By Deacon Corey Close
This Christmas and New Year’s I had the tremendous privilege to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of 32 fellow seminarians and three priests. It was an experience I will not soon forget.
We arrived in Tel Aviv from Rome and immediately departed for the Sea of Galilee, about a two-hour drive by bus. In Galilee we saw the Mount of Beatitudes, the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the shores where Jesus called his disciples, and the area where Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection and ate with them, among other places described in Scripture.
We also took a day trip to Mount Tabor, the place of the Transfiguration, and went to Nazareth, where the Annunciation occurred and Jesus was raised. While these day trips were amazing, we stayed most of our first week in Galilee, where Jesus spent much of his time of ministry. While many tourist groups hit the highlights and leave, we were allowed the privilege to stay and to rest awhile in these sacred places. Galilee felt like home; it felt like I belonged there. Even more, it felt like I was really there as Jesus spoke and did his work. It seemed almost like the modern world was a vision, being replaced with the reality of being there with Jesus.
After the week in Galilee, we made our way to Jerusalem, the sacred city. On the way, we visited the site at the Jordan where John baptized. Finally, our journey passed through a tunnel in the mountains. Before us lay the city, the place where Christ suffered, died and rose. We spent a week here, with a trip to Bethlehem on the final day. We saw the Upper Room, the place of Christ’s agony and the Holy Sepulchre, which contains Calvary and Jesus’ tomb.
Jerusalem contained an awesome power like Galilee, but also unlike it. While Galilee awakened in me the “good times” of following the Lord, when it is easy, Jerusalem brought to my mind the hard times, when Christ’s disciples fled, he was scourged, rejected, condemned and died. It is the city of his “Hour” and, for me, made very clear what we may face when we follow him, but more importantly, what he faced in saving us. I have always been tempted to keep the reality of the passion of our Lord far from my mind, but when you stand at that very spot where he actually sweat blood, where he actually carried his cross, where he actually died — it is impossible.
Even the stones of these places seemed to shout out God’s unbounded love for his people. Truly these were blessings uncountable, but God is not sparing in his generousity. On our final day in Galilee I went in the afternoon to the Mount of Beatitudes to pray. On the way I passed a woman, about 30, who said “hi” to me, so I said “hi” back. I climbed a little of the hill, then looked back to the Sea, and saw the same woman, who had turned around and was walking up the hill from a separate direction. Something in me said that I needed to talk to her, so I waited. Nearby was a small cave that Jesus is said to have prayed in; it was there we met up and she asked me about the significance of the cave. I told her and soon discovered that Cate, a Canadian, although a pilgrim, knew almost nothing of what she was seeing or of the faith. I invited her up the trail to see the Mount of Beatitudes, and there, spontaneously, we both sat down on the rocks there. For over an hour, with the sun slowly setting behind the Galilean hills, I expounded on the faith, from Moses to Jesus. There, in the place where Jesus taught the people who were like sheep without a shepherd, I was graced to teach this woman, too. As darkness was falling, we left the Mount and walked on the road for awhile. I asked if I could bless her and her newly acquired Bible, which she was voraciously beginning to read. She readily assented and then we departed. I know in my heart that she is on the road and will one day find our Lord, but, if you have time, please say a prayer for Cate, and for all who seek our Lord with an open heart. God bless!
(Deacon Corey Close is a fourth-year seminarian studying for the Diocese of Davenport at the North American College in Rome.)