Sea of Galilee. Photo credit: Trey Ingram.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”-Ps 84:5

In the great dining hall of our hotel the day is beginning. Pilgrims are everywhere, eating strange foods, drinking coffee and tea, checking backpacks, chatting in every possible language of what they’ve seen, what they will see, eyes wild as they try to assimilate what they’ve already learned before another round. As a woman from Kansas says to me:

“It’s like trying to take a drink from a fire hose.”

As good a way as any to describe the complete assault on the senses, on the spirit, on the heart, that is the Holy Land.

I sit down with my plate and look out the big window to my left and see that the sun is clearing low clouds on the horizon to come up over the Sea of Galilee. I go to the door and step out onto the balcony, into the Tiberias morning. As the door closes the din of pilgrims becomes a murmur that bleeds into doves calling to each other in the Mimosa trees, and workmen below me arguing good naturedly in Arabic, school children running by calling to each other in Hebrew, somewhere in the distance laughter, the Universal language…that and tears. There is a gentle breeze that brings me the smell of baking bread and flowers and garbage and the scent of lake water. A heron goes low and skims the water in search of breakfast. A calico cat grooms herself on an overturned crate. Everything falls away and it’s as though the dial of my senses turns all the way up and I am completely here in this moment, in this place, rooted to the ground as though I were born here. And in that moment I feel the “Beautiful Land” gently sink her teeth into me, and I know I will leave a piece of myself behind in this holy and tragic place. That for the rest of my days I will be a little homesick for a place that I’m not from.

And then, like all transcendent moments, it’s over and I step back into the dining room. I step into the tide, into the song of pilgrims going forth to seek the holy. From the four corners of the earth we come, under many flags, speaking many tongues to file onto buses that will take us to stand on ground soaked in blood and tears, settled by Canaanites, to look at ruins left by Romans, to sing hymns in churches built by Crusaders, to run our fingers over mosaics laid by Byzantines. The old and the new, the past and the now, the conquered and the conquerors, the beautiful and the ugly, all jostling each other for the same patch of ground. Like tired children with nowhere to go, elbowing each other in the backseat on a long car trip. A very long car trip. Are we there yet?

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