As a history and theology student, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the first month of my summer than by traveling throughout Israel and Palestine and participating in an archaeological dig at a possible biblical site.
At the start of May, I finished my final exams, and less than twenty-four hours later, I was on a plane bound for Tel Aviv with a group of my peers and professors. The first eleven days of the trip we ventured out on a biblical lands tour. We started in the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee and then slowly worked our way around the surprisingly small country that is Israel.
We took a boat out onto the Sea of Galilee where Christ is said to have walked on the water, conversed about David and Saul at the springs of Ein Gedi, contemplated and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and took communion with one another at the Garden Tomb, where the Protestant Church believes Christ was buried briefly after the crucifixion.
I now have in my biblical/theological arsenal a much broader and deeper understanding of the geography and culture of the Ancient Near East to an extent that can only be gained through such a pilgrimage to these sites.
When you are able to put a realistic picture to the places that you read about in scripture, the text comes alive in a new way.
A portion of our group spent the next two weeks doing archaeological work at on disputed West Bank territory just north of Jerusalem. It’s believed that this spot was once the ancient city of Ai–famous in biblical history as a Canaanite city the Israelites conquered in Joshua 7 and 8.
To help prove this hypothesis, we uncovered a multitude of first century pottery, coins, and other small but strikingly significant trinkets. Digging at this site and seeing the remains of houses, silos, and religious spaces made it seem as though the history of a time long forgotten was coming to life in the dirt before our eyes.
We may have been digging the “Holy Land,” but the schedule for that portion of the trip was anything but holy. We woke up each morning at four in the morning and made it to our site by six.
I would like to be able to say something profound about seeing God in the sunrise every morning as we hiked to our site, but most mornings, it was just plain miserable. I learned a lot about archaeology and history, but I can’t say that Christ and I met very often in the dirt over those two weeks.
One would think that because so much in that part of the world centers on religion, theological insight would be flowing from the land itself.
I left the U.S. with the notion that merely being in a place that so many people have held in such high regard for well over a thousand years would be more than enough to bring about a heightened sense of spirituality.
That wasn’t quite my experience.
This is not to say that I didn’t have a moment or two that stirred me in such a manner. However, I wasn’t shedding tears on a daily basis as we roamed the streets of Jerusalem and passed by the Stations of the Cross. I wasn’t beside myself with emotion in the Garden of Gethsemane.
No, Christ caught my attention in a different manner over those twenty-four days. One of the most impactful experiences of the trip coincided with the feelings of sadness that confronted me when we ventured into Palestine to visit Bethlehem.
As I talked briefly with a young girl who worked at a shop in the area and as I studied the graffiti-lined walls that separate that city from Jerusalem, I was reminded of the complexities of the distress that currently exists in the unsettling sociopolitical climate of the Middle East.
I encountered Christ as we stood listening to scripture being read at the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter when I wandered off to hear to a group of foreign monks and nuns, on their own religious pilgrimage, joyfully singing in a language unknown to me as they partook in the Eucharist with one another.
I was theologically shaped by the conversations that occurred in between cities on a bus, in a hotel lobby, and at the dinner table.
The moments that I’ll remember the most from this trip occurred in those ordinary spaces where, as students, we processed the cultural complexities, the historical and theological information being rapidly thrown at us every day, and the little interactions and experiences that brought meaning to the trip for each one of us.
Those moments reminded me that every space on Earth has the potential to be sacred, and that the location is all about what you make of it and who you share it with.
If anything, remember that sometimes the holiest of moments happen in unlikely and sometimes surprising spaces. Don’t limit yourself based on your preconceived ideas about how it is that we’re supposed to meet with the Lord.
You have the opportunity to recognize a sense of sacredness wherever you happen to find yourself. //
I hope you enjoyed our first contribution to the Finding God Abroad Series.
Val and I have known each other since before college, and we both have taken similar journeys of exploring and expanding our faith over the last few years. A senior at Lee University, Val hopes to become an ordained Episcopal priest in the future.
You can find more from Val on Twitter at @vbrite.