I spent my formative years growing up in a small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania, not far from Scranton, home of The Office. Although they themselves weren’t overly religious, me parents did drag me to church every Sunday, out of a sense of duty more than religious fervor. I went through the motions, took First Communion classes and dutifully learned my lessons. Their interest, and my own, in organized religion gradually waned and I really didn’t think about it very much. In high school, college and even graduate school, I studied religion, all religions, perhaps out of a vain desire to distill from them some universal truths. In my 20s and early 30s, I really didn’t think about religion very much, although I do kick butt when it comes up as a Jeopardy category. That’s why I was surprised to discover that I somehow had become a devoted pilgrim.
Last year, US Airways had a special promotion, offering round trip flights to Israel to a limited number of people for just $198. I know, unbelievable, right? I jumped on the offer and never looked back.
I’m a history buff, and there are few places in the world so replete with historical sites than Jerusalem. The city hasn’t just been inhabited for thousands of years, it’s been an extremely important metropolis almost since the beginning. Millennia of religious devotion and historical events has resulted in a modern city that is gracefully intertwined with its impressive past.
I didn’t mean to become a religious tourist or, as some would say, a pilgrim. It’s just hard to avoid when visiting Jerusalem. In the span of a couple of days you can easily visit some of the most important religious sites on the planet. The Temple Mount, the Kotel, Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque, the Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, are just some of the many sites millions of the world consider amongst the most holy on Earth.
Over the course of a week I found myself amongst the penitent at Friday prayers at the Western Wall and Sunday services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was crucified, died and was buried. I roamed the Temple Mount, weaving between groups of men discussing the Qu’ran and school groups funneling in and out of the sacred sites.
More than just visiting places, I was experiencing them. I was moved when I joined thousands of people dancing in the Kotel plaza at evening prayers. I offered a shoulder to an older woman on the Via Dolorosa who had become overwhelmed emotionally by the walk. I wasn’t just ticking sites off of a tourist map, I was learning why they mean so much to so many.
By the end of the trip I wasn’t a convert and hadn’t had any visions, but I think I had a new respect. That’s not to say I wasn’t respectful before, I was, but I don’t think I ever understood what drove millions to visit religious sites around the world. I reflected back on a brief stop in Turkey the year earlier, when we visited the final home of the Virgin Mary.
We were in Ephesus for the day, and the site wasn’t far, so our guide drove us up the mountain to the purported final abode of the Mother of Christ. Once again, I was originally more interested in the historical aspects of the site, but was quickly overwhelmed by the devotional.
The place was packed with pilgrims and wanna-be pilgrims, each desperate to touch the sacred site. I was stunned. Here we were, in what I would normally call the middle of nowhere, and there were literally busloads of the penitent flooding the small religious sanctuary. Even more shocking, I was there too and not just for the photos. Before we left, my significant other looked over at me and said how moved he was by the experience. His own religious background bubbled up and before we knew it, we were leaving notes in the prayer wall.
It wasn’t until I recently visited Jordan when I finally realized that I had become a pilgrim. I was on a whirlwind tour of the country, sponsored by Jordan Tourism, and I had asked specifically to visit both Mt. Nebo and Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan. Nebo is where Moses first caught sight of the Promised Land and Bethany is where Jesus was baptized.
I once again found myself, the secular agnostic, bumping elbows with hoards of religious tourists, all of us vying to get our own glimpse of the holy and sacred. As I stared at the stagnant water that was once the mighty Jordan River, I suddenly realized that I had seen just about every major site of importance to Christianity, as well as many other religions, and I began to wonder what I was doing.
As I said, I’m not religious, I don’t go to church – I don’t even pray. Why then had I, almost inadvertently, made it such a high travel priority? I don’t think it’s a subconscious need on my part to connect with the religious side of my life, to find something I didn’t know was lost. Nor do I think that it’s not just about the sites, those are important, but it’s about the experience. It’s standing there with scores of people who have devoted significant portions of their lives in spiritual obeisance to something they don’t understand and my desire to understand them.
I think that what I’m seeking is to better understand the world and the people in it, not through religion, but through the people who subscribe to the tenets of religion.