I asked the priests in the group to share their some of their reflections on the pilgrimage. Here’s one from Father Martin Burnham.
As I look back at our Holy Land Pilgrimage, I am struck by some of the many words spoken to us by Bishop Kamal Bathish, and it is through the prism of his words that I offer this reflection. Bishop Bathish, auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, spoke to us about the idea of Pilgrimage. He reflected that God has called us on this pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and if God has called us to this place, then God will meet us on our journey, each in his own unique place and time. It was after this meeting that I began in earnest to await God’s meeting with me as I journeyed through these holy sites of our faith. Oddly enough, it was not in the “expected places” that I experienced the awesome presence of God on this pilgrimage; the God of surprises met me in some very unexpected ways and in some very unexpected places.
Three experiences stand out for me as places where God came to meet me on pilgrimage. The first experience of God’s abundance happened for me during our meeting with the students at Bethlehem University. I was moved in Spirit as I listened to their descriptions of how they overcame great obstacles to seek a better life for themselves through their university education. As we spoke about the negative effects of media portrayals of life in Palestine, I witnessed my personal biases about Palestinians formed by my media exposure dissolve as our encounter in dialogue continued. The stories of friendship, openness, and desire for peace spoken by both Christian and Muslim students filled me with a sense of hope that peace was truly possible. Closed in by the Israeli border wall that visibly divided communities and disrupted lives, I experienced great heaviness of heart and a sense of despair that questioned whether peace could ever be possible. It was to this darkness that God came, the God of light and hope, speaking words of peace and reconciliation. These words, testaments to God’s presence, are rarely conveyed to us in America when media portrayals of Palestinian people are created.
The second experience of God’s abundance happened for me at the Wailing Wall [the Western Wall]. This site, sacred to those of Jewish faith, provided me with a deep sense of God’s abiding presence. As I approached the wall, I could sense the millions of prayers that have been offered at this very site through the centuries. What was clear to me as I approached the wall was that there was only one prayer that wanted to pray – I asked God to bring peace to the land of His birth. It was a prayer formed from the experiences of a trip that showed firsthand the deep divisions that exist between people of faith. From the Israeli border wall that meanders over, around and through family properties and neighborhoods, to the Holy Sepulcher where people of shared faith try to overwhelm one another with the volume of their liturgical celebrations, it was clear that to me that peace was and is an overwhelming need for this holy land. It was within this prayer with my head resting on the ancient stones of this Temple wall that I experienced God’s presence fully alive to me.
The final experience of God’s abundance came to me as we walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee to celebrate our outdoor Mass. Throughout the pilgrimage, our guides continually spoke words of condition as they described the holy places that we visited. For instance, when describing the Church of the Visitation, we heard that “tradition has it” that this could be the place where Mary “may have lived” when the angel of the Lord came to her with his incredible news. These words of condition followed us on a majority of our pilgrimage, but they could not accompany us to the shores of Galilee. This lake was, is, and forever more shall be the Sea of Galilee, the same body of water upon which Jesus walked when he came to the disciples in their boat. Here God’s presence was palpable to me, and the Eucharist we celebrated that evening as a group was memorable.
I have returned from this pilgrimage a changed priest. Having walked in the footsteps of Jesus, my experience of Scripture will never again be the same. My experiences of God’s presence will carry me in the months and years ahead as my journey with God continues in my service to his people.
Father Martin Burnham
Pastor, St. Andrew by the Bay Parish, Annapolis
Oct. 25, 2010