Holy Land Diary, September 2010
Almost a month has now passed since I set off for the Holy Land on pilgrimage with a group from St. Mary’s Church, Haddington Road. It has been a busy time, but I have had a chance to reflect on my trip and to consider what it all meant to me – and, more importantly, what of it will endure in my memory, and why.
I suppose the first point to make is that going to the Holy Land was a piece of unfinished business for me. I had often discussed the possibility of making the trip with my late brother Arthur – but we never did do it, something I have always regretted. So, when the opportunity of going with the St Mary’s group arose, I felt that it was the right thing to do – a sort of rendezvous with destiny.
We set off on Sunday, 5 September – travelling through Frankfurt to Tel Aviv and then a bus journey up to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Arriving in our hotel in Tiberias at 6.30 am on 6 September, everyone needed time to rest before embarking on our programme. An early breakfast in a chaotic dining room, and then to bed for a few hours.
Despite our late start, we managed to complete our programme for today – and it was a wonderful introduction, visiting several holy places around the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee and ending up with a memorable boat trip across the Sea of Galilee.
1. Tabgha, Church of the Loaves and Fishes: Beautiful mosaics, with exposed rock under the altar (the presumed site of the miracle).
2. Church of the Primacy of Peter: Beautifully situated on the lakeside, again with exposed rock in the church (“on this rock I will build my Church”). We had Mass in the open air, in an amphitheatre facing out over the lake – a very special experience, with (for me) a strong sense of how extraordinary it was to be part of something that began here two thousand years ago. The fact that the area around the Sea of Galilee, then and now, is a rural backwater makes it all the more extraordinary.
3. Capernaum, which was Jesus’ base for most of his public life, after he was thrown out of Nazareth (since a “prophet is not recognised in his own country”): Wonderful archaeology, with extensive remains of dwellings and the synagogue. There’s a beautiful modern church built over the remains of what is thought to be St Peter’s house, with lovely wood carvings (including one of the curing of the man lowered down though the roof of the synagogue in Capernaum).
4. Mount of the Beatitudes: Overlooking the Sea of Galilee, with a modern church set in lavish gardens – a stunningly beautiful location. Our chaplain, Fr Paul, asked me to read the Beatitudes from St Matthew’s gospel to our group – which I did from the steps of the church. It was a very moving moment for me: to re-enact this event in that location made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck (to use a much-abused cliché, but there’s no other way of describing it). It is a moment I will certainly remember.
5. Boat ride on the Sea of Galilee: A great way to end the day, with again a great sense of timelessness as the modern buildings receded as the boat progressed into the centre of the lake and we were left with the surrounding hills very much as they would have been two thousand years ago. The boatmen began the trip by playing the Irish national anthem, which was a nice touch. Of course, there were some jokes about who was going to walk on water – but in the middle of the lake, the boat stopped and Fr Paul read the appropriate passage from scripture. It was a lovely evening, with the sun just beginning to fade – fantastic experience.
Early start from our hotel for Mount Tabor, by tradition the site of the Transfiguration.
6. Mount Tabor: We had Mass, again in the open air – after a hazardous taxi ride up the mountain (the road is too narrow for a coach, so there is a taxi service up the steep road with innumerable hair-pin bends). The church on Mount Tabor mirrors the three booths which the Gospel story has Peter proposing to build for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Lots of standing around afterwards waiting for the taxis to bring us back down the mountain!
7. Cana, scene of the marriage feast at which Jesus turned water into wine (there is a church on the reputed site of the feast): All the couples in our group renewed their marriage vows at a ceremony in the church, despite speculation on my part about which of them mightn’t wish to do so. Afterwards, we walked down to the church dedicated to Nathaniel who, when told of Jesus, said that nothing good could ever came out of Nazareth – I like that example of unabashed prejudice, and nominate him as the patron saint of curmudgeons.
8. Nazareth: A large, busy Arab city. At the Church of the Annunciation, we said the Angelus in the courtyard outside – adorned with mosaics depicting Our Lady from various countries, including one from Ireland which is similar to, though not actually the same as, the standard image of Our Lady of Knock (the supporting figures are different). The lower level of the church encloses what is claimed to be the House of Mary, the scene of the Annunciation. In a separate church on the upper level, there are more mosaics from all over the world – a bit over-rich in decoration for my taste. Afterwards, we visited St Joseph’s Church – and saw the tree that Pope Paul VI planted on his visit to the Holy Land. As we left the Church of the Annunciation, we heard a Muslim call to prayer sound out over the city – and, driving through the city, I spotted a shop advertising a “Ramadan Sale” (giving me a new angle on the concepts of “profit” and “prophet” – sorry, very bad pun!).
Left Tiberius, and drove down to Jerusalem in our coach (keeping close to the west bank of the Jordan river. with the wire fence between Israel and Jordan clearly visible for part of the journey).
9. Jordan river: We stopped at a baptism point just south of the Sea of Galilee, not actually the site of the baptism of Jesus but a recognised spot for baptism by full immersion. I paddled in the water, which we were told is heavily polluted. But there were people there in white robes who were undergoing the full immersion. It’s a very lush, green area – most unusual for the Holy Land, and quite a contrast to the parched land around the Sea of Galilee. Later on, near Jerico (which we didn’t visit), we read the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Interlude: I had a brief camel ride – this happened in a car park during a pit stop at a roadside cafe. One is certainly riding high when the camel rises to full height, and he walks with a very stately gait. The moment when I was most in danger of falling off was when he was lowering himself down at the end of the ride.
10. Wailing Wall: This was our first stop in Jerusalem – and it is, I suppose, one of the iconic places in the world. We all know it from photographs etc. Amazing to be there in person. Security is heavy around it. As I went up to the wall, two men in black approached me and prayed over me – an unexpected gesture, slightly spoiled for me when they then asked for money for a charity. I joined the crowd at the wall, and dropped my note of petition into a crevice in the wall as is the custom in this place.
11. Church of Dominus Flevit, on the Mount of Olives where Jesus wept over Jerusalem: Wonderful view over the city of Jerusalem, dominated by the magisterial Dome of the Rock. We had Mass there, and I prayed for my late brother Arthur during the prayers of the faithful at Mass.
12. Gethsemane: After Mass, we walked down to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations built over the rock where Jesus is said to have prayed. Ireland is represented in the church by a mosaic showing the word “Éire” with a shamrock.
From our hotel in the suburbs of Jerusalem, we headed back to the Mount of Olives to visit the Mosque of the Ascension and the Pater Noster Church. It was the feast day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This was a particularly full day for us, and a sombre afternoon – but an amazing day which certainly made a deep impression on me.
13. Mosque of the Ascension: Previously the site of a Christian church whose centre was open to the sky (for obvious reasons!). A rock within is venerated as the rock from which Jesus ascended into heaven. We then walked a little distance to the Pater Noster Church – probably my favourite of all the churches we visited – believed to be the place where Jesus taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. The text of the Lord’s Prayer in many languages is on tiles all round the forecourt of the church. Our group said the Lord’s Prayer in the Irish language, and our guide, Arlette, recited it in Arabic.
14. Lions’ Gate (also known as St Stephen’s Gate): We walked into Jerusalem through this gate, the gate through which Jesus went on Palm Sunday.
15. Birthplace of Mary: We had Mass in the White Fathers’ house adjacent to the Church of St Anne, just inside the Lions’ Gate. The Church of St Anne is famous for its acoustics, and when a few of us were there a young girl came in and began singing a particularly lively “alleluia” and her voice echoed round and round the church for minutes afterwards – an eerie phenomenon, but it was a privilege to have heard it. We tried to reproduce it ourselves by singing “Hail Queen of Heaven”, but failed to achieve the extended echo of that young girl’s singing. Behind the church are the Baths of Bethesda where Jesus healed the cripple: there are extensive archaeological remains there.
16. Church of St Peter in Gallicantu: The site of the high priest’s house where Peter denied Jesus thrice. Below the church is a prison and dungeons – a grim place, indeed – and one of our group sang “Were you there when they crucified my lord” when we were all assembled in one of the dungeons. Alongside the church are Roman steps down which Jesus would have walked to go to the Garden of Gethsemane and up which he would have been taken after he had been seized in Gethsemane.
17. Via Dolorosa: We walked the route, beginning at the Church of the Condemnation (where a gaming board had been carved into the stone floor, dating from Roman times – soldiers’ recreation!). The route is narrow and confined, a trading area with small shops opening onto the street. The stations are marked with metal tablets on the wall at the appropriate places. When you reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the first thing you see is a marble slab which is venerated as the slab on which Jesus’ body was washed after his death; then you queue to enter the tomb in a “church within a church”; finally, you climb up steep steps to Golgotha (also within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) where there is a hole in exposed rock for anchoring an upright cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared by various traditions, but its style is Orthodox – and so I didn’t find it easy to relate to it. Nevertheless, there was, for me, an acute awareness that we were in a place that was central to what we believe. Fr Paul read from The Passion in St Mark’s Gospel.
Today we went to Bethlehem, our only excursion into the Palestinian Territories – curiously a different time zone from Israel. Bethlehem is surrounded by a high security wall, as bleak as the Berlin Wall; and we had to disembark from our coach, walk through the checkpoint and take another coach on the other side of the wall. Security on the way out was very strict, and we witnessed the Israeli soldiers being utterly obnoxious to two young Muslim girls who were crossing into Israel at the same time as ourselves – I suspected the soldiers behaved as they did towards them precisely because they had an audience for this exercise of their power over the Palestinians.
18. Church of the Nativity: Again, the style is Orthodox, though there is a modern Latin Rite church adjoining the Church of the Nativity. We had our Mass in a side chapel in the Latin Rite church, and – a nice touch – Fr Paul invited us to remember in our Mass all those with whom we have shared past Christmases. You enter the church from Manger Square through a low door, and there is a long queue to visit the birthplace below the High Altar surrounded by a star. This is a place that we have so often seen pictures of – incredible to be there. Under the Church, there are beautifully decorated caves – including the grotto of St Jerome.
19. Shepherd’s Fields: On the outskirts of Bethlehem, a beautiful setting – with a church where, while we were there, a Polish choir came in and they sang most powerfully (no idea what they were singing, but the sound was great!). Outside, a lovely, modern fountain features an image of a shepherd wistfully looking towards the town of Bethlehem.
Another interlude: Shopping that afternoon in Bethlehem.
This was our least “religious” day, with an outing to the Dead Sea. I had been greatly looking forward to this part of the trip as I have a vivid memory of being told when very young in school about the Dead Sea – so far below sea level, and its high density due to salt content making it easy to float in. The idea had caught my imagination and has stayed with me over the intervening years.
20. Qumran: First, however, we visited the archaeological site at Qumran. We walked out over the remains of the village that housed the religious community – a fundamentalist Jewish sect – that is thought to have generated the Dead Sea scrolls, which were found in caves in the nearby mountains. We looked over a valley at the famous Cave 4 where the most important of the scrolls were found. One of the scrolls was on display in the museum on the site – text written on dried animal skins with sharpened reed pens and ink made with animal blood. Unbelievable to think of it being over two thousand years old. Equally awesome was the landscape around Qumran: utterly barren and utterly silent except for the cars on the roadway in the distance. One feels very small in that universe. The only place in the world where I have felt similarly overwhelmed by my surroundings is the Grand Canyon. Qumran is comparable in its majesty.
21. Dead Sea: On to the Dead Sea, for my much anticipated swim! I did not find it a pleasant experience. The water is murky with the salt, and looks like dirty bath water. It is so salty you must avoid getting it into your eyes – and avoid swallowing it. You do, indeed, float easily, but it is then quite difficult to get upright again – partly because of one’s buoyancy in the salt water, but also because of the mud on the lake’s bed. You can sink into the mud in places up to your ankles – very disconcerting. The mud is alleged to be rich in minerals, and you see people smearing it all over their body. That I didn’t do. I hated it all so much I couldn’t get out fast enough – but I’m delighted to have done it. Of course, it was very hot there and the sand would burn the soles of your feet if you didn’t wear sandals or flip-flops down to the water’s edge. The water itself was unpleasantly lukewarm. Give me the clean, cold, refreshing Atlantic Ocean to swim in instead! I afterwards read that Sodom and Gomorrah are supposed to have been buried below the Dead Sea, and this explains the lake’s filthy aspect.
That evening: We had Mass back in our hotel when we returned from the Dead Sea.
Our final day in Jerusalem, first visiting Mount Zion and then out into the Judean hills. At this stage the trip was beginning to take its toll – I was feeling pretty exhausted, and was suffering a bit from “sight-seeing fatigue”. Glad I had kept notes of the trip, as it was now hard to recall everything – we had seen so much.
22. Domition Church, on Mount Zion: Dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady (where the legend is that Mary fell into an eternal sleep and was brought up to heaven). There is a larger than life-size carving of the sleeping Mary on a tomb in the crypt.
23. Upper Room: scene of the Last Supper and Pentecost.
24. King David’s Tomb: A Jewish shrine; and outside Fr Paul read the genealogy of Jesus from St Matthew’s Gospel, showing his descent from King David.
25. Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem: Entering through Zion Gate (incidentally, pockmarked with bullets from the 1967 war), we strolled down through the central shopping area, known as “Cardo”, and admired the fashionable boutique shops.
26. Ein Karem: After lunch, we travelled out of the city into Judea to Ein Karem, the birthplace of John the Baptist. It is a mountainous area – quite spectacularly beautiful in the Western European style. The actual place of birth is venerated within a church dedicated to John the Baptist, and we had Mass in that church – the only Mass we had anywhere on the main altar of a large church during our trip. In the courtyard outside, inscribed on tiles in various languages is the prayer of John the Baptist’s father from St Luke’s Gospel, and we recited that. Then a steep climb up a hill to visit another two churches, one on top of the other. The lower one is the Church of the Visitation, commemorating Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; on top is a rather dramatic church celebrating the presence of Our Lady in the world and throughout history. In the top chapel, we read the Gospel account of the Visitation story, and sang “The Bells of the Angelus”.
Back to Tel Aviv airport, where there was a strike – which meant that our flight was delayed, which meant that we missed our connection in Frankfurt and so arrived home a day late (having overnighted very comfortably in the Sheraton Hotel at Frankfurt airport – bravo Lufthansa, with whom we travelled). Security at Tel Aviv airport was horrendous, and there was a further problem as an Israeli Arab got caught up in security and his late arrival on board the plane caused an additional delay (he was actually sitting beside me on the flight, and he was very upset about his treatment – a nice man, a professor of information technology who was travelling to a conference in Frankfurt about the digitization of ancient manuscripts).
TO SUM UP, A FEW THOUGHTS:
My first thought is that our continued devotion to Jesus Christ – a figure from an obscure corner of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago – is, in purely human terms, really quite remarkable. The fact that other great world religions also have an ancient provenance does not diminish this extraordinary phenomenon.
Nevertheless, I must confess that, wearing my historian’s hat, I have my doubts about the historicity of some of the places we visited: what’s the evidence for the claims being made that these are the sites of various events associated with the life of Jesus? On reflection, I am happy to disregard such doubts. Having grown up in the religious tradition that I adhere to, it was genuinely enriching to see for myself the general environment out of which that tradition grew. Even if all the claims made for the places we visited do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny, we can say that the actual sites would have been similar – and so the sense that we gained of the historical context of the Gospels is undoubtedly valid.
Moreover, the persistence of belief in the authenticity of the actual sites we visited – even if not justified – is in itself a significant historical fact, especially so in the absence of definitive evidence to support the claims that are made. In this regard, I was reminded again and again during our trip of these words of the poet T.S. Eliot, from his Four Quartets:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
FELIX M LARKIN
5 October 2010