Holy Land. A Very Long, Late Post, which only covers about 25%

Right, these words are only a couple of months overdue but it feels today like a good time to start – and possibly finish – writing about the pilgrimage I was part of in June. I was fortunate to have a couple of people give me the same advice before I went, namely, ‘don’t try to take every detail in; just go with what you notice – the things you remember will be the ones that are most significant for you.’ Sounds obvious, but with so much to do, see, think, reflect and wonder upon each day, it was good to have permission to not try to do, see, think, reflect and wonder upon everything. I recorded notes in the first few days back so some of the phrases here are direct quotes from that.

By way of explanation – I didn’t know I was going on the trip until quite late in the day, a couple of months before. The excitement was tempered by knowing my opportunity was because someone else was in pain and could not go; they kindly lent me their camera, too, which was lovely. I’d missed all the official briefings, and didn’t really even know who else was going until I got to LHR. By way of preparation I had been lent a very in-depth archaeological guide; given a theology essay to read, acquired a secular guidebook and had a re-read of Extreme Rambling, by Mark Thomas.

We did so much that lots of things have blurry edges – not sure if I remember things in the right order or not. Generally it’s easy to remember what happened in or near Jerusalem and what happened in or near Tiberius but if you want blog posts of actual detail of actual churches visited in chronological order then I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

Mount of Olives. This did two things. First – I was having a minor wobble, probably tiredness-induced, that I really ought not to be there after all. Concerned that the blinging churches, the disputes in Israel and the touristyness of places would mean I’d leave the trip not enthused and excited, but completely atheist. Cured by a cat, who gave me something to focus on instead of the group of near-strangers I was with. Second – made me think ‘bloody hell, I’m in Jerusalem,’ for the first and definitely not the last time. You would expect me to say that seeing the city from the Mount of Olives, understanding the geography and looking at the landscape was amazing, and of course it was. So I shan’t dwell on that too much.

One of the weird things was about the churches. Every significant site had a church built on it. Once you’d decided to leave behind the initial scepticism (‘right… so it was definitely this rock that Jesus touched then?’) and went with a more broad approach (‘it’s only going to be a few miles out if it’s not the exact rock’) it was a little easier. But, so many interesting places had a church – that after a while, bearing in mind I am not a huge church architecture fan – the buildings themselves were rather leaving me cold. Here in England, I need to go into a church to remind myself of the sacred, to find a space dedicated to God to give me a sense of change of place and pace. Standing in Jerusalem, or Bethany, or by the shores of Galilee (especially by the shores of Galilee) I didn’t need a separate place to go. The whole land was important. Just being there felt like prayer – with the actual thought, or spoken, or read prayers layering on top. So I was almost surprised when people went into the building to start to pray. That probably makes no sense outside my head.

All fear of losing faith had left me by the time a meditation in St Peter Gallicantu had made me cry, quietly in the corner, so no-one could see… And the first Eucharist put the seal on that, despite a lack of order of service making me feel awkward (still don’t know the words) and being caught out giggling during the Peace.

Western Wall. I was standing with my hand, on the wall, that is what’s left of the Temple. Yes, that one. That Temple. I touched a building that Jesus was in. There’s not a lot else I can say about that – one of the most important few minutes of the trip.

Silly things. Masada, and hiding in the shade whilst sharing a short attention span for desert ruins. Seeing Jordan, and the Dead Sea for the first time – being on a new bit of the map for me. Then floating in the Dead Sea, which was a very odd feeling – lying in the water looking at the blue sky and the hotel blocks opposite thinking hard to myself, ‘I am in the Dead Sea…I am floating in the Dead Sea…’ trying to fix that point in my mind, the feel of the water and the sun and the strangeness of the sensation of easily floating. And laughing, laughing a lot.

Later that day, “this is proper Judean desert. This is very deserty. That’s the road to Jericho, and there’s a monastery in the side of the rock.”

That was St George’s (I think) and another Interesting Moment for me. More than once the significance of where I was and what I was doing hit me right between the eyes.

Via Dolorosa. Well. I’d read stuff about this. What I had read had told me that this was actually an import in to Jerusalem from pilgrims wanting to re-enact the route of Jesus’ journey to crucifixion. So it was significant of place but only approximate in route. I think people thought I was hungover at the start because I was fairly withdrawn, not because of quantity of wine the previous night, however, but because I wanted to try to stay quiet, to stay reflective, and whether I believed it was the ‘right’ route or not, to go with it. To live with the substance not the circumstances. A large and talkative group wasn’t conducive to that. So I stayed on the fringes, listening, recording, watching, and thinking as much as I could. We ended in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, which lived up to its billing as the place where all of the worst of humanity can be seen. Our walk of the via dolorosa dissolved at that point…

Early on Sunday morning four of us went back to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, not as tourists in a crowd but to see and hear the worship that was taking place. Just grabbed me, in awe. Incense, music, chant, familiar and unfamiliar. Another amazing few minutes. Watching the other three being completed awed, too, added to it, somehow.

Viv only had one day in Jerusalem so once we’d had lunch, Teresa & I showed her the interesting bits (I was sure…until about a week ago, that they only let me tag along because I had a map). I enjoyed that afternoon, despite the insecurities, as it was a taste of freedom after several days of being dependent on tour guides and a tour coach. And a chance to go back to the Mount of Olives, and join a few more bits of the city up; and another chance to touch the Western Wall.

River Jordan. Such a mix of wonderful, uplifting, stop-you-in-your-tracks spiritual wonder; and the downright comic. Let’s just say, I blame @watfordgap and @pamwebster for an awful lot of what has happened lately, because they suggested last January I join with the Methodists in saying the covenant prayer…

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.

So the point at which I opened the order of service I’d been given and saw this was written was the point I figured that I was probably going to cry, and I did. Standing by the River Jordan, renewing one’s baptismal vows, thinking about how God can use any part of your life – or none – well, I defy you not to cry. I also defy you not to laugh at the slightly older man standing in the river in his underpants, and much as I would like to blog a lot more about that particular story it would be unfair to do so. Let’s just say it was a last minute request for a full immersion baptism – and that whilst it caused a minor hiccup for our leaders, it was a major moment for him.

Tiberius. I will not, for as long as I can manage, forget standing on the shores of the sea of Galilee and just looking. And looking again. And putting my feet into the water. And looking at ‘see those hills? Those were Jesus’ hills,’ and laughing with Viv because if we hadn’t laughed we would have been chaining ourselves to railings wanting to never leave. There were two lovely moments that stand out – definitely the two I will hang on to, as predicted by those who advised me before I left.

The first was Mensa Christi. The church – nice, nothing special. The beach, where, with a tolerance of plus or minus 56 km and 2000 years, Jesus appeared to his disciples, cooked breakfast for them, and reinstated Peter after his betrayal – now, that was special. No chance of hiding subtle tears there. We heard the reading, delivered in stentorian tones from the KJV, and I didn’t notice. I did notice that it was Viv and me who were not standing, heads bowed prayerfully looking at our feet. You know why? Because just over there, that big wet thing, that’s your actual Sea of Galilee. As a child I was taught that one closed one’s eyes in prayer to be able to block out distractions. When I’m standing next to the Actual Sea of Galilee, that is not a distraction, that is a big ol’ lakeful of prayer just right there, wetly, wanting to be looked at, waiting to be seen. Can you tell that I loved that moment? Could not take my eyes off the water.

The second moment that I will keep close was the Eucharist by the water’s edge. The one and only time I have willingly sat in the front row of a church setting, for starters. There were two very excited priests and I did not want to miss seeing that, just seeing their happiness and fulfilment and utter flippin’ joyfulness was awesome without actually even considering that I could take part, that I was invited to that version of the Lord’s table, myself. Then a nice thing happened – we formed a circle for distribution, we made space for Bassam, our guide, and he joined us. It felt like the right thing to do – and I think it was.

The last couple of things of significance… a boat trip across the water – quiet, warm breeze, listening to the background chatter, listening to the reading, enjoying not being talked to.

On the penultimate evening, leading Compline. Hearing Teresa’s best vicar voice in the group, helping me pace the words for everyone.

Saying Morning Prayer on the shore with Viv. Running.

Really, really, really not wanting to leave – on the last morning being awake at 5am, watching others gazing at the lake for the last time. Being so very grateful for @sigrunmwagner’s welcome back to London.

There are recordings from some places at audioboo.fm/drbattytowers.

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2 thoughts on “Holy Land. A Very Long, Late Post, which only covers about 25%

  1. I went to Israel in 2000 (when I was a student, with a group of theology students from all over the place) and loved it. I really want to go back one day but I don’t know if I ever will. Thanks for sharing your experiences. 🙂

  2. P.S. The Sea of Galilee was a highlight for me, too…and the Western Wall. We went in the tunnels underneath and saw how the temple was built – it was fascinating.

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