Broken marble columns stand in the salt spray of the Mediterranean at King Herod’s palace in Caesarea Maritima, now a national park. This was the city in which the apostle Paul was imprisoned for years at the end of his third missionary journey, described in the Acts of the Apostles. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Broken marble columns stand in the salt spray of the Mediterranean at King Herod’s palace in Caesarea Maritima, now a national park. This was the city in which the apostle Paul was imprisoned for years at the end of his third missionary journey, described in the Acts of the Apostles. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)

Visiting Israel means wading through its contradictions, distractions and sorrows.

There are the ragged, stray cats in Tiberias and impoverished Bedouins on the road to Bethlehem. For me there was the feel of a Palestinian boy’s spit hitting the back of my head on the Via Dolorosa. I was alone that day, visiting St. Anne’s, and must have been a tempting target in the afternoon’s lengthening shadows.

But visiting the Holy Land also means glimpsing the sacred — and that is personal.

It is certainly not necessary to travel to Israel in order to reach the Holy Land. You may be closer in prayer and study at home.

Dominican Father Jerome Murphy O’Connor gets to the heart of the problem when describing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest church in all Christendom, on what was once Golgotha, where Christ was crucified.

“One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped,” the renowned New Testament scholar wrote. “One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. … The frailty of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here, it epitomizes the human condition.”

Pilgrims are well advised to prepare for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — and the rest of the holy sites in Israel — before buying a ticket for physical travel.

I know I wasn’t ready when I went.

I did the pilgrimage mostly backward, traveling there first, in part to visit friends in Jerusalem, and only then doing the reading, in my case with an emphasis on the history and archaeology, because that is my bent.

I knew I was traveling in the footsteps of St. Helena of Constantinople, who made the trek in 326 or 328 A.D. The mother of Constantine the Great, St. Helena traveled in considerable luxury for her time, with what amounted to a small city of a retinue.

It’s unlikely, even so, that she was more comfortable than the average budget traveler today, or better informed than a prepared pilgrim on a tour led by a literate and informed priest.

We are living in a pampered time.

St. Helena was the person who discerned where to build the Holy Sepulchre. Descendants of the survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. told her where the crucifixions had taken place. She wanted the church on that holy site.

Most biblical archaeologists think her placement was right.

St. Helena, about 80 when she made her pilgrimage, also identified the place in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. She ordered a church be built there too; it’s now the Church of the Nativity.

It was restored in 2019 and 2020, just in time for the COVID-19 shut-down that has decimated the economy of Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank.

UNESCO no longer considers the Church of the Nativity an endangered site; “its roof, exterior facades, mosaics and doors” are now in good shape. I visited in December 2009. The church was forlorn and yet inspiring in its dank and pitiful condition. I would love to see it now, its age-darkened mosaics gleaming, the star at the base of the altar, at its center the bedrock where Jesus was born, renewed.

My husband and I landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. We visited Caesarea, Acre, Haifa, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee in the north of Israel before heading south to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

We’d visited many lands where ancient temples have been preserved, some with streets cut away to reveal the layers of history.

No place, however, compares to Israel. There’s no surprise that Israel, a nation founded on its people’s faith and history, has prioritized preserving its history and land, meaning that every town, every landscape offers layers of meaning.

Pilgrims, whether on a tour or traveling alone, must discern their priorities. A pilgrimage to Bethlehem, for instance, would never solely mean visiting Bethlehem. You’ve gone too far not to see Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth as well.

Caesarea, one of Israel’s dozens of national parks and nature reserves, is a good place to begin. Its Roman-Judean lens pulls the past into focus.

Humble Nazareth and the shining Sea of Galilee also prepare the way for the primal importance of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, for the potentially frantic sense that “attention must be paid” upon visiting the hinge points of creation.

After Jerusalem the desert is a relief. Many Catholic pilgrims don’t make it to the south of Israel, never knowing what they’ve missed.

Ein Gedi, south of where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the Judean Desert, is an oasis with birds galore and herds of shy but visible gazelles. It’s most famous for its botanical garden. A hike up its canyon is perfect in the cool of December. There’s no record of Jesus coming to this area, but it’s easy to imagine him walking here.

Masada’s stark tragedy speaks volumes of the passions of the Zealots who chose to commit suicide here with their families rather than become slaves of the Romans. The Zealots were an important political movement during the time of Christ, rebelling against the Romans. Simon the Zealot was one of Christ’s apostles.

Still further south, the Negev offers up truly lonely places that were once part of the Incense Route, towns with early Christian churches and spare, dry canyons where Catholic monks lived. Mamshit, Shivta and especially Avdat and Ein Avdat may be worth extra days.

The people here worshipped in early Christian churches, grew grapes and other crops, and were on a bustling trade route.

It’s bleak emptiness now, dotted with caves, punctuated by oases and under brilliant desert stars — and with a message to be grateful, love God and take care.

For me, holiness and history were as palpable here as they were at other places, other moments in the Holy Land — and as they are, at times, in Portland.