Home - How to Benefit the Most from Your Spiritual Pilgrimages

How to Benefit the Most from Your Spiritual Pilgrimages

The last of five blog posts about our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land (see part 1 here)

PART 5 – Having it here, having it there

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Like our trip to Israel and Palestine, our 2003 pilgrimage to India was a magical experience. After decades away from Bharat, Mother India made up for lost time by opening so many doors to us, both within and without. [See our videos of India for a taste]

Swami Swahananda of the Hollywood Vedanta SocietyThis was very clear to our beloved Swami Swahanandaji when he attended the presentation about this trip that we gave at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood. Visibly pleased that we had had such a wonderful experience and that we shared his love for India, nevertheless in his comments after our presentation he cautioned the audience not to expect to duplicate our experiences when they visited India. “These people had this experience because of the life they lead,” he said, and then quoted Sri Ramakrishna’s words: “If you have it here, you’ll have it there.”

This of course is the key to a successful pilgrimage, if that expression could be used. Yes, we found it very helpful — essential — to do our homework, learning as much as we could before our trip about travel in Israel and about the holy sites themselves through some of the great travel books and websites that are available (more on this below). But the real preparation is inward, and must be your way of life at the time you visit, not an adopted behavior.

Meditation is unquestionably the only way to have “eyes that see and ears that hear,” to develop the intuition or interior sense that will give you the deepest experience of pilgrimage, that will bring you face to face with the real Holy Land, unseen to many “tourists” and to many of the people who live there.

This can have a very practical aspect, too. How do you know “this is the real place” when you visit a holy site? Intuition can be very fallible, but we still found it a reliable measure of some of the sites we visited. For example, there are several traditions about where the Holy Virgin was entombed. Visiting her shrine on the Mount of Olives, we had no doubt that this was the place.

The pilgrimage continues

Our pilgrimage started before we left, and certainly continues even after our return to America. Visiting, worshipping and meditating in places such as the Holy Tombs, the Golgotha shrine, and the many other sacred sites of the Holy Land is no small matter. Seeds are planted, and things can change.

Some changes are evident the moment they happen. After our trip I discovered we shared the experience of many pilgrims who had a lifelong involvement with Christ and Christianity (including priests and monastics) who came to realize that the understanding and mental images they had of Jesus and the Gospel events were flat and two-dimensional in comparison to the “fleshed out” perspective that comes from visiting the places where all these things happened.

Golgatha, the site of the crucifixion, with the rent stones protected by glass cases. A must-see when making a Jerusalem pilgrimageWe found this to be especially true of the Church of the Resurrection. Pilgrims wander from site to site in quiet and reverent awe. Standing at the Armenian shrine of The Fainting where the Virgin Mary stood with the other holy women and looked up at Christ on the Cross, seeing the split stones on either side of the Golgotha altar, kneeling before the low altar in the close silence of the Holy Sepulchre itself, are all self-validating experiences. It really happened, this is the spot, and we are there. Not only did it really happen — it still is happening, eternally present in this spot, and we are participating in it.

One of the permanent effects of our pilgrimage has been the realization that Jesus and the Virgin Mary are (not “were”) much greater, much “bigger” than I thought, than I could imagine. In the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre and in the Tomb on the Mount of Olives you can encounter a living presence of Someone so large that the mind fails to comprehend or enclose it. You touch the hem of something great, and just worship, wonder, reach out in silent prayer, and receive.

Over the weeks and months after your return home you may discover that some very interesting seeds were planted deep within you over the course of your pilgrimage. These can sprout up in unexpected areas of your life – a greater appreciation of those around you, a new perspective on areas of your life that could use some improvement, and even the empowerment to help you do this. It will vary for each person. The connections we made with Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints through our visits to the holy sites continue to bear surprising fruit in our lives.

If we let it be so, the spiritual boost and clarity of vision a pilgrimage gives us can be merely temporary. Using Sri Ramakrishna’s analogy, the clear vision of the water in a pond can only be preserved if we continually clear away the green scum that covers the surface.

Advice to the Pilgrim

In case you feel moved to visit the Holy Land, we’d like to share some pointers that helped make our pilgrimage such a success. Some of these get pretty practical, but practicality is no small concern during such travels. These are in no special order, and certainly are not the last word. But they worked for us.

  • Travel books and websites

In preparation for our trip we read any travel book on Israel and Palestine we could get our hands on, which were quite a few. The best were Fodor’s book on Israel and the Lonely Planet’s guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Both are noteworthy for the wealth of both historical and cultural information they include, plus a wealth of practical details – what shrine is open when, what to look for there, their phone number and website, etc. They are also a good way to acquaint yourself with the unique details of life in Israel. It is a complicated culture, with its own unique concerns. It’s wise to know a little about these beforehand and be prepared.

The best website we found on travel to the Holy Land is seetheholyland.net. It’s organized by holy site and includes all the important ones, plus many we had not heard or thought of. The page for each location gives the important background on its spiritual history, and information about significant spots to visit there. This was the only way, for example, we would have known to look for the shrine with the incorrupt body of Saint John the Romanian at the Monastery of Saint George.

  • A great place for vegetarians

Because of the Jewish kosher rules, we were able to find many opportunities for very good vegetarian fare everywhere we travelled. And the famous Israeli breakfast lives up to its reputation. Each morning our hotel in the Old City laid out a four-table spread of hummus, olives, various types of breads, chopped fresh vegetables, cakes, and many other choices that made for a breakfast that was never boring, always refreshing. [Here is a video of the breakfast spread at the New Imperial Hotel in the “old city” of Jerusalem where we stayed.]

  • To get a guide or not?

We chose to travel on our own rather than on a tour, both for economic reasons and because we prefer to be independent in our travels. But there are places where a guide can bring a depth to your understanding of a holy site that is not possible from your own reading or observation – for example, the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem.

Licensed guides have to pass examinations by the State of Israel and are required periodically to update their licenses. They are expensive and worth the money. Our guide to the Church of the Resurrection showed us places we didn’t know of and explained history that filled out our understanding. Our wonderful experience at Saint George Monastery, Qumran, the Baptismal site, and Lazarus’ tomb at Bethany could not have been possible without the experienced hand of Nadi, our Arab Orthodox guide.

  • Photos

Shrine of the icon of Our Lady of Jerusalem in the Church of the Virgin Mary's TombThe Holy Land is full of amazing sights, and it’s easy to come home with wonderful photos. But as one travel book pointed out, there will always be a better photo of the same place available online and in books. So make sure to get photos of these places with yourself in the frame. This is not narcissism, it’s just good sense – a concrete way to preserve the memory that “I was there.”

When we visited the subterranean Armenian chapel at the Church of the Resurrection, our guide told us that behind the altar is a mosaic commissioned by Armenian pilgrims centuries ago that features an image of a ship and an inscription that could be colloquially translated as “We made it!” Your photographs of yourself in the Holy Land will help you make the the same happy exclamation.

  • Another kind of photograph

Mahendranath Gupta (“M,” the author of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna), told his disciples: “A place of pilgrimage should once be seen well. Later on through remembrance one may go there. It is at such places that one develops the sense of infinity.”

At many of the most important shrines you’ll find benches – opposite the Holy Sepulchre, facing the Golgotha shrine, along the walls by the shrine of the icon of Our Lady of Jerusalem in the Virgin’s Tomb, along the walls of the Virgin’s Well in Nazareth, and more. These are not only ideal spots to meditate, but also great opportunities for just sitting quietly, “watching and praying” as the sights and sounds of the shrine sink into your subconscious. Then when you return home and look within, you may find the Holy Land waiting there for you.

  • Safety

Because of the headlines of ever-increasing danger in the Middle East, it is natural for the pilgrim to wonder “Will I be safe?” The most common benediction we received from those learning of our travel was “Be careful, be safe!”

Like any country, the Holy Land has potential dangers that are uniquely its own. Use your common sense, pay attention, and make it a point to “learn the ropes” from your fellow pilgrims and the local people with whom you are staying. Throughout our travels we never felt unsafe, whether travelling by ourselves in the West Bank, trying to find our way out of the labyrinthine streets of an all-Muslim town at the foot of Mount Tabor, or wandering through the Muslim quarter of the Old City. This may have been naïve on our part, but with rare exception we found everyone helpful and pretty friendly, and our trip was without incident. As one resident joked to us when he encountered us one night in the lanes of the Old City, “In Jerusalem, no ISIS, just JESUS!”

A closing thought from “the orange monks”

Russian writer and pilgrim Vassily Khitroff wrote: “I have seen many people who have not been to the Holy Land, but I have never seen one who has been once who did not wish to go again.” We are ready!

See all of the posts about our pilgrimage:

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