Pilgrimage to the Holy Land Transcends the Joys of Ordinary Tourism

“A journey in the footsteps of our Lord provides unique nourishment for the soul”, writes Franciscan Father Tom Tshabalala, a South African priest serving as a pilgrimage guide in the Holy Land.

LAND of the Bible. Land of faith. Israel, the land revered throughout recorded history as the cradle of monotheistic consciousness. There is no place on earth like the Holy Land.

Here, in this narrow strip of land, barely a sliver on the world map, lies the source of religious belief of much of mankind. Here, among the barren hills and large plains, man’s spirit learned to roar, and from here a new message went out to all the world.

“…and many people shall come and say, come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his way and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3-4).

Records of the Holy Land go back over 5000 years, bearing witness to the fact that this was never a quiet, peaceful region. Situated as it is, straddling the divide between Africa and Asia, the area was almost always a battle ground. Wave after wave of conquerors poured into it, anxious to control the strategic roads linking the centres of the ancient world.

During the time of Roman rule in the Middle East, about 2000 years ago, an event took place that was to shape human history from that time on. That momentous event was, of course, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, the son of the carpenter Joseph and his wife, Mary, was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, the Gospel of Matthew teaches us, because “there was no room in the inn.” He grew to manhood in Nazareth, then moved among the people of Galilee and Jerusalem and gained recognition as a preacher and performer of miracles. He died on the cross on Golgotha and bequeathed Christianity to the world. He rose from the dead on the third day in Jerusalem, and ascended into heaven from that city’s Mount of Olives.

Jesus’ teachings have affected millions of people around the world, changing the course of history. Nowhere else in the world do the events of Jesus’ life come alive as they do in the Holy Land.

For almost 2000 years, Christian pilgrims from all over the world have come to the Holy Land, the land of their spiritual heritage. With Bible in hand, they have walked in the places Jesus walked, prayed in the places he prayed, maybe even listened to a preacher where he preached.

To undertake a pilgrimage is not the mere act of taking a trip, to travel to Israel. A pilgrimage is profoundly different from tourism: tourism is an escape from everyday life into something unusual, out of the ordinary, entertaining. A pilgrimage is a journey towards a definite goal, a journey rich in symbolism.

A pilgrim travels towards a shrine as to the house of the Lord; that is, towards the symbolic house of the Lord which, expressed in mythical language, is in heaven. Thus, symbolism is the specific element that distinguishes a pilgrimage from secular tourism. A symbol is something containing two truths: a level of reality, and a level of conveyed meaning. Three pieces of cloth, let’s say red, white and blue in colour, are ordinary objects with their own definite meaning and purpose. But when they are put together into a single unit, they become a red, white and blue flag, as the symbol of a state and of a people. A pilgrimage is such a symbolic act.

“O God, you are God from whom I seek, for you my flesh pines and my soul is thirsting for you like the earth, parched, lifeless without water. Thus I have gazed towards you in the sanctuary to see your power and your glory” (Psalm 63:2-3).

For those who believe, life is a journey, a pilgrimage. Their life is anchored in reality; but at the same time, it is a journey, a pilgrimage towards salvation. For all who undertake it, a pilgrimage is a spiritual search for inspiration, a strengthening of faith, a renewal of bonds and vows. It is the wording of questions, the searching for answers.

This makes it necessary to prepare for a pilgrimage to the land of Christ. The actual time one spends in the Holy Land is typically short, usually just a handful of days. This makes it important, if the pilgrim seeks to enjoy the greatest benefit during the limited time, to arrive in the correct frame of mind.

There are many excellent tour guides in the Holy Land, and spiritual directors usually do a wonderful job. Yet, there is no better guide than the Holy Bible. The same authentic places mentioned in the Bible still exist–Capernaum, Nazareth, Cana, Jericho, Bethlehem–and are often still known by their original biblical names.

A pilgrimage can change one’s life forever. For many, it is a dream that is fulfilled only once in a lifetime. But even for those blessed enough to return, maybe on several visits, every visit rekindles anew the miracle of the place.

We do not live on bread alone. The spirit always needs nourishment, and it is in the Holy Land, the soil of Christ, that the body and soul come together as a whole, a glorious oneness with God. A pilgrimage is a time of soul searching, and pilgrims almost invariably come away with clearer thoughts about their own life, family, future. It may be a time of new resolutions and strengthened commitments. The pilgrim’s experiences are usually shared with others–spiritual directors, fellow pilgrims, even people one meets along the way.

Often, close relationships are forged on such journeys. Pilgrims return home, enriched by the love and concern of the people they have met. These new friendships may be the best memories of all, reminding us of Jesus’ words: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

On the pilgrim route and at sacred sites, one has the opportunity, like Jesus with his disciples, to converse freely with relative strangers about one’s life, in society, in the world; to discuss freely what is in one’s heart.

A pilgrimage is a time, too, of discernment and serious illumination, but is not opposed to happiness, just as fullness is not contrary to joyfulness.

Fun should not be alien to pilgrimages because they should be a foretaste of the unending happiness of heaven. Humour and laughter are two of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. A dull and laughless pilgrimage is not a Christian one.

It is the balance of seriousness and fun that makes for a true pilgrimage which will make the pilgrim come closer to God.