A Special Pilgrimage

Tony Devlin

© Copyright 2018 by Tony Devlin


Photo of the Sea of Galilee.

This is the account, in diary format, of a pilgrimage to what we Irish Catholics call the Holy Land. It was something that my wife Mairéad and I had aspired to for many years.  But busy lives, family commitments and the pressing need to continue to put bread on the table had impeded us until, finally, in our 60th year, we managed to do it.

October 29th – Dublin to Jerusalem

Standing on our doorstep, in the blustery darkness, I’m smelling the air, still damp after recent rain. It’s 06:10 and in five minutes time, all being well, Stephen, our youngest son, will arrive to ferry us out to the airport. I’ve been up since 05:00, reckoning it the best way to adjust to the early start and to the long flight in prospect. Mairéad, meanwhile, is only just surfacing, having been awake until an ungodly 03:00, packing and no doubt humming to herself while I slept.

Stephen is punctual and cheerful, a capable and reassuring presence to speed us on our way. Though full of anticipation, we nevertheless are also regretful about departing the city and the people we love; but with Stephen you always feel that it’s ok, that things are safe and in good hands. I don’t know where he gets that gift.

The travel agent’s stipulation that we must check in at 06:30 proves unnecessary as all is accomplished, with Boarding Cards issued in less than twenty minutes. We’re out to our Departure Gate in not much more than another thirty, an hour and a half ahead of our 09:30 boarding time.

Mairéad buys an armful of newspapers and I maintain a kind of sleepy watchfulness as the time slips by and our fellow travellers assemble. This looks like it’s an all-pilgrimage flight, but exactly how we’ll be divided up into different groups on arrival is not yet clear. I reckon our Boeing 757 will hold a good one hundred and fifty or so. We’ll see.

There’s no delay with the flight call, but we do have to wait for two or three missing passengers, pilgrims with too much time on their hands it seems. But then we’re off, blasting full-throttle through the breezy air over Dublin and up, up until all settles down into no more than a faint background roar and we begin the first of our five flying hours to Tel Aviv. It’s uneventful, if a bit wearisome, as we punctuate the hours with snacks, reading, a bit of light conversation, some writing for me and some listening and people-watching for both of us.

Just after 15:30 local time we can see the brown landscape and the highways and buildings of Tel Aviv below us, and shortly afterwards we touch down smoothly at Ben Gurion airport. Formalities are simple and surprisingly easy in the big and airy Arrivals Terminal and, as we wait for our bags, we’re efficiently corralled into four groups by the staff of the tour company. All very reassuring.

Our assigned guide is Johanna, a Slavic woman of about fifty, enthusiastic and theatrical, full of long explanations & instructions, and leading us out to a bus which has a big printed sign taped to its front, leaving us in no doubt that we are “The Father Gerard Regan Group”. There are, it turns out, just thirty-two of us; a handy number, mostly country people, and a core of them from Mayo, where the quiet-spoken but friendly Fr. Gerry is based. Ages are mixed, but most are older than us, with a sprinkling of younger women, and at least two identifiable nuns. It should be an interesting eight days together.

The journey from Tel Aviv to our Jerusalem Hotel, the Shalom, takes about forty-five minutes, but darkness comes on early, so that when we arrive into the hilly suburbs, our route is flanked by slopes speckled with the lights of a myriad houses and apartments.

The Shalom is at the top of a hill in a residential district and our check-in has been “pre-executed” by the travel company so that we can go directly to our rooms. This proves tricky enough with just three small lifts that take an age to climb and descend the hotel’s sixteen floors. We’re on Floor 11 and, once installed, can feel satisfied with our big, comfortable and well-equipped room which also promises a panoramic view of the district when the light returns.

Dinner (and we’re hungry) is in a big dining area where one helps oneself. It has a bit of a cafeteria feel about it, but probably because we’re too famished to take proper time over our food. There can be no complaints about quantity or variety though, and after a little persistent pushing, Mairéad gets her sine qua non, a glass of White Wine.

We don’t linger too late though, and while Mairéad reads some more of her newspaper stack, I take a walk down the road and through the houses below the hotel. The architecture of this neighbourhood is much as I’d imagined it would be around Jerusalem, flat roofed houses and apartments set in terraces and knitted into the sloping hills. There are no gardens and little greenery to speak of, and there are patches of neglect, particularly around communal or public buildings and around a few small undeveloped plots. Overhead, Jupiter, the Star of Bethlehem, is bright between drifting clouds on an evening that’s grown chilly enough. Time now to return and embrace a welcome sleep.

October 30th – to Bethlehem and Gethsemane

Our start time, 07:00, comes around quickly enough, but we’re well rested and the sky outside is bright in the already strong sunshine. Making our way down for breakfast, it’s Lift Lotto again as the hotel is once more abuzz, with all guests converging on the dining room on Floor 3. While waiting, we notice that one of the lift doors is marked “Shabbat Lift”. It’s hard to figure out why except, as we discover later, this is the only lift where one can select a Floor 3A (!), but, mysteriously, only with the aid of a key. God (in this case the Hebrew one) only knows where it might lead to.

It’s a good fortifying breakfast of mostly familiar fare and then we’re straight onto the bus and away, leaving Jerusalem behind and encountering Israel’s infamous Wall as we move through into the Occupied Territories. The difference in living conditions is very apparent although there’s lots of evidence of construction here as well, albeit with the suspicion that much of it may be in the form of new Jewish Settlements.

Distances are short here and, surprisingly soon, we’re out of the bus in Bethlehem and climbing the street to Manger Square. This is another of those places familiar from TV news, and the Church of the Nativity is a solid but inelegant block, housing its multiple smaller churches and its all-important Grotto. Inside, we sense its great age, the construction and decoration a mixture of Romanesque, in the open colonnaded part, and Byzantine, in the Greek Orthodox section, all pendant lamps and dark icons with stern and serious faces. All, that is, except for the smiling Virgin Mary outside the Grotto of the Nativity, where we queue for a while, but fruitlessly, since some Armenians are conducting a ceremony inside.

Instead we repair to the chapel of Saint Helena for our own first Mass of the trip. We have the small place to ourselves and it’s a very real event, the whole mixed bunch of us observing this very traditional ritual in this very significant spot. By the time we emerge, and return to the main church there’s a lengthy queue for the Grotto. But Johanna is determined that we must persevere, and the result is over an hour of slow shuffling progress until we finally find ourselves on the steep smooth-worn steps leading deep beneath the altar. The Nativity Cave, whether apocryphal or not, is a very atmospheric place and our few moments there make the long wait worthwhile in the end.

We’re significantly behind schedule now and it seems that Ein Karem, site of the Visitation, is off today’s agenda. We’re not too hurried to stop for lunch however, at the Tent restaurant, a colourful place under a billowing canvas roof. The food is rich and very edible, and the only complaint is that there’s maybe too much of it.

We do what amounts to a whistle-stop visit to a place designated the Shepherd’s Field, a fabrication of course in historical terms, but I guess part of the myth-making that sustains the local economy. Still, the angels had to appear somewhere and this place of rocks and brown dusty soil is as good a spot as any. The entertaining Johanna is in hyperdrive now, trying to figure a way to get back to the Yad Vashem Memorial before it closes.

We end up taking a non-tourist route and endure some mild anxiety at a border checkpoint; until the Israeli soldiers wave us and we’re back on schedule. There’s a bit of serendipity too as we spot a real shepherd moving his small flock along the roadside. He’s like a West of Ireland farmer, a bit leaner maybe, but with the distinctive Arab headscarf marking him out a part of a traditional line stretching all the way back to the storied first witnesses of Jesus’ birth.

Johanna, who’s been scrupulously neutral on matters political up to now, points out a Settlement complex lining the top of a ridge and relates how the Israelis have appropriated also the slopes and terraces below, expelling their Palestinian neighbours in another chapter of the expansionism we hear about. The opposite slope, on rougher soil and in poorer housing, is where the evicted ones live now apparently; and there you have it, the crux of the problem, the exacerbating policy that pushes peace even further away, while nominally seeking it. Johanna doesn’t like it, that much is clear.

But it’s another mood altogether at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. We walk among the trees of the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles before climbing to the Children’s Memorial, an eerily affecting labyrinth of darkness, peopled with myriad tiny spindles of candlelight and with a voice intoning one by one the names, ages and nationalities of the 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the concentration camp system. It’s very moving, all the more so for being so understated; and it’s when thinking of these children that the enormity of the crime of trying to obliterate a whole race from the face of the earth sinks in, and also some sense of the paranoia that grips the survivors and their descendents to this day. Equally sombre, although in a more conventional way, is the Hall of Remembrance with its map of the extermination camps engraved on the floor, a grim tableau of resonant names, some familiar and some I’d never heard of at all.

It’s been a full day already but, after a quick dinner, we’re back on the bus and away to the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s dark, and the drive brings us the first sight of the walls of the Old City, in their crenellated majesty, bathed in floodlighting, high above the blackness of the Kedron Valley. Across that valley stand the Church and the Garden and we’re here for an exclusive appointment, a twenty minute “slot” inside the Church, which houses the rock at which Jesus is believed to have suffered his “moments of doubt and pain”.

For Mairéad and I the experience is quite profound. Now we’re out of the realm of the Christmas Story and into the hard, unyielding, inimical realities of Jesus’ last night and day on earth. We’re admitted to the Church precincts by a stern and somewhat agitated Franciscan, who soon enough relents in the face of Johanna’s irresistible steamroller of exhortation and charm. The Church is ours then, and we each get to kneel in the space before the altar, hands leaning on the stone which protrudes through the floor. I pray, as does Mairéad, for things no doubt very dear to us both and place those prayers on the history laden surface beneath our hands. I can’t say that there’s any explicit physical sensation, but I find myself nonetheless unaccountably reluctant to leave my place, removing and replacing my hands a couple of times before moving back into the body of the Church, to walk under its twelve star-adorned domes and to ponder on a feeling both intense and emotional which seems to have taken hold of me here.

Outside again, we’re admitted to the Garden itself, into its bordered gravel walkways among the very ancient olive trees illuminated in soft lamplight. It’s a magical scene where we both have time for a meditation, Mairéad walking and me sitting, and, when finally we all filter back to the bus we are truly in another place and state of mind.

Here at the heart of the Biblical places, it all seems so much more real, and there’s a closeness to the Man whose identity has been shifting in and out of focus for me these many years past. This is his place, and I’m in it now. Something fundamental, and reconciling, is possible; but perhaps only in the darkness, where the sense of present time, of the modern, apostate world is diminished, and the imagination runs more free.

Back at the Shalom and with a “mad” start time in prospect tomorrow, we get to bed as early as we can (which is not in fact that early at all) at the end of a very full day.

Monday, October 31st – The Via Dolorosa

I’ve set my own alarm for 04:45 so as to get the slimmest of head-starts for our 05:30 rendezvous. Sleepy, but excited with the thoughts of the day ahead we pick up our breakfast boxes and climb, in the fading darkness, on board the bus, greeted as we do so by the ever-smiling Lev, our imperturbable driver and steady rock to Johanna’s colourful sandstorm. Halfway to the city she’s waiting at a tram stop to join us, accompanied by her teenage son, a quiet, capable and considerate young lad, and clearly his mother’s darling.

The air is still chill when we step off the bus at the North Eastern corner of the Old City and begin our walk down towards Stephen’s Gate. There are only some early workers about at this stage, shifting rubbish and debris around in what seems like a primitive recycling centre below the walls. It’s almost fully daylight now, but with the sun has still to break the line of the Eastern hills as we make our way along between the Muslim cemetery and the city walls.

Entering finally at what Johanna explains is also known as the Lion’s Gate, we are at last inside the walls and in many ways we have the place to ourselves. And so, alone except for the occasional passerby on their way to work or to school, we make our Via Dolorosa. Slowly, with pauses for prayers at each of the Stations and punctuated by a straggling sequence of hymns, we make our sombre and reflective progress towards Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The narrow streets and passages of smoothed stones are all ours for this brief time and what an oppressed and enclosed space much of this route really is. In one overshadowed part of the way an Arab woman is already sitting among her sacks of produce, mostly herbs it seems, their smells mingling and infusing the air in an exotic mix as we file past.

I’m carrying the small wooden crucifix I bought in Bethlehem and Mairéad has her Rosaries. This is one big part of what we came for and we’re really fortunate at the end to find the Holy Sepulchre only lightly peopled with visitors. The rock of Golgotha is there to be touched through a small aperture below the silver magnificence of the altar and we can visit other less certain relics such as the Anointing Stone, fragrant with oil, two floors below the sanctuary and then the church-within-a-church containing a fragment of stone from Jesus’ tomb.

The influences of medieval cults of mystery and relics are evident here and I’m thinking of the alternative site of the Garden Tomb outside the Damascus Gate. That’s where I prefer to think of him, out among the shrubs and the olive trees, taking his leave of the mysterious young man who will ask the dumbstruck Mary Magdalen the most profound of questions; “why seek ye him among the dead?”

We’ve been up for hours and yet it’s still early. A coffee is welcome at this stage, before another private Mass at the Church of the Flagellation where we also meet a Polish nun belonging to the order of another cult figure, Sister Faustina. She has that open, girlish enthusiasm, that too-good-to-be-true virtue, shining from every pore, and it’s hard not to like her.

The Crusader Church of St. Anne is beside the plunging depths of the Pools of Bethesda and we find an American choir there, making full and magically effective use of its marvellous acoustics. A shrine to the virgin child and her parents (Anne and Joachim) is embrasured deep below the main church and has its own charm, in bright colours and familiar motifs.

A welcome lunch follows in the courtyard of yet another church (Armenian this time) in the lower level of which there’s exposition of the sacred bread in a magnificent golden triptych. Johanna now leads us in a sweep of things we bypassed earlier in the morning. The Ecce Homo arch and the Antonia Fortress are a subterranean labyrinth housing what appears to have been the original main Roman road through the city, complete with striated paving to facilitate the safe passage of chariots. There are also massive cisterns, disappearing below the walkways to enormous depths, a real underworld beneath our feet.

A brisk loop through the edge of the Arab quarter brings us out to the Western Wall. A barrier divides the wide open slope down to the wall itself, giving separate accesses for men and women to approach the massive and ancient stones. Once again there’s a sense of an image seen many times on television, now suddenly here in reality. It’s busy and there’s some kind of wild Jewish celebration in progress, a group of young men dancing, being urged on by a vociferous throng of young women leaning over the barrier from “their side”. It’s more than likely the celebration of a wedding or a betrothal I’m thinking.

Orthodox and secular Jews pray side by side at the wall, and around the perimeter are religious libraries, guest houses and even a kind of soup kitchen for the disadvantaged. The general impression is one of earnest but not very elaborate ritual, carried on by plain, unsophisticated people, unabashed in their belief and their sense of themselves as the Chosen race, and with a strong communal sense, a kind of rough bonhomie to which it must be reassuring to be attached. From the outside though, it’s strange, and the sense of “otherness”, only a short step from alienation, remains.

We exit via the Dung Gate, to meet the bus and to head away to Ein Karem, Johanna making good her promise to “add back” this missed component of yesterday’s itinerary. The Church of John the Baptist is a tiled novelty but the real jewel of this place, high in the hill country as the Gospel notes, is the Church of the Visitation with its frescoed depiction of the meeting between two expectant mothers, the one, as Johanna says, too young, and the other too old. A small sculpture down in the courtyard of two abstract figures, leaning back with their distended tummies in that classic pregnancy pose, passing the time of day, just says it all. This has indeed been a place not to be missed.

We’re back at the hotel just after dark and I decide to venture out for my first run of the trip. The options, it turns out, are limited as I run out of road in both directions but scout out what might be a good, if hilly, option for tomorrow. A distance of 2.7 miles is all I manage, but it’s at least a start. There follows a meal with wine for both of us and, not surprisingly, an early night.

Tuesday, November 1st – The Mount of Olives

A more moderate, but still early, start today, rising at about 06:00. By 07:30 we’re once more aboard our Magic Bus and en route, after dire warnings about thieves from Johanna, to the Mount of Olives and the traditional site of the Ascension.

It’s no more than a small protected protrusion of rock, inside a domed barbican, in the shell of a ruined Crusader church, overlooked by down-at-heel Arab houses, dusty and neglected even in the clear brightness of the morning light. And yet, one gets again the sense of place, the topography that frames the Gospel accounts. It’s so much easier to imagine Jesus and the apostles moving between these places in and around the city, and to reconstruct the events of his last fateful days.

The slopes of the Mount seem to be one vast Jewish cemetery and Johanna gives one of the best explanations I’ve heard about the use of ossuaries and about the concept of lying down with one’s ancestors in a grave that houses one generation after the next in unbroken sequence.

We make a slow descent then, down a steep tarmac road, to the Church of Dominus Flevit (Jesus wept) where, in the teardrop shaped chapel by Antonio Barluzzi, the cheerful Fr. Gerry says his third Mass of the trip. I’m assigned to do a reading from the Book of Revelation, very apt for the location, all about the entry into light of the elect of the tribe of Israel. The chapel door is open and the sounds of birds and tourists keep us alert throughout the ceremony.

Afterwards we walk further on down the hill past a now much less magical Gethsemane, visitor-infested, roped off, and assailed by the noise of congested traffic, and on to the nearby grotto, reputed location of Christ’s betrayal, just below the Garden. Immediately adjacent, tradition has it, is the burial place of Mary, where she was laid after, as Johanna quaintly puts it, “falling into eternal sleep”. Down a multitude of wide steps, in the depths of an underground Byzantine church, it’s an atmospheric location.

Back on the street, the resourceful Levy is whistled up to take us down across the Kedron Valley then, and up to a point beside the City walls, right beside the Lion’s Gate again, and where we can enter the complex of the Church of Dormition and visit the Room of the Last Supper (but only of course as tradition has it, and perhaps as some Crusader benefactor decided). It’s another evocative place nonetheless. The Church of Peter in Gallicantu, further down the hill, houses some underground chapels and a grim dungeon at its very base where condemned prisoners were held in Jesus’ time.

We take lunch at a very nice restaurant, the Elias, in the grounds of the church of the same name before the afternoon ends with a short drive to the Haas Promenade where Johanna gives us chapter and verse on the Jerusalem skyline. Already though, my eyes are straying to the steep decline behind us, into the valley of the Jordan river, dimly visible under a heat haze....all of this will come tomorrow, but for now it’s back to the hotel as dusk begins to deepen.

Mairéad and I are free for the evening, since we’ve opted not to do the Night Tour of the city. This means that I can do a longer run, partly on yesterday’s route, but then swinging round into a long ascent through a district where all the young women seem to be dressed like Anne Frank; orthodox Jews again. The climb is tough, but it’s good to get a few more miles under my belt. Later, dinner is a quiet affair and we end the day, with some desultory packing and TV watching before it’s time to retire.

Wednesday, Nov. 2nd – The Road to Tiberias

There’s some disharmony in the camp this morning as Mairéad dawdles her way perilously close to the 08:00 deadline set by Johanna. I’m tetchy, even hectoring, and the reaction is predictable. Enough said, enough to remind me that I’m still not more than a work in progress.

Today’s Mass is at the Church of Pater Noster, an oasis of calm under French Carmelite direction, up again on the Mount of Olives. There’s an underground chamber where Jesus is reputed to have given his disciples the words of what we now know as the Lord’s Prayer. “When you pray”, He said, “pray like this.......” and we did, repeating the words together before going back outside to see these same words reproduced on ceramic tiles in dozens of languages (including our own Gaeilge) all around the cloister and gardens. Beyond the walls there’s all the clamour and disorder of the Arab district, so marked in its contrast to the quiet of convent with its well-kept shrubs and flowers. Then, suddenly and finally, we’re saying a hurried goodbye to the Holy City and its environs, and striking out for Qumran and the Dead Sea.

The long descent into the Judaean Desert takes us down the road to Jericho, scene of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then out into the flat lands and receding waters of the Dead Sea. Getting off the bus at the Essene site of Qumran we can feel the real dense, debilitating heat for the first time. It’s sobering to think what this must be like in July and August.

The excavated site is fascinating, with its proliferation of cisterns and bathing pools for ritual purification. These Essenes were a real monastic community it seems, and certainly counted John the Baptist among their number; perhaps Jesus too, if we are to speculate at all about how he burst, so fully formed, onto the scene of his public ministry.

We eat a nice lunch in the site’s busy restaurant before making our way on to the Dead Sea and the promised “dip”. Mairéad ventures in as well, and it’s as much fun as expected, with the clinging mud and the insuperable buoyancy. The feeling of freshness and well-being afterwards under the showers is marvellous.

The light is already declining as we board the bus again for the journey along the edge of the desert to reach Tiberias. The landscape is fascinating in the honey-coloured evening light and once more this is a sequence of scenes from books and television, now experienced much more intensely at first hand. We stop for a coffee after passing once more from the West Bank back into Israel proper, not far from Bet She’an. It’s an atmospheric few minutes in the encroaching darkness, feeling that sense of being in transit, un-rooted, travellers on a journey. It feels good to sit there chatting, drifting in and out of the small roadhouse, watching the last glow of the sunset on the crest of the hills, listening to the passing traffic; very much at peace.

Arrival and check-in at the hotel brings its own tensions and Mairéad is on the receiving end of words unkind and unnecessary from me, erupting as they are prone to do from a build-up of anxiety whose cause has always been obscure. A well justified apology is the only possible resolution and, as so often before down the years, I feel the old knot of nastiness subside, and sense that other me, the one who’s beyond living with, recede. A dinner and chat with the nervous Fr. Gerry follows, then a warm and conciliatory walk in the darkness down towards the centre of Tiberias brings the day to a harmonious close. Storm over, and there’s maybe even the shape of a rainbow in our communal sky.

Thursday, Nov. 3rd – Galilee

The hotel, and certainly the surroundings here, are superior to their Jerusalem equivalent and we enjoy our breakfast in reasonably leisurely style, before an 08:00 departure. Our first destination this morning is the Jordan River, sandy-banked and with that green tinge to the water. The colour is an effect of some sedimentary action no doubt, but again there’s the sense of something very familiar from images and imagination but now being viewed for the first time in reality.

There are several groups in white robes doing the total immersion Baptism (shades of “O Brother, where art thou” here) and Fr. Gerry does an Irish version where we each get a good hair-wetting and a blessing (all very decorous, and sure we wouldn’t want to be drawing attention to ourselves!). I collect a bottle of the river water to bring back to the grandchildren before we push on to visit the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes on the lakeshore.

The lake, in daylight, is just as I imagined it, a shining stretch of water, framed by distant hills, looking much as it must have done millennia ago. The Church of the Multiplication has an outer courtyard with a pool of exotic fish, while within the church itself there’s a mosaic floor with the classic depiction of the two fish and the basket of bread.

The day has clouded over now and there’s grumbling thunder and a sprinkling of rain as we head for the Mount of Beatitudes with its striking and original Antonio Barluzzi (who else) church. Having been sporadically rained on for a while now, we’re blessed with a blue-skied interlude for our Mass in the garden above the church, and it’s very pleasant and optimistic with the swallows in full song around us.

Afterwards, the terrace at the edge of the complex gives us the profound and simple view of the slope down to the lake. One can well imagine Jesus there, in the sunshine, with the crowd ranged around and below him. There’s a pervading calmness. The phrase “all will be well” comes to mind.

Further down the lakeshore there’s a visit to the Church of the Primacy of Peter, down at the water’s edge, site of the famous scene where Jesus frys fish for the tired fishermen, the disciples, returned in disappointment to their former occupations, now suddenly encountering once again the familiar presence of their Master and Teacher. It must have been great. The stony beach, the reeds and the waterside vegetation once again evoke a long-ago scene with little distortion, if one takes care not to attend to the man-made surroundings, but only look out, undistracted, over the water.

Yet further on there’s Capernaum, a fully preserved set of ruins, clustered around its synagogue. Apart from the modern Franciscan church, the site is an authentic monument to its history and again one imagines the busy streets of the settlement and the scene in the synagogue when all present are told that “today the scripture is fulfilled in Me”, by this Nazarene, this itinerant teacher, speaking in a voice of somehow irresistible authority.

There’s only one kind of lunch possible on a day like this, and we do indeed dine on fish, St. Peter’s Fish in fact, served whole on a platter, head and fins and all. It’s absolutely delicious. Our lunch break coincides with more thunder and a deluge of rain which persists, and follows us as we make the short drive back along the shore to where we’ll take our boat trip. Out on the water we trace a long ellipse out to view the sites of the morning from a different perspective. The old wooden boat, with mast and diesel engine, is a lot more seaworthy than the craft of biblical times, but there’s still a bit of an unsettling swell as the rain and black clouds come sailing in over the dramatic cliffs of Mount Arbel. Here, once more, there’s a calm and reflective feeling, rising almost from the water itself.

Bit by bit we’re getting to know almost everyone in the group now and the coffee shop where we regroup and dry out after our little voyage, is a lively and congenial gathering. Soon enough though, Johanna is waving her flag at us and signalling that our touring day is drawing to its close.

We’re early enough at the hotel this evening for me to manage a, down into Tiberias, which seems to be humming tonight, eve of the Islamic day of rest and worship and last night of the week for the Jews. Sabbaths are pretty much back to back here. As best I understand it, the Islamic Sabbath is from dawn to dusk on Friday, the Jewish Shabbat takes over then until sundown on Saturday and then we have our “regular” Christian Sunday. It’ll be hard to find a shop open!

In any event, we have another very palatable meal tonight, followed by a walk, taking in part of my running route into Tiberias. Later, just before turning in, I take a mouthful from one of our water bottles; it tastes a bit funny and suddenly Mairéad and I are searching our room for our Jordan water, which it looks like we may have been drinking! The quest ends inconclusively. The Jordan water can’t be found, but it might, just might, be still on the bus. Cue one disturbed and queasy effort to get to sleep on my part. Mairéad of course, the serene one, “takes no thought for tomorrow” and drops almost immediately into a sound slumber.

Friday, Nov. 4th – Nazareth

In the morning, which once again comes far too soon, it’s not me but one of our travelling companions, Christy, who’s unwell. I don’t feel all that great myself but when I go to call for him he’s already out on the landing, sweating and looking not at all comfortable. A timid soul, he’s torn between the misery of his nausea and the terror of being alone all day at the hotel. I guide him down to the open air, where he’s sick again, but thankfully this seems to be the crisis point and, with helpful interventions from Johanna and Fr. Gerry, he’s in due course settled into the bus, still far from well but at least stabilised, and very glad to be able to travel with us. He’s childlike in his nervousness, but one senses a sound mind and a very strong will there in the background just the same.

Meanwhile, further down the bus, Mairéad is smiling away, having found our bottle of Jordan water stored in the overhead locker. Quite a relief and good for a conspiratorial laugh.

Only a little behind schedule, we head for Cana and a visit to what tradition holds to be the site of the eponymous Marriage Feast. It’s a friendly little place, not at all far from Nazareth, but Johanna is keen to make up time and hustles everyone along and back towards the bus. Mairéad, the instinctive silent resister, nevertheless manages to acquire three small bottles of Cana “wedding wine” at a little tasting shop. These will make great gifts for our two already-wed daughters and we’ll still have one left over. For once I’m in favour of a gift shop purchase.

Nazareth is a busy and noisy Arab town, and the streets are thronged as our pedestrian snake winds its way up hill to the Church of the Annunciation. It’s yet more of the work of the ubiquitous Antonio Barluzzi who, it transpires, was a Franciscan. How many different ways he found to design a church. This one seems almost military, a great cross-beamed structure on two levels, decorated both inside and out with mosaics from a host of countries. It’s bright and warm inside, and we have a very atmospheric Mass at the sunken altar before the grotto which contains the ruins of an ancient house where Mary and Joseph (may have) dwelt. This last detail is in the end unimportant as it’s the charged atmosphere of the place that really counts.....if that small home wasn’t here then it wasn’t far away either....... and, a little while later, we visit the Church of St. Joseph which houses that iconic painting of Jesus as apprentice carpenter. It all goes to emphasise that here was Nazareth, scene of many things hidden and known, the place from which, at the hour appointed, Jesus emerged.

We have a few more streets to traverse then, to our rendezvous with Lev and, as we go, Johanna beckons us into a magical detour down into spice cellar. The visit is worth it for the smells alone, but it’s impossible to walk among the rows of brimming sacks and trays without buying something. Mairéad picks up some special spice for falafel, while I purchase a couple of handfuls of whole almonds and some assorted dried fruit and grains. It would be great if there were shops like this in Dublin.

After a lunch near the Church of Mary’s Well (just chips for me since I’m feeling overfed at this stage), we drive through intermittent rain to the transit point on Mount Tabor where rattling minibuses ferry us on up to the summit. It’s actually a bit chilly now, and we’re glad of our jackets. The Church of the Transfiguration is impressive and occupied by an Indian group celebrating one of their lengthy Masses. We visit two side chapels, one for each of the two main supporting characters of the transfiguration story, Moses and Elijah, depicted in striking frescoes. Needless to say, the views outside are pretty good, but it’s too chill to linger so we make our way down again for the drive home, passing once more, as yesterday, by the Horns of Hittim, scene of the Crusaders’ Waterloo against Salahadin, looking ghostly and lonely in the declining light.

We’re both in good form this evening and happy in our restored intimacy. We make good inroads into a bottle of the House Red at dinner and we’re glad then to turn in early even though, amazingly we don’t start until 08:30 tomorrow; a virtual “lie in”!

Saturday, Nov. 5th – Haifa

This morning it’s brighter, our last full day of the trip. Christy is almost recovered and there’s a general air of optimism as we head off under blue skies in the direction of Haifa. Even though it’s Saturday, the day has a Sunday feel. It must be the Shabbat effect.

The view of Haifa is dramatic, from the height of Mount Carmel, with ships in the bay, and the Mediterranean stretching away into the hazy distance as we file into the Church of the Carmelite Monastery for Mass, shared this morning with the people from the “other” bus with whom we’ve been variously intersecting and overlapping all week. This is the church known as Stella Maris and it incorporates a cave traditionally held to have been the dwelling place of the prophet Elijah. As we walk around outside, an opportunistic musician is playing Amhrán na Bhfiann on his trumpet, while in the distance there are loud explosions, a thunderstorm gathering far out to sea.

Actually, not all that far out for as, shortly afterwards, we descend to the first of the nineteen terraces of the Baha’i Gardens, spectacular in their symmetry and perfection, the livid slivers of lightning are visible against a purple sky now rapidly devouring the seascape below. I’ve never seen a storm-approach so clearly, the harbour and the lower reaches of the city being swallowed up by the thick trailing avalanche of the rain as we scamper for the safety of the bus.

Climbing back to the ridge behind Mount Carmel, we move South along the crest, largely evading the storm, through an area inhabited by heretical Islamic Druze sect, and then stop for lunch at a nondescript establishment amid slopes disfigured by debris and half-finished buildings, probably the lowlight of all the eating places that Johanna has selected thus far.

Our next stop is the church at Muhrakha, where Elijah is believed to have confronted, confounded and then (in true Old Testament style) slain the prophets of Baal. There’s a statue, gardens and the small, brightly intimate church run by religious from Poland. A viewing point affords us some of the most impressive vistas we’ve seen to date, in almost every direction, and once again the density of settlement is very evident, resting like a patina, a transient effusion on the imperturbable landscape. The scene is both familiar and foreign but could not be anywhere else but this Biblical land, so deeply ingrained in our psyche.

Reports of heavy rain from the coast mean that we will not make the optional visit to Caesarea today. This is a source of some frustration to the two young women who have been dropping in and out of the Pilgrimage proper yet remaining quite insistent it seems on getting what they want from today’s trip, which is Caesarea. Johanna is well able for them I note, with some satisfaction.

Our drive back is through the Valley of Armageddon, its plain so vast and flat that it does indeed seem the perfect setting for some kind of “final conflict”. Nearer to Tiberias, we again skirt the Horns of Hittim and (probably due to a bit of psychological attribution) it does seem really a troubled and eerie place, scene of such a catastrophe in the short lived age of the Crusader Kingdom of Outremer.

We’re at the hotel quite early and, although the sun has disappeared behind the hills and much of the heat is gone, there’s enough daylight for Mairéad to walk into town and for me to have a run out along the road in the direction of Bet She’an before darkness falls.

Later, there’s a little communal ceremony in the hotel, where Pilgrim Certificates are presented, kind words are spoken, and gifts bestowed on Fr. Gerry, Johanna and Lev. There’s a good feeling in the air on this last evening together.

Mairéad gets packing in earnest after this, and all is harmonious and calm, except maybe for a premonitory rumbling and cramping in my stomach.

Sunday, Nov. 6th – Tiberias to Dublin

About 02:00 I’m forced to acknowledge I’m the latest in our steady list of casualties of the twenty-four-hour bug that’s been creeping slowly through our party (already having claimed not just Christy, but several others in the group. Its debilitating and relentless effects put paid to the rest of the night, but thankfully Mairéad is unaffected and sleeps soundly through.

Before struggling down to our 07:30 Mass, I pop a couple of Imodium “Instants” and fortunately they live up to their name, thus removing one potentially awkward aspect of the journey home. There’s still a very confused head, and significant nausea to contend with however so I’m already started into the game of calculating how many hours it will be before I’m able to sit once more in the safety of hearth and home. Sixteen I reckon.

One promise I have to keep though is to spend a little time down on the lake shore. Walking slowly, it doesn’t prove so difficult to pick a way through the jumbled rocks to the water’s edge, in warm and hazy sunshine, and to look out over the water to the heights of Golan opposite, and then up along to the West to the Mount of Beatitudes and to Capernaum. This is one of the things I’d imagined doing on this trip and the twenty minutes spent here feels like somehow I’m filling a spiritual container which I’ll carry with me on journeys to come. Funny how one can feel miserable and yet good at the same time.

Back at the hotel, things are in good shape. Mairéad is cheerful and upbeat and affords me some (but not too much) sympathy. It seems there are now three more of us who have succumbed to the mysterious malaise. I don’t envy them and I wonder if I’m over the worst myself or if there’s more to come. We’ll see.

At 11:00 sharp we’re pulling away from the Rimonim Mineral in bright sunshine, variously talkative or taciturn, fit or fragile, but collectively glad to be on our way. One coffee-stop and two and a half hours later, we’re at the airport and into a combination of Check-In, Passport Control, and various security procedures. Six separate queues and almost two hours later, we’re finally in the Departure area. Johanna has shepherded us through as far as she can before bidding us farewell and heading off to resume her “real” life; it’s funny the intensity and the brevity of these transient relationships. She’s made a big and (for Mairéad and I at least) a positive impression.

I’m tired, and a bit weak, but Mairéad is quickly away to spend our paltry last few Shekels in Duty Free. Nora, a woman of the “Wesht” (pronounces every “s” with a complementary “h”) is our latest casualty, so I’m sitting with her in the holding area pending the return of the smiling one.

Finally, we’re ferried out to our plane and installed. The flight, it’s announced, will encounter headwinds and is scheduled for over six hours; so, that’s how long I’ll have to last. Seated near the back, we’re hearing from further up the plane of yet more people who our North of England cabin crew tell us are “feeling a bit poorly”. In due course though, our big bird takes a deep breath and a long full-tilt taxi before punching a plane-shaped hole into the night sky over Palestine, a red rimmed horizon fading away to the West and our momentous adventure ending.

Mercifully, I find myself drifting in and out of sleep for almost half the journey and by the time I’m fully awake again I’m certain that the sickness is passing and that I’ll be feeling better soon. Mairéad meanwhile is chatting away to fellow passengers in her own inimitable way. All things pass, and so it is also with this flight; indeed, the last twenty minutes of our final approach, up the Wicklow coast, past the blazing glow of the city and then banking West to glide in over Howth, is magical. There isn’t a breath of wind and we truly are in a different element, outside time and place, carried serenely in on this miracle of flight.

That’s not how everyone is feeling, sadly, a fact we’re reminded of as we pull up some distance from Terminal 1 and beside a row of ambulances. Paramedics in high visibility jackets are quickly on board to assess those still suffering, concerned no doubt about the possibility of some infectious viral outbreak. To Mairéad’s amusement, I make what seems to her a Lazarus like recovery from my sickly stupor, galvanized she reckons by the unpalatable prospect of a visit to hospital. I’d call it just a happy coincidence.

Meanwhile Stephen and his girl Áine are already deployed, team-working in their capable double-act to meet us at Arrivals (Áine) and then rendezvous with the car (Stephen) upstairs. Back at the house they’ve put the heating on and lit the stove. If ever we need reminding of the blessings of the love and affection of a caring family we’ll just think of this night, at the end of our great once-in-a-lifetime expedition, back once more into the company of those we hold so dear. Mission accomplished. Deo Gratias.


As for myself, well, I've been writing most of my adult life. My poems and stories have been published in a number of (mostly Irish) journals, and I've been fortunate enough to win a competition every now and then. In 2014 I self-published a Historical Novel, Season of Snow, which concerns the 13th century Crusade against the Cathars of South Western France. An updated edition was published earlier this year, as a (very) modest level of sales seems to be continuing.

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