By virtue of fulfilling the Biblical calling I went on a profound 12 day pilgrimage with friends to the Holy Land. We started our pilgrimage around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus lived for thirty years. I swam in its waters which felt surreal and made me realise that I was surrounded by a beautiful and holy place, however, it was not until we sailed across the sea in a boat resembling one that Jesus used that the tranquillity of its surrounding hills was most appreciated. The area is unspoilt making me think I was seeing what Jesus would have seen around him 2,000 years ago. The Jewish town of Tiberius is only visible inhabitation around the landscape of the sea. The countryside around Galilee is quite barren but as we made our way to Nazareth I noticed farmers driving tractors in the fields to tend to their bales of hay and straw.
Israel is full of beautiful churches which are mainly either Catholic or Greek Orthodox. Magnificent paintings and icons of Jesus, Mother Mary, and others significant religious figures featured heavily in each church. Three very special Catholics churches stood out. The first was the Church of the Beatitudes located on the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount outing the eight beatitudes (as contained in St Matthew’s gospel) ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 5:3). The gardens around this church were astonishingly beautiful. The peacefulness inside was eager to impart harmony to troubled hearts. The second church was The Primacy of Saint Peter, a small Franciscan church located off the shore of Galilee. Jesus appeared here to St Peter after the resurrection to demonstrate he had forgiven him for denying him three times before the crucifixion. Jesus cooked Peter some fish on a large rock before he reinstates him as chief among the Apostles. I kissed this rock which is laid before the altar in the church. Jesus also performed one of his best known miracles in this area when he fed 5,000 people in the parable of the five loaves and two fishes. The third Church was called the Pilgrimage Church of St Peter in Capernaum where archaeologists discovered the ruins of St Peter’s house. It was around this area that Jesus healed the sick and anointed the dying. The church is built of the site of St Peter’s house where Jesus raised Peter’s mother-in-law back to life.
The middle part of our pilgrimage consisted of visiting Jericho, Palestine and the West Bank before stopping en-route at the River Jordan. Jesus was baptised in the river as an adult by John the Baptist. I, too, was baptised in its waters. The ceremony was a very private and peaceful spiritual experience. It was a reminder that we are all mortal beings. After surfacing from being submerged in the water, the sky is a shade of blue never seen before.
I loved Palestine and have nothing but complimentary comments to make about its people who I found warm and affable. Some are Christian and some are Muslim but all appeared liberal and welcoming to visitors. We visited an area called Qumran in the Judaean Desert, close to the Jordanian border. It was here where the Dead Sea Scrolls (ancient Jewish manuscripts of the Old Testament) were discovered in the 1950s. Evidence was also discovered at the time of an ascetical Jewish sect where Jesus often visited. Indeed, it it here high and deep in the rocky terrain that there is a cave where Jesus often used. I climbed this high peak along with ten others to see the cave. It was a very hot day as we navigated the narrow pathway to the cave and when we reached it, I went and sat at the back of it and meditated reflecting that I was in a place where Jesus prayed, ate and slept. I experienced a gentle cool breeze from the scorching heat outside. The peace of the moment was enhanced by birds flying in and out of the cave. Spiritual experiences don’t get any greater than this. It’s impossible to ask for grace and healing and not receive it. Before we left Palestine, we visited the Dead Sea. Nothing lives in the Dead Sea, hence its name, mainly because of its strong salt content. Going into it was rather treacherously over slippery muddy rocks but once inside, friends encouraged me float which was easily done given the heavy salted water’s natural buoyancy.
Our tour guide, Nadal told us, ‘When God handed out ten units of beauty, he gave nine to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world but when God handed out ten units of pain and suffering, he gave nine to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world.’ Jerusalem is indeed a beautiful city. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. I used to be moved to tears as a child every time I heard the story of Jesus forgiving one of the thieves that was beside him on the cross after the thief said, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus replied to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43). And there I now stood at the site where these words were spoken. The Holy Sepulchre church is very large and was planned to enclose both the site of the crucifixion and Jesus’ tomb was in close proximity to Calvary. The slab of stone where his body was laid after being taken down from the cross is on display in the church.
Jerusalem is home to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews are particularly visible walking its streets. They are quiet people and rarely interact with others outside their communities. They are also extremely religious people who grief the loss of their temple destroyed in battle, which dated back to the time of King Herod, and was the original home for the Ark of the Covenant ( a gold-covered wooden chest containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments). Feigned grief and demonstrations of mourning are commonplace scenes at the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) which is on the boundary of the Temple Mount. Jews are eager to rebuild the temple but are faced by an enormous obstacle. A large Islamic shrine (Dome of the Rock) stands on the Temple Mount and is considered a sacred place by Muslims who believe the Prophet Muhammad visited this site in Jerusalem the night before his death before ascending to heaven. Close to this stands a mosque (Al-Aqsa). A compromise appears impossible resulting in the holiest of cities constantly on the brink of conflict.
I truly loved the Garden of Gethsemane which is situated close to the Mount of Olives and allows for panoramic views all across Jerusalem. This is the garden where Jesus prayed on the night of his arrest before crucifixion. The garden contains olive trees dating back 2,000 years. It is immaculately well kept with flower beds containing white, yellow and red roses.
While in Jerusalem I also visited the Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in the heart of the city which is believed to be the ancient site of Mary, mother of St Mark the Evangelist and contains the room where the last supper took place. I spent at least thirty minutes in this room and when not meditating recalled all my childhood memories of listening to stories about the last supper and wondering was Jesus and the disciples ate and spoke about on that fateful night.
Our final trip was to Bethlehem, which lies 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem, to visit the Church of the Nativity which is built on the site of the cave (stable) where Jesus was born. Access to the cave is allowed and once there I quickly became absorbed in the silence and sense of peace that was present. Bethlehem now has a Muslim majority, but is still home to a significant number of Palestinian Christians. The Church of the Nativity has remained unchanged for centuries and contains many fascinating wall mosaics and paintings. Over the centuries, three different monasteries have been built on this compound: one Greek Orthodox, one Armenian Apostolic, and one Roman Catholic. I visited the Catholic Church where a christening was taking place. I couldn’t help but think how lucky the baby was being baptised so close to where Jesus was born.
The Holy Land was much different to what I imagined, having listened in Church throughout my life to the manes of places where I visited and imagining them to be still preserved. However, that is not to say that I disappointed by what I seen after better realisation that the Holy Land’s story relates to over 2,000 years ago and given that the country has seen much war and destruction century upon century since then, it’s a miracle that so many ruins and remnants of Jesus’ still exist and are so well preserved. If you haven’t visited the Holy Land, I recommend that you do because you will be enriched by the experience of visiting the country where Jesus was born and lived and where his messages to mankind of hope, love and peace never dates including his words: ‘You should love each other, as I have loved you.’ (John 13:34). This message is as important now as it ever was given the ongoing tension between Israelis and Palestinians with peace appearing a long way ahead on the horizon.
Article previously published in an Ireland’s Eye Magazine