“Welcome home to Jerusalem” is the phrase I did not get tired of hearing, nor did our guide get tired of saying, on our eight-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My husband and I were blessed to receive the Fred Hiltz Scholarship in the fall, and upon receiving the good news immediately scoped out logistics and course dates. As soon as we cleared it with our respective employers and colleagues, I spent a small fortune on flights so we would not lose our nerve and put it off. Travelling over the last few years has been anxiety-inducing for many of us, and I find now it takes a new kind of resolve and awareness to commit and execute the plans!
Fast forward to the end of January, and we found ourselves sitting on a plane preparing for the 10.5 hours it takes to get from Toronto to Tel Aviv. Aside from the anxiety of leaving our work for two weeks and wondering if we’d packed the right clothes, we wondered what exactly lay ahead in our Intro to Bible Lands course run by St. George’s College in Jerusalem.
We were greeted with sun and palm trees and a very busy international airport buzz. The first sense of home: the commuter train. Right outside the main doors of the station, with a very easy payment system, we found ourselves and bags crammed into a train heading to the city centre. Just like our daily commutes on the TTC, there was diversity, zero personal space and fast-moving vehicles, complete with inexplicable delays along the route.
Dragging our cases on the cobble-stone sidewalks, we eventually found our way to the college, and here was the second sense of home: a soaring cathedral appearing in the sky with buildings, shops and the courthouse densely packed around it. Our room in the guest house had a cathedral view, and I was so elated I texted a picture to Bishop Andrew (who had just arrived in Kerala himself for the Church of South India’s annual conference, so was only a 3.5 hours’ time difference away) because at the diocesan office in Toronto we have a cathedral view every day. Just like home for the next 10 days!
The opening Eucharist at St. George’s Cathedral was the first thing on our course agenda. We were not too jet-legged to marvel at our safe travel to Jerusalem and find ourselves sitting in a beautiful stone cathedral chapel with 25 strangers-soon-to-be-pilgrim-classmates, being greeted by the Dean of the cathedral and our course guide and chaplains. Cue the tears – in that moment overcome with gratitude, sharing in the body of Christ in the Holy Land.
Since the Hiltz Scholarship began, I have known about St. George’s College and the pilgrimages on offer. I have enjoyed processing all of the applications over the years and working with the scholarship committee to grant clergy and lay people to partake of this opportunity. I loved helping Bishop Andrew plan his trip to the Holy Land a few years ago and was intrigued by his and Mary’s experience there. We know so many people who have been to the Holy Land and how much of an impact it has had upon their faith and formation. But I was truly surprised by the instant, overwhelming sense of home we experienced within the first couple of hours. That sense of home, accompanied by overwhelming gratitude, carried us throughout the pilgrimage.
The first outing our group took was to the Mount of Olives. When Dave and I were commuting from the airport to Jerusalem, we noticed with delight that the name of transit routes and stops all seemed to be Mount-something. That was such a pinch-me moment – we were somehow in the land of the Mount of Olives, etc., that we had heard about our entire lives growing up in Christian communities. There we were, standing on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem in all its modern-day glory (complete with construction cranes), just marveling again at the ground on which we stood. Our guide said a lot of things and I could not recall any of them now, we were so taken with the view and awe of being there. Thankfully he knew that none of us were probably listening, being the seasoned guide, Bible scholar and priest he was. He took us back there later in the course when our ears were trained to listen to his calm and quiet voice and our eyes were trained to see what we were being directed to at the same time! (Isn’t there a parable in there somewhere?)
One very special outing was visiting the Haram esh-Sharif, the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Thanks to the good relationship between the college and the staff at the mosque, we were taken on a private, guided tour inside the Dome and surrounding buildings. The morning was sunny and clear, and again we found ourselves quietly marveling as we stood within the compound, taking in the glorious gold and the art of the Dome of the Rock. I was not the only one in our group weeping at that holy sight. The emotional swell came from recognizing the significance that physical structure has for millions of people of a different faith than mine, and with a shared reverence for the holy place that it is. It was stunning to be in a sacred place so important and sought after by people all over the world.
We were led into a giant building next to the Dome, and our guide pointed us to the windows at the very top of the soaring ceiling. Many of the windows were shattered, and it took a few minutes to realize what it was – bullet holes and the destruction from bullets. Our guide explained that forces have tried to invade the buildings with such force even while people were inside worshipping. That was disturbing to see and something I continue to think about now that we are home. There are no bullet holes in my church’s windows. Also in the same building, we came across a group of people cleaning, dusting and tidying up. Some more familiar reality, that such holy places are also very public spaces and need to be cleaned. I have spent my whole life in church, and helping to clean up and tidy up at church is second nature, because it is your home away from home. We all have to contribute to our churches’ caretaking so that we may have a place to worship and pray in.
On our last day, early in the morning, we met the Dean in the college courtyard who would prepare and lead us through the Way of the Cross in the old city, ending at the Holy Sepulchre. I am not a morning person, nor did I at all like the visit to the Holy Sepulchre on our first day, so this was an excursion I, admittedly, was anxious about! Being the last day, however, we had had eight rigorous, fulsome days of awe-inspiring excursions under our belts, and when the alarm went on the last morning, I was already awake and eager to engage with this last adventure (a pilgrimage miracle!).
The Dean asked us to take turns carrying the cross and reading the scriptures at each station. By now we were also experts at managing our earpieces/headsets and minding local traffic so as not to be herdlike and irritate people going about their daily lives. But carrying a large wooden cross and keeping your breath to read scripture in meaningful ways in the hustle, and minding many other pilgrim groups, was a challenge. Somehow, I ended up beside the Dean and was saddled with the cross as we began. It felt awkward and weird, and the old cobblestones amongst the vendor stalls and people and cats (there are cats everywhere in the old city) gradually blended into the background as my heart took in what I was physically doing: carrying a cross through the streets of the old city in Jerusalem just as Jesus did some two thousand years ago. Ending in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre, we were all a puddle. As we made our way inside, we stopped at the anointing slab perfumed with fragrant oil and made our way up to the place of the crucifixion. Kneeling in front of the cross at that place of all places was an extremely humbling and meaningful moment.
We learned that an hour or so after we had passed through the second station, at the Chapel of Condemnation, a young man had run into the chapel courtyard overturning statues and trying to smash monuments. The chapel groundskeeper, who had greeted our entire group and the Dean by name just a short time earlier, threw himself on the man to restrain him. The young man apparently pleaded “insanity” to avoid charges. It was jarring to hear of another act of violence in a holy place that we had just stood in while praying and reading scripture. A day after we had arrived in Jerusalem, a Palestinian refugee camp was attacked, and several people were killed. Three days after we arrived, a Jewish synagogue was attacked, and several people were killed. The tension between violence and welcome is something I have never experienced in a place to such an extreme and was palpable throughout our time in the Holy Land.
One night we were visited by staff of a non-profit organization working for peace and understanding, specifically with young people. This was so hopeful to learn about, and I invite you to visit www.musalaha.org to consider learning more and supporting its work. As a pilgrim who was warmly welcomed and instantly found spiritual “home” in Jerusalem, I must in turn give time to pray for those who have their home in Jerusalem, and for peace and reconciliation in Israel. Thank you to the Hiltz Scholarship Committee, to Bishop Andrew and to the Diocese of Toronto for the gift of this extraordinary pilgrimage!