1: Unique journeys to God
When 45 people meet at Johannesburg airport to embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Italy (with travel-imposed stop-overs in Cairo), they are certain to have 45 different reasons and expectations. Some came for purposes of devotion and to obtain (or, if they had been to the Holy Land before, relive) the spiritual benefits of a pilgrimage, others to accompany a parent or spouse. Whatever the aim, rarely is a pilgrim left entirely untouched by the experience.
A pilgrimage is a physical journey, as the body is transported from one place to another. More importantly, however, a pilgrimage is an inner journey, one that ideally begins before the physical departure and ends long after the suitcases have been unpacked and gifts distributed.
At its core, a pilgrimage is a journey to God. But even as all pilgrims share a common itinerary, each one’s route takes unique twists and turns. Graces can be found at unexpected moments: through an accident, a bidding prayer, a sudden spiritual emotion, a moment of illumination, a poignant homily, the experience of receiving the Body of Christ in a special place, in sharing moments with fellow pilgrims who only days before were perfect strangers, even in the vexing snores of a roommate. Sometimes these graces hit home at once; sometimes they are not immediately discerned.
The journey is long. A pilgrimage begins the moment one takes the decision to go. Ideally, pilgrims will prepare by studying the sites they will visit (for example by reading a series such as this) and perhaps study relevant scripture passage. And a pilgrimage ends long after one returns home. Sticking to an inevitably tightly packed itinerary, one does not always have the opportunity to process the factual information or spiritual and emotional experiences (for this reason pilgrims are encouraged to keep a daily journal). Such processing comes after arriving at home as one prays over what one has seen, heard, smelled and felt. Often others family members, friends, or colleagues will observe the changes, a transfiguration even, in the person before the pilgrim can.
Travelling under the auspices of The Southern Cross and Radio Veritas (whose director, Fr Emil Blaser OP, served as spiritual director), our group of 45 pilgrims began their pilgrimage proper some 15 hours after first coming together at the check-in counter at Johannesburg International. Coming from all over South Africa, few knew each other before. Within days, many had formed firm friendships that are likely to last. This, too, is one of the graces of a pilgrimage.
After arrival in Tel Aviv’s new, modern airport, our group met their tour guide, the American Franciscan Father Garret Edmunds. An official licence to act as a tour guide in the Holy Land is difficult to come by. The qualifying process is tough, and ongoing training and regular re-examinations set a high standard for the profession. I had been privileged to experience a number of tour guides over my previous four trips to the Holy Land. All were outstanding as guides, and some were also extraordinary as personalities my friends Amir Teynee, a secular Jew, and Iyad Qumri, a Palestinian Christian, immediately spring to mind.
Fr Garret (seen here being recorded by Fr Emil at Mary’s Well) was my first priest-guide. As a cleric, he is not required to undergo the rigorous training required of other guides. Indeed, Fr Garret’s official designation is not that of tour guide, but pilgrimage animator, a title that accurately suggests that his focus primarily is spiritual. This has its unique benefits. Happily, Fr Garret exhibited an admirable amount of general knowledge.
A guide has to be a disciplinarian, especially when in charge of a large group. Punctuality and discipline are essential. Every five minutes a pilgrim is late represents five minutes stolen from the rest of the group, especially as schedules are often governed by reserved Mass times at an appointed church. It is no exaggeration to say that Fr Garret is an enthusiastic exponent of executing group discipline so much so that after a day or two, he had earned the nickname RSG, for Regimental Sergeant-Major. Before too long, the group came to appreciate his methods. Our group was never late for anything.
Appropriately, the pilgrimage proper began in Nazareth, where the Holy Family lived during Jesus’ formative years. Our first site was Mary’s Well. For many centuries, there was only one well in Nazareth. Fetching water was women’s work, so we can say for certain that Mary and her little son Jesus spent much time at this spot.
From Mary’s Well, we followed the daily path that Our Lady probably took from the well to her home, where today is the magnificent basilica of the Annunciation. The way leads past the site assumed to mark Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. This may well be a misnomer. The idea of Joseph and Jesus as carpenters, some scholars argue, is based on a cultural mistranslation: the Greek text of the gospels refers to Jesus as a tekton, which can be translated broadly as a craftsman or builder, but not directly as carpenter.
Nazareth is and was not blessed with much by way of forests (or indeed an abundance of trees in general). Buildings here and in the neighbouring Greco-Roman metropolis of Sepphoris where small-town artisans Joseph and Jesus might well have drawn much of their clientele from were mostly made of stone. Not so in Europe, where most houses were made of wood. In the experience of the European translators of the New Testament, the tekton/builder worked with wood, and so the stonemasons became carpenters. Or so the theory goes.
Whatever his occupation, Jesus worked as an artisan before embarking on his public ministry, starting in places which our group minus two members would visit the following day.