An incredible and inspiring (and tiring) pilgrimage!

Revd Lisa Holland from the parish of Duston and Upton gives her account of the recent Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

During October I was extremely privileged to join Bishop Donald’s Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, along with 48 others – mostly from the Diocese of Peterborough.

After a very early start at Luton Airport, a five hour flight and a two hour coach journey, our pilgrimage started at a hotel beside the Sea of Galilee where we spent three nights. During the trip we moved south, spending two nights in Bethlehem and three nights in Jerusalem. We were very fortunate to stay in lovely hotels and sample some wonderful food everywhere that we visited.

Throughout our stay we were accompanied by Bishop Donald, who celebrated Holy Communion each day at a different site – Galilee, Shepherds’ Fields and the Garden of Gethsemane being notable highlights. Joanne and Andre Gibson took care of many of the practical details, and usually brought up the rear to ensure that no sheep had gone astray! We were also accompanied by an Arab Christian guide called Hani, whose knowledge of the area and of the Bible really brought things to life.

Our pilgrimage took in many of the well-known sites which are familiar throughout the Gospels. We sailed on the Sea of Galilee and climbed up to Megiddo (the site of Solomon’s chariot city) in 41°C heat! We visited many of the places you would expect during the week, such as Cana (where Jesus performed his first miracle), the site of Jacob’s Well (where Jesus met the woman at the well) and the probable site of Emmaus, but we were also challenged by paying visits to places that pilgrims don’t often get to see.

Halfway through the visit, we went to Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, where Palestinian Muslims live, and we were guided round by a third generation refugee. On the same day we went to St Vincent’s Orphanage, which cares for 50 abandoned babies. One evening we had a talk from an American Muslim lady who is part of the Relatives Circle. This organisation is made up of both Jewish and Muslim people who have all lost a close relative to violence, and who work together to promote understanding and peace. Towards the end of our trip, we also paid a visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was very moving. We had a two hour visit but it would have taken an entire day to really do it justice. Many aspects of the pilgrimage were challenging and thought-provoking, and I now have a better awareness of some of the challenges which face those working for peace in this region.

Another challenge for me personally as a female priest was the knowledge that the ministry of ordained women was not recognised in the sites that we visited. In a country which has huge reverence and respect for the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, it was sad to think that my ministry and that of the other ordained women in the group would not be welcomed.

It is hard to pick out particular highlights, but one special moment for me was on the Mount of Beatitudes. My friend Amanda, who is a fellow curate, read the passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Afterwards we had some free time to look around the church and the gardens. In the church were a group of Korean Christians who were singing Stuart Townend’s version of ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ in their own language with beautiful harmonies. God felt especially close as I recognised the hymn, and it was a very real reminder of the worldwide church and the cloud of witnesses of which we are a part.

Another memorable time for me was when we spent time in the Garden of Gethsemane after celebrating Communion. It was incredible to be able to sit and pray, with the background noise of the Jerusalem traffic reminding us that every day was carrying on all around us, just as it carried on all around Jesus as he spent his final hours there. It was a reminder that we are called to be in the world, but not of it.

On the whole, the pilgrimage was an incredible experience. Seeing the evidence for myself of the places where Jesus ministered made the New Testament come to life in a whole new way. Our guide Hani also made many links with the stories of the Old Testament. The sense of history and tradition was amazing. It was certainly not a holiday – the schedule was busy and at times tiring – but it was such a joy to be part of such a wonderful trip with some truly lovely people.

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