Read the testimonies of Martin and Jernej, two German university students, who talk about what it was like visiting the Holy Land this past August. Their group stopped by Saxum Visitor Center at the end of their trip.
Martin, Physics student, University of Heidelberg:
Visiting the Holy Land was a hugely enriching experience for me. Although I was worried about soaring temperatures, political unrest, and pickpocketing on the streets, the Holy Land and its diverse peoples proved to be extremely welcoming and friendly hosts to our group over the course of two weeks in late August, as we – a group of university students from Germany – paid a visit to the Land’s shores.
“I was tempted to take sides in the seemingly intractable religious-political arguments that this land is involved in. Yet, the greatest lesson that I learned here was the importance of listening attentively without prejudice, and that the truth – while absolute – may be very complex indeed.”
Driven by a desire to make a pilgrimage under the leitmotif of the (fifth) Gospel, the spiritual experience in Israel played an important role for me. To walk the paths Jesus might have walked, to see the sights Jesus might have seen, to smell the smells Jesus might have smelled, Biblical accounts which I had heard or read numerous times suddenly became strangely real. Despite the lack of any profound charismatic experiences, I was immersed in the real action of the Holy Scripture. The normality and humanity of the Gospel events became much more vivid and tangible, such as Peter and his brother Andrew’s fishing on the Lake of Galilee when Jesus called them to follow him, or Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum on a Sabbath.
I started to wonder: what were the boats like in which the brothers worked? What were the people watching them thinking? Was that day in Capernaum as hot and humid as it is now? Through the normality of the Gospel accounts, I came to understand their extraordinariness: that – for the most part – it is in the midst of the mundane that one can look for and find God.
Another fascinating dimension to our visit to the Holy Land was the exposure to the live unfolding of current events. I was tempted to take sides in the seemingly intractable religious-political arguments that this land is involved in. Yet, the greatest lesson that I learned here was the importance of listening attentively without prejudice, and that the truth – while absolute – may be very complex indeed.
So, should young people visit the Holy Land, walk in the footsteps of Biblical characters, get exposed to the beauty of the country, and try to understand the tragedies which beset its people? I say, not only young people, but everyone. It is the place where the old meets the archaic, and the archaic overflows with wisdom. There is historical wisdom to be learned, there is political wisdom to be learned, and, above all, there is spiritual wisdom to be learned. To be learned, enjoyed and passed on.
Jernej, Physics and Mathematics, Free University of Berlin:
I have to admit that I’ve gotten the best of both worlds. I get to explore the Truth in a spiritual as well as worldly sense, by understanding Jesus Christ as a person as well as God’s creation through natural phenomena. My pilgrimage to the Holy Land was also divided into two in the sense that I had to spend time each day on academic work, since I wasn’t able to take a break from the university during our 8-day trip to the Holy Land.
You are there, you hear and feel what the disciples of the time heard and felt. The cold breeze under the burning sun; the awkward climb up a mountain to hear Him preach; the refreshing smell of the sea in the shade of the olive trees.
In all honesty, apart from the culture shock, the trip was a very intense spiritual encounter with God and the Gospel. Roughly a month has passed since our trip, but I still have not been able to process it all. We had a well-organized group accompanied by a priest, who attended to every stone we tripped upon along the way. Whereas most would have thrown those stones away, he made them the cornerstones of our trip. Further, what was incredible was not the stunning beauty of the churches built at the Holy Sites, but rather the understanding of what it means to be a character in the Bible. Let me explain. We were there, where Jesus himself stood, where the apostles followed him, where the stories of the Gospel took place. When the background scenery is set, imagining the actual stories playing out in front of your eyes becomes easy. Furthermore, you are not some distant bystander – you are involved in the story. You are there, you hear and feel what the disciples of the time heard and felt. The cold breeze under the burning sun; the awkward climb up a mountain to hear Him preach; the refreshing smell of the sea in the shade of the olive trees.
I am certain that most people would say that their most profound experience in the Holy Land took place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Not me – that is where everyone abandoned our Lord to die for our sins. That is where you and I would abandon Him as well. The closest I felt to the Lord was when our priest celebrated the Eucharist in the cave of the apostles. That is where He left the apostles to go and pray in the garden of Gethsemane. It really is a stone’s throw away. It is where He was right there beside them, praying for humanity, and where I felt the most sense to be His disciple. It is where I fall asleep and He comes again and again to wake me up and to tell me to be with Him.
Lastly, the visit to Saxum Visitor Center at the end of our stay in Jerusalem was a good decision. The center lets you re-experience your trip in a concise manner and gives you the opportunity to connect all the dots you’ve seen in an interactive way.
In conclusion, I would dare to suggest that the Church’s obligations should include a mandatory visit to the Holy Land. Because that is where we visit our Lord in His home on earth.