Holy Land Tour 1990
This trip log was written in 1990 and was sent as a long-form letter to the people who liked receiving these things. I was assigned to our boarding school in San Antonio at the time, as teacher and dean of discipline.
Dear All ... Well, here it is, the dreaded yearly form letter... or missive. This trip log is the hardest one yet to write. My trip this year consisted of so many little "stop-look-move-on" sort of days that it is easy to get lost in the blur.
The trip had been in the planning for about 9 months to a year. I was asked at some point "Hey, Jef, would you like to go to the Holy Land ?" "Sure," I replied, "who wouldn't?"
After that exchange, I promptly forgot about the whole thing, until a month or so later when I started to get mailings from the Oblate committee that was putting together what they were calling a "Pilgrimage and Renewal Experience". I guess it was really going to happen, and I was going to be part of it.... yay! After that realization, I continued to forget about the whole thing, except once a month or so, when I would get other mailings telling me to get ready, to do this or that, what to expect, what not to expect, etc. Well, I would take care of whatever needed immediate attention - asking someone to be my roomy, filling out and mailing visa applications, assuring the province that I did still want to go, and was planning on it, etc.- but after the immediate work I would promptly lose myself once again in the work of the school and forget about the trip.
It was very strange to not be really "psyched up" for the event, but the end of the year work kept piling on, and, I think the fact that I had little to do as far as making plans, getting equipment, etc. ... all the stuff that I usually do and which keeps my mind on my trips and the excitement level "up"; none of that was present this trip. In fact, that was pretty much the nature of the entire thing.... an itinerary was planned for us, buses and rooms were arranged, time tables were planned, the whole bit... all we had to do was act like receptive sheep, go where we were told, when we were told, look at the things we were told to look at, listen to whatever information the guide was telling us, the entire mindlessness of the trip was different, and in many ways freeing and refreshing... I wouldn't want to do my vacations that way all the time, but for a change of pace, it was fun.
These pilgrimages were started by our province several years ago as a renewal program for those who were still rather fresh in their ministry - those ordained for only 6 years or so. Well, the first program was so successful, that the Oblates decided to continue doing this for a few more years in order to give all the Oblates of the province a chance to go. Some trips were cancelled due to the political situations in particular years, but with this years trip (probably the last one for quite a few years) almost all of us have had an opportunity to go. I feel very lucky to have been able to go; and when I heard that some of my peers, when invited to go, responding "if nothing better comes along" I just about freaked.... I mean we weren't talking about going to Laredo, Texas.... this was the Holy Land!! Oh well, some people I just won't be able to figure (those who responded in that manner though, were removed from the list of the invited). Of course, by this time, it was no longer younger Oblates on the trip.... I think the median age of our group had to be in the mid to late 50's, if not older. It was nice being the "young 'un" again).
The school year ended on schedule. It was a good graduation, and a bit difficult for me.... the class that I had in a sense "adopted" when I first came here was graduating, and I had really grown to like those guys. They had asked me to preside at their graduation liturgy and give the homily.... I felt honored. It was the most difficult homily I ever did. I'll bet I went through some 16 different versions and still was not absolutely satisfied with what I ended up giving, but the time had come when I had to settle on something. It went well though, very well really.
I bid my boys good-bye, spent one more week with the remaining underclassmen (our seniors graduate and leave one week before school is out for the rest of the students). A couple of days after we got rid of that bunch, we had our end of the year faculty meetings (another exercise in frustration and futility for me), got some of the house cleaned up, discipline letters written - then it was time to go to Dickinson, Tx. for the annual retreat for those who work in education and formation. It was a very good retreat, our retreat master was a theologian I dearly respect and read with fervor... Fr. David Powers,OMI. He had some absolutely wonderful insights and reflections to share with us, enough to keep me pondering still. As good as he was though, I left the retreat 2 days early. It was due to end May 31, departure date for the Holy Land was on the 4th of June.... I had done NO packing, NO buying of some essentials (like a camera that I needed because our great student reporters had lost/stolen the one I bought the year before). Heck, I really had not even looked at the itinerary for the trip yet. I spent those few days between retreat and departure doing all that sort of "stuff".
The nite before departure, I was still packing, re-packing and getting things ready. I am proud of the fact that I managed to get all that I needed into 2 carry-ons and did not have to check in anything at the airports (on the way there... the way back was something else). Finally, I got it all done, all I would have to do was wake up at 5:30 the next morning, jump in the shower and shave, put on the clothes that I laid out to travel in, grab my 2 bags from in front of my bedroom door, grab my address book and writing paper off my office desk and step into the bus for our 6:30 PROMPT departure to the airport. No sweat... I was in bed at 10:30... out of bed at 12:30 - my stomach churning from the spicy food at our "bon-voyage" dinner and prayer meeting that nite... back to bed.... out of bed at about 2:00, I don't know why, just woke up and laid in the bed staring at the ceiling... waiting for the alarm to go off at 5:30. I finally drifted back to sleep, the next thing I know, there was pounding at my door, I glanced at the 3 alarms that were blaring their rock songs, their bells and buzzers..... SH-- it was 6:30. No time for a shower, no time to shave (and I needed it) no time for anything..... I jumped into my clothes, grabbed the two bags in my room and ran onto the bus... 6:34 A.M. It was on the way to the airport that I realized I had not turned off my alarms, my light or my air-conditioner... boy was our business manager going to be angry.... and I smelt like someone who had spent the night digging ditches,; not to mention all the razzing I was getting from the others who remarked on my reputation for promptness.... this going to be a wonderful beginning... and with some 20 hours of travel in front of me.... well, I just wanted to stop right there and see if there was any way to start this thing all over again... but there wasn't, and so we continued.
Our plane left San Antonio at 7:40, and it was on time!!! We had a change of planes in Dallas and arrived in Chicago at 11:49 A.M. where we would have a 4 hour wait. It was in Chicago that all the relatives of our fellow pilgrim Fr. Joe Kennelly, who was from Chicago, came to visit him. Little did they or we expect that this would be their last visit with him, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Seating was sparse in the Chicago airport, and I was tired... it was a relief when they finally let us on the plane. There were only 2 cigarette smokers in our group of 20.... and it proved to be to our benefit that we got seated in Smoking. The front of the plane where the "health-nuts" resided, was fairly full, we in the back of the plane had lots of room... so much in fact that most of us had our own row to stretch out in, or at the least a couple of seats we could call our own. Some of the non-smokers noted this fact, and I guess the prospect of more room overcame their dis-like of smoke and joined us in the back.... damn squatters.
Alitalia kept the free wine coming, and I kept imbibing... I was so tired that I was feeling dopey and uncomfortable. But I was not able to sleep until they started the movie.... "The Fabulous Baker Boys".... between it and the wine, I managed a good eight hours of shut eye and felt fairly revived by the time we got to Rome.... thank God, because this would be the first of many long walking journeys that I would take on this trip.
We got into Rome at about 8:00 in the morning and were met at the airport by Oblates from the General House, who would take us to the General House for a meal and rest. Our plane to Cairo would not be leaving until 5:00 that evening. They had brought enough vehicles to seat all but 2. I volunteered to go with Don (an Oblate from San Antonio who was vacationing in Rome and had come to the airport to help with our group) on the train that had just been put into service the day before. It was one of those mass transit sort of things that Rome was anxious to get going because of the Soccer World Cup that was beginning that very week in Rome. We stepped into the train that the sign said we should, Don and I felt very lucky.... the train was absolutely empty except for me and him. Don was explaining how the Italians were not yet used to this system, the troubles it had had at its inauguration (they had made the station too narrow to accommodate the train and so had to chip away the brand new marble platform so it could fit), and all the other reasons the train was empty. The doors shut right on time, and we prepared for a departure that never quite came. Looking back, I guess the real reason that the train was empty was because we were on the WRONG TRAIN. I noticed, as we sat in our locked car, that there were a number of people getting on the train parked next to us, and when the loudspeaker announced that the train on that track would soon be leaving in the direction Don and I wanted to go in 2 minutes, we thought it a good idea to get on it instead.... but the doors were locked... minor panic set in... the doors were locked - in all the cars - we were going to miss our ride! We hooted and hollered out the window enough to finally catch an officials attention, who unlocked the door, and Don and I raced to the other train, getting on just as the doors were closing. We had made it! The way we figured it, even with this slight delay, we would still get to the General House 30 minutes before the others because the Roman traffic was worse than usual given the soccer crowds and all.
We probably would have arrived before the rest, had our train gone where we thought it would go, maybe even if it had continued to move, but only 4 or 5 stops into our trip, the train made an unscheduled stop, still don't know why, in the middle of somewhere (seemed like nowhere to us), and we waited there, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes.... finally we saw some of the other passengers were being allowed to get off, we joined them, and just as we got to the road, our train pulled away..... the omens were at an all time high for this pilgrimage. Hey, I was out of the country, had had some sleep on the plane, always enjoyed the company of Don, so we would have to take a bus.... if we could figure out which one to take. We finally did figure it out, and some 45 - 60 minutes after everyone else had gotten in to the General House, Don and I walked through the door... just in time to eat. I ate, I bathed, I showered, I went with some of the guys to a little bar around the corner, and then, because transportation back to the airport was going to be tight, I got in with the group that was leaving first. There were three of us, and we got there in time for a 2 hour wait. Gives one time for reflection and reading - I had brought all my magazines that had been piling up for the last 2 months because of the lack of time I had had to read, so the wait was not wasted.
Our plane took off on time, arriving in Cairo at 9:20 P.M. Our tour manager met us at the airport, but we had a bit more waiting to do as he and J.C. (a member of our group... he and one other - Martin - had joined up with us in Rome, they were both coming from our mission in Zambia, J.C. had bent sent there from Texas after he was ordained, Martin is one of our native vocations) reported J.C.'s lost luggage (that would catch up with us the very next day... praise the Lord). Having gotten that out of the way, we boarded the buses assigned us and headed off to our first stop in Egypt...the Pharaoh Egypt Hotel, CAIRO.
Upon entering the hotel we were introduced to a Middle East custom that we were to encounter throughout not only Egypt, but Israel as well (maybe it's an Arab thing). We were given a glass of juice ... not very good juice if I remember correctly, too sweet, but it was free and wet, so what the hey....
We were finally here, after all those hours of travelling, after those numerous hours of waiting, after months of simply waiting to get there... we were in Egypt, we were tired, probably smelly, but we were on the continent of Africa, the place of the pharaohs, the land of the Nile... an adventure had begun. It was in that spirit that several of us decided that since it was still before midnite, what we needed was a real drink... with alcohol in it. We asked the location of the house bar, and then we learned something about Arabs and Arab establishments.... they don't have bars. Religious Arabs I would learn, won't even transport a bottle of beer because it violates their religious doctrine. Thank the stars, they don't have any compunctions about giving directions to the local bars. Four of us decided to go and find one of these bars, after all, this experience deserved a toast, a proper toast.
We went in the direction indicated to us, and soon found ourselves in what we assumed was a sidewalk cafe/bar... but what was in fact a smoking parlor. There were only men at the tables, dressed in the long, dress-like garment that were very common throughout Egypt and Israel, with the turban-like head-ware or the Lawrence of Arabia type of cloths held on with a headband (I think they call them ka-fia's), and they were drinking teas and coffees, and smoking from hookahs. The waiter would bring the tall, brass, water filled, vase-like containers to the table, each one with as many hoses coming out of it as there were patrons at the table. The top of each of these slender necked "vase" was a bowl shaped screen on which the waiter would place fiery red coals and top these off with some foul smelling variation of tobacco. Our first thought was that this must be one of those famous hash parlors that we had seen so often in the movies, and indeed, the offer was made to smoke some of this "hash-hish" as they called it. But it didn't smell like the hash I remembered from the times I had stumbled upon OTHERS smoking it, but, the waiter did call it hash-hish.
We took a seat at one of the tables, and waved down one of the waiters, and asked for a drink... well, the minute we started speaking English, you would have thought we had just ground this guys feet into the ground.... it was such a pained look and such a loud wail to accompany it... I guess he did not want to deal with the english. Luckily, one of the patrons at a table near us informed us that there were no drinks here other than tea, coffee or hash-hish. We decided that this was not the place for us, we searched a bit further and finally discovered not only the bar, but how expensive beer and whiskey would prove to be throughout the trip. Expensive enough that we limited ourselves to a single drink apiece and then went home, still debating our discovered hash-parlor.
Several days later we learned that all grasses, including tobacco, are called by the generic "hash-hish". So, yes, we had discovered a hash parlor, but not of the type we had supposed... already we were getting an education. Another interesting finding... in our closets at the Pharaoh Egypt Hotel, among the spare blankets were complimentary condoms, useless to our group.
The next morning we gathered in the hotel dining room for breakfast... we were sat at assigned tables, bowls of dry cereal (looked like Special K to me) were sitting at our places, and without asking, the waiter made the rounds pouring hot milk on our cereal... I would have preferred it dry I think. These people love their vegetables, and they serve them at all meals.... lots and lots of cucumbers would follow us throughout our trip, as well as tomatoes and various kinds of squashes. Breakfast, lunch and supper, the staples of all three meals seemed to be these vegetables and, luckily, bread. I was wary of the fresh vegetables, though they did look good, and thanks to this wariness I was one of the few NOT to be struck with Pharaoh's Revenge during the trip... good sense and pour eating habits, they do come in handy at times.
After breakfast, we boarded our tour bus and were carted off to the famous EGYPTIAN MUSEUM. When we arrived in the court-yard of the museum we were introduced to our tour-guide. A very nice and not-bad-looking woman who spoke very good Italian. Because we were coming in from Rome, our tour company assumed we were Italian speaking.... they were wrong. We mentioned this little detail to the company representative who was with us, and he promised to get it cleared up as soon as possible. We didn't want to just sit around for who knows how long, so the guide, who did speak a smattering of English, did her best. What she couldn't say in English, she would say in Italian, and one of our group who was from Italy (Alfonso), and spoke the language fluently, would translate for us. Actually it wasn't going too badly, though slowly, and we were just getting into the thing when our English speaking guide showed up. By the end of the day, I'm sure the entire group would have preferred the lady with the minimal English skills to the infamous DR. ATIYA.
The good doctor spoke fluent good English, and used it to constantly remind us just how wonderful and famous he was. I haven't been able to confirm this, but he claims to have a ten -minute spot on the Travel Station here on the U.S. A spot wherein he described the wonders of his country to American tourists. Before our two days with him were done, he would also inform us that he was a university professor, archeologist and tour guide to the stars.... so what the heck was he doing with our motley crew? None of us had the good sense to ask him this question.
Dr. Atiya led us through the Egyptian museum, rushed us through it really. We whizzed by the King Tut exhibit, rushed beyond the ancient sculptures, flew through all this "stuff" that spoke of thousands of years of civilization in about 2 hours time. One of the greatest museums in the world, thousands of miles from Texas, and we spent only a couple of hours there. I don't think anyone in the group was fully satisfied with this quickie glance, but, our guide told us we were now going to go to a Papyrus Museum to see other wonders. I suppose if you spend all day in a single museum, you could miss other wonders of the world... so off we went. It wasn't a museum, it was a papyrus store. There was a very small exhibition of how papyrus was made, and we did get to see a real papyrus plant, but then we were carted into the showroom where we were treated to our free coke (Classic) and encouraged to buy. A little more than two hours later we left the store, almost everyone had purchased some papyrus sheets with various paintings on them, the guide had collected his commission, and we were off....to the pyramids. According to our itinerary we were to ride camels around the monuments of old... I was excited, I wanted to ride a camel.
We arrived in GIZA (at the very edge of Cairo), and then were informed that because there were some prestigious government officials visiting at the moment, the general public was being kept away until they left.
Our guide was undaunted.... we would simply go visit a scent and perfume shop and then return to the pyramids... what could we do? We entered the perfume shop, were given our complimentary coke, and then were sat in plush, upholstered benches to be told about perfumes, essences and other smelly topics. I couldn't believe the room we were in. It was more decorated than the plushest of cat houses. The floors were covered with arabian carpets, the walls were lined with mirrored cabinets and shelves holding brightly colored silver, gold and crystalline decanters. The walls without shelves and the pillars were heavily decorated, chandeliers with shining baubles covered the ceiling, the dominant color was red and the smell of the place was mixed perfumes... but not especially cloying or unpleasant.
Bottles of different scents were shown us, and samples rubbed on our arms and wrists. I couldn't help myself and bought some essence of lotus. I figure it will make for great baptismal and anointing oils. An hour or so later we were back in the bus and returned to the pyramids (after the good Dr. had collected his commission from the smell salesmen of course). We were in for a surprise, we were not yet going to the pyramids themselves, but had to make one more small stop first.... to a jewelry and souvenir shop near the pyramids. Our guide assured us this was the best shop of its' kind in all of Cairo.
Stepping off the bus we were immediately assaulted by the local children. Dressed in the traditional Arab dress, they tried to sell us special deals on post cards, head gear, toy camels, whatever. The proprietor of the store in whose parking lot the children were hocking their wares, kept coming out and shooing them away, they ignored him and as he chased one away the other million would continue to try to sell. It was a real life comedy. We finally made it into the store, where we shown all varieties of "cartouches". These are oval or oblong frames that bear a persons' name written in hieroglyphics. They make very pretty jewelry, and now that I am back, I sort of wish I had bought some, but I only picked up a few postcards, looked at the other stuff and wished everyone would hurry so that I could get to the pyramids... and my camel ride.
Finally, we left the store, fought our way through the kids and back onto the bus (our guide had tailed everyone in the store, keeping an eye on what they purchased - he didn't want to be shorted on his commission). Finally, we actually made it to the PYRAMIDS. Those three massive monuments to the god-kings and their ever vigilant watch-dog the SPHINX. They really are impressive, and one is forced in looking upon them, to wonder at how they were built.
Our guide claimed that the pyramids were not built by the slave labor that I had always heard, but rather the local farmers working during the off-seasons when the Nile would flood and no proper farming could be done. Inspired by fanatic devotion to their pharaohs, they hauled these great cut stones across the desert, down the river and piled atop one another. Who knows? They were impressive. We went into the second largest one, the pyramid of Kephron, and into the burial chamber. It was a narrow, steep climb, our backs bent, our heads down, holding onto a pipe-like handrail and walking up a board slatted to prevent slippage. A few of our guys were pretty heavy, others old, and they did not appreciate the effort they were having to make, in fact some stopped half-way, deciding it just wasn't worth it. Of course, the smocked guide herding us along with shouts and comments, trying to get us to hurry and stay together, only added insult. I thought it was sort of funny. We got to the tomb chamber, looked around, took some pictures, and then started the descent. Outside, I wanted to begin my camel ride. There was not to be a camel ride, I never did find out what happened, but, for a price, our guide would generously (so he informed us) arrange to have our pictures taken atop a camel. I passed, others did not.
Camels are interesting. The guide would have them kneel down, the rider would get into the wooden saddle, and then the camel would straighten up - first his front legs and then his back legs. The legs reversed for the dis-embarking, the front legs folded first. If you are not ready for this, when the camels front goes down, you slide forward in the saddle so that your front, and whatever is contained there is pushed forward against the front of the saddle - it can be painful. At least one of our guys spoke several octaves higher throughout the rest of the day.
Not only are the pyramids and sphinx impressive, so is the desert that lies behind them.... the great SAHARA. The city itself is built on the very edge of the desert, and it is a rather stark contrast.... all the greenery and buildings of the fertile living area stopping at the very edge of all that glowing, white, sun-reflecting sand. The smooth dunes in the horizon... all that white.... oh for a camel ride into that stark, exciting wasteland.... oh well.
We were rushed back on the bus and headed to the opposite outskirts of Cairo to the area of MEMPHIS and SAKARRA. At Sakarra are the grand ruins of an ancient temple... old pillars to climb on, desert sand to kick around in and hieroglyphics on the wall for our guide to translate for us. Pretty interesting, except for his constant reminders of how wonderful he was as a scholar and host for his country, he even showed us the section of a glyph filled piece of the wall that he said he had found in the area on one of his scholarly expeditions and had placed in the proper spot on the wall.... really, we were not impressed. Our guide took great delight in pointing out to us how the women were shown to be subservient in the drawings by the fact that they were bare-foot while their male companions wore sandals... a sign of their dominance. He never did quite deal with our queries about the drawings that showed both barefoot or in sandals, I suppose we wouldn't have understood anyway.
Outside this glyph filled temple stood the oldest pyramid in the world. The original pyramid that would inspire the development of the great pyramids we had just viewed... the step-pyramid of King Zoser. Built in a series of platforms, one on top of the other, each level smaller than the other, so that it formed a step like pyramid form. We could not go in, but it was impressive even from the outside.
After spending some time in the area, it was back to the bus to drive through the ancient city of Memphis, still presently inhabited and quite lush from the many springs in the area, to take pictures of the great statue/sphinx of RAMSES II. We had no time to get out and look, but fortunately according to our guide, we did have time to stop at a "school for poor orphans and abandoned, crippled children who made their meager living by making rugs that we could purchase and so help support these poor derelicts (and of course, fill his pockets with commission), we were very vocal about our lack of desire to see this place, and with a quiver in his voice, (surely at our insensitivity to these derelicts) he agreed to forego this particular stop.
One rather interesting sight on this tour was to watch the donkeys turning the irrigation wheel for some local farmland... I tend to forget that these sort of things are still commonplace throughout a lot of the world.
That night we returned to the pyramids for a sound and light show. The light part was not real hot, but the text was fantastic. It was from the viewpoint of the sphinx, as the watcher of the area. It gave a lot of the history and lore of the pyramids from ancient times to present. I really thought it was neat. Outdoors, the lights highlighting these ancient monuments, the desert in the background, the very cool desert breeze causing us to put on our jackets.... really worth the time and $$$. After returning to the hotel, it was time for a return to our bar, a quick drink and bed time.
Our second day in Egypt began pretty much like the first... the odd breakfast, load ourselves onto the bus, and off to the sights, todays goal was to see Old Cairo.
We began with the Coptic Orthodox church called ST. SARGIUS. It is the oldest Christian church in Egypt (about 290 A.D.), as well as the reputed place where the Holy Family lived for 3 months time during their exile in Egypt. The church itself was being renovated and so there was a lot of scaffolding, things covered in plastic, dirt and dust. A very dark church, one of the old priests who oversaw the tourists was quite delighted to point out the Icon of the Madonna which miraculously bled on occasion as well as one of the twelve pillars that is also supposed to miraculously bleed at times. The crypt over which the church was built and which was supposed to be home to the Holy Family was flooded the day we were there so all we got was a glimpse of a hole filled with water.... oh well.
One thing that was sort of interesting was all the digging that was going on in the yard and behind the church was being done by hand.... what would have surely been done by machine here - the moving of some rather sizable boulders, great holes being dug and land being leveled and carted away... was being done with pick and shovel, hoes and ramps - back breaking work, using buckets and slings made out of used tires.... interesting, but not for 'moi' I'm afraid. Though it did inspire some ideas for punishment work-details here at the school.
From St. Sargius, we moved down the covered alley-way to BEN EZRAT SYNAGOGUE. Along the way, Henry bought me a camel whip - sort of a stiff riding crop with a rather wide paddle-like end ( I thought it appropriate for a disciplinarian). I am still not real clear on the significance of the synagogue, but it was very ornate, and since it was being renovated as well, we got to wander all over and get some real close up views of the place.
Next stop was ST. GEORGE COPTIC CHAPEL. Inside, two old nuns were keeping vigil, knitting, and making sure all visitors removed their shoes before approaching the icon of St. George and lighting a candle at the altar on which it sits. The good Dr. Atiya then wanted to rush us back on the bus, but some of us had noted a rather large marble carving of St. George and headed towards it, it turned out to be part of the front of the COPTIC BASILICA TO ST. GEORGE which held some rather interesting icons and decor... we milled around a bit in the church and courtyard... our guide was getting rather tense, probably because we were missing another shop of some sort. Sometimes, a person just has to forge ahead unguided......
From St. George we were off to the CITADEL OF SALADDIN. Built in the 1100's and still actively used by the Egyptian military as an active military post, museum and holy site. Within the citadel is the MOSQUE OF SULTAN HASSAN, supposedly the largest and most ornate mosque in Egypt. There were three mosques within the citadel, but Hassans' was the definite showpiece.
The muslims ordinarily take off their shoes when entering the mosque, but at this one, small booties were tied over our shoes. Within, the chandeliers, oil lamps, ornate wall carvings and paintings were astounding. The Moslems do not paint the human figure or very many other creatures, rather they create beautiful designs using their ornate alphabet, or sometimes extremely geometric designs. All of it was impressive. Our guide explained the five major roles of the Muslim prayer leaders... a reader of the Holy Book (the Koran), one who preached, one who called the faithful to prayer, one who led the prayers, and one who repeated what the prayer leader was saying so that those in the back or in the courtyard could follow along. Our guide also showed us the major points in the mosques... the pulpit, the reading place, and the niche in the wall (always facing Mecca in the east) from where the prayer leader presided. It was all very interesting and before leaving, our guide directed us to walk under the upraised pulpit which was supposed to bring us good luck.
After taking in the panoramic view of Cairo from the citadel walls, touring the other mosques in the area, and seeing the mountains from where the stones for the pyramids were carved, we began our trip back to the hotel... First one other stop... at the Egyptian TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER which also held the TOMB OF A. SADAT. The monument of the unknown is a great, free standing pyramid-shaped structure with intricate carvings throughout. Sadats' tomb was a rather plain, black marble block with an eternal flame burning nearby. This is also the sight of the military parade grounds, where Sadat was reviewing his troops when assassinated. We watched the changing of the guards... almost comically sloppy and done with very little of the military decorum that is so very prevalent at our own war memorial ground in D.C.
As we made our way back to the hotel, we passed the CITY OF THE DEAD. Egyptian graveyards are built as tombs with rooms built atop them. These rooms, (some were full fledged houses, even palaces) are used by the relatives of the deceased when visiting their ancestors, often eating a meal on the sight and making a whole day of it. It is customary to leave food within these rooms, for the poor, who wander through these graveyards seeking such leavings. In recent times several of the larger graveyards have become permanent residences of the homeless. The housing shortage has forced many of these people to find shelter... even in the graveyards, and these sites are referred to as "cities of the dead".
We got back to our hotel very early in the afternoon, and not wanting to pass up the chance to see even more of this fascinating city, Sal, Henry and I decided to walk into the center of the city. On the way, we had to cross the NILE RIVER and decided to walk a bit along its shore. We spied a boy and his boats, and after Sal did some wheeling and dealing, we went on board the small motorboat sporting benches on either side and a green canopy covering. Our "captain" seemed to delight in our reaction to the music he was playing.... a music we would hear throughout our stay in Egypt, a music that made no sense to us, seemed to always have that same, movie-stereotyped, whining, repetitive sound to it, that we would come to dearly despise. I am convinced it is a subtle sort of torture geared at Western visitors. We saw no crocodiles, hippos or even fish in the river, just a lot of greenish-gray water, but that didn't matter, it was simply a thrill to actually be on the Nile. Our boy-captain seemed to be very eager to please us, but did not quite understand that we really did not want a round trip, and it took several minutes of talking and gesturing to get him to understand that we wantedt to be dropped off after only 15-20 minutes, and at a spot across the river, not back at his docking site. Our wish (once it was understood) was his command, and with the same fetching smile he bore throughout our trip he decided on a spot and sort of hit the rocks rather hard. We felt a bit guilty in getting off, hoping there was no damage to his boat, the guilt only increased as we looked back to see him putting his finger into what we assumed was a new hole in his bow.
We proceeded into the midst of the city, walking up and down streets where vendors hocked their wares, butchers cut up their goats, and one very interesting pigeon-seller was feeding his birds by chewing up some seed, taking a little water and, putting the birds beak into his mouth, spitting the ground meal into the birds gullet... we just sort of stopped and stared for a good 5-10 minutes watching him repeat this process with several of his birds. Nasty, but captivating. Bread salesmen/delivery boys would pass us on their bicycles with great half-sheets of ply wood held by one hand on their head, piled high with pita-bread. We continued wandering through the streets, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds of non-touristy Cairo... really interesting.
One thing that I found rather striking was when we passed a mosque, just as the 4:00 call to prayer was being heralded. It was absolutely inspiring to see all the men who would respond to the call, all doing so very faithfully and without making much of a fuss... it was time to pray, and so we will stop what we are doing and go in and pray. Particularly striking was to watch even the young boys and street kids simply go in and take care of their responsibility... no parents nagging them, no looks of painful duty on their face, simply devotion and faithfulness.... if only our young people....
We returned to our hotel for our evening conference.. built around scriptural themes and the places we were seeing. Following that, a group of us caught a cab to a restaurant to pig out on shish-kabob and pita bread. After dinner, and since we would leave Cairo the next day, Henry and I decided to do some nite time walking. There were actually great numbers of people out on the streets, it was 10 at nite and outdoor markets were just opening for business, some of the streets were surprisingly lit up, cafes and bars, restaurants and some stores were doing a fairly good business.... and lots of traffic. Maybe it's because the coolness of the night allows for this sort of outdoor activity. We wandered around a bit, got just a little lost (yeah, like a little pregnant) for a while, but eventually made our way back to home base... after all we were scheduled for an early morning departure to the SINAI DESERT.
The heat of the desert, and these desert areas really was not as bad as I thought it would be. Yes it was hot, and the sun was at times unbearable, but it was not the oppressively humid heat that I find so unbearable. In fact, when simply walking along, and not involved in extra strenuous activity, the sweat evaporated as it came forth, so you stayed relatively dry.
We were on the road by 7a.m., without Dr. Atiya. The representative of the company who first met us decided to accompany us on this leg of our journey, much to our joy. It was from him that we found out that if Atiya was a doctor, no Egyptian knew of it... only the tourists I suppose.
Our route led us through the desert, but not the great sandy desert of the Sahara. The Sinai desert is rough, and gray and stony. Not much vegetation at all, but very, very full of scarred mountains and hills, all of it seemed like rough, corrosive, solid stone. It is easy to see why so much biblical poetry makes mention of oases. It truly was a miraculous sort of sight to travel along all this rough barrenness and then, as if out of nowhere, to see greenery sprouting forth, to actually smell the water in the air, amazing.
We passed under the SUEZ CANAL in a long tunnel and stopped to take in the view from the other side. Still littered with remains of battles fought there, we saw a couple of ships make their way through the water and our guide gave a rather fascinating account of the battles fought there.
We were headed to MT. SINAI, made a brief stop at AIN MUSA (the well of Moses) mentioned in Ex. 15:22-27. Because there were other tour buses that wanted to stop, the guards of the area would not permit us to stop, so we simply had to look at the spot of greenery from afar... (our bus driver was also told by these militia to stop speeding).
The rugged barrenness continued, we entered the SINAI PENINSULA and the WILDERNESS OF TZIN. Our box lunches (which included the mandatory cucumber), were eaten at a small building in the middle of nowhere. Even this area, flanking the RED SEA was as barren as some of my students' minds. During this rest stop we amused ourselves by feeding the goats that were around and some of the guys decided to smoke the hookah offered them by the proprietor of the rest stop.
Our guide asked us not to throw away anything that we did not eat or that was only half-eaten. As we finished, he boxed up these left-overs and he took them with us. After lunch we travelled for a couple more hours and then made another stop at an oasis (the local word is WADI). The contrast between these patches of green in the middle of the desert really is striking. Some of the native kids came out to see what we were all about, and Sal was the hit of the gathering with his mini-tape-recorder, as he recorded their voices and then played it back to them, he got them to sing and say their names, and just make noises. One young boy was especially adamant about wanting to play with the recorder, and it took Sal a little effort to keep the kid from grabbing away the machine. Our guide brought out the food he had saved, and the kids loved it, almost attacking what we offered. Sort of sad really, but poverty is everywhere.... even at these places of inspiration for the images of paradise.
Finally we arrived at our hotel for the next two nites, at the foot of Mt. Sinai... A retreat like area, that was even used by the Egyptian king at times. Across the road lay ST. CATHERINE MONASTERY, and their was a small village up the road, definitely catering to tourists, but there was no beer there either (nor at our hotel).. Moslem town, and all that. We walked to the village, I bought some kafias, and then returned to my poorly air-conditioned hotel room to do my laundry (thank God for big sinks and Woolite). The night was warm, and still and blacker than black, Henry and I watched the moon climb up over the hill and then went to bed early, we would be getting up at 2 in the A.M. to begin our ascent of Mt. Sinai (also known as JEBEL MUSA - "Mt. Moses", also Mt. Horeb). Our guide promised that for those interested, camels would be available. I fell asleep with visions of myself rocking along atop a hump.
Two in the morning sure comes early, but once I splashed a bit of water in my face, the excitement of the upcoming climb got our spirits going and our bodies awake. At the trail head there were (excitement building here) bedouins with... CAMELS. I was escorted to one of these ships of the desert and told to get on (the price had already been negotiated by the guide). The problem was that they did not tell me how to get on. The saddles sitting on the camels hump were not the leather type that I supposed. Rather, it is wooden, a sort of banana-like, broad curved wooden seat. I got on the camel, wearing my shorts and Arab head-wear... a real Larry of Arabia. I had to take some ribbing from the others about riding a camel up the mountain.... but I figured I could climb a mountain anytime, riding a camel was a different experience.
Once on the camel, my legs dangling on either side (camel hair is certainly rough on bare legs), the guide got us moving with a swift WHACK to the animals' backside. Almost immediately I was in great pain. The saddle just fit my body, no room to move forward or back, and my personal parts were being pressed into the hard wooden seat, and no relief was to be had. I tried to adjust... no room, my eyes were watering, I had lumps in my throat, my voice went up several octaves, I squirmed as much as I could... no help, the pain was incredible.... and the camel just kept going. Swaying on its back, I just knew that I was not going to survive this trip. I did manage to relieve some of the pressure by grabbing the saddles front and back and lifting myself somewhat out of the saddle, but my arms were soon quivering with the strain, and I knew I would not be able to keep this up. Thank God the bedouin guide noted my contorted face and surmised immediately the source of my discomfort. He gestured to a native rider not too far from me and told me I was to do the same. The problem was that I was sitting in the saddle incorrectly, like a horse. I was to cross my legs and rest them on the camels back between the front of my saddle and the beasts' neck. I assumed the position, and with my head swimming, Overwhelmed by the realization that I was going to live after all; but it would be several days before the tenderness and pain of my groin would heal itself. Thank God the guide noticed, for the trip on the camel was to last almost two hours.
The camel walked very close to the edge of the trail, affording a magnificent view of the valley below and the lower parts of the trail when the moon wasn't being blocked by the mountain peak. The mountain is 7500 feet above sea level, the camels could not go up the last 500 feet or so, and so that part of the ascent was made on foot.
The top was just as craggy and boulder strewn as the lower parts had been. A soft moonlight caused the many people on top to appear as darker spots against the dark. Many other people had climbed the mountain the evening before and spent the night on top; so upon reaching the top there was already a flurry of activity going on.... meals being prepared and eaten, an Arab brewing coffee over a small fire and selling it to the visitors on top. One of our group - Hugo- had made it up rather quickly and when I got to the top he had already established a running tab with the coffee vendor. It was odd, to touch the stone I could feel the heat from the day before, but the air was chilly.
When all of our group had arrived, or at least those that hadn't given up, we ate the food we brought with us and shared scriptures that applied to this place. There was a small chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity on top, as well as a building that allowed entrance to the cave that tradition says God put Moses (Ex. 33:22).
The sun slowly made its way over the other peaks and gave everything a pink, yellow and red glow. This was in contrast to the bright white flashes all around from the peoples' cameras. The glow of the sun really brought out the sharpness and rough textures of the rocks and peaks that surrounded us. Almost surrealistic in its beautiful bareness and roughness.
After the sun had made its appearance, and we had all gotten some rest, we began our descent, hoping to make it down before it got too hot and uncomfortable. Ray John and I decided to go down via the PENITENTS' STEPS - 3750 steps built as a spiritual exercise by some of the monks of the monastery centuries before. It was a shorter route, but much rougher than the other way. Unfortunately, some of the older men from our group saw Ray john and I heading down and decide to follow, this route as we were to find out, was not really made for the older or out of shape... they discovered the same thing in due time. Ray John and I made it down in about 45 minutes.... the way was magnificent, leading us through some rather majestic ravines in the mountain side and over and around boulders and rocks. Once down, we waited for the others, and waited and waited. A goodly portion made it down after 2 hours or so, the final group would make it down an hour later than that.
One of our group, John, had taken the steps down, and was to suffer the rest of the day because of it. His legs were not really used to such strenuous exercise, and when he got down, his muscles refused to work for him any further. He would be walking along and then, without warning, simply collapse, his legs giving way under him. I would spend the rest of the day walking him along, my arm supporting him and catching him when these falling spells came ... which they did pretty often. It was something that we laughed about each time it happened, but the laughter was simply hiding the fear and concern. Thankfully, his legs were able to keep him going the next day, but it was an experience I am sure he will not soon forget.
Others had done some slipping and falling, all were pretty well worn out by the time they got down. Joe though, suffered the most. He really looked worn out by the time he got down, and would spend the rest of the day in bed. The climb and descent had taken all his energy out of him, and, he told us, all he needed was some rest. He never let us know just how bad off he was until we arrived in Jerusalem a few days later.
After everyone was down we returned to the hotel. Those who were not too tired or hurt then got dressed (we were not allowed to enter churches or mosques in short pants) and returned for a tour of St. Catherine monastery.
The monastery is an Orthodox center that has ben around since the 6th century. Of the many historical and holy places that we were to see during this trip, this was one of the very few that had not been destroyed or torn down or occupied at one time or another. It has stood for 1400 years since its erection under Justinian. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, Arab caliphs, Turkish sultans, and even Napoleon have all taken the Monastery under their protection, saving it from pillage, and in all its history it has never been conquered, damaged or destroyed. It is still inhabited by a group of Greek Orthodox monks. We were to even meet the prior of the place who took us on a privileged tour of the rarely visited library that is rather famous and significant in Christian history.
On the grounds of the monastery, the burning bush - the bush from which God spoke to Moses in a fire that did not burn the bush, is preserved. It is walled in to keep it safe, and reputedly it is the only bush of its kind in the entire Sinai peninsula and every attempt to transplant a branch of it elsewhere has been unsuccessful. Also in the courtyard is the WELL OF MOSES, the place Moses is said to have found Jethros' 7 daughters watering their flocks (Ex. 2:16)... the water is still cool and refreshing.
We entered the church through the doors that were originally placed there 1400 years ago. They are rather elaborately carved and made from wood of the cedars of Lebanon. One interesting thing was the graffiti scratched into them by crusaders of the 11th century... you can still see the coat of arms left by these knights. The church itself is extremely ornate, with the many oil lamps and a huge number of icons (they have a gallery of some 150 icons many going back to the 6th century). As I told Henry, "you know some of them are significant and special because you can find them on Christmas cards." As with most of the great Orthodox churches and Islamic mosques we visited, the profuse amount of decor, icons, silver and gold, carvings and mosaics made our heads swim and sort of caused everything to jumble together in my head, so that very little distinctly stands out as memorable, the luxuriousness of the whole thing is what was striking more so than any particular aspect of it all.
The library of the monastery is said to be second in importance only to that of the Vatican - both in number and value of the manuscripts contained there. Most of the manuscripts deal with Christian subjects, but there are also historical documents. Its greatest holding, at present, is the CODEX SYRIACUS from the 5th century. The library once held the CODEX SINATICUS, a precious Greek manuscript of the Bible from the 4th century, but it was "borrowed" in 1865 by a German scholar who said he would return it... he never did and it made its way to St. Petersburg, and then purchased by the British Museum.
We barely got to see this library. It seemed none of the monks wanted to accompany us there, but as we were leaving, Sal happened to run into the prior of the place who took us gladly to see this library and provide a rather interesting commentary to it all. Hugo had decided that he too wanted to see this library and set out on his own to find it, well he led several others with him on this fools' errand, and although he had made it to the library door (it was locked) he was chased away by some of the monks. Hugo had a way of wanting to be tour guide throughout the trip, telling people where to go (usually the wrong way), constantly telling us to hurry (to where we were never sure), trying to get us moving when we wanted to linger. It started to get on the nerves of quite a few of us, and comments were often made in his direction, and we would often linger longer than necessary just because he was telling us to get moving. It gave us something to do, though I am not real sure he was always aware of the mocking we were engaging in. In fact, when we would ask for his permission to move or go one place or another, he often took it as "the way it should be". Hugo is a really nice guy, he simply doesn't want to grow any moss, and feels he is being very helpful by taking charge.... he wasn't. The great advantage to all this is that as we would grow tired or grouchy, we always had a single target to aim our rudeness toward, and thus saved one another, Hugo may in fact be the prime cause for our having such a pleasant time with one another.
Before leaving the monastery, we stopped at the charnel house - a repository of the bones of the monks who had died there over the centuries. The dead are first buried in the small cemetery on the property, then disinterred and their bones deposited in great piles, the skulls in a different pile from the rest of the bones, in this building. The remains of archbishops are kept in special niches along the wall. Among these bones, one skeleton is kept whole and dressed in the black vestments of a monk with a white cross on his cap... supposedly the skeleton of the hermit Stephanos from the 6th century.
We returned to the hotel for a well deserved shower and nap before supper. That night I walked along the road, away from the hotel lights in order to take in all the perfect dark and twinkling stars.... really amazingly clear.
We left St. Catherine's the next morning, heading for the Israeli-Egyptian border. On the way, we stopped for a couple of hours for a swim at a resort at the Gulf of Akaba on the RED SEA. The water was beautiful, clear and refreshing. I am told the very best diving in the world is found in the Red Sea. Before leaving Egypt, we made a quick stop to take pictures of a castle built on a finger of land in the sea... a castle built by SALADIN in the 10th century. It was the perfectly typical castle... all it lacked were turbaned arab soldiers bearing curved scimitars, but I guess you can't have everything.
At the border we bid our Egyptian bus, bus driver and guide farewell. We crossed the border, had our passports taken care of and then met with our Israeli guide, a blonde woman named Fanya, our bus and bus driver Makmud... they would be with us throughout the Israeli portion of our trip. She was a Jew, he was an Arab... there seemed to be some minor tensions between them, nothing that caused us any real distress, but apparently an unusual situation ... normally we would have been assigned a Christian guide, but Sal had requested a particular guide who was not able to be with us and sent her friend Fanya in her stead... she was good.
We were going to EILAT, a resort city on the shore of the Red Sea. We had indications of how interesting it might be, when we spied on the lake side near the road nude bathers... let's go to Eilat!
The hotel was a very nice one, with the one exception that instead of two beds in each room, there was only one... a large one, granted, but only one. Well, we raised a stink and the hotel provided mattresses to throw on the floor. Of course, among us we have some rather large people, and older people... mattresses on the floor do not suit everyone, but we did survive. Henry and I took a walk along the waterside... everyone is wearing bathing outfits... and shoes. The beach is so darn rocky (coarse rocks) that to try to go barefoot is both rough and extremely hot. Now we were in humid heat, and so we could feel it .. intensely.
Dinner that night was a circus. It was buffet style, and there must have been several hundred people attacking the line all at once. We all managed to elbow our way into a meal, it was good, but after fighting your way round the table, you really felt as though you earned it.
After dinner, time for a walk. We lost one of our pilgrims two blocks after we started walking...Pharaoh's Revenge struck him and he scurried home at a rather quick pace, sad and funny to behold.
I walked with Bill Davis looking for a drug store... he had a sore tooth that was killing him, but we never found one that was open. Had a nice walk though, Eilat has a very nice board walk lined with restaurants and little tourist stores, but really not too much else, and everywhere there was that irritating music in the air. Really, it's all one song, played at different speeds.
Our first stop the next morning was CORAL WORLD. It included a shark pond, an underwater observatory that allowed us to look out on the colorful reef from a fish-eye perspective. Also a museum and aquarium... nice.
We then went to MASADA. On the way there we were traveling along the DEAD SEA. It was fascinating to look out and see this very still water with what could have been white-caps or snow on ice, but which was in fact crystallized minerals jutting above the water, sometimes long reefs of the hardened stuff poking its way out. Nothing lives in the Dead Sea, and it is even more saline than the Great Salt Lake of Utah.
Masada is a rock fortress near the SE coast of the Dead Sea. It sits atop a mountain overlooking the sea and major routes into Israel and is the historic site of Jewish national heroism. The castle-palace complex was built largely by Herod the Great, seized from Roman occupation by Jewish Zealots in 66A.D.. It took the Romans two years of battle to recover it, but the zealots committed suicide rather than surrender... though 960 bodies and/or skeletons are yet to be found. It was really an impressive site. Owing to our experience at Sinai, our guide had us take the cable car up, rather than the walk up the mountain which looked rather interesting.
After leaving Masada and the well preserved ruins, we made a small stop at EN-GEDI of Davidic fame (1 Sam. 23:29) and a nearby Kibbutz where we feasted on fresh dates (the trees were loaded with them). The route we travelled had many signs in both Hebrew and English. At times it was difficult not to think that you weren't heading toward Jerusalem,Texas or something like that. Those familiar looking words kind of took me away from the fact that I was now on the Asian continent, heading toward the biblical city where Jesus himself had spent some time and met his fate.
We arrived in Jerusalem. Our lodging was right across the street from the ancient walled city of old Jerusalem (referred to as the Old City). We were no sooner in the hotel when Joe K. told Sal that he thought he might have had a heart attack two days ago on Mt. Sinai, and that he would like to go to a hospital. Imagine that, he said nothing except that he was a bit tired for two days. Apparently he had been suffering though; his room-mate told us afterward that Joe had been having a very difficult time sleeping and was not really in good spirits. Well, the ambulance came, they took Joe away, and the rest of us just sort of walked around in a stunned silence., That night, the hospital confirmed that Joe had had a heart attack, and that he would be in the hospital for at least 8-10 days; but the sense was that he would be all right.
There was nothing else to do but continue with our trip. We began the next day with a visit to BETHLEHEM and the church of the Nativity. A church is built over the traditional site of the nativity and an altar built over the very spot of the manger, that spot is marked on the floor with a metal star, in the middle of which is a hole that one can reach in and touch the ground where the holy family had stayed. We celebrated mass at that church. After mass we went to a souvenir store... not much there that interested us and headed back to Jerusalem and MT. ZION.
Mt. Zion lies within the city boundaries, right next to the old city. It is hard to tell it was a hill or mountain, because like everything else in Jerusalem, there is so much built on and around it, outside of some sense of an incline, you cant' really tell its a mountain. There are several holy sites on Mt. Zion, including ST. PETER GALLICANTRU ("where the cock crowed"), the place of Peter's denial and the holding pen of Christ between his arrest and trial.
Also on the mount is the TOMB OF KING DAVID. A very ornate tomb, with many richly decorated arks (where the scrolls of the Torah are kept in a synagogue) all around it. When visiting places of significance to the Jews there were usually paper skull caps (yarmulke) available, as they insist that the head must be covered as a sign of respect to God. We also visited the CENACLE.. the room where Jesus was said to have shared his last supper with his friends.
After this morning of touring, Henry, Sal, Ray John and I decided to catch some lunch in the old city and walk around a bit. We stopped at an Arab establishment, pretty good sandwich whose main ingredient was some sort of green, mashed vegetable type of concoction. After chow, we stopped at the WESTERN WALL (wailing wall) where we watched the many Jews offer prayer, and even offered some of our own (again, wearing our paper yarmulkes). We could not get to this area without first passing through a metal detector and past the local guards.
Old Jerusalem is an amazing city, and quite complicated to get a grasp on. It is divided into 4 areas referred to as "quarters". They are the Christian quarter, the Armenian quarter, the Moslem and the Jewish quarters. This quartering, though with no real apparent official delineations, was very apparent when walking from one to another. you knew you were in the Jewish quarter because you would see a lot of Hebrew signs and symbols, it was very clean and kept up, many Hasidic jews were in the area (the ones with the long locks of hair on either side of their head and always wearing hats). This quarter always seemed clean, the stores did business in a rather orderly fashion and it was fairly quiet. To pass from the Jewish to the Moslem quarter was almost like a walk from the first world into the third. It was dirty, the signs were in Arabic, the market areas were crowded and noisy and smelly, you felt a bit more ill at ease in this area, watching for pick-pockets and always being hounded by children selling things and merchants practically dragging you into their stores. Far more chaotic, dark, (many of the streets were more like covered alley ways), and very hectic. The Christian and Armenian quarters were both more in between these extremes, and you weren't quite sure when you were in one or the other.
The frightening thing about all this is that there was almost a palpable dis-liking (maybe even hatred) between some of these factions, that was sort of hard to understand. It just seems that if you must share the same city, and in many ways some sense of a shared history, that you could get along a little better. Of course the Wailing Wall does a lot to explain some of this. The wall is the last remaining portion of the original Temple in Jerusalem, and so is considered a sacred sight. Centuries ago, when the Moslems held the entire city, they had built a great domed memorial building on the hill above this portion of wall, a site that was above where the Temple would have sat. This spot remains in Muslim hands and is considered the 2nd holiest site in all the Muslim world next to Mecca (one prayer here is worth 10,000 prayers in other places). They built this temple... THE DOME OF THE ROCK in the 5th century, over this sight because they believe that the huge rock that lies in the center of this building was the site from which Mohammed was taken by Allah to paradise; this same rock is believed by Jews to be the site where Abraham was going to sacrifice his son, and was also the base of the great altar of sacrifice when the temple stood. The Jews therefore, do not allow their own to go up to this sight because it has been profaned. Guards watch the area by the wailing wall, and there are guards posted all over the mall that stretches out before it. With the Arabs right above, it would be a perfect sight for violence directed against the Jews, and vice-versa I suppose.
Of course, the Jews are not merely the victims. Next to the Dome is the EL AQSA MOSQUE. Another grand and ornate mosque, but within, there are a number of glass cases with shelves, inside are kept the various bombs (duds and casings) of the many tear gas bombs, regular bombs, etc. that have been thrown into the mosque during prayer gatherings. The shocking part was that many of the grenades were marked "Made in the U.S.A." from some small town in Pennsylvania.
Another interesting aspect of both Israel and Egypt... when planning for the weekends, you really had to know what kind of place you were going to- Moslem, Christian or Jewish. The Moslem holy day is Friday, so many of their shops and attractions are closed on that day, the Jews of course celebrate Saturday and the Christians Sunday. The Jews were very adamant about their holy day, and did not even like for you to smoke in their quarter on the sabbath. All very fascinating, and not too big a problem since most of our days were planned for us with these things already in mind.
After we had walked around a bit more, the others returned to our hotel and I decided to take a walk around the ramparts of the city wall, a wall that circles the entirety of the old city, but is blocked off and access denied when it led into the Jewish quarter (more security measures). It's a sort of fascinating way to see the city, and again, as you looked through the holes for pouring hot oil and shooting arrows, I couldn't help but expect some knight in armor to show up around the corner.
After supper that evening, a group of us went into the new city, to a pedestrian mall that could have been found in any major U.S. city, except of course for the signs and that horrible music. There were lots of young people simply milling about or sitting at the outdoor cafes, there were artists and jewelry makers, street musicians and entertainers. All a lot of fun. It was strange too, that it did not take long to become oblivious to the fact that almost half the guys over 18 years of age were walking around with machine guns, most of them not in uniform, and all of them rather casual about their arms. At first it was striking to see three or four guys sitting at a table, coca-colas in front of each, maybe a bowl of ice cream, rifles lying on their feet under the table... but it soon became passe'
The next day we went to the MOUNT OF OLIVES. Jerusalem itself is built on a hill. A hill that has been entirely covered over (so it seems) with streets, buildings, these things have been built over ruins that were built over ruins that were built over ruins, etc. for centuries. So much rebuilding in fact, that you lose the sense that you are on a hill. The city is surrounded on three sides by valleys. On the East there is a sharp decline into the KIDRON VALLEY, the valley that separates Jerusalem from the higher Mt. of Olives (where you get a really great, classical view of Jerusalem). The Kidron is traditionally identified as the valley of Jehosaphat where Joel 3:2-12 places all the nations for the final gathering. It is believed that those buried here will be the first to be judged. Pious Jews all favor this area for their grave-site and the valley is covered with graves.
On the West is the VALLEY OF HINNOM (Jos. 15:8; 18:16) which swings around the mountain to meet up with the Kidron valley. This valley was used for the burning of garbage and for pagan sacrifices (1Kgs 11:7; 2Kgs 16:3; 23:10) and it is from there that we get GEHENNA as "Hell" (Matt. 5:22). Another valley (the TYROPOEON) runs through the mount on which Jerusalem was built, splitting it (though you hardly notice it today as the valley was so shallow) into East and West. It is the western, higher hill which is called Mt. Zion, the eastern one is the Temple Mount or MT. MORIAH.
On the mount of Olives we visited the MOSQUE OF ASCENSION, for some reason Arabs built a mosque over this sight, inside there is a rock on which they claim you can see the footprints left by Christ when he ascended into heaven (I couldn't see it).
We visited the PATER NOSTER CHURCH, built on the site where Jesus supposedly taught his disciples the "Our Father". A kind of simple church, it is the walls, with their 160 or so ceramic plaques, each inscribed with the "Lord's Prayer" in one of the worlds' languages, that were the major attraction.
We took the path down the Mount of Olives and stopped in the chapel of DOMINUS FLEVIT, the church that commemorates the sight where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Lk. 19:41-44; Matt. 23:37-39). It has a rather nice window with ornate grillwork in front of it that gives you another great view of the city. The church is supposed to represent the shape of a tear drop.
At the bottom of the Mount of Olives is the GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE (which means "olive press"). There we were able to see the ancient olive trees, the claim is that some of them were around when Jesus was. There is a church in the middle of this olive garden called the CHURCH OF ALL NATIONS because it was built with donations from around the world. We had mass at this church, the altar was behind the stone area where it is said that Jesus experienced his agony. The stone is surrounded by an ornate iron fence with some really neat art work included in it. At the corners are iron doves, mid-point between the four corners are metal chalices with doves keeping vigil near them, and the fence itself is in the shape of thorn bushes... really nice work.
Leaving the garden, straight ahead was the CHURCH OF ST. STEPHEN, venerated by the Orthodox as the location of the tomb of Mary. The Roman Catholics venerate a sight on Mt. Zion as the resting place of Mary.
During our days in Jerusalem, there was one figure I was to see time and time again. He was a grizzled older man, who dressed in traditional Arab garb and rode a donkey all over. He would allow people to take his picture - for a price (it was the perfect Jerusalem-type of picture), and would throw a holy fit, coming near to attacking those who dared to snap without pay. There were also always camels on the side of the road, often parked near the tour buses (I guess they were selling photos as well) and the ever-present youngsters hocking their wares.
From the Mt. of Olives, we were bused to a place called YAD VASHEM. A park of sorts dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the suffering and deaths of the Holocaust. The park area is covered with trees that were planted in memory of certain people.. some who had died in the holocaust, some who had helped the Jews, heros of the war, etc. We entered the museum and were greeted by a really interesting sculpture called the wall of remembrance, which in 4 major "visions" tried to capture in rather modernistic type of symbolism, the experience of those who were part of and survived the holocaust. We then entered a memorial to the 1.5 million jewish children that were killed in the holocaust. It was a room that was dark, with a taped roll call of the dead childrens' names. The entire inside was taken up with intricately, cleverly placed mirrors that reflected the light from only 6 candles, the mirrors turning those six flames into a multitude of flames.... just breathtaking, really striking. There were many other sculptures and remembrances of this inhuman tragedy, including an eternal flame, and one statue that sticks vividly in my mind to this day. It looked to be made out of molten lead, it was a ghost like figure... maybe more of a robed figure with a cowl, no face, simply a hollow spot where a face would be expected... in its arms, held with oversized hands lay a bundle... perhaps a child in a blanket (but again, no face) and the hollow figures faceless cowl was pointed toward the sky, the child held as an offering or maybe held up to God searching for an answer to the question why? The sculpture was entitled "HOPE" and is really powerful to behold.
That night, Ray John and I went to the Sound and Light Show at the Tower of David. This tower is part of a citadel built within the old city. A museum of Jerusalem is located there. The show was wonderful, the light part was a lot more interesting than at the pyramids, and the text was superb. It was basically a history of Jerusalem from the Jewish perspective, a different side of the story for me. It also called on the legends and myths of all those who had inhabited the city at one time or another... the Hasmoneans, the Byzantines, Moslems, Crusaders, Mamluks and the Ottomans as well as the Jews. Really worth the price of admission, I regret not having purchased a copy of the audio tape.
The next day we visited the town of BETHANY. It is on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A church there commemorates 3 events from the life of the Lord that occurred here - 1) his visit with Martha & Mary (Lk. 10:38-42) 2) the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn. 11:1-44) 3) the anointing of his feet by the sinner woman (Matt. 26:6-13). All these events are told with beautiful mosaics within the church. We also visited the tomb of Lazarus and celebrated mass at the church there.
We continued our journey to WADI KELT and the MONASTERY OF ST. GEORGE. The monastery is built into the sides of a mountain which is gotten to by first walking into the mountain valley... really beautiful. An aqueduct built by the ancient Romans still runs through the valley, providing water for a great number of growing things, that again makes for a plush isle of greenery in the middle of the barren desert. Besides the monastery, the mountain wall also has a number of caves that were (and at times still are) used by hermits, seeking God in the solitude of the desert. Hugo made some comment about how nice it would be to make an extended retreat in one of these hermit cells - the rest of us encouraged an immediate start ... but he declined.
The church of the monastery is built over and allows access to the cave where Elijah was supposed to have hidden for 3.5 months, being fed by the crows. The monastery is home to 10 Orthodox monks, all of them aged, and it just wasn't the type of place that would seem to attract a whole lot of people. Although the valley is lush, the surrounding area is really harsh. Among their holdings is a dead monk in a glass coffin. According to the monk who was showing us around, this monk had died 30 years prior, but was considered a saintly man by the community and so, 10 years ago, they dug up the body, found it was not corrupting, and placed it in the glass coffin. His skin, although not decayed, looked like leather.
We left there, passing on our way, the MT. OF TEMPTATION (Jebel Quruntul -"the Mt. of Quarantine")... we passed it by because it would have been a rather rugged climb and we figured one guy in the hospital was enough.
We made our way to JERICHO where we had a brief look at the excavations going on, made a quick stop at the SPRING OF ELISHA (Ain es-Sultan 2Kgs 2:19-22), and stopped at EIN PESHKA a wildlife preserve on the DEAD SEA, we were going to go for a swim.
We had heard about and seen for sale, mud from the Dead Sea. It was supposed to be good for the skin and have healing properties because of the vast amount of minerals that were in it. In fact, all along the Dead Sea, one could find health resorts and "baths" where one could, for a price, get covered with mud and soak in the Sea. Well, we paid nothing, and went to the shore , found ourselves a muddy area, sat down and began to get beautiful (not all of us joined in this pig-like activity, maybe 6 of us). We slogged around in the mud, helped to cover one another, covering all our bodies, including the hair, except for our eyes, mouth and nose. The next step was to go into the water. We were warned not to try to swim on our stomachs, as the water would raise our butts and put our faces into the water. We were especially warned about getting the water into our eyes or swallowing any of it. These were sound warnings, as the smallest amount in the mouth seemed to suck all the moisture out ... as I discovered personally, and Sal was temporarily blinded by water in the eyes. The only sensible approach was simply to lie back... you can't drown... and enjoy.
After our frolicking we could wash any remaining mud and mineral deposits off at showers provided for that purpose. When we got back to the bus, a jeep with about 4 Israeli soldiers was there, and some of us got our pictures taken with them. They especially seemed to like Martin; maybe because there weren't too many blacks around.
Refreshed, having "mudded" away all the wrinkles and at least ten years off ourselves; we headed now, a little further into the JUDEAN DESERT to visit QUMRAN - the place where the DEAD SEA SCROLLS were found. It seems that no matter where you go, in the middle of the desert, in some god-forsaken middle of nowhere... there will be vendors, they must have some tourist radar of sorts... selling postcards (30 for an American dollar - though of poor quality and uninteresting sights), olive wood carvings, trinkets of all sorts, fruit, sodas, camel rides... whatever. Some of them though, were civilized enough to carry Diet Coke.
We were scheduled to go to EMMAUS, but did not, because it was apparently dangerous due to some local insurrections at the border occurring at the time. We returned to our hotel, I did some laundry and then accompanied Ray John back to the pedestrian mall where there were some Americans(?) entertaining the crowds with mariachi music... they were good too.
The next morning we returned to Mt. Zion in order to visit the CHURCH OF THE DORMITION, which had been closed the first time we went. Things were generally open from about 8 or 9 a.m. till about 2p.m., and then might open again for an hour or two at 5 or 6 p.m. I guess siesta is a prevalent idea in more places than Texas and Mexico - but it can certainly prove bothersome to someone like me who wants to keep going and keep seeing, but I don't make those rules. Within the crypt of the church is a huge statue of Mary in repose, surrounded by mosaics of great women from the bible. This is the place that the Roman Catholics believe Mary died and then was assumed body and soul into paradise.
We then proceeded to the CARDO, the restored ancient market place of the Jewish quarter. Very nice and interesting - the stores and shops that lined this covered walk-way were interspersed with historical archeological finds and sights. Our visit there included a look at two synagogues that had been destroyed at different times... in one, the HURVA, regular services are still conducted among the ruins.
Our tour then took us to the HOLY SEPULCHRE, its' history says a lot about why it looks like it does. In 33 A.D. Jesus dies on a knoll outside the walls of Jerusalem. Quarrying there had given the site the outline of a skull (GOLGOTHA). The body of Jesus is taken from the cross and buried in a cave in a nearby rise in the ground. Sometime in the early 40's A.D. Herod Agrippa increased the size of Jerusalem by erecting the 'third wall" and so enclosed the area of Calvary and the tomb inside the city. In 70 A.D. the Holy City is leveled to the ground by Titus. In 135 A.D. the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina is built on the ruins of Jerusalem. The area of the death and resurrection of Jesus becomes part of the Roman Forum. In 335 A.D., Emperor Constantine, the son of St. Helena, builds a complex including a Basilica to include Calvary and a rotunda over the Sepulchre. In order to do this, he had to level off the sides of Calvary so that it became a balcony; and he cleared away the hill away from around the cave of the tomb. The Basilica as it stands was completed in 1099 by the Crusaders, incorporating elements of the previous buildings. In 1959, after earthquakes and fires, the restoration that still goes on, is begun.
The place really is huge, really is in need of restoring, cleaning and rebuilding, and really is a scandal to the Christian faith. I say the last because, despite what I had hoped to experience there, I was "turned off" by the obvious divisions present even within this holy site. I've already mentioned how divided the city is, well, here it was again... only this time it was, in some sense, a division within the family. As you enter the church, the first thing that greets you is the stone of anointing.. commemorating the embalming of the Lords' body with spices and oils before burial. Hanging over this stone are 8 oil lamps hanging by chains over the site. Each chain has, as part of its decoration, an "egg" made of different materials. Each egg represents how much area within the church is claimed by those who share it ... for example, the Roman Catholics have only one egg, it is smaller than all the rest, and it is rather plain - because they control a smaller portion of the interior (and so are responsible for its upkeep). The Greek Orthodox have 4, large eggs which are made of gold, because they control half of the interior. The Armenian Catholics, Coptic Catholics, and the Russian Orthodox all have eggs that speak of their claim as well. There are regulations about how many candles can be lit at the Sepulchre which are rigidly determined for the different rites by this "status quo" system, how many priests may be garbed, etc. Even the reconstruction is held up by this pettiness, one group can't fix up his area, even repair leaks in the roof, without consulting with all the groups that it might affect; they don't want to spend a lot of money fixing up one area if the area next to it isn't going to spend as generously to fix their area, so on, so on, ad nauseam.
It is really a scandal that the site which celebrates the great mystery of the Prince of Peace should be so marred by quarrels. The place needs renovation, the walls blackened by candle smoke, ancient structures crumbling, held together with iron bands, some areas have been blocked off by walls that enclose sanctuaries of one group or another, they have turned it into a maze. Because there is not uniformity (or consultation apparently) the decorations, icons, lamps, candles, paintings, all these sort of things that might add beauty look so scrambled and without any sense of consideration of what is on the wall next to it, that it struck me as a huge storage barn for religious articles. I had really come seeking some sort of prayerful experience, finding instead a street riot.
To the right of the stone of anointing are the stairs leading to the top of MOUNT CALVARY, with its' highly ornate Latin altar of the NAILING TO THE CROSS, and next to it the Greek ALTAR OF THE CRUCIFIXION. Under this Greek altar is a hole surrounded by a metal star which one can reach through and touch the actual mountain top under the floor.
To the left of the stone of anointing, there is what looks like a cage... it is to commemorate the women who came and stood at a distance from the cross (Lk. 23:49).
Behind this "cage" is the Armenian chapel. To the right, under the cupola of the church, is a little building which covers the Holy Sepulchre. It has two chambers, the one on the rear - which can only hold 4 or 5 people at one time has an altar built over a marble slab which covers the spot where the body of Jesus was laid. Behind this building there is another entrance to another, very small room, where you can enter on your knees, and touch the actual stone of the tomb. On the other side of this building is the Latin area, and an altar commemorating the spot where Jesus was said to appear to Mary magdalene on Easter Sunday.
This church, covering the most sacred places of our faith, renders all these spots as areas of contention and "in-fighting". I wonder if Christianity might not be better served with the leveling of the entire structure, and we could hold on to the events as inspiring occurrences that are best kept alive in our faith lives and practices rather than this ugly reality? I did visit this site several times, and there were moments of inspiration and times when one could forget all the "stuff", the site is special, that can't be denied, perhaps peace among ourselves needs to become another Christian priority.
Another interesting site within the church is the descent to the cistern. At the top of the stairwell, there is a glass set in the wall through which the rock of Mt. Calvary can be seen, there are fissures in the rock, which according to custom occurred at the moment of Christs' death and reaches down to the center of the earth, stopping at the skull of Adam. That is why crucifixes will often show a skull under the feet of Christ. Around the corner from there, under the balcony of calvary is the CHAPEL OF ADAM. On the stairwell down are crosses carved over the centuries by pilgrims, the cistern itself is where St. Helena supposedly found the cross of Jesus, after it was dumped there, with other used crosses, after his death.
We continued our Jerusalem tour with a visit to the ECCE HOMO CONVENT. It is here that Jesus began his way of the cross (VIA DOLOROSA), the pavement where Pilate brought him forth for the crowds to pass judgement (LITHOSTROTOS), where he was mocked by the soldiers (there are still carvings in the pavement where games were played by the soldiers of Jesus' time), and where Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair. In the same area is the POOL OF BETHSEDA, where Christ healed the cripple (Jn. 5). Down the street is the CHURCH OF ST. ANNE - which commemorates the sight of Mary's birth and the home of her parents.
We joined a group of Franciscan monks and a mass of people at 3:00 that afternoon outside the ECCE HOMO ARCH and began walking and praying the traditional route of Jesus' walk from his place of judgement to calvary and the tomb... the WAY OF THE CROSS.
Stopping at the 14 different stations, recalling the scriptures significant to each site, praying our prayers, fighting through the crowds of vendors that were all around - waiting for us I'm sure. The streets are narrow, their are hills to climb up, the vendors and market had to be struggled through or gone around... probably the same experience that Jesus faced along the way, it was really a highlight of the Jerusalem experience.
After dinner, I attempted to catch the ritual closing of the Holy Sepulchre church, but I was too late. I would try for the next three days to catch the closing and opening, but I never did get to see it, my bad luck I guess. Because of all the factioning about the church - no one group keeps the keys to the church. Rather, the keys have been entrusted to an Arab family, the responsibility being passed on from generation to generation over the centuries.
The next two days (Sat. & Sun.) were "free days" with no planned touring on our schedule. A group of us got our bus-driver to arrange a return to Bethlehem so that we could hit what looked to be some of the best stocked and least expensive souvenir stores that we had seen in the Jerusalem area. He was happy to do it, and we spent some time in a place that sold a lot of olive-wood articles, and we even got a tour of their work shop. Really pretty interesting, I spent too much, but got some nice things while there. Then I accompanied some others back into the old city to look for more purchases, and returned to the pedestrian mall that night.
On Sunday, I accompanied Frank (the scripture scholar who came with us and was directing our various seminars and studies throughout the trip... a really good, even holy man) as he said mass at the altar of crucifixion in the Holy Sephulcre (at 6:30 a.m. since this was the only time available). After mass, I walked for an hour or so, to the Israel Museum, it was HUGE... so much there, I spent several hours looking and didn't see it all. Included on the grounds of the museum is the SHRINE OF THE BOOK, where the Dead Sea scrolls are preserved and exhibited. The building of the shrine is an onion-top-shaped building, supposedly resembling the lids of the jars in which the scrolls were found. The Essene community (who produced the scrolls) thought of themselves as the Sons of Light and the rest of the world as the Sons of Darkness. This concept is expressed by the contrast between the whiteness of the shrine and the blackness of the wall over the entrance. This black wall is also supposed to symbolize the heavy burden which Israel has had to carry for 2,000 years. The shrine represents a cave, and is a subterranean building with a tunnel-shaped interior. You feel like you're in a cave, and the Scroll of the book of Isaiah, which is 24 feet long, is displayed upon a platform resembling a jar shaped fountain. One of the most unique displays I saw during the trip... though a short one as I don't read ancient Hebrew very well (not at all, really).
From the museum, I decided to try and find my way to AIN KEREM, a small village in the foothills surrounding Jerusalem and the site of the CHURCH OF THE BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST and the CHURCH OF THE VISITATION (where Mary met with her kins-woman Elizabeth ). I had looked at a map earlier that morning in the hotel, and so I figured I pretty well knew at least the general direction of this town, I had no idea there would be so many steep hills to climb up and down. Walking on the road because there were no sidewalks (I don't think this route was intended for people on foot) where the heat was reflected right through my shoes.... after several wrong turns, some backtracking and a lot of lucky guesses, I arrived.... to find the church was closed and would not re-open for three hours. Well, I saw what I could from the outside, walked a bit through the village, took a couple of pictures, cursed myself profusely, and started my walk back. Of course, being so darn clever, I decided I had figured out a short-cut, which had me walking in circles for about an hour, until I gave in and used the route I came in on. Sometimes it pays not to be so smart, at least that was what my feet were telling me, when I finally reached the beer parlor around the corner from the hotel... I never drank a half-liter of anything so quickly.
Monday morning began with Sal and I accompanying Frank at mass at the tomb altar in the Sepulchre church at 6 a.m. We returned, packed up and were off... We drove most of that day on the Israeli side of the no-man land along the Jordanian border. This area is known as the VALLEY OF JEZREEL. It is the largest valley in Israel, and has been known since ancient times (and still is) as the "Bread Basket of Israel". This area is also one of the most famous battlefields of the ancient world.. with over 20 major battles having been fought here. Long stretches of barbed wire, military jeeps, lookout towers, radar installations... all these things reminded us that we were in a land experiencing a recent and uneasy peace. Fanya was good about giving us the Israeli perspective of the whole situation, claiming objectivity, but her monologues were littered with words like "we innocents", "the savage attackers", etc. But it was also excellent to hear this side of it all, though my mind kept wondering what our Arab bus-driver had to say, but wouldn't.
We made a rest stop at WADI KELT, a natural, spring fed swimming area that had clear, cool water, small "rapids" areas, and the heavy scent of goat droppings all along the shore. we had a brief swim, getting out just as 6 bus loads of kids were preparing to get in. Then on to MEGGIDO.
Meggido (also known as ARMAGEDDON) is at the southern edge of the plain of Jezreel and was a strategic center in Biblical times because of its location. So much battling went on here that the Christian vision of the final battle (Rev. 16:16) was taken from this place.
The major ruins here are the ancient walls and pillars of the fortresses that once stood here and the remains of the stables of Solomon which were supposed to have housed 450 horses, 150 chariots, grain silos, etc. You know, by this time, unless there was something really extraordinary, these sights all began to look like the other ones we had seen. Has anyone ever found a cure for this? I'm sure tour companies would pay big bucks for it. The most helpful things in keeping the interest up was that many of us had done some reading about many of these sights before leaving the U.S.. Frank who has been to Israel many times, and the fact that Sal would often read us the scriptures relating to certain spots as we were getting to them - all of this was helpful in appreciating what was being visited. I was also reading the scriptures as we went, and I will say my perspective of the biblical events has been changed for all time with this experience.... I feel so very fortunate for having been part of this trip.
The most amazing thing about Meggido was the ingenious water system... a remarkable example of ancient innovation. At all these desert and hill-top sights, quite often the most interesting and surprising aspect for me was how they got water, stored it, and moved it... it's hard to tell all the different, clever ways that were used... everything from carving up entire mountainsides to simply digging wells that were unbelievable in their depth. This one was a large shaft sunk into the ground, from the bottom of this shaft a tunnel was cut through the rock, channeling water into the city from a spring outside and at the bottom of the hill where the city sat. The opening of this spring was covered with earth to hide it from the enemy. The tunnel and shaft remain, and we left the hill-top by going down and walking through it.
From Meggido we went to NAZARETH and the grotto of the Annunciation. A huge, really unique church is built on the site. It is one of the largest Christian sanctuaries in the Middle East, built over the grotto. The dome opens like a flower and is 170 feet high, just really striking. We celebrated mass there and then headed on to CANA and the sight of Jesus' first miracle. The vendors were anxious to sell us the sweet, red wine of the area, and of course, monopolizing on the wedding theme, it is known as Cana-wedding wine.
Mid-afternoon found us parked at the foot of MT. TABOR upon which Jesus was supposed to have experienced his TRANSFIGURATION. It really is a majestic, tree covered mountain. One of the striking features about it is that there are no foothills around it, so it rises abruptly above the surrounding plains (1600 feet above the plains, 1900 above sea level). I was ready for a nice climb, the bus would not be able to ascend up the sharply curving roads, but a climb was not to be had. Rather, we were scrunched, with luggage in the trunks and in our laps into some cabs. Best roller-coaster ride I ever had.... these cab drivers knew no fear and rushed up that mountain probably at twice the speed I would have though safe. The road was narrow and so to warn those coming from the opposite direction, the driver leaned on his horn a lot. I'm glad we rode the cabs, it was fun, especially the looks of fear on my fellow passengers faces, and it helped loosen my bladder up for a visit to the toilet after we reached the top.
The top has been a fortress site and the site of various churches for centuries. Many remains still exist of the stronghold built by the Moslems in the 13th century.. as well as other fortresses and monasteries. The present church, built in 1924 incorporates the remains of previous churches built by the Byzantines in the 6th century and of the Crusaders.
We would be here the rest of the day and all the next day for a retreat. As soon as we found our rooms, Henry and I decided to explore all the ruins. We climbed, literally, all over the massive church. Walking along narrow ledges, climbing over fences, crawling across roof-tops, walking along the stone fortress fence, and just being two little boys exploring our castle. It was great fun, and a little danger... any fall would have impelled us on the spear-like fences or thrown us on the rocks some twenty-thirty feet below, but who has time to think of such things when you're exploring. Part of our adventure entailed crossing a narrow ledge that ran in front of the large stained glass window in the wall behind the altar are of the church, we didn't think too much about it until we came down from the church, went inside and found the nuns who lived there inside the church at prayer.... I wonder if they noticed our shadows, and if they did, what they thought.
Having done the church, the walls outside had to be conquered as well. We walked along the stone walls, climbed the towers, looked down the cisterns (too many mosquitoes and flies to actually climb into them), and just had a lot of fun. We also ran into a group of soldiers. We were to see quite a few soldier throughout our stay there... I think there must have been some sort of military maneuvers going on. One rather disturbing incident occurred, when some visitors came to see the sights, the boys were carrying the perfunctory rifle. Sal was looking in their direction, and one of the boys pointed his rifle at him. This was the first time on our trip that I had seen someone pointing their rifle like this at someone. It kind of took the rifles out of the "ordinariness" of Israel that I had allowed it to slip into.
Frank led the retreat, and it was a very good one, really gave some nice insights, food for thought, plus plenty of time to reflect on our experiences thus far. After lunch (these nuns were really putting out some great spreads for us) we had about 4 hours of quiet time.... and so I walked to the bottom of the mountain, through the small town at its foot (not much to see) and back up. How could I leave Mt. Tabor without having climbed it? Boy was it a hot climb.... and no real breeze to bring comfort... and dodging those damn taxis that I feel sure were trying to play "squash the tourist" made it all a climb to remember.
On Tuesday night, after our last retreat session and dinner, we decided it was time for a party. Everyone brought the various bottles of booze, wine and food-stuffs that they had collected along the way, put it out on the table, pulled out the cigars and sat on the patio with a great sky above, scenic valleys below and great company. It was initially going to be a time to share insights and impressions thus far from our trip, but turned into a bull session filled with "war stories" and strange adventures. I really appreciate these sort of times with my fellow Oblates. They are special times to hear the oral histories of our order and province, and just to get to know the guys better. We really are a unique, sometimes nutty, always off-beat group of men, all sharing a real love for our God, our order, and our brothers. I am very proud to be a part of them.
We left Mt. Tabor the same way we came... on the taxi roller coaster. This was after we had had mass and renewed our vows as Oblates. Once we were back on the bus, our luggage and stomachs collected and packed into the luggage compartment, we were off.
We headed to the city of NAIN where Christ healed the widows' son. We literally drove into a parking lot, I think we might have had a church pointed out to us, made a circle and left the town.... why we even bothered, I have no idea. We then went to the town of METULLA in the GOLAN HEIGHTS. Metulla is a small town on the border of Lebanon and Israel. The main attraction there is what they call the GOOD FENCE. An entrance point between the two countries that allows free travel back and forth - many Lebanese work on the Israeli side. Fanya gave us a nice, though slanted, history and idea of the conflicts Israel was having with it's other Middle East neighbors, and we took pictures at the border, as jeeps, cargo trucks and soldiers passed constantly along the border.
There were quite a few refreshment stands and souvenir shops at the spot. We had some time to kill, so as we were sipping our sodas, one of the ladies working in the coke stand asked us a question that we had heard many times before at many of the places we went to as a group, and would hear often until we left ... "Where are your women, where are your wives?" It is not always the easiest thing in the world to explain to people who do not value celibacy at all, nor are familiar with Christian clergy who are not married (most of the Christians encountered "on the streets" and not in the monasteries, are Coptic or Armenian, neither of which have a mandatory celibate clergy). We tried to explain, they often figured we just liked playing around or had something wrong with us. We usually tried to make light of the whole matter, because it seemed the more we tried to explain, the more puzzled the looks on their faces ... oh well!
Continuing along the Golan Heights we next stopped at the BANIAS RIVER NATURE RESERVE, the former site of CEASARIA PHILLIPI. Here is the source of the JORDAN RIVER. As we got out of the bus, we passed a group of people doing some excavation work. The apparent head of the group greeted us with a "Howdy!" that could not be anything else but east-Texas-authentic. We got to talking and found out he was indeed from Texas and was there doing some archeological work during the summer. After talking a bit more he informed us of the closest thing he had found in the area to REAL BAR-B-Q and "pecan pie that was hot with ice cream what was cold". It was a surprising delight just to hear him speak, but there were sights to be seen and he had to get back to his work.
This sight is home to a grotto with a spring where the ancients used to worship the god Pan. We walked along the river, thru ruins from various times.... really quite pretty and peaceful. Our route took us to a water-powered flour mill that was still being operated by the DRUZES. These are an Islamic sect of about 300,000 living in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the U.S. They form a closed and highly secretive community whose doctrines are jealously guarded. They have their own scriptures and profess a belief in one god. The men wear pants that are very loose fitting and have an extended crotch that forms a pocket of sorts. This is because they believe that when the Messiah comes, he will be born of a man, and since they will never know just who will bear it, they wear these pants in case they are the lucky one, and the pouch will catch the baby when it arrives... interesting! And I thought they were just being stylish.
We left Banias, and made a stop at the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights. We parked on the mountain road right below a huge radar and listening center that was keeping tabs of the border. Because he was convinced that they could hear him, Sal made a verbal report about the boy who pointed the gun at him on Mt. Tabor to the air, feeling satisfied that the matter would now be dealt with, we got back on the bus and headed to TIBERIAS on the shore of LAKE GALILEE.
Tiberias looked as though it wanted to be a resort city, but half the buildings were vacant, and there just was not a whole lot going on. Our tour company had booked us in a hotel in a part of town where for the first time since our trip began, our guide warned us about putting all valuables in the hotel safe... uh-oh! I guess you would have to rate this place as a Motel 3; not even Tom Bodette could make this place sound homey. The food was the worst of the trip thus far. I really think we were the only guests in the place... and we immediately put in a complaint to our company; but it would not help get us out of there.
That night we walked to the center of town, the big thing happening was that the outdoor bars all had their televisions outside and tuned in to the World Cup soccer game. We were attracted to a really fancy hotel by the smells of cooking meat and lots of riotous music. We managed to get on a balcony overlooking a courtyard in the hotel. In the courtyard, there must have been 500-600 people, all pigging out on one of the biggest spreads of food I have ever seen. There must have been entire cows, goats, lambs and chickens being grilled; about eight tables piled high with fruits, more tables laden with vegetables, side dishes and breads.... we were watching a wedding feast! As we were looking on and listening to the music, the band and announcer made known that the wedding itself was about to begin. Nobody eating seemed to pay much attention though. The gowned bride was sat at a chair, three older women standing behind her, the groom and three older men approached her, the groom took the brides hand and led the group to a canopy placed over one of the hotel ponds, the rabbi joined them, the prayers were said, several cups of wine were prayed over and shared by the couple, the glass was broken, the marriage contract read, and the couple made a formal walk to the bandstand. All during this wonderful ceremony, it was those of us, uninvited and staring down like voyeurs from the balcony who were paying the most attention to the wedding rites. I thought it was amazing, but the others (except for maybe a dozen or so) did not interrupt their feasting in order to observe... even at the introduction of the couple, maybe a third of the people applauded.... it struck me as a wonderful ceremony, and a puzzling response. After the ceremony, the dancing began, and the guests then started to pay a bit more attention. It was all the wonderful, traditional folk-dance that we have learned to associate with Jewish celebrations. The man raised up on the dancing shoulders of his friends, the bride seated in a chair, the chair lifted up and twirled around int time with the music. We stared and looked on, clapped and tapped our feet for another half hour or so and then finally decided it was time to leave. This was another real hi-lite of the trip for me.
The next day we got on a boat that took us across the beautiful Sea of Galilee to CAPERNAUM. Alfonso entertained us and the other passengers with a number of Italian songs, done in a variety of styles from high opera to reverent choir boy.. lots of fun. In our honor, the captain hoisted the U.S. flag, and we managed to talk the captain into stopping the engines in the middle of the lake to reflect and pray the scriptures of the events that happened in Jesus' life on and near this lake.
Our bus had circled the lake and was their to meet us when we disembarked. We went on to TABGHA after stopping at the newly renovated chapel built over a rock commemorating the primacy of Peter (Jn. 21:1-17). A garden outside the church and an outdoor sanctuary, all looking over the water, provided a really neat place for thinking about the mystery of the Church.
Leaving this spot we then ascended the MOUNT OF BEATITUDES which overlooks the Sea of Galilee and visited the church there. It is a very nice church, but it was my turn to preside at mass, and directed our group to an altar that was outside the church, a little bit on the slope overlooking the water. I had looked at a picture book on Mt. Tabor of Bishop Sheen preaching to a group of pilgrims on the side of this mt. and I figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me (no big-head here). It was an ideal spot really. We had a beautiful canopy of green and red trees, the blue water and sandy shore below, and just the idea of being at the sight of Christs' most famous sermon... really nice... also, nerve-wracking. This was the first time since my ordination that I had preached before a group made up solely of fellow Oblates, I think I did a pretty good job, but there was sweat.... not from the heat, but from the nervousness.
From this site we moved on to THE BASILICA OF LOAVES AND FISHES. It marks the traditional spot of that episode from Christs' life and to preserve the 4th century mosaic depicting the miracle. The Benedictines who maintain the church and a monastery there also provide for a camp-like experience for poor and handicapped people here, they seemed to be doing a number of good works from the place.
We then returned to Capernaum and visited the site of ST. PETERS' HOUSE (where Christ cured his mother-in-law Mk. 1:29-33; 2:1-12) where a new, concrete, and I thought, ugly church was being built. Next to the house is the ruins of the synagogue where Jesus probably preached (Mk. 3:1-6).
Hugo, in speaking to some people at Metulla the day before, had managed to get us invited to a Kibbutz in the area, and that is where we spent the afternoon. It was kind of neat to see the workings and way of life that people lived in this sort of communal farm existence, but it was a visit that lasted way too long - after all I can only watch mechanical milking machines, banana groves, chickens, and school buildings for just so long, and then I get bored, but the young lady showing us her kibbutz was intent on showing us everything.
After FINALLY leaving and returning to our hotel, Sal and I went to the shore to have a swim. We ran into a couple of ladies travelling together that we had met earlier on the boat, and they got us into the private beach of their hotel. It was a nice refreshing swim, and they were kind enough to give us a ride back to our hotel.
Our dinner that night was some sort of foul smelling, foul tasting fish roll ... thank God for bread. Dinner was followed by a roof-top gathering to celebrate Fanyas' birthday. She provided several samples of the different wines that were made in Israel, telling us a little something about each one as we drank. She had also provided cookies and other snacks, it helped stave off the starvation I was feeling from our dinner. Not yet satisfied, the snacks all gone, Ray John and I headed back to the town square and stopped at McDAVID'S.. a chain restaurant that I had noticed throughout our trip, but was finally hungry enough to try. I guess it was the Jewish version of McDonalds... only kosher (therefore no cheeseburgers), and really pretty bad, but better than mystery fish rolls.
We began our last day in Israel by first going to AKKO (a.k.a. ACCO, ACRE) one of the oldest cities in the world, and the one time capital of the Crusader kingdom (since they couldn't fully capture Jerusalem). It is a port city on the Mediterranean, and the old fortress walls are really impressive and romantic, there at the edge of the water, the waves flailing against them, I found myself looking for the sails of some long ago ship bearing the Crusaders cross. In the center of town is a square surrounding a well. The walls of the square are made up of curved portals, doors behind each one. Supposedly many movies are made in this square, whenever an Arab market place is needed.
We left there to go to the neighboring , and much larger city of HAIFA. There we visited the WORLD CENTER OF THE BAHA'I FAITH, and its SHRINE OF THE BAB (pronounced bob). A faith that seeks to unify and include all the great faiths... sort of a compromise faith, I guess. We had to remove our shoes to enter the Shrine of Bab and made several not-too-pious remarks about "bob's place". The entire center is surrounded by magnificent gardens, and some of the finest shrub sculpting I've ever seen. But even these were made rather plain by the ornateness of the buildings... whoever these people are, they certainly like the fancies.
We moved from Bab to MOUNT CARMEL and the STELLA MARIS monastery of the Carmelites. Here we celebrated liturgy, saw the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, as well as the grotto over which the church was built that was said to be where Elijah lived. After mass we moved down the coast to the town and ancient ruins of CAESARIA. In 20 B.C., Herod the Great called in the greatest builders of the time and made it supposedly one of the most beautiful cities in Palestine. After his death it became the capital of Roman power in Palestine. In the 12th century the Crusaders took it and built their wonderful walls all around it, only to have most of them destroyed later on by the Moslems. There is a fantastic ancient amphitheater there, that carries the sounds from stage to the uppermost seats with great clarity, despite the fact that to its' rear is the sea. It is still used today for modern concerts and programs. It was also here that was found the first archeological evidence that Pontius Pilate actually existed.
From Caesaria, we moved to JAFFA and the church of ST. PETER, which commemorates Peters' raising of Tabitha (Acts 9:36) and here it was that Peter received the vision in which God asked him to gather the gentiles into the Church. From Jaffa, we made our way to the quiet coastal resort town of NATANYA for our last nite in Israel. Henry and I decided we needed a swim. The beach near our hotel was not the most appealing, and so we walked toward the other hotel areas.
The most pleasing spot and the one we decided to use, was below a resort catering to Haisidic Jews. Because of their strict purity observances, it was a segregated beach... women had another area or else determined swimming times, for although the signs declared it to be segregated we never saw the women. Henry and I splashed around in the clear comfortable water, he was trying to teach me how to body surf, but I never quite got the hang of it. The most interesting thing for me, was to watch these haisids swim in toward shore, the current would pull their long, locks of hair in front of them, and I had to fight back the temptation to grab hold and tow them through the water... the humor of it all would have probably been lost on them anyway. This was a Friday afternoon, which meant that at sun-down the Sabbath would begin. Around 5:00 or so, the life guard started calling people out, and those already out were heading towards their hotel... didn't want to have to walk too far once the holy day began. Henry and I decided to call it quits as well.
We were up at 5 a.m. the next morning,boarded the bus and headed for the airport in TEL AVIV. We were met there by Joe Kinnely, who had been released from the hospital several days before and had stayed in Jerusalem to rest. It was so good to have him back with us, and although he looked a bit worn, he did look good. To have him with us again seemed to lift a weight from our collective shoulders. The trip was wonderful after all, Joe was back! We sat around the airport waiting to board and telling Joe time and time again how happy we were. We had a stop in Athens to change planes. The Athens airport is best described as a hot, tin barn, dirty and noisy, but we only had a couple hour wait. Joe was looking a little tired, but that seemed natural, and we didn't think too much of it, he said he was o.k.
It was on the plane, over the Mediterranean that Joe began to have difficulty breathing. The crew gave him oxygen, a call went out for a doctor, there was not one on the plane, but a nurse came and helped as much as possible. After a few minutes, Joe's heart gave out. One of the passengers was an EMS medic. They put Joe on the floor of the plane, people in the aisles near him tried to move out of the way, some of us panicked, the medic started CPR and mouth-to-mouth. Sal tried to help, it was not doing any good to try to go over and help... the quarters were cramped, there were too many on-lookers already. The cabin crew was all around.... the plane was going to make an emergency stop on the island of Corfu, an ambulance had been radioed for. It took a while to land, everyone concerned determined Joe was dead, they put a blanket over him. When we landed, the ambulance doctor(?) got on. He opened an emergency kit that looked less well stocked than my camping first-aid kit. He put a tube down Joe's throat and began trying to revive him again. In the meantime two ambulance people also got on, carrying their cart to wheel Joe out, but the dr. and the EMS guy continued to work on Joe right there. For 45 minutes they kept trying... blowing air into his lungs, beating his chest, his stomach was bloating, fluids were coming from his mouth and nose, finally they gave up. It was determined that Sal and John would stay and make arrangements for Joe's body, the rest of us offered whatever help we could, we prayed, took care of the bags, but mainly, we continued the trip in a sullen, shocked silence. Joe was dead.
We were met at the Roman airport by a bus, and still very quiet, tears in many of our eyes, we went to our General House. We celebrated mass that evening for the repose of Joes' soul, and some very touching and inspiring remembrances were shared by those who knew Joe better than I.
The next morning, Sunday, Henry and I decided to go look at Rome. having spent 6 months in Rome during my soph. year in college, a lot of the sights were being seen for the umpteenth time, but they are still sights that are exciting, and it felt good to play a sort of tour guide. I was surprised at how much I remembered about how to get to places. We decided to forego the bus, and got around on foot... we must have walked around a good 8 - 10 hours. We went to St. Peters', including the crypt and the top of the dome. We visited the Vatican museum and the Sistine chapel. We lucked out there... it was the last "free admission sunday" of the season. It was good to see the Sistine again, because what was being renovated when I was there years ago was now complete... and far more beautiful and "seeable" than I remembered... but it wa all very, very crowded. We then made our way to the PIAZZA NAVONA, the SPANISH STEPS, the PANTHEON (which was closed), the FOUNTAIN OF TREVI (covered with scaffolding for renovation), the FORUM (closed... it was Sunday after all), the COLOSSEUM (closed), and the CASTLE SAN ANGELO (closed... it was the biggest disappointment of the day because in my 6 months there this was the one sight I never got into... since it was so close I figured I could see it any time... any time turned into never-got-around-to it). It was funny, I was pretty well navigating by memory and instinct, and doing quite well at it too. We didn't get lost until we met up with some others from our group, who left us with a map, and once we tried to go by map... we couldn't find anything.... so we folded it up and continued by luck.
Sal and John got into Rome about 6:30 that nite. They had made the arrangements for Joe's body, having to pay the undertaker with the money they had, the money Joe had on him, and a promise to send the rest once they got to Rome. it was good to have them back with us, my heart was hurting for Sal, who as trip leader, I'm sure felt very responsible, but there was not too much we could do for him.
Monday morning, we took off for Assisi. We took a rather round-about route in order to see some other sights as well. Sal was our tour guide for this leg of our journey... and it was a rather comedic, "bumpy' sort of trip - if we found the right sights and churches, it always felt as though it were due more from bumping into it, then actually going there.
First stop MONTEFIASCONE ... the home of some famous wine. I don't think we ever found whatever it was we were supposed to have seen there, but it was a sort of picturesque city. Next stop ORVIETO. It has a townscape that is medieval in appearance, a really neat, interesting town sitting on a high plateau with glorious views from all over. The highlight of the town was the great gothic cathedral there, really immense and ornate, filled with masterpieces of painting and sculpture. The church is dedicated to the Miracle of the Corporal which occurred in 1263, when a host began bleeding. It was from this incident and at this church that the Feast of Corpus Christi or the Body and Blood of Christ was begun. Outside this magnificent church I bought a tour book to help Sal along. We made a brief stop in Perugia, but the churches and almost everything else were closed (siesta time) and I forgot to get some of their world famous chocolates.
Our hotel in ASSISI was a really nice restored 17th century building. The only drawback was that there was a rather steep climb, on foot, to get there (our bus was too wide and long to go into the city itself). That evening, Henry and I went walking to the ROCCA MAGGIORE... the great castle-like fortress that sits on the top of the hill overlooking the rest of Assisi. It is an ancient 13th century fortress, and like we did on Tabor, we decided it would be fun to climb on the walls and "mess around", despite the signs that told us this activity was illegal. We found a small footpath behind the fortress, and decided to see where it would take us. It took us through briars and brambles, thickets and rocks... at some points we were in danger of slipping down the rather steep sides of the mountain. We climbed up on the walls, felt the wind almost push us off, we climbed over fences and pushed our way through the trees... a lot of fun, and we still made it back in time for dinner; but only after we had stopped in a gift store, and I gave into my impulses and bought a small, hand made cross-bow (that actually works) and a mace... both I thought would be appropriate decorations for the office of the disciplinarian back home. They hang on my walls as I write this.
After dinner, a group of us decide to go for a walk, actually, to find a nice route to a particular church Sal wanted to take the group to the next day. We never did find it, but ended up on a rather nice country road, leading to some pretty villas, and dead-ended at a field. The others decided to go back to the hotel, J.C. and I decided to take in the town square, but we never found it. The streets of Assisi are so circuitous and maze-like, that we promptly took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and ended up God knows where... well, after trying a few more streets, we did get back to the hotel and decided that were probably kind of tired and needed some sleep more than we needed a visit to the square.
I was a bit disappointed in Assisi. When I had gone to school in Rome and we made a three day trip there, I came back remembering it as a city that had no cars in the older, walled part of the city. A city where one expected a knight on his charger to come around the corner at any time; a city where one could stand in the middle of the street and touch the walls on either side... these things still exist in Assisi, but it is not the prevalent reality. Assisi of 1990 has cars on almost all its' streets, there are more tourist-trap sort of places than my memory contained (of course we were there in the middle of winter before) and I did not look for knights. Still very lovely, very rustic, very romantic in the classical sense, but not the city of my recollections. As I said, it was a bit of a disappointment, but the disappointment was due more to having the memory altered than in anything about Assisi itself, which is still a wonderful, inspiring, and neat place to be. Do these sort of things happen often as people get older? If so that will be another thing I will not like if I ever choose to be older than 28. Some myths should not be bothered by fact.
We started the next morning at the BASILICA OF ST. FRANCIS where we had a wonderful tour and celebrated mass at the tomb of St. Francis. One, what I thought was inspiring and even touching, thing about our tour is that quite often when we visited these holy sites, we would sing older traditional songs, even old Latin hymns, especially the "Salve Regina". Well, no matter if we were in Israel, Egypt or Italy... if there were other Catholics around, inevitably they would join in the prayers or hymns(again, especially the Salve) with us. it's an inspiring sign of our Universality as a church that this could happen, I found it inspiring and touching, and feel rather proud of the fact that we continue to teach some of these "touchstones" of a common, shared faith to our guys here at the school. We still need such things in our lives. It's nice to have a few things that still cross language and other borders.
From the Basilica of St. Francis, we boarded the bus and went to the outskirts of Assisi to visit the BASILICA OF SANTA MARIA DEGLI ANGELI. This church marks some of the most hallowed spots of St. Francis' life. Within the Basilica is a little, simple chapel called the POTIUNCOLA. This was the chapel where Francis met with his followers on a regular basis and sort of laid out the rule of life they would live as a community; also under the roof of the massive basilica, there is the very small (tiny) cell in which Francis died. In the back of the basilica is also the rose bush in which St. Francis was said to have flung himself in order to resist some temptations, as he landed in the bush, the thorns dropped out, and to this day it grows without thorns.
After returning to the hotel, Henry and I went out to find the church of SAN DAMIANO. It is located on the outskirts of Assisi at the other end of town from Santa Maria. At this church, Francis wrote his "Canticle to the Sun" and it is where the crucifix was said to have spoken to him, telling him to re-build Gods' church.
Henry and I took a really long route to get there... not by choice, just ignorance. When we finally got there, it was closed. We had a couple hours to kill before it would re-open and so we decided to go to the SANCTUARY OF RIVOTOTO (which according to the guidebook was the site of a "hovel where Francis and his companions would take shelter at times"), that by the map looked fairly close. Well, the walk was further than we figured, and it was very hot, and we had been on our feet all day, AND WHEN WE GOT THERE THE PLACE WAS CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS!!!! Nothing to do but go back and see San Damiano, but first, a stop at a restaurant that went out of its way to advertise all along our obscure route and throughout the village that we trekked to. We found the restaurant... which was closed!!!!! The angels were neglecting us on this day. We finally found a place to get a cold drink and continued our march back. Got to San Damiano... it was very small, very dark, and had a few faded, broken murals on the wall. Very austere and certainly the kind of place where solitude and quiet for prayer could be found.... we both sensed this without speaking and spent some time in prayer within the church.
We then proceeded up hill and visited the BASILICA OF ST. CLAIRE. Actually, not too much walking uphill, there were escalators... from the parking lot to the basilica... and from this vantage point we found we were only 20 - 30 minutes from our hotel, not the hour and a half it took us... oh well..... The basilica of Claire houses her tomb and is dedicated to this companion of Francis and the founder of the Poor Claires. Along our route there were several other churches to visit and we returned to the Basilica of St. Francis to purchase some souvenirs.
After dinner several of us went to the main plaza (this time we didn't get lost... I don't know how), and ate ice cream and drank beer (disgusting thought, isn't it?). A Franciscan monk, his nun companion and several young people were in the plaza... entertaining the gathered with songs and games. They would do some singing and play games, dragging the on-lookers into the circle, having each one make animal sounds in some Italian version of "Old MacDonald", and Simon Says. It was a lot of fun, young and old all joined in, and it was a pleasure to watch.
The next day we had a long drive to the town of SUBIACO and the MONASTERY OF ST. BENEDICT. We got there too late... it was closed for siesta. Rather than drag our weary bones anywhere else, we went to eat and then returned and just planted ourselves in front of the door to wait for the afternoon opening. The monastery is pretty incredible. It is built into the side of a mountain, and I amused myself during the wait looking into the valley, and watching some workmen rapelling from the top of the cliff to do some sort of securing work. I really wished I were up there with them at that moment.
The monk who greeted us and gave us the tour of the monastery from which Benedict started his order, had a very english accent and a wonderful sense of humor as he explained some of the apocryphal tails that the frescoes on the wall were picturing. My favorite was of Benedict beating a monk over the head with a stick as a way of "correcting one of the brethren".
The monk also did us the honor of letting us view a little shown painting on the wall of a locked cell that depicted St. Francis even prior to his becoming a full monk. It is supposedly the oldest depiction of Francis anywhere.
From Subiaco we returned to Rome. The big news that greeted us via one of the Oblates who live at the general house was that a fax had come in, informing us that there had been a fire at St. Anthony which had totaled the car-port, the three cars that were in it (my blazer included) as well as the electric works, all the yard tools, etc., etc. Would the good news never end?
The following morning - June 28 - our last day of pilgrimage and my 4th anniversary of priesthood. We were going to have mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately there were only 6 or so of us who woke up and made it there. Sal presided at mass and shared with us some rather nice, summary thoughts in regard to our last few weeks together. Right after the offertory, it struck him that it would be appropriate that I say mass, since it was my anniversary; and so, with laughter and joy, he took off his robes, I put them on, and we continued. Of course, things are rather strict within the Basilica, and so the guy who wore the robes out of the main sacristy should be the same one wearing them upon return... so we switched again. It was a great way to end our trip, and a joyous way to celebrate one of the greatest days in my life.
After mass, I set out alone to pick up a few more souvenirs and do a bit more sight seeing. I visited a few of the piazzas that I used to frequent during my prior stay, as well as just sort of wandered..... and I finally saw, visited, went into, toured CASTLE SAN ANGELO. Now my trip to Rome of several years prior was complete. With this accomplishment, I returned to the General House, where some of us gathered to toast my anniversary, tell tales, and then eat. That night was spent making final decisions about what clothing I would take back, and which I would leave behind (the basis of these decisions was "how much room do I still need in order to get all my souvenirs home?"). There were only 5 of us returning the next day, as most of the others had made arrangements to spend extra time touring Europe... I needed to get back and start getting ready for the new school year.
The trip back was fairly uneventful, except the x-ray machines all caused the investigators to go through my overly stuffed bags because of the cross-bow I was carrying. When we finally arrived in San Antonio, it felt right.
Of course, everyone wanted to hear the details of Joes' death, and I wanted to hear the details of the fire. It had been arson. A few days prior someone had broken out one of my windows and so the vehicle had been moved into the car-port. According to the investigators, someone doused the interior of my vehicle with gas and set it aflame. I would guess it was someone we had asked not to return or had kicked out... kids can be vicious these days. The fire melted the windows of the wall facing the car-port on all four stories, it also singed the trees across the street. It really could have been worse, and no one was hurt (except my feelings - I am now driving a vehicle that I absolutely despise!).
Well there it is, the whole thing in only forty pages.... and it only took me a month to get around to putting it to paper. I hope it hasn't been too boring, and if it has, well it makes for good scrap paper or fire starter.
The only other "events" thus far was that a few of us gathered for a great birthday meal that I and Sal prepared in my honor... we cooked for about 10, there were four of us to eat it. My birthday itself was spent mopping up rain water. It was the first day of some rather heavy and fierce storms that would keep us wet for about a week... and all the dorm windows were open, so the water came right on in, and the basement drains were clogged, so the water came in there too. There were only two of us in the house, so we got the windows closed and then began mopping up the mess... which took up a great deal of the newly-placed wax. Actually, one other guy came in as we began the mopping, he sort of looked in to see how we were doing, and decided he had some office work to do, and couldn't be bothered. Sometimes we Oblates can be real.... never mind. Anyway, it kept me out of the bars that night, and I was probably better off for it in the long run (at least that's what I tell myself). It's getting a little harder though to hang on to 28 (my fourth 28th in a row),. so I am thinking that maybe next year I'll go 29... but don't bet on it yet.
I think I sort of gave Joe's death short shrift because of the powerful experience that it was and so, very difficult to write about. On the very day that I finished this log, our Province Newsletter arrived. The lead story was the account of Joe's passing and the reflections of Frank Montalbano about that experience. He put it so well, that I thought I would share some of the excerpts from that newsletter; all the following is from our July 30, newsletter:
"The theme of Frank's conferences throughout the month had been Journey -- the journey from God to God, the Journey with God. Frank commented, 'We all witnessed the most mysterious of all journeys, the last journey, that existential moment when we are rushed into the arms of a living and loving God. In fifteen minutes, Joe's dying and death said more to us than Rahner's 21 volumes of theological investigations. Throughout our pilgrimage, we encountered mountains: Mount Sinai, the Mount of Olives, Mount Tabor, Mount Hermon, Mount Scopus, the Mount of Temptation,... all high mountains. We reflected on mountains as the places of encounter with God. High as these mountains are, they could not approach the height of 30,000 feet where Joe encountered God in Jesus -- the Way the Truth, and the Life.'"