This post has about 1,500 words. Can’t say I didn’t warn you!

The term pilgrimage didn’t necessarily put off any alarms in my unholy head until I actually arrived in Israel. I apparently didn’t think the trip through although packing mere hours before the flight should’ve already told me that. I was not mentally prepared for what was about to come.

The Holy Land is called that for a reason. For the Jesus-centric, it’s the land where Christ lived and died, every step of the way chronicled in the Bible with both clear and some not-so-clear geographic references. We heard that for other religions it’s holy too but I know very little about it so let’s leave it at the assumption that the Holy Land is holy for everyone.

What I didn’t expect was how holy I would be made to feel as well. I didn’t think I would be lugging a prayer book to every spot, as evidenced by my small purse meant for just a lipstick and a smartphone. I was most definitely surprised that our itinerary involved hearing mass every single day. What’s more surprising though is considering the number of churches we actually visited, the percentage of where we held mass was relatively small. But not only did we hear mass, we also organized it. The songs, the readings – we all were assigned something. Apparently most of this was discussed in the briefing but since I missed that for work, I was in mild shock.

Another thing I apparently missed in the briefing was the fact that I would be traveling in a group of 48 and, consequently, would be playing so many getting-to-know-you games. For someone who isn’t a big fan of contrived sharing, I found it a bit difficult to play the games with sincerity especially in a game where most people described themselves (the catch being using the first letters of their names) with too-good-to-be-true yet also somehow generic adjectives like tantalizing, electrifying and remarkable. And in a group where the age range is 1 to 79, what else can you say that is universally acceptable and family-friendly? But like any other awkward sharing game, I got through it. Some games were more interesting than others. ZipZap, a game that involves running around switching seats, entails memory skills, fast thinking, and physical brutality that of course sparked the competitive in me. Shoving someone out of a chair so you can sit takes determination, strength and sometimes, cruelty. (I kid. Although I think I did bully some out of their chairs.) That game I liked because I usually enjoy energy spurts with defined losers and winners. But, truthfully, in the 8 days that we spent together, the games eventually seemed unnecessary. We were, after all, singing together, eating together and, more often than not, praying together.

The pilgrimage itself was organized to a Tee. Journeys of Faith, our travel agency, had operations down pat. Schedules were clear – from the wake up calls at 5:30AM to the dinners at 7:30PM. All meals were taken care of by the group, the shopping stops, bathroom stops, and more importantly, photo stops were all taken into consideration too. Even tips for the drivers, bellboys, etc., were already included. The only thing I paid for was my $6 bottle of beer. That also means I didn’t shop for anything. I personally didn’t think the house needed any more religious icons but judging by the weight of our luggage on the flight back my mom seemed to disagree.

The Holy Land is indeed holy. What we did was literally a walk through the bible – from Jesus’ birth to His resurrection (although not necessarily in that order), to significant moments in His family and disciples’ lives. Name an event in Jesus’ life, we probably walked it. The area of the Visitation? Included. Where Peter denied Jesus thrice with the cock crowing? Also included. Where Nathaniel hid in the fig tree? (Who is Nathaniel, you ask? I’m not exactly sure myself but needless to say, it was also included.)

If you were wondering, let me blurt out your questions for you. Do I know the bible by heart? No. Did I recognize all the characters and all the places mentioned? Well, not really. Did I find it boring? Not at all. The country is beautiful – all structures were built with limestone, everything looked so picturesque that I’m claiming Israel my favorite country to date. The places we visited though were even more magical. You lean against a wall in some cave to listen to our priest’s reflection (who, by the way, can double as a stand-up comedian; even our masses were borderline comedic sometimes), and have people point out after that you were, in fact, leaning on Jesus’ blood. I apparently was in one instance and it freaked me out a little bit before realizing it was holy and should therefore be prayed over. The churches built on the iconic sites were so grand, beautiful and towering. Chapels where we had mass were either natural caves or outdoor with the view of the sea (specifically of Galilee). It was breathtaking. The most interesting activities involved seeing the birthplace in Bethlehem and spending Christmas there, kissing Jesus’ tomb, seeing Mary’s tomb, being baptized where Jesus was, eating St. Peter’s fish by the Sea of Galilee and the couples renewing their wedding vows in Canaa.

Honestly, a lot of times, you don’t really feel the gravity of where you are and what you’re doing because you’re more concerned about the little details. My worries entailed questions like: “Where in this sacred circle should I kiss? The gold-plated rim or the center?” or “My red lipstick will totally leave a mark! Do I have to wipe it after?” or “I’m crouched so low under the table how do I get out without tripping and causing a scene?” And then as you leave the concerns dissipate and turn into a new kind of horror “Sh*t, that was the tomb! I should’ve prayed more” or “I apparently don’t know the rules of the Three Wishes. I should’ve made more!” Magical, I tell you. Magical.

The people we were with though were equally great. I was fortunate enough to have travelled with my mom and my best friend, and, well, her family. My best friend’s mom actually handles the agency and was our tour leader. But the rest of the people that we met were amazing as well. There are tons of horror stories about traveling in a group. Strangers forced to travel together don’t always mesh well (and that’s putting it mildly.) This group though was full of charming and, more importantly, humble individuals who unknowingly taught me a thing or two about pretense. By the end of the trip we all had #sepanx and in the first two weeks since we got back, the young ones already had reunions…twice.

“So are you holy now?” a question that’s been thrown my way several times with equal parts sarcasm and torment I wonder what people really think of me. Well, no. Not really. (Although at this very moment, I’m wearing a necklace of a saint and one of the star of david that I would consider both unusual and uncharacteristic.) But the answer is still no. Did I appreciate the trip though? Of course.

Honestly, often I feel very removed from the prayers I recite and the Bible stories I was made to read and memorize. They felt more like lessons to me, growing up; lessons one had to remember for the sake of remembering and not embarrassing one’s self in inevitable group prayers. Some seemed a little too fictional. The elaborate stories and countless characters felt more like a Lord of the Rings trilogy than a series of biographies; stories that were griping but so full of magic they didn’t seem true. Plus, in this day and age when even the Church starts telling you that some may have been “exaggerations for creative purposes,” it’s hard to pinpoint what to believe and most of them are taken with both an open mind and a grain of salt.

At one mass back in Manila we were (still) singing Christmas songs in Church. Surprisingly, lyrical mentions of Bethlehem and other references to the manger made me smile all the while thinking to myself, “I’ve been there; I’ve touched it; I’ve seen it.”

Now, things feel very real to me. Now, it’s like wishes to the Universe aren’t just thrown at some open sky. They’re thrown at an entity I know the history of – an entity I now can relate to on some level because I’ve seen how far He climbed to get to the top of the mountain, how long He walked carrying the cross, seen blood on caves and on stones. The Universe, while I know I’ve always had it on my side, has made me understand it – an understanding I never would’ve gained had I just read the Bible or listened to some homily. And if there’s any takeaway I have from the trip, it would be that.

So what advice would an unholy pilgrim leave with another possibly not-so-holy one? That you try it. At least once in your life visit the Holy Land. I personally found it magical and I think others would too.

Oh, and though it may not be in the memo, a pilgrimage apparently means walking a sacred walk, literally or figuratively, and what can best be described as church-hopping. Now we both know.

Journey to the Holy Land (teaser) from Karl Porio on Vimeo. Will share the complete one once I get my hands on it.