude flipping hamburgers is the reason there is an empty tomb. My town is another holy land where the Lord walks searching for the lost sheep. My town is the holy land where the same crucified and risen Jesus waits lovingly for me in the little gold box. He dwells there, not in the Holy Sepulcher. So let us go to Him now in our neighbor and in the Eucharist. Let’s encounter this Other, His Divine Person. And be holy land where He abides.