I began this pilgrimage with flu symptoms as my fellow pilgrims who had walked together "In the footsteps of Jesus" left and I remained behind in the Ritz Hotel in Jerusalem. As another pilgrim had done, I asked for a doctor at the Reception and within an hour received a "house call" from a young doctor. He was very friendly and competent, courteous and kind, and gave me a thorough examination, concluding I certainly did not have pneumonia but rather a viral infection. The medication I had bought the night before but not yet used was precisely what he would have given me, but he advised I take a little less than prescribed and added a cough syrup, which I went out and got. Encouraged and reassured, I packed my bags, worked on the previous blog entry and email for a while and then called for a cab and transferred to the Olive Tree Hotel to rejoin my new company of pilgrims, all 14 of them, including a brother priest.
In the days ahead, I will enter into my pilgrimage journal for this journey "In the footsteps of St Paul"....
Day 01 - October 6, Sunday
The pilgrims traveled from various points of origin, mostly from Montreal or other places in Canada, while I finished my previous pilgrimage and saw our group off....
I felt a little anxious about my flu like symptoms and went out to get some medicine relying on the pharmacist's advice, but decided not to use it yet and instead in the morning ask the hotel to call a doctor for me.
Day 02 - October 7, Monday
While I was still at the Ritz Hotel, I asked the Receptionist to call a doctor for me and she quickly informed me he would come to my room within the hour. As I waited, I made up my baggage and less than an hour after the call the doctor came, and after a thorough examination, I was reassured I didn't have pneumonia but only a viral infection. I went out and got the syrop he had prescribed, and armed with that, I showered, changed, finished packing, and surrendered my room - there were no extra charges.
I went to one of the two computers at our disposal and worked for over an hour on my pilgrimage journal, and then went down with my luggage and asked for a taxi and went over to the Olive Tree Hotel.
Our group arrived, with a few staggered arrivals; while I came in around noon. I settled in, got some Internet time in the business center, made contact with one of the pilgrims to find out when was our supper and information meeting, and put in a few more hours on my pilgrimage journal.... It was good to go to supper and connect with my new fellow pilgrims, and especially to see Fr Paul and his sister Linda.
We were all delighted with our hotel rooms, the hotel food, and the high class settings of the hotel itself. After supper, I resumed writing on my previous pilgrimage journal, was frustrated to find that I could not begin a French version because the hotel pc's were language locked with only English and Hebrew. I watched some religious TV on the dedicated channel while I put some order in my things and prepared for the next day and went to bed.
Day 03 - October 8, Tuesday
Our first full day we began with a long walk down the steeply inclined road down the Mount of Olives, passing by an Orthodox Church on the right and the Jewish Cemetery on the left. For my part, and the other pilgrims felt the same way, it was touching to see the efforts and courage of our pilgrims walking with canes.We had a very long walk down a very steep road all the way down the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane. In Jesus' day, there was probably a long winding zigzag foot path or road going in and out among the olive trees from top to bottom of the mountain, but today it is a fairly straight steep road going up and down the middle of the mountain.
I think those first few days our Guide Foteh needed to become acclimated to our group and particular situations and needs. Personally, after the energetic pilgrimage I had just finished, I was glad - as I had been for our older Italian pilgrim in the previous group who was slow and steady - for our pilgrims who were slower than the others, because they allowed me a more leisurely pace and opportunity to walk with and chat with them and others.
At last we came to the Garden of Gethsemane - Garden of the Oil Press - where we were welcomed to celebrate Holy Mass in a crypt or grotto Chapel in the Franciscan Convent right on the Garden. It was a sacred moment to find ourselves sitting here, where Jesus spent so much time with his Apostles and especially his Agony after the Last Supper.... Fr Paul was inspired by the place and stirred up our love and devotion for the Lord.... It was good for me to be here again after only 3 days and just 'absorb' the atmosphere as it were, to look around and be inspired by the mosaics and other works of art in and around the altar and the chapel.
From Mass we explored the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations in the southern half of the Garden (we had also celebrated the Liturgy in the southern half - on our Pilgrimage In the Footsteps of Jesus we had celebrated the Liturgy outside in the corner of the northern half of the Garden) which is named after All Nations because of the contribution of many national churches to the decoration and maintenance of the church. One of our pilgrims returned to the bus while the rest of us went on.
We crossed the street and walked up into the Old City and made our way to the Church of St Anne marking the area where it is believed Mary was born and where we also saw the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus had healed the man crippled for 38 years, who had been unable to bring himself in time into the water whenever it was stirred by the Angel of the Lord and be healed. We visited the Church of St Anne on the site of which Mary is believed to have been born. We explored the church and its underground chapels and prayed and sang together in the acoustically perfect Crusader church.
From there we began to walk the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross. Many were surprised to find themselves walking amid so many local shops - the Way is actually one long market or mall oriental style - and we stopped along the way to read out the station and stop for a moment of reflection and prayer. Foteh asked me to lead the reflection and prayer at each station, and for a while I felt put out to have to do something unprepared and with so little text in the typical leaflet sold in Jerusalem for the Way of the Cross. In the end, I accepted to assume my poverty in the face of the burden and allow the Lord to make it fruitful....
We had a longer visit and explanation from our Guide Foteh after the second station when we stopped at the Lithostratos kept by the Sisters of Sion. Here we saw ancient cisterns for the collection of rain water and pavement stones believed to have been taken from The Pavement - Gabatha - where Jesus was brought in to stand before Pontius Pilate. The structure we saw was erected over the previously open air cisterns and the stones likely moved from the former Pavement. Games played by Roman soldiers to pass the time have been etched into some of those stones, evidence that the Pavement had been under Roman authority. Then we continued to walk the Way of the Cross.
We interrupted the Way to have lunch at a local place and Foteh recounted how he grew up in this Christian Quarter between the 8th and 9th stations or so and knew many of the shopkeepers and local people. After lunch we were rejoined by our other pilgrim and came to the Holy Sepulcher which houses the ninth to the thirteenth stations - Jesus is stripped - Jesus is nailed to the Cross - Jesus is crucified and dies on the Cross - Jesus is taken down from the Cross - Jesus is laid in the tomb - the fourteenth station, if there was to be one, is the empty tomb: Jesus is risen from the dead.
It is initially a little taxing for the imagination to see here what was once Golgotha which was mostly taken away by Empress St Helen for the erection of this church. Up in the mezzanine on the right side as we enter on the south side (the original entrance in the Byzantine era church was from the east) underneath the middle Greek Orthodox Chapel Altar lies the top of Golgotha and the hole in which Jesus' Cross would have been placed. Some part of the side of Golgotha can be seen from the floor below on the far left of this mezzanine behind glass.
The same is true for the Holy Sepulcher itself, the Lord's tomb. Originally, Helen had the stone and earth around the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea - which had been excavated into a hill - she had it removed with only enough stone left to enclose the space of the tomb. When the Syrians invaded and destroyed every Christian structure except the Church of the Nativity (because they recognized the mosaics of the Wise Men as Syrians) they also destroyed the Tomb. Later, the Byzantines and Crusaders erected the current tomb on the site of the Lord's tomb in order to mark the spot for ongoing veneration and built a circular chapel with a cupola around it. The original erected by St Helen was open to the sky to manifest the direct line of sight to heaven for the Lord's Resurrection.
Although I had been here only 3 days earlier, I allowed myself to be carried by the place, letting grace carry my thoughts within to the Lord while also attending to the other pilgrims and sharing with some of them, in particular about the modern sculptures to the east side of the tomb depicting Mary Magdalene approaching Jesus and He saying to her "Don't hold onto me as I have not yet ascended to my Father and your Father...." It was good to just sit and contemplate.... As previously, I did not line up to enter into the tomb, having done that in 2000.
After this our Guide led us as we resumed our walk towards the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall. It meant something to us to enter into and stand in a remnant of the Roman colonnade which would have been lined on both sides with shops, not unlike today, but with a much wider road, one of the two main roads put in by the Romans in the second century. It gave us a glimpse anyway of what street level must have been in Jesus' day.
As we approached the Western Wall, we were passing a woman begging. She was cleanly dressed and sat to the side with a tired, mournful expression on her face and very expressive, almost piercing blue eyes. As we were walking by her, I was aware of feeling cut, pierced to the heart by her hauntingly beautiful and expressive eyes; as though the Spirit revealed to me that she was true and embarrassed to be begging. I came back and gave her something, and was surprised at her spontaneous and abrupt change of demeanor and expression to gracious gratitude in response to my small offering.
Shortly thereafter we "ran a gauntlet" of Jews begging for some children's aid organization. I had doubts about them but gave something... here were two very different sets of beggars, two very different effects on me... were they both legitimate, I wonder? It is no wonder the Lord tells us not to judge others, since we are not qualified to do so, but only He.
It was a much anticipated revelation for most of our pilgrims to see and finally touch the Western Wall, once called the Wailing Wall or Wall of Lamentation. Initially, we waited for one of our pilgrims to join us who out of need to avoid the long walk was being brought near by our bus driver Youssef. While we waited, a number of us made use of the public WC - Water Closet - and took in the atmosphere.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters used to wail and lament the destruction of the Second Temple and their homeland. Since the restoration of a Jewish Homeland in 1948 and the successful war of 1967, Jews are more hopeful now and no longer lament as they once did, but rather express prayers of hope. For this reason, they prefer to call it now the Western Wall because it faces the East where the Holy of Holies once stood....
Three days earlier I had also been here but had missed seeing something; so this time I went into the study rooms on the left of the Wall where copies of the Torah and other sacred scrolls and books are kept for students of the law and worshipers. Inside I found what I had been told about, large slabs of glass on the floor near the wall against which these buildings had been built, and which revealed down below the original ground level from Jesus' day, a full seven large building blocks deep, some 7 to 9 meters... quite a sight. At the Wall outside and again here I prayed for God's peace to all his people everywhere and especially here in the Middle East.
Back at the hotel at the end of the day I discovered from Emma that her luggage had not yet arrived. I asked what had been done about it and she told me, but I found the situation unacceptable; so I offered to go to the Reception with her. I could see that they were not able to do much so I asked if they could call Canada for us and in the end we had to make the call from our rooms. I invited Emma to my room and there made a call to Pedja at STI in Vancouver. We reached him and she talked to him and he assured her he would investigate her missing bag and follow it up.
Day 04 - October 9, Wednesday
As on most mornings we got an early start and, after having a quick look around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we went to the Catholic Chapel - very beautiful - and Fr Paul and I were led to the Sacristy where we vested and the attendant led us to a lower Grotto Chapel near the actual Nativity Grotto and there we set up and celebrated the Holy Mass. It was inspiring to be so close to the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus and we sang a few Christmas anthems.
Then we went back out and visited as we were led to the waiting line for the Nativity Grotto. After a while as I chatted with the others, I told Linda about our 2000 pilgrimage and the visit to the "Milk Grotto Chapel" and the ministry of the Franciscans to women with 'maternity problems'. As she manifested her interest on behalf of others, I decided to go there for the group while they continued to wait in line, since the line wasn't moving at all.
It took me a little over a half hour to go and return. I went on memory only and left the Nativity Church, went back to the street, turned left and left again to come back along the perimeter of the Nativity Church and continued up that lane until, sure enough, there on my right right where I expected it to be but a little further than I remembered, the Milk Grotto Chapel, which thank goodness was open. The first sight of it didn't seem familiar and I found the complex much bigger than I remembered. Thankfully I ran into a Franciscan, Father Lawrence I think, and he took me to his office and was quite enthusiastic about the healing ministry around the white cave dust and the prayer to Our Lady.
He related there came in every two days or so a testimony of healing grace through the intercession of Our Lady of the Milk... infertile women conceiving and giving birth naturally, healings of women from any number of death dealing illnesses, and other healings....
I shared the envelopes of white chalk cave powder with the prayers with Linda for the group and St Brendan Parish and rejoined the group. They were still waiting in line so I went to see Foteh what it was about. Some Armenians had come and were celebrating the Divine Liturgy, which can take hours, since it is their chapel after all; so I waited by sitting on a bench where I had interesting chat with some Japanese.
After a while I tole Foteh I would go revisit the Catholic Chapel and wait outside, which I did, taking some photos, praying, and then sitting outside, where I had a fruit....
From there we went to the Shepherds' Fields where I had been 12 days earlier and I stayed, sat, and chatted with Fr Paul and we went into the Shepherds' Chapel and prayed while the group explored the ruins of an Orthodox monastery adjacent. When they joined us and walked around the Chapel, we invited them t o observe the 3 frescoes in order and then we had a moment of silence and prayed and sang an anthem. The acoustics were perfect.
We had lunch in Qumran and went on to the Dead Sea where I finally decided to go back into that salt water for a wade and float and shower... and walk in the sun covered in drying mud and after the first shower... after the second and change into clothes I had a pomegranate juice... then back to the bus and our hotel I did some work on my blog journal... At the boutique down near the hotel entrance I shopped for some gifts....
Day 05 - October 10, Thursday
That was the end of our stay in Jerusalem. We were all sorry to leave the Olive Tree Hotel behind... it was quite lovely, even luxurious... and we went to Jericho where we went to the Good Shepherd Parish Church for Mass. I had been there twice in the past 11 days already; so this was my third visit and Brother Anthony, a Franciscan, recognized me. He was from New Jersey and very kind and friendly. He set us up to celebrate (for me the third time) in the upstairs hall in the primary school, which had air conditioning, and Fr Paul invited Brother Anthony to tell us about the work of the Franciscans in the Holy Land, which he did with enthusiasm.
After Mass we went to the site of the archaeological dig of an ancient city, perhaps the oldest in the world where we first saw a film about the city and the archaeology around it, and then went walking the site in the blazing sun. The oldest city among the ruins was dated some 8,000 years BC, so around 10,000 years old. There is apparently somewhere else a city of the same period and perhaps a little older. They date them as cities in accord with their walls. No wall, no city, but only settlements.
Upon emerging from the visit we saw 'Elisha's Spring' where the prophet made sweet at the request of the locals their water which had turned bitter or salty. We had lunch in the restaurant there and then our Guide and Driver took us to see 'Zacchaeus' Tree' in the heart of Jericho, a tree of some 300 years or so, but since Sycamores life up to 500 years, it is quite possible that this tree is an offshoot of an offshoot of an original tree from Jesus' day, and perhaps the very one that the tax collector climbed in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus as He went by....
Then we drove to Nazareth by a road I had never traveled before through farm country. I had been at the Church of the Annunciation 10 days earlier, but was glad to again take the time to walk through the church, contemplate, and pray. I stayed with Fr Paul while the others went down to 'Mary's House'.
At Cana I suggested to Fr Paul that he might like to renew the marriage vows of the two couples we had with us. Our Baptist couple declined, after all Marriage is not a sacrament in their tradition, but Dorothy and Pat were delighted. I ran ahead to the Sacristy where the Sister recognized me and gladly handed me the text Fr Paul would need and informed me there was another group scheduled to celebrate Mass within 20 minutes or so. It was providential we had the time and Fr Paul led us in a lovely prayer Liturgy and renewed Dorothy and Pat in their Marriage vows and blessed them. It was a lovely moment for the whole group as Fr Paul found a way to make it inclusive for everyone... we have a number of widows among us.... When I returned the text to the Sacristy the Sister gave me a Certificate for them and I gave her an offering on their behalf.
We went to a Cana souvenir shop where a few bought some Cana wine, and we returned to our bus and then to the Royal Plaza Hotel in Tiberias, where we settled in and I resumed working on my blog journal of my previous pilgrimage and began working on this one.
Day 06 - October 11, Friday
As I recall this day, we began at the Mount of the Beatitudes... as our pilgrimas explored Fr Paul and I entered the Sacristy and with Foteh clarified the arrangements the Sister was offering us. She brought us outside on the porch or portico that encircled that beautiful building, and we set up a makeshift altar there on the right side as one approaches the front entrance. Fr Paul and I stood and sat with our backs to the wall and looking out towards the countryside on the west of the church. Our pilgrims stood and sat in a semicircle on the outside of the portico looking towards us and the altar and the wall.
I felt content to be there, concelebrating with Fr Paul, and just contemplating the place and the fact that Jesus had been there many times with his apostles and disciples, including the times He multiplied the loaves, and then the loaves and fishes. We used the music sheet I had requested at the hotel and sang a few verses of "Gift of Finest Wheat".
As we went to Tabgha and then to the Chapel of the Primacy of Peter, remembering I had been there 10 days earlier with memorable experiences, I tried to attend to Fr Paul and the others... yet feeling in a way redundant... so Itried to just be and 'absorb the atmosphere' as it were and pay attention within. As we walked out along the lovely tree lined avenue, listening to the birds, a pilgrim seemed to open to me and walk with me. At first I tried to remain isolated in my solitude, but as I realized what he was doing and opened to him in turn he shared his faith with me... we had a good connection.
Day 07 - October 12, Saturday
Today we put our packed bags outside our rooms at 7:00 am because after breakfast we were leaving the Royal Plaza Hotel in Tiberias. We drove out to Haifa where some of us got out to stretch our legs and take pictures of the World Heritage Site Ba'hai Gardens. From here we went up to a peak of Mount Carmel to the Stella Maris Church and Carmelite Convent. Here we celebrated Mass in what must have been a Carmelite oratory for women religious because there were frescoes on either side high above the eye line depicting various Carmelite women saints including St Theresa of Avila....
After Mass I lingered in a few of the oratories and chapels, taking pictures and praying, while our other pilgrims did the same and also went outside to take photos from the panoramic view point above the City of Haifa.... From here we drove to Caesarea Maritime, where we explored, saw a film of the history of the place - from the deep sea harbor built by Herod the Great through its repeated damage by earthquakes to its present public use - and walked around.
Our Driver Youssef took us on a bus tour of Yafo - Jaffa, or Joppa as it was known in Paul's day - and on this day we had the opportunity to remember how Paul was imprisoned here and was in prison here for a year or more, and how Peter was given a vision of non-Kosher meats that the Lord told him to eat, preparing him for the outgrowth of the Church to all the pagan nations. the Lord then told in another vision the pagan Cornelius to send for Peter in Joppa and have him come to baptize him and his household.
We were then taken to a local eatery where we finally had the opportunity to enjoy some tender grilled lamb, as well as beef and chicken, with the usual Middle East salads galore, while a few of our ladies declined and walked around downtown here and enjoyed instead an ice cream....
After the satisfaction of this meal, we stood around and chatted as we awaited Youssef and our bus, delayed by the heavy Saturday traffic, and then he drove us to our Tel-Aviv Marina Hotel, where we have time to rest before supper and an early night, because our wake up call will be at 2:15 am for a 2:15 departure on our bus in view of our 7:00 am flight to Athens.
...to be continued....