National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story -- Pilgrimage
Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

A Women's Journey to the Holy Land


They all saw her at once: a Bedouin woman wrapped in black, riding a donkey along the old Roman road. Sunlight glinted off something in her hand, and they heard her voice.

She was talking on a cell phone.

“The technology moves ahead, but the way is still the same,” murmured Marge Colgan, who would remember the moment as one of the sharp dichotomies of today’s Holy Land. A chaplain who coordinates a hospice program in Chicago, Colgan braved a Lenten pilgrimage with 25 other American women, led by two who knew Israel/Palestine like the backs of their hands.

Laurie Brink, a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa, Wis., is an archaeologist finishing a doctorate in Biblical studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. This fall, she will join the faculty of Catholic Theological Union and become director of their Biblical study and travel programs.

That was the position held by Sr. Marianne Race, a Sister of St. Joseph of LaGrange, La., currently president of the congregation, when the two women met 10 years ago. Common interest forged a friendship, and in 2001, they led their first trip to the Holy Land for older sisters in their communities.

“These were women who had prayed the scriptures for 50 years or more,” said Race. “When they were young, women religious didn’t travel. We knew Israel well enough that we could take them to places they could handle physically, slow down the usual pilgrimage.” Then, added Brink wryly, “we took them to an overlook of the Judean wilderness, up from Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. It’s one place where you can say, archaeologically, this is probably it, you are walking in the steps of Jesus. And these women -- who for 60 or 70 years had been following the same path spiritually -- were like nanny goats scrambling up that rocky path.”

Race and Brink decided that next, they would take a group of younger women, both lay and religious, to experience the country, traveling the usual pilgrimage path but focusing on the women in the Bible. Sept. 11 cancelled their plans, and when they finally rescheduled the trip, they watched the news and waited for cancellations. None came -- not even when, two days before their departure, the Hamas leader was assassinated. There was a little nervous chatter when the 26 women, more than half laywomen and most of them strangers to each other, met at O’Hare Airport. “Are we nuts?” they asked each other, thinking of all the friends and family who had begged them not to go.

But the pull was stronger than the fear.

“I worry about all things, real and imaginary,” Brink admitted cheerfully. “But if I didn’t go places that were scary, I wouldn’t go many places.” Both she and Race had Israeli and Palestinian friends and knew which parts of the country to avoid. They also knew their purpose.

“A tourist leaves home, leaves her center, to see something new,” said Race. “A pilgrim is traveling to her center.”

~ ~ ~

The journey began in the lush green north, in what is called the Galilee. After dinner at a kibbutz, they crossed the Sea of Galilee in what could have been, except for the motor, a first-century fishing boat. Out in the middle of the black sea, under a bright moon, the driver cut the engine and let the boat drift, and the women sat in absolute silence, staring up at the stars, feeling a peace so deep it startled them.

From that moment, the land began to teach them.

In the Judean wilderness, they realized how easy it would be to disappear into the tan rock if you knew the way. Hiking across the Negev Desert, Colgan thought of Miriam: “You picture her walking in this lost, godforsaken rock in the heat of the day, and you feel … kindred.”

Staying a night in a Bedouin tent, the air thick with the odor of camels, they saw how men and women were divided, and imagined Abraham with the strangers and Sarah on the other side of the cloth, listening and laughing.

At the Jordan River, they waded into cool, scuzzy water to renew their baptismal vows. Each woman proclaimed something she believed and made a promise:

“I believe I am God’s beloved, and I promise to share that love with everyone in my life.

“I believe in the power of the resurrection, and I promise to live as a witness to that by working for reconciliation.

“I believe in the power of God’s word to confront and to comfort, and I promise to teach and preach that word.”

The voices formed a litany, some vibrant and hopeful, others wise and a little creaky. The 26 women already trusted each other, bound close by faith and risk.

“There was something both powerful and easy about the way we prayed together,” observed Race. “The retreat was for, about and by women.” They touched the lives of other mothers, wives, warriors, concubines. As they neared the Dead Sea, their sweat crystallized, leaving salt in their hair and on their skin. They visited caves and the ruins at Qumran, saw the rocks outlining the ritual baths and community dining room of the monastery where a group of men isolated themselves, appalled by the increasing decadence of the priests, and prayed and fasted and copied scripture onto scrolls, preparing themselves for a new kind of priesthood.

They continued on toward Jerusalem, thinking long about the women in nearby towns who followed and supported Jesus, the women who stood at the foot of the cross, the women who went to the tomb the next morning.

They also felt their way into Jesus’ life. Betty Chrastka, administrative assistant to the head of the Lions Club Foundation, had gazed at the verdant Galilee, its fields dotted with tiny yellow mustard flowers and poppies, its blue sea and murmured, “Jesus came from the best part.” When they journeyed south, she realized he had left a land that was fertile and easy to climb rocky mountains and cross barren desert.

At Caesarea Philippi, Dominican Sr. Pat Davis, saw how, when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” he was standing right in the midst of the Roman gods. “And when he’s up on Mount Tabor -- I always thought he climbed this little mountain and went for a Sunday lunch. But when you see it, you know he was on a quest. It’s steep at the top, you don’t just go there. He was getting as close to God as he could, in the traditional way of going up to the top. And from there, he points himself to Jerusalem and knows he is part of the tradition. The prophet goes to Jerusalem.”

Hiking the hills, Race realized how strong and bronzed Jesus must have been. At Gethsemane, she saw how easily he could have escaped. “The Gospel is alive everywhere you go,” she said, “and the images become part of you forever.”

Race stood on the Mount of Olives looking toward Jerusalem, thinking of Jesus standing in the same place, staring at the city David founded, the temple Solomon built; the valley where children were sacrificed.

Sr. Mary Ellen Green, a Sinsinawa Dominican also in provincial leadership, was struck by the barrenness of the Negev Desert. She thought of the prophet Elijah, searching for God in desert storms and finding him in a gentle breeze. “There is a gentleness about the desert that surprised me,” she said. “And a pull to want to stay there longer.”

Places of peace gather power in a land where political violence cannot be ignored. Davis, who works with the families of women in prison, said when they headed north for Galilee, she saw, to her dismay, what looked like an ugly modern Illinois correctional facility. “It wasn’t a prison,” she said grimly. “It was the Wall. With towers and razor wire. And it went on and on and on.”

In Bethlehem, they saw huge parking lots empty of tour buses and drank mint tea with shop owners who hadn’t had a customer in a month. Jack Giacaman, a Palestinian Christian, pointed out the olive grove his family had owned for centuries, explaining that it is no longer theirs because it is on the other side of the Wall. When the women visited the olivewood factory, the square was empty. At noon, they heard the call to prayer, and looked out on a sea of men and boys, bowing down.

In Jerusalem, they visited the Western (formerly Wailing) Wall, their fingers probing the soft ancient stone for crevices in which to fold their prayers. The day after they visited was Friday, the Muslim holy day, and at the nearby Southern Wall, which is part of a mosque, kids were throwing stones and Israeli soldiers started shooting back at them.

“I have friends who are Israeli because of my work in archaeology,” said Brink, “and they are feeling hopeless. They want peace, they want the Palestinians to have land, and they can’t understand why their government is behaving as it is. They feel powerless. And for Israelis to feel powerless when it’s their country -- ” she broke off, then finishes quietly. “As an American, I understand that experience.”

~ ~ ~

Pilgrimage is many things, but it is not a vacation.

“The starkness and hardship of the experience were softened by the prayerfulness,” said Colgan. She remembers sneaking off to pray for someone with infertility problems at the Church of the Annunciation, only to run into Pat Kozak, who also had gone off to pray. “We bumped into each other in the empty crypt,” said Colgan, “and then we got spooked, because we heard this voice. A bishop was down there, all alone, saying Mass.” Upstairs, they shared a pew across from a family of Palestinian Christians: four generations of women, and a baby about to be baptized.

Davis saw the mosaics at Ein Karem and thought, “That is what it’s like. I’ve had all the tile pieces, all the brilliantly colored stories, but until now, I’ve never had them put together and put in place. Now I can see everything in relation to everything else. The pieces are not separate.”

For Green, the country itself was a mosaic. “The juxtaposition of the absolutely ancient with the most modern technology was almost confusing,” she said. Clarity came at a deeper level: “I feel stronger in my faith, and everything seems more real. It’s not a story anymore. It’s part of my life.”

Chrastka said she will “never read scripture, especially the New Testament, the same way again. And hearing it on Sunday is not enough anymore.” She feels, with new urgency, “a need to be aware of the presence of God.”

Colgan hasn’t forgiven the priest at Gethsemane who, after hearing her confession, told her, “A pilgrimage is already an act of reconciliation. For your penance, go and preach the Gospel and live the Gospel for the rest of your life.” She walked out almost angry, feeling the weight of his challenge. “Whatever happened to three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers?”

Walking down the steep road away from the last site -- Ein Karem, where Mary visited Elizabeth -- Brink turned to Race and chanted an off-key “Alleluia!” They had traveled the span of ancient Israel, telling stories of women who were raped or sacrificed; women who led their people; women who followed Jesus. They had met Ruth and Naomi, Mary of Magdala, Peter’s mother-in-law, Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, Hulda, Rehab, Deborah and Yael, each in the place where her story unfolded. They had waded in the Jordan; slept in a Bedouin tent; seen on the stairway to the crypt in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre tiny crosses carved centuries ago by Crusaders grateful they had arrived alive. Up in the Armenian chapel, they found graffiti that read simply, “Lord, we came.”

Every woman bought a replica.

“Pilgrimage was meant to be an arduous journey, never easy, never safe,” said Brink. “And promising that if you returned, you returned changed.”

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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