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“What’s the Difference Between a Tourist and a Pilgrim?” A pilgrim comes back a different person!

by Sal Lema, Director, Carmelite Communications

Communications Director for the Carmelites, Sal Lema and his wife, Beth, accompanied Fr. Bob Colaresi, O.Carm., and some 40 pilgrims to the Holy Land last Spring. We asked Sal to reflect on his experience and share it with our readers.

Renewing our Baptism in the Jordan River

This is holy ground…we’re standing on holy ground… Perhaps our guide, Zach Shavin, best described our Holy Land experience when he stated that a “pilgrim” is “one who ascends.” We were to begin our ascent of the spirit…to walk in the very footsteps of our Lord…to stand where He would have stood, to be in the synagogue where He preached, to visit Capharnaum where He grew up… to relive the passion…to relive the death…in the very same place as Jesus… just a few centuries later.

When I arrived at home in Chicago after eighteen hours of traveling from Tel Aviv with a plane change in New Jersey, I was in fact a different person! On the outside, all that could be seen was a worn-out, sun-tanned shell, a little worse for wear. I had climbed the mountain of Mt. Carmel, sailed in the Sea of Galilee, prayed in the Judean Wilderness, and floated in the Dead Sea. My outward appearance was one of extreme exhaustion, yet my innermost thoughts were an accumulation of beauty, spectacle, humbleness, and awe. The places, Jaffa, Haifa, Cana, Nazareth, Tabgha, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Massada, all floating within me, conjure up emotions of beauty, pain, tears, strength, passion, and love. What I have seen will be relived again and again with every gospel and with every bible passage. I was there! It is not just in the bible…now it’s forever etched within my heart.

In my journal, I described day two as one of the longest days. We came to Jaffa, the place where Jonah went at God’s request…I imagined how Jonah must have looked. After being bathed in the bile of the whale, his skin bleached white, red sores covering his body, every hair standing on end; he must have resembled a modern day Martian. Looking at him, who wouldn’t have turned to God? There in Jaffa, I took a step back in time. I wasn’t living in the modern world anymore; I was reliving that period by the Mediterranean Sea where God called Jonah…I began to understand his denial to respond… a denial that we all go through in one way or another.


Eucharist on the shore of the Sea of Galilee by the Church of the Primacy. From left: Deacon Sal Lema and Rev. Bob Colaresi, O.Carm.

Each day we were graced with the gift of Mass by our presider and leader, Fr. Bob Colaresi, O.Carm., Director of the Society of the Little Flower. But he was more to us than director and leader; Fr. Bob was our mentor and our gift. His wisdom, passion, and love for God’s Holy Land made our trip so rich and vibrant. Each morning on the bus we prayed morning prayers that highlighted our day’s journey. We drove to the base of the Wadi ein Siah and started our climb up Mount Carmel. It was a cool, crisp day, the wind softly brushing our hair as we began our ascent. It was a vibrant climb to the top and there was no hot chocolate and easy chairs at the top…just the remaining, worn remnants of the ancient ruins of the chapel of “Our Lady of this Place.” We celebrated Eucharist there near the Spring of Elijah. I can still envision the Mass there, on that blustery mountain inside those walls, where we shared the meal and prayed for vocations and for all the Carmelites and the good works they continue to do.

If I had to describe one place that stands out in my mind, it would have to be our visit to Nazareth and the Basilica of the Annunciation. The upper church houses Icons of Mary from around the world. Our US version is rather modern; she is draped in aluminum. The lower level of this most grand Basilica houses the Fiat Chapel and the small room and tiny stairs that ancient tradition reverences as the home of Mary. It was in front of this grotto that we celebrated Eucharist.

Fiat Chapel in the Church of the Annunciation.

As the noon hour approached, we joined hands and raised our voices singing the Our Father. The bells of the upper church began to ring. At the same moment, the Moslem call to prayer echoed outside the church walls. The three together, filled me with an incredible presence that was so powerful, I was transferred into a different dimension, to a place where all lived in peace and unity. It was a tremendous rush!

Healing service at the ancient synagogue in Capharnaum

There were many opportunities to see and feel the presence as we ascended our mountains within. We renewed our marriage vows at Cana in Galilee and toasted with Cana wine. We visited the ancient synagogue, built on top of the volcanic rock where Jesus so often preached. Fr. Bob conducted a healing service for us there. Walking up from Gethsemane, we entered the old city and began the Way of the Cross carrying a large cross, praying and singing as we stopped for each station. We reenacted our baptism at the River Jordan, and ventured out to the Judean wilderness for Mass at the edge of a cliff. Each place, equally spectacular, placed an everlasting mark within my heart. I shed tears for the Israeli people, for those in Bethlehem who live under Palestinian rule. All we met in the Holy Land welcomed us so warmly. I suspect those at home who questioned our sanity for taking this trip, will no longer doubt upon seeing our pictures and hearing our stories and dream of one day making a pilgrimage themselves. I was not the person that left his modern day surroundings some days ago, I was a time traveler who had ventured back centuries to stand on the soil, and bathe in the sea where our Lord had been.

I am refreshed now, having slept and rejuvenated the aching bones and muscles. I have had the time to thank God for a wonderful visit to his homeland and for our safe return. Back to the day-to-day responsibilities of career and service, and except for a fading suntan, people would look at me and not see much of a change. Only God and I know the effect his land has had on me… for together we have ascended the mountain.

Article reprinted from Between Friends, the newsletter of the Little Flower Society, Summer, 2005.