Biennial Pilgrimage

Today, my boyfriend leaves for Israel. I’ll admit to being a little envious. He sent me his flight schedule, and just seeing “arrival in Tel Aviv” brought back the most obscure of memories: Waiting for our group at a coffee shop in Ben Gurion airport; finding a single shekel on the carpet and laughing that it was my only local currency. That single shekel is still in my wallet.

I was reminiscing about my own travels to Israel, which I’d always said was “three years ago or something.” I joked of our poorly-planned (or best) schedule, in which we departed for Israel right after casting our presidential ballots on Election Day. Then I realized: This was in 2016. Only two years ago. It seems impossible not only that my own pilgrimage was so recent, but all that’s happened in that time. The questioning, the searching, and ultimately finding Home.

But my envy is misplaced. I would certainly revisit Israel, but now is his time to connect with God in His very own promised land. Besides, I’ll be on my own pilgrimage during this time—tomorrow, I leave for Rome. We didn’t coordinate our trips at the same time (we didn’t even know each other yet when they were arranged), but God has a funny sense of humor sometimes.

Not only that, but I depart on November 8: two years, to the day, since I departed for Israel myself.

Many people have seen my conversion as a rejection of my roots. That I’m somehow abandoning my faith, or God himself, by being part of organized religion. But Catholicism does not take the place of spirituality. Exploring Vatican City will not replace my time in Jerusalem. It’s a completion. It’s a culmination of all I’ve searched for. It’s my own personal evangelization, taking a journey from Israel to Rome like the first disciples did.

I recognize my boyfriend’s journey for what it is, not because he’s told me, but because I’ve done it myself a mere two years ago: A desire to grow closer to God, and to learn first-hand his Truth. Sometimes I’m more excited for his trip than my own, but then I remember what my pilgrimage symbolizes. It’s a physical manifestation of my faith journey. It’s furthering the adventure that began in the Holy Land. It’s building a home upon the foundation, linking together the history and the present. Those early disciples hailed from Israel, but they didn’t remain there. They went forth. So shall I.

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” —Acts 1:8

The Greatest Romance

I spent the first gloriously warm spring weekend in silent retreat at the Loyola Jesuit Center. It seemed the perfect way to kick off my new life—two whole days in His presence, attending prayer services and celebrating sacraments and wandering gardens that were just beginning to bloom.

Afterward, I couldn’t find the words to share the experience. I’d composed pages and pages in my journal, but when people asked I could only say that the weekend was “awesome.” Elaborating felt strange and intimate. Even writing it here is personal, like I’m sharing the most intimate details of my private life.

What did happen this weekend?

I’ve always believed in Jesus, the same way you believe any historical event—there’s an understanding that it happened, and it’s affected you, but it’s still an abstract concept. I loved God, certainly, for His pure and perfect love for me. But looking at it now, it was still from a distance. Like He was somehow unattainable. Like the veil was still drawn between us, and I could only worship from afar.

It was Saturday evening Mass. I’d just come from the stations, which were set along a trail through the gardens. I was kneeling, preparing to receive the Eucharist. In that instant… it changed. I was filled with an otherworldly warmth. I wasn’t merely worshiping from afar, pleading with Him to cleanse my soul. I looked up at the crucifix, staring at the face that I so seldom stared into, and our relationship changed.

I truly and absolutely fell in love with Jesus. I had become His, and He had become mine.

After Mass was adoration, accompanied by a CD of quiet hymns. Occasionally someone would softly sing along, and their love for Jesus resonated through the chapel. But still, I couldn’t believe they felt the same way I did. It was falling in love, in the way you think your love is like no other, like no one could possibly understand it.

I’d claimed a desire to follow Him before, but my own fears held me back. I trusted my instinct more than Him. Now, I proclaimed, I will do whatever you desire of me. I didn’t just put my fears aside—they no longer existed. The veil was obliterated. What now? I asked.

There was no answer. Or, rather, there was: a contented silence.
We were simply being, enjoying each other’s company. The warmth and joy of new love. The honeymoon, if you will. I had committed myself to Him, and He embraced me. Just stay with me for now, He whispered, and I did.

A hymn played at that time, one I’d heard only once before but remembered so clearly. It became my own, just as He had.

Shepherd Me, O God
beyond my wants,
beyond my fears,
from death into life.

The New Holy Land

November 18, 2016. I’m standing just inside the glass doors of Newark airport, travel-weary, clutching my suitcase. Outside is the grit of New Jersey, the seemingly endless blast of horns and ungodly shouting for no reason at all. I’m obviously no longer in Israel. There will be no more fresh hummus with every meal, no more desert sunrises, and no more Bible verses etched into the walls everywhere I turn.

(Casually overlooking Nazareth)

“How do you feel?” Pastor asks, standing beside me.
I pause. “I don’t want to go out there.”

The euphoria lasted, for a little while. Later, I sat in my living room and cried over my travel photographs. Photos I took. I was there. Let me never forget this, I prayed, trying to keep the fullness of God with me long after my Holy Land departure.

Of course, that euphoria eventually faded. Sometimes I felt it in snippets, like when reading the Bible (“I’ve been there!”) or gazing at the Jerusalem panorama on my wall (that I took), but ultimately it was life as usual.

Until, two years later, when it wasn’t.

At first, I didn’t recognize its return. It was different this time—there wasn’t the looming dread that I’d have to return home. There was no “waiting at the airport.” But after I received the Eucharist this week, I knelt in the pew and burst into tears. I felt a similar sense of being overwhelmed when I looked at those travel photos for the first time. It’s a lot to take in, because it’s real. It happened. It’s happening.

I don’t want to say Confirmation was a blur, because I remember so much from that day. It’s a blur the same way Israel was a blur: It’s all happening at once, but what do you focus on? Do you marvel at walking the ground Jesus walked, or ignore the tour guide to photograph everything? Do you focus on the priest’s words of Confirmation, or pray to the Spirit you’re about to receive?

The answer is yes. All of it. You allow yourself to be overwhelmed, to listen and to watch and to pray. But as a result, you don’t understand the enormity of what’s happening. It’s why I didn’t cry during my first Eucharist, because I was so focused on doing and saying the right thing. It wasn’t until a week later, in my first Mass as a “full” Catholic…

I’m leaving that thought unfinished. Because I stopped writing, just staring at that phrase for a while. This is huge. I’ve received God body and soul. I’m Catholic. Who are we to deserve that? Who am I to deserve that?

A pilgrimage has to end. Eventually, you have to go home. Then you annoy everyone by talking about it for two years after (sorry, friends). But this isn’t merely a two-week trip. This is a life-changing, Spirit-filled glow, experiencing that Holy Land euphoria every day. Once, I stood in the airport mourning that I had to go out into a world that was not Israel. But maybe, finally, I’m ready to be out there.

(In the rare chance that I never shared my Israel photos with you, they’re archived over here.)