‘Send your light and your faithfulness, let them be my guide. Let them bring me to your holy mountain, instead of your dwelling place. (Psalm 43)
Sometimes in life, you have to find the right guide.
My family discovered it on a recent trip to the Holy Land.
The idea of going on a pilgrimage to Israel was something my husband and I with our children had been thinking about for years. My parents visited Jerusalem 10 years ago on a day trip from a Mediterranean cruise they were on. The ship hired a guide to take them from Haifa to Jerusalem for a few hours. Although my mother, a devout Catholic, was thrilled with this unique experience, their guide was Jewish. He brought them to all the Christian holy places in Jerusalem without believing in any of them.
Needless to say it ruined the experience.
“If you ever go to the Holy Land, go for more than a day – and promise me you’ll have a Catholic guide!” my mother told me afterwards.
This year when we decided to go, we hired a guide through the Terra Dei Tours group, a Catholic tour company based in Jerusalem.
And that’s how we met Samira.
Samira is an Arab Catholic who grew up in the Old City of Jerusalem, just around the corner from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church was built above the place where Jesus was crucified and buried.
As Samira walked us through the cobbled streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, she called her neighbors and friends. Everyone seemed to know her. She knew all the guards at the churches we entered and many of the priests who were stationed there. She knew the history of all the sites we visited, and as a practicing Catholic, she took us to masses, prayed the rosary with us, and spoke about the Catholic faith in today’s world.
Samira took us everywhere. We drove to the north of Israel, in the region of the Sea of Galilee. It was over 100 degrees every day but she was tireless. His energy was contagious.
We have visited almost all the sites of the 20 mysteries of the Rosary and each Stations of the Cross.
We waded in the Jordan to the place where Jesus was baptized. We visited a cave near the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus used to meet with his apostles to pray. We went to Nazareth to see the grotto where the angel Gabriel appeared to Our Lady. We saw the pool of Bethsaida, where Jesus healed the cripple.
Samira brought all the events of Jesus’ life to life as we walked through the places he walked and touched the caves and walls he must have touched.
Through Samira’s guidance, Jesus has become very real to us. We entered the world he lived in, the culture, the food and the beliefs.
What we realized as a family was that without Samira, we would never have understood any of the things we were watching. The Arab and Jewish culture present in Israel today was somewhat shocking to Americans and Italians like us. If Samira hadn’t been there to hold our hands and explain it, we would have been lost.
Thanks to Samira, we learned that the Franciscans have been guardians of holy places for 800 years. In some sites, they share this guardianship with other Christian churches. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, is shared by the Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. The reality of divisions within Christianity was evident within this one church where some side chapels are run by the Orthodox and others by the Catholic Church.
What was fascinating to learn was that many of the holy sites we visited had been built, destroyed and rebuilt many times over the past centuries. The original structure of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was first built under Saint Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, in the third century. The Crusaders rebuilt many of these churches after they were destroyed during the Muslim invasions. In some cases, they rebuilt churches several times because the same churches kept being destroyed.
Not only did we learn to understand the sites we visited, but we also gained perspective on the other pilgrims who come to Israel each year. The COVID-19 pandemic halted Christian pilgrimages to Israel for about a year and a half, but this year the numbers have started to climb again.
We asked Samira about the pilgrim groups she leads from different countries, and she told us that the Americans were some of the friendliest.
She said the French were the most physically enduring pilgrims.
“They won’t mind getting up at 6 a.m. and hiking for 12 hours in the hills and mountains. And they don’t complain,” she said.
Which pilgrims impressed her the most?
“The Africans,” she said without wasting time. “They have more faith than all of us put together!”
Samira said this as we watched a busload of African pilgrims in traditional African clothing enter the waters of the Jordan River. They were laughing and singing. Even though it was 106 degrees – with a “real feel” of 112 – the group of Africans couldn’t have looked happier.
God knows we all need guides to bring us closer to Jesus, no matter where we live – even if we never arrive in the Holy Land. These guides can be priests, nuns, Catholic friends or even a good spiritual book.
By having Samira as our guide, we were able to do the pilgrimage that my mother would have liked to have. Samira brought us closer to Jesus in a unique and personal way, all the marks of a good guide.
And I was finally able to keep my promise to my mother, who was surely smiling from heaven.