Pilgrim of Return
Recently, Stacey and I were pilgrims in the Holy Land.
This was our first trip to Israel. We had the opportunity presented to us through our connections to the university where we work. It was a work trip, technically—we both were doing research for the professional groups we serve. Of course, it was a profoundly personal experience as well.
We traveled with a group of more than a dozen to visit sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and then went north to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. We saw the place where Jesus was born; where he taught and ministered; and where he was arrested, crucified, resurrected, and ascended. We did a lot in eight days, and it will take a while to digest, but I’m confident that the pilgrimage will prove to be a transformative experience.
One of the priests in our group offered a helpful distinction for our trip: he explained that tourists pass through the sites; pilgrims let the sites pass through them. It feels like I’m just beginning to grasp the ways in which the Holy Land is moving through me.
We visited so many places in just over a week—we joked that instead of “walking where Jesus walked,” we ran. When our bus arrived at a church or holy site, we disembarked like soldiers storming a beach: absorbing the architecture, the history, the spirituality, the sacramentality of standing in a place foundational to our lives of faith. On top of learning and praying at each place, I was also recording notes and taking photographs for a writing project. Both Stacey and I were keen to absorb as much as we could, so we’d go our separate ways through the site, and then come back together on the bus to exchange insights.
With so much new information and experience coming in, we began to feel like we were experiencing two parallel but distinct pilgrimages. We often describe this pattern as “missing” each other—we’ve noticed that sometimes we get busy with tasks, even when we are in the same space, and we look up and realize that we miss one other. So we decided to stick closer together at each site—not hip-to-hip, but in closer contact about where and what we were doing.
It took effort to achieve this togetherness—it took discipline to experience these holy places together. We had to be explicit in communicating our needs and wants, and we had to be intentional about staying “in tune” with one another. We would separate for moments of prayer or taking notes, and then look for each other.
Experiencing the Holy Land together, and not just on parallel tracks, proved fruitful. Not only did we see the same things, we witnessed the same interior movements in one another—and that has made a difference.
For example, I was profoundly moved at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which holds the tomb in which Jesus was buried and from which he rose. Touching the place where Jesus’ body laid, cold and dead, and where he was resurrected, I had the distinct feeling in that space that this is the source of Christian hope. I thought of the people in my family who have died; I thought of my own death one day; and I was filled with gratitude and wonder.
We only had a few moments there, but when we left, I was moved to tears. We found a corner to sit and we prayed together. Stacey was not as touched emotionally as I was by the experience, but she sat with me and asked me to share what it was like. I have the feeling that it was a pivotal moment for my spiritual life, and I’m glad I didn’t just tell her about it—she witnessed it in me.
As I look back on what we’ve written in this blog over the years, I can see this pattern of forgetfulness and return, of drifting and reaching for one another. At least on my end, I find myself continually reminded of the need to return to Stacey, to anchor my life to hers. When I begin to drift away in small ways, when I harbor the illusion that I can move alone through our ways of living and working, when I think I can pick and choose the moments when I give of myself to our marriage—that’s when life invariably takes on gloom and trouble.
Moored together, life fills with stability and joy, even if it takes more work and effort.
This trip called me to return—to return to deeper faithfulness to God and to Stacey, to seek greater integration of them both into who I am and what I do. This is the deep togetherness, the radical union that Jesus experienced with the Father and bestows on us. When we join it, we are given new and abundant life.