Unexpected insights and moments of grace during a Holy Land pilgrimage

By Sharon K. Perkins


North Texas Catholic


In the summer of 2013, I learned that I would be traveling to Israel in January 2014 — a major item on my “bucket list” and a lifetime dream come true.  Needless to say, I was excited.  Besides the anticipation of experiencing a new place and new cultures, I knew that I could expect some spiritual and emotional changes.  After all, this was no ordinary place and no ordinary travel — it was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 

I would be in good company since 10 fellow parishioners would be on the same trip, and since recorded history mentions 16 centuries of Christian pilgrimages to the same destination.

As the ensuing months flew by, I was too busy to do much more than reserve my domestic flights, renew my passport and hurriedly scan the e-mailed itinerary. In the immediate weeks before departure, I also made hurried Christmas preparations for family holiday gatherings, suffered through a debilitating case of the flu, and was stunned by my normally healthy son’s emergency hospitalization on New Year’s Eve for acute appendicitis. I boarded the plane a week later, exhausted and relieved to have made my flight in one piece with luggage intact.

Maybe that’s why my brain didn’t fully register for several days what I had anticipated for years — that I was actually in the place where Jesus had taught and performed miracles. My first experience of the Holy Land consisted of an airport in modern Tel Aviv. My first two days of pilgrimage were swallowed up by jet lag, luggage transfers, and tour bus etiquette. I clearly remember thinking that Israel outside the bus window looked an awful lot like the Texas Hill Country from whence I came.

Spiritual writers and pilgrims had described this pilgrimage as a “living encounter with Jesus.” Three days in, I certainly wasn’t feeling it. In fact, I found myself resentful of the relentless pace of trying to cram as many sites as possible into each day (no one had told me about this part of organized touring!). Daily Mass was wonderful, but there was little time for the private reflection that I so desperately needed to get my spiritual bearings. When would my “living encounter” begin?

Gradually, as I entered into the daily rhythm of tour life and we arrived at the Sea of Galilee, the longed-for encounter began to take shape. One powerful “Jesus moment” occurred at Capernaum, a town where Jesus had spent a great deal of his time — teaching in the synagogue, healing the paralytic and Peter’s mother-in-law, and calling several of his disciples. During morning Mass in the church built over the ruins of Simon Peter’s house, I was intently praying for the healing of several dear friends. The consecration of the bread and wine on the altar drew my attention, and in the depths of my soul I clearly “heard” Jesus say to me, “The One who healed and taught in this place 2,000 years ago — that’s ME on the altar! I’m the same person!”

My head said, “Duh — I’ve studied theology; of course I know that.” But in my heart I was blown away, as if I had never heard that truth before. The immediacy of Jesus’ presence in that place was as if 2,000 years had vanished. The experience was fleeting but incredibly real — I had not simply imagined it.

What happened in Capernaum that day set the tone for the rest of the pilgrimage. The pace was still too rushed for much reflection or journaling, but I initiated a pre-dinner ritual with my friends in the hotel bar each evening, sharing our “Jesus moments” of the day over a glass of Galilean red wine. He had been present to all of us at different sites and in different ways, some subtle and others more dramatic, but all compelling. Our eventual arrival in Jerusalem and the first view of the Holy City from across the Kidron Valley was filled with excitement.

Then came the day we would divide into groups to walk the famed “Via Dolorosa,” or “Way of Suffering,” inside the Old Jerusalem city walls. While the route itself has had many iterations and the number of and location of the stations has varied in both the city and in Christian imagination, it has been a popular pilgrimage site since the Byzantine period. As we trudged up the steep hill to the ancient Lion’s Gate, questions and expectations filled my mind. Would I encounter Jesus again as I had at Capernaum?

Inside a monastery courtyard, each group was given a simple wooden cross about eight feet long and four feet across, made of two-by-fours, and we began the walk from station to station, the prayers and meditations of our chaplain barely audible over our wireless headsets for the large number of pilgrims chanting responses out of sync. It wasn’t the quiet, reflective, transcendent experience I had imagined; in fact, it was noisy, crowded, and somewhat confusing. All around us the daily activities of the city’s residents continued as if this cross-carrying group of tourists was nothing unusual (indeed, for them it was not). Fellow pilgrims took turns carrying the cross in groups of three or four, and by the eighth station, I had not yet had my turn. Then, suddenly, I was given the middle portion of the cross to carry, and I placed it on my shoulder. For a while my thoughts wandered: “This cross is lighter than I imagined it would be.” “What’s for sale in that shop just ahead?” “I’d better watch my step on these cobblestones — I don’t want to sprain an ankle!” And underneath it all, a desperate realization that I just wasn’t “feeling it.”

Curious and a bit bored, I looked up to see who was carrying the cross with me — startled to find two friends who just the night before had consoled and counseled me (in the hotel bar, that other place of “holy encounter”) about a weighty burden that I’ve struggled with for a long time. And then the words of Jesus came, again deep in my spirit: “You thought that you were simply here to carry my cross — but I’m also here to help you carry yours. Let me help you.” Overcome with emotion and a sudden, extraordinary realization of Jesus’ love for me personally, I wept openly all the way to our destination, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In the weeks since the pilgrimage, many graces have become apparent. I simply can’t read the Gospels in the same way as before; the sites, the terrain and the people spring too readily to my imagination. I cherish my relationship with Jesus’ mother Mary more closely and personally than ever, having climbed the same Judean hills that she did. I’m more ready to share my burdens with others and to help them to bear their crosses, for even when I feel helpless to change their situation, I am walking by their side in the Body of Christ. Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist continues to become ever more “real” to me as it moves from the theoretical to the experiential But I’m most eager for Holy Week and Good Friday, blessed with the sure knowledge that when Jesus carried his Cross to Calvary, he had me on his mind and in his heart.

Sharon Perkins grew up on a working farm south of Dallas with her parents and three siblings. She and her husband Mike have been married more than 34 years and are the parents of four adult children. She is the director of adult catechesis at Emmaus Catholic Church in Lakeway, near Austin. She was the director of the first diocesan synod in the our diocese. She is a regular writer for “Word to Life” which originates in the North Texas Catholic and is offered by Catholic News Service.to English language Catholic media around the world.

In the summer of 2013, I learned that I would be traveling to Israel in January 2014 — a major item on my “bucket list” and a lifetime dream come true.  Needless to say, I was excited.  Besides the anticipation of experiencing a new place and new cultures, I knew that I could expect some spiritual and emotional changes.  After all, this was no ordinary place and no ordinary travel — it was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.