Our final day in the Holy Land saw us rising early, as the suitcases needed to be down in the lobby for 7am. Though many of us were happy to be returning home to family and friends, it will also be a wrench to leave this beautiful and inspiring land. The coach left just before 8am, and we began the journey with our customary ‘Prayer for Travellers.’ Today is the memorial of the beheading of John the Baptist, and Fr Mervyn talked about how John is the “bridge” between the Old and New Testaments. We have been touched this week by so many of the mysteries of our faith in a myriad of different ways, Fr Mervyn acknowledged that we can’t possibly absorb it all but that our experiences “have put flesh on the skeleton of the Scriptures” for us and he strongly encourages us to the open the Bible on our return and continue to develop and learn.
During our journey to Haifa, Fr Mervyn took us through the stories of Abraham and the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs as well as reminding us of all the places connected to Our Lord that we have visited. The land we passed through is mainly given over to arable farming, there seemed to be little evidence of herds of sheep, cows etc. Cotton growing is one of the staple industries of this area. Haifa is a large, vibrant industrial port and the third city of Israel; it is said, “you pray in Jerusalem, play in Tel Aviv and work in Haifa.” As we approached Haifa we could see the plain of Jezreel where so many battles were fought. There is the belief that the final battle between good and evil, Armageddon, will take place near here. Fr Mervyn spoke about how the Old Testament tells us what humans thought God was like. The Jews were a small people in a small country, surrounded by two massive empires. These pagan peoples believed that their gods went into battle with them, so therefore the Jews came to believe that their God must be a warrior God too. They were wrong, God is not like that, and we have Jesus’ teachings to show us what He is truly like.
We could see the Carmel Mountain Range, whose caves provided homes for the hermit prophets such as Elijah. One of the famous stories of Elijah is him running away from the wicked Queen Jezebel who wanted him dead, he hid in a cave on Mount Carmel and prayed to die but an angel woke him and told him to eat a little scone, he felt renewed and went on to Mount Sinai (Horeb), and later killed 400 of the prophets of Ba’al. Stella Maris Church in Haifa is built over Elijah’s Cave. Of course, Mount Carmel is the spiritual home of the Carmelite Order, whose members include important Church figures such as St John of the Cross (“the more we empty ourselves, the more we are close to God”), St Teresa of Avila, St Therese of Lisieux and Edith Stein.
We arrived in Haifa at 9am, the traffic was heavy as Thursday is the end of the working week, with most employees finishing at lunchtime. The city is home to the world centre of the Baha’i Faith, which is fusion of Islam and Christianity, with the principles of peace and order at its heart. They have a magnificent temple with a golden dome and beautiful terraced gardens perched high up on Mount Carmel. Our driver kindly drove slowly round the roundabout twice so we could get some good photos! Haifa is renowned for the excellent relations it enjoys between the different faith communities.
On getting off the bus we read the story of Elijah establishing the superiority of the Jewish God in a competition with the gods of the prophets of Ba’al, and causing the long drought to finally end. Fr Mervyn reminded us that the bereavement charity, ‘Cruse,’ takes its name from another story about Elijah and the drought – through God’s power he ensured that the widow’s ‘cruse of oil’ would not run out until the rains came, meaning she and her son would not starve to death. The view from The San Francisco Observatory over the Mediterranean sea was breathtaking.
Our final Mass of the pilgrimage was at Stella Maris (‘Star of the Sea’) Church on Mount Carmel, where we were able to light candles inside Elijah’s Cave and touch the rock. Fr Gerardo led the Mass, and spoke of how our pilgrimage will continue on our return home as we seek to “soak everything up.” Simon read the first Reading, Fran the Psalm and Sheila the Bidding Prayers. In his homily Fr Mervyn talked about how our cases are packed full of new and wonderful things, during the years we will “unpack” them, and it doesn’t matter if things get a bit muddled. We will never hear the names “Jerusalem” and “Nazareth” in the same way again. Whatever level we’re taking things at, God is amongst us, side by side with us in the ordinary times not just the great moments of life. We will treasure in our hearts all that we have received. Fr Mervyn recommends daily meditation on the Scriptures, helping us to grow in favour with God and each other. At Communion, Catherine led us in the haunting hymn, ‘Holy His Name.’ At the end of Mass, Fr Paul thanked us all for coming on this adventure and said what we have taken in through the different senses will stay with us for life. He said that he and Fr Ka Fai knew that Fr Mervyn would be the perfect person to lead our pilgrimage due to his huge knowledge and talent for teaching in an understandable way.
On behalf of everyone. Pat Orrell made the presentation of an icon of Jesus and his disciples to Fr Mervyn. Pat spoke of how we have all been touched by the love and care he has shown to the group and how we have been inspired by his love of the Scriptures. She also thanked our other four priests who have brought such richness to this experience in their own unique ways. Fr Mervyn seemed genuinely touched by his gift, and said it was important for people of faith to touch the Holy Places and people of the area. Mass ended with the highly appropriate, ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star.’
Before leaving Haifa we stopped at the Church gift shop and cafe. Sadly the staff at the cafe made us feel a little unwelcome and our driver told us they prefer local people over ‘tourists,’ which could explain the exhorbitant price for a slice of cake – $10, which the waitress seemed to hope would put us off buying! Fran still succumbed to a very gooey chocolate and toffee cake and many others had an ice cream.
Before leaving Haifa we thanked our driver, ‘The Captain,’ and gave him a monetary gift. His driving skills have been excellent and he makes manoeuvring a massive coach look like child’s play. He and his wife are expecting a baby, so please keep the family in your prayers. The two hour journey to the airport took us along the stunning Mediterranean coastal route with its sandy beaches and blue/green waters. We made a brief stop on the beach near the ruins of Caesarea-Maritima, an historically important centre. It was built by Herod the Great, and Pontius Pilate had his coastal retreat home here, indeed he only travelled to Jerusalem for the Feasts. In Acts we hear the story of Peter in Jaffa (now a suburb of Tel Aviv) having the dream of the sheet with ritually clean and unclean animals, and on waking being asked to visit the rich, gentile Cornelius in Caesarea-Maritima. Peter did so and baptised Cornelius and his household, after realising that the Christian mission wasn’t only for Jews. This story reminds us all of our duty to pass on the faith in our own way. St Paul was imprisoned in the town too.
Fr Paul performed an ‘en masse’ blessing of all the articles of devotion we’ve bought, and we were assured by our resident Canon lawyer, Fr Gerardo, that this is perfectly valid and the blessing would travel through the floor of the Coach to the luggage hold below. This simple procedure saved the priests from having to individually bless their own body weight in rosaries, olive wood carvings and icons!
As we approached the airport Fr Mervyn let us know that security would be tight, with more questioning than we may be used to eg Where have you come from? Where did you stay? What’s the name of your tour guide? How do you know each other?’ Plus all hold luggage is X rayed – we were reminded of the importance of co-operating and not telling jokes! We arrived at the airport at 1.50pm, in plenty of time as check in wasn’t until 3pm. The procedure was straightforward – only a few of us were questioned and about a third had their luggage hand-checked. Our flight wasn’t due to leave until 6.15pm, so we had time to get a meal and last minute souvenirs – though as change was only given in shekels, we needed to be careful about ending up with too many.
Our flight was a little late taking off but was uneventful apart from the rather bumpy landing! On arrival at Manchester we said goodbye to our Chinese and Cornish friends as well as Fr Michael. We are hopeful of meeting up again, as the friendships we have formed have made this experience extra special, the pilgrimage hasn’t simply been about seeing ‘things’ but truly seeing each other as fellow pilgrims on Christ’s way. Unfortunately, one of the Derby group was taken ill at passport control, other members stayed behind to look after him, we were relieved when everyone finally made it to the coach safe and well around 11.30pm. We arrived back at St Alban’s at 1.15am – though of course with the time difference it was actually 3.15am for us! Let’s hope everyone was able to enjoy a long lie in this morning.
Though today may have been our final day of pilgrimage, it is not our final day as pilgrims…
God bless you all on your journey
If any pilgrims would like to write a piece for the website about their thoughts, experiences, what they will take from our pilgrimage etc, or if you have photos you would like to share, please send them to Fran – firstname.lastname@example.org