"A trip to the Holy Land," said my friends last year, "is life changing."
I pressed them for details but all they could say was that I had to experience it to understand.
When our church announced another Holy Land trip accompanied by Father Jerry, our charismatic pastor, I immediately signed up.
A spontaneous decision like that isn't typical for me. I agonize over buying a new bedspread or an expensive pair of slacks. But I felt no hesitation in signing up for the trip.
I've come to believe that people don't "decide" to make a Holy Land pilgrimage. They are called to do so.
There's a major difference between a typical sightseeing vacation and a pilgrimage. One is strictly for pleasure, the other is for spiritual growth.
I just returned from an 11-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land and I'm finding it harder than I thought it would be to tell you about it.
Now I understand why my friends who went last year said you have to experience it to understand why it is so life changing.
Walking in the footsteps of Jesus with Marian, a brilliant Hebrew guide who brought home the historic and religious significance of each place, was illuminating.
Now, when I read the Bible, it will be with new understanding, reverence and appreciation.
That much I can tell you. What I find hard to put into words is the overwhelming feeling of being one with Jesus.
For me, the most moving moment was running my hand over the actual stone that was under the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Thousands of people from at least 60 countries stand in a long line each day, trying to reach the altar that houses the stone under the altar. Pilgrims can bend down to touch the actual stone that held the cross.
As I stood in the long line snaking through the church, I was absorbed in people watching, amazed at the interesting garb on those from many nations.
When I was just a few feet away from the altar, I suddenly felt like a hard blow to my stomach had taken away my wind. I was struggling to breathe as tears flowed down my face. And that was BEFORE I touched the stone.
The power of that stone brought tears to all who touched it.
Another emotional site for me was seeing the place where Jesus was imprisoned before his trial. It is nothing more than a small, very small, totally dark hole in the ground.
They tied a rope around Jesus in order to lower him into a dark hole as confining as a coffin.
We were lucky enough to have a private Mass at that sight. As I sat there looking at the hole and contemplating all the horrors to come, I asked Jesus why. Why did you have to go through such pain and such a grotesque death?
His answer: That's how much I love you.
Now I ask you, after that how can anyone not be impacted in a life changing way?
Our group of 38 was rebaptized in the River Jordon, the same place where John baptized Jesus. It was total emersion and each man and woman came up from the water and sobbed.
Not me. A so-called crocodile ruined the moment.
When it was my turn to be baptized, just as the two priests was about to lower me into the water, I spotted something big in the water swimming right for me.
"Is that a crocodile?" I asked. My priest said no and lowered me into the water. When I came up, he said, "I lied." When we watched it swim away, we knew it wasn't a crocodile but no one could agree on what it really was.
My new friend, Rick, said the baptism was life changing for him.
After years of letting destructive anger rule his life, Rick said he finally realized the anger was his, and only he could decide what to do with it. He could chose to continue to carry it, or, he could drown it once and for all. "I finally let it go in the River Jordon where I found a healing," he said.
Stories like that were part of the trip. Although most of us were strangers before we came together for the pilgrimage, we bonded with each other as we shared our personal stories.
There were many somber moments, especially in the Church of the Sepulchre, the site where Jesus was buried.
When we took a boat tour on the Sea of Galilee in a wooden boat, we were told the "sea" is actually a lake and the waters were usually calm.
Not for us. A sudden storm whipped the water, rocking the boat and making it easy to understand the Bible reading about the frightened apostles in the raging sea.
We walked steep mountain paths and we walked in the desert, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Along the way, we gained a deeper commitment to our faith.
My new friend Lorraine Tucker summed the entire experience this way: "When we go home we will be unpacking our suitcases for hours," she said.
"But we'll be unpacking our memories and what we gained on the trip for the rest of our lives."