Holy Land—Day 8

Every morning we’ve been rising at 6, having breakfast at 6:30, and heading out on the bus by 7:30. Today we were up at 5 and heading out at 6.

That’s because today we did the Via Dolorosa, or the Stations of the Cross.  It’s a popular stop for pilgrims, and we wanted to get ahead of the rest of them because the way is though narrow little streets, maybe 15 feet wide, if that, that have to accommodate pedestrians and sometimes vehicles.

There weren’t many vehicles out this early—just those that


Empty early-morning streets

were picking up trash and hauling things—and the pedestrians weren’t tourists, they were locals, both Jews and Arabs. I felt conspicuous, something I’m not used to, especially as we sang our Christian songs, softly, so as not to be intrusive.

As we walked, we passed locked metal doors in the old walls. Early sun filtered through the strip of open air above us, and the narrow road had a tunnel-like feel. The “street” had ramps on one side and steps on the other, which explained the narrowness of the utility vehicles that came through now and then—not stopping or even slowing for anyone. It was definitely “pedestrian beware.”

This is the


The third station.

Palestinian part of the city, so we saw men and a few women with the telltale head wrappings. Jewish folks came through, too, some of the men with yarmulkas and some with the black hats and sideburn curls of the Hassidic Jews. A very few said good morning; most of them ignored us.

Amid this atmosphere, we found our first station, just a plaque on the wall. Hard to imagine this was the place where Jesus was condemned to death. Some of the stations had more prominent markings, some were adjacent to


Shops are open.

Christian churches. We sang “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom,” as we walked from station to station, eliciting a few curious glances from the residents. At each station we prayed a meditation together, then moved on.

It took maybe an hour, and by the time we finished and headed back through the streets, the shops were open, creating a bazaar-like atmosphere. Many of the shop owners intercepted us to push their wares. In fact, that happened wherever we went, and we had to learn to say no and just keep moving. The more aggressive ones would lockstep with us.

“Beautiful bag, only 10 dollar. You like bag? Maybe 8 dollar?” I always felt rude to just ignore


Reaching under the altar and through the hole to touch the stone where Jesus cross was erected.

them and keep my eyes forward. It wasn’t so bad at these shops, but the ones who accosted us as soon as we alighted from the bus reminded me of seagulls circling for handouts.

The Via Dolorosa was moving, but there was more to come.


The slab where Jesus body was prepared for burial.

We headed for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where we first passed by the slab of rock on which Jesus lay after being taken down from the cross. Many went down on their knees to press a gentle kiss on that cold stone. I couldn’t get down that far, but I did touch it. Then we headed to the nearby Blessed Sacrament Chapel for Mass. Near the altar was a statue of St. Joseph, whose feast day was today. He’s the patron for me and George because we were married on this day.



Lined up to enter the Holy Sepulchre.

this point, the church had been fairly empty. When we left the chapel, to visit the tomb of Our Lord just a few yards away, we were met with throngs of people. The line stretched forever.

“Well, what can we do?” our guide Raouf said, and we trudged off to the end of the line. I’m not sure who was behind, but the group in front of us was from Romania. The women wore skirts over their slacks and leggings, and colorful scarves as head coverings. We wore neither, and I felt like the typical casual American. As I watched those people of other countries around me, I was reminded that while reverence may be in the heart, respect is shown outwardly. A dress to church on Sundays


The cane ladies

isn’t a bad habit to cultivate—as long as my heart has been prepared, too.

We spent over two hours in that line, and my little cane with the seat was never so appreciated. I heard someone behind me say, “She’s lucky she can sit down.” After I finally made it to the Holy Sepulchre and came out to wait for the others, I spotted a whole row of ladies with canes just like mine. We all grinned at each other and proceeded to have a short little gab fest. Fr. Carl took our picture with my camera. Too bad I’ll probably never see them again.

Now, about the Holy Sepulchre. It was a quick visit, maybe 60 seconds total. That sounds rushed, and I suppose it was, but with that many people, there wasn’t much choice.


Part of the Crusader church at Lazarus’ house

We’d spent our time inline gazing around at the gorgeous church, with its mosaics and elaborate carvings and the hanging oil lamps, high curving arches, and beautiful stone work. Lots of pictures got snapped.

The closer we got to the Holy Sepulchre, which is located under a small building within the church itself, the lines became two abreast. When we arrived, the priest let us in five at a time. In the anteroom was a glass case with the remains of the stone before Jesus’ tomb. Bits and pieces of it had been carried away by the devout over the years until this last piece was saved.

Then we entered the room that contained the slab on which


Me on a camel!

Jesus lay in the tomb. We touched it, reverently, and I laid my rosary on it. I’ll never use that rosary again without remembering where it lay, even if for only a few seconds. Being in that sepulchre made Jesus’ incarnation real in a new way. U fortunately, no photos were allowed to be taken in the sepulchre.

I begged off the next part of our tour. Raouf said there would be a lot of walking, and my knees are about trashed despite having a cane, so I decided to stay on the bus and get a head start on this blog. The others went to see the Eastern gate of the wall around old Jerusalem, near the Temple Mount (now controlled by the Muslims), and they also saw the old Muslim cemetery, built centuries ago.

Funny story about that cemetery. When the Muslims heard that the prophecies said the Messiah would enter Jerusalem through the eastern gate, they put their cemetery outside the walls because that would “defile” the land for the Jews, and they were sure the Jewish Messiah would not be able to enter the gate. Didn’t work, of course; at least not as far as Jesus was concerned.

Also 46AAD8DA-C18C-46C0-AC2D-0E0629C359B6included in our afternoon was a visit to the shepherds’ field, upon which a church was built, of course—built by Canada; and a visit to the Church of Lazarus, in Bethany, built over the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Raouf read the story of Lazarus, and told us that his being raised from the dead by Jesus was the turning point for Jesus. From this point on, the Jewish plotted ways to kill him.

The current church was built in 1952. First there was a Byzantine church, destroyed by the Persians, and then a Crusader church, also destroyed by Muslims who built a mosque over it. Finally the Franciscans bought the land that was left and built the current church.

It still amazes me to see the mammoth stone walls from centuries ago, and to see the remains of tiled floors, now protected by special glass; bits and pieces of the men of long ago who are now crumbled to dust. I always wonder , as I touch the beautiful stone, if my hand has fallen in the same spot as one of the builders.

 Now—from the sublime to the ridiculous. At the foot of the slope to the church was a small shop where some of our group paused to buy more goodies to take home. There was also a camel named Jimmy.

“You ride the camel? Five dollar,” its handler said. First I said no. Then someone else climbed aboard, and after that I couldn’t resist. With not much grace and with the help of the handler I mounted and hung on for dear life as Jimmy lurched to his feet. The ride was short, but fun. I rode a camel! Definitely a perk I never expected from this trip.

Tonight we pack, tomorrow we tour and then we head to the airport for a 10 pm flight. I’ll finish the last of the Holy Land stories when I get back home, for those of you who are still with me.

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Holy Land—Day 7

While yesterday was play day, today was about tears. Today we moved closer to Jesus in his most significant moments, and tears flowed freely for different people at different sites. We’re moving closer to the Via Dolorosa, and the holy places have taken on a more somber  note.

For my friend, it was descending into the cave where


Raouf directs us to the small door—for humility, to enter the Church of the Nativity.

Jesus was born, touching the spot and bending close to the rough stone that was his first “home.” For me, it was the garden of Gethsemane, and listening to our guide Raouf read the



We all touched this spot where Jesus was born.

account of Jesus’ betrayal and his willing acceptance of what needed to be done to carry out the Father’s will and bring the kingdom of God alive.

“It’s a mistake to say Jesus was ‘arrested,’” Raouf said. “When the soldiers came and asked for him, he stepped forward and said ‘here I am.’”

Raouf pointed out that while other kings send soldiers to do their fighting , and let other people defend them, Jesus did the opposite. He is the king who fought for us, alone,


Raouf explains things in the cave of the Nativity.

against the devil and the world’s evils, against all that would keep us from the kingdom of God. Sitting there, just yards away from the Church of All Nations which houses the rock of Jesus’ agony, I was moved to tears because it all suddenly seemed so close and so real. It’s one thing to read about Jesus’ sacrifice, it’s another to be where it began.

This church is built on the site of a Byzantine church that was destroyed by the Persians. No other


St. Jerome’s tomb.

church stood there until 1919 when money from Catholics around the world paid for a new one. That’s why it’s called the Church of aAll Nations.

At supper tonight we talked about our reactions to the day, and all seemed to have been affected by this day more than others—so far. We’re all learning to appreciate even more the beauty of our faith, and the goodness of our God.

“I’m not going to be such a quiet, passive Catholic


Touching the rock of the ascension.

as I have been,” one woman said. “I’m going to speak out for what I believe.” 

We visited other places today, too. One was the Church of the Pater Noster, or Our Father. St. Helena, mother of Constantine,


Early Christian cemetery.

built four major basilicas, three of which were destroyed by Muslims. One was Eleona, which means olive, in the area Jesus would have walked through when going to Jerusalem. It was destroyed by the Persians (today’s Iranians). Later the Crusaders did some research and discovered that according to Luke 11, Jesus taught the Our Father there. They built a new church which was destroyed by Saladin in 1187.

It wasn’t until 1842 that the Carmelites bought the land and found artifacts that proved to be the remains of St. Helena’s church.

The current church


Me, with old Jerusalem and the east gate in background.

is called Eleona Pater Noster, and the walls of the courtyards hold large murals of the Lord’s Prayer in over 180 languages and dialects, including Ukrainian and Korean, which are of particular interest to me.

So, we stood amid the ruins of the original Byzantine church and prayed the Our Father together, and then Raouf recited it in Aramaic, Jesus’ own tongue. It was a special moment for all of us.

We saw a Jewish cemetery with the pebbles on the graves


Rock of the agony, where another group was having Mass.

placed by people who visit, and we saw an early Christian cemetery, where the bones of bodies were placed in small caskets called “bone eaters.” These were former Jews who weren’t allowed to use the Jewish cemetery because of their conversions t9 Christianity.

We  drove through checkpoints manned by soldiers with guns, we listened to Muslim calls to prayer from the minarets of mosques placed strategically near Christian churches, we experienced Orthodox Jewish men being careful not to touch us in elevators because we might be unclean, and we came to realize the sometimes not-so-subtle tensions among the three religions in this area of Holy history.

And we met Jesus in a new kind of way, developing a bit more our love for him and gratitude for what he has called us to.

People have told me this pilgrimage would be life-changing. They were right. And we’ve still two days to go.

(I’m posting this from  an iPad and it suddenly won’t give me access to my photos. I’ll have to add photos tomorrow, but I wanted to at least get the narrative up today.)

(The photos are up!)

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Holy Land—Day 6

Sometimes people forget casual acquaintances rather quickly. It’s those who have proved reliable when needed that become best friends. My cane is now my best friend.

At first during this trip it seemed I misplaced it twice a day. Now it’s the first thing I grab and the last thing I relinquish. My knees wouldn’t have it any other way. But, although it has made getting around much easier, I still had to sit out a couple things today, at least in part.

We started the day with Mass at the site of the Last


Church at the Upper Room site,

Supper in the upper room. Our guide, Raouf, had told us that most original sites are many feet below current ground level because of a series of destruction and rebuilding due to earthquakes and devastation from things like the Persian armies. Still, the simple church with its striking Last Supper sculpture behind the altar, and the proximity to Jesus’ last meal, brought a reverent hush to our talkative group before Mass started.

Then the focus of the day changed. Instead of looking for Jesus’ footsteps, we broadened our journey. The first stop after Mass was Masada, the ruined fortress that sits on top of a 1,300-foot Mesa near the Dead Sea. It’s not mentioned in the Bible, but It is revered by the Jews because


Our priests and their sculptured predecessors.

nearly 1,000 Jewish men, women and children committed suicide there rather than submit to an advancing Roman army.

Most of our group rode a gondola to the top of the Mesa and then spent over an hour touring the ruins. Four us stayed below in the visitor center, where we saw the model of the famous fortress, and watched wave after wave of pilgrims arrive from the many buses parked


Salty edges of the Dead Sea that we’re once underwater.

outside, speaking all kinds of languages and coming from many different countries.

I struck up a conversation with a Mexican lady who joined me on a bench. She said she was 94 and this was her second trip to the Holy Land. I commented on her beautiful necklace—Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“You’re Catholic?”


Part of the Masada ruins.

she asked, and then smiled when I said yes. Instant bond.

From the visitor center I could see, through my telephoto lens, part of the ruins atop the Mesa. I also had a good view of the stark, barren landscape all around on which very little grows, and the Dead Sea in the distance. 

That Dead Sea, by the way, surprised me. I’m not sure what I expected, but it looked like any other


One of the Qumran caves.

big body of water, with waves gently lapping at the shore. Raouf told that it gets shallower every year, and that in 50 years, if something doesn’t change, the Dead Sea will not only be dead, it will have disappeared. I’m glad it was still here for our visit. We had driven along its shore on our way to Masada through an area called En-Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in the Old Testament.

We planned to get a closer view of the Dead Sea but first we stopped at Qumran (spelled Kumran on the road signs), a desert


Old pottery kiln.

settlement of the monk-like sect called Essenes. The Roman army wiped them out in 68 AD, but not before they had hastily hidden their library of scrolls in clay jars in the nearby caves in the hills. In 1947 a Bedouin boy found one of the caves, and the resulting excavations located some of the earliest Old Testament books.

We walked among the ruins of the Essene community (John the Baptist was rumored to have been an Essene), and saw the remains of bathing pools, a refectory, and a kiln where they fired their pottery. The sun beat down on us, and it was hot. We’d left 40 degrees at 2,500 feet above E8BAEF1F-6E4F-4505-87C4-607F03356F10Sea Level, and found temps in the 70s and 80s by the Dead Sea, 1,400 feet below sea level.

Then we headed to the Dead Sea itself for some pure fun. Anyone who wished could either float in its waters, or at least wade along the shore, and they brought appropriate clothing to change into. I declined, figuring that a cane and gratzy knees wouldn’t do well with rocks and extremely slippery mud.

They say you can’t sink in the Dead Seas because of its high concentration of  

salt.90B23D45-9003-4FEE-A1C3-E1704BE714EE It’s also loaded with many other precious minerals. Those who went all the way in assured me that although they tried, the Sea insisted they float.

“It’s even hard to walk because the water wants to make your leg float,” one floater reported.

People smeared themselves with the black mud, let it dry, then went back In for a rinse before rinsing again in the public showers. A few took advantage of camel rides. Oh yes, we saw quite a few of those ships of the desert during our rides through the barren hills.

I satisfied myself with grabbing photos and marveling at the beauty of the barren hills that I’m beginning to appreciate. It’s not a land for the faint-of-heart, though.

This was, perhaps, a less reflective day. But it was still


Some of us rode a shuttle to the sea.

Jesus’ land, and I’m beginning to see that people who lived here could best understand His allusions to life-giving water, and to taking on his yoke that is less burdensome than what their religion, their culture and their land provided.

After the ride back to our hotel we headed to dinner and ate like wolves. Our current hotel isn’t kosher like the last one was, so the food and its combinations  are more familiar to us. I do think, though, that we’re more tired each day-and the toughest is yet to come. But that’s what pilgrimage is all about.

(We’ll be rising VERY early Tuesday morning, which will mean getting to bed early tomorrow night. If I don’t get a blog posted, I’ll get to it eventually. Promise!)

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Holy Land—Day 5

I thought I knew what wilderness is. But my vision of the wilderness where John the Baptist lived, and where Jesus spent 40 days fasting, was nothing like the real thing. I met the real thing today.

I also met the harsh realities of life today in an area where deeply embedded religious beliefs allow for no compromise when


A Bedouin enclave in the barren hills

deciding who lives where; where walls and divisions are a way of life.

We started the day by checking out of our hotel in Tiberias and heading south toward Jerusalem. The temperature was cool, and the rain meant we all wore jackets. The farther we went, the bleaker the terrain became, with rounded hills of solid rock and almost no vegetation. I found myself wondering why anyone would fight for such land. At the same time, we saw Bedouin dwellings huddled in the folds of the hills,


Fr. Brian blesses water for our renewal of promises.

ragged and worn and looking not fit for habitation, and people driving herds of sheep and goats in the seemingly fruitless search for graze. These people live in this land, close at hand to it, looking it in the eye each day, and surviving. This is the land through which Jesus chose to wander.

Our first stop was the Jordan River, in which Jesus was baptized. We learned that because any running water is considered holy water and can be used for ritual cleansing, the Jews often dipped


Me, Fr. Carl & the Jordan River. 

themselves into the Jordan on their way to Jerusalem. So, the sight of John the Baptist immersing people in the river was the link, just as he was, between the Old and New testaments, since his baptism had a twist—it was about forgiveness of sin. This immersion, in which Jesus participated, was both old and new.

I think it was bittersweet for all of us to see that river and remember that holy event, while passing rows of fencing with signs warning of land mines. “Don’t stray off the path,” our guide told is. We were on the West Bank, in Palestinian land occupied by Israel,


An orange sign warning of land mines.

and right across the river was the country of Jordan. The government of Israel had opened this little corridor  through the electric fencing just so people like us could experience the river for ourselves.

A visitor center at the river’s edge made the visit more friendly, but once we walked down to the muddy waters, none of that mattered for the moment. This was the river that had played such a role in Jesus’ life, and I was looking at it. 

A few yards from us, a church group had donned some


The Baptist’s cave—and modern stairway.

of the thin garments for sale at the center, and had waded into the river for baptism. Since we’ve already been baptized, we instead were led by Fr. Carl and Fr. Brian in the renewal of our baptismal promises. Some of us collected small samples of the water to take home.

But the day had only just begun. Our next stop was the Mount of the Temptation—or at least, the one that has carried that reputation for hundreds of years. To one side was the cave where supposedly John the Baptist had lived. Seen like that, it’s no wonder


Orthodox monastery

people thought he was strange. There was once an Orthodox monastery at the very top of Jesus’ mount, but it was destroyed by the Persians (the Iranians of today). The monks who were forced out lived in the caves in the rocks until the 1800s, when a new monastery was carved out on the slopes. The sight of it provided a whole new appreciation for total dedication to God.

As he did at all the stops we made, our guide Raouf read from Scripture and fleshed out the background, explaining the little details that we may tend to gloss over because “you had to be there.” Raouf is neither Jew nor


Mosque and minaret.

Arab, but another ethnicity from—Turkey? I can’t remember. The point is, his perspective isn’t particularly weighted toward one side or the other. We learn a lot from him. He’s also a deeply committed Catholic.

From there we traveled to Jericho, a Palestinian town that I frankly found quite unattractive. It’s built in that wilderness, but a major spring has allowed people to thrive there. Raouf said there has been some sort of settlement there for 10,000 years. It’s a vacation destination for wealthy people from Jerusalem, some of whom have built large homes. I won’t say beautiful—although some are—but the architecture tends to be as stark and spare as the landscape.

Mosques dot that landscape. While we stood in the courtyard of the Church of the Good


Today’s Mass in Jericho.

Shepherd, which is attached to a Catholic school, the call to prayer sounded loudly from the minaret looming over the roof of the school. It was a reminder that this is an Arab town, and that we were very much in the minority. Minutes after the call ended, we entered the church for Mass. They have their call to prayer, we have ours—the Angelus. I’m inclined to pay more attention to that prayer now, which celebrates the incarnation of God. How blessed we are to have a God who would do that for us.

We eventually ended up in Jerusalem, passing through yet another military checkpoint.

“Do NOT take pictures!” Raouf warned. Old newspaper reporter that I am I could feel my shutter finger twitching. But the tone of his voice made it clear this was serious, and since I’d like to get home to George and Tillie eventually, I restrained myself.

Just beyond Jerusalem is Bethlehem, almost like a suburb, and sporting no angels on high nor any of the humble mien of the Bethlehem of Scripture. We stopped there at the shop of a Palestinian Christian to buy gifts to take home, and then went back to Jerusalem to check into the hotel where we’ll stay for the rest of our pilgrimage.

But after today, in a way I find hard to explain, I understand the enormity of Jesus’ countercultural call to emerge from arid rigidity and letter of the law spirituality to life-giving discipleship from the God-man who provides living water.

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Holy Land—Day 4

The older I get, the more I love to look at ruins. Maybe it’s a need to remind myself that, in comparison, I’m just a young whippersnapper. Today, I could have regressed to the egg and still had room to go. We went to Bet She’an.

This was a crossroads town at the intersection of Israel’s two main valleys. In the days of King Saul it was controlled by the Philistines. E142F02A-6983-4173-9596-ABFCBB786236Today, archaeologists have excavated the remains of the commercial area, with its rooms, public baths and shrines to various gods . There’s a theater with its rising rows of seats topped by doors to the vomitoriums. Yep, bulimia made respectable.

We all went into giggles over the public bathrooms—side-by-side pairs of marble slabs meant to be straddled—and no evidence that men were separated from women. We took turns straddling and photographing


What a way to “go.”

and howling with laughter at the indignity of it all.

Bet She’an was fascinating, but not nearly as moving as the Church of the 

Primacy of Peter. Inside the church is the rock which tradition says Jesus, after his resurrection, ate breakfast with the apostles and told Peter he was the rock upon which Jesus would build his church. I actually touched that rock- maybe even the spot where Jesus sat. You never know.

We strolled along the Sea of Galilee and picked up rocks and sand to take home with us. Some waded in the water.


My friend Donna & I at the Sea of Galilee.

I scooped up a handful to bless myself with. I could almost, but not quite, tmake out a fishing boat with the impetuous Peter dropping nets at Jesus’ direction.

Our priests and deacon celebrated an outdoor Mass there, and we could hear other groups holding their Masses, too. The universal Church that grew from that motley crew of 12 who answered Jesus’ call. In this humble spot, with the Sea of Galilee lapping at its shores, a holy place that moved me to


Diane picks a Sea of Galilee rock.


We all decided that God was with us today, since the predicted rain never showed up, and when lunchtime arrived and our restaurant was full to the brim, we were upgraded to its sister establishment just down the road. It was a classy place, and we were served—what else—St. Peter’s Fish. We had to look our fish right in the eye, because they were served with heads on and bones within, deep fried and crispy. Definitely not much of a Friday Lenten penance. For dessert: fresh dates and little cups of espresso. 

Next we traveled to the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes at the Church of the Heptopegon,


The black is from Jesus’ synagogue.

the seven springs, overseen by the Benedictines. There our guide Raouf pointed out that Jesus instructed his apostles to distribute the bread, which multiplied as they did so, foreshadowing their role as priests, distributing the Bread of Life. The current church was built in 1913 on the ruins of a Byzantine church built in 462 but later destroyed by the Persians. Some of the original floor tiles remain.

Then we were off to more ruins, but very special


Ruins of Peter’s mother-in-law’s house.

ruins, that of Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, the headquarters for Jesus and his apostles, in Capernaum. Those ruins are now straddled by a new church, which is raised so that we could peer at the rooms where Jesus likely ate and visited with his friends. Nearby is the ruins of the late 4th century “white synagogue” built over Jesus’ synagogue. The black, basaltic rock foundation still shows, foundation Jesus very likely saw when he went to preach his


Fr. Carl, Fr. Brian, Dan. Mark at Mass.

Good News.

At supper tonight someone with a FitBit said we’d walked over 5 miles today. My knees weren’t surprised. That’s why we appreciated our last stop: the Sea of Galilee, where we took a boat ride and those who were so inclined learned to dance the Hava Navila. 

“Do you suppose,” I asked Fr. Carl, “we could be gliding over the very spot where Jesus calmed the waters?” He assured me it was entirely


St. Peter’s fish—and fries!

possible. I like to think it happened.

Tid bits: 

  • “Sea” is the only Jewish word for a body of water, even if it’s fresh water, as is the Sea of Galilee. We would have called it a lake.
  • 27 species of fish live in it, but the biggest are the catfish because they aren’t caught. Jews eat no fish without scales or backbones.
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Holy Land—Day 3

I didn’t lose my cane once today. Things are improving.

On the other hand, my cane is getting famous. Standing in the lobby of the hotel, a woman stranger came up to me, gesturing at my cane, and said, “I lead tour groups, and I’m going to recommend those from now on.”


Renewing wedding vows

Even my fellow pilgrims have eyed it enviously when I sit myself down and rest my weary dogs when we’re on a long wait.

The waits haven’t been real long, though. Our wonderful guide, Raouf, has arranged for our arrival at the sites to be sure they’re ready for us. It pays to plan ahead.

While yesterday was a blistering 80 degrees, today it topped off at 60 with intermittent showers. We headed off to the “land of Zebulon” and Christian sites that now live in Israeli Arab towns—Palestinians with Israeli


Mary’s  house

citizenship—where Christians are very much the minority. I was surprised to learn that Nazareth, with a population of 72,000, has only 30,000 Christians, which is more than even Jerusalem has. All street signs throughout most areas we’ve visited are written in three languages: English, Hebrew and Arabic. Looks very peaceful but we know it often isn’t.

Our first stop was in Cana, where the couples in our group renewed their vows at the Cana Catholic Wedding Church, under the custodianship of the Franciscans. It was a touching ceremony, and very poignant for the woman who just lost her husband three weeks ago. Our own Deacon Mark and his wife Chris were among those who stepped forward.

Then on


Joseph’s house

to Nazareth where, at the Church of the Annunciation, we saw Mary’s home where the angel Gabriel told her of her great invitation to be the mother of God. We also saw the remains of Joseph’s home. It touches the heart to see those stone steps, look at the narrow doorway, and picture Jesus running in and out as a boy. We couldn’t get close or stay long at those sites because the staff kept the crowds moving.

And there are crowds. And traffic. And lots of houses and stores sitting elbow to elbow like children’s blocks scooped up into piles. Jesus never saw such sites. But somehow, standing at those ancient holy places, we all felt his presence and that of the Holy Family.

At the Church of the Annunciation, in the chapel of St. Joseph, we had our daily Mass. Sharing the Body and Blood of Christ at the place


Me in the ruins, & the “new” church


where he first came into being was sobering, and joyful—and mind boggling. We all kept repeating it to each other: These are the sites we’ve read about and think we know, and here we are standing in the middle of them. I still can’t quite wrap my mind around it.

For me, that feeling was even more pronounced as we approached Mt. Tabor, looming over the Jezreel Valley. We drove up a road with hairpin turns, then were taken up even higher to the Church at the top, the church built over the ruins of earlier churches destroyed by the Persians and by Saladin, and by whatever Muslim group came to power. Their remains surround the new church,


Byzantine church ruins

walls made of stone, blunted by the ravages of war and time. We sat on benches between those ancient walls and listened to Raouf tie the Bible with history and with the conditions of today—and most of all, with our faith.

The current church holds a glassed enclosure for the stone credited with being Jesus’ place when he was transfigured and spoke with Moses and Elijah. Looking at it was like touching the hem of his robe, feeling his love and grace surround us.

A short climb up stairs beside the church led to a vantage point to gaze out into the Jezreel Valley and the town of Nein, where Jesus raised the widow’s son. A real place, with people who really existed, and I was looking at it with my own eyes.

On the way back to the hotel, I volunteered to lead the rosary, as we do every day during a longer leg of our day’s journey. There was a reward in that, aside from the spiritual one: I got to sit in the very front of the bus, where the guide usually sits. What a view of winding streets, foreign architecture, culture often equally foreign to what I’m used to—the land where Jesus walked.

So what if I don’t know which button to push to use the toilet properly? So what if I don’t fully understand the need for a Shabbat elevator in the hotel? This is still my Land, the place of my spiritual ancestors, the land of my God and his Son. Pretty heady stuff.

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Holy Land—Day 2

Oh what a difference a night of sleep can make.

It wasn’t quite as long a night as I hoped, though. That’s because I wrote yesterday’s blog twice. They told us when we checked in that the wi-if in the rooms wasn’t real dependable, but that it was good in the lobby.

I had to test that, of course. So, I opened up Word Press—which doesn’t work quite the same on this iPad as on my laptop—and lo and behold, the internet worked. So, I sat in my room and wrote directly to the Word Press template,


Outdoor Mass site at the Mount of Beatitudes

then paused to resize some photos. When I went back to Word Press, the blog was gone. Somehow deathless prose doesn’t seem quite as deathless the second time around—but you guys will never know what you missed, so…

Anyway, even the six hours I did get was better than the two previous nights, so rising at six for a quick shower and breakfast didn’t seem so bad. By 7:30 we were on the bus and heading to the site of the Sermon on the Mount, where we


Here come our Priests and deacon

had an outdoor Mass on the grounds of the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph. There were several roofed gathering areas with stone benches and altars, so while we sang and prayed, we could hear other groups doing so at the same time. Adjacent to where we celebrated was the area that was the likely site where Jesus gave his famous discourse. The Sea of Galilee provided the backdrop. Just imagine.

Bethsiada proved to be more of a spot  in the road than anything recognizable from Scripture, but while standing on the bluff there on the Golan Heights, we looked across the field below to the U. N. Peacekeeping compound, still there and


Listening to our tour guide in the Korazim ruins.

operating from the days of war with Syria. We were right on the dividing line, and the Syrian side of the bisecting road was line with thick barbed wire. It was an eerie feeling, knowing we were looking at an area of so much conflict.

Korazim was intriguing—or Chorasim, as you may be used to seeing it spelled. Jesus did much preaching in that area, but the town is now in ruins. We saw the baths for ritual cleansing, located, appropriately enough, adjacent to the small synagogue, and we walked in


Pieces of the synagogue.

the open-air remains of the place where Jesus himself may have preached. A wine merchant’s home, and a fisherman’s home, known because of the artifacts found there, lie in rubble because of the same earthquake that destroyed the synagogue.

For lunch, we went to a Druze town. There’s a word for you to look up; telling you about the Druze would take more time and space than I have right now. We ate at a Druze-owned restaurant, where I had a “sandwich” made of a very thin and flaky bread wrapped around some kind of creamy, slightly sour cheese. I picked a table outside,


U.N. Peacekeeping compound in the foreground, a Syrian town beyond that.

overlooking the Ram Pond, and slipped bits of my sandwich to a panhandling dog. Don’t tell Tillie. (That’s my beagle, who never gets table treats.) 

This is also


Barbed wire on the Syrian side.

where I nearly left my cane behind—for the third time. Or is it fourth? I’m losing track. I heard my name called as I

I headed toward the bus, and there was my roomie Donna, holding my cane from her fingertips. I had told her it was her job to be sure I didn’t lose that cane. Thank you, thank you, Donna!

The last stop of the day: Caesarea Philippi, built by Harold the Great’s son Phillip. It was once home to pagan shrines to Pan, Zeus, Athena, and others, carved out of the most


Photographing snow-covered Mt. Herman

gorgeously colored bluffs, below which flows water from the snow melt off Mt. Herman. We walked and walked, up and down stone steps, along the water, close to the giant cave, under a Roman bridge, wherever history—and our guide—took us.

“Shake a leg,” he’d say to those of lagging behind, either because of gratzy knees or an irresistible desire to photograph everything in sight. We wear an ear phone that allows him to speak with us even if we’re not right on top of him. It’s sort of being on a benevolent leash. Tillie would approve.


Listening to our stour guid at Caesarea Philippi.

This is where, our guide told us, that Jesus took his disciples to talk about things that weren’t for the Pharisees’ ears. He knew they wouldn’t follow because of all those pagan statues. This is where Jesus told Peter he would build his Church on him. I did so want to catch a glimpse that pair. It seemed as if they should walk by at any moment.

We were more than


Caesarea Philippi’s shrine area that once house pagan gods.

ready to head back to Tiberius and our hotel to chill out before supper. Ah, the food. I could say something about the food here. But I won’t. You’ll just have to wait. My bed is calling, and 6 a.m. will come early.


Yours truly at Caesarea Philippi.

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Holy Land—Day 1

8E96ACB6-2AE1-42A0-81F6-07121E1F8B0D.jpegThe day before we left for our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I set my alarm for 3 a.m. in order to make the 4:15 a.m. bus. When I woke up, the sun was shining, I’d missed E2A94845-C756-4F84-BB27-6471D1A235AB.jpegthe alarm, and it was 6 a.m.

After a mad dash to Green Bay to charter a flight to get me to Chicago before my group got there, and dealing with a flippant pilot who didn’t seem inclined to help, I woke up again—this time for real. Pre-trip jitters had provided me with a nice nightmare.

It was when I was at the church, waiting to board the bus to4DBC1481-712C-426F-ADEE-F9159306F3FD.jpeg O’Hare, that I suddenly realized I had left my cane home. This was my handy cane with the folding seat that I bought just to save my gratzy knees. Five minutes after a frantic phone call to George, he arrived with the cane, just as we were boarding the bus to O’Hare.

At the airport, once we’d gone through the hectic security check, ED26D39F-6C85-4F2C-84CF-AEA641620703.jpegthat I had cane issues again. I’d been barefoot, been frisked, walked through an x-ray machine, and had my shampoo and hair gel confiscated because the containers were too big, and I was relaxing I the boarding area talking with Fr. Carl. Suddenly, in D39EEA05-44C2-4AD4-970D-67EBBE82FAB3mid-sentences, I blurted out, “Oh crap, I forgot the cane again!”

Without a word of reproach, Fr. Carl accompanied me back to the security check area, where a kind and cooperative guard found my cane and returned it to me. I bet no one’s ever offered to kiss him before, but I did. He declined.

There were other83E9383D-6A4C-461A-9BA5-4C3ED41B64D6.jpeg punctuations to our travels. There was the big, tall man who was so solicitous for the tiny lady who had a hard time with her heavy luggage, and the man who stopped in the midst of our headlong plunge through the terminal toward a connecting flight, because he wanted a neck pillow, despite his wife”s I-told-you-so.

On the butt-numbing 9-20D49B0F-D28C-4E94-B661-2AB77F3BDBC4.jpeg1/2-hour flight from Newark to TelAviv, we really did try to sleep, but it eluded most of us. I even resorted to doing calisthenics I. The aisles. There was also a tray-teetering scramble with my seat mate at mealtime to try and retrieve something he dropped. In those cramped quarters, all I could think of was the old pass-the-orange-under-the-chin game.I’m sure were the flight’s temporary entertainment.

All those things pAA9BE358-EFB3-4A7A-8D33-DC44F1D2ADB8.jpegaled, though, when we stood this morning in the midst of the ruins of Caesarea Maritime, the city built by Herod the Great, That included the world’s first man made harbor for hundreds of boats. We stared in wonder at the actual floor of the city’s hippodrome where chariots once raced, and gazed at the mosaic tiles still remaining from the floor in a room ofHerod’s palace.

Later, we drew excited breath at the sight of the remains of Roman aqueducts, built to bring water to Caesarea Maritime. Such antiquity! And such skill and labor by men whose work has long outlasted them.

Our day ended with Mass at the Monastery of Stella Maris and the Basilica of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, built at the site where Elijah challenged and beat the pagan priests of Baal.

“Mass made me cry,” one woman said. Everything was so beautiful!”

Supper back at the hotel, then most everyone crashed for some much-needed sleep. But the adventure is just beginning!



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Come travel with me

The parish newsletter is done and I’ve purposely not taken any more writing assignments. For the next two weeks, I’ll be preparing for a trip to the Holy Land.

This is a trip I never thought I’d make, but thanks to a gift from a generous friend, it’s now on my agenda. On March 11 I’ll board the biggest plane I’ve ever been on, and will disembark in Tel Aviv early the next morning, a stranger in a strange land. Luckily, I’ll be with a tour group led by my own pastor, and will be rooming with a good friend.

I’m making this trip with no worries–although if I worked hard at it, I suppose I could worry. Some people would worry. For one thing, I have knees that don’t work so good and I take medication for rapid heartbeat. But the meds do work, and I bought myself a little cane with a fold-down seat to give my knees a break now and then from what I’m told is endless walking.

Also, Jerusalem isn’t always the most peaceful place in the world. Bad things happen there. My Benedictine monk friend Eric, who is over there right now on a repeat visit, wrote this to me when he learned I’m going, too:

“It’s a great experience, though I will warn you of one thing.  While the holy sites are awe-inspiring–particularly the Holy Sepulcher, the basilica of the Nativity, and the Wailing Wall–it is always difficult to see how on edge everyone is over there.  Guns everywhere.  And the social tensions are difficult to accept.  It will make you glad that you live in Wisconsin.”

But, aside from the fact that our tour company holy landkeeps their radar on high alert and would never take us anywhere that trouble is brewing, I figure this trip is a pure gift from Jesus. If he made it possible for me to visit his former home, to see where he walked and listen for his voice where others heard it so long ago, then he will take care of me and those with whom I travel. I’m not worried.

I do want to prepare, though–and I’m not talking about the lists I made of what to pack and where to pack it. I mean spiritual preparation. I’m reading about the sites we’ll visit in a wonderful book called “Who’s Who & Where’s Where in the Bible,” and I’ll be spending extra time in prayer and reflection during this next two weeks. I want to be ready to receive whatever God wants to give on this journey. This is a pilgrimage, not just a trip.

While we won’t have much free time–just a bit after the evening meal–I do intend to organize the photos I take for a book I’ll have printed later, and I do intend to write about the day’s adventures. Some of the most personal stuff I’ll put in my handwritten journal just for myself, but other observations and experiences I’ll put in this blog, along with a few photos. If I can, I’ll do a blog entry each day.

Maybe you’d like to follow along. Maybe you’d like to say a prayer for me and my group. This is one time when I really hope you leave comments. A journey to this special place is meant to be shared.

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Bathroom-worthy books

I just realized I took my book with me into the bathroom this morning. That’s a good sign. It bodes well for the book.

You see, I just started this book, written by an author I’ve never read, and I haven’t been sure I was going to like it enough to stay with it through its 500-plus pages. I won’t tell you who the author is because she’s enormously famous and you might wonder why I’m doubting her. I often do, though; I often dislike the trendy authors and their equally trendy books for–I admit–mostly nebulous reasons. I have a sort of vague list of criteria for what makes a book good, criteria that probably suit me and no one else.

I do have a list of favorite authors whose books I reread whenever enough time has elapsed that I won’t totally remember the plot. bookshelvesSometimes I find a delightful series and am totally bereft when it ends and I realize I have to venture into–for me–uncharted literary waters. I have to find and make new friends. Then, almost like a miracle, I stumble upon an acceptable new author on the library shelves and start acquainting myself with a new family of characters.

Usually, I can tell within a page or two, a chapter at most, whether the book is going to suit me. In fact, it’s usually the cover that has paved the way. “You can’t tell a book by its cover,” the old saying goes, but actually, I find I often can. When I’ve ignored the tremors of warning over a doubtful cover, I’ve usually ended up not liking the book. What are the characteristics of a good cover? I couldn’t tell you. I just know it when I see it.

Getting into a long book with a lot of characters can require a bit of patience until I get to know them and their ways a bit, and can keep them and their relationships straight. If it takes too long for me to really care what happens to them or what they do next, well, I’ll probably give up and move on to another book. That doesn’t happen too often, though; the cover test usually works well enough to keep those books out of the house right from the start.

One surefire way to know that the book has been accepted into my psyche is when I start thinking about the characters while I’m folding laundry, doing dishes or running errands; when I’m anxious to learn what happens next, how they’ll react to something, how they’ll solve the current problem. This current book is passing that test.

And then, of course, there’s the bathroom. When I’m interested enough in this new familreadingy of characters to drag the book with me through the house on the off-chance that I’ll find five minutes here and there to read, then I know it has won me over, passed the tests, wound its way into my imagination.

This is when I don’t begrudge the 500-plus pages, because it means I can stay with these characters for quite a while yet. Visiting with them is my reward for getting my chores done–but it’s also sometimes the distraction that keeps me from even starting the chores in the first place.

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books.

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