Today we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. It was like going through a tunnel. Ahead you could see the light of the exit, though there is not direct route through. Instead the path is a zig-zag, left and right through displays, listening to audio-visual presentations, and the voices of guides taking groups. There were many people visiting, including Israeli soldiers who have to come here as part of their military service. The atmosphere was often quite claustrophobic, which is, I guess part of the design of the place. I was full of questions, as I tried to absorb and respond to what I was seeing and hearing. How would I resist persecution? Would I have the courage to? ”.. still there is beauty” – is a quote that strikes me hard. How could there be under such horrendous times? How can there be forgiveness alongside what needs to be remembered? The Hall of Names has pictures of faces in the ceiling, above a deep dark well which reflects the faces. The Children’s Memorial is a building in darkness, with pinpricks of light reflected in mirrors around. As we walk through, there is a continuous narration speaking the names of children who died – their ages and where they were from. There are about one and half million names. It takes 18 months to read all the names.

Next we go to the old city of Jerusalem to visit the Western Wall. As we approach we see joyous bar mitzvah celebrations. I approach the wall a bit apprehensively – joining the women who are separate from the men. I watch other women engrossed in their prayers, aloud or silent. They take their time, and I wait rather impatiently for my turn.  I do not know how I am going to respond in prayer, or if I want to. When I reach the wall I touch it cautiously and it seems to me I feel a kind of energy coming out of the stones. Words fail me and I touch with my hands, place my forehead, my cheeks on the well-worn stones, and kiss them, before backing out and making room for someone else.

We have some free time to wander. Into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is another experience of prayer with the body, as I kneel down under the altar and reach down to touch the base of a hole where it is said the base of the cross was. Again no words, but a powerful experience.

After lunch at one of the street cafés in the market, we do a bit of shopping. I cannot bring myself to haggle, so probably pay over the odds for a scarf (keffiyeh) and bracelet – but I am very pleased with my purchases, and the seller is very persuasive!

Continuing exploring the city with our Palestinian guide, who has grown up here, he proudly tells us: ‘these stones know me.’

After supper back at the guest house, we meet a couple who tell us of their life in the West Bank. They share the ‘simple difficulties that they and their children live with daily – of interrupted water supply and power supply, of obstructions to travel and work. They are grateful to share their story with us, for our listening and questions, and ask us to pray for them.

Even if I know not

what to say

or do:

Let my body teach me the way.

Let the stones themselves

cry out

for peace with justice.  Amen

 

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We had much travelling to fit into this day, so I was grateful for a slightly better night’s sleep. In the morning we joined a local congregation for Sunday worship. It was a Roman Catholic congregation who made us welcome and we arrived to the musical sound of the rosary being prayed. Also a young couple was standing before the priest with a very young baby, prayers and blessings being received (we assumed). Before long an invitation came to the (male) priest in our group to take quite an active part in the service. Though the majority of the worship was in Arabic (often illustrated on the overhead screen with very white depictions of Jesus) there was much in the pattern of worship that was familiar. A lovely mix of ages took active part – including many young acolytes and servers. Anointing was offered to all in commemoration of Our Lady of Lourdes. It felt very special share this experience and that of communion together. After church we joined in a quick cup of coffee and met a retired woman priest from Bristol who was working in Bethlehem. Our guide was in the meantime champing at the bit to be away because we had a long journey ahead. Our destination was north to the fortress at Masada, at least an hour and a half’s drive away. The drive takes us on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and beyond. This is the silk road. We saw some amazing views of the Dead Sea, and such a variety of landscape – wilderness dotted with rock, scrubland, tall cliffs of layered rock and caves and huge plantations of date palms. Flocks of sheep and cattle wander, sometimes accompanied by herdspeople. At the fortress we take the cable car to the top and then have a rather speedy tour of the main part of the ruins. This is the place where, after the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70CE, almost a thousand Jews (men, women and children) made a desperate last stand. When their blockade was finally breached, Masada’s defenders chose suicide rather than to live in slavery. Our guide hurries us along – ‘Let’s go!’ When we return down to the car park, we have a very late lunch and feed the birds with our left-overs. Then back to the guest house. Over supper the talk turned to consideration of what is central to our faith – heady stuff – and I felt slightly guilty that I am more concerned with whether my supply of cough sweets and tissues will be sufficient!

In the rock

a dark cave offers:

hiding place, shelter, darkness, escape, viewpoint …

Where is the God who believes in me?

Listen to the sound of silence.

Amen

 

After a bad night coughing, I felt pretty rough for the next day of being a pilgrim in the Holy Land. Today we went to the Mount of Olives and walked down the way Jesus would have entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The way was very steep. It was hard not to keep stopping to take more and more photos of amazing views over the city. At the Church of the Pater Noster, we stood in a circle, holding hands as we said the Lord’s Prayer. Afterwards our guide said the prayer in Arabic. It was a powerful moment. Then to the Garden of Gethsemane, to wonder at the twisted beauty aged olive trees. The Church of All Nations was an amazing space. In part of the garden overlooking the city we shared communion and sung ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ during the intercessions. We were let loose without our guide to wander in Jerusalem and find somewhere for lunch. I loved our meander, walking the streets, seeing spreads of fresh produce laid out for sale – chamomile, spinach, strawberries, cauliflower, and baskets of fresh spices. I felt my heart and mood lifted! In the Garden Tomb we had a different guide who rather movingly told us his faith story as part of the tour. En route back to our guest house, we got off the coach and walked through the checkpoint and turnstiles and narrow corridor that some of us saw part of yesterday. It was quiet and rather eery. We could see no soldiers, but knew they were watching. On the barrier wall words were written by someone presumably queuing up to pass through: ‘have compassion’. Later we had a walking tour through Bethlehem on the search for gifts and souvenirs. I find the walking a lovely intimate way of being introduced to this complex place, step by step, and speaking a little to individuals living and working here.

In this place,

I can remember who I am

and where I belong …

among friend and stranger

may I recognise Christ

in me and beside me. Amen

We were told today would be hard work – and it was. For some of us it began very early, in the dark, as we walked to the nearest crossing point of the separation wall and witnessed workers passing through the turnstiles on their way to work. It was a quiet beginning to the day, and many of the people (mostly men) gave us a tired smile and said ‘Good morning’. After breakfast we joined people from Embrace’s partner the Joint Advocacy Initiative in the planting of olive trees. People from all over the world worked together under blue skies and hot sunshine, surrounded by

almond blossom in full bloom. We sat together and shared a picnic lunch in the fields. ‘Today the land is happy’ said one of the farmers.

Later we were overwhelmed with facts and figures in a presentation from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – giving the hard realities of life in the occupied territories.

Along the way we visited Shepherd’s Fields and sang some carols in the wonderful acoustics of the church there. Unseasonal but beautiful and moving.

Into the rich red earth

we place the young olive trees.

Will their roots find a way around the rocks

to the water they need to flourish and bear fruit?

Today may each find what they need to flourish –

may each find a way through this day.

Amen

 

 

In Bethlehem visiting the separation barrier and some of the people affected by it, then the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation’s hospital, and sites in and around Manger square.

A wall rises.

The gate closes.

Open my mind and my heart, brother Jesus,

as I walk this place.

Help me to know my need and recognise the need of others.

Amen

 

 

Still trying to follow the way of the pilgrim, in February 2018 I took the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, on a tour organised by Embrace the Middle East. A group from north Oxfordshire joined a group from Hertfordshire to make up this group of pilgrims. I am going to share prayers that I wrote each day, as I continue to reflect and wonder about this multi-layered, multi-faceted adventure.

Day one, we arrive into Tel Aviv and travel to Bethlehem.

For what I am about to receive,

may I be open and thankful and blessed and real.

Amen

Once more my trusty green rucksack was packed, new walking boots at the bottom. Once more I am a not so lightly packed pilgrim as I aspire to be. Once more the nerves and excitement rise at the beginning of a new adventure.

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A couple of months ago now, in October 2016 I set off on another exploration of pilgrimage. The travel was with the Abbey of the Arts (http://abbeyofthearts.com/) – an organised retreat to the Sacred Edge of Ireland, setting out to be Monks in the World.

Once more, I determined to travel on public transport, which meant train from Banbury, changing at Birmingham New Street, and Crewe, to Holyhead where the ferry took me across to Dublin.

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I spent the night in Dublin before catching a train across Ireland to the west coast, to Galway.

“Aren’t you brave – travelling on your own?” said two women I chatted with on Banbury station as we listened to a notice about a delayed train. I didn’t feel especially brave. I was quite excited and looking forward to some time away. I was also nervous and hoping that travel connections would work and that I could pick up the tickets I needed for the remainder of my trip. Plus so many other unknowns – what would this retreat be like? What would the other people be like?

In Galway, at the Adare Guesthouse the pilgrims gathered, already experiencing the  generous welcome and care from the owners Grainne and Patrick. Next we met the hosts of the retreat, Christine and John, who would be our guides. In their gorgeous living room, overlooking Galway Bay and adorned with picture of dancing Celtic saints, we began the pilgrimage. What had brought us here, at this time in our lives? For many of us there was some sort of threshold that we were about to cross, or had crossed – loss, healing, retirement. I hoped to be inspired by the adventurous Celtic saints into being my own form of adventurer. I hoped to do some more remembering of who I was. This was a good season to do that remembering, the Celtic season of Samhain, including the feast of All Saints and All Souls, was beckoning. This was the time to remember our ancestors and witnesses around us, in community with us. We learnt a song that would be one of the refrains we would return to:‘The peace of the rolling waves to you, the peace of the shining stars. The peace of the blowing air to you, the peace of the quiet earth …’ Song, movement, poetry, ritual, story would continue to accompany us along the way.

Over the next week or so, we explored monastic themes, as we visited sacred sites in and around Galway: hospitality, community, kinship with nature, silence and solitude, sabbath, work and service, conversion. What riches we received! I’m just going to give a little flavour in this blog account.

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Making a Brigit’s cross.

Welcome and Hospitality – This theme infused all our time together. Our hosts, our guides, the Irish people we met – we often heard, ‘You’re welcome’. It was a genuine expression – no empty words. We were so well fed! In soul and body we were so well fed. Our meals were all amazing. From the many breakfast options in the guesthouse, to meals out in one of the hundreds of eateries in Galway, to the amazing goats cheese salad lunch on the isle of Inis Mor – nothing disappointed. It was all delicious.

Belonging and Companions – I found myself the only ‘Brit’ among a group of Americans and one Canadian. How would this work out, I wondered?! Well, there were some separations of language and we explored different meanings of words that we shared and yet had very different interpretations! And then living, eating, walking, talking, being playful pilgrims together did its work of creating us into people with common hopes, longings, hurts and dreams. One lunch time I bought a book from one of our guides. ‘Ah’ he said, ‘you’re the Brit!’ Yes, I said, a little embarrassed. Around me there was laughter – the warm laughter of friends, of acceptance. I had feared that I, or the others, would be too different, and my fears had proved unfounded. I was part of the group. We were a group of fellow pilgrims, of ‘monklings’.

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On Inis Mor.

Passion – All around us were people with passion. John and Christine had followed their hearts to find a home and whole-hearted work in Galway, the wild west edge of Ireland. They had moved from Seattle, to Vienna and then to Galway. They were passionate about the importance of contemplative practice, creativity and imagination, to human flourishing. They were skilled in sharing, teaching, encouraging, communicating their passion and inviting us to (re-)discover our own passions. Playful practices helped us to go deeper. Orla and Niceol led us in storytelling games, and reminded us we all have a story to tell and we can tell it. We think we have no connection, that we are alone or too different to others, and we do have connection to others. They dared us to say yes to play, to failure, to being human! Our guides on our days out and about, at Brigit’s garden, in the wild Burren, on the Arran Islands, were all people of passion. Jenny at Brigit’s garden had a vision of creating a natural environment that reflected the themes of Celtic seasons and the gifts of the Celtic saint Brigit. Tony, our walking guide on the Burren, had left his work as a ‘petty bureaucrat in Dublin’ to follow his passion for the land, for connecting history, politics, faith, story, geology, flora and fauna. Dara on the Arran Islands, told us of his journey to minister in a different way, leaving behind the dogmatism and universalism of the Catholic priesthood, to become a priest in the Celtic tradition, more intimately connected and rooted in one place, in these islands, and offering ritual to mark key moments in the lives of islanders. The musicians we heard in Galway, and at our final gathering. Our kind and friendly driver Cormac, who was also very much part of the group. They all reminded us that there can be another faithful way to live whole-heartedly in this world.

My work is loving the world .. Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…

Mary Oliver, The Messenger

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Joyful, live music in a packed pub in Galway.

Gift – There was so much gift, so much to receive and be thankful for. Each day brought beauty, generosity, heart-opening times. Each day I thought had been the best, and the next day there was more. And the more did not diminish what had gone before. Truly all was gift. At the end of the retreat, we gathered in the ruins of Corcomroe Abbey. We gave each other a piece of apple, dipped in honey, saying to one another: ‘May you savour the sweetness of your life.’ Later, we were invited to write a poem of instruction – some words to take away and come back to as we continued to seek the way of the pilgrim, the way of being a monkling in the world.

There is always more

to receive as gift.

Walk. Sing. Savour. Take my hand.