Holy Land Pilgrimage

New Insight from Galilee

February 19, 2019

I wanted to accompany my blog today with a quick video giving you a bit of a tour around our recent lodgings and retreat. That’s the TL;DR version of this reflection. For our more intrepid blog followers, here’s a bit more to go with what I was talking about.

I’m an outdoorsman. I love getting out into the woods around the upper Midwest and taking in the work of God’s creation all around me. Before coming out here I had been really looking forward to going to the places where Jesus grew up and ministered to his disciples. I wanted to feel the ground he walked on. I wanted to smell the smells he smelled. I wanted to hear the livestock and country sounds he heard. But then I remembered something—Jesus was here in Israel 2000 years ago. 2000 years is a long time.

As soon as we touched down in Tel Aviv it blew me away how very developed Israel is. Throughout the last 2000 years people have continued living here, developing the land around the Mediterranean, and building into big cities what used to be O Little Towns. For the first half of the trip I had a difficult time praying and quieting myself down enough to paint the mental picture I’d been looking for. All the noise and busyness of many of the holy sites we’ve seen quickly had me ready to get out of the city.

Then we came to Galilee. Galilee is awesome. For such a naturally beautiful spot—not to speak of the significance of Jesus’ ministry here—I was blown away by how agrarian and quiet it is surrounding the sea (read: big lake). There was still a bit of noisiness, especially from pilgrims during the day, but at last we had come to a place where I could rest. In this idyllic spot I entered into our pre-ordination canonical retreat.

Throughout our retreat, much of my prayer focused on Jesus’ ministry with his disciples and especially the way he drew his apostles around him. This was highlighted for me in the middle of the retreat when a few of us stayed up at the nearby Mount of the Beatitudes—the place where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. As a group, we had already gone up for a visit, but (again, the noise thing) the number of pilgrims had made it tough for me to settle in. After checking in late to the guesthouse on top of the hill that night, I set out to wander around and spend some time by myself taking in the gardens.

If you’re not familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, here’s the quick breakdown. This is where Jesus lays out the heart of his moral teaching. Over the course of three chapters (Matthew 5-7), we drink from a firehose of heavy hitters, ranging from the Beatitudes to the Our Father to encouragements to trust divine providence. All at one time Jesus laid out this series of exhortations, and all of this was right at the top of this mountain where I was wandering around after hours.

But what surprised me the most wasn’t any of the individual teachings from the Sermon. It wasn’t a new insight into the Beatitudes, and it wasn’t a new encouragement to pastoral zeal. It was simply picturing Jesus up on this mountain, talking to thousands of his followers. Imagine the noise. Imagine the crying babies. Imagine the background conversations, the murmuring, and the sounds of surprise at his words. Even with all this noise, Jesus conveyed his message to the people that were following him around, enough for us to still have his words 2000 years later.

This experience gave me new insight into our pilgrimage. The noise will still be distracting. I’m really going to miss looking out of my bedroom window at the Sea of Galilee. I’m going to miss the sound of fish jumping and the parrots calling to each other (they have wild parrots out here!). But even while Jesus went off by himself into the wilderness and up in the mountains to pray, he came back to minister among the busyness and messiness of people, and there is something beautiful in that messiness.

But Galilee was still an awesome place for a retreat.

Joe Richards

Diocese of La Crosse

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