As the sunset glinted off the glass of Tel Aviv’s beachside skyline, Catholic ministry leaders from around the U.S. and the Verso team relaxed on the sandy shore looking out over the Mediterranean. With a mixture of peace and expectation, we breathed in the salty air, golden hues of the setting sun, and sounds of lapping waves as we anticipated the trip of a lifetime. A trip to the Holy Land.
We had just arrived in Israel at the end of January 2020 to begin our “FAM trip,” or, familiarization trip. These trips give leaders who are thinking about coordinating their own group trip an opportunity to explore the Holy Land for themselves, and get acquainted with how Verso does pilgrimage.
Here is a special reflection on the Holy Land — a few highlights of the trip, some insights we gained along the way, and comments from some of the pilgrims that were there.
Nazareth and The Divine Ordinary
On our first full day we drove up past the coastal town of Haifa, briefly stopping to visit Mt. Carmel, then landed mid-morning in Nazareth.
Nazareth is a bustling, mid-size city, and the largest in Israel’s Northern District. But 2,000 years ago, people joked that nothing good came from the tiny town, much less the savior of the world. The excavated town can be seen under and around the modern Church of the Annunciation, and doesn’t amount to much more than a large city block.
The Church of the Annunciation is a grand, massive work of art that celebrates the moment when Mary first learned from the angel Gabriel that Jesus would be her son. But that miraculous announcement happened in a humble, dusty town. No one else knew about this announcement at first. Not many cared when Mary and Joseph raised Jesus here.
When you visit today, it’s striking that Jesus came in flesh and blood to live among the earth, stones, and tiny neighborhood of Nazareth. To imagine Mary holding Jesus’ hand as they walk around their village or go to the temple (you can still see a step that Jesus likely walked on to approach it), is to imagine an ordinary life filled with ordinary days. And yet, God came down to this place that few thought of, few visited, few cared about.
As one pilgrim put it, “[I realized] that the Holy Land isn’t just some fairy-tale- story book we all heard growing up. The places are ordinary, but I think that speaks louder than just being blown away by the sights. It reminds us that Jesus came into a real place, many places that look similar to what we have back in America. But he came to a real place and a real time, just as he’s still in our lives today.”
The Sea of Galilee and Sacred Space
In the midst of life, going on a pilgrimage can create a breathtaking amount of spiritual and emotional space for pilgrims.
For our group, taking a boat out into the Sea of Galilee was one such moment.
It was our second day, and as we got further and further out from the shore of Tiberias, as the din of the city faded, our hearts and minds quieted. Much like Jesus calmed the chaos of the storm, leaving his disciples in awe of him as they sat still in the middle of a suddenly peaceful lake, we grew ever more still as we floated in the middle of these calm waters.
Then we celebrated Mass together. There’s not a whole lot that’s comparable to being outside in the middle of God’s serene creation and taking the Eucharist at the very spot of one of Jesus’ miracles. Especially one that displays his power and peace at the same time.
One pilgrim put her experience this way: “A lot of people on this trip are ministers in some way to the church. I think we put a lot of pressure on our life of what ministry means. During that time on the Sea of Galilee, just reflecting on what Jesus did in his ministry, and how it wasn’t linear. His ministry went from this place to this place to the next place. And in my own life I feel that way sometimes. During that moment, at the Sea of Galilee, I just asked for peace and understanding that what Christ did is exactly what I’m doing.”
The Dead Sea and Living Simply
On paper, the Dead Sea is simply a large body of water with a high concentration of salt (about 34%).
But the experience of the Dead Sea is downright surreal. Decades of experience teaches you that being in water is a sink or swim situation. Water does not lift you. Except that here, it does. No matter what you do, when your feet leave the mud your body rises to the surface. After the initial surprise, people settle in and have fun. They read newspapers while lounging in the water as if comfortably seated in a recliner. They take mud baths. They take lots of pictures.
This is not a holy site. Tour guides aren’t giving tours and the visitors here are not praying. They’re floating.
We found that in the midst of our pilgrimage, the Dead Sea made us more alive. It made us relax and enjoy our fellow pilgrims. We sat by the sea and talked, ate, and drank at the “lowest bar in the world,” laughed and reminisced about the trip so far. It reminded us that being with people and enjoying one other’s company is not just important, but it’s also its own type of ministry.
As one ministry leader on the trip put it, “One of the ways that God has spoken to me this week is through eating the food that he ate, walking the roads that he walked, and being in the places he has been. It all reminded me of how simple ministry can be and that I don’t need to overthink it. Christianity is sometimes as simple as eating with people, being with them, and walking with them. His ministry was just doing everyday normal life with people and loving them well. That’s something I’m going to take home with me.”
The Holy Sepulchre and God Made Real
There’s one aspect of the Holy Land that’s talked about often, yet utterly indescribable. It’s impossible to put into words, yet it’s experienced by thousands each year.
It’s that here, Jesus and the stories that surround him feel entirely, tangibly, real.
The feeling that these events happened in these very places, that God was among humanity in body and spirit, that he’s still with us today, touches even the most skeptical. And the Holy Sepulchre is one of the locations many people identify where they feel it the strongest.
Our group had the opportunity to visit the Church of Holy Sepulchre — the church in the Old City of Jerusalem that houses both the site of where Jesus was crucified and his empty tomb — when it was almost entirely empty. It was a far cry from the typical throngs of people typically waiting hours to get a few seconds inside the tomb. Of course, our admission came with a price: a 2:30 am wake up call. By 3:00 we were walking the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus made each tortuous step on his way to his own crucifixion. It was there we began the Stations of the Cross and would finish inside the Holy Sepulchre.
Within the vast structure lies both Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. We went upstairs first, to bend beneath the altar and touch the rock where Jesus died. Afterwards we each lit a candle, prayed, and shed tears when remembering what happened at this very spot. Down the steps from Calvary we celebrated a Mass unlike any other: inside the tomb of Jesus. Receiving the Eucharist where the body and blood of Jesus was temporarily laid to rest was truly an ineffable experience.
One of our pilgrims described the pilgrimage as “being able to really feel the whole aspect of everything Jesus did — feel where he was, feel how he lived, and feel the sufferings and the joys. It was all so overwhelming.”
Hidden Gems, Food, and Fellowship
One of the great things about a Verso pilgrimage is that we make sure and provide plenty of time for people to explore on their own. It’s a break from the guided tours and structured portions of the day, and lets people discover local markets, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, art, and culture.
One such spot is the old city of Jerusalem. During our few days there, with our hotel sitting across the street, pilgrims wandered over for anywhere from minutes to hours. Packed into tight alleyways, shop owners sell just about anything you can imagine. You can dart into the small restaurants and bars for a quick bite or drink, or even get a tattoo at the oldest tattoo parlor in the world (several of our own pilgrims opted to get inked).
Some of the best, most authentic moments here in the Holy Land are unscripted drop-ins to these local restaurants. You can roll the dice and just visit a random shop, or ask one of the locals who we found are always willing to give a recommendation. Removed from your regularly scheduled program, it’s the perfect time to sit back and chat about your experiences, both outward and inward.
“Some of us went out and explored the city last night and we found this restaurant, they served us hummus and falafel, and it was the best cultural experience ever,” one pilgrim said. “It was so good to share a meal together and reflect on just the way that Verso has affected us, on the ways this pilgrimage has changed our lives, and just to share that meal together and share the experiences that we are sharing, and just reflect on them was very powerful.”
The Church of the Nativity and Spiritual Nourishment
On our last full day of pilgrimage, we visited the humble beginnings of Jesus’s life on earth. In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity where Christmas is celebrated each day.
As each person made their way down steep stairs and placed their hand in the very spot where Jesus was born, the emotional impact hit as deeply as it did at the Holy Sepulchre. We contemplated the miraculous fact that God broke through space and time to come to earth as a humble, fragile baby. In a way, it was the perfect ending to the pilgrimage. As we remembered Jesus’s humble beginnings, it made us reflect on how this experience could be a new beginning for each of us.
It’s amazing what can happen when we are taken outside our normal lives and put on sacred ground. When everything has been taken care of — from meals to lodging to buses — so that our singular focus is on being present and available for God’s work in us.
One of our own pilgrims said it well. “It was so easy for me to kind of just, allow myself to grow in a spiritual way, and grow in this place, knowing I was taken care of, in a way that fed me spiritually. So, I wasn’t left overwhelmed by everything. It was just spiritual nourishment in every place that I went to, and also fulfilling nourishment from Mass at every place.”
Ending as Family
The trip started with individual hopes and expectations, and ended all together as family, swelling with memories and emotion. We ate our final meal together and shared what had changed us, what our favorite moments were, and what we hoped would be different upon stepping back into “normal” life.
Of course, as it was a familiarization trip, many hoped and planned to return with their own groups in tow. This unforgettable experience had cemented its power and ability to change hearts and minds.
If you’d like to experience some of these same moments, and discover the change in yourself that can happen, explore more about a Verso-led trip to the Holy Land. We hope one day you’ll join us!