Exarchate Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, 20-30 October 2014

Anne von Bennigsen and I – the only members of our Deanery – took part in this year’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, led so beautifully by Father Yannick Provost from Brittany. We met the group at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, and took a night flight to Tel Aviv, travelling on from there to Nazareth by coach in time for breakfast the following morning.

We stayed throughout in pilgrims’ accommodation. The St. Margaret’s Guesthouse in Nazareth overlooked the city. On our first day we visited the Church of the Annunciation, which contains the well at which the Archangel Gabriel met the Mother of God. From there we continued on, walking through the town’s souks – narrow streets where one could imagine the boy Jesus running -  to the Roman Catholic Basilica built over the remains of the house where He was brought up.  Nearby was the church on the site of the ancient synagogue where Christ preached – a place generally off the tourist circuit. This was one of the many blessings of our pilgrimage: Father Yannick’s detailed knowledge of Orthodox churches and monasteries to which we could go to pray and reflect, while other pilgrims passed them by.

There were too many of them to describe here. I can only highlight those that made the most impression on me personally.

The first was the early morning Liturgy at the Church of the Annunciation. Father Yannick led us down the hillside to the church, where he and our clergy - Father Georges, Father Jean and Father Alexis - celebrated. It was a quiet, peaceful service, with just our group and a few local people attending,: an inspiring start to our liturgical life together.

In sharp contrast was the Liturgy served in the tiny Grotto of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, where sheer numbers of pilgrims, necessitating some crowd control, brought to mind the animals stabled there at Christ’s birth – we were jostled with the oxen and asses, while the clergy and choir sang of Heaven. It was our first encounter with large numbers of Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian pilgrims, who were in evidence throughout our time in the Holy Land. In fact, in Bethlehem we stayed in the Russian Pilgrim Residence, in new and very comfortable accommodation.

Visits to Cana, Mount Thabor and Capernaum brought us close to the Gospel events associated with them. The Orthodox monastery on Mount Thabor, with its panoramic view of the valley below, reminded us of the awe with which the Apostles were filled at the Transfiguration. We read the appropriate Gospel and sang the troparion at each location. At Capernaum we walked in the ruins of the synagogue built on the foundations of the one where Jesus taught, and looked out over the Sea of Galilee to the Jordanian hills - a sight that would not have changed much since Christ set eyes on it. At the nearby Orthodox monastery, free of the crowds, we stood by the lake to watch a lone fisherman on the shore.

Travelling by coach from one place to another, we often had to negotiate Israeli checkpoints as we passed to and from the West Bank territories. We encountered no problems, although during our stay there were several violent incidents in which a number of Palestinians died. It was a reminder that in Christ’s lifetime too this was an occupied country. The peace we found at the holy places was in stark contrast to the harshness of daily life.

At Nablus we drew water from Jacob’s Well, and were entertained with refreshments at the Monastery of St. Photini. The church contains the relics of a contemporary martyr, St. Philoumenos, who was hacked to pieces by a Zionist fanatic in 1979 and canonised five years ago.  South of Jerusalem we drove to the Tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Sarah and Rebecca), and to the Oak of Mamre, skirting the town of Hebron for security reasons. Armed units of the Israeli Defence Force were in evidence along the route.

We were honoured to be given an audience with His Beatitude Theophilos III in the Jerusalem Patriarchate, where we had a group photo taken. Father Yannick gave us a comprehensive tour of the Church of the Resurrection (often known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) and, despite the crowds, our hearts could not fail to be moved as we mounted the steps to Golgotha to come face to face with the place of the Crucifixion. There was a long queue to enter the Tomb of Christ, but perseverance enabled us to venerate this most holy of places. Our accommodation in Jerusalem was at the Casa Nova Franciscan pilgrim’s house, in the Old City not far from the church, which enabled us to walk there freely through the souks.

On our way down from Jerusalem to Jericho we visited the isolated Monastery of Sts. John and George the Chozebites, clinging to the side of the Wadi Qelt by the old Roman road. A long winding path led down the side of the valley – some of our number took the local donkeys on the return journey. This was such a peaceful place, in the barren landscape of the Judaean desert, like the Monstery of St. Sabbas which we visited a few days later. By contrast, from Jericho we took the cable car to another monastery clinging to the mountain: the Monastery of the Forty Days’ Temptation. Unfortunately the cable car has ruined the peace that must once have been here – a modern temptation.

Near the Monastery of St. Gerasimos, where St. Mary of Egypt met St. Zosima, we immersed ourselves in the River Jordan opposite the traditional site of Christ’s baptism; and a few miles further south we lazed in the buoyant waters of the Dead Sea.

There were many other places to see: Ein Karem, home of St. John the Baptist; The Tomb of Lazarus and the Church of Martha and Mary at Bethany; the site of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, and the Russian Monastery nearby where the nuns were busy harvesting the olives; the Pool of Bethesda, and the remains of the house where the Mother of God was brought up. We traversed the Temple Mount, sang in the Catholic Church of the Dormition; visited the Russian Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane; and were warmly welcomed in the Eleona Monastery on the Mount of Olives, where a brave band of nuns continues to live despite the church having been bulldozed by the Israelis in 1992.

The place that made the deepest impression on me personally was perhaps the Tomb of the Mother of God in Gethsemane. Here our band of pilgrims descended the stairs to venerate her tomb, and sang. The following morning we came back for the Liturgy in this most wondrous of places: a dimly-lit cavern under the earth, but full of calm and grace.

And of course there was the joyous midnight Liturgy in the Church of the Resurrection, where our own priests joined with the local bishops and other pilgrim priests to celebrate at Christ’s Tomb. How amazing to receive Christ in this place!

Anne and I do urge other people from our Deanery to undertake the pilgrimage in succeeding years – look out for announcements in the Exarchate’s ‘Feuillet’ in the Spring. Some understanding of French is necessary, although if more English speakers attended that might become less important.

Finally: we were overwhelmed by the beauty of all the churches and monasteries we visited – not all mentioned here by any means. We were made so welcome by our fellow pilgrims under the superb leadership of Father Yannick. It was awesome to stand in the very places where so many Gospel events took place. But none of this can fully express the very deep spiritual experience of this pilgrimage, the joy we felt in our hearts; and the sense, on our return, that something in our lives had forever changed.

Gillian Crow