Our next pilgrimage story comes to us from Natalie Kuchta. You may recognize the school she visited from a previous pilgrimage story! (You can find it here: https://www.axiawomen.org/blog/pilgrimage-story-christ-my-heart.) We hope you enjoy her reflections on connecting with the saints and carrying their prayers back from a pilgrimage.
I have done many travels in my life, but my pilgrimage to the Holy Land surprised me in many ways. I remember watching my first Chicago Marathon when my daughter Rachel ran in college, and feeling incredibly inspired by the extraordinary efforts of so many people, giving their best to a race they had trained for months or even years - all for one goal: to cross the finish line after 26.2 miles.
When I returned from my pilgrimage, I felt a little like that. I may not have trained well for or finished with a great time, but I finished the race: two weeks of long days of pilgrimage, all with a group that had shared each and every long day together. When I signed up for the pilgrimage, I had no other expectations except to survive the trip, as I had heard that this tour guide kept up a very rigorous schedule with long days and lots of walking. But the wisdom and great teaching from our guide, as well as all the great friendships developed along the way, kept me strong to finish the race!
Another thing that surprised me: I did not imagine that it would be so much fun! I and my fellow pilgrims will not likely forget all the long days of touring, the laughs, the intense learning we did along the way, and how we helped each other when needed from morning till evening. And then, of course, there were the most serious moments, being in the holy places that I had no idea would change me like they did.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of our journey was visiting the Orthodox School of Bethany. It was a life-changing experience to meet the principal, Sister Martha (now Mother Maria), and hear her talk about all the school does for the students and the many challenges of running an Orthodox Christian School composed of children who are not all of the same faith.
The school maintains very high educational standards and is sought out by families that desire to have their children well-educated. However, they are often struggling with difficult requirements that, if not followed, could cause the school to be shut down. In spite of the many threats and challenges from the outside, her record of excellence in education is measurable, and she often is asked to take in orphans who have been abandoned or abused. They maintain a boarding facility where these girls are taken care of by the school and become their family.
I was so touched by seeing this school that I could have stayed there the whole day. Someone asked Sister Martha if she was ever afraid for her life, as she has been threatened many times crossing checkpoints. She answered that she is always concerned for her girls, but she thinks of protecting them the way Saint Sophia prepared and prayed for her daughters, Faith, Hope, and Love–and said she would like to prepare her girls for whatever is required of them and not worry for herself. Her goal was to be like St. Sophia, living as if she were already dead. Seeing the beauty of the joy on Sister Martha’s face as she said this, I felt like I was in the presence of a saint, and I walked away in tears.
Returning from any pilgrimage is a challenge. Once I was back at work and caring for my family, I thought for a while I had lost the life-changing experience that I had had in the Holy Land. Then all of a sudden, one song brought me back to the Church where I venerated so many Saints’ relics, and prayed by the remains of Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr and Saint Barbara. It brought back to me standing on the floor of the Church stained with the blood of the martyrs… kneeling and touching the Rock of Golgotha... and pressing my face against the Tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Visiting holy places truly does change you. When you touch the relics of saints, it changes your prayers to the saints; you feel them with you, as though they are holding your hand while you pray together.
The visit to the school and meeting Sister Martha also changed me. I often think of the lesson from St. Sophia that Sister Martha shared. I now have an Icon of St. Sophia on my desk, with her three daughters. I ask for her prayers, especially that I can live without fear, as though I were already dead. That is a challenge indeed.
Natalie Kuchta is the wife of a priest in Palatine, Illinois, where they have served for 38 years. She converted to Orthodoxy 43 years ago from a Protestant background. They have raised two daughters at this parish and had the joy of seeing them baptized and married. She is now watching her six grandchildren grow up in the Faith. Originally trained as an English teacher, she is passionate about helping those new to Orthodoxy to learn the Faith. Natalie is inspired by female saints who devoted their lives to serving the poor, and coordinates PADS dinners–a kind of homelessness outreach–with her church, volunteers for food pantries, and supports many other organizations that help the needy in her community. Her other greatest joys are spending time with her grandchildren, serving as a reader in church, praying and singing in services, and reading the lives of women saints as well as their writings and teachings. One of her favorite quotes comes from St. Maria Skobtsova: "Each person is the very Icon of Christ Incarnate in this world.”