Saturday, 14 July 2018

The luminous pilgrimage

Ready for the next stage of the Rosary Pilgrimage? Today we visit the places associated with the luminous mysteries of the rosary.

River Jordan - the Baptism of Jesus
It's about 1200m almost straight downhill from Jerusalem to the bottom of the Jordan Valley. The land gets rapidly drier as you pass into the rain shadow of the Judaean Mountains, and it's effectively desert before you get to "The Inn of the Good Samaritan", which is roughly halfway down the road. So when we're told that "all of Jerusalem" went out to John the Baptist at the Jordan (Mark 1:5), that involved crossing this desert. It wasn't a casual journey. But at least they didn't have to contend with the minefields that now block off most of the river - only one road leads through them to the Baptism site.

Looking across the Jordan to the pilgrims on the eastern side

Another difference from Bible times is that increasing water use by Israel, Palestine, and the Kingdom of Jordan has made the lower reaches of the Jordan River little more than a large drainage ditch. The resulting murky waters don't really communicate the idea of cleansing which is part of baptismal symbolism, and I for one did not feel inclined to take a dip. But many pilgrims do decide to re-enact or renew their baptism - and some are actually baptised here - so there are always at least a few white-robed people going into the water, either on the Palestinian or on the Jordanian side, if not both. One or two Israeli soldiers keep a discreet eye on what is, after all, an international border.

Although the cleansing significance of baptism is somewhat obscured, the significance of the location remains. As I have noted before, the fact that Jesus was baptised at the lowest point on Earth is quite symbolic. The proximity of Jericho also reminds us that it was around here that the Israelites crossed over the river into the Promised Land, after journeying in the desert.

Kafr K
anna - Jesus changes water into wine

A stone water jar
There is some dispute over the actual location of the town of Cana; but the current 'official' holder of the title (so long as you don't ask Lebanese Christians) is Kafr Kanna, only a few kilometres from Nazareth. Certainly it makes sense that it would be somewhere near Nazareth, given the presence of at least one Nazarene family at the wedding there.

There are two churches - one Catholic and one Orthodox - commemorating the miracle that Jesus worked at the wedding feast. I think neither church tries to claim that it's on the actual site of that party; the nearest they get to a direct link is that they both display first-century stone jars, as described in John's account of the event. Given that there were six of these jars and each jar held "twenty or thirty gallons"(John 2:6), it's possible to work out that Jesus 'produced' somewhere between 730 and 1,100 bottles of wine. So either it was a very big party or Jesus was being abundantly generous (I favour the latter interpretation).

The entrance to the Orthodox church is on the main road. The Catholic church is down a back street and is easier to miss; but you know you're getting near it when you see shops selling 'Cana wine'. Married couples on pilgrimage often renew their wedding vows in this church.

Capernaum and the Mount of the Beatitudes - the Proclamation of the Kingdom
When Jesus began His preaching ministry, He moved from Nazareth to make His base in Capernaum, on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is specifically mentioned as the location for some events in the Gospels, including the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). When you enter Capernaum now, the location of Peter's house is immediately apparent by the church poised above it like a UFO that has just landed. This slightly strange architecture is designed to leave the ancient ruins both intact and visible.

Not that there is a shortage of ancient ruins - large areas of the town have been excavated. It seems to have been only about 200m across, so it was probably not much of an exaggeration when we are told that "the whole city gathered around the door" of Peter's house (Mark 1:33).

Capernaum synagogue - the darker stones at the bottom
are the foundations of the synagogue that Jesus preached in

Standing out amongst the ruins is an impressive limestone synagogue. It was built in the fourth or fifth century; but at its base you can see the basalt foundations of the first-century synagogue - presumably the one in which Jesus preached. It was here, for example, that He identified Himself as the Bread of Life (John 6:24-59).

On one of my visits to Capernaum a storm from the east came across the Sea of Galilee, reminding us of the time Jesus calmed the wind and the waves.

The Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes in particular, can be seen as manifesto or even a Constitution for the Kingdom of God, so the Mount of the Beatitudes is an alternative location for remembering the third luminous mystery. It's only a couple of kilometres along the Galilee coast from Capernaum.

A possible site of the Sermon on the Mount,
overlooking the Sea of Galilee

A church at the top of the hill, surrounded by beautiful gardens, commemorates the Beatitudes. But some think that Jesus actually gave His most famous sermon further down the hill, on a shelf of land that is high enough to fit Matthew's account of Jesus going "up on the mountain"(Matt 5:1), but also matches Luke's description whereby Jesus "came down and stood on a level place"(Luke 6:17). In any event, this location is among my favourites for its simple beauty and for the fact that a church hasn't been slapped on top of it, which makes it easier to imagine the original occasion. The space is big enough for a large crowd of people; but small enough that Jesus could be heard clearly, without a "Blessed are the cheese-makers" incident.

Mount Tabor - the Transfiguration
Standing somewhat apart from the other mountains of Galilee, Mount Tabor rises about 400m above the surrounding plain. Traditionally identified as the place of the Transfiguration, it certainly fits the description of "a high mountain [where they could be] apart by themselves"(Mark 9:2). I don't know what the vegetation was like in Gospel times; but now the mountain is mostly covered with trees, although they get a bit scrub-like towards the peak.

Buses and coaches are not normally allowed up the winding road to the top, so large groups of pilgrims have to be dropped off at a small bus station on the lower slopes, from where they can pile into the minibuses that shuttle up and down the mountain all day. Reasonably fit pilgrims with time on their hands can choose to emulate Jesus and the disciples and walk up instead - either along the road or by the footpath that goes straight up through the woods (as for most other paths in Israel, the way-markers are painted on the rocks).

Like many other churches in the Holy Land, the Basilica of the Transfiguration is of fairly recent construction (within the past century or so) but on the remains of older churches. It has a nice mosaic of the Transfiguration, and chapels dedicated to Moses and Elijah. Attached to the church are a couple of viewing platforms, from which one can see across a lot of Galilee and beyond. The wide plain immediately below the Mount is the Valley of Jezreel.

Sunrise as seen from Mount Tabor

On one visit I was privileged to stay the night at the Franciscan friary there. Once the gates are closed in the evening it becomes very quiet - the only habitations are the friary and the Greek Orthodox monastery just below the peak. I could understand why Jesus took the disciples there for a time of prayer, as the cool evening breeze blew past and the busy human world seemed far away.

The Upper Room - the Last Supper
Although it is currently a little way outside the Zion Gate, the site of the Last Supper was originally within the walls of the city. For some reason that no one seems sure of, the Ottoman rebuilding of the walls omitted to include the Upper Room - despite the fact that it was being used as a mosque at the time. The place itself has been thoroughly rebuilt at least twice during the last 2000 years, so nobody tries to claim that it is the actual room in which Jesus ate with the Twelve (that would have been rather smaller, for one thing). But it is almost certainly in the right place. And the surrounding buildings help to retain the feel of the original place, which was in a crowded suburb of Jerusalem.

Entrance to the Upper Room (or the Coenaculum)

There are usually plenty of people in the neighbourhood, because there is also a synagogue on the ground floor, centered on the 'Tomb of David' (it almost certainly isn't his tomb, but never mind), which draws Jews and sometimes Muslims to visit. This is in addition, of course, to the Christian pilgrims visiting the floor above.

Due to the vagaries of history, the place is currently under the control of the Israeli government. Sadly, this means that the Eucharist cannot be celebrated in the place where it was instituted. Formal prayer services are allowed, however, on Holy Thursday, Pentecost, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and informal prayer is allowed at all other times - so you can pray your rosary, no problem!

We will return to the Upper Room in a later post, when considering the third glorious mystery.

Monday, 9 July 2018

The joyful pilgrimage

The 'Rosary Pilgrimage' concept also provides a useful template for sharing some of my experiences of the Holy Land with you, dear reader. So in this blog post I'm going to say a little something about each of the places associated with the joyful mysteries of the rosary. The other sets of mysteries will be covered in following posts.

Nazareth - place of the Annunciation
Back when the angel Gabriel appeared to a young lady called Mary, Nazareth was an obscure little town, of which someone said, "Can anything good come from there?"(John 1:46). The population was maybe 400 or 500. Now it is the largest city of Galilee, with a population of about 76,000 - mostly Arabs. At 347m it is considerably higher than the Sea of Galilee (-215m), but lower than Jerusalem (754m). Hence the Bible speaks of Jesus going up to Jerusalem and down to Galilee.

Some remains of the ancient houses lie in the shadow of the huge Basilica of the Annunciation, and it can be seen that they were constructed on top of and/or in front of caves in the limestone rock. These help to make sense of the fact that the traditional site of the Annunciation is a cave - because such spaces were actually part of people's houses (it also makes me think of hobbit-holes, which is not entirely irrelevant). This particular cave or grotto is now part of the lower level of the twentieth-century basilica, and clustered about with some remains of the Byzantine and Crusader churches.

A pilgrim praying in front of the Annunciation Grotto
It is a little disappointing, even if also convenient for the pilgrim, that there is rarely much of a queue to pray at the Grotto of the Annunciation - unlike the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which often has a queue of two or more hours. For most people the place of the birth is more significant; but it was in Nazareth that God first became a human being - an event in the history of the universe only comparable with His Resurrection thirty-something years later. Because of the relative lack of pilgrims, one can take time praying in front of the Grotto, contemplating the Incarnation, and adding a little note of thanks to the young lady who said "Amen" to God's loving plan.

Ein Karem - the Visitation
In his account of Mary's visit to her relative Elizabeth, St Luke writes of "a town in the hill country of Judea"(Luke 1:39). Tradition has identified this town with Ein Karem, which is now a village just outside western Jerusalem. My first impression when I walked out there is that it fits the description of 'hill country'. In fact it's quite a pretty location, popular with Jerusalemites for an afternoon out.
The hill country of Judea, as seen from the Church of the Visitation

The Church of the Visitation sits on a hillside a little way above the village centre, with a view across the valley that probably hasn't changed much since Mary (with Jesus on board) came calling. On the way up one passes "Mary's Spring": given that she stayed three months with Elizabeth, we can be sure she got water from it many times (assuming tradition has got the location right). Although pilgrims might content themselves with visiting the lower chapel of the church, which is supposedly the site of Elizabeth and Zechariah's house, the upper church is beautiful to see, and likewise its garden.

Bethlehem - the Nativity
Once again we find the key location is in a cave/grotto (and G. K. Chesterton expounds on the significance of that better than I ever could). But unlike what we saw in Nazareth, the place of Christ's birth is usually far from peaceful. The birth of a child is easier for people to relate to than the unseen moment of conception, so people flock in greater numbers to Bethlehem. The queue can often be two or more hours long. And once people have slowly shuffled forward for all that time, squeezing one by one through the bottleneck that is the grotto's entrance, the excitement cannot be contained and prayerful reverence is a lost cause. The pilgrims push forward to touch the star in the ground that marks the spot of the first Christmas, chattering to each other and asking each other to take photos of them (an extra complication that modern times have brought).

Entering through
the Door of Humility

A few feet away there is also the manger where the God-child was laid - a stone trough in a slightly lower alcove. For this as well the pilgrims push forward to touch it and to take photos (even when Mass is being celebrated in the alcove, as I discovered).

I console myself with the thought that this is reality and that Jesus didn't come to be in a nicely-controlled, pious environment. We often depict the shepherds kneeling reverently before the baby Jesus; but they just as likely burst in upon the scene shouting with excitement, before proceeding to make cooing noises at Jesus while competing with each other to tell Mary and Joseph about the angels that had appeared to them. But at least they didn't take selfies.

The Grotto of the Nativity aside, the church built over it can claim to be the oldest intact church in the Holy Land, and one of the oldest in the world. All the other churches in the region were destroyed in the Persian invasion of the early seventh century; but the Basilica of the Nativity was spared when the invaders spotted a mosaic of the Magi (aka the Three Kings) which depicted them in traditional Persian dress. My favourite feature is the Door of Humility: this main entrance was originally made smaller to stop the disrespectful from riding horses into the church, but the fact that one has to stoop low to go in has come to symbolise the humility of the Son of God in becoming one of us.

The Temple Mount - the Presentation and the Finding in the Temple
Two mysteries of the rosary take place in the Temple: the presentation of Jesus as a first-born son, forty days after His birth, and then His truant episode about twelve years later. In addition, the Temple was of course the centre of Jewish religion and Jesus frequently visited it, prayed in it, and later also taught in it.

A scale model of the Temple
After the comprehensive destruction by the Romans, and then the Muslim takeover of the site centuries later, all that remains of the Temple is some of the outer supporting walls - mostly famously the portion known as the Western Wall. The dimensions of the site, however, are much the same as they were, and it is a large, beautiful, park-like space. The central positioning of the iconic Dome of the Rock roughly corresponds to the Holy of Holies, with an inner plaza and a surrounding outer area roughly corresponding to the holier inner courts of the Temple and the outer Court of the Gentiles. So with a bit of imagination one can visualise the two events we are considering. (A caution for any pilgrim who wishes to pray these mysteries of the rosary on site: any overt non-Muslim prayer is forbidden.)

The presentation of Jesus probably took place in the Court of the Women, that being the closest that Mary could get to the Holy Place. The finding of Jesus among the teachers of the Law may well have been somewhere in the Court of the Gentiles, perhaps among the outer colonnades where people could conveniently gather to talk and debate. Even now it is common to see groups of Muslim children with their teachers.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Rosary Pilgrimage Route

To set myself some sort of interesting target for my nine months here in the Holy Land, I decided early on that I wanted to visit all the locations of the mysteries of the rosary and pray the relevant decade in each. In order.

That would be very difficult to achieve on an ordinary pilgrimage, because it involves going up and down the country at least twice.* As it happened, I needed three different trips to Galilee to get through the joyful and the luminous mysteries.
At the Church of the Transfiguration,
on Mount Tabor

On my first visit north I was able to start things off by praying a decade at the grotto of the Annunciation in Nazareth. But only on returning to Jerusalem could I do the next mystery, at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem just outside Jerusalem. Then it was Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, and the site of the Temple for the mysteries of the Presentation and the Finding in the Temple.

On my second visit to Galilee we went via the baptism site at the Jordan River, meaning that I could kick off the luminous mysteries. But we didn't visit the three relevant sites in Galilee in the necessary order, so I had to content myself with praying the second luminous mystery in Cana. It was only when I accompanied my parents to Galilee that I could do the third and fourth luminous mysteries (at Capernaum and Mount Tabor, respectively).

The remaining luminous mystery, all the sorrowful mysteries, and most of the glorious mysteries took place in or near central Jerusalem, so the rest of this Rosary Pilgrimage seems easy. I did all the sorrowful mysteries this morning, in one mini-pilgrimage. The only practical difficulty is the final glorious mystery, which takes place in heaven... So I can't completely finish my pilgrimage in this life.

As I said, doing the rosary in the right order would not be feasible for an ordinary pilgrimage. But the mysteries of the rosary provide a good list of holy sites to visit - in whatever order is practical. Many pilgrimages try to fit in too much, and this is one way of focussing on what's really important in the story of our salvation.

*For those who aren't familiar with the 'mysteries' of the rosary, here they are (with their locations):
Joyful mysteries - the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary (Nazareth), the Visitation of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (Ein Karem), the Birth of Jesus (Bethlehem), the Presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple (Jerusalem), and the Finding of the boy Jesus in the Temple (Jerusalem).
Luminous mysteries - the Baptism of Jesus (Jordan River), the Wedding Feast (Cana), the Proclamation of the Kingdom (Capernaum and/or the Mount of the Beatitudes), the Transfiguration (Mount Tabor), and the Last Supper (Jerusalem).
Sorrowful mysteries - the Agony of Jesus in the Garden (Gethsemane, Mount of Olives), the Scourging of Jesus (Jerusalem), His Crowning with Thorns (Jerusalem), the Way of the Cross (Jerusalem), the Crucifixion (Jerusalem).
Glorious mysteries - the Resurrection (Jerusalem), the Ascension (Mount of Olives), the Coming of the Holy Spirit (Jerusalem), the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven (Gethsemane, Mount of Olives), and the Crowning of the Virgin Mary as Queen of heaven and earth (Heaven).

Friday, 8 June 2018

Going underground

In the late 8th and early 7th centuries B.C., Jerusalem was threatened by invasion from Assyria. So to prepare for the expected siege, King Hezekiah had a tunnel made to take water from the Gihon Spring into the city. Which sounds simple enough, except that meant his men had to chisel their way through 500 metres of rock with nothing in the way of powered equipment. Two teams followed a winding route towards each other and met in the middle, adding the extra puzzle of how they managed to keep tunneling in the right direction without so much as a compass. It's also impressive that the difference in height from one end to the other is only 30cm - another sign of precision work.

However the Jews of old did it, the tunnel is still there, and the waters of the spring still flow through it. For the small cost of an entry ticket, tourists and pilgrims can follow this underground stream to the Pool of Siloam. It is somewhat surprising that visitors are left to do this unsupervised. The tunnel gets quite narrow at some points, and it could be quite problematic if someone had a panic attack or some other accident somewhere in the middle, 250m from any help. Perhaps they rely on the fact that there are always people passing through.

Hezekiah's Tunnel
Anyway, I'm not complaining - it was good fun to wade the length of Hezekiah's Tunnel, in the company of Br. Pawel Teperski (who took this photo of me). It took us about half an hour - surprisingly long, but wading slowed us down, as did a group of Israeli schoolchildren whom we caught up with. There wasn't anything much more Indiana-Jonesey than that, I'm afraid: no blades suddenly protruding from the walls, no rolling boulders, no crocodiles, not even any snakes. But I recommend it as an interesting diversion from the normal round of holy places and ancient ruins that a Jerusalem pilgrimage involves. Just so long as you're not prone to claustrophobia.

Pool of Siloam
(rather smaller than in Biblical times)

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Speaking in many tongues

For the past couple of weeks my laptop has been languishing in the dread grip of 'The Black Desktop of Death'. So now that I've wrestled free from it (albeit with the loss of most of my apps and settings), I have some catching up to do on computer-related matters, including this blog.

More than a fortnight after the event, therefore, I'm reporting on the experience of Pentecost here in Jerusalem. As with many other liturgical events here, the real buzz is in getting to celebrate it in The Place Where It Actually Happened. In the case of the Cenacle (aka, the Upper Room) it's extra special because the Israeli authorities only allow Christian services there on a few occasions in the year - Pentecost unsurprisingly being one of them.

Another bonus this year was the coincidence of the Catholic observance of Pentecost with the Jewish observance of the same feast - although they call it by its Hebrew name, Shavuot. At the time of Jesus the feast was a celebration of God giving the Law (the Torah) on Mount Sinai, which is why so many Jews had gathered in Jerusalem on the day when the Holy Spirit came and gave us another, even bigger thing to celebrate. The Old Law was written on tablets of stone; but the New Law is written on human hearts.

The current Upper Room is probably bigger than the one that the disciples of Jesus were gathered in; but it's still not a large space and probably less than two hundred of us were there for the permitted celebration - Second Vespers of Pentecost - late on the Sunday afternoon. There was a lot of singing and processing around (the Franciscans of the Holy Land like to make the most of these occasions), but the best bit for me was when we prayed the Lord's Prayer, each one of us in our mother tongue. The resulting babble of languages, all raised in prayer to God, was a non-miraculous sign echoing the miraculous sign of that Pentecost day nearly two thousand years ago. On that occasion the Holy Spirit made it so that all the visiting Jews heard the disciples of Jesus speaking in their own native languages. Now the Holy Spirit gathers from the nations disciples of Jesus, each with their mother tongue. Both events are a sign that the Gospel is for all peoples of the Earth.*

Overall, an uplifting experience. But I must mention one discord: some Jews were unhappy with our celebration. There was one venerable-looking Orthodox Jew standing outside the entrance with a little poster telling us that holding our services in the room above a synagogue "is forbidden". The ground floor of the building, you see, was transformed into a synagogue in 1948, on the basis of a medieval tradition that the tomb of King David is there. When this aggrieved Jew heard me speaking English, he backed up his poster by pointing back down the lane and saying, "You have a church down there - please go and pray there. We've suffered enough from you." Luckily for me, I happened to have been speaking to a more ecumenically-minded Jew, so I was able to leave the two of them remonstrating with each other. But it was yet another reminder of the jockeying for space that mars life in the Holy Land, and something of a counter-sign to the universality of the Gospel.

* And possibly for peoples of other planets, if such peoples exist and are in need of redemption. But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The High King

I was going to simply write something about the experience of celebrating the Ascension at the place where it happened. But I am grieved by yesterday's massacre of Palestinians at the Gaza border and by the triumphalist theatrics accompanying the new American embassy here in Jerusalem, so I'm bringing that into my musings.

Unlike those parts of the world where the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus is transferred to the Sunday, we celebrated it on the Thursday, its proper day. I went up there by bus, because I was going with someone for whom the climb up the Mount of Olives would be too much. And the fact that Jesus chose to ascend from a high place is not insignificant in itself, because He could just as easily have ascended from down in the valley. Because the disciples were able to travel the first bit of the Ascension with Him, it reminds us that we are also on our way up to heaven - we're just taking a bit longer about it.

The Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives was taken over by the Muslims centuries ago; but this once a year they allow us to celebrate Masses there. I was there for the main Mass, celebrated by the Franciscans of the Holy Land. I hadn't arranged to concelebrate; but as it turned out there wouldn't have been room for me anyway, because all the concelebrants had to pile into the small chapel, leaving the rest of us out in the courtyard. As it turned out, however, I appreciated being under the open sky while we remembered Jesus going up to heaven. In fact, in Byzantine times the chapel was open to the sky.

Many homilies/sermons on the Feast of the Ascension dwell on the fact that Jesus going into heaven was not a going away from us, but in fact making Himself available to all. As I once heard it put, if Jesus had stayed on earth, we'd only get to speak to Him by phoning His secretary for an appointment!

In ancient thinking, the heavens were not a place disconnected from earthly affairs, but rather a place to have influence on earthly affairs. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me," Jesus said to the apostles (Matt 28:18). Everything and everyone comes under his kingship.

Which brings me to the political and tragic situations here in the Holy Land. As with any other cases of death and suffering caused by human injustice and hatred, it is hard to see where in all this Jesus is exercising His kingship. But as He said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest"(John 18:36). Which is not say that His kingdom does not include this world, but that it is not the worldly kind. Kingdoms and nations as we know them keep order by force; but Jesus eschews that. Even now, with all His authority in heaven and on earth, He does not forcefully bring an end to war, nor does He correct unjust political situations. Even now, it seems, His approach is the same as it was on the Cross - to let it all happen and thus transform it. In all these things, the Resurrection is our only hope.

God is not uninterested in political situations. It is part of His will for us that we should work together for the common good, and through the prophets He is critical of injustice and of failure to help the poor. St Paul tells us, however, that when God determined the boundaries of the nations, it was "so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him"(Acts 17:27).

From the perspective of eternity, nations and political systems barely exist. But human souls are immortal, and they are the primary interest of our High King. He works in the souls of those who make peace and who love their enemies. That is where His kingdom is growing, and we can see glimpses of it in the acts of goodness and kindness amongst the evil and suffering.

To conclude, in the context of yesterday's massacre at the Gaza border, I am reminded of
something from "The Last Battle" by C. S. Lewis: in the scene where the inhabitants of Narnia's world all come up to the stable door, where they either go in or shy away in fear from Aslan, it is briefly mentioned that one of the people who goes in was a dwarf who had participated in a massacre of the Talking Horses.

Musings, just sorrowful, incomplete musings. I have some related musings about "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar...", which will appear in the not too distant future.

Friday, 11 May 2018

The call of the desert

The patient beast that bore the
burden known as Brother Paul
The best experiences are often the unexpected ones. Like when one of the Salesians contacted me with the question, "Paul, are you doing anything this Sunday?"... That's how I found myself on a bus with a load of Filipinos going down to the Negev desert near Beersheva. They needed a priest to accompany them on their day-trip and celebrate Mass for them after a camel ride, and how could a dutiful Capuchin refuse such a pious request?

The country slowly got drier as we went south, and after a couple of delays (one of them caused by half the bus deciding to make use of a checkpoint's solitary toilet) we arrived at the camel ranch a little way outside the town of Dimona. I'm pretty sure that the animals we were introduced to were technically dromedaries; but the owners consistently referred to them as camels, so that's what I'll call them as well.

Having got us all mounted, the rancher and his crew led us off along one of the ancient camel trials, for a back-and-forth ride of about an hour. At a couple of points we stopped and circled the camels so that he could explain some things about the beasts and about the land. On one of these occasions he cheekily asked me if I'd read the Bible.

The camel is traditionally called 'the ship of the desert', which I think is not just because they are such a naturally effective form of transport across the desert, but also because of the swaying motion which might make one seasick. I felt comfortable enough; but I was kind of saddle-sore for a few days afterwards - and that was after only an hour's ride.

Once we were back at the ranch, we retired to a picnic area where we celebrated Mass,
The 'roof' of our desert 'church'
under the curious gaze of the pregnant camels in their stable next to us. It was a beautiful place under a tree (the ranch is in a kind of oasis) and of course it's significant that the priesthood of the Old Covenant was instituted in the desert. I preached about how the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city, but in between the story often passes through the desert. The Israelites and many key individuals (including of course Jesus Himself) spent time in the desert. It's an important environment to meet God, because distractions are reduced and you also become more aware of your smallness and neediness before the Almighty Creator. We all need to find our own 'desert' for this personal meeting with God; but the story is not supposed to end there, because the next stage is to meet God incarnate, to meet Him in human beings.

We did, of course, return to the city, and not just any city but the iconic city of Jerusalem, a reminder of the new Jerusalem where the Bible story ends. But before that we had a shared lunch and time to explore a bit - including a walk up a nearby hill to survey the stark beauty of the land.