LONDON, ONTARIO – After twelve hours in a climate-controlled metal tube sailing through the night from Toronto to Tel Aviv, I was staring into the mirror of a public washroom at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport in the late morning of Thursday, March 16th and marveling at what had become of my baby blues. I’d paid extra for a little more leg room which eased the strain from the waist on down but stiffened things up in the upper body; planted as I was a dozen rows ahead of my wife between similarly long-legged strangers who wouldn’t have understood if I’d curled up on one of their shoulders for even a minute of blessed oblivion. I did reportedly slip under for at least one short and shallow nap when my equally sleep-deprived wife walked past, saw me sawing logs and enviously muttered to herself, “You lucky dog.”
Now I was endeavoring to ‘freshen up,’ as they say, before embarking upon the new day. Monitoring my progress as I scraped a disposable razor across the barely soapy contours of my face, I was reminded of the bloodshot lenses Christopher Lee used to wear when portraying Dracula in all those gloriously cheesy Hammer horror films. And I now understood how they came up with the term ‘Red Eye’ for overnight flights. It isn’t just the lack of sleep that agitates the eyeballs’ capillaries. Also to blame, I’m sure, is the constant gushing bombardment of all that recirculated air. While my peepers looked awful, they seemed to work just fine and I was otherwise undaunted by the prospect that it would be another twelve hours until I could start making up my sleep deficit. Even at the age of seventy it still seemed to be the case that on the first day of an eagerly anticipated trip, I could magically extract fresh energy from the unaccustomed air.
Even three months earlier, Kirtley and I didn’t know we were coming to the Holy Land and had yet to ‘X’ out the last two weeks in March on our calendar. And a good thing that was, too, or we would’ve been packing for even longer. In addition to unnerving the family dog who only has to hear the opening of a suitcase zipper to know that her abandonment is imminent, packing is one of life’s more Sisyphean trials for humans as well. In our ceaseless, never-satisfied attempt to re-calibrate that elusive ratio between available space and what absolutely must be taken along, each new day’s efforts erase those from the day before as you pull everything out and rejig the whole configuration one more time.
We’d found out about this junket quite late in the game from two good friends at a church breakfast who’d just signed on. We don’t typically succumb to such extravagant enticements to wanderlust but were at least partially spurred on in this case by our dismay at watching how effectively Messrs. Biden and Trudeau were pissing away our retirement investments. We figured that while we still had a few shekels in the bank and the devious overlords of the state – in a lull between contrived pandemics – were allowing the unvaxxed to travel, we should do some reckless spending of our own. In the week before our departure, some Silicon Valley banks spectacularly failed. Then that fissure was papered over in a hasty and unconvincing way – tut, tut; nothing to see here, folks – suggesting that in our not-so-brave new world, money was becoming as unsettlingly abstract and unmoored a concept as sexual identity, health care, fair elections, individual rights, news coverage, the rule of law or science. Best to blow it now on something we actually wanted to do before everybody stopped pretending that the world’s devaluing currencies retained any value or traction at all. So, all aboard for the pre-monetary meltdown tour of 2023.
The flight over had come with a few reassuring touches that helped to prepare us for two weeks’ immersion in this ancient place that has been called ‘the navel of the world’; a rather arresting term which signifies that it was here that God declared His umbilical covenant with the Jews and then took on human form to live among men for thirty-three years and extend that relationship and the possibility of salvation to all people. We were somewhere over Europe when the first muted emanations of dawn began to lighten our cabin windows. That was the cue for an old rabbi three seats to my right to stand up, don his stole, turn around and quietly recite his morning prayers. Genuflecting like some great bearded bird pecking at the ground, he was joined in this exercise by four Orthodox teenaged boys sitting shoulder to shoulder a few rows behind him who were bobbing their heads and whispering in response.
Because of my special seating arrangement, I disembarked the plane ahead of Kirtley and the rest of our party and waited for them just beyond the first doorway of the airport proper. And from that vantage point I watched as a couple dozen Jews of all ages marked their arrival back in Israel by kissing their fingertips and pressing them against that door frame as they passed through. So in addition to our mutual worship of God the Father, such signs of reverential mindfulness and gratitude awakened my sense of spiritual kinship with these people. Standing at last in Israel myself, it was astonishing to consider that this not very large strip of highly contested land – only two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island – had been the birthplace of the two great faiths that under-girded and directed all that was best in the development of the now-faltering Western world.
Unencumbered by a cell phone (which I don’t own anyway) or a laptop (which I do) I had slipped off every kind of electronic leash that might have kept me tethered to that increasingly brittle and disenchanted world we’d left behind; a world where proper faiths (as opposed to shabby ideologies) are simultaneously retreating and being pushed to the sidelines of public life. Equipped only with my senses and a notebook and a pen, I was heading into a hallowed land that I’d been hearing and reading and occasionally dreaming about for almost the entirety of my life. In just a few minutes we’d be piling onto a bus and heading north along the Mediterranean coast and then turning inland to our first night’s lodgings in Nazareth.
‘Poof,’ went my first misconception as we left Tel Aviv behind and traversed almost a third of Israel’s length in about an hour. I wasn’t expecting flat desert vistas necessarily but something more monotonous and arid than this. The contours of the landscape constantly heave and roll. Even major highways can’t run straight for very long. And just about the whole top half of this country is wonderfully lush and green and (thanks to sophisticated desalination programs treating water from the sea) dotted with carefully tended, small-scale farms.
Before making that turn inland, we had the first historic encounter of our trip; exploring the still-impressive ruins of Caesarea which was built by Herod the Great in 20 B.C. and served as the Roman capital of Judea for the next six centuries. As you approach Caesarea you see the surviving spans of the seven miles of elevated aqueduct which supplied the town with water from the uplands in the days before desalination was a thing. You can still see the rocky footprint of Herod’s palace next to the carefully formed spit of rocks that formed the wall of the harbour from which St. Paul set sail for Tarsus. There are also clearly delineated traces of public baths and a Ben-Hur style track or circus for holding chariot races. Plays and concerts are still performed today at a largely restored, open air amphitheatre. And somewhere in Caesarea (though today we don’t know where) was the home where Cornelius the centurion invited St. Peter to preach to a Gentile congregation in an early instance of Christian outreach to the non-Jewish population.
All these features were pointed out to us by our fearless expedition leader; a retired teacher and administrator with the London Catholic school board named Joan Bolt, who has now helmed fifty-seven of these Holy Land tours. Joan is an absolute wizard at putting together an itinerary and adapting the programme on the fly when weather or other sudden contingencies mess with the best laid plans. This adaptability came in handy as we had two days of intermittent rain during our visit – an unprecedented challenge in Joan’s extensive experiences here – which she was able to work around with real aplomb.
Joan’s grasp of the deep history of the region is positively professorial and she seems to be as easily conversant with holy scripture as our resident priest, Fr. Murray Sample, who gave apt readings from the Bible and led celebrations of Mass at the exotic locales we visited. Joan told us more than once that in the way that it deepens your understanding of the where and the how of Christ’s earthly sojourn, a visit to the Holy Land is like reading a fifth gospel. And her cab driver’s type knowledge of the layout of streets in some pretty labyrinthine town centres, extended to washrooms and the best souvenir stands as well as chapels and holy sites.
As a rather opinionated chap who knows that his views are not all that widely shared, I was grateful for Joan’s commendable (and increasingly rare) gift for imparting her knowledge without a trace of condescension or insistence that you should interpret information in the very same way that she does. Yes, you eventually accrue a pretty good sense of where she stands on certain issues (and would you believe it? I think she’s more liberal than me) but Joan doesn’t see it as part of her mission to reform you or correct the tenor of your thinking.
Before we left Canada, Joan made a point of canvassing each of her pilgrims for particular interests that she could direct them toward. Kirtley sensibly mentioned ‘mosaics’ which turned up in profusion everywhere, whether the structures that housed them were intact or in ruins. Being a one-track bore, I mentioned used book shops (and books in what language, pray tell?) which simply weren’t to be found. (“Excuse me, Obadiah. Could you show me where you keep your first edition Walter de la Mares?”) But at the last stop on the very last day of our tour, just before Mass at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem Centre, Joan did usher me in to the gift shop which had a more than decent selection of new historical and theological works and where I dropped the second biggest expenditure of my tour.
Upstairs in the beautifully appointed chapel, we encountered a strikingly handsome young man who is the Institute’s resident homeless person and a case of what they call ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’. Decked out in flowing Old Testament apparel and walking with a staff, he silently haunts the place from opening hour to closing and has done so every day for years. Joan and Father Murray have met him several times before and though he rarely speaks at all, somewhere along the line he let it be known that he believes he is King David.
Having whetted your curiosity above, I might as well confess that this trip’s single biggest assault on my wallet was paid out for an exquisite scarf purchased at a stall in old Jerusalem. I subsequently discovered that, having no flair for haggling (which is business as usual in Israel) I paid nearly four times too much. There are no price tags on anything in these shops, so you have to inquire. And I probably made the mistake of looking like I absolutely loved this thing, which I did and I do.
“Sixty American dollars,” my merchant declared, fluttering his fingers in the fringe at either end of the scarf. “This is pure cashmere.”
“That seems a little steep,” I mildly opined.
“But for you, my Canadian friend, fifty-five American dollars. You’re not going to find better than that anywhere in Jerusalem.”
Oh, yeh? A few minutes later a woman in our party told me that she got hers for fifteen smackers. Live and learn, I suppose. But as it’s the perfect, long-sought replacement for a now-shredded silk scarf that I inherited from my dad – and I got a little teary tonight as I folded up the old scarf and placed it in retirement – I can’t seriously entertain anything like buyer’s remorse. To have replaced that cherished memento with something that also carries rich paternal associations (albeit on a higher plane) is worth at least fifty-five greenbacks to me.
Joan also tries to instill in all of her travelers an awareness that almost anywhere you stand in Israel, there will be layers upon layers of human history underneath your feet. I remember getting my first visceral taste of this notion on a trip to Italy in 2012 when my nephew took me to the Basilica of San Pietro in Pavia, about twenty-five miles south of Milan, which houses the tomb of St. Augustine of Hippo. Originally built in 1479, the crust of the earth has built up so much over the succeeding five and a half centuries that you now have to go down three steps when entering the front door to reach the church floor. Well, magnify that phenomenon by a factor of at least four when entering some of the older churches in the Holy Land. And then quadruple that again for the excavated remains of even older synagogues and temples.
Temporally, the most mind-boggling place we visited is an enormous mound that dominates the horizon called Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley not far from Nazareth – now the site of a national park – where they have unearthed the clearly stratified remains of twenty successive settlements that date all the way back to the Neolithic era. In 2005 archaeologists discovered the ruins of an ancient church there which they believe to be the oldest in the Holy Land. Like a great stack of civilizational pancakes, the ranked ruins of Megiddo constitute the sort of evidentiary monument that can only be wrought by ten or twelve millennia of rising and falling empires that have been regularly assailed by wars, crusades and sackings and an occasional earthquake.
Over the course of our vacation we stayed in hotels in three different cities and towns from which we would set out each day on our explorations: first three days in Nazareth, then three days at a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee not far from Tiberius and Capernaum; and then five days just outside the old city in Jerusalem. The order in which we visited these regions roughly corresponded to the chronology of Christ’s earthly life; Nazareth being the home of Mary and Joseph where Jesus was primarily raised to manhood; the Galilee region being where Christ carried out the greater part of His ministry and drew most of His disciples (which included a preponderance of fishermen); and Jerusalem where His life and work reached their climax in the Passion of Holy Week.
Whenever we celebrated Mass our scriptural readings would be tied to whatever event the site we were visiting commemorated. These included the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth (where a home believed to be Our Lady’s has been excavated just behind the altar ) ... a chapel in a hillside cave near Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem where we sang Christmas carols in March (and where Fr. Murray told us about a lamb several tours ago who wandered in and lay down for the duration of the service) ... a Franciscan-run church in Cana where Christ worked His first miracle at a wedding feast (and where we and several other couples in our group were invited to renew our vows) ... the Church of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee where it is believed that Christ delivered the Sermon on the Mount ... the Basilica of the Transfiguration on the top of Mt. Tabor where just before Holy Week, Christ’s full divinity was made manifest to three of His disciples ... and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem where the manifold horror and splendor of what J.R.R. Tolkien ingeniously called the ‘Eucatastrophe’ (ie: the disaster that saves us all) took place. Never has our commemoration of the Stations of the Cross been so physically taxing and emotionally wrenching as when we prayed at the fourteen stops along the Via Dolorosa that weaves its way through the maze of pedestrian-only streets in the heart of Jerusalem, culminating at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
If there was a single downside to our tour, it would be returning to Canada just in time to begin our Holy Week observations which, in the not so evocative context of London, Ontario, all felt like a kind of washed-out afterthought. Been there and done that just last week, thanks. We’d already been through the holy mill, as it were; visiting the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ was taken into custody, touching the top of Golgotha where Christ died, the Stone of Unction where Mary anointed her Son’s body, and the tomb where He was laid to rest. We’re confident that we’ll get our equilibrium back for Holy Week 2024 in our own home town. And already we’re finding – as Joan foretold – that our scriptural readings and the references picked up in homilies are shot through with new associations and memories. Now we actually know what so many of the holy places look like.
Ah, do I sense some muttering from the doubters’ gallery regarding the veracity of some, if not all, of these sites? Yeh, that’s probably called for in at least a few instances. What with the repeated destruction and rebuilding of many of the churches that house these attractions – particularly in Jerusalem – the level of exactitude is probably a little fuzzy in some of these designations. But even with the loosiest and goosiest ones, I have no doubt that these commemorative sites are in the right area, and, in the case of Jerusalem, are more closely located than that. Even if it could be determined that the designation of a historic site was off by a cubit or two or ten, I would still assert that it falls within the radiant zone because it has been pinned into its rightful place by the cumulative power of prayer.
Call me a sentimental fool but I believe that two thousand years of unbroken tradition and devotion count for something. When wave after wave of pilgrims travel across continents and oceans for twenty centuries, smoothing the stones beneath their feet to a glossy sheen . . . or they drop to their knees to wear a similarly smooth groove in solid rock by genuflecting and worshiping and reaching out to touch the place where they believe that Christ was hoisted up on a cross or entombed . . . when that mystical assemblage which we call the Body of Christ presses close to a place where they believe the actual embodied Christ once lived and suffered and died and then lived again . . . I have no doubt that sanctification proceeds even if the cartography has been a little less than scientifically meticulous.
A greater challenge for me than the situational veracity of holy sites was to accept my place in our journey as one member of a herd. The idea of a spiritual pilgrimage may romantically conjure up the image of a person setting out on their own, with perhaps a staff in hand like 'King David' of the Pontifical Institute and a small rucksack on their back, ready to come to grips with life’s very deepest questions in a meditative atmosphere of undistracted seeking after truth. Does one feel a little ashamed, like a bit of a cheater, to be undertaking such a quest as one more rider on a chartered bus?
Looking out my window en route to the Church of the Beatitudes and noting that every third vehicle on the road was yet another charabanc stuffed with tourists, did I begin to feel like – in the words of the Firesign Theatre – ‘just another bozo on the bus’? Was it an affront to one’s dignity to queue up with literally hundreds of other seekers in the pouring rain – some of them rather preposterously holding umbrellas aloft – as they waited their turn to be blessed or plunged into the baptismal waters of the Jordan River? And what about those claustrophobically challenging times when I had to duck to enter some clammy ancient chamber or inch my way in a well-packed throng down to a cell at the bottom of a cistern to get a fifteen second encounter with a relic or rock of holy significance and then make my way back out again? Did I ever wonder, what was the point?
Yes, I did, but only fitfully and briefly. And then I’d smack myself metaphorically for entertaining such snobbish qualms and remember that I wasn’t just a member of some beastly, fallen, grunting herd that lumbers along at a snail’s pace, doesn’t always smell that great at close quarters and can sometimes display deplorable taste in t-shirts. I was also a member of the beloved flock which He shepherds. And it just so happens – and hallelujah that it’s so – that there are billions of us who long to draw close to Him in whatever way we can and tough luck if that sometimes means that the atmosphere gets a little close.
If there was a crushing intensity to many of the sites we visited, others were a lot more windswept. Our favourite Holy Land lodging was the hotel at the kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee where it was always possible to slip away on our own and drink in the Christ-haunted scenery all around us. Perhaps Kirtley’s favourite moment of the entire tour was the evening she went for a swim in Galilee and the day’s last light, coming in almost horizontally from the west, suffused the world in a rich amber glow. (A couple days later she tried to swim in the densely salted water of the Dead Sea but could do little more than float on her back.)
We also took an afternoon boat ride on Galilee in a rickety wooden barge operated by two utterly charming . . . well . . . operators. As we set out they played a warbly tape of O Canada in honour of their passengers’ nationality and, struggling with gusts of wind, hoisted the Canadian flag – upside down at first. I was rather sorry when the poor flustered man apologized and corrected it. With all the Liberal Party’s co-opting of our national banner, I was amused by the piratical overtones of that up-ended maple leaf.
The sweetest moment of that excursion was when they cut off the engine and allowed us just to drift in silence, perhaps a half mile off the hill-rimmed shore, gently rocking with the waves. Those waves started to build as a storm blew in; nothing too cataclysmic but we didn’t know that yet. And as they turned the boat around to bring us chugging back to dock, our nautical hosts slipped some inane Jewish pop songs onto their tape deck which was a bit of a buzz kill . . . but at least it wasn’t Justin Bieber.
If I had to choose my single most mountaintop experience of the tour, I think it would be, appropriately enough, our trip to the top of Mt. Tabor. I don’t know if Joan noticed but I struggled to get the words out when I thanked her for bringing us there. And it was no easy task to get there at all. Our usually savvy bus driver made a wrong turn in getting us to the base of the mountain which took a while to sort out. I initially thought he’d goofed up again when he pulled over into a siding quite early in our ascent. But no, this was where we had to disembark and load into several small vans in order to navigate about fifteen minutes worth of hairpin turns that took us twenty-two hundred feet to the top.
Yes, the view of Lower Galilee from the summit was sublime but what really undid me was the spectacular Basilica of the Transfiguration which the Franciscans have built upon the very highest point. There have been more humble churches up there from as early as the fifth century and a monastery and extensive gardens. But who but the God-crazed Catholics who think the best way to celebrate Christmas Eve is to drag everybody out of bed to go to church at midnight . . . and it is actually . . . who but the Catholics would elect to build this magnificent cathedral in a place that’s just about impossible to get to?
In the scriptural accounts of the Transfiguration we learn that after seeing the revelation of Christ’s divinity, James and Peter and John never wanted to come back down from Mt. Tabor. Fr. Murray’s homily, intoned as the wind whistled at the doors of that Basilica, acknowledged that now that we’d finally been to the Holy Land, some of us might be feeling a similar reluctance at the prospect of re-entering daily life as we ordinarily know it. That day on Tabor was particularly special for me but the whole trip had been an extraordinary experience for both of us; revealing spiritual realities at a deeper and more immediate level and thereby precluding the possibility of returning to anything as we’ve ordinarily known it.
While those two weeks will always be set apart from any other time we’ve known, their lessons and blessings will inform what we do for the rest of our lives. Unless you happen to be on your deathbed and have just received the last rites, the proper response to drawing closer to Christ, is not to just lay back and sigh in some zonked-out state of elevated serenity. You have to take what you’ve seen and learned and carry it down to share with the rest of the world. We’ll do our best not to get too obnoxious about it, but like The Blues Brothers you could say that going forward, we consider ourselves to be on a mission from God. For some of us this starts with whipping off a little essay on ‘How I Spent my Spring Vacation’. And it’ll be interesting to see what other ways emerge for carrying out this mandate.
Photo Credits: Diane Sloot
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
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