Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Day 10: Winding Down & Packing Up

We spent our last day in Jerusalem by leaving Jerusalem!  Tight security around our hotel (the Pope was to meet with representatives of the Israeli government close by) and throughout the city made a getaway imperative.  So, we piled into the bus for a final excursion to Emmaus (Luke 24).  The Scriptures describe the village as being about eight miles from the Holy City, but our particular excursion took more than two hours, the traffic was so thick.

When we arrived at the French Benedictine monastery of Abu Gosh, we were greeted by Frere Dominique, one of the monks, who told us that, unfortunately, we lost our opportunity to have a group Mass because of our late arrival.  But he did mention that the monks were having their daily Mass, scheduled for 11:30 am, to which we were most welcome.

The experience turned out to be perfect. Talk about serendipity!  Frs. Larry, Cesar and I concelebrated  with the abbot and were seated in the choir stalls alongside the nine monks of the community.  Several Benedictine sisters from the adjacent convent were present as well for the Mass chanted in both French and Latin.  The language might have been a bit of a barrier, but the music was transcendent, as was the calm and graceful liturgy.  We were welcome to and into a beautiful experience of prayer.

It was enough, more than enough for our final day in the Holy Land.  The evening before, we celebrated a gala dinner on the patio of a family-owned French restaurant not far from our hotel.  There, we could relax, unwind, and begin to say our 'farewells' over a glass of Chilean merlot and before our entrees.  A perfect way to celebrate the conclusion to our journey.

After a relaxing afternoon of packing, napping, or relaxing by the pool, we all set our alarms for a very early wake-up call at 1:30 am Tuesday, May 27.  Amazingly, we were all ready to board our bus for the final time, arriving at Ben Gurion Airport before 3am.  The rest was just the "stuff" of international travel:  passport, customs, and security controls. Boarding and settling in for our journey (Tel Avi to Istanbul--2 hours; Istanbul to Los Angeles-- 13 hours; Los Angeles to Santa Barbara-- 2 hours).  At 8:10 pm local time, we arrived back at the Old Mission, our mission accomplished.  For now.

Day 9: "But did you get to see the Pope?"

The most simple answer to that question is "No."  No, we did not get to see Pope Francis while we were in the Holy Land.  We didn't even get close, actually.  The security was that tight.  What we did see were signs of the Pope's anticipated arrival and presence.  And those signs were absolutely everywhere:  banners and streamers in the narrow, cobbled streets of the Old City.  Twinned Israeli and Vatican flags along major thoroughfares.  Catholic churches, schools, and shrines festooned with the characteristic yellow-and- white of the papacy.  There were also numerous posters (above) announcing the appearances of the Holy Father with the leaders of Israel and Palestine, as well as his scheduled meetings with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew.

It's not that we didn't want to see the Holy Father.  We would have loved to have done so.  And it's not that we didn't try, either.  The free tickets which were available were generally restricted to members of parishes and to groups of religious women and men living in the Holy Land.  It makes sense.  Pope Francis was coming to the Holy Land to visit the peoples of the Holy Land.

One of our group members, however, did manage to get a single ticket from one of the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land who was unable to attend the Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square.  She braved every obstacle, arriving in Bethlehem the night before in order to be at the morning service on time.  When she got to her seat, she realized that she had a ticket for the clergy section!  Undaunted, she thoroughly appreciated the privilege and enthusiastically shared with us her impressions of the Pope's talk to the Palestinian Christian community.

So,  we spent our Sunday (not a holiday, but rather a work day in Israel) "pilgrimaging" around Jerusalem.  Our stops included the Pater Noster church, the White Fathers'  shrine at Bethsaida (whose beautiful Crusader chapel has wonderful acoustics), St. Anne's, the Via Dolorosa (our attempt to pray the Stations of the Cross was frustrated by the presence of security barriers in the proximity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), Dominus Flevit, the Garden of Gethsemane (closed at noon), Mount Zion, and St. Peter in Gallincantu. Frankly, a lot of it was a blur.  There was just too much to see at one time.

What does stick out in my mind as memorable, however, was our experience of Franciscan hospitality at the small shrine of Dominus Flevit ("Jesus wept").  Friars Leo Gonzalez (of our own Province of St. Barbara in California) and Fr. Sebastiano Eclimes had us all sit down for refreshments on the terrace of the "convento." They chatted amiably with us, sang for us, and offered us their blessings.  We were home!

We celebrated Mass in a conference room in the basement of our hotel.   It seemed totally appropriate for us as pilgrims.  All of the other places in the city were off-limits because of the papal visit (!).  No matter; we gathered around the Lord's  table in prayer and in His Presence just the same.

Day 8 Masada & Jericho

After the intensity of our experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, it was just as well that we should take a quiet day away from the city and its distractions.  So, after breakfast, we headed to the deserts of Judea.  First stop:  Masada.

Revered in a very special way by the Israelis, Masada served as a safe haven in troubled times by the notorious Herod the Great, who, under Roman direction, ruled the province of Palestine with an iron hand.  Discovering this hilltop promontory, Herod immediately understood its strategic importance and constructed not one, but two palaces on the site in the first century AD.  Following the defeat of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem under the Roman leadership of Titus (70AD), remnant groups of resisters headed for Masada for what was to prove their last stand before the imperial forces.  According to tradition, after a two-month siege, the Romans penetrated the site, only to discover that its inhabitants had chosen to commit suicide rather than surrender.

After Masada, we stopped at a section of the Jordan River in order to renew our baptismal vows.  Next to us, a group of Eastern Orthodox pilgrims were doing likewise.  Many of them were dressed in special white garments for that purpose.  According to custom, these garments will be kept and used later as burial shrouds for their owners.

Next, we headed for the Palestinian city of Jericho, known to be the oldest continuous settlement of human beings in the world, having been settled more than 6000 years ago.  The town is a true oasis, its splashing fountains and springs fed by arterial streams.  We lunched and shopped at a highly commercialized spot.  I was fascinated to watch the steady stream of hung, thirsty pilgrims arriving from every corner of the world:  Kenya, Indonesia, Korea, Italy, and so on.  We even ran into some fellow Franciscan friars-- Italian-born members of the Custody of the Holy Land.

Before returning to Jerusalem, we stopped over at the Franciscan Sisters' School of Jericho, a co-ed institution staffed by three native-born Palestinian sisters.  The student population is just shy of 600; Christian students number 16 of that total.  As one of the sisters reminded me:  "We are here as missionaries.  Not to try to convert people, but to show the loving presence of Jesus for all people.  And to help the children-- all of the children-- to have the kind of education which will allow them to participate fully in society."  Fr. Cesar, a member of our group, presided at Eucharist in the simple chapel of the sisters.  In this simple and humble place, it was not difficult to understand the importance of a Christian presence in this part of the world.

Returning toward Jerusalem, we made a pit stop at the Dead Sea.  Most of us braved the salty elements to get into our swimsuits for a dip.  The waters were thick, warm, and chalky.  It was impossible to do anything other than float-- and so we floated!  Some of us, by which I mean Father Larry, went a step further to cover themselves with mud-- great protection against the relentless sun.  And great fun to boot. . . . Arrived in Jerusalem at last.  Bone-tired, we welcomed the refuge of our rooms.

Day 7 Bethlehem to Jerusalem

After yet another lavish hotel breakfast buffet, we headed for the Bethlehem Souvenir Center, a cooperative store and gallery which features the high-quality work of local Bethlehem craftspeople (olive wood statuary and Nativity sets, malachite jewelry, local pottery, etc.) and directly assists more than 50 Christian families in the area.  The staff was welcoming, professional, and friendly-- and we had the entire shop to ourselves for the hour we were there.  Needless to say, our group made its contribution to the local economy, and those of us with pent-up consumer urges emerged content.

Shepherds' Field area to celebrate Eucharist at one of the caves surrounding the Gloria In Excelsis chapel (above), built in the 1950s with donations by the Catholics of Canada.  As is the norm with each of the major shrines in the Holy Land, we celebrated the readings for the day. (Translation:  Merry Christmas, everyone!).  True to the feast, we sang our favorite Christmas carols, and even had a procession of a statue of the infant Jesus.  It was a gently touching moment in what was to be an intense day.

Our next stop was the Church of the Nativity, presently undergoing major interior structural repairs. We arrived relatively early at the shrine, which means we didn't have to stand outside in the hot sun.  Instead, we gathered along the side aisle to approach the grotto marking the space where, according to tradition, Jesus was born.  I have to admit, it was not an especially pleasant wait.

This is, after all, the Middle East, which means that the concept of standing in an organized queue is not universally respected.  The upshot is that we had to deal with crowds of noisy and aggressive pilgrims pushing, pleading, and sometimes cussing their way through the waiting area.  Once we got to the grotto, there was time for just a quick reverence, and then out.  Only when we arrived at the neighboring sanctuary of the Roman Catholic parish church of St. Catherine of Alexandria did we have any time to savor the spot.  It was all part of the tuition, so to speak.

Afterwards,  we visited a family-owned restaurant aptly known as The Christmas Tree. Lunch was shawrma (thinly sliced lamb on pita), falafel (chick pea), and the ubiquitous Greek salad.... Once we finished our late luncheon, we left Bethlehem, passing through the security checkpoint without difficulty.

Our next stop was the Holy City of Jerusalem.  We made our way directly to our hotel, the Dan Panorama, with just enough time to check in and freshen up before proceeding to the Old City and the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre.  Our bus dropped us off in front of the Notre Dame Hotel, a Vatican-owned property festooned with papal flags in anticipation of the visit of Pope Francis.  From there, we walked through the New Gate and into the rabbit-warren of narrow streets of the Old City.  Luckily, the hour was late-- 6pm by the time of our arrival-- so that the streets were uncrowded and many of the shops closed for the day.

Approaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we gathered on the steps outside to prepare ourselves for our official group photo.  (This one, below, is a practice shot only).  Afterwards, we lined up in rows of three before the main entrance to wait for the Franciscan friars to greet us at the door and escort us into the Church and before the Tomb of the Lord.

I don't have good photos of that event. The truth is that I was so caught up in the experience of the moment, I was not especially concerned with trying to document or preserve it.  (Others did, and when I can borrow a few photos from them, I will post their photos with this entry).  Shortly after six, a group of about 6-8 Franciscan friars appeared before the open main door.  They nodded, smiled, and blessed each of us with holy water as they led us in procession before the tomb.  The crowds parted as we were guided into the sanctuary flanked by the friars.  Once assembled inside, we were greeted by a representative of the Custos (or Provincial), who told us that, no doubt our visit should be inscribed in "beautiful golden letters" since we were the last group to visit the Church before the scheduled arrival of Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.  After chants, prayers, and a blessing-- all in Latin-- we were escorted in groups of three to the interior chamber of the Tomb for a few moments of silent prayer.

I cannot tell you what that experience was like for each of the more than forty people on our pilgrimage.  What I can tell you about is the look on people's faces as they emerged from the Tomb.  Almost to a person, each one carried a look of deep reverence, and yes, even awe.  Silent tears streaked some faces; others just moved to a quiet corner of the church to be alone with the Lord for a few minutes. We left in silence.  As one member whispered to me:  "You can just feel the sacredness of this space, depending upon how much you allow yourself to do so."