Letter from the FSJ: Amy Nizolek
Late last spring, forty pilgrims and three SSJE Brothers gathered in Jerusalem to begin a ten-day pilgrimage through the Holy Land. As a group, we were diverse: there were married couples and single individuals; monks, clergy, and laypersons; retirees and working professionals; and members of a variety of Christian traditions. Some had the calm demeanor of seasoned pilgrims. Others looked a bit more apprehensive. As we sat together for the first time in Saint George’s Guesthouse to begin the process of getting to know one another, we were each asked to answer a question: “What have you left behind, and what do you hope to find?”
What had we left behind? Pilgrims must travel lightly out of necessity, but that extends to more than just one’s suitcase. Every pilgrim sitting there that evening had left something meaningful thousands of miles away. Some had left family members, some had left demanding jobs, and some had left an intangible onus such as grief. From a distance, this feeling of lightness might sound like a relief, but the reality can be quite different. Those mundane burdens are often the ballasts that keep us stable. Our group of pilgrims was temporarily unanchored and sailing straight into uncharted spiritual territory.
The second part of the question (what do you hope to find?) was harder. We typically get to choose the weights that anchor our lives. We can choose our careers, our friends, and our partners in life and love. But when we become pilgrims, we are not given the luxury of choosing the gifts of the Spirit that will fill the gaps where our carefully-chosen burdens once were. Go on a pilgrimage to find peace, and you’re just as likely to find yourself aflame with passion. Go on a pilgrimage to find an answer, and you’ll leave with questions that had never even crossed your mind. That is, however, the beauty and mystery of a pilgrimage – you open yourself to God, you trust that God will plant the right seeds in your soul, and you wait in anticipation and wonder to see what grows. God will give your soul the ballast it needs; it just may not be the one you expected!
Of course, that is an easy enough statement for me to write as I sit in England three months after leaving the Holy Land, but it was much harder to keep in mind while I was actually on the pilgrimage. Although I had few well-defined expectations of what gifts I would find, I did have a strong notion of where I would find them. Surely they would happen at the holiest of the holy sites! Surely my unbidden emotional responses to each place and church would be in proportion to its particular Biblical importance! But alas, that is not how such things work.
I don’t know why some places moved me more than others that I had deemed “more worthy.” I have no idea why I wept when I stood beneath the sealed Golden Gate, but not when I touched Golgotha, and I can’t answer why I wanted to walk straight out into the Judean desert at dawn in search of God, but found it difficult to pray at the Church of the Annunciation. At the time it was frustrating; I wanted the whole experience, and if I was not moved, stretched, and impassioned by every site, then I must have missed something. But if the pilgrimage taught me anything, it’s that you cannot anticipate when the Holy Spirit will enter your heart. Some of us cried while standing in the Jordan River; I personally was more distracted by my feet being wet. Nevertheless, when I looked around at my fellow pilgrims glowing with the love of God, I saw the Holy Spirit at work moving others, even if I myself remained still.
It seems to me that this is exactly as it should have been for me, as one small part of a large group of pilgrims. Although some of what I experienced was intensely private and always will be, much of what moved me was visible to my companions. We saw the Holy Land through our own eyes first, and then through the eyes of our fellow pilgrims. When my own spiritual well had run dry, and the Holy Spirit seemed momentarily to have forgotten about me and my expectations of holy sites, I learned to look for God’s work in the friends who surrounded me. Their joy became my own. If at any given moment I failed to find God’s grace and gifts within myself, I learned that I could find them in the hearts of my companions, my fellow pilgrims on the journey of a lifetime. I may not have understood that perfectly at the time, but as I continue to pray about the pilgrimage, God reveals more and more wonderful gifts. My time in the Holy Land may have come to an end, but the pilgrimage is far from over.
Amy Nizolek, Former SSJE Intern