What a trip.

Well, the jet lag has subsided, and I finally finished unpacking my suitcases, and I’m now trying to get back to life in the real world after our extraordinary pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

For those just joining us, you can read about my adventure at these links:

For now, here are a few final thoughts about the experience.

  1. Stop waffling. Just go. All the people who went on our trip were first-timers. The youngest was 36 and the oldest was 86 And again and again I heard the same words: “Incredible” “Amazing” “Life-changing.” We walked the Via Dolorosa, and stood in the streets of Capernaum and sailed across the Sea of Galilee. Those are just for starters. Trust and believe, you will read the scriptures with new eyes after seeing these places for yourself.
  2. Wondering what to pack? Start with a good pair of sneakers. You will walk. And walk. And walk. Be prepared. It won’t be easy. There are a lot of hills and cobblestones — and if it’s raining, it will only get steeper and slipperier.
  3. People say this all the time, but it’s true: it ain’t a vacation. The fundamental spirit of a pilgrimage is sacrificial. (It helped that we traveled during Lent, so we were in a penitential frame of mind.) So be aware: There will be inconveniences and setbacks, annoyances and delays. Just getting from the U.S. to Israel can be an adventure in itself. (My story of misplacing my passport at the Istanbul Airport is worth a novel — or maybe a bad Chevy Chase movie.) Some hotels are better than others, and not every place will feel like The Ritz. No big whoop; no one travels on pilgrimage for the seaweed wraps and early morning massages anyway. Travel with an open heart and an open mind. Be grateful for every small miracle. (The line at Bethlehem to venerate where Christ was born was less than an hour! Yay!) Keep a rosary nearby. You’ll put it to good use.
  4. A pilgrimage is not a great time to start a diet. Every meal is a buffet, and you will want to try everything, because it looks incredible and tastes even better. (Pasta for breakfast? Really? Yeah. It was great!) You will walk off a lot of those calories — 10,000 steps a day is not hard to achieve — but you don’t want to feel stuffed while doing it.
  5. If your itinerary states that you will walk the Via Dolorosa at 5 am, just do it. This was a highlight of our trip. We were up at 3:30 to be on the bus at 4, and began our walk at 4:30 in the morning. Every one of us was dreading it. And every person on our trip loved it. The streets were empty, the mood was sober. More than a few times, I was overcome with emotion. It felt like we had the city to ourselves.  It is breathtaking.
  6. Find time at the end of each day to unwind as a group. I usually found my way to bed by 9 pm, but some of our group retired to the hotel rooftop bar to talk, reflect, swap ideas, compare notes and just get to know each other better. This, too, is part of the experience. Our group was small enough and collegial enough that we were able to bond. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and made new friends to add to our Christmas card list. We’ll be in touch for a long time to come.
  7. Expect the unexpected. Our itinerary got shuffled around a few times, for one reason or another, and that was okay. It actually gave some spontaneity to the trip. People trusted our guide’s judgment and never doubted that we were in good hands.
  8. Don’t just take a pilgrimage; pray it. We had the Magnificat Holy Land Companion with us wherever we went — for Mass readings, the Way of the Cross, hymns, meditations. It was a terrific resource. (I downloaded the Kindle version onto my phone.) But beyond that: look at the journey as a prayer itself. Think of all the generations before you who walked those roads, saw those sites, touched those places. Make those strangers your companions. Walk with them. Pray with them. Bring intentions with you to pray at each spot, for different people or causes or concerns. Write them down. Carry lots of dollar bills with you to buy candles and light them at shrines. Your journey will be immeasurably enriched.
  9. Restrain yourself when it comes to shopping. Honestly, a lot of the stuff is junk. (The quality control on olive wood statues is, to put it generously, spotty.) Be selective and discerning. Most of the places sell the same stuff, and vendors will hound you wherever you go. (Flutes! Scarves! Postcards!) You want a priceless and irreplaceable gift? When you get there, bend down and bring home a stone from the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
  10. Travel with only one expectation: to experience a moment or two of grace. Everything beyond that will be an incomparable gift. You will see, hear, smell and taste things you never expected. You will feel emotions you thought were long-buried. Again and again you will find yourself saying, “Am I really here?” Leave room for amazement and wonder — and tears. Tears of joy. Of heartbreak. Of gratitude. Again and again, I found myself thanking God for being able to see and experience the different sensations of our pilgrimage. I will be thanking him for years to come.

Finally, I can’t say enough good things about the folks at Select International Tours, the Catholic travel agency that invited me to lead this pilgrimage.

I know I’m biased, but they really did a superlative job helping to make our journey memorable, comfortable and inspiring.

I go back to my first conclusion. Just do it.

It really is the journey of a lifetime — and one you will be talking about, praying about, dreaming about, long after it’s over.