If I am truthful I was wary of going on an organised tour in a coach, and especially having to wear a lanyard round my neck displaying my name in bold capitals. And a pilgrimage? Outside my comfort zone! Or so I thought. It was immediately apparent from the moment we gathered outside the Vicarage at 5am one Monday morning, that this was going to be a memorable trip. It was also clear when the 17 of us arrived about 12 hours later, at our hotel in Bethlehem, that we might be pilgrims but we still liked a drink in the evening. The poor waiter only had one bottle of white wine in the fridge but it wasn't long before he got the message, and after much rummaging in his store, more soon appeared! Thus began the most extraordinary eight days of wonder and amazement. Our lovely tour rep, Cathy, alarmed us all by announcing 5.30am starts; but this was necessary as darkness fell at 4.30pm and there was lots to see and do.
The Holy Land it may be, but this was no walk in the park. Most mornings, as we sat in our bus, we said Morning Prayer and sang; but we did this in the shadow of a hateful 15m high concrete wall that divided Palestinian controlled Bethlehem from the Jerusalem hinterland. Watchtowers and armed Israeli soldiers surveyed the queue of vehicles as it moved towards the checkpoint. In stark contrast, our first morning started with an enchanting stroll through the old streets of Bethlehem to Manger Square, where the huge Christmas tree was already in position, to the Church of the Nativity, the place of Christ's birth, and later to Shepherds' Field where we celebrated communion.
Such contrasts were the hallmarks of our trip. When we ventured into the labyrinthine streets of Jerusalem's Old City, we jostled for space amongst all the humanity, and dodged mini tractors delivering goods and collecting rubbish. Amongst all this captivating colour and chaos, we stopped at the Stations of the Cross, read bible passages, prayed and sang. It dawned on us that this is how it might have been when Jesus walked that same sorrowful route.
In total contrast to this, on our fifth day, our resourceful guide, a Palestinian Christian called Mutassem, took us out into the Judaean desert. There we celebrated communion in a place of dramatic Biblical beauty and total silence, with a backdrop of arid hills stretching as far as the eye could see. Only a tiny bird singing lustily from an iron crucifix broke the silence.
I don't think any of us realised that we would hold our own service in Jerusalem's Anglican Cathedral, which we had to ourselves, or that we would be "out sung" by a large group of enthusiastic Kenyan ladies in a charming chapel in Bethlehem. Nor that we would experience the magic of holding communion afloat on the Sea of Galilee with a golden setting sun, and dancing on the deck, only a day after the hilarity of floating like corks in the Dead Sea and witnessing the unusual sight of the Rev Michelle Woodcock rubbing mud into the Cartmel Fell Churchwarden's chest.
Emotions of all types ran high. The giggling register went off the scale most evenings (explanatory note: - there were 13 women and 4 men on this trip), but tears also flowed and at times no words could be found. One afternoon we stood looking over the Old City of Jerusalem in the very place where Jesus wept for that troubled city, as we considered the terrible conflicts and divisions that still affect the city now. And then a few days later, we held our own service at the top of Mount Precipice, overlooking Nazareth, with the muezzin (the Muslim call to prayer) echoing all around us, and we realised that our own congregations back at home were gathering for services in the Two Valleys at the very same hour. Time and again we were brought up short by such experiences. If there was a time to reflect on the pain that so often exists between our faiths, this was it; but so too did we ponder how much we have in common. And then, if we might worry that the Christian faith is in decline, the joyful hordes of Christians we met from all corners of the globe would suggest otherwise, such as the group from Ivory Coast spectacularly adorned in stunning gold, yellow and orange costumes.
There was so much more... paddling in the Mediterranean sea at Caesarea; a visit to 'The Walled Off Hotel' owned by Banksy, right under the partition wall; some jaw-droppingly beautiful churches; and everywhere a sense of history, sometimes visible in layer upon layer of ancient structures, often surmounted by something quite contemporary. Evidence too of history in the making - the partition walls and fences, Israeli settlements, Bedouin camps scheduled for "clearance" adorned with the flags of many nations demonstrating support. But above all the Two Valleys 17 walked a cultural, emotional and spiritual path like no other, masterminded over the many months of painstaking preparation by Michael Woodcock, who sadly couldn't be with us due to ill health, and under the expert guidance and leadership of Michelle Woodcock.
For all of us, the reasons we went, and the memories we hold, will be different. But one thing is sure, we will never forget those 8 days.Julian Lambton
I have many wonderful memories of our Pilgrimage, but I think my favourite day was Thursday 29 November. We were up early so that we could arrive in good time at St George's Anglican cathedral in Jerusalem for our morning service; we crept quietly to a charming side Chapel for the service, which was wonderful. The cathedral was beautiful in a more simple way than the Catholic churches, which I really enjoyed. Next we went to Ein Karem the visitation shrine of Our Lady to St Elizabeth, stopping enroute for an essential cup of coffee and some souvenir shopping. We were able to walk from here to the birthplace of John the Baptist. Next came lunch at a Kibbutz, which was quite a shock as it was crowded with hundreds of diners, not what we were expecting, although the food was good. Keeping on the move by foot we walked the Palm Sunday route taken by Jesus, down to Pater Noster Grotto overlooking Jerusalem. Now comes my favourite time of the day, we went to the Garden of Gethsemaney where we held a short service followed by meditation in a private garden. It was truly an amazing experience, the perfect end to a fantastic day..Diane Cameron
Our trip to the Holy Land was a wonderful experience. Michelle and Mutassem, our guide, worked extremely hard on our behalf to make it a success. To see places which for most of us had been pictures in our minds since childhood, was both overwhelming and at times very emotional. For me having Communion in the Shepherd's Fields, sailing on the Sea of Galilee and having Communion - really emotional experience and being asked to read in the Garden of Gethsemane - what a privilege. The highlight of our pilgrimage was to be able to visit the Basilica in Bethlehem and see where Jesus was born! Memorable.Pam Chamberlain
I felt very privileged to be included in the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I returned feeling renewed and at peace. Taking Communion at all the special sites particularly our first day at Shepherds Fields and on the Sea of Galilee were very moving and emotional for me.Sheila Shepherd
I was very pleased, as a Unitarian, to be included with mainly Two Valley Anglicans on the wonderful trip to Israel, 26 Nov - 3 Dec 2018.
Impossible to describe it all so here are just a few of my outstanding memories. The views from our hotel in Bethlehem overlooked the whole city, built on hills. Bethlehem is a tad scruffy by British standards, and the hilly roads are not conducive to present-day traffic, but this did not detract from knowing you were in a city, the name of which you were familiar with since early childhood, but which you never expected to actually see. We visited so many 'familiar' places here, where I think my favourite was the Church of the Nativity which had been built and rebuilt many times, but which still sported stunning gold mosaics from the time of the crusades.
We spent two days in Jerusalem, notably for me being the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. We were scheduled to have Holy Communion every day at a different church or basilica but Michelle, by virtue of being a woman, was not allowed to offer Communion at some of the churches. Instead we celebrated the ritual in different, stunning, outside locations which for me was much better! These included the Garden of Gethsemane, then later in the desert mountains and, in Nazareth, on Mount Precipice, with amazing views right across to the coast in the west.
Many of the churches had outside walls covered with plaques from different countries world-wide, with either pictures, or a prayer or biblical quotation in their own languages, all beautifully presented and arranged.
We spent the last two days in Nazareth where, en route, we travelled up the West Bank of the River Jordan. We stopped off for a bite to eat at a beautifully situated complex of small buildings right on the edge of the Jordan, where the overhanging trees and vegetation, the narrowness of the river and the plentiful flowers was more like a jungle than a near-desert location! We then visited Capernaum and from there had a short sea trip on the Sea of Galilee. This was much bigger than I expected, but brought new life to the hymn words, 'O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above ...' Entirely surrounded by hills it was indeed a beautiful and calming place.
I also have to mention a surreal experience on my first very-early-morning in Bethlehem. Lying awake at around 5 am I was gradually aware of very faint, mystical, heavenly music. Was it voices? or was it wires vibrating in the wind? Was I imagining it? It was truly one of the outstanding moments of my life, and yet so difficult to describe ... On subsequent mornings I could hear it better; it was the Muslim call to prayer at a nearby mosque and I could hear the muezzin's voice clearly. But on this first morning I could only hear the overtones and not the man's voice at all, which is what gave it the strange unearthly quality.
Thank you, Michael and Michelle, for arranging such a brilliant trip. Michelle was a superb leader: friendly, efficient, kind and tactful at all times!Jo Rogers
Thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my trip to the Holy Land (Pilgrimage of a life time). The pilgrimage was very moving in places. For someone who can't swim and is frightened of water, to be able float and swim in the Dead Sea was an amazing experience.Anthony Clarke
My experience of our Pilgrimage to The Holy Land was totally wonderful, leaving me with life-long memories, and a much deepened faith. This was my 2nd visit, having gone with my dear Mum in 2011, not ever thinking I would be so blessed to be able to return. I was slightly apprehensive as the 26th November approached, as our trip was tinged with sadness for several reasons, but as soon as we all met at The Vicarage at 5am I should have known God would be with us - and He was - and blessed us with a memorable trip.
The early morning starts were rewarded with magnificent sunrises experienced in the hotel in Bethlehem. It had a top floor restaurant with panoramic views. The many early starts enabled us to experience so much more than the planned itinerary, due to our excellent guide Mutassem, supported enormously by Cathy our travel company rep, and Soapy (think that's how his name is spelled) our extremely experienced and patient bus driver!. They managed to get us to extra wonderful places, two of them being the remote Judean Desert and Mount Precipice over looking Nazereth, where we experienced Communion in both.
I was extremely privileged to administer Commmunion to our pilgrims, and on Mount Precipice this included Cathy and Mutassem, who for personal reasons did not join us daily for this. We sang many wonderful emotionally-fuelled hymns, one of them being "I the Lord of sea and sky" - one my many favourites.
I would like to take this chance to express my deepest thanks to Michael for all his hard work in planning our pilgrimage, to Michelle for leading us, and to all our pilgrims for making it one of the best experiences of my life. The only downside was leaving Tel Aviv at 24 degrees and returning to Manchester to minus 5 degrees, arriving back to Crosthwaite at 1am on Tuesday morning and having to de-ice our cars!!!Gillian Smith
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1 The Group 2018
2 Lunch in Jerusalem
3 In the cellars of Caiaphas
4 The Garden Tomb
5 The Old City of Bethlehem
6 View of Jeruslaem from the Mount of Olives
7 Guess who on a camel
8 Communion in the Judean Desert
9 Sea of Galilee
10 On a boat on Galilee
11 On top of Mt. Precipice