I’m not a religious person.
But I did feel stirrings of something spiritual while touring the sites that are holy to Christianity on my May trip to Israel, sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism. Although it’s been years since I’ve picked up a Bible, the stories from the Old and New Testament have been ingrained in my psyche (all those summers spent at Vacation Bible School as a kid did the trick), so it was amazing to see the places where these events allegedly took place.
Chief among these is the Sea of Galilee, located in northeast Israel. This is the area where Jesus spent his prime missionary years, delivered the famous Sermon on the Mount, performed miracles and recruited disciples and followers.
At first glance, the Sea of Galilee looks more like a “lake” than a sea. Still, it’s the largest freshwater lake in Israel, and has long been a source of drinking water for the country.
From the Mount of Beatitudes, the hill slopes gently down to the Sea of Galilee. Jesus allegedly delivered one of his most famous speeches, the Sermon on the Mount, from this point to what the Bible describes as crowds of people. The land is still mostly undeveloped, so it’s not too hard to close your eyes and imagine people camped out on this hillside, either true believers or those merely interested in seeing a speaker as entertainment.
As befitting the site where such a holy event to many people occurred, the Mount of Beatitudes is topped with a spectacular Roman Catholic church and gardens. If you visit, make sure you time it properly – the church shuts down at noon until 2:30 p.m.. And as with many sites holy to different religions in Israel, you should dress modestly in long pants or capris, and covered shoulders.
The inside of the church is rather simple, save for the stained glass windows that list the Beatitudes. For those unfamiliar with the Beatitudes, they are the eight blessings that Jesus laid out in his Sermon on the Mount, including ones for the poor, the meek, the merciful and the pure of heart. Although they only appear in three of the four Gospels, they’re considered the essence of Christianity
Pedestals with the different Beatitudes also line the main walkway. Overall, the Mount of Beatitudes is a quiet place, where many visitors are making what they consider a spiritual journey. You wouldn’t be out of place carrying a Bible.
The church offers several quiet areas where groups can gather and hold services. Our guide read the Beatitudes aloud to us in front of the church and it proved to be a moving experience, so much so that one member of our group teared up. Even if organized Christianity is relegated to your past, there’s something about being at the actual sites themselves that can stir old memories and feelings.
Just a short drive from the Mount of Beatitutdes lies Tabgha, most famous as the site of the Multiplication where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. There are two churches here, an orange-domed Greek Orthodox Church of the Multiplication and the Roman Catholic Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. We only had time to visit the latter, which is almost reminiscent of a Mexican mission than a cathedral.
Although simple in decor, the church is fraught with meaning. For those who don’t know the story, Peter (Jesus’ top disciple) betrayed Jesus before the crucifixion by denying him three times. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter and the disciples several times. But it wasn’t until the third time – which took place when Peter and the others were fishing in the Sea of Galilee – that Jesus forgave Peter and commanded him to “Feed my sheep.”
Inside, a table called the Mensa Christi (Table of Christ) is built over a rock meant to signify Peter’s primary role in the Catholic hierarchy, which maintains that Peter, as well as subsequent Popes, have worldwide spiritual authority.
Notice the fish motif in the floor before the table. If you’ve ever wondered what the Christian fish symbol – often seen on suburban bumpers – means, the answer becomes apparent here. The disciples, first approached while they were working in the Sea of Galilee, were persuaded to become “fishers of men.” The early Christian church apparently took the fish as their motif, using it to mark places where it was safe to gather.
I would have liked to have spent more time in Tabgha or even followed one of the trails between the town and the Mount of Beatitudes. But we had a schedule to keep. Last on our list: Capernaum, Peter’s hometown, where Jesus lived during his early preaching years. Now in ruins, the town was considered a busy village more than 2,000 years ago, drawing fishermen, farmers and other merchants.
It is believed that Jesus stayed in Peter’s house for several years. The ultra-modern House of St. Peter is built above the ruins of an octagonal 5th century church, which itself was supposedly built directly over the room where Jesus lived.
The juxtaposition between the modern building and the ruins is jarring. It’s almost like a spaceship came down and rested upon holy ground (although it’s never been proven that Jesus actually lived with Peter during his ministry). This was the one building on my trip that didn’t seem to fit either the existing landscape or the historical/spiritual significance of the site.
Just a stone’s throw away from the House of Peter are the remins of Capernaum’s synagogue. Jesus allegedly started his ministry at a synagogue similar to this (scholars have determined that the current structure dates back to 4th or 5th century AD).
After a morning perusing these sites, all of them meaningful in a historic way even if your beliefs are long eroded, a few of us walked down to the rocky shore near the Sea of Galilee. It could have been a moment filled with “walk on water” jokes, but we all felt a little too solemn to indulge.
Bending down, I picked up a stone worn smooth by the water. I put it in my pocket as a remembrance not only of the places I had been, but of the feelings they had evoked. While my trip to Galilee didn’t inspire a Hallelujah moment, it did put me back in touch with the stories and verses that have been unfamiliar for decades and connected me with a belief system that I hadn’t examined in a serious way since high school. And that in itself proved to be a spiritual experience.
Have you ever been to a place that was spiritually symbolic for you? Where?
Coming next: Jersusalem