Monday, November 20, 2017

Holy Land Entries

Lots of people dream about going to visit the Holy Land; to see where Jesus lived and preached and prayed, or to visit and venerate various holy Jewish and Muslim sites. Oddly enough, I never dreamed about it. I never put it on a "bucket list" or thought, "I'd love to go one day," because I figured it would never happen. I guess I just didn't want to get my hopes up, but sometimes God dreams for us. I suppose that's how I ended up traversing one of the holiest places in the world for about a week and a half.

Before I tell you how amazing the trip was, I want to tell you how I ended up going:

A very generous (and anonymous) donor decided to gift our religious community with a large sum of money. The stipulation, however, was that it be used toward the spiritual development or benefit of our Sisters. Together, our Provincial Council decided that the money would go toward pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Obviously they wouldn't be able to send everyone, so they decided to do a lottery. Our annual gathering was coming up, so it was announced that when we were gathered, those who were interested needed to put their names in a jar before the final day of the gathering. We were told, "Four Sisters will be able to go, but we will draw only two names. Each of the two Sisters who are chosen will then be able to choose a Sister companion to go with them." Why not? I thought. Might as well give it a try. I slipped my name in and then forgot about the drawing all together. When the day of judgement came around, our Provincial Minster stood on stage with the jar. Fireworks started going off in my chest while simultaneously my lungs decided to quit on me. "Calm down!" my brain said. "You're not going to win anyway, why get yourself all worked up. There are hundreds of names in that jar." In the midst of my positively negative self-talk, the first name was drawn. Hundreds of names, literally, and the first name read was mine. Yes, straight out of the Provincial Minister's mouth I hear, "Sister Desiré." There was no mistaking it. I'm the only Sister Desiré! My whole body jerked as my hands flew up to cover my gaping mouth. And then, even better than hearing my name called, half the room stood up immediately - in a room of approximately 300 Felician Sisters - and began to cheer for me. Like I said, sometimes God dreams for us.

I wish I could go into detail about everything we did and saw, but you didn't sign up to read a novel right now and I didn't sign up to write one. I'll share as much as I can, but mostly I'll share the highlights and the moments that meant the most to me.

First of all, let me just wow you by saying we spent our first three nights in Nazareth. It still baffles me to think that I can now speak personally about places I'd only ever heard of in the Bible. Staying in Nazareth brought me close to one of the most important stories Scripture has for us: the Angel Gabriel's visit to a young virgin. I have read the story of the Annunciation plenty of times in Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:26-38), and I pray with one of its passages every day during evening praise as my community recites the Magnificat. Who knew that I'd be sleeping in a hotel less than a block away from such a historically and spiritually significant spot? Since we stayed three nights there, I stopped in the Basilica of the Annunciation every night to pray just so I could be near it. Of course there's a huge church built up all around the site, but they have preserved the humble dwelling of so prominent a family. I would stare at its stone walls and wonder about all the activities that went on there. Was I looking at Mary's actual bedroom? Was I looking at the kitchen where her mother, St. Anne, would have been busy working to nourish her family? Or maybe there was no separation and every room ran into each other, just small corners making up one whole. I'll never know, but what fascinated me even more was being so physically close to the place where God began to weave Himself from the fibers of humanity.

I was reluctant to leave, but as always, the best was yet to come. We departed from Nazareth and took a bus to Palestine. The days ahead featured visits to Jericho, Bethany, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea. Again, I couldn't believe it. So many of these names had once been untouchable sacred sites in a faraway world found in a miraculous Book. It was almost unreal. Our trip to Jericho was brief, but it remains one of the most profound moments during the entire pilgrimage. We had arrived at the church where we would be having Mass for the day, but the group ahead of us was not yet finished. "We still have about twenty minutes until their done," our group leader told us. "It's not on our list of things to see, but the tomb of Lazarus is just up the street. If you take a left out of here you'll see the man standing outside to collect your money. It's $2 to get in." We all looked at each other and nodded in agreement. "Two bucks, why not?" Although the raising of Lazarus is yet another powerful and prominent story from Scripture (John 11:1-44), I never really had a personal connection to it. I really just wanted to see his tomb because it was there and I could say that I went. Up the hill we walked, all 24 of us, to pay our two bucks. We stepped inside, one by one, and shuffled down some very narrow and steep stone steps. We were greeted at the bottom by a tiny doorway through which we basically had to crawl. Each one came in, took a photo or two, touched the walls, and then turned to go. It was our seventh day on the pilgrimage and we had been moving from site to site so quickly that I had been longing for some stillness and quiet. After everyone had left the small space and I was left standing alone in Lazarus's tomb, I poked my head out and told my friend I was going to stay and pray a little while longer. She made her way back up with everyone else and I stood there in the emptiness. I sat down near the small doorway and looked around, imagining the darkness that would have surrounded Lazarus there. It wasn't hard to imagine since the little light inside was fairly dim and the silence was absolute. I realized that I was in yet another place where holiness broke into our helplessness. Not only did Jesus stand in this place, but He wept here. He cried with us and for us, and then He prayed so fervently that His friend was called back to life. This was a personal miracle. This was someone Jesus knew and loved, and a moment in which He felt His humanity. If anything could show me that God is not far from us, this would be it.

Although it may seem somewhat unrelated to the religious nature of this trip, I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Dead Sea. I had been going back and forth in my mind as to whether or not I would swim in it. Finally, like my rationale with so many other decisions, I figured, "Why not?" I suited up and walked down to the water's edge. As I stood there looking over its surface, it appeared to be just like any other body of water, but underneath I knew it was different. The Dead Sea, known for its high salt content, cannot support marine life. As a result of its salt levels, it is also unique in that items which cannot usually float in water are suddenly able to - like humans! This helped me with my two very real fears of large bodies of water: the fear of creatures biting my limbs off, and the fear of drowning. I walked in slowly, watching others splash around on their backs, so when I finally had water up to my waist I decided I would give it a try. I lifted one leg, then the other, and that was all it took; with hardly any effort I was lying on my back in the shallow waters of the Dead Sea. With that one swift motion, my fears disappeared. I marveled at the fact that there was nothing to be afraid of, that I didn't have to wonder about what was below the surface or if I would be able to survive the pull of unknown currents. I drifted out as far as I could go and lifted my face to the sun while my arms and legs gave themselves to the movement of the water. Pure freedom. Even now I am drawn back into that place of calm as I re-imagine the experience. It's a gift that I will never forget, and one that I hope to recall in times of turbulence and fear. God's love is even more abundant than the salt that carried me beyond fear; if salt can keep me safe, how much more safe is the love of God - infinitely able to lift my soul beyond the fear of pain and death.

Continuing the journey, we departed from Palestine and entered the city of Jerusalem where we stayed for the remainder of the trip. While in Jerusalem, I was able to set foot and heart upon another set of holy sites, including the Basilica in which Calvary and the tomb of Jesus have been preserved. One of my favorite experiences took place at the Church of All Nations which sits over the Garden of Gethsemane and houses the stone upon which Jesus is said to have prayed during His agony. We actually visited the church twice, going there a second time for a late night Holy Hour. As the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, I knelt at the railing near the altar with the stone at its base. I tried imagining the stone in its original setting and pictured the garden that was outside the church. "This must have been a beautiful and comforting space," I thought. It brought to mind all the times I had sought out a comforting place or person when I knew I needed to cry. Perhaps Jesus came here with His closest friends because He knew He needed to cry. We see Gethsemane and the garden as a solemn and somber place, but maybe it was different then. It's somber now because we know the rest of the story - because we know that Jesus wept there and was betrayed there - but before all of that, perhaps it was a cozy place to pray and Jesus knew it would comfort Him to be there. Suddenly, I felt like I needed to cry. I couldn't understand why, so I closed my eyes and pictured myself with Jesus in the garden. Kneeling beside Him at the rock, He looked into my eyes and said, "It's okay, you can let the tears come." Then, lifting His hands to my face, He gently placed His thumbs over my eyes. I immediately began to cry real tears. I tried not to let my face fold into the sadness that had just taken over, but I couldn't help it. I felt now that I was no longer there to comfort Jesus in the garden, but that He was there to comfort me, sharing with me His sacred space. Just as He did during His agony, I cried out to my Father, not sparing the pain welling up inside me. I felt united with Jesus, as though He wept with me not only in the moment, but even when He had wept in the midst of His unfolding Passion. It made me realize just how connected Jesus's life is to ours. Jesus may have walked the earth over 2,000 years ago, shedding tears and sharing joy, but God is timeless. God's life on earth continues, and is especially real because Emmanuel - God-with-us - enfleshed and redeemed our humanity.

As Advent makes its way into our homes and our hopes this year, my prayer for us all is that we not only long for God's renewed presence among us, but that we also recall how He has been and remains present to us. Your tears are His and your joys flow from His heart; may you know during this special season and always just how present God is to you, and when you are able, may you remain present to God by being compassionately and boundlessly present to others.

Wishing you peace and all good,
Sister Desiré Anne-Marie

Fearless in the Dead Sea!


  1. Sr. Desire, clearly I can't figure out how to get the circumflex over the "e" so lets just move on. It was a long hoped for journey for me, made all the more special by the presence of yourself and Sr. Maria and our merry Pilgrims all. You captured your favorite experiences beautifully. Mine was our night time vigil at Gethsemane. Gazing at the beautiful mosaic of Jesus praying on the rock while his (probably) overwhelmed companions slept nearby, his humanity was made personal to me. Yes, I know that God loved us so much as to become one of us but, that night, I really truly felt it. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. Brooks! Thank you for taking the time to read my post and for your very insightful comment (even if you can't figure out how to create an "e" with an accent :-D). It's good to hear from you, and it was definitely good to journey and pray with you. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could do a pilgrimage reunion to some other holy site? You never know...