It's an old story. Folks have taken a pilgrimage and they are changed. Returning to their home, the familiar surrounds seem different and somehow off-kilter. The people are about the same, but you are different.
You recall your first pilgrimage and its surprising impact on your being. We went to Fatima because at the time we were living in Portugal. Our friends said we simply had to go. It was not our type of thing. In Portugal one gets used to outward shows of faith. Roadside devotionals were common. On the bus we were moved by the faith of the pilgrims. We saw people climbing stony steps approaching a shrine on their knees. We were bound for the field where three children saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1917.
When we read Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," we had vague ideas of sinful people telling their woeful stories and trying to save themselves. Seeing Martin Sheen in "The Way," wakes up the possibility of change in our modern lives. "The Way" in the movie is the Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James. It is a walking path from France to a shrine in coastal Spain. In the movie, the main character meets three other pilgrims and they form their bonds and reveal their secrets. No matter what mood bereaved father Martin Sheen harbored as he set out, his journey changed him.
And then, there is "Next year Jerusalem." Does it imply a rendezvous? Jerusalem is, of course, the central site of many faiths. However, try using the words "The Holy Land." Many shake their geographic heads and give a blank look. A journey to Israel is, however, like no other. Traveling on a tour bus with 30 other Christians offered companionship while we listened to Scripture readings and prayed at holy sites. Others had told us of the disputes between various Christian groups, so that each denomination has its own altars: the Protestants, the Syrian Christians, the Greek Orthodox. They have also written of the bloody history of the cities and valleys. There are Armageddons and sacrifices; there are beheadings and crucifixions.
The New World comes with the birth of Christ. We followed the sites where He was born, was baptized, preached and performed miracles. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is no longer just a Christmas carol. In Nazareth, with its colorful history, the town where Jesus spent most of his life, we walked where He might have walked. Famous as the site of the Annunciation, Nazareth shows strains of the historical twists of power. The Romans, the Byzantines, and later the Crusaders came along and made it an important Christian site. After Muslims retook control in the 12th and 13th centuries, Christians were banished. By the 18th century Franciscans were able to acquire the basilica and maintain a presence to modern times.
A boat trip on the Sea of Galilee was aboard a replica of a first century fishing boat excavated from the sea floor. An outing allowed for song and Scripture readings. Later we were able to collect shells and rocks from the spot where Peter and the sons of Zebedee moored their boats by the shore.
A surprising highlight is the Holy Land's harsh deserts. A village springs up. Caves form in groups, some natural, some man-made. One imagines the cave where Jesus was born. We saw one of the caves in which a Bedouin shepherd, in 1947, looking for his lost goat discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, he used some of the pottery containers for target practice before reporting one of the greatest historical finds of all time. As he entered the cave he noticed jars containing seven ancient scrolls and over the next two decades fragments of some 800 more were found in 11 caves. The scrolls had been written between the 3rd century BC and 68 AD by a sect of early Jewish monks at Qumran. Some contain the oldest existing versions of biblical scripture. At the Israel Museum the Dead Sea scrolls are further explained and exhibited.
We followed the Passion from the Church of the Agony, the Garden of Gethsemane to Kidron Valley to the House of Caiaphas. We walked the Via Dolorosa winding through the busy markets on the ancient stones of old Jerusalem. One early morning as our group was following the path of the passion, Stations of the Cross, Palestinian Catholics school girls, wearing red plaid skirts and carrying back packs and scurrying up the steeps steps, touch the hole at the 8th station, where Jesus consoles the Women of Jerusalem. Their hands quickly touched the spot, made the sign of the cross and then rushed up the steps. They shared girlish laughter on their way to school.
Our guide tells us of the sacrifice they make daily to remain Catholic and Palestinian in Jerusalem. Theirs is a difficult life. His wife does not shop in the local Arab souks or markets for fear of verbal abuse or worse. His children are the object of ridicule if they pass by stalls in the city. A pickpocket makes off with our wallet, using a small boy as a distraction. Our group was heckled by a local vendor. This is life in a city under tension.
Yet, we hope the very presence of pilgrims helps stabilize the region. We are among the many pilgrims who are a source of considerable income. As well as holy places, we are able to visit archaeological sites. One is Megiddo, a fertile valley where armies and more armies fought and died in horrible carnage. The Book of Revelation portrays this as Armageddon, the site of the final battle between Good and Evil at the end of the world. Geology is destiny here where ancient tribes and caravans carried on their trading and armies followed earlier battle sites. Perhaps it will be the final battle site.
When we recall favorite places, there are so many. Where else to renew baptismal vows than the river Jordan? Where else to renew wedding vows but at Cana? We are fascinated by Jericho, the oldest known human settlement in the world. Students of the Bible are familiar with names such as Capharnaum, the Land of Zabulon and Galilee. Now for us they take shape in our minds as real places where real events occurred.
Every pilgrimage is only partly travel and discovery. Frederick Buechner said "Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage." Visiting the holy sites of our faith sets off internal well springs. The journey changes the travelers so that things never look the same. Before this travel, we expected heads of state to solve geo-political strife. Now we know that politics will never settle the world's ills. Rather faith is the only solution. It is Jesus who redeems.
"The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; the dispersed of Israel he gathers."
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.