I am reflecting on my life’s journey. More than twenty years have passed since…
We step out of Kingston’s Stella Maris church when Valerie, my parish friend, approaches me, “Want to go to Holy Land with the Bishops of the Antilles Episcopal Conference in January ‘99?”
A few months ago, the night of the Easter Vigil, I was received into the Catholic Church after following God’s call through a life-alternating experience at a Charismatic conference, which my New Life Community hosts every year.
“Holy Land? Hmm. I don’t think I can afford that right now. No, I don’t think so.”
“You only have to pay down 200 US-dollars to save a spot, that’s not much. And then you can save for the rest, until…” Valerie throws in.
My business is young and needed investment. The salary I pay myself is rather meager, I have no money to spare.
“No, sorry. I can’t.”
“Don’t say No just yet. Pray about it,” Valerie steps into her car and waves goodbye.
“Anne, Anne…wait, wait,” a friend runs up to me. “Here, the money you lent me. Here is it back. Thanks for your help. Bye…in a hurry…” she hugs me and runs off again.
I hold 200 US-dollars in my hand, the amount I lent a friend a couple of weeks ago, and completely forgot about.
I chase after Valerie’s car, and we drive to the lady organizing the pilgrimage. I hand her the amount due to hold my spot.
Driving home, I chat with my God, “Lord, you better come up with a plan how to get the rest for this trip. You know very well I don’t have it.” I have no clue how, but if I am meant to go, I will. HE will have to…whatever.
Archbishop Edgerton R. Clarke and I struck up a friendship since the day he allowed me to speak a prophecy in Stony Hill’s church during a Feast he presided. We never met before but when I approached him to tell him what I heard God say, he agreed that it should be shared, trusting I wouldn’t make a fool of him.
A week before leaving for Israel, he called me to say that he was obliged to skip the Holy Land pilgrimage because he had to meet with the Pope. Seeing my disappointment, he added with a chuckle, “Well, write a journal and record the pilgrimage for me. I’ll read it when you are back.”
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write down the vision clearly upon tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment,
and will not disappoint;
If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.
Habakkuk 2: 2
This is my memoir, reminiscing about the days in Israel, a time when I was molded.
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the One He sent.” -John 6:29
January 19, 1999. Ben Gurion Airport Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
An icy silence reigns in the airport hall. My Jamaican travel companions are as stunned as I am by the extreme strictness of the Israeli security procedures. Clearly, not a time for our usual jokes and hearty laughter.
After a long scrutiny we step out of the building and finally breathe again.
My heart leaps for joy, my eyes fill with happy tears.
It’s real, I made it, I am standing on Holy Ground.
Looking into their faces, I see my companions feel the same. We all know that this is not a sightseeing tour, nor a vacation trip. This journey is quite different and meant to be a crucial step in our life’s journey.
400 is quite a number. From the islands of the Caribbean, we arrive in groups to gather in Holy Land. I travel with my Jamaicans. For it’s in Jamaica where my church-home is. A German with a Haitian past, my heart thumps the Caribbean rhythm of each country I live or work in. In the past two years, it has been reggae and ska, instead of merengue or kompa. There was a time in my life I couldn’t even imagine undertaking such a multi-national trip, a pilgrimage at that. Yet, here I am, amazed at the reality of it. Arriving from sea, sun, and lush-green countries, we are here to see the Lord’s hometown and walk in His footsteps albeit a cold, windy January. A journey to prepare us for the year 2000, the year of the Great Jubilee. In our baggage we carry lengthy lists of prayer requests.
It’s quite unimaginable that 2000 years ago Jesus walked where we will soon be walking. Where he shared food and drink with his friends and companions, as we will do. As for me, traveling in a group—a large group at that—has still a very strange feeling. I am a solo traveler. Solo with a passion. What hit me to go on this trip with 399 others?
Finally, we are on the bus herding us towards Galilee. The sun is setting and dips the land into a display of red-orange colors as we drive through the valley where the Book of Revelation tells us the last battle of Armageddon will be fought.
With the bus guide’s announcement, “Look, you’ve a view of Mount Tabor!” it’s dawning on me that the stories I’ve read are about to get real and take on a new meaning. I keep silent, like most of us; lost in thoughts while contemplating the landscape. Someone turns on a tape. First, I am annoyed that my meditation is disturbed, but when the music revs up to a majestic rendition of “How great Thou art” I feel the blessing, despite fatigue, that this bus will not only bring us to Tiberias but much further. I’ve heard people say a pilgrimage to Holy Land is “the trip of a lifetime” and right now I receive a glimpse that this might become true.
Words come to me, a locution. I grab a pen to write them down, right then and there, scribbling into the journal I bought to record this trip for no other reason than to share the journey with my archbishop. In the bus, swerving through the country roads I hear,
“My little ones,
I welcome you,
Welcome you into my heart,
Holding you in the palm of my hands.
I welcome you into my country, among my chosen ones, children of mine.
Of whom you are a part, my adopted sons and daughters, my beloved.
I welcome you,
I will increase your faith; the truth and love I feel growing in you at every moment of your lives.
The love I feel for you will be shown to you at my special places.
Open your eyes,
Open your ears,
Open your heart.
I will be right there with you, in you, around you.
Welcome, my little ones.
My blessings I pour out onto you,
My guidance I will give you,
My love is yours,” says the Lord.
A well-known warmth invades me, thankfulness flows through my being. Unable to speak, I lift my eyes to the sparkling lights of a dwelling high up on a far-away mountain. I understand better now what He meant when he used the words, “Don’t put your light under a bushel”.
Called, I obey.
“Whatever the Lord says I must repeat.” -Numbers 24:13
Tiberias, Sea of Galilee.
The first station of our journey. Night has fallen. Waiting for our suitcases to be extracted from the bus, we stand in the parking lot of a hotel at the Galilean seaside. The winds blow relentless and the temperature reaches freezing point. Shivering, with whirling winds pulling at me, I have but one prayer, “Lord, let the sun shine tomorrow”. Like everyone else, I am clutching my shawl and coat, holding them tight as we hurry into the hotel.
The spread of delicious Arabian dishes for dinner are a feast for eyes and taste buds. The dessert table is bursting with delicacies. But my body screams for rest. We all retire early. My knees drawn in and bed covers up to my nose, I watch the heavy rains pelting the windows. Throughout the night, the wind is so strong that its hurling sounds like a wolf in the dark and keeps waking me up. Listening to the storm I wonder about the waves of the Galilean Sea crashing into the shore on the other side of my room. And then, the ever-new busloads of people keep arriving throughout the night. I barely sleep and get up early.
Wednesday, January 20, 1999.
Some groups arrived at the hotel at 5:00 o’clock in the morning. In the dining room, looking for my buddies from Jamaica, I still see many empty tables. The latecomers obviously try to get a short nap before the official wake-up calls are made.
“Let’s pack some doggy bags for them, otherwise they’ll never get breakfast,” a caring soul says. Later, on the way to the buses, we get grateful smiles when we hand them their food.
At 7:00 am, nine color-coded buses drive out. I am tired. Settling down in our “Gray bus”, I decide to join those praying the rosary. We ask for sunshine too. Through ever-pouring rain along the seashore we are eager to see our first site. So far, we only see fog and dark clouds hiding the lake.
One by one the buses unload our people at Capernaum’s church. The Gray bus is the first to arrive, a blessing. This gives me ample time to admire the octagonal church, built on pillars over ancient ruins. Its ceiling-height glass windows look out to the Sea of Galilee, the village ruins of Capernaum, and the old Synagogue. Underfoot, visible through a glass floor in the center of the church, are the ruins of Simon Peter’s house, where Jesus not only healed Simon’s mother but also the man they’d let down from the roof.
A sense of excitement, of expectation is in the air. Like waiting in a concert hall for a famous orchestra to begin its performance. Sitting in a circle on simple benches, it’s easy to see each other. Necks craning, most of us look for known faces, or try to detect who is native of which country. I wonder if there are any of my Haitian fellowmen among us. So far, I haven’t seen any.
Behind the altar, the tall windows take up the entire length to expose the lakeshore right before us. The waters are still hidden by fog while the clergy get dressed for mass. All is happening in the same room, very transparent, very open. The space is filling up with priests. I didn’t think they were so many. Hidden by their street clothes while traveling, I now count seven bishops too. The sheer number of priests and bishops taking place at the altar is exiting and a sign that this trip is truly special. My bench neighbor points out that other priests or deacons are still sitting among us. Altar space was getting tight, it seems. Finally, the bell rings and we begin to sing, a bit shy at first—each island has its own rhythm to the song. The Holy Spirit helping, we find common ground. Some hands begin to clap, others raise up in prayer. No doubt, my Caribbean people are ready to worship God!
I am overjoyed; Archbishop Emeritus Samuel Carter, our own, is the main celebrant and opens the way to our pilgrimage. His words of wisdom touch me, ”Leave your past behind and shape the future. Do ministry where God has put you, even if it means to do things differently as before.”
Well, yes, Jesus was, and still is, the master of doing things differently. When he walked these Capernaum streets, all he did was the unexpected.
The Prayers of the Faithful are freely spoken, each person can express what’s on her heart. I feel the need to pray for Haiti and its people but hesitate to speak up in this assembly. In the split-second of hesitation someone else’s voice raises up in a fervent prayer for Haiti. Praise to the Spirit who unites!
Looking into the faces around me, I get a glimpse that thoughts are twirling, and hearts are shifting. Something is happening, the journey takes shape. We are not yet a close-knit group, but at the customary greeting of peace many hesitant attitudes have given place to a warm embrace.
As the Mass reaches its high-point, the rain behind the windows stops. While Archbishop is consecrating the Eucharist, the low-hanging clouds shift to open up a small piece of blue sky. Suddenly, a golden ray of sunlight falls straight onto the altar. Everyone gasps. The clouds open up further, clear the view to the Sea of Galilee where its waters, bathed in sunlight, begin to glitter. By the time mass is over everyone is smiling, and their eyes sparkle too.
Ensues a happy rush to discover Capernaum. The town really was rather a village, then. I am walking on roads of beaten earth towards the synagogue. No ends to the “ah” and “oh” my companions exclaim as we walk through its ruins. People keep echoing each other, “Imagine, Jesus was here. Imagine… this is where He talked. Imagine, he healed…” Imagine.
It’s exciting, really.
We are here, we are walking in His footsteps.
I wish I had the time to just sit on one of the ruin walls to look out to the Galilean Sea and keep dreaming.
The guide is rushing us on.
Upon leaving Capernaum, the sun tries to fight her way through the remaining clouds. Our umbrellas are tucked away, but the pullovers and jackets are zipped up. It is cold, really cold. Only my heart is warmed by holy mass and the visit to the synagogue, but my hands and feet are freezing. Now and then someone points to the sky changing into a more friendly color. Hopefully, we’ll see more sunshine.
Tabgha: Primacy of Peter
A small chapel with a few rugged benches marks the spot where Jesus used to meet his disciples at the seaside. The guide tries to explain, but no one lends him an ear. It seems everyone has a single-minded desire: rushing past the chapel to the shore of the Galilean Sea to touch the water. To fill a small bottle or collect some stones. Actually, it’s a cute sight. My companions—all ages—are running towards the water like little children, bending down, touching the water, marveling over the sole fact that He was here, was walking on these waters. Like kids we laugh, run, and play in great excitement with the waters of the Sea. We are ageless in the playfulness with each other and with Jesus. It’s innocent and beautiful. Never did I see water being touched with so much care and tenderness. In reverence for a lake that was touched by His feet. Nature unites with our spirits to give glory to God. Each stone taken from this seashore, a free gift from the Creator, will be more cherished than any other purchased souvenir, I am certain.
On this shore, Jesus met his disciples often. A statue marks the place where Jesus told them, “I will make you fishers of men”. He chose to meet them here when he appeared to them for the third time after his resurrection. Always a lover of food, he cooked breakfast for his disciples and challenged Peter three times with the question, “Do you love me?” Upon Peter’s positive response, he gave the great commission to him, saying, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Jesus conferred to Peter the responsibility to head His Church.
I walk into the dusty little chapel and wait my turn to touch the grey rock-stone named MENSA CHRISTI. It is said that on this rock Christ served breakfast to his disciples.
I would like to linger. Yet, with so many people arriving behind us the visit has to be short. Despite the time constraints, I see that many are moved by briefly touching the MENSA. In important moments, it’s often not the length of time that counts, it’s the personal experience.
Mount of Beatitudes.
“Oh look, wow.”
“Do you see that?”
Exclamations abound, expressing joy at the beauty of this place. It’s breathtaking, really. The country is now bathed in bright sunlight. We stand on the mountaintop and the valley below literally glows with its lush greens. The Sea of Galilee sparkles and its shore looks like freshly washed.
Someone is reading the ‘Sermon of the Mount’ while we walk up to the church, a round structure with a lovely arcade surrounding it. Once inside, I cannot help but kneel. This urge to kneel seems to grip most of us. Although the space is small and we are so many, each person takes her time; then, moves to allow others to kneel and pray. I step out to walk the arcade. Breathing the crisp air, inhaling deeply, I don’t tire to look at the land and the lake below. Fr. Randy and Valerie join me in my admiration. Being here is a moment of grace. The well-kept plants and grounds reveal that someone cares with great love for this beautiful place. To live here must be wonderful. How blessed are they who call this mountain home.
Tabgha: Church of the Loaves and Fishes.
At the foot of the Mount of Beatitudes, the modern church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha was built on fourth-century ruins. Old Byzantine mosaics on the floor document that this place has a much older history than appears at first sight. They depict fauna and flora of the land as well as the miracle after which the church is named, the loaves and fishes. There’s a stone under the altar, and it is believed that Jesus stood on this rock when he blessed the fishes and loaves before feeding them to the crowd. It is also believed that Jesus appeared here for the fourth time after his crucifixion.
We learn that Tabgha means “seven springs”. Warm waters flow from them into the Sea of Galilee. Old olive millstones in the churchyard tell the story of vibrant agriculture in Holy Land since the age of time. I light candles at the lovely icon depicting Mary and Jesus because I love them. We don’t linger too long here, are not yet in touch with each other, nor the land.
The Sea of Galilee.
No one gets fast enough to the next stop. We huddle along, eager to experience the lake. Walking on water we cannot, but we step into the typical boats that will take us right into the middle of the Sea of Galilee.
It’s beautiful and I keep wondering how Jesus walked on these waters. None of us trusts in the Lord that much to even try, I am sure. I hear others expressing similar thoughts and we discuss the signs and wonders He performed; concluding, our faith is much tinier than the proverbial mustard seed. Otherwise, in His name, we could maybe try to walk on water. I keep it to myself for now, but I feel that we are called to follow his call differently and walk on other kinds of “deep water” to fulfil the purpose God has for our lives.
Despite the dazzling sunlight, an unforgiving, chilly wind tugs on our clothes. The guide explains how a unique weather pattern often forms in this area. The position of mountains and valleys create a tunnel, which provokes at times sudden and dangerous storms rushing down to the lake with incredible force. Thus, turning this relatively small lake into a roaring sea. Last night’s storm in Tiberias gave us an inkling and I begin to understand how frightening it must be for the fishermen in their rather small boats during a ferocious storm.
The bible stories take on life.
The winds are so gusty now and this is not even a storm. Someone shares his reflection and the nodding heads indicate that all of us are there: in the Gospel, on these waters 2000 years ago. Right then, in the middle of the lake, the boats stop their motors, and everything falls silent. No one speaks. Visible sunrays fall onto the water. Shore and sea, including us, are enveloped in a silvery light. A song raises up, giving glory to God, the sole Creator of this beautiful land. This is a moment where a chosen man’s history welcomes the present. Literally “sitting in the same boat” we feel a bond, a togetherness. I feel so blessed to experience this beauty.
Amazing, God’s providence.
Were it not for 200 dollars lent and returned, I wouldn’t be here. Wow.
The sudden revving of the boat’s motor startles us, noisy intruder, pulling us out of our contemplation. We return to the shore.
I anticipated a lovely lunch in Tiberias, looking forward to eating the lake’s fish. But serving it buffet-style to 400 hungry Caribbean folks turns into a rush for food. Galilean fish is the most wanted and the race is on. Platters with sweet tangerines and fresh fruit mingle with ordinary hamburgers, which some seemingly cannot resist. I am disappointed, it’s too trivial and eating this long-awaited fish with a plastic fork hurts my feelings. Adding to my disappointment is a wide-spread jetlagged mood. Our inner clock still runs Caribbean time and some manners got lost by sleep deprivation.
I walk out to the water’s edge. Breathe, Anne, breathe. This is life in a group.
River Jordan Baptism.
As the bus circles the Sea of Galilee, I am surprised at the Jordan flowing into the lake, just a small rivulet. I had imagined a mighty stream, whereas this is only a brook. The guide informs us that we have to forgo visiting several holy places along the road because of time constraints. There would be no possibility to step out of our bus and walk around. Just looking while slowly passing by. I cannot even follow his explanations because they cause my inner rebel to rise up. I regret to be in a bus that’s herding us around. Alone, I would have strolled at my leisure and visited every single one of the places I’d want to see. Clearly, group travel and I don’t go so well. Shall I rent a car tomorrow? But, how many priests can I fit into a car?
Next time we see the Jordan again, flowing out on the other side of the lake, it is much larger; looks like a river now, not a trickle.
The actual baptismal site of Jesus is located in a military area, we are told, and cannot be visited. To accommodate the Christians who want to dip in the river, a new site had been created. Broad steps are leading down to the water.
We jump out of the bus, eager to see. One brave soul was prepared in advance, had changed into a white baptismal gown and jumps right in, despite the near freezing temperatures. But as fast as she dipped in, she comes rushing out. Peals of laughter from the crowd. Obviously, that was much colder than she’d expected.
I keep looking into the stream, it’s a call for reflection. Unexpectedly, a holy mood takes hold of us. Still moments and many a tearful eye as we sprinkle ourselves with Jordan water.
Fr. Freddie Lee cannot resist, rolls up his pants, takes off shoes and socks and, braving the icy, he steps into the Jordan with determination. His grin is contagious. We laugh out loud when Fr. Don advances right up to him, fully dressed, balancing on wobbly stones., “Watch it Father, you’ll take a bath too,” someone yells, but he holds his ground. Careful not to fall, he bends down and scoops up the river water with both hands to give Fr. Freddie “ah real good” renewal of his baptismal vows with loads of water poured over his head. Sparkling eyes and radiant smiles give witness to what their hearts feel. Just to look at Fr. Freddie is pure bliss. My heart sings too. This is the joy in the Lord. Laughing heartily, we give them a rousing round of applause.
Clearly, the emotion when I put my hand into the river’s water is quite different from the one by the sea this morning. I feel it and can see that others seem to feel the same. Touching the Jordan fills me with a different type of inner joy. It’s the awe to know that I am a baptized child of God.
We gather on the steps leading into the Jordan, and the bishops unite to pray the words of baptism over us as we renew our own vows. Seven bishops presiding over me to renew my vows! Try to top that.
I feel my body vibrating in close contact with my God. This morning’s childlike joy is replaced by a more mature knowledge of my relationship with Christ. I am submerged in a feeling of peace, with a strong longing to stay here.
Unfortunately, I am pulled out of my bliss when the profane desire to purchase plastic bottles, with the purpose to fill them with Jordan water, creates a general rush to the sellers. Our annoying, invisible companion called Commercial Rip-off is steadily present. I am disturbed by the touristic aspects of our trip. Our guide, who says his name is Elias, which means “Yahweh is my God”, is a master of distraction. Instead of keeping up his explanations, as he should, he tries to entice us to purchase all kinds of goods—including junk—for hefty dollars at each stop we make. Others don’t like it either. It takes an effort to look beyond the commercialism and see the real purpose of our journey.
More than once I keep sending thanks and praises to the Holy Spirit, who pulls me back into His presence and enables me to see the beauty. It’s His doing that I can experience awesome moments in the middle of the hustle and bustle, the selling frenzy and the higgling.
“Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.” -Heb. 7:25
Back in Tiberias.
When our daytrip ends with a drop-off at a Diamond factory, I reach boiling point. Others feel the same. This is too profane. We decide to leave the bus and walk to the hotel. Great decision, and a pleasurable moment. Walking the streets of Tiberias at our leisure, stretching the body, smelling fresh air, and getting a glimpse of how it might feel to live here, revives our spirits. I thoroughly enjoy the freedom from both, group and bus. To discover a city by walking its streets is one of my favorite pass times. Smiling, breathing, I stroll along with my friends.
Unfortunately, it does not last very long. We reach the hotel much too fast. I would have preferred to walk further. But the extensive flight hours, a short night and jetlag take their toll. Everyone is tired and hungry.
After dinner, most of us attend a lecture about the historic conditions in Holy Land 2000 years ago. Not all make it through. Despite earnest efforts to keep their eyes open, one head after another begins to nod or whiplash. We admire Archbishop Samuel who, despite his advanced age, seems to be bright and fresh. He sits right through the lecture without batting an eyelid.
At night, gun shots ring in the streets of Tiberias. The late shops and cafés in our street close shutters in a hurry but our hotel’s personnel seem undisturbed. Valerie’s call to the front desk is met with complete indifference as to what is happening out there. Like I did in Haiti, they too are used to such sounds when living in a country where struggle has prevailed since the age of time. However, some of us realize only now that God’s Chosen People live a quite different life than we do in our Caribbean islands. Unless you are Haitian and live through revolving turns of revolutions. Hearing gunshots is a fitting reason for prayer.
Thursday, January 21, 1999.
I feel dizzy and tired after yesterday’s trip and another short night. I didn’t sleep well. My heart is full, and my mind tries to process the emotions stirred up by our visits. I feel the presence of God in a unique way; familiar, yet new. I believe that no one remains untouched after a personal encounter with the Holy.
At breakfast, the groups clearly begin to bond. A feeling of oneness is palpable. Smiling, welcoming faces everywhere. Gentleness and care for each other prevail.
“Come sit here.”
“No, join us, we already held a chair for you.”
The impact of the pilgrimage comes to light when amazing stories of personal spiritual occurrences, which some experienced yesterday, are shared.
“It’s no coincidence to be here.”
“Absolutely true, this is what I think.”
Most of us feel the same: being set apart, being chosen, and immensely blessed to encounter the Divine.
Today is a blue, crisp, and chilly day. The Gray bus drives us to Cana through a gorgeous countryside. Distinctive signs of frost glitter on the hilltop’s plants, the grass is powdered with icy crystals, and some clouds are sailing low. While we drive uphill, we can overlook the Galilean Valley. Out of the clouds, far in the back, stands the majestic Mount Hermon, exposing his snowy cape. Beautiful. Leaning back, I enjoy the ride, trying to drink it all in.
Cana (Kafr Kanna).
Such a small town. The inhabitants are of mixed population. A mosque shares the space with churches. It is still early when we begin our walk through the narrow streets. Our spirits are high, we are singing, laughing – I just feel so good.
The Franciscan church is closed for renovation and so, all 400 of us squeeze into the small Chapel. Its simplicity and decoration marvel me. The tight space creates what we need most, the feeling of being one. One body, one mind, one goal to walk where Jesus leads us.
In a simple but touching ceremony the couples renew their marriage vows. I am a widow and observe with longing their exchange of love and fidelity. With others, who are single too, I observe the couples standing at the altar to repeat the words they have spoken to each other years, or even decades ago. Do they know how blessed they are?
And, of course, a wedding is followed by a celebration, isn’t it? We are standing in the Arab shopkeeper’s backyard and taste Cana wine, cheering and laughing. Forgotten is the chilly weather. The sun is shining, we hold small cups of Cana Wedding Wine in our cold hands, and simply enjoy being here. Teasing each other, cracking jokes, we have fun, make new friends, and snap many photos. This yard is rather disheveled, but the surroundings are pretty. Arab-type houses sprawl uphill with dark, tall trees standing out. In between, we see some rocky lots where people try growing produce. I discover the most exquisite Lily in the middle of a rubbish pile. I point it out and Fr. Don and I rush to snap pictures. Life is beautiful when the right people meet at the right place, at the right time. Cana is a relaxing, happy visit. Apart from the wine, no one tries to sell us anything. We are in no hurry to return to the bus but would rather hang on some more.
Up, up, on the road again, towards Nazareth, we are told.
Praying the rosary, my hands advance the beads automatically while my eyes wander to the landscapes passing by. Anticipation builds up. I long to meet Mary in her hometown. It’s not too far and the bus approaches the city where the Holy Family resided.
Once a small village nestled in a valley surrounded by low mountains, today’s Nazareth spreads across each one of those hills. As the road winds downhill, we can overlook the city. Despite many people living here it has a very quiet aspect. White stone houses are nestled close to each other in narrow streets. Although we can see that much repair work is being done in the streets to prepare for the festivities leading to the year 2000, no one seems to be in a rush.
Hidden within the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel, some say that this might be the place where the Angel appeared to announce the birth of Jesus. But, how can anyone really know? Yet, it seems to be a fact that Mary had come to this well every day to fetch water for her family. In her lifetime, this was the source supplying the village. Like most Greek churches, this small sanctuary is decorated with icons, sparkling chandeliers, and an abundance of gold and silver décor. While we are still admiring, a Greek Orthodox priest appears and chants his prayers in a deep, melodious voice. I cannot walk on; I must listen to his beautiful rendition of ancient prayers.
My group has long proceeded to visit the well. I procrastinate but hurry down into the crypt when the priest ends his song. My heart beats joyfully when I discover an icon of “Mary of Perpetual Help” leaning right here at the well. I take this as Mary’s welcome to me because her depiction as Perpetual Help is my favorite. Our precious relationship goes back two decades. Thus, I respond with prayer and spend time with her. In fact, I lose all sense of time… and lose my group too.
When I step out of the church’s gate, no sign of my Gray bus. Between anger and grinning to myself I cannot believe they’ve left me behind. No one seems to have missed me. Well, I am in Nazareth. After all, don’t I love walking the streets of an unknown city?
Where to go? The only thing I do know is that we have a visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation next on our list.
I recognize the Arab guide from another bus and ask him for direction.
“Come with us, we go same place as gray bus,” he tries to persuade me to stay with his group. When I decline, he does not offer directions, vexed. I shrug my shoulders and begin to walk. He calls after me, but I just wave him off while crossing the street. Used to travel alone all over the world, I never got lost anywhere yet, why here? Looking at Nazareth when we came down from the mountain, I have a faint idea where the large church is located. The building seemed to stick out from all others. I don’t see it yet, but head right into the maze of streets.
This time, I do get lost. Realizing that I walked far too long I know I need to ask someone for direction. I am in a narrow street with a dead-end right before me but outlets to either side. Left? Right? Which one?
The dead-end houses a carpenter’s atelier where two men are busy working on their project. The swooshing sounds of their planes and the smell of wood make me smile. Nazareth and carpenters, ha! I peak into the workshop. This feels familiar; after all, wasn’t my father a carpenter too? I address the men, “Hello, maybe I can ask you something? Can you help me find the big church?”
They stop working. The older one, tool in hand, looks at me and to my surprise, this Arab man answers in perfect German, “Ja, wo soll’s denn hingehen?” Yes, where do you want to go? I laugh, he laughs too.
“How did you know?” I ask him.
“Your accent,” he grins.
“How’d you learn my language?”
He shares that he learned his craft in Germany and came back to his hometown to work the trade and teach an apprentice too.
He sends me right back to the area where I just came from.
After walking a while I know that this certainly cannot be right. Either he was joking with me or I did not listen because I was too excited talking to a Nazorean carpenter in German. Anyways, I am still lost.
At the fork of the next streets, I see two old Arab men sitting on a wooden bench. The shorter one is resting his hands and chin on a cane standing between his legs. The other, twirling his Arab prayer beads. Going towards them, they observe me with stoic faces but return my salute when I address them. They turn out to be of little help because they don’t understand me. But when, in a last attempt, I repeat the words “big church” and describe with outstretched arms the size of it, their eyes light up and they direct me up-hill.
While walking uphill it dawns on me that this is now complete nonsense. The Basilica of the Annunciation is in the valley. I had seen it clearly when we drove into town. What am I doing uphill?
Suddenly, I know exactly who to ask. Don’t I have the Holy Spirit to guide me? I slow my steps and talk to Him, asking for direction. At that very moment a feminine voice shouts from the flat rooftop of the multistory house to my left in perfect English, “I can see you are lost. Where do you want to go, sister?” I am speechless! She repeats her question and I explain.
“Come in. Take the walkway through the garden and come to the main door. Ring the third floor. I’m coming down to let you in and show you where to go.”
To enter a stranger’s house alone in a foreign country might not be the wisest thing to do. But in this case, I know with absolute certainty that it’s alright. She buzzes the door. I climb three flights of stairs where a dark-haired woman in her early thirties greets me at her doorstep and says with a smile,” Let’s go up. Follow me.”
We climb to the rooftop. Stepping out of the stairwell, I am overwhelmed. A breathtaking view of Nazareth and its surrounding hills in bright sunlight capture me completely. The woman laughs, thrilled about my joy, and proceeds to explain her hometown with visible pride. She shows me the location of her parent’s house on the hillside as well as the opposite way I have to take downhill to the church. I also learn from her that the two old men would have sent me to a cloister. We burst into laughter. Too funny.
It’s hard to pull myself from this view. It’s so beautiful.
“I have to go,” I reply when she invites me to her apartment.
“Don’t you want to drink something, a juice, some water?” she nudges me.
Politely I decline and explain that I am not alone in Nazareth. I have to catch up with my group.
On our way down she stops at her apartment door. With a broad smile, looking into my eyes, she asks me to come in.
“I want to give you a picture of the church. In case you get lost again you could show it to anybody, and they would understand and show you where to go.” She steps into her bedroom, beckons me in, already searching in a drawer. I hesitate at the door, look around and then smile. On her bedside table stands a frame with a beautiful picture of the Theotokos, Mother of God. I know I am in the right place.
She finds a postcard of the Basilica of the Annunciation and hands it to me.
Once more, she invites me to eat or at least drink something before I leave. I smile and just hug her and explain why I have no choice but to leave.
She nods and replies, “OK, but you should come back and visit with me anytime when you are in Nazareth again.”
I agree and leap down the stairs joyfully, stop again to yell up the stairwell to ask her, “What’s your name?”
“Zivah”, she calls back, leaning over the railing.
I give her my name too and she adds, “Oh Anne, and you know, there is a shortcut between the houses leading to the street to the church. Take that one.”
Which I do and end up exactly where I had asked the man who speaks German—in the middle of the carpenter’s street! And, they are still working their wood.
I am really puzzled. I just had to turn left when…
Never mind, there was a reason to this. Without his wrong directions I would never have met Zivah.
Instead of going directly to the churchyard, as instructed, I circle its vast grounds and the Catholic school with hundreds of yelling school children playing in the yard. I walk so brisk that for the first time since arriving in Israel I feel hot. Bypassing the Arab market, I show my postcard to someone, get pointed in the right direction and finally arrive at the entrance of the Basilica. Not a single soul from my Gray bus in sight. But another Caribbean group is walking in, and I am sure I could always continue my trip with them, if need is. I feel at ease.
Despite getting lost I feel incredibly peaceful. Totally OK.
Lost? I chuckle. This is my type of adventure. I just love it.
With a swing in my step I walk into the grotto, located in the Basilica’s lower part. Our Catholic traditions says it’s here the Archangel announced to Mary that she would be Jesus’ mother. It does not matter to me whether it was here or at the well. The sheer knowledge that an angel announced her pregnancy is enough to elate me.
A large group of priests celebrating Mass in American English attracts me. I tiptoe closer and join in their song, while quietly admiring the grotto. I feel so happy and keep smiling with contentment. Mary, you lived here.
Though, I guess, I should start looking for my group. I turn to head to the stairs when the priests begin to intone their song in melodious voices, “Hail Mary, full of grace…”. Stairs? Group? No way! I will not miss this and return to my spot at the iron rail separating this lower part from the rest of the church. I sing from my heart while my eyes wander up to the dome of the basilica. And right there, on the rails of the Upper Church, I see my Gray bus people slowly circling the atrium’s opening. Praise God. This is the day of wonders!
When I finally join my group, they bombard me with questions all at once.
“Where have you been for so long?”
“How come you are here now?”
“How did you reach here?”
“Did you take a taxi? No? What…happened?
“Why weren’t you on the bus?”
I laugh out loud and share my story. Everyone’s reaction is the same, they exclaim, “God bless this woman Zivah. Let’s pray for her.” That’s exactly how I feel.
Mass will soon be held for us too. One after the other, our groups trickle into the yard, arriving from Mary’s well. Why do they arrive so much later than I did? How could that happen? I shake my head, puzzled.
Waiting for the last bus to arrive, we have enough time to explore and admire the two distinct levels of the basilica and take a peek into the adjacent courtyard with its long walls adorned with mosaics, portraying Mother Mary with her baby Jesus, in the style typical for the nation that donated it. Everyone has a favorite. I love the Theotokos, the God-bearer, from Greece.
Sunshine, warmth, and a relaxed stroll to look at holy beauty makes everybody smile. How can it not?
We are called in to gather for Mass. 400-strong, we fill the church. Our deacons, priests, and bishops process towards the altar. I notice with joy that now all are concelebrating. None seem to have stayed back with the crowd. This is some sight, an altar filled with God’s men dressed in their robes. Celebration!
The mass readings are from the Annunciation narrative, to put us in tune with the place we are in. My thoughts keep returning to the woman. I didn’t see any signs of children at Zivah’s house. One knows at once when entering a household with kids. Somehow, their stuff is always visible. But at her house, no children’s photos, no toys. Usually, a married Eastern woman her age—I saw her wedding picture—would have children. Surely, she needs intercession. As prompted, I begin to pray for her. While the priest reads the annunciation to Mary, I pray that the blessings of motherhood may be granted to Zivah too. God willing she’ll have little ones. Maybe we were sent for each other today, meant to meet in Nazareth. I needed directions and she needed prayer. God sometimes sends us onto a crooked path to find the right way. I am certain, this was no coincidence but part of His plan. Touched by our encounter I am so happy to have walked the streets.
What a lovely sisterhood we are, women of different countries, of different origins. We watch over each other, we are sisters. Didn’t she call me that at her first hello?
My spirit is lifted because of Zivah’s kindness, her smiling and open face, and for making me feel so welcome in Jesus’ own country.
“Among my chosen ones…”—yes, Lord, we are a part.
Hard to believe, our guide-guard allows us to take a walk in Nazareth. All senses open, I follow my group and inhale the smells wafting in from the Arab market, listen to the different tongues shouted across the street or spoken at the sidewalk stalls. It’s quite interesting to observe the diversity of people living in this holy town. Do they even know how blessed they are?
Our walk ends with a well-deserved lunch. In the course of the past two days a little sub-group with my Jamaican friends has begun to take shape, among them Fathers Randy Ferguson, Howard Thompson, Don Chambers and Michael Lewis. We seek each other out, arrange to sit together, and make a joyful noise at our table. Talking nonstop, sharing food and drink, we eat from each other’s plates to taste the variety of Arabian dishes. Brotherhood at its best. We are happy.
I lean back, sigh. Content. Fun, food, friends, and God. What a lovely day!
I truly looked forward to visiting Mount Tabor since the day I took a glimpse from afar. No doubt, it’s a Holy Place and I know we’ll have a meaningful visit. Out of many scripture passages, the Transfiguration is among my favorite. Time to go up this mountain and see where it happened!
We must drive up in taxis as no bus can maneuver the climbing slopes and hairpin turns of this road. The higher up we drive the more interesting the view. Holy Land, the beautiful. For the last lap we leave the cars, walk through an arc, then an alley of age-old, dark cedar trees until the Church of Transfiguration is finally before us. The moment we step onto this Holy Ground everyone falls silent; quietly walking on. I stroll through the maze of rugged ruin stones of a 12th century abbey. Some wild flowers and grass push through. I inhale the cool air; it feels good to be in this sunlit place. Strolling over to the other side of the mountain-top, the sight of the fertile Jezreel valley, Israel’s breadbasket, is breathtaking. It’s a spectacular view, the entire country seems to spread at my feet. In the past, many a battle had been fought in this valley and the trumpets to the very last one will sound here too, says the bible. Overwhelmed, my throat tightens, and my body vibrates to a different tune. Pondering about Him, this country, and feeling His presence, I open wide my arms to breathe. Beautiful peace. Deep peace.
My spirit and soul already in awe, the feeling increases upon entering the church. In front of me, depicted on a golden mosaic, Jesus is floating, lifted up, transfigured. Moses and Elijah on clouds to his right and his left, with the stunned disciples looking on. I cannot take my eyes off the mosaic and the story it tells. It’s amazing and yet, I know, the actual event must have been so much more awesome.
This interesting, unusual church has two altars, one high up and the other situated right underneath deep within the church. Marble steps lead down into the oval shaped grotto. Around this altar, the side walls are adorned with mosaics in the brightest hues of blue and gold, with stained-glass windows of intricate design in the altar’s back. Clearly, the amazing artwork was crafted by artists who received their talents from God to this very effect. One has to be blessed with extraordinary gifts to create such beauty. The church, the altars are superb.
The artist in me rejoices. I try to decipher the variety of mosaic stones in the grotto, the shades of their color, which glow with an extraordinary shine. Who knew how to compose such colors, to burn them and to place them to create such incredible art? No photo I’d take could render its beauty.
An interesting detail, and quite fun for us, through a little trap door in the grotto’s floor we can touch the bare rock of Mount Tabor on which the church is built. And, maybe, on which Jesus stood?
I give in to my sole desire, bend my knees and speak in silence, “Jesus, you are present in this beautiful house. Thank you for bringing me here.”
I’d love to sit here for the rest of eternity and talk to him. To be still, meditate. Or laugh and weep for joy. The word ‘awesome’ is too small a word to describe this mountain, the church, the artwork, the entire setting, or my feelings. In fact, there are no words. No language can describe what I feel. Even combining the four I speak have not words enough, are not precise enough, to express the Spirit’s influence. My friends, deeply moved, seem to feel it too. No chatter, just silence. This Church, this architectural piece of art, its simplicity yet mindboggling design, is incredible. And, as soon as Mass begins, we hear the most astonishing acoustic in this grotto. A tiny whisper can be heard everywhere, by everyone. This is the work of a grand master. Whoever built this knew the secrets of sound.
When our song arises, heaven opens. To me, it’s tangible that God’s spirit was present when this church was planned, built, decorated. Just as today He is with us as we gather to praise Him. This is what church-art really is, a God-inspired creation, which transforms the simplest materials into a precious place of worship to lift our souls. In the simplicity of its design lays great majesty.
I cannot take my eyes off the mosaic. My only discomfort is that we have to sit on the ice-cold marble steps leading down to the grotto altar. Although the staircase serves as substitute pews, it offers the best view. If only it had some covering. What might be lovely in a sizzling summer is a challenge in icy January. I put a shawl and my hands under my butt to prevent freezing. And still, I shiver.
I follow the Eucharistic celebration below where the priests form a semi-circle around the altar, but am unceasingly drawn to the grandiose mosaic, seeming to float above me in the air. Jesus is raising his arms towards heaven while Bishop Donald Reece speaks about our pilgrimage, our presence here, with the words, “…it’s no coincidence to be here. It’s all part of God’s plan…for our change of heart, which will take place after this journey.”
Before my eyes, the mosaic keeps changing. I am mesmerized by the rays of light which shine through a window somewhere in the back. The rays pass over our heads to fall straight into the center of the mosaic and cause its golden background to vary constantly. It sparkles in a dance of colors. As time passes, square sunlit spots appear on the mosaic and its colors alter with the setting of the sun, from light yellow to dark orange until they disappear just moments before Mass ends. No coincidence. This is a planned lightshow created by a God-inspired artist. It was spectacular, all of it. Including the Eucharist, of course.
Despite the fact that the bitter cold creeps into my bones, I am deeply stirred and have the spontaneous desire to sing. Some fellow pilgrims want the same. Melodious voices rise up and fade again when not all respond. Right then and there, I miss my Jamaican Charismatic community to a point that it hurts. Oh, what a song we would have sent to heaven! If ever there’s a next time, I want to come here with them.
It is hard to simply walk out of this holy place. Wouldn’t it be for the steep steps, I would have walked out backwards, like people did in the old days when they left audience with the king.
Outside, it is cold, cold. Oh Lord, really? Ice-cold! The air is crisp and pure. A waxing moon hangs high over the valley, the tall cedars in the alley are leading us to the cars waiting for us. If they’d be there, that is. There are none.
Turning to look back, I see that the church is the only place on this mountaintop receiving today’s very last glow of the setting sun.
We came up in taxis in groups of four-five-six, or so. As none has arrived here yet—what were they thinking?—it will obviously be a long wait before all 400 of us have descended to the bus station at the bottom of Mount Tabor. Strangely, this is not disturbing us yet. Sure, we do feel very cold and were clearly not prepared for these low temperatures near freezing point. To warm up and keep the spirits high, the Trinis [Trinidad] open their ‘song and dance department’. Within minutes half the crowd is singing and dancing, shouting for joy. Making a joyful noise? Yes, we do. Very joyful!
“Clap your hands folks, stomp your feet, lest they freeze up!” a strong voice shouts to outbursts of laughter.
It’s pit dark now as we line up in the alley, the moon and stars blink through the cedar trees and only on the far horizon a small streak of deep orange with a silver lining marks where the sun has disappeared. The darker the sky turns, the more stars we see. A myriad. With the absence of any other light source, Milky Way displays its sparkling beauty on this crystal-clear winter sky in all its splendor.
We do have some adjustment problems in the singing department as the Trinis sing many songs with a quite different rhythm than we Jamaicans do—or any other nation singing with us. Those who are most inspired keep singing along, others hum shyly, others just listen.
“Clap, clap, clap your hands, man, warm up. Shake, shake, shake your…” Giggles, laughter. Frs. Don and Mike singing and cracking jokes in Patois provide the cream to this merriment.
We have the greatest fun. If this icy night would not frost bite our feet and noses, the taxi drivers would have a tough time to get us off the Mount. After all, this is a spontaneous evening celebration for Jesus. But the non-singers-non-dancers begin to seriously freeze up and complain with chattering teeth. Eventually, the lines move as one by one the taxis arrive.
My heart is full. All feelings play roller coaster: I am enjoying this journey thoroughly, love the good company. Still, a little hint of sadness is in my soul. I would have loved to have many more friends from my community with me here. I want more songs of praise and worship. I want to pray with my arms raised high, thanking my God in Charismatic company.
And then, here’s this thought again: I want to be alone. I want to travel alone and take my time with my Lord. At the same time, I want all the priests and bishops with me at Mass, I want all these good people with me…in short: I want it all at the same time, which is not possible. But somehow, I love it all, l sure do. I will forever be grateful for this mountaintop experience. Nothing will ever be the same now, Bishop Reece is right. If nothing more would be coming after this, it was all worth crossing the ocean. Thankfulness floods my heart.
Later, after another delicious dinner with lots of desserts, rollercoaster. The frustrations of traveling in huge groups hit us. We have to pack, drag the suitcases into the corridor to be collected in the middle of the night and stored in the buses while we—hopefully— are allowed to get a night’s rest. Tomorrow we’ll sleep in Jerusalem. While I am writing my journal close to midnight, I hear the banging and shuffling of luggage out there. It takes some organization to move 400 people trouble-free from one place to the other. But they try their best.
Sirens, gun shots again in the streets of Tiberias. I pile up all the blankets, sheets and cushions I can find in my room, dress with PJs, socks and pullover, and also add the bathrobe to climb into my bed. Not a pretty sight, but I feel so cold. I roll up like a cat to catch some heat. Tomorrow they will let us sleep a bit longer, until 05:30. Thank God, because I need to rest. The pace of this journey begins to take a toll on me.
Thursday, January 22, 1999
On the way to Jericho.
I wake up with high fever, a headache, and pains everywhere in my body. A nasty cough and cold are eating me up. I went to bed, only to wake up an hour later cooking like a pot on fire. I feel half-dead, cannot believe this is happening. Incredible how weak we are, how little we are able to suffer. How much Jesus suffered – for each one of us. What a sacrifice!
I am praying and crying out loud to God to help me. I am so weak and pray for healing. Here I am, in Holy Land of all places, sick and feeble, not knowing where to put myself. In my suffering I cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Why bringing me here if I cannot continue to walk with you to your holy places?”
I fell asleep again and wake up with a little less fever. Good enough to gather the rest of my belongings and climb into the bus to Jericho. My strength fails me right after departure. I am too weak to even sit upright. The seat beside me is empty, so I cuddle myself into the tight space, grab my rosary and ask God to do something, anything, even if I have to die. I want this to be over, quickly. I cannot think straight, much less pray. But He knows anyway…
The bus stops at Beit She’an. The biblical account of the battle of the Israelites against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa tells us that the bodies of King Saul and three of his sons were hung on the walls of Beit She’an. I could not care less. There’s no way to get up, walk, visit, or follow explanations. While all others go, I stay in the bus, keep silent. Gloria, sitting in the back, stayed as well. Same problem. She is much too sick. We cannot even talk to each other. Are hanging in there, hoping to make it through the day. If only the bus could just bring us straight to Jerusalem…Taxi, please?
Before we leave Beit She’an, I need to go out. While I take the direction to the restroom, I realize that some of my fellow pilgrims walk behind me to watch over me. Thank God for their care.
Back in the bus, despite my sickness, I suddenly feel that I have to share my thoughts and my story from Nazareth with the Gray bus. To my surprise, it’s the bus driver, an Arab, who thanks me profusely for it.
While traveling through the Jordan Valley I register fertile planes, bare mountains. Then, all is much too much. Looking at the landscape flying by makes me dizzy. I give up, lay down again. The priests and my travel companions pray for the sick. It seems there are some more here, as well as on the other buses. I am too tired to think. Fr. Mike sits beside me on the edge of the armrest for quite a while, holding my hand he prays for me. I feel comforted by his compassion. My companions care for me, are supportive and helpful. Regardless whether they might catch this nasty cold or not, the priests go from one sick person to the other. I am proud of them. They do what Jesus would have done. It feels good to have them around. Fr. Don cracks a joke to cheer us up, and when Fr. Mike fills in with some dry Patois, we have to laugh out loud despite our plight. Caring for the sick creates a great solidarity in the Gray bus. I wonder if that would have happened had we stayed healthy.
Goodness, was I looking forward to seeing Qumran! Reading so much about the Essenes and the scrolls of the Dead Sea, I was eager to see the place. And here I am, sick and weak. Nevertheless, even if I’d drop dead, I am determined to go out and see. Isaiah 49 on my mind since more than a week, I will not let go until I see where they found the scrolls. Dragging myself out of the bus I am barely able to walk to the site. I have someone snap my picture to make sure I can remember I was here.
Hear me, O islands,
listen, O distant peoples.
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me…
– Is 49:1-ff
Spectacular mountains of red stone surround us, the Dead Sea lays before us, and a harsh wind pulls hard at our clothes. However, as we’ve traveled further south, the wind is not so icy anymore. The sun warms my face if I stay in shelter of the blowing breeze. Breathtaking desert hills full of caves, but bare of any greens. Life must have always been rough in this area. And a rough life, I have too, as I stumble through the ruins behind my group looking for the next stone in the sun, large enough for me to sit on, and warm enough to comfort me. I do not hear what the guide explains, cannot concentrate. All my attention focuses to keep going, to stay alive enough not to fall down. I struggle, search for the next stone to sit on, and nearly miss. I slump against the wall of some ruins. My perception and my thinking are a complete blur. I am so sorry; I would have loved to discover Qumran. Traveling through the surrounding dry land was heartbreaking. How much struggle for the inhabitants to make a living here to survive! Desert all around, rock stones all over, caves, dust and harsh conditions. How blessed we are in Jamaica with water, lush greens and fertile fields. But, oh, how we love to complain. My thoughts mingle with my talk to God. In the end, I give up, crawl back into my bus seat and nearly faint.
Others will have to tell me what Jericho was like. On the road, we make a short stop at this tree where…who was it again?… climbed up to see Jesus walking by. Too weak, I have to stay in the bus. A priest brings some leaves he plucked from the tree for me to keep as a souvenir. My heart warms at his thoughtfulness. It feels good to be taken care of, but I would give a million to feel better and enjoy this trip in all its details.
Next stop is a tourist restaurant & shopping area. Horror.
The sight alone is sufficient for me to want an instant U-turn. It’s not my call. Thus, the bus driver stops and orders everyone to step out. E.v.e.r.y.o.n.e. No mercy.
My bus buddies wander out to visit Jericho. I think they want to go up a mountain. Whatever. My only desire is to find a chair in the sun and await their return. I pass the time observing the scenes at this shopping center, disgusted. It’s one huge tourist trap. Selling, selling, selling is their credo.
I have to leave my chair in search for water. My fever is on the rise again and I am so thirsty. When asking for a drink I am appalled by the unfriendliness of the sales clerk. He is annoyed I only want water. Money is their king. Not one of the shops sells quality, everything is cheap junk sold “for Amerrrican Dallarrrs”, which they shout after each person walking by. I hate it, want to leave, and feel so trapped. No group, no bus in sight, no way out. I am forced to hang in there and endure. My nervousness rises, my system rebels. Strange, the anger, and the water, suddenly make me stronger.
I observe the tour guides. They allow their customers ample time—too much time—to make unnecessary purchases. Of course, they get a commission here. They have an interest that tourists buy as much as possible. The longer the stay, the more temptation to buy something, anything. Even I begin to ponder what else I should acquire besides my water. Until I see the prices… No way!
My friends return from their tour but instead of leaving, we are told that lunch will be eaten right here. Junk food served and swallowed; and, incredulous, I look on when people dive into a senseless shopping frenzy. They shop till the baskets burst. Following a moment’s temptation they buy rosaries at prices umpteen times the value. Whatever I try to hold them back does not reach their ears. It’s as if D-Day breaks out tomorrow and it’s their last chance to buy. Pilgrimage? Which pilgrimage?
Overwhelmed with revulsion, I leave the building. Find finally the bus close-by with its door open. No driver, no guide, no Jamaican in sight, I snuggle up in my seat and pray that we can soon leave. Reflecting on what I’ve seen, I realize too, how different people’s habits are. Haitians would have bartered until eternity to pay less; but the English-speaking Caribbean folks just paid any amount the price tag indicated. Shopkeepers were rubbing their hands, nodding to each other, but my friends didn’t notice. I am close to tears. For goodness sake, I am on pilgrimage not a sightseeing tour, and even less on a shopping tour. I want to leave, now, and cannot. My sickness makes me weak, and my nerves are cracking.
Even when the bus finally moves on, I am still sad and upset.
Consoled by the view of the Judean Desert on our way towards Jerusalem, I feel a bit better. My spirit seems to be awakening. We drive past Bedouin tents. In the middle of nowhere, amidst large sand dunes without a tip of green in sight, the tents blend into the landscape of beige, brown and red. Wouldn’t it be for the Bedouins and their herds of sheep and goats stirring, one could easily overlook the tents. These Bedouins are poor. There’s no mango tree to grab some fruit from, nor the slightest green of grass for their sheep. We learn that the feed and the water for their herds have to be sought after and brought in from afar. A harsh and demanding life, I certainly couldn’t cope with such fate.
Still, the sight of the sand dunes is amazing. Their beautiful colors and formations vary constantly as we move along.
Finally, still far off, I see the long-awaited. On the horizon the contours of buildings appear. Jerusalem, the Holy City. We are close by but before we go there, we are to visit a town on our way.
The home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. While everyone else is running ahead, I have to take my time to climb off the bus and can only walk at a slow pace. Fr. Don sees me struggling. Rather, crawling along. He commands me to secure a seat in the little church, right now.
“We are too many and most will have to stand during the service. Don’t go to Lazarus’ tomb, it’s a steep walk. You will not be able to make it. Sit, and wait,” he warns me.
I am grateful for his advice and while all others head out to see Lazarus’ resurrection site, I quietly sit alone. Mosaics are displayed on the four walls. They tell the story of this place, of what had happened when Jesus came ever so often to visit his friends, where he said, “Martha, Martha…Mary has chosen the better part” and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. I chuckle, remembering my grandmother, Martha. She was a farmer’s wife and always overly busy. My grandpa used to tease her in a preaching tone, “Martha, Martha …” when she got upset that none of her three daughters liked to help her.
When the groups arrive, and Mass is to begin within minutes, they are told to place the papers with their written petitions onto the altar. Mine is already there. Apart from our own prayers, we deliver to God’s house the petitions our folks at home entrusted us with. They are on the altar to be lifted up at Mass. Mission accomplished.
Bishop Robert Rivas is the celebrant and his homily goes straight to my heart. I wish someone would just record all the homilies spoken on this trip. They are inspired, with words full of hope, melting souls. The Holy Spirit is moving. We feel it, hear it, and are touched. Thanks be to God for his words. Bishop Rivas speaks about friendship and the spirit of hospitality reigning in Martha, Mary and Lazarus’ home. Immediately, my thoughts go to Zivah, the Nazorean woman and I also remember the Lord’s welcoming words to me upon our arrival in Holy Land. Today, Bishop Rivas repeats similar words although I never had him read my notes.
Bethany is, of course, the most appropriate place to talk about hospitality and festivity. Mary and Martha opened their house to Jesus often. Their friendship was such that it transcended death and decay. Today, it’s the St. Vincent and The Grenadines’ folks to host this feast and celebration. It’s their Bishop’s 9th anniversary of ordination as the Chief Shepherd of their diocese. JOY and unity is the headline of today’s Mass. It’s palpable just by looking into those smiling faces.
Fr. Mike and Fr. Don took on the role of cantors, and what a joyful duo they are! Smiling from one ear to the other they savor the celebration as much as we do in listening to them. Two jolly priest-cantors at mass? Only in Bethany, of course.
Upon leaving the church, our guide is pressuring us to hurry to the Gray bus. I decide I’ve gained enough strength to walk up to Lazarus’ tomb for a short visit. I beg him to let me go and see the tomb for 5 tiny minutes while the others could admire the surroundings. No mercy, he is adamant.
“The bus does not wait for you, Miss,” he growls at me.
I try to bargain, he resorts to shouting at me in the most unpolite manner, “Just stop asking, shut up and climb on that bus.”
Mellowed by the Mass and weakened by my sickness, I do. But from this moment on we both know that we’ve become enemies. He observed me when I tried to hold my friends back from buying foolish things at the Jericho bus stop. Already then, his look indicated that he did not like what I did, and thus does not like me. Without speaking a word, we declare war, in the middle of Holy Land.
Before entering Jerusalem, another stop. In Bethlehem. Not to visit any church or site. No, to everyone’s utter surprise, with a broad grin on his face and a look at me, the guide announces that we are allowed “two full hours at this store” to fill our baskets. From rosaries to gold jewelry, from wooden statues to complete junk, everything is there. No hurry anymore, no pressuring us with the words, “10 minutes only and then back to the bus”. No, we can take all the time we need to shop, spend money, using cash, credit cards and traveler checks. I am in disbelief; I could have taken my sweet time to visit Lazarus’ tomb and my buddies would still have had enough time left to raid this place empty. This is the worst tourist trap.
I want to go home.
I am tired, drawn, and helpless. Trapped in my group, I give in. My friends at home asked me to purchase golden Jerusalem crosses. So, in my best Haitian manner I bargain, bargain, bargain to bring the sky-high prices down. I think I am buying my goods for quite a fair price. Little do I know!
It’s late and dark when we finally arrive in Jerusalem and 400 people want a hotel room, at once, please, right now. Although well organized, confusion happens, and tempers begin to flare up. Mainly, because this is the evening before Sabbath. Everything is on go-slow; the regular Jewish personnel has left for the day and some Palestinians fill in. Our patience is tested too when we learn how a “Sabbath elevator” functions. Namely by not pushing a button but patiently standing in the cabin, waiting for the doors to slowly open and close automatically, while stopping at every single floor of this high-rise building. I won’t repeat the expletives I heard from some fellowmen when we reached the 9th or 10th floor and realized we had been given the wrong room keys. All hell broke loose. Sabbath elevator down again, including the luggage, waiting for the confusion to settle and new keys to be handed out, and Sabbath elevator up again. Clearly, it was too much for many a tired soul whose nerves lay already bare.
This evening, we must also accept serving ourselves and eat a cold buffet dinner that was prepared in advance during the day. We observe what the Jews residing in this hotel do and understand what it means to live in Israel. Mainly, international hotel or not, Sabbath is Sabbath, and everyone without exception has to obey the rules. We just have to accept that the Law prevails over comfort.
And eat kosher, too. Although healthy, the difference to the succulent, rich Arabian dishes in Tiberias is striking. Fr. Mike and I crave for the dessert table which we used to raid in Galilee and cannot stop talking about it…driving our companions crazy because it waters their mouths.
Fr. Don loses his camera and walks around with a grim look and deep frowns on his face.
However, that’s not the only trouble befalling us. This night, an emergency doctor is called to the hotel several times. Some people a seriously ill and we increase our prayers. The priests walk from bedside to bedside and dispense the Anointing of the Sick. It’s frightening how horrible some of us sound when coughing. Some display extreme weakness, to the point of disorientation. A serious battle is raging. I go to bed but spend another night fighting my illness, struggling to find rest. My fever roars and I have to pad my bedsheets with bathroom towels to soak up the fever sweats. Sleep is all what I long for, but it’s hard to come by. I hurt and want to go home.
Saturday, January 23, 1999
Sabbath in Bethlehem.
Back in Jesus’ birth town. Surrounded by three monastery buildings belonging to different Christian Churches we enter the Basilica of the Nativity through the small doorway called “Door of Humility”, which in the old days was made to prevent the rich to enter the church on their horses. To pass the door, you had to dismount.
I am short but even I have to stoop to enter the Basilica. Its large nave is rather bare, lined by four rows of large columns. A wooden floor was put over ancient mosaics to prevent further deterioration by too many visitors walking on them. On the walls too are the remains of dusty mosaics. The altar section, however, is richly decorated. This space with an abundance of typical lamps and icons ‘belongs’ to the Orthodox.
We continue through a side door to visit the Catholic Church of St. Catherine, where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates the solemn Midnight Mass at Christmas Eve every year. On a side altar is a statue of Mary with a baby-sized Jesus laying in his manger. We light our candles, pray. Some tears drop in silence. Just a month ago, I followed this Christmas Eve Mass on TV and find it quite astounding to stand here myself.
We descend a staircase into the grottos located underground. A string of caves are linked to each other; each cave a chapel with great significance, for example the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, in memory of the babies killed by Herod. Or the one for St. Joseph, husband of Mary, or for St. Jerome. Another grotto is believed to be the study of St. Jerome where he translated the bible into Latin. It’s quite an experience to walk through these caves.
In 1470, the Franciscans cut a passage way to connect the grotto underneath St. Catherine with the grotto of the Church of the Nativity. Through a tight stone passage we can pass into the Grotto of the Nativity but are asked to wait because it ‘belongs’ to the Armenians and they are not ready yet.
“Their prayers are still ongoing, and no outsider is allowed to assist.”
“Can you believe this property struggle?”
We shake our heads.
While waiting, someone discovers this little peephole in the old wooden door, “I can see them!”
It’s not lacking comicality when some thirty-or-so people, lined up in the corridor linking the grottos, take turns and stoop to peep through this hole to observe the Armenian monks doing whatever they are doing. Apart from the backs of men in black robes with hoods there isn’t much to see. But, looking at us standing patiently in line to get to the peephole is too funny. We struggle to suppress our laughter so that the Armenians can’t hear us.
To pass time we walk out into the narrow streets of old Bethlehem towards a place most of us didn’t even knew its existence, the Milk Grotto.
Having no idea what to expect, I am very surprised. The entrance suggests a chapel entrance, but the steps lead down into a Grotto. There is an altar with an icon depicting Mary nursing baby Jesus. Such a human, sweet sight. Most of the time we never think about Mary having to nurse her baby. Exclamations of surprise resound every time someone new enters the grotto. I discover more of such paintings, all quite beautiful. It’s such a tender place.
The story goes that when Mary and Joseph were told by the angel to flee to Egypt, Mary was too weak to leave right away. They were hiding in this grotto for her to gain strength, and while Mary breastfed Baby Jesus one drop of her milk fell to the ground, instantly turning the grotto walls into a sparkling white. Unfortunately, over time, the smoke of thousands of candles lit in this enclosed space has blackened the walls.
“See, when you scrape with your finger a little bit, the white is just there, under the surface,” a feminine voice exclaims.
I scratch a little, and the white appears. It is said that barren women eating just a little of the wall’s white powder will conceive. A large display with baby pictures born after their mom’s visit to the Milk Grotto gives proof that mercy is granted to those who believe in the miraculous power of God. I have a special prayer of intercession for Mary today.
Mary breastfed her baby, breastfed her God; hidden, He could survive. As a mother, I feel the strong bond between Jesus and His mother, here more than in any other place I ever visited.
This grotto triggers my hidden memories, leading me to deep reflection. Silently, I am talking to her, “After all these years of tender love and care and then to see your Son on the cross… Mary, it must have twisted your heart, more than it twists mine. Mother, I remember the first day I ever asked you for help, in the dire circumstances 12 years ago. So much has changed, not everything for the better because of my stubbornness. But we survived. Despite my failures, I can always count on you, on your help, on your intercession. Mary… thank you. I love you so much.”
Yes, I simply love this woman of great strength; love her tenderness and grace.
Men and women alike offer candles, kneel in devotion to her Son. It’s grace to be here. I’ve an enjoyable time in the grotto, and no one else seems to be willing to leave either, but our watchman-guide hushes us out. Fr. Randy and I stretch our visit as long as possible, appreciating the unique presence of God in this place. In Randy’s eyes, too, I see his love for Mary. We are standing on common ground.
The Grotto of Nativity.
The Armenian service completed; we are finally allowed to visit the Altar of Christ’s Birth. A silver star, illuminated by the light of fifteen silver lamps representing the different Christian communities, marks the place of Jesus’ birth. One by one we kneel to kiss the star and touch the stone imbedded in its center. Somebody shouts out loud, she has seen something on the stone. All rush forward, trying to see—nothing. It’s her time of grace!
I would have liked some quiet space to meditate in this Grotto. Fast, much too fast, we have to leave. No time to read the Nativity narrative, no time to meditate, no time for intense prayer. No time to savor the moment. All has to be fast. It’s a burden, again.
Being in a group, being bound to a bus, a guide, time restrictions and unwelcome orders, I feel my personal freedom taken away at a place where time should not count, where peace should prevail, where all men should be of one mind. Reality proves otherwise. Even in this most Holy Place, the denominations cannot agree who ‘owns’ the Basilica, who is responsible for what and who allows access to whom, and when. The result is a church full of dust, literally falling apart. Each denomination decorates ‘their’ space as they see fit, careless what others may want, think or feel. A true picture of our world, even here. No wonder that only a few of us feel like flying colors right now. Many have a saddened heart. Me too.
Back on the street, my fellowmen start—finally!—to bargain prices with the Arab street vendors. They discover that street prices are a fraction of those in the tourist shops and, surprisingly, the goods are of better quality too. In minutes, most of us walk around with Arab Kufi (caps) or have Arab Hatta (the checkered scarves) wrapped around head and shoulders to fight the cold. It’s pretty hilarious to sit in a Catholic church with half the congregation looking like Arafat himself.
The fun of bargaining with the vendors leaves everybody in an upbeat mood. After a short drive through the fields with shepherds still herding their flock, our bus is the first to arrive at Shepherd’s Field. Our group has the privilege to go into the low-vaulted Shepherd’s Cave to celebrate Mass. The cave is extremely small, we fill it to the brim, wall to wall. The bishop assigned to say mass for us fell ill and had to stay back at the hotel. Thus, our four priest-buddies have the privilege and honor to celebrate this Mass today. They are jubilating, that’s what they were longing for from the very beginning of this trip. Ha! Which priest wouldn’t want to celebrate Mass in Bethlehem, of all places? Prayers answered in a strange way. Whoever was supposed to be selected the main celebrant, I don’t know. But ultimately, they forego to designate their ‘main’ and take a quite unusual and creative approach to share each task. Exceptional circumstances and priestly brotherhood played out.
If some additional bond was needed between us, it’s happening in this cave. We observe each priest getting his equal share. It’s lovely to see how they smoothly pass from one to the other to carry it out. A shared Gospel reading, a shared homily. Father Don begins to speak of peace, Fr. Michael continues on the same note, then to Fr. Howard, then Fr. Randy. The Eucharistic prayers are split into four equals parts.
The size of the cave makes it impossible for us to walk up to the altar for communion and so, each one of us passes first the paten, then the chalice to the next person. A very intimate family affair—a true Eucharistic meal. Blessed are we, who are called to His supper.
Sitting so close, our small congregation forms a one-ness. Huddled together and molded into the shape of the cave—some taller men have to keep their heads bent under the low ceiling—it seems as if we were in a womb, brothers and sisters of one mother, one father. A lovely thought, contrasting fundamentally with the experience of what being split up can do, for example, to a Basilica of the Nativity.
Wiped out is my desire to be alone, of hating life in a group, or wanting to depart. No, only in a group or a community can we make these experiences. May difficulties appear, a strong group can find common ground to stand on. Shepherd’s Cave is such ground.
After mass, we visit the Sanctuary at Shepherd’s Field. A large cupola with round glass stones inundates the interior of this Chapel with light. Fantastic art. Three large frescoes tell the story of Christ’s birth and the appearance of angels proclaiming the Good News to the shepherds. A light-filled, sacred place. The small building emanates power from on high. Quietly, we walk around with our eyes wide open, admiring the beauty, pointing out to each other what we see.
I turn around and my heart leaps. One of the friars sells a few well-crafted religious articles; among them a hand-painted icon of our Lady of Perpetual Help. THIS is mine. I immediately know her to be mine. I love her. It’s a certified icon and yet, when I ask the price, I find it ridiculously low. Upon my request to pay with a card, the friar says, “Sorry, cash only.” My cash, however, is in the hotel’s safe. I am close to tears, take a seat in a pew and force myself to believe that if this icon is mine, I will get it. If not today, then another time. I walk up to it again, to take a last look before leaving. May Lowe, a friend, sees my expression and asks me if I want it. I nod and tell her I can’t because I have no cash on me. Without a word, she takes the icon, pays, gives it to me, saying, “You can repay me any time when we are back in Jamaica, not here, not now.” I want to dance for joy! I hug May and thank my Mother too. Never has Mary let me down. And now, even when simply wanting her image, she make herself available again. If ever I wanted a souvenir for myself, this was it. I knew why I didn’t have to run amok in any shop. Whatever I needed would come to me. She came. Filled with gratitude, I hug my icon.
Returning to Jerusalem, we drive through the fertile farm lands around Bethlehem, pass pastures protected by low rock walls, where shepherds guard their flocks. The sun shines bright despite a little sprinkle and breaks the drops into a rainbow. Beautiful. I shed a tear of gratitude. God shows me the sign of his promise each time when my life takes a turn.
So be it.
Mount of Ascension.
Back in Jerusalem, it’s up to the site of Jesus’ ascension. But is it? Strangely, nobody seems to really feel any affinity to this rather small, round building. More like a tower than a chapel, I learn its neither, tower nor chapel, but a mosque. Inside, a stone of which is said that it bears the marks of Jesus’ footprints when he leapt up to ascend. An Arab, pretending to work as a security guard—but who doesn’t inspire too much confidence either—warns us to watch our purses. Beggars and vendors are waiting outside. They press into us, preying to get hold of some “Amerrrican Dallarrrs”. Not a comfortable place to be. We leave in a hurry.
The Mount of Olives.
Just a short drive from here awaits us the incredible, world-wide famous view of Jerusalem. In its center, the golden Dome of the Rock, the Arab mosques, the churches, and the buildings of the Holy City surrounded by its ramparts and gates. From the top of Mount of Olives we snap our own pictures of this view. Chatting and teasing each other we continue downhill, passing the Jewish cemetery where a burial place costs up to 40,000 US Dollars. The graves are adorned with the customary pebbles placed on top of the headstones, in lieu of flowers, by the mourning relatives. The pebbles are to show passers-by that the tomb has been recently visited. Another tale says, it’s to remind them that their buried ancestor has not seen the building of the Third Temple. Whatever story is correct, Jewish cemeteries abound with pebbles on tombstones. I cannot help but put my own pebble onto a tombstone whose name appeals to me.
Sunshine breaks through and the Golden Dome of the mosque shines a notch brighter. Nonetheless, the wind blows cold and tears on our clothes. We try to compensate the lack of proper winter clothes with the black-and-white checkered scarves from Bethlehem. Wrapped in a Palestinian Keffiyeh or Hatta, our people look pretty Arabian. Laughing and joking we agree that Valerie, too, could easily be taken for an Arab woman.
“Ok, we’ll marry her off in exchange for a bridal gift of four dozen camels. Then, we wouldn’t need the bus anymore.” I don’t recognize the voice who said it, but it’s met with an outburst of laughter. Valerie grins and shakes her head at our silliness.
We reach the Chapel of the Pater Noster, where Jesus taught the Our Father and wept over Jerusalem. The view of the Holy City is simply stunning. But Jesus looked beyond this exterior beauty. When we now look at what we’ve done to this world, the fights, the wars, the crimes, the indifference, one could get an inkling how sorry he must have felt for us. This is the holy ground on which he gave us the cure by teaching us to pray,
“Our Father…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespassed…”
Each site visit increases my understanding not only of God’s chosen people, the Jewish nation, or the historic man Jesus, but of the living Son of God. If only I was able to describe why my heart sings. Others, too, keep their feelings to themselves, but their glowing faces speak volumes. It’s obvious, “…something happened…and now I know”, as the song goes.
Change of scene. Photo session. We take turns to capture our priests sitting on a low wall, dressed up in Arab Kufi adorned with golden embroidery, with the silhouette of Jerusalem’s Old City in their back. Laughter resounds from everywhere. The happy mood keeps us in swing as we continue walking downhill.
The tone changes in Gethsemane.
We enter a garden with Olive trees that, we are told, are some thousand years old. Knobby and twisted, they certainly look like it. This is the garden where Jesus wept bitter tears, where his sweat turned into drops of blood from fear. Judas betrayed him, and Jesus knew what was coming once they’d arrest him.
Silence. The garden leaves no one untouched. I recall my nights with fever, crying out to God, asking why he had forsaken me, why he let me suffer so much on this pilgrimage. How stupid I feel now. My pains are nothing, absolutely nothing compared to what Jesus had to endure. He did this of his own free will. He suffered for me, for any of us—even our nasty guide. I offer my own suffering up to him and ponder how weak we are, how little we are able to bear. Today, we are not staying long in the garden of Gethsemane. A glance into the church, where we will return to for tomorrow’s morning mass.
Few words are spoken as we continue to walk down the Mount of Olives towards the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin.
Apart from Mary’s tomb, those of her parent’s, Anne and Joachim, are here as well. The Tomb of Mary? Whether right or wrong, I read that another tomb in Turkey is claimed to be hers too. Anyways, they both are empty…her body didn’t remain on earth.
The guide stands at the entrance and hurries us on to descend the steep staircase leading into the church. I am a bit wobbly on those steps; feel weakened. And, once more, I lack time to internalize where I am, to analyze what I see or what I want to see. Trying to feel the spirit of this church I stroll a bit but instead feel irritated for being pressured.
All line up to visit Mary’s Tomb, an empty chamber which can hold only one or two persons at a time. There’s some peace in here. The pressure comes from outside, from the awareness that the guide is waiting. Pushing that aside, I purchase a candle and take my offering to Mary’s tomb. Then, I have to sprint to catch up with my group and barely remember what I saw. My heart and brain need more time to see, to reflect, to enter into the vibration of a site and ponder about it.
My willingness to still follow my group is a pure miracle in itself. Pilgrimage is so distinct from sightseeing! Under any other circumstances I would have left long ago, made my own schedule, taken my own transport. This is different. I feel it, I see my readiness to cope, to put my ego aside and endure life in a group getting stronger. Ron Hill put it so nicely the other day, “To be part of a group we have to die to self.” Lord, I am dying. I’m killing my own desires, but I’m getting killed by my illness too, it seems. Maybe there’s a reason why I am so sick.
Hotel, dinner, and misery.
With the Sabbath over, hot food is served again, and the service improved. However, Kosher food is not Arab food and we miss the sweets rich with nuts, sesame and pistachio, the honey-soaked cakes and Baklavas of Tiberias. Fr. Mike and I enumerate our cravings while ignoring the dark-chocolate-only plates on the buffet. Greedy, we long for diversity. “I think we should be allowed to indulge in sweets to recompense for the pain of our daily efforts,” he says. Grinning, our companions shake their heads. It’s so good to be silly.
Feverish fellow-travelers with horrid coughs exchange info. Who takes which medication for what, who needs help and why. Among us are now more sick than healthy. Everyone watches everyone. As soon as one slows down or looks distressed, somebody asks if all is well or help is needed. The beauty of living in community! I feel comforted knowing that they care for me too. A soft outcry is sufficient to get help.
Sunday, January 24, 1999
Early morning, I wake up with an even ghastlier cough and high fever, and shiver from cold and pain. It will just not pass. The pace of our pilgrimage is too fast. None of us gets enough rest. The time change, cold climate, and relentless rush to get going break not only my resistance. I feel like walking among Zombies. Wherever we go, it is cold. Whenever we sit down, we fall asleep.
At breakfast, control questions are asked, “Who is here? Why is Johnny missing? Who is sick? Are you still ok?”
Medication is shared and loads of fresh fruit distributed to increase the vitamin intake, even forcing those who don’t like eating fruit. Despite our suffering, we try to keep a good mood and laugh often.
Gethsemane. Church of the Agony.
Church of all Nations.
Morning Mass, as scheduled, is in the Church of all Nations. By now, we know the protocol. It takes a while to reunite all four hundred. Our Gray bus seems always to be the first to arrive. We select our pews and wait. Ruddy, sitting beside me, is so sick that he has great trouble to keep his body straight. He is flipping and rocking forward and backwards. I pray that he will not crash unto the church floor. Also, I am of no real help to him because I have to focus to stay alive. I only support his body with mine when I fear he might be slipping off the bench.
We wait and watch our priests enter the sanctuary. As always, magnificent. I’ll never tire to see these men around an altar. As soon as Mass begins, the power of God simply enters the room, strong and mighty. I am mesmerized.
“Then He touched their eyes and said, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.” And their eyes were opened.” -Matthew 9:29-30
The main celebrant is our own, Archbishop Carter. How proud are we of him! He is the solid Jamaican rock, steadfast, healthy, and always smiling. This mass is wonderful, his words are wise and straight forward. I am so moved that I cannot sing.
Singing. Ha! How can song still ring out at mass? Most of our voices are gone, the cough has extinguished any melody. But suddenly, wonder oh wonder, even the most affected and irritated throats ring out a harmonious song to give glory to God. Spirit over matter!
Although listening, I am fascinated by the centerpiece of this church. It’s the large rock on which Jesus laid, crying with tears of blood, begging the Father to “take away this cup”. I can relate to that. Not only do we carry our entire load of every day’s problems with us, but right now we are struggling with sickness. Just glancing at poor, ailing Ruddy is proof enough that many a load may be too heavy for us. As if on cue, the celebrant invites us to pray for deliverance.
Above the altar is an impressive mosaic of the weeping Jesus. At his side, the angel sent by the Father to comfort him. My comfort is this Mass. I let every spoken word sink in and conclude that despite my problems, all is well. I feel privileged to be invited to partake in a Eucharistic celebration at Gethsemane.
We sit right underneath the mosaic of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. How come that humans are so weak? How come we cannot stick to what we know to be true, what is for our best? Why don’t we stick to God, the only wealth worthy clinging to? How come? A little push suffices to throw us off-balance, to make us stumble and fall, over and over again. To believe the lie that “money makes the world go round” seems to wipe out any knowledge of God, and drives men to abandon all truth, all honor in a moment’s notice. We condemn Judas, but how willing are we to resist? How steadfast a rock is Christ for us? Yes, he was fearful too. Yet, he made it through the trials and tribulations that where set before him because he knew the Father would never leave him, nor forsake him.
“Lord, help me, help us, to make it through too,” I pray.
Right after mass, the ‘money-business’ continues. The sick folks decide to forego the trip to the ancient fortress of Masada and return to the hotel instead to get rest. Masada is sightseeing and very demanding, the guide said. Tomorrow is Via Dolorosa. We decided to get strong for tomorrow.
Visibly, this irritates the guides because they now have to reorganize and designate a bus to return the sick to the hotel. Reluctantly, and only after an intense discussion whether or not this might be necessary, our bus guide relents to drive us to a pharmacy to buy medication. On the road, he offers books and other stuff to buy. Who cares? We are sick! Can’t you see? Why do you think we skipped Masada? We moan and roll our eyes at him.
The man announces that we must hurry up in the pharmacy because he wants us to make another stop at a store where, he suggests, “you can take all your time to shop at your leisure,” and continues, “what else would you do between your sheets all day long.” He laughs. We don’t.
“Does this idiot understand anything?” I’m ready to explode. Not a very patient woman on normal days, my outbursts of anger on this trip are always related to shopping frenzies.
Finally, sixteen sick people stumble into a tiny, ill-assorted pharmacy. Finishing our purchases, we step out to discover that the bus has left us to drive to that store. We are upset. Some bystander points out that to catch up we have to walk three street blocks ahead. I talk to Cecil, who left his sick wife in the bus and came with us to buy medication. He promises to intervene and get us back to the hotel. Arriving at the bus we get into a loud, unpleasant argument with the guide, who insists on shopping. Cecil finally threatens him that if the bus was not immediately bringing the sick to the hotel, not only would none of us ever buy a darn thing in any shop where he gets a commission, but we’d report him to whoever his highest authority might be. The threat works and my enemy-guide allows the bus to leave. Lucky for him, my looks cannot kill him. Neither can his kill me.
Most of us spend the day in bed. My elevated temperature is relentless, and I fall from one feverish sleep into another. I suffer, really suffer. My sole consolation is knowing that the community, which bonded together on this pilgrimage, will not let me die. I have no idea if I, or any of us, might be able to manage the Via Dolorosa tomorrow.
Surprisingly, despite illness, there is laughter as soon as we are together. We try to attend the evening lecture but must give up. Basically, we are keeping up thanks to our priests. They do what they can to cheer us up with genuine smiles, gentleness and humor.
An Arab man walks into the hotel hall where a group of sick folks huddle together on sofas. Dressed in a white robe, he wears the Palestinian Keffiyeh perfectly wrapped around his head. We don’t want to stare but wonder why he keeps walking among us, back and forth. Eventually someone takes a good look and bursts into a hearty laughter.
It’s one of our priests, who used his Alb and the new headscarf purchased in Bethlehem to disguise himself. We keep giggling long after he takes the Keffiyeh off.
Walking into the hotel’s jewelry store in search of Valerie, I discover they sell fine golden Jerusalem crosses less than half-price of those already bartered-down in Bethlehem.
Money business, here I come. The two of us are warriors, it seems.
Enough, I decide to go to Bethlehem and ask for a refund. Somehow, I’ll find the time. No thief shall steel the money my friends entrusted me with. Case settled, no more anger. The decision is made. I’ll get the refund and then buy other crosses from honest people.
In between meals, sleep, fever, and the pilgrimage program, I try to keep up with my journal. Many of us write notes. It would be nice to collect them. After all, this is not my own, but our journey. I can only account for my thoughts, but I know that others are stirred too. What I’ve already heard is convincing and enriching. Compiling our stories into a book, giving witness to Christ, would be an awesome project.
Why are we here, if not to recount a pilgrimage uniting many Caribbean nations? To my delight, Haitians are with us. However, as we travel in separate buses, our ways barely cross. Someone tells me they keep wondering why a white girl, speaking Haitian Creole like a rat, travels with a bunch of happy Jamaicans and hangs out with them all the time. I laugh, walk over and chat with them.
“Shouldn’t we bear witness that Jesus is alive and well in us? Telling the small signs and wonders occurring every day?”
Like tearing a random page from my journal to write prayer petitions, only to discover at the bottom of the page the printed words, “Whatever you do to the least of my people, you do it unto me,” and to hear minutes after placing the paper onto the altar in Bethany the cantors singing, “Whatever you do to the least…”. When you have eyes to see and open your mind, a wondersome communication with God happens. He speaks to us in tiny whispers, not in the storm. Except, yes, he did, when he made us experience a storm in Galilee so we could understand the Gospel.
Writing is my favorite way to keep track of memory. Others may never want to share their notes but might tell their journey in a one-on-one, to be jotted down by someone else. Whenever I cannot sleep, this thought comes back to me. Right now, there’s not much time to exchange notes, but I know if the Lord wants it, our stories will be known. At least, Archbishop Clarke will read mine.
Tomorrow is Calvary. The Via Dolorosa. A tough call—even 2000 years later. By the grace of God we will try to reenact and relive the events that changed humanity. Will it change us?
Monday, January 25, 1999
Three o’clock in the morning, I am wide awake and feel much stronger. My soul sings, “Come, let’s magnify the Lord” and “Blessed be the rock of my salvation”. My heart is aching for those who do not know Christ. The Jesus I know. Jesus, the faithful, the Christ who loves me. I am grateful to be here, to be called to partake.
“Lord, let my light shine too, please!”
My thoughts wander back to the visit with the Patriarch of Jerusalem two days ago.
Actually, the Patriarch was absent, and his Chancellor received us. Our large assembly filled his gorgeous church, painted in beautiful blue hues. The Chancellor explained that the Patriarch of Jerusalem is responsible for the 300,000 Catholics living amidst some 12-million people of other denominations or of Muslim faith in this region. Not an easy job. He asked us to pray for peace, especially for peace in Jerusalem.
Bishop Reece replied with an inspiring statement, and spoke about us, who have come from many nations to unite here in Jerusalem to make this journey together. To the Chancellor’s surprise and without prior accord, we spontaneously stood up like one man, formed a large circle holding hands, with him in our midst, and sang, “Let there be peace on earth… and let it begin with me…”
Tears streamed down my cheeks, then; it was so surreal. Amongst the people of many Caribbean nations, here I am, a born German, a Haitian by marriage, mother of mixed-race children, living in Jamaica, standing in Jerusalem praying for peace. Amazing.
Peace. Yes, Lord, our world needs your peace.
I think about my children and am certain that they, the offspring of two nations, instructed in two cultures, would never be fighting wars because of someone’s different ethnicity or culture. It’s sad that this is daily life among many peoples, even in our Caribbean islands. Today, standing on holy ground in this church, I feel great hope that together, one day, we can overcome our judgmental pettiness and live in a peaceful world. So be it, Lord.
Still tugged comfortably in my bed, looking at the city lights of Jerusalem behind my windows, I pray aloud, “Thank you, Lord, for such awesome moments. Thank you that I feel better now, free of yesterday’s fever attacks.”
I pray, too, that I may decipher the deeper meaning our Lord’s death and resurrection has for me when I walk the Via Dolorosa to Calvary in a couple of hours from now.
Four o’clock a.m.
I take my shower singing full voice, “Let there be peace on earth.”
It’s early for morning coffee and croissants in the breakfast room. Anticipating a beautiful day ahead of us, I smile, greet my fellow saints, chat with them. Seeing that I feel much better, the woman sitting beside me hands me a pill with the words, “Take these for your cold. Trust me, all your remaining symptoms will disappear. You’ll have a good day, today.”
I don’t question her, these days we kept sharing any available cold meds with anyone who was sick. I swallow the pill and we keep talking about the prospects of walking the Way of the Cross. Only, when next I try to lift my coffee cup, I spill it because my hands tremble. Within minutes my blood pressure drops. Shock! My head is spinning, cold beads of sweat form on my front. My sight blurs. I am afraid, truly afraid of dying right now. The man sitting across me realizes that I am pale and white like snow, tries to help. But how? There’s not much he can do. The ladies rush for tea, lemon, sugar, anything that might bring me back. I cannot believe this is happening to me. Doctor, please? There’s none.
“Lord, how will I make it through this day? Shall I stay back again?”
No. Today is Calvary. I need to go to Calvary.
I drag myself out to the hotel’s driveway. It’s dark and the wind leashes out at me. “Into the bus, quickly,” my companions help me climb in.
The bus lets us out at one of the gates to the Old City of Jerusalem. I am not sure I can make it to the Via Dolorosa, much less carry a cross. I stumble along, and someone supports me descending the bus.
“Are you sure you can make it?” he asks.
I nod yes; cannot talk.
But it’s a lie anyhow. I am too weak and have to lean on a wall until the others have exited the bus and are ready to move on.
The Old City is empty, the shops still closed. Jerusalem is fast asleep while I follow my friends through the narrow streets. Somehow, we reach an open gate, go into a church’s garden. I don’t know where we are, cannot grasp any thought. I just register flowers, some greens hanging over my head. There’s a bench. I sit while crosses are put onto shoulders. We walk again. I carefully set one foot before the other, trying to keep my balance. Whenever the others stop to pray at a Station on the Via Dolorosa, I lean on a wall, close my eyes. Trying to breathe regularly and keeping my knees locked so that they won’t buckle in. Resisting the desire to lay down on the ground takes my entire concentration. I don’t know where we are, nor what is prayed. I just keep moving along with some people wearing large wooden crosses. After losing the Jamaicans, I keep walking with people from St. Vincent. The crosses change shoulders, nobody pays me any mind. These are not my people, is not my group, they’ve already sorted out who wears the cross when. Nobody asks if I would like to carry it for a while. Ironically, I would like to do that, although I can barely hold myself up. Is this what Jesus felt when he dragged himself along this road?
I keep walking, walking, walking; on automatic pilot. I still register the beauty of the streets this early morning and take—like a robot—some photos of people walking with a cross.
We climb some steps, move along a narrow dead-end street, enter a tiny side door, keep going through a dark tunnel, stand in a yard and then walk into a church. I just follow, have still no clue where I am, but climb up some stairs to my right and find a single bench at a railing. I squeeze myself beside a stranger, sit down, breathing hard. People sing, pray. I don’t know what, why, and how. I cannot keep my eyes open; everything is a blur. If only someone could help me. I shiver, feel so cold. Wish there was a doctor. Why is there no doctor among 400 pilgrims?
When I open my eyes again, I see daylight creeping in, chasing the darkness. I descend the steep stairs in search of a ray of sunshine to warm me up. As I step out of the church’s portal my Gray bus people walk up with their wooden cross. Astonished, I stare at them. I believed them far ahead of me. Instead, I must have walked past them, leaving them far behind. They ask me where I was all this time. “Here,” I reply.
The stress of walking the Stations of the Cross and the painful reenactment of Christ’s Passion show in their faces; the heavy emotional burden is written on their foreheads. Suddenly, it dawns on me that it’s all over. We are at the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre. The Stations of the Cross completed, I never got to bear the cross on my shoulder. A great sadness overwhelms me. I missed the entire Via Dolorosa, my way of the cross.
Or, didn’t I…?
I return with them into the church. Fully aware now where I am, it’s my sole desire not to miss this one. After all, I am standing on Golgotha.
Fighting my weakness, I reclimb the stairs I just descended and realize that the Altar of the Crucifixion was right before me all the time. The little bench I was previously sitting on is right in front of it.
I was blind, but now, I see! Thank you, Lord.
People keep crawling under the altar and put their hands into a dark hole. Bizarre. Is something wrong there? Then, I see how moved they are when they get up. Still shaky, I crawl under the altar to touch the rock of this hill. Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Its coldness shocks me. My emotions run high; tears fall onto the rocky mountain where the cross was once standing.
The words of a song rise in my soul.
Where you there when they crucified my Lord?
Where you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oho, ho-ho, tremble, tremble…
where you there, when they put him in the tomb…
All becomes real.
Jesus, oh God, what have we done to you?
I light thin, long candles like the Orthodox use and place my offering into the large sand-filled tray of a candle holder. At the left and the right of the altar, the rock of Golgotha can be seen through a glass floor.
Exhausted, I must sit again. Mysteriously, my little spot on the bench is still free despite the countless people passing by on this rather narrow gallery on which the altar stands, high up, overlooking the church. This time, I keep my eyes open to admire the golden altar whose cross holds the Crucified, with Mother Mary and John, the disciple Jesus loved, standing beside him.
Maybe, if Jesus only could have felt some of the numbness, the remoteness I was feeling on my way—far removed from reality—it might have been a little easier for him?
I shove this thought away. No, the human Jesus, the Sacrificial Lamb, had to endure it all, this crude, excruciating pain, the agony, the misery. All done to redeem us and return to His Father.
It’s hard to understand the glory of Calvary.
Words of Scripture come to me:
“…the Lord has sent me, Jesus, who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” -Acts 9:17
I don’t want to lose my group again and catch up with them in this enormous church. We look at the Stone of the Anointing, where Christ was laid and wrapped into the Shroud by his Mother and his friends. Imagining him lifeless, on this cold stone, I shiver. Mary, oh, Mary. Your heart must have been ripping into shreds seeing the corpse of your son.
Priests of other denominations are reciting their prayers. From every corner of the building rise voices in different tongues. Here too, like in Bethlehem, the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian churches fight about what ‘belongs’ to whom. It is said that in order for them to not go incessantly onto each other’s throat, a Muslim family holds the keys to the Holy Sepulchre in their possession. How ironic. What a misery. No wonder the Patriarch of Jerusalem asks us to pray for peace. What a despicable image the churches present to this world. If they cannot live with each other in peace…?
Mass is planned in the Catholic section of the church. A sign marks the area: “No singing allowed.” This is the—seemingly only—mutual understanding here. Strange feeling. A mass without any chants of worship, in the Holy Sepulchre of all places. To compensate, we are offered another fine homily well worth listening to. Abba, Father God, thank you.
With the Eucharist I begin to feel better. A sudden joy springs up and my strength returns. Now, I want to discover the rest. I want to keep fighting the illness and not lose the battle. Afraid not to be given enough time, to be rushed out like in Bethany, I am determined to visit the tomb of Jesus, no matter what. No one will keep me back, even if I have to walk back to the hotel by foot tonight.
There’s a long waiting line towards the square structure standing in the middle of this vast building. Only two-three persons at a time will be let into the small Chapel of the Angel by the Orthodox priest who is guarding Jesus’ tomb. It’s here the angel appeared to the women to announce His resurrection.
Finally, the priest nudges us on to enter through a tiny space into Christ’s tomb. The mortuary chamber is lit by a row of candles, each representing one of the different churches of the Sepulchre. No light but candle light.
Although each person is allowed only a brief moment in the tomb, it suffices to experience Christ. Words fail. What stirs my heart is ineffable. In fractions of seconds my entire being is immersed by peace and an awareness of Him, whose body is not in the tomb. I do not know what others experience here, but it does not matter. I know that I know Christ lives within me, that he fills my heart from deep within.
Jesus, oh, my beloved Jesus. This was worth the walk on my very own Via Dolorosa.
“… that you believe in the one He sent.” -John 6:29
Aware that others want to come in, I find it impossible to think straight. The shortest prayer ever prayed. It’s ok. Christ is the master of time. Chatter is unnecessary to make ourselves understood by him.
My automatic pilot has the nerve to take a picture. Grateful, I leave the tomb, yet reluctant to leave the front chamber. I’d like to stay. No, better, I need to come back. I am determined to come back. I will.
Upon leaving the Holy Sepulchre, my face is aglow. I can feel it and see that others see it too. They have the same expression on their faces when exiting the tomb.
I am smiling again!
Restored to life.
Amazed to see me fit again, bright and strong, my buddies pad my back.
Praise God, my Savior.
Walking in the courts of Jerusalem.
The streets are crowded with people now. Shops are open and vendors offer food, sweets, coffee and tea, clothes, shoes, rosaries, icons. Whatever you desire, you’ll get it. The smells and sounds of the Arab quarters invite to wander. I’d love to take a thousand photos here. My photographic eye sees motives at each corner. The painter in me would love to paint it all.
Jerusalem, life at its fullest.
We reach a dead end. Heavy security guards the Jewish quarter.
To access the Wailing Wall we are painstakingly searched, have to open our bags and coats before passing through a security door. No weapons allowed, and the guards’ eyes are everywhere, seem to see right through you.
How fortunate; it’s Bar-Mitzvah. The Jewish men are introducing their sons to the community. The young boys carry each a huge Torah towards a table where elders are waiting to examine the youngster’s knowledge of scriptures. Everyone is dressed up. I can see that Jerusalem is a city of rich Jews. Charged with professional camera equipment, hired filmmakers take shots of each boy while his ceremony is underway. Souvenirs for times to come. No woman is allowed in the inner circle. Neatly separated, they stand outside a low structure or at the ‘women’s side’ of the Wailing Wall. The ladies are dressed in their best clothes and accompanied by grandparents and family with a multitude of children in tow.
We spend a moment with them and, with reverence, stick the papers with our prayers into the crevices of the Wailing Wall. Then, we cross over to visit the other side and are thoroughly searched again. This time by Arab security details.
A tension is ever-present on this enormous Temple Mount where Jewish and Muslim faiths confront each other. I had such creepy feelings only in Germany when looking at the Berlin Wall and the death-zone at the East German border.
The Dome of the Rock and El Aqsa Mosque.
No handbags, no shoes allowed, headcover for women mandatory. I have a queasy feeling leaving all my possessions outside on a shelf, pell-mell with the stuff of friend and foe. Will I ever find them again?
The floor of the El Aqsa Mosque is ice-cold. Although entirely covered with carpets in elaborate designs, the January cold creeps through. I discover that the seams, where the carpets overlap, provide more protection, and admire the mosque’s mosaics by walking on these layers. The décor is rich. I have no other emotion than admiring the art and architecture. Soon, I’ve enough. Fearing that the cold floor might stir up my illness, I jump from carpet seam to carpet seam until I reach the door. In the pile of shoes I fetch mine as fast as I can.
Jerusalem’s Old City Temple Mount has an expansive Muslim area with the Dome of the Rock at its center. The Temple Mount is the biblical Mount Moriah. It is believed that the Temple of Solomon and the Second Temple stood here, and the Holy of Holies would be right under the Rock. A large esplanade allows to walk around the perfect octagonal of the Muslim shrine. No doubt, gifted minds and hands created this fantastic architectural wonder. The Golden Dome shines in the bright morning sun and I am attracted by the Turkish tiles in all hues of blue—from the darkest to the lightest—adorning the upper part of the building. It’s a pleasant sight and I circle the octagonal to admire the details of the Arabic inscriptions, even if can’t read the words.
To see the interior, same spiel as at Al Aqsa. Leaving shoes and bags again, I tiptoe in a hurry to reach the carpets. Here, they are much thicker. Thank God. The floor is less cold and a bit more comfortable to stand on. But, still.
We go into the cave of the Shrine, taken up by the Sacred Rock, the Foundation Stone. Some believe it’s the place where God created Adam, mankind. The Rock is sacred to Jews and Muslims alike because Abraham was their forefather. And, ultimately, Christians and Muslims share in the story of Abraham and Isaac too. It is said, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son on this rock. The Muslims believe it’s from here the prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven.
With my friends in tow, I stroll around and observe the praying Arab women. Bowing in direction of Mecca, reciting their prayers, they worship in humility. Do they realize how beautiful this building is? Intricate works in finest gold, marble, and Majolica. They look so absorbed that they seem oblivious to the splendor, which might just be a good thing in respect to their prayers.
Shoes on our feet again, we take a walk on the Dome’s huge platform overlooking the Kidron Valley. We look at the rampart’s Golden Gate, the one we already saw from the Mount of Olives. Before us are the Muslim graves, with a view of Gethsemane on the opposite side. This Kidron Valley is but one gigantic graveyard. For Jews and Muslims alike, to be buried here is the greatest honor.
Warned about thieves beforehand, we are heading back to the Jewish quarter instead of going through the Muslim’s side. Some weird looking guy tries to mingle with us. My constant stare makes him uncomfortable. I warn my friends who dangle their handbags without a care over their shoulders. They too are aware of him now. He gives up and leaves us alone.
Pool of Bethesda.
“The water is troubled, my friend,
step right in.
God’s almighty power
Is moving every hour;
No longer stand
On this dry land
The water is troubled my friend
Step right in.” (George Banton)
Not into the ruins of the pool of Bethesda I step, but into the Church of St. Anne, the childhood home of the Virgin Mary located close-by. We are scheduled to have a singing service here. No signs of anyone who might be responsible organizing such a thing. We are puzzled and wait. My buddies walk out.
Soon, I realize what we might miss if we are not singing. A small American group sits in the pews and when they raise their voices in song, I hear the exquisite acoustics of this building. As if we are immersed in the sound of hundreds of angels singing.
I storm outside. Most of my fellow saints are sitting on the benches in the garden, yawning, tired, exhausted. I grab Fr. Michael’s arm, “Come, come quickly,” I shout and beckon other people to follow us while I drag him inside to listen to this angelic sound.
We walk and listen, admiring what the architects of this church had accomplished. God, the Master Builder, inspired them with an exceptional gift of knowledge. Exquisite sounds to glorify the Creator. Amazing. Truly amazing.
God alone knows how I miss my New Life Community. Our song would have lifted this church roof!
We lose each other and I descend the steps into the crypt alone. The Church of St. Anne marks the birthplace of Mary, the Mother of Christ.
A small altar. The two, three people standing there soon leave. Not much to see but I want to spend a moment with my Mother and sit down on the only bench. It’s peaceful. I just closed my eyes to savor the moment when I hear a beautiful male voice singing. Even down here the sound is magnificent, and this single voice is reverberated as if many others are responding to his song. I am fascinated and want to know where it’s coming from. Carefully, to avoid any noise, I sneak around a corner.
In front of the little altar with an icon depicting St. Anne giving birth to Mary stands Father Randy. Rather, has gripped the iron bars and is half-hanging onto the lattice separating the altar from the chamber. From his soul, he sings a love song to Mary. I stand in silence far behind him and cannot take my eyes off this scene of perfect beauty, listening to his voice full of love and compassion. With all his being, his body, his soul, his voice, this grown-up man is admiring the picture of a newborn baby-girl, the one who will become the greatest woman of all times.
Completing his song, he hesitates, turns, sees me and smiles. I approach and both of us are hanging now on the grill, pressing our heads through the bars to approach as close as possible to the painting. Whispering, we share our thoughts about Mary. We were already thrilled by her in the Milk Grotto. This crypt completes the experience. We spend a long time down here, enjoying the spirit of peace. I am filled with love for Mary and thank God for Father Randy’s voice.
Returning to the Church upstairs, I feel like singing. Singing from my heart. It seems that this church urges everyone to sing, as if the spoken prayers were not enough, too harsh, too rough. Many visitors sing or hum and listen to the effect of the sound; then, there’s a silence, and soon someone else sings up again. People nod, smile at each other. It’s so amusing.
My Gray bus folks still sit outside in the sun, warming the cold bones. I share my thoughts about the church and only now some of my companions understand that this is in fact Mary’s birthplace. Valerie begs me to go back with her and as we enter the church I stop in my tracks, completely stunned. Hundreds of people line up at the staircase to visit Mary’s crypt. For Valerie’s sake we join the line. They push and shove and most of them do not even see the altar with the painting. Upon my remarks, someone comments, “Oh, it’s always so full in here, you just have to make do.”
I realize what a magnificent blessing we received, Fr. Randy and I, when we were allowed to remain alone in this basement. We were given as much time as we needed to experience a holy moment’s peace. It was pure grace.
Many of our pilgrims never came in and missed the beauty of this church. The singing service never took place.
I feel fine now, full of energy.
Was I sick this morning?
My friends cannot believe to see me top fit.
Neither do I.
The pool may be a dry ruin now, no water to trouble, but I stepped right into where I needed to be and got healed. Praise God.
Walking through the Lions Gate we join our bus in the valley and drive up the Mount for lunch at the Seven Arches Hotel. Expensive, terrible food, rude waiters, waste of time. A tourist trap. What to do, isn’t this the secondary theme of my journey? My battle field? Unfortunately.
We request reimbursement for the Masada tour we’d skipped. Reluctantly, the guide, who had been walking with the cash in his pocket from early morning, hands it over. Will he also give it to those who didn’t ask? I wonder.
Nerves lay blank after lunch. People snap at each other and in two-twos there is a fight on “de buss”. Fatigue, the money-thing, sickness, early-morning-rising, emotions… all comes together in an outburst of unjustified anger and is directed, of course, most of the time at the wrong person. Embarrassing, yes, but this trip is taking a toll on everyone.
The pace must slow down, though. There are few days left on our pilgrimage and there’s so much more to see. Again, it strikes me, “Would I be alone, I could…”, which I brush off right away, switching gear, convinced that none of the beautiful things would have happened would it not have been for the group. I am astonished about myself. My children had predicted that their mother would not last 48 hours traveling in a group. Well, I did much more than that already and enjoyed most of it thoroughly.
My admiration for our priests grows. They chose a life where they have to put up with every folly happening in their community. Whatever foolishness is going on, they have to cope with it. We can run away from the stupid, the nasty, and the not-so-likeable. They don’t. Even here, they are the ones caring for the sick, the sad, and the lonely in any of our groups. No supermen, they too get tired and begin to fall under the ax of sickness. Fr. Michael is really ill, and we drive him home. But he’s not the only one. Out of the 40 people on our Gray bus seventeen have to stay at the hotel. Too sick to go on. That I recovered is a miracle, a blessing, and amazing grace. I am most grateful.
The Holocaust Museum.
Despite the guide’s “rush, rush, hurry up” we try to see everything we can in Jerusalem.
This is the Children’s Holocaust museum. Entering through an obscure corridor, holding hands onto a rail, we proceed with careful steps into a silent darkness, when suddenly, out of the blackness, the faces of the children who died in the gas chambers appear. Though Jewish, their faces feature all nationalities. We step further and are surrounded by a myriad of candles flickering in the dark. An amazing trompe d’œuil caused by candles reflected in a multitude of mirrors. A candle for each child killed in the holocaust. The holiness of this room is stunning. A clear voice recites each child’s name, age and provenance. When we exit into the sunlight, none of us can speak. You cannot be left untouched when you know the names and faces of senselessly killed children.
These children died in Germany. My father was a soldier, forced to fight in World War II. To have contact with Jews was dangerous then, but there were none in our village. Through astounding circumstances, I have wonderful Israeli friends with whom I will visit in two days. This museum shows me what a miracle it is that I am here, in Israel. Fifty years ago, my own people would have incarcerated me for such a friendship and my father would have probably never survived the war. I pray for the holocaust victims who suffered and died in my country. How much shame my countrymen have brought upon themselves!
I need to walk alone for a while.
Lord, people do so much evil to each other.
Yet, how amazing the grace when we manage to live in friendship.
Jesus, help us to keep peace on earth.
Church of St. John the Baptist.
In the Churchyard, on the wall, plaques with the Our Father written in many languages. Inside the church, old paintings, a huge manger scene, and a beautiful blue statue of Mary.
We are tired and some talk already about tomorrow. It will be a very long day and an ever-long flight back to the Caribbean for the groups. I am happy that I decided to extend my stay. First, to go to the places I want to revisit and then, spend time in Tel Aviv with my friends. Above all else, I need to get rest.
An evening at the hotel.
The last photo-session-and-souvenir-shopping-frenzy is in full swing. Caribbean pilgrims storm the hotel shops. Nevertheless, during dinner, the disappointment about the tourist rib-off during this trip is vibrantly discussed. Still, that doesn’t stop some die-hard shoppers from returning to spend their last “Amerrrican Dallarrrs”. No time to share thoughts about the Stations of the Cross, the experience at the Holocaust museum. No, no. Shopping is the theme of the night. Credit Cards must be drawn to the last penny, the greenback has to stay in Jerusalem. Do I judge my people too hard? Maybe. I cannot help it. That’s what I feel. Disappointed.
Packing, stuffing the suitcases with much laughter, thank God. The fun is back. Whatever the problem, we are able to switch into a good mood within seconds. I feel sorry for my companions. The advertised 10-day-trip turns out to be really a 7-day trip because the travel agency counted all hours traveled as vacation days too. Smart. Money business. My buddies have to pack everything tonight, take the bus with their bags in tow tomorrow morning, and go to the airport in the evening. I don’t envy them at all.
I booked my room for another night in Jerusalem before going to Tel Aviv but had to pressure the organization’s manager to confirm my travel extension. Response, “We’ll see…if it can be done.” Really? Although I paid for all the extras they offered, they don’t like that I actually booked it—extra work is not welcome.
Whatever… I relax, linger, chat with people, and watch them packing. It dawns on me that I will truly miss this loud, noisy, foolish, lovely, friendly crowd. Very much, each one of them.
I learned a lot during this trip: to live in a group, survive in a group, like the group, and enjoy the jokes, the laughter, the friendliness and care they offered. I learned to be more patient, to not always have it my way. I learned to listen to light conversation or to deeply inspired words with the same tolerance, and to understand the fate of others. Until now, groups and I never went well together. Here, in Holy Land, I learned to appreciate the beauty of living in a group. Do I want to repeat this? Not necessarily in the same configuration because 400 is a huge crowd. But the Lord needed me to accept the challenge and learn what a group can be—a lovely bunch of people caring for each other. This is what I happily would like to repeat. In the middle of chaos, exhaustion and illness, a seed was planted. Not only in me, but in many others. With God all things are possible. No hopeless cases hanging around here. We all can take something valid from this experience.
“…This man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before gentiles, kings and Israelites. And I will show him what he will have to suffer in my name.” -Acts 9: 1-22
After this pilgrimage, help us to water the seed you planted, Lord. Help our light to shine far. I give thanks for today and for the beauty I see in others.
Praise the Lord, all you nations.
Give glory all you peoples!
The Lord’s love for us is strong,
The Lord is faithful forever.
Hallelujah! -Psalm 117
Tuesday, January 26, 1999
Last day of Pilgrimage.
Forgotten is this morning’s disaster when completely nerve-racked and agitated groups tried to pack abundant luggage into nine buses all at once. We are on our way.
Since months, whenever this journey seemed impossible to achieve, the Lord sent me a Word of encouragement,
You will praise me on Mount Zion, you will enter my courts in Jerusalem.
Confident, and knowing that He keeps His promises, I always relaxed and waited for his move. And today… Yes, Lord, I am standing on Mount Zion!
First, we visit the UPPER ROOM.
My heartbeat alters, silence grips me. I know this feeling, do not want to talk anymore. The room is filled with people, chatting too loud. Despite the commotion, tears run from many eyes. Faces aglow.
I begin to sing softly in Tongues, just for us, my Lord and me. All of a sudden, my cough-ridden hoarse voice has vanished and the high tones of Tongues flow easy. I block out the presence of my people and fix my stare at the ceiling. I am alone here with Him. He is closer to me than my own heart.
The guide roughs me up, breaks the spell and shoos us out of the room.
I cannot even hate him anymore.
Fr. Randy, Fr. Mike, Cecil Chuck, and I sneak out of the group to visit an old well, accessible through one of the chambers in the maze of this building. This water is here “since Jesus’ time” the security guard tells us. True or not, we have no clue, but it’s a nice idea. We begin doubting when the watchman asks us for a donation of ‘one Amerrrican Dallarrr’. I offer a Shekel. He shakes his head, “Not enough.” We just groan, look at each other, turn our eyes to heaven. O Lord, the money-business!
King David’s Tomb.
Many Jews believe Mount Zion to be the site of King David’s tomb. Crossing the building with its thick, white stone halls we reach an antechamber. High shelves on the wall hold holy books and a guard oversees that each man puts on a Jewish Kippa prior to entering the prayer room. Our priests take off their Arab Kufi, which they are still wearing. From a basket, the guard hands them each a Kippa. They now look like Rabbis. We grin and enter the small room.
“Woman, men first! You have to stay in the back,” the guard says.
Two (real) Rabbis, dressed in black coats and broad-rimmed hats, are standing before what looks like a sarcophagus. It’s covered with a black cloth adorned with golden embroidery of the Star of David and Hebrew letters. They pray, rocking their bodies back and forth in the typical Jewish prayer ritual. We pass behind them in silence, trying not to disturb.
“Was that now the tomb?” Cecil asks. We all shrug shoulders, unsure.
Basilica of the Dormition.
Like a mighty fortress sitting high upon Mount Zion, the Basilica of the Dormition marks the site where tradition says that Mary’s existence on earth ended or, where she went to her eternal sleep [French: dormir = sleeping], depending on who you talk to. We Catholics believe she was taken body and soul into heaven.
The ground on which the basilica stands was purchased by the German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898 to erect this church. Today, Benedictine Monks from Germany have the basilica under their care. We gather in the circular church while our priests assemble in the large sanctuary. Whenever I enter into yet another church during this pilgrimage, she seems to be more beautiful than any other I saw before. This basilica is very tasteful with its golden décor, fine mosaics, and well-kept side altars. Signs of a careful upkeep by the monks.
“Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways that I command you, so that you may prosper.” -Jeremiah 8:23
Bishop Sydney Anicetus Charles is celebrating his 24th anniversary as the bishop of the island of Grenada. His homily is like an arrow straight into my heart. He urges us to become “God’s pencil”.
He asks us to repeat after him, “I am the pencil of God in this world,” and “I need to be sharpened from time to time.”
Yet, before we get sharper, we certainly lose some of the material we are made of, he added.
What I am trying to do since arriving here, Bishop Charles says it out loud, ”You have to write down what happened on this pilgrimage”.
He saw what I saw, people taking notes. He saw our faces aglow when miracles and wonders happened. He heard people giving account of their experiences during this journey. I would like to underline each and every word he speaks today. One body, one mind. This is what we are called to be.
If only we would listen to God’s statutes, we certainly could live in unity on this globe of great turmoil. Our journey in Holy Land shows that nothing is impossible with God. In Thanksgiving, from the heart, we sing our gratitude to the woman who made God’s human presence possible, “Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing…”
Oh, how I love this song!
Treasures are hidden deep down in the church’s crypt, the chapel of Mary’s Dormition. The ivory sculpture of the Sleeping Virgin surrounded by large, ornate columns dominates the center of the chapel. The side altars with mosaics in bright colors are exquisite and for us folks from the Caribbean, the Virgin of Guadalupe attracts everyone’s attention.
People point out what speaks to their spirit. I smile, each one of us seems so happy to be here. This marvelous site with its peaceful atmosphere gives honor to the Mother of God. Nobody wants to leave, and I already plan to come back tomorrow. Alone.
Good bye to friends.
It’s bye-bye to Fr. Don and Fr. Howie. They are scheduled to leave for an early flight to Rome. We lovingly called the latter “our baby” during this trip. He is a very young priest and we’ve taken him into our care. Hopefully, his nasty flu with fevers and headache will have lessened by the time he lands in Italy. He gave so much of himself and we would like to protect him, but there seems to be no weapon against this cold. We drop them off with lots of hand waves and air-kisses as they leave our bus.
When we head back to Mount Zion, the bus stops on the other side, at a most profane place. Our guide takes us to a little restaurant for lunch. Very strange, all other buses have disappeared. Usually, we all have lunch together. But then, everything explains itself. This is our guide’s preferred money-making-mill. The prices on the board above the counter are clearly marked in Shekel. We, however, are charged the same amounts in US Dollars. Rip-off! We are charged four-times the actual price!
My remark to the restaurant’s owner that this is not correct brings me nowhere, he pretends not to speak English—only to answer somebody else’s question about the dessert perfectly. Pointing out the issue to the guide is met with an attitude. He shrugs his shoulders but has trouble looking into my eyes. I stare him down and, finally, we play the power play: who turns down the eyes first from the hateful look we exchange with each other? He knows that I know what he is doing and feels uncomfortable. He cannot remain 30 seconds beside me without feeling nervous. He pretends to be honest but is far from that; he is our Judas. My fellow saints get the picture, but they tuck their tails in, dare not budge and pay in US-Dollars. So be it. Without support, I give up and hand over my money in Shekels. The guide Elias and his business partners are masters in tiring their customers out. And in my fellow saints I recognize the Stockholm Syndrome: stay long enough in the company of the guards who mistreat you and you will believe that they are OK. Our guide is the source not of my physical but my psychological suffering.
I tell myself that too will pass, latest tonight.
St. Peter of Gallicantu.
Outside the Jerusalem wall, on the slopes of Mount Zion at Gallicantu, Peter denied Jesus three times. The site itself is fantastic, with an extraordinary view of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. The church is remarkable with its mosaics in incredible colors; and its design’s simplicity tells of excellent craftsmanship. A modern house of worship, sparkling clean and well kept. It is said that the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, stood once on this site. He plotted to kill Christ and presided over the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus.
Under the church, cut into the rocks, are the prison chambers. In one room a reddish outline marks a spot where one could imagine that Jesus leaned his stricken back against the rough stone and his blood stained the rock. The guide explains how 2000 years ago the prisoners were tortured during their incarceration. No, it was not desirable to be a prisoner. I shiver, cannot get out quickly enough. I hate the chambers of suffering; it’s frightening down there.
In the churchyard stand life-size statues. Peter, with the guards sitting at a fire. Peter’s gesture says, “I know not the man…” (Gospel of Matthew). I look at him and with a sigh I turn my eyes upwards. High on the church building is a mosaic: Jesus hands Peter the keys to His kingdom.
I share my thoughts with Father Randy. Here is Peter, just beside us, denying Jesus three times. In Galilee, Jesus promised Simon that upon him he would build his church and renamed him Peter, the Rock. Only a couple of hours prior to Jesus’ arrest, during the Passover meal, he took his mouth full and promised to stand by Jesus come hell and high water. Here he is, questioned by a handmaid and two guards, simple people of no power, and he buckles. Weak and afraid, Peter gives cowardly in to his fright—like we all do at times. One would think now that the man was ‘toast’. But, surprise! Depicted above our heads, we look at the scene where all is forgiven and forgotten. Not only is he redeemed, Jesus hands Peter the keys to His kingdom, the kingdom of God. We stare, ponder, and wonder. Aren’t we all little Peters?
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” -Luke 12:32
Very casually, standing at the side of the church, the guide points out the Steps of the Maccabee descending into the Kidron valley. These steps were already in the garden at the time when Jesus was here, and it is more than likely that he walked on them.
“If you walk on these, you really walk in the footsteps of Jesus,” he insists.
This time, I listen up.
And then he adds, “Let’s go to the bus”.
I ignore that, do not want to hear that last part, at all.
I mumble, “I want to walk.”
Father Randy, “Me too.”
One look and in a common accord we take each other’s arm and begin to descend the Maccabee steps, one by one, very slowly. Savoring each step.
While we walk, Fr. Randy recites an old Catholic prayer I’ve never heard before. I listen to the beautiful words, spoken with a soft voice, and begin to weep like a baby.
“My God, Oh my God…” The only words I can utter.
Tears stream down my face.
I cry out, “Jesus, you walked here, you were dragged up on these stairs and they beat you. They beat you! Ohhh…”
We are alone on these steps with Him, everywhere is silence. Even the birds don’t sing. The others seem to have disappeared. We descend until we reach the very last row of stones, deep down in the valley. We let go of each other to look around, to literally inhale the view of the Kidron valley at our feet, the ramparts and domes of Jerusalem to our left, the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane on the other side, bathed in sunlight.
The garden smells exquisite of fresh green and the colors have a January hue to them. The mysticism of the moment cramps our hearts as we both breathe in and out, calm, posed—in tune with each other and this site. Sighing.
“How beautiful…” Father says softly, describing the magnificence with a wide sweep of his arms.
Reluctant to let go we turn, take each other’s arm again and ascend the steps, even slower now.
Randy’s voice vibrates from deep within while he intones once more his love song for Mary, the one I first heard him sing at St. Anne’s. And then, another,
Ave Maria, Gratia plena…
Ave Maria, mater Dei…
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus
Ora, ora pro nobis…
My face is wet from tears, I can barely see the steps anymore. What a blessed, graceful moment. I wish I could join him in song, but I am choked up.
He stops, and then, with an even softer voice he says, “I can go home now, all is well.”
We stand in silence for a moment, still holding each other’s arm. He looks at me and says, “I have cancer. I learned it the day before leaving for Holy Land. But I’m ok. All is well. I am not afraid, no, all is well because now, after this, I am ready to go home.”
Reaching the last step, Father bends down to kiss the ground. Imitating him I fall down. He lifts me up. I am emotionally exhausted, out of breath.
I fear to look at him because I know what he means. All is well with his soul; I have to trust that. I squeeze his arm and we walk out of the garden. We will go home, certes, but his home will soon be in the Father’s House.
The others have long gone to the bus. But when we reach the garden entrance across the convent shops, Ron Hill and his elderly mommy are there. I wonder why. Ron is not one of the ‘shopping people’. I don’t know what he saw, but with a tender look at us he says, “Go in there, take your time, I’ll keep the guide off your back”. My mind was not on shopping, but with one look Father and I agree to go in. Beautifully made and fairly priced religious articles of exceptional quality surprise us.
Without hesitation, I walk to a shelf and spontaneously grab for us two long rosaries with wooden beads containing all decades of this ancient prayer. Fr. Randy discovers postcards showing Jesus, bound up and being dragged up by his torturers on these very stairs we just had walked upon. Simply looking at it, my tears flow again.
The guide stomps in and wants to chase us—I read a sign that the convent store pays no commission. Ron, mighty guardian angel, tells him to leave us alone, to give us a chance to do what we want. We purchase the modest souvenirs to commemorate our walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Nothing can take that away from us. We experienced a simple, yet powerful moment of amazing grace. We are both conscious how precious it is and engrave it in our memory.
We walk up to the bus, slowly, hesitant to leave Gallicantu. Our gentle guardians, Ron and his mummy, walk right beside us. Father blesses the rosaries, says a prayer over them. Unspeakable gratitude floods me. From the first to the last day in Holy Land I was graced with the most astounding experiences—unexpected, unforgettable. I am so thankful, despite knowing that Randy would be dying. Yet, I know where he will go, and so…all is well.
“And behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about three-score furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened.” -Luke 24:13 ff.
Deep in Palestine territory, Emmaus is the site where Jesus met two men who were his disciples too but were oblivious that he was the Resurrected One. He went with them into the house of Cleopas and they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.
Encircled by Muslims living in this small town, the Franciscan church has no congregation living here anymore. Only a few monks are looking after the sanctuary. We visit not only the church, but also the grounds with an old oil mill and walk on the caravan road used in the ancient times to travel the land. From the top of the garden, over hills and valleys, the view is gorgeous. Clouds are sailing low; the weather is changing. It’s cold up here.
The streets are so narrow that our bus had to go far downhill and park there. I am in a small group coming out of the churchyard when an old, wobbly country-bus stops right in front of us with its door open, “Want a lift?” The dark-bearded driver is grinning all over his wrinkled face, waving us in.
We climb into the battered, dirty vehicle. Palestinians, men and women, bags and baskets filled with produce from the market, live chicken, and what-have-you are piled up in the rattling bus. There are no empty seats, so we drive off standing and holding fast to whatever we can grab. Bursts of laughter on all sides when the driver maneuvers the jigging bus some 2 km downhill and swerves dangerously into to the parking lot to come to halt with screeching brakes in front of the Gray bus. We nearly toppled out of the door.
Hilarious. Waves of bye-byes and jokes as we leave.
“Thank you, thank you,” we wave back. Palestinian country folk are very friendly.
However, I am not over struggling with the guide Elias, renamed Judas.
Before bringing the group to the airport, he has to feed them. He tries his best to convince me not to come to Bethlehem with them. Although it means a detour, he offers to drop me at the hotel, “to have a nice, restful evening.” Why that, why so much concern about my wellbeing all of a sudden? I stick to my plan to have dinner with my buddies and spend time with them until they have to leave. Why shall I not go to Bethlehem, in fact?—And then it dawns on me. I understand. Last night I told one of the travel agents that I want to take this opportunity to ask for a refund for the over-priced crosses at the store in Bethlehem. They obviously told him, and he wants to hinder me because he will lose his hefty commission. I see!
He insists, calls the chief guide from another bus, repeats his request to drop me at the hotel, now. In a sharp tone I reply, “I paid for this trip in full. I am doing the whole program in full. I will stay with my group ‘till the end. Nobody, nobody will stop me from that, especially not you.” The chief guide’s face turns red in embarrassment. He walks away. I stare at ‘Judas’, then turn and leave him standing there, fuming.
And then, all of a sudden, Judas decides to be nice. He wants to give us an ‘extra treat’ and shows us Jerusalem by night. From the hill called the “Devil’s Temptation” we look at the spread of Jerusalem’s lights. The Old City’s monuments, it’s ramparts, domes, and churches are splendid, all illuminated by countless projectors. Beautiful, it’s an impressive sight!
A lovely good-bye to the City of God. Many a heart is heavy, I hear sighs.
Only our bus came up there, the sign of unplanned detours. Arriving in Bethlehem it’s late and the store closed. Aha, the time spent at the “Devil’s Temptation” was sufficient to ensure I’d meet closing time.
Judas, you wanted to spoil my little revenge. Guess what…
I don’t care. It was worth it. My day will come.
In the restaurant, the others are already half through their dinner. All groups in one palatial ballroom, lots of chatting, and a final indulgence in Arab food. Tired and exhausted, my buddies begin to talk about home, longing to see their loved ones.
My Gray bus is quite silent when we drive up to my hotel. It’s their farewell to Holy Land and a short bye-bye to me. They drop me off and stepping out of the bus, icy winds grip my clothes. I pull up my coat and run into the hotel hall without locking back.
Overwhelmed with my thoughts and contradictory feelings. Mesmerized and marveled for one, deep down depressed too. I fought so many battles these past days: God against money, sanity against foolishness, humility against self-exaltation, group versus self, patience against anger, laughter against sadness, health battling sickness, sleep traded for white nights. Who won which battle? Some victories are very clear and others still open, I need time to reflect.
For one, I’d never believe I could stick with my group till the very end. Although several times the guide literally ‘invited’ me to give up; to run and continue on my own—wouldn’t that be a nice pretext to leave? I’d just need to call my friends in Tel Aviv and…
But I stayed, because I wanted to stay. Don’t I belong to the Gray bus?
Had I many thoughts about leaving the group? Yes.
Desire to really get up and leave? No.
In the battle “group versus self” the victory went to the unexpected contestant. Group is the victor! Hallelujah.
The spirit of sickness only thinks it won the battle over my healthy body. With the help of God and the angels in the group I conquered fever and disease. Bishop Charles said in this morning’s homily, “Suffering is purification and part of the blessing—and only the ones in good health get sick, the others don’t.”
Thanks Abba, for the many blessings, for the suffering of body and soul. Thanks for the insights, for the visions, and new direction. Thanks to my fellow saints, my companions, my priests, for the caring and sharing, loving and fighting, discussing, disagreeing and re-uniting. Thanks Abba, many thanks, for each and every moment – however beautiful or how ever hard it was.
And His Word says,
“Remember the days past when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a great contest of suffering… Therefore, do not throw away your confidence; it will have great recompense. You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.”
This is the title of a book describing the struggle of the Jews in those early days, when the new state of Israel was formed, some fifty years ago. Nathanel Lorch, my friend’s father, is one of the high-ranking heroes who fought the battle. Tomorrow evening I will see my friends again, ten years after we spent time together in Germany.
But first, I will enjoy the day in the walls of Old Jerusalem, alone. I want to do it at my own pace. I need to walk the streets. Need to experience the holy places again and observe Jerusalem’s daily life. In joyful anticipation I tuck myself between the sheets and while watching the lights of Jerusalem displayed at the floor-to-ceiling window, I fall asleep.
A Taxi ride.
I awake to heavy morning rains. The hotel tower is in thick fog and stripes of fast pacing clouds sail by my window. Strange, it does not upset me. I just take it as it is, bring my luggage to the storage room and enjoy a good breakfast. Stepping out of the hotel, I haul a taxi and tell the driver to drive me to Damascus Gate. He turns to me and asks, “Don’t you want to go to Bethlehem first?” I stare at him in disbelief. How does he know? We barter the price for a round trip, his waiting time included.
As soon as I see the tight border and fences, the single lane file of cars, I find it a bit scary to drive into Palestinian territory alone, with a Palestinian driver at that. We pass the Israeli check point slowly, at crawling pace, the soldier checks my ID, the driver’s ID, and gestures us to move on. Somehow, in the bus, it didn’t register how tight security was around Bethlehem. They had simply waved us through, then.
The store just opened and this early morning I am the first person entering. The driver does not wait in his taxi but squeezes through the door right after me; on quest for a commission, I guess. With gaping mouth he hears me asking for a refund. I return the golden crosses and the clerk refunds me in US-dollars, cash in hand, without blinking an eye. The tone of my voice must have indicated that no commentary was necessary. On my way out, his salesmanship breaks through and he tries to offer goods, but quickly recoils at the look in my face. The driver hurries to hold his taxi’s door for me. But at the very moment we are to drive off, the clerk storms out of the store, hammers the car’s back to stop us.
“Please, lady, please. Did you pay with card?”
I grin and nod, “yes.”
“But I gave you cash refund. Don’t make a stop-payment with the card, or…” He is quite worried and I can tell he regrets the refund already. His boss will stone him if anything goes wrong.
“Of course not, Sir. Be assured it’s all ok.”
He nods, trusts, and waves good-bye.
The taxi driver tries his luck to convince me to shop somewhere else, until I get angry with him. He drops me at the Jaffa Gate. According to him, “Safer for you, madam, than Damascus,” and requests now double the price we bartered at the hotel. I only have large bills and thus, have to take a chance. I tend it to him and ask to be returned the exact change to our prior agreed price. I am prepared that he will not do it. But he does.
I paid in Shekel. No more “Amerrrican Dallarrrs”.
No one ever asks me again to pay in US-currency. And no one attempts to cheat. I am surprised. All transactions are done fairly, with a smile.
The money-battle was the beam of my pilgrim’s cross, but it’s over now.
Holy City II.
King Solomon’s Palace has impressive walls and from the towers a splendid view of the new and old city of Jerusalem. I visit, walk the streets, full of strength today, despite the cough that still rocks me.
Through the Armenian Quarter I go back to Mount Zion to see the Upper Room once more. Apart from three quiet Japanese women reading the bible in Japanese, I am alone. I sit on the steps of the large room at my leisure and feel empty.
Stepping out into the wind, I walk to the Dormition Church nearby. “Closed for prayer”, reads the sign. Ok…then. At least I chat with a German monk for a couple of minutes, and he tells me their regular opening hours too.
Warming up in bright sunshine I stroll along the ramparts of the city to the Wailing Wall, through the Arab quarters towards St. Anne. Closed as well.
Back to the Christian quarter. I crisscross the Holy City. Walking the Via Dolorosa again, I end up at the tiny door, the one I remember to have gone through with the group from St. Vincent. Dead-end. Closed.
But at my right I discover the entrance to a small Orthodox chapel. I take a peek, snap a photo, and go on following a tight, narrow underground corridor with a low ceiling. Then down a steep staircase, cut into the rock of the Jerusalem mountain. The steps end at the edge of a huge underground cistern, thousands of gallons of water – a small lake under the city. This is most interesting.
“It served as a water reservoir in the ancient days, and still does,” explains a friendly man at the chapel’s door when I come up again, “and is not the only cistern like this. Jerusalem can hold out for quite a while with its supply of cistern water.”
Back in the Arab quarter and its colorful array of goods displayed along the market streets, I wander from stall to stall, smell the variety of spices piled high in baskets, buy some; eat delicious Arab sweets with the honey from Baklava dripping all over me. Sitting in a shop with only four chairs I drink freshly pressed orange juice and cucumber yoghurt. Around me people are selling and bartering. Laughter, chitchat. It’s loud, friendly, and nice. I feel pretty much at home. These old streets filled with vendors remind me of the markets in Haiti where I used to buy my fruit and vegetables every week.
Through a big porch I return to the Holy Sepulchre. “Lord, let me be alone with you,” is my simple prayer; instantly answered. No line. I crawl into Jesus’ tomb; light the candle I brought with me and begin, “Our Father…”.
A woman comes in, then four more. Six people are the utmost this little space can hold under the condition that three kneel. They do. Silent, fast, without looking at each other they drop onto their knees. Without a word it’s understood that we all came here for a single purpose. We are so silent that even our breathing is barely audible. Only the candles make little crackling noises while burning. The women are in deep meditation. Yet, the only thing I can say to him is, “I love you, Jesus. Thank you.”
With my back pressed into the corner of the tomb’s wall I feel rather empty, no thoughts. Nobody chases us, no one calls us to come out. Until in an unspoken common accord we all move and leave without saying a word to each other.
I go over to the Calvary cross. Empty. A few people just descended the stairs. I am alone except for an orthodox monk who observes me lighting my candle. I crawl under the altar, put my hands into the hole. I kneel as long as I want. Nobody else is there to rush me. I expect to feel that heartbeat again. Nothing. I feel very empty.
I wander through the immense Sepulchre, to the grave provided to Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. Empty.
Understanding dawns in my mind, in my soul. I spent the past days in a rush, stressed, battled, running along my group, and longing to be alone with my God. Yet, in the middle of all the hustle and bustle, I had the most amazing experiences, beyond any description, any logic or intelligent comprehension. I felt the touch of my Lord, received the gifts of grace and love, and felt His closeness to me. All done within minutes, if not seconds—which He stretched as if I was living and feeling eternity. God, the Master of time.
Today, I got it my way. I am given the time I want to stroll at my leisure in this church, this city. Wherever I want to be, I find space to be alone. But I am really alone, empty—because He seems to be so invisible; is not present to me like He was when I had given Him control of my life. When I allowed Him to show me His country, His places, His life, and His love for me.
I get it. All I wanted I’ve received already, a free gift, full of surprises. In the middle of chaos He showed me who He is. That alone is important. Only these moments count, not the length of time spent. He stretched time for me at His will, so that I could enjoy the fullness of His presence. Your will be done. Not my will counts, but His. His alone.
Your will be done—was done on this pilgrimage, was complete. Even if I would go back to all these places, nothing additional would happen. I received it already. All of it.
“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” –Matt 18:20
He gave me proof that among His people, in a group and in a community, we receive His gifts, experience His closeness to us. I hum, “He never fails me yet…Jesus Christ never failed me yet.” He promised that I will praise Him on Mount Zion and enter His courts in Jerusalem. I did. He did. All promises kept.
“No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven.” -John 3, 27
I understand that I am not on pilgrimage anymore but on a sightseeing tour, and decide to start this day all over again, my day as a tourist.
First thing: buy gifts for my loved ones. Yep, shopping. What a fun! Bartering with Arabs amidst peals of laughter. Visiting buildings and streets not yet seen. Discovering the Jewish Quarter with orderly streets swept clean, the seemingly sterile, well-organized world of Jewish Jerusalem. The warmth of the dirty, busy, and really unsafe environment around Damascus Gate. The Arab streets filled with shouting, chatter and delicious smells of fruit, herbs, and spices. Lots of it!
Tireless, I walk for seven hours until five o’clock. One by one the shops close, places are emptying. Priests and Religious of diverse denominations rush along the streets to their respective services. Israeli soldiers position themselves at the streets to the Arab quarters, heavily armed. Hagglers pack their bags rushing to leave. Suddenly, I feel the threat of possible violence and save myself first into the Jewish and then into the Christian Quarters.
My friend Yiftach will pick me up at Jaffa Gate. Sitting in a little French Café at the Gate, I drink hot chocolate to chase the cold creeping through my bones. Tiredness finally settles in. It was a very long day.
As I step out of the café, a harsh wind rips at my coat and my bag. So strong that I can barely stand upright. My friend’s car drives up as the first of thick raindrops fall. By the time I close the car’s door, a heavy rain pours down just like it did when I arrived in Tiberias.
With the closing of Yiftach’s car door I feel a page of my life turning. All will be different from here on.
The Jewish Community.
During the rest of my stay, I visit beautiful Jaffa, the oldest port of the Old World. From here Jonah took the boat to Tarshish, and Peter, the Apostle, raised the girl Tabitha to life. The only Catholic church in the area is closed tight, no visits allowed during the day. I enjoy the beach side of Tel Aviv, a modern city at the Mediterranean Sea, and travel the region using public transport, in regular buses filled with people living in this country. My friends take me to a Kibbutz. We spend the day visiting their factory and share a kosher meal with the Kibbutzim. Exploring Israel with them is fun. They tell how the state was born and of today’s life as a nation, where nothing ever comes easy. I can see that God’s blessing is upon His People. Against all odds and the challenges of the desert, they created a booming state.
Living in a Jewish household now, I feared that they might get upset if I spread my cough to everyone. Not so, they just keep comforting me and let me sleep, sleep, sleep. I cannot stop sleeping. I am so grateful they let me rest.
“Sometimes you are far away with your thoughts. What’s going on? Where is the ever-laughing woman we knew from Germany? Why so pensive?” Yiftach asks.
“That’s nothing to do that we have not seen each other for a while,” I assure him and try to explain my conversion because he never knew me a Christian.
We share about our beliefs, our thoughts about religion and spirituality. He is versed not only in the Old but also the New Testament. Much remains to be said. Somehow, I cannot talk about everything I have experienced these past days. It will take time to process.
On Friday at sundown, after washing hands, we take our seats at the table. Ruthy lights the candles. Yiftach, the Abba, the father presiding the household, blesses the bread and sprinkles salt over it. He blesses the wine, and shares it with everyone at the table, his wife, his children, and me. Ancient prayers are spoken, age-old rituals celebrated. I am invited to partake. Could I ever express the depth of my gratitude to them?
This Sabbath falls on the holiday of Tu B’Shvat or, the 15th of the month of Shvat. A day set apart in Israel to honor nature, plants, and trees whose shade and fruit we enjoy. Every year, Tu B’Shvat is celebrated by planting new trees and eating an abundance of fruit and nuts.
In the morning, parents and grandparents, babies, children small and tall, gather outside town. We take off in bright sunshine amidst the whole community, handcarts in tow, filled with tools and baskets. Joyful laughter, the children are running back and forth through the fields. It’s a happy procession. Some men had prepared the work in advance and marked the plots along a country road where the trees were to be planted. Each family found its assigned sapling and while Yiftach and Ruthy shovel, the kids help. Finally, they put the roots into the ground, straighten the stem, fill the hole and pat the earth. Done. The tree will blossom within the next year and bear fruit within three, we hope.
It’s a happy occasion and we laugh a lot while planting. That is, I watch and snap photos more than helping them. The thought strikes me that one day I might come back and see a large alley of trees on this road, and I’ll remember that I was there when the saplings were planted. Wow.
Our work is done, and the entire community walks up a hilly path alongside a huge strawberry field. Temptation! You cannot just walk by when the red fruit literally stare at you. We keep picking those sweet strawberries, shake the earth off and stuff them into our mouths. Delicious! I think these are the biggest strawberries I ever saw. In January, at that!
Reaching the hilltop, we have a great lookout over the valley and surrounding towns. A multitude of thick-woven carpets are spread on the bare ground, lots of them. So casual… I am amazed. I would be so proud to put them into my living room. Here, they lay on the hill’s brown earth, which is still a little wet from the morning dew. We are invited to sit and rest.
Three Bedouin women, dressed in colorful layers of clothes with bright scarves wrapped around their heads, sit on the bare ground and bake unleavened flatbread, right there. As soon as the bread comes off the oven’s iron top, they stuff it with cheese and vegetables. The smells are tantalizing. Two long wooden tables nearly curve under the weight of fruit and nuts of all kinds. Some, I’ve never eaten before and I certainly never saw such variety of nuts. There a bowls of dry fruit too and, of course, strawberries, strawberries, and more strawberries. In the field, we already filled our bellies. But how can you resist this colorful spread? Sitting on the carpeted ground, we eat the delicious warm bread with our bare hands and add a fruit or nut here and there. An Arab boy begins to play his flute, another joins in. When finally our bellies are so full that not even a berry can go in, we recline and relax. Leisurely, people are chatting in Hebrew with each other, laughing. I don’t understand a word, but it feels so good. We lay on the carpets, the sun shines from a blue sky and off come our coats and pullovers. Hallelujah! I feel warm again, inside and out, among my friends and theirs. It’s wonderful and I am so happy and content.
You’re teaching me the value of community; yes, Lord, I do understand.
It was wise to follow my feeling that a prolonged stay in Israel and a visit with my Jewish friends would do me miles of good. It does. It’s a gift. Thank you, Abba.
January 30, 1999
Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion Airport.
Check-in is four hours prior to departure. If entering Israel takes time and answering a myriad of questions asked by the tough security girls is… well, leaving is not much different. To make it more painful, this time they even open my suitcase and ask about each and every little thing I bought in Holy Land. A security detail looks at my booking and seeing that I left my group to travel on my own raises more questions. I have to give a description of everything I did during these past days, to whom I talked, when, and why. She digs in and wants me to name each person I met. Well, this tests my patience and it takes strength not to roll my eyes. I tell her about Tu B’Shvat, and she gets that I’ll never be able to list everyone.
As soon as I enter the waiting lounge, I hear them. This cough is unmistakably ‘our’ cough. I walk up to them amidst lively hellos and quiz them, “Where do you come from, where have you been?” They were in Egypt visiting the pyramids. We exchange the tales of our stay while still coughing to the same tune.
When the plane lifts up and the coast line of Israel, the night lights of Tel Aviv, disappear in the dark, “Thanks Abba, for letting me walk with your Son and with your people.”
“I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.”
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”
1999 – a day in September.
“Father Randy is on his death bed. He asks you to come, wants to see you before he…,” the voice is breaking, but finally says, “…you’d better hurry.”
I grab the 15-decade rosary we bought in Gallicantu and drive quickly to St. Joseph’s hospital in downtown Kingston. They make me wait in the hall until the nurses are done with him. I am nervous. How is he? What are his feelings, now, as the time draws near? The nurses come out, trying to shoo me off by saying, “He is sleeping.” As soon as they turned the corner, I slowly open the door to his room and he moves his head, locks his eyes with mine. A tender smile spreads over his emaciated face. His straight rows of teeth stand out whiter than ever. But he’s awake and smiling. Good.
“Anne! Anne, you came.”
“How could I not? You called for me, Father.”
“I wanted to see you for days, didn’t they give you the message?”
I don’t respond, realizing that they must have forgotten or underestimated his desire to see me. How could they know our souls have a spiritual connection?
“I am here now. So happy to see you, Randy.”
It’s the first time I address him by omitting his title, Father.
I walk up to his bed and put my hand against his cheek. He holds my arm. We don’t speak. Just look at each other, in tune. The same tune we were in on the Maccabee Steps. A song rises in my heart and I begin to sing softly, he hums with me. I lose the words and he fills in. Softly, tenderly, we sing our love song to Mary.
“One urgent thing. Important,” he squeezes my arm a little and looks at me. “I’d love you to do something for me before I go home to the Father.”
“Please pray in Tongues for me. I always love to hear prayers in Tongues, but never got the gift, myself… I guess… I always resisted the Spirit too much,” he says, chuckling, “Please… will you…?”
I lean over, cradle his head and frail shoulders into my arms and begin to pray and chant in Tongues, while silently imploring the Holy Spirit to grant him this gift too. As my voice reaches height, I feel the shivers, feel warmth and peace float in, and the dying priest in my arms begins to chant in Tongues. First hesitant, and then with an unbroken voice.
My tears well up and yet, I smile.
Glory to you, Lord.
Glory to you, Holy Spirit of such tender love. Thank you for the gift to your beloved priest.
When our voices fade, Randy looks at me, his eyes filled with wonder and passion. His face is aglow.
“He granted my wish!”
“Yes, Father, He did. God is always faithful.”
He nods, content, and closes his eyes. Sighs. Breathes. At peace. I sit down in the chair at his bedside, take the rosary beads and pray the Divine Mercy in silence.
Minutes pass, when he says very softly with his eyes still closed, “You can go now, all is well. All is well. I can go home, now, after this. Don’t hang on here but keep praying for me, please. I’ll always remember you.” He looks up.
Taking him into my arms, I respond with a warm, yet firm voice, “See you then, Father, at our Father’s house.”
I bless his forehead with the sign of the cross.
He grabs my arm, locks his eyes with mine, “Please promise, don’t forget my people. You have a job to do with God’s own.”
Randy went home to be with our Father the next day. Before his burial, he was honored with a candle light vigil. The rich and the poor arrived from all over Jamaica to walk—united—the ghetto streets of his parish, in silence, in prayer, in song. That night, there was peace in the ghetto in honor of this man of God.
In the last months of his illness, Fr. Randy often expressed his ardent wish to see his beloved Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kingston restored to its former beauty. He regretted the fading white-wash that covered the ancient frescoes and hoped for a wonder. Such highly ambitious project would cost millions, but he was confident that if we’d just plant some seeds, it would become possible. A few of us began collecting donations, which increased after his funeral. Those without money kept praying for it, still. Miraculously, Fr. Randy’s wish was granted. On February 6, 2011, the Holy Trinity Cathedral was rededicated to full glory by the Most Reverend Donald J. Reece, who now had become the Archbishop of Kingston. She rose in splendor from her white-washed, rugged sleep after an extensive restoration, which brought 31 of the world’s finest restauration experts to Jamaica. Now, her beautiful frescoes, murals, windows, and the restored unique organ make her more spectacular than anyone ever thought possible. She is the most magnificent Cathedral in the Caribbean. With God, everything is possible.
Our friend, Archbishop Emeritus Samuel E. Carter, SJ, Jamaica’s first native-born archbishop, went home to God on September 3, 2002. An enormous crowd attended his funeral and we buried his remains in the Cathedral’s garden. He was our support, a wise man with great apostolic vision, and beloved by so many in my New Life Community.
Ron Hill and his mommy, both passed on to take their home with the God they so loved.
The Most Reverend Bishop Sydney Anicetus Charles was laid to rest in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Grenada. His wisdom and strength, his leadership even in Grenada’s most challenging times, was hailed by all who knew him. In his funeral homily, Bishop Harvey referred to the words Bishop Charles had written into a book he had given him,
“Anyone can give up. It is the easiest thing in the world to do, but to hold it together when everybody else will understand if you fall apart, that is true strength.”
Clearly, God’s Pencil.
My own Calvary was not done yet.
What I thought impossible came to pass, my son was sent to war in Iraq, twice. I was not the only suffering mother and did not forget Randy’s people. For the many Jamaican parents whose children were serving as US soldiers at war in Iraq like my own, I created a group to offer support and network. And of consolation, when the first coffins arrived.
My share in Mother Mary’s Via Dolorosa was over when my son returned home, alive and well. Having seen the miracles God did for him, he converted to our faith. My daughter followed suite, two days before her wedding. The icon of Mary from Shepherd’s Field adorns her home.
To respond God’s calling I left Jamaica in 2009 for good. Had to leave my New Life Community, Archbishop-now-Emeritus Clarke, and so many good friends behind. But I still remember Randy’s people. A piece of my heart lives in that island. Whenever they hurt, I hurt. Like on the day when we learned that Fr. Mike left the priesthood.
It’s Holy Week 2019. Holy Saturday to be precise.
It’s 21 years now that I became a Catholic. Reason enough to have spent the weeks of Lent reminiscing about my life’s journey.
The pilgrimage put me onto a path. A group-path. Since then I work with groups. It began with my New Life Community and others followed. Distinct groups in different nations, a variety of tasks. I love their diversity and am always amazed how God works through them to change each person’s lot.
The words of Habakkuk on my mind, I still keep writing. After all, I am God’s pencil too. The Holy Spirit put me to work in His vineyard because,
The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
That I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
– Is 50:4-5, 7
So be it. AMEN.
But I still travel SOLO.
Bless the Lord, my soul!
Lord, my God, you are great indeed!
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
May the Lord be glad in these works!
– Psalm 104:1,31
2 thoughts on “God’s Pencil”
Difficult for me to comment this piece. I am your daughter and I know you…
Such a beautiful journey. Keep walking in the path of our Lord. Love you.
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Love you too, more than you can imagine. Bisou, ma petite.