In July 2019, I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Jerusalem, Israel to study the Holocaust for two weeks at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. While this was certainly the focus of my trip, I also had a lot of time to visit the holy sites that I, as a Catholic, had grown up hearing of and learning about my whole life. I was so beyond excited and thankful for this opportunity.
Before leaving for Israel, I talked to several people who had already visited the Holy Land, and they all told me the same types of things: “You will never be the same.” “You can feel God there in such a special way.” “It’s such a personal encounter with Jesus.” You get the idea. As you can imagine, my expectations were pretty high going into this trip. I was really expecting to have a retreat-like, “mountain-top” spiritual encounter with Christ, one that I had been seeking and hoping for prior to this trip.
For several years prior to this trip, I had been trudging through some real spiritual dryness. I graduated from college in 2015, about four years prior to this trip. My college career was a time of deep relationship with Christ because I was actively involved in the Catholic Newman Center just off of my university’s campus. I was there nearly every day for Mass, Adoration, Bible study, discussions, and just great fellowship. My relationship with God was in a very solid place, probably the best it had ever been.
Then, graduation happened. Like most millennials with student debt, I moved back in with my parents and had to deal with severe and sudden spiritual drop off. It’s like a Roadrunner cartoon; I was speeding up a mountain, doing great, and then suddenly the road fell out from under me. I had no community, no one my age, and no haven. I tried my very best to keep up my prayer life and go to daily Mass when I could, in addition to weekly Mass of course, but the loss of community and fellow believers my age was irreplaceable.
Try as I might, I remained in this spiritual desert for years, all the way up to my trip to the Holy Land.
When I arrived in Israel, I first visited the northern region of Galilee. This was a one-day, 14-hour excursion, and we saw it all: Emmaus, the Church of the Annunciation, the Church of Saint Joseph, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and the Church of the Rock. It was all amazing to see. I was able to dip my toes in the Jordan River, take a picture with a camel, and walk in the very places where Jesus grew up and had His first moments of ministry.
And I felt nothing.
The next day we took a half-day trip to Bethlehem, and we saw it all: the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Shepherds, an olive wood factory, and the Milk Grotto shrine. I was able to see the very spot where Jesus was born.
And I felt nothing.
I felt like something was wrong with me. How could I be here, really here, where my Savior lived and walked and had so many human experiences, and not even feel the Holy Spirit moving? Others on these tours were in tears, and yet my heart was not stirred at all. I was angry that so many people had lifted my expectations so high. I was promised that I would “feel Jesus” here. I felt nothing.
After many days of studying at Yad Vashem, we had a free afternoon to explore the city, so some of my colleagues and I wanted to see some of the important sites in Jerusalem. We had been exploring Old City where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is, as well as the Via Dolorosa, but on this day, we traveled outside of Old City, up a very high mountain, and found ourselves at the Garden of Gethsemane, outside of a Catholic church called the Church of All Nations.
The Garden of Gethsemane is not at all how I had pictured it in my head after so many years of hearing about it from Scripture. I expected it to be dark and overgrown, with high, looming trees. It is actually a very well-kept garden, with beautiful greenery, trimmed hedges, and shady trees. It is truly beautiful and serene, not at all where you would picture someone going through the most agonizing spiritual moments of his life.
I entered into the Church of All Nations to pray. At the front of the church, they have enshrined the very rock that Jesus is believed to have knelt down and cried out to the Father on. I knelt there, touched the rock, and prayed, “Jesus, where are you? Why can’t I feel you here? I came here for you. Why can’t I find you?” In the very spot Jesus experienced His deepest agony, I was going through my own spiritual agony.
As I turned around to sit in a pew, I noticed something odd. I saw a priest sitting in a traditional Confessional box. But he had the lights on and the door wide open, I suppose so that people knew he was there and available, and he was sitting on the confessor’s side. It was a very odd sight. When considering going to Confession, my knee-jerk reaction is usually, “I really don’t want to.” It takes a lot of mental preparation and talking myself into going for me to actually walk into a Confessional. But I figured there was no better time to go to Confession than in the Holy Land, in the place where Jesus went through the beginnings of His agony so that He could die for these sins which I am always so reluctant to confess.
I approached the priest and asked something to the effect of, “Are you available?” He enthusiastically waved me into the Confessional as he got up and took his place in the priest’s box. Before we began, he asked me, “Habla Espanol?” (“Do you speak Spanish?”) I replied, “Muy poquito, lo siento!” (“Very little, I’m sorry! Definitely not enough to do a full Confession!”). He assured me that was alright, so I went ahead and did my Confession.
I will never be able to know for certain if that priest understood a word I was saying, but that’s the beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: it doesn’t really matter. God understood every word I was saying, and I poured my heart out truthfully, and this priest, even though we spoke different languages, was able to absolve me of my sins in persona Christi.
I wish I could say I walked out of that Confessional and my spiritual dryness was suddenly over, and that the rest of my trip was dripping with the presence of Christ, but it wasn’t. Nothing in the physical realm changed for me after that Confession; my spiritual dryness has persisted since then, and I never had that “feeling” that everyone told me I would have. But that’s OK. Jesus changed the spiritual reality. In a small Confessional, with a priest that spoke no English, Jesus came to me and gave me mercy.