Finding Faith: An Uncertain Pilgrim in Israel

Over the past six months, I’ve traveled to dozens of renowned pilgrimage sites across Asia and the Middle East.  Whether it be the Sikh’s Golden Temple in India, the Bahá’í Gardens in Israel, Buddhist temples in Nepal’s Lumbini (the birthplace of Buddha), Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Islamic shrine in New Delhi, India’s Kashi Vishwanath Hindu Temple, mosques of great importance throughout Turkey, or historic churches in Turkey, Israel, and Palestine, I’ve seen thousands of people traveling miles (often on foot!) just to see these places in person.

When I arrived in Israel, I was overwhelmed by the number of pilgrims from around the world at holy sites.  Day after day, busload after busload of people pull up to churches where tradition says an event of great significance in the Bible took place.  They pile out of the bus, hear a quick explanation, take a few photos, and then are back on the bus to repeat the same pattern 10 or more times more that day.  (And, not just Christian groups.  As Israel is home to some of the holiest places for several other religions, pilgrims from these faiths fill the streets too.)

Large tour group making its way up the Dome of the Rock

When planning my trip to Israel, I never thought of it as a pilgrimage.  Yes, I am Christian.  Yes, I am the wife of a former pastor, which meant that my involvement in church life back in the U.S. was more than most.  And, yes, one of the reasons that I was coming to Israel and Palestine was to see all the places in the Holy Land that I head read about in the Bible for years.  However, I didn’t see myself as a pilgrim…until I got to Jerusalem.

Our second day in the city, Craig, our two friends visiting from the U.S., and I spent much of the day exploring the Mount of Olives.  Just to the east of Jerusalem’s Old City and once covered with olive trees, the Mount of Olives is the traditional location of a number of important events during the ministry of Jesus, such as the garden where Jesus is said to have prayed the night before his crucifixion, where he is supposed to have taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, and a church marking the spot where some say Jesus ascended into heaven.  The mountain is also home to a Jewish cemetery dating back 3,000 years that contains more than 150,000 graves.  Jews seek to be buried here as it is said that those laid to rest in this location will be the first risen of the dead when the Messiah comes.

View of the Mount of Olives from the City of David with the village of Silwan to the right


Walking up the mountain along Palm Sunday Road (the road which Jesus rode a donkey or colt down to triumphantly enter Jerusalem days prior to his crucifixion), we stopped at site after site, reading an explanation from the book, hearing commentary from Craig, taking photos, and saying a quick prayer before moving on to the next church, garden, or tomb.  Just like checking things off a to-do list, we made our way up and down the Mount of Olives seeing the sights important to our faith, just as any good Christian pilgrim would.


View of Jerusalem through the window of the Dominus Flevit Church where Jesus is said to have wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-42)


The next day, we continued exploring the highlights of Jerusalem.  With a guide for the day, we marched up and down the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, visiting the Jewish Quarter, the Temple Mount, the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Mount Zion, the Upper Room, Dormition Abbey, and David’s Tomb.  Particularly as we were with a guide and had so much to see in one day, we quickly moved from place to place — listening to explanations, asking questions, taking photos, taking a minute to say a quick prayer or reflect on where we were, and then off to the next place we went.

As we walked through Jerusalem that day, surrounded by hundreds of other tourists pushing and shoving to get a photo, touch a rock, or kneel at an altar, it dawned on me:  just like them, I too was a pilgrim.  While I had seen thousands of pilgrims during our time in India and Nepal (in particular), I had never really identified with their journeys.  Many of them walked for days on end, they slept on the floor of bus stations or along sidewalks in cities, they were solely focused on getting to their final destination.  With a small bag or nothing at all, most of the pilgrims I saw seemed so different from me.  However, as my trip through Israel continued, I began to second guess my original assessment…


Pilgrims packed in St. Anne’s Church, a Crusader-era church at the start of the Via Dolorosa. The church is dedicated to the parents of Mary (Anne and Joachim) who tradition says lived at this location.

The more that I thought about the purpose of my trip and what I was doing in Israel, I realized that I too was on a pilgrimage.  Just as the thousands of other pilgrims I saw in Israel and Palestine each day, I had journeyed to a far away place to see sites of great importance to my faith.  And, while it was somewhat satisfying to be on my own pilgrimage after seeing so many others on these trips earlier in my travels, it was also unsettling as I didn’t always like what I saw amongst pilgrims in the Holy Land.

The whole pilgrimage experienced seemed a bit inauthentic and commercialized to me.  Tour groups catering to Christians in buses adorned with crosses and fish filled the streets.  Groups in matching gear filled churches to the brim with camera flashes and loud chatter.  Outside the holiest of sites, stores were set up, and sellers were ready to grab pilgrims to convince them that something to commemorate their visit to this particular church was a necessary part of their journey.  Rather than being reverent as they entered sites of such religious importance, many of the pilgrims I saw pushed, shoved, yelled, and just showed no respect for the sanctity of these sites.  Rather than getting to know a place, many pilgrims just seemed to stop by for a few minutes for a photo opp at a church and then move on.  Honestly, I was surprised by it all.  Amid all this chaos of the thousands of pilgrims we passed, I thought, what would Jesus think of all this?  Is this what he would have wanted?  I don’t have an answer…but, I felt like he wouldn’t like it much at all…

Following a pilgrim’s progression down the Villa Dolorosa toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Since my first week in Israel, I have continued traveling across the Holy Land, not just seeing sites but also trying to get to know the people of Israel and Palestine too.  I have tried to slow the pace of my travel so that I can get a better sense of each place we visit and the people who are living there now…not just the ones who inhabited the land thousands of years ago.  And, for me, I have found this part of the pilgrimage to be much more enjoyable and more meaningful to me than just checking churches off a list.

A couple of weeks ago, Craig and I were in Jericho, which is located in Palestine near the border with Jordan.  Jericho calls itself the oldest city in the world, having been continuously inhabited since approximately 9,000 BC.  In ancient times, there was a road that ran from Jerusalem to Jericho.  This is the road on which the parable of the Good Samaritan took place.  This is the road ancient prophets may have used when crossing the area.  And, today, this path still exists.  While we didn’t walk the full road (which now crosses in and out of Israel and Palestine), Craig and I did walk on it for 2.5 hours to a monastery deep in the desert.  While the monastery along the trail was beautiful, more meaningful than making it to the monastery was the walk to Jericho itself.  Alone, on a quiet footpath we were really able to step back in time and envision what life must have been like for those living in this area in biblical times.  Our walk through the Wadi Qelt along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho really helped many of the stories from the Bible come to life for me and has been one of my favorite experiences in the Holy Land.


Wadi Qelt — Jericho, Palestine


Me walking along a path between Jerusalem and Jericho through the desert


Craig on the path between Jerusalem and Jericho


Additionally, about a week and a half ago, Craig and I wanted to visit Tzipori (known as Sepphoris in biblical times).  Sepphoris was a Roman and then Byzantine city that was a large building project outside of Nazareth during the life of Jesus.  And, it is possible, that (as he was a tekton, or one who works with his hands) Jesus worked on this city as a laborer.  Knowing this, Craig and I very much wanted to see the ruins while in Israel.  Unfortunately, there isn’t public transportation to Sepphoris; however, Craig and I were not deterred — we would just walk!

We found out that the Jesus Trail runs through the countryside between Nazareth and Cana (where it is said Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding).  And, this route also runs right by the entrance to Sepphoris along the way.  Determined to see Sepphoris, Craig and I departed Nazareth for the three-hour walk to the now national park.  Rather than being surrounded by other pilgrims or on a tour bus zipping from place to place, we found ourselves alone, walking through olive trees and farmers’ fields on the outskirts of Nazareth.  It was here that I got a glimpse into the life of Jesus.


Walking along the Jesus Trail between Nazareth and Cana


Away from the vendors, pushing pilgrims, and camera flashes, we made our way through the worst mud I’ve ever hiked in and into the beauty of Galilee.  I tried to imagine Jesus making this journey in his sandals.  In wind and low temperatures, my feet were cold.  After a downpour the night before, my boots were caked in mud.  The vivid green fields, drizzling rain, and cloudy gray skies were a reminder that those in the Bible weren’t always just walking through the hot desert.  As we trudged on toward Sepphoris, I felt closer to experiencing the life of Jesus than I felt at almost any church we visited at the famous pilgrimage sites earlier in our trip.


Just a little bit of mud along the way…


Books caked with mud…which was impossible to get rid of on the three-hour walk between Nazareth and Sepphoris


And, while the ruins Sepphoris were a sight to see, more than the destination, it was our walk there that made the day meaningful.  For me, this was what pilgrimage was all about.


Anicent ruines of Sepphoris


Famous mosaics still intact from the Roman rule of Sepphoris


While I began our trip to Israel an uncertain pilgrim, turned off by the chaos and irreverence that often come with large busloads of travelers, I did find finally peace.  Pilgrimage means something different to everyone.  For some, a two-week trip from the U.S. with a pastor or spiritual leader can be the perfect pilgrimage.  For others, a solitary exploration of areas off the beatan path may mean more.  For me, it was a bit of both…


Rainbow across the countryside as we walked from Nazareth to Cana

However, It was really in the quiet moments — sitting on stones in the edge of the Sea of Galilee away from the crowds inside the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter and wondering if Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples had sat there beside the water too; envisioning the Good Samaritan on the road between Jerusalem to Jericho as we looked for spots of shade in the beating sun in the desert; and fighting the mud as we walked from Nazareth to Sepphoris as Jesus and Joseph may have done frequently while the city was under construction — I found myself thinking, “yes, here, I am a pilgrim.”  These may not been the moments listed as the “top choice” in a guide book.  Or, the places that all the tour buses stop along the side of the road for photos.  But, these are the places where I found myself on a journey of faith through the Holy Land closest to God.


Sitting for a moment to reflect by the Sea of Galilee

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Nan M.
    July 15, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    I love reading your stories and looking at the pictures of your travels, thank you for sharing! This land is beautiful. No, I don’t think Jesus would have liked the vendors shouting and shoving and selling their trinkets, but would have understood the need to make a living, to provide for their families. I am glad you were able to find those quiet peaceful places that enabled you to reflect on your journey. This is so important for all of us, to take time out, find that quiet peaceful place away from the crowd, to think and pray. We are all pilgrims, no matter where we travel, or don’t travel. Even we if find ourselves in one place, just moving through the day, we are pilgrims. May those you meet on your way be a blessing to you as you are to them.

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