St Michael and All Angels Church, Bedford Park

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land: November 16-25 2010

Cathie James writes (scroll further down for her personal reflections on the trip):

Our pilgrims on Temple Mount, JerusalemIn November 2010, Father Kevin with Father Stephen and Mother Nicola Stanley with Father Gareth Hughes led a group of thirty two parishioners from St Michael’s and All Hallows Twickenham, together with a further seven friends, on a nine-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

For most of the group this was their first visit. David and I had been before, back in 1998 with a group led by Bishop Michael, then the Bishop of Kensington.

Our very comprehensive and carefully constructed itinerary is set out below. As the days went by we got to know each other better, and as our shared experiences grew, our sense of companionship developed and the group bonded more and more closely. Our plenary discussions provided an opportunity for individuals to offer what were often differing views on these shared experiences and this in turn helped open us up to new ideas and insights. Our guide Samur, a Palestinian Christian, was wonderful. As well as his endlessly patient shepherding of  ‘Group’, as he called us, he shared some of his own story about the problems of being a Christian in the Holy Land today. This was illuminating, humbling and very moving.

We had great fun on our journey together and there were jaw dropping moments of beauty and spirituality that palpably touched us all.

It was a transformative trip that, it seemed clear, affected many people profoundly. It is impossible to write collectively about this – each individual will have their own special moments, highs and lows. I have shared my personal reflection with you – others will have had quite different experiences. Was it worth making a second trip? Most definitely – much had changed in the intervening years, my faith had moved on, and my new companions and leaders brought fresh inspiration and direction.


Father Kevin at the Mount of OlivesDay 1: An Introduction to Jerusalem: From our hotel, the Golden Walls, we visited the Mount of Olives with panoramic views across the Kidron valley to the walled city including the Golden Gate, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the Mount of Olives (right) we visited the Church of the Ascension, the Pater Noster Church and the church of Dominus Flevit where we celebrated Mass, the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane. On then to West Jerusalem to lunch in the Sisters of Sion convent and then a visit to the Israel Museum to see the model of Ancient Jerusalem and the Dead Sea scrolls.

Mother Nicola in the Judean desertDay 2: Jewish Quarter, and Mount Zion:We entered the Old City through the Dung Gate and then made a walking tour of the Jewish quarter before going to Mount Zion to visit the Upper Room and the Church of the Dormition. On our way to the Church of St Anne, by the pool of Bethesda, for Mass we visited the Wailing Wall and witnessed the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. After lunch at the Ecce Homo convent we visited the church of St Peter in Gallicantu, the probable site of Caiaphas, the High Priest’s house where Jesus was imprisoned and where He was denied by Peter.

Day 3: Masada and the Dead Sea: We drove into the Judean wilderness for an outdoor Mass (right, above) and then on to Herod the Great’s hilltop fortress of Masada, which we ascended by cable car. On then to the Lot hotel for lunch and a float in the Dead Sea (right, below). We returned to Jerusalem via Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered.

Floating on the Dead SeaSome of us that evening went on a night tour of Jerusalem led by Samur, our guide. This showed us some spectacular panoramas, as well as an opportunity to see some of Jerusalem’s more recent historical places, including the Mandelbaum Gate, St David’s Hotel and the parliament building, the Knesset.   

Day 4: The Via Dolorosa and Bethlehem:  We began our day following the Via Dolorosa through the narrow lanes of the Old City culminating in a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We then crossed into Palestinian territory visiting first Herod the Great’s summer palace, the Herodian. Lunch was at the Arab  Rehabilitation Centre in Bethlehem and then on to Manger Square to visit the Basilica and the Grotto of the Nativity.

This was followed by an outdoor Mass at the Shepherds’ Fields.

Day 5: Meet the People:  There was an opportunity to revisit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the early morning  and then to join the local congregation at the Anglican Cathedral of St George. In the afternoon we visited the Church of John the Baptist at Ein Karem and the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.

Cable cars over Jericho oasisDay 6: Temple Mount , Bethany and the Jordan Valley: Before leaving Jerusalem we visited the Temple Mount (closed up until this point because of the celebration of Id) and saw the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Then on to Bethany where we celebrated Mass on the site of the home of Martha and Mary and visited the Tomb of Lazarus. We continued through the desert to reach the oasis of Jericho and ascended the Mount of Temptation by cable car (right), where we were much refreshed by fresh pomegranate juice. We rounded off our stay in Jericho by visiting the (descendant of the) sycamore tree of Zaccheus and Elisha’s spring before journeying north through the desert to Tiberias and our hotel, the Ron Beach on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Nazareth crafts demonstrationDay 7: Nazareth:  We ascended Mount Tabor and visited the Church of the Transfiguration with views over the plain of Armageddon. On then to Nazareth where we visited ‘Nazareth village’ – a reconstruction of 1st century Galilean life (right). Later we celebrated Mass at the Convent of the Little Sisters of the Annunciation where some of the group toured the excavations , then on to the modern Basilica of the Annunciation, the Synagogue Church and the Greek Orthodox church of St Gabriel where Mary’s Well is situated. 

Day 8: The Lakeside Ministry: a day dedicated to sites associated with Jesus’ life around the Sea of Galilee. This started at Capernaum and then to Mensa Christi, where Jesus appeared to his disciples after His resurrection. We celebrated mass by the lakeshore at Tabgha, beside the Church of the Loaves and Fishes. We lunched at the 'Jesus boats' on Sea of Galilee Convent of the Beatitudes and then visited the church and garden which commemorate the Sermon on the Mount. We then sailed back across the Sea of Galilee in a ‘Jesus boat’ (right).

Day 9: Homeward Bound: From Tiberias we drove to the Mediterranean coast and the Roman capital of Caesarea Maritima where we visited the restored aqueduct, Roman theatre and another of Herod’s palaces. We saw the dock from which St Paul set out for Rome after his imprisonment, before the final leg of our journey brought us back to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and our flight home.   

Our most grateful thanks go to Father Kevin and Father Stephen, to Mother Nicola and Father Gareth, to McCabe Travel and last but not least to our guide Sam, all of whom worked tirelessly to make our visit to the Holy Land so special.    


St Michael’s and All Hallows Holy Land Pilgrimage
November 16th – 25th 2010
A personal reflection by Cathie James

“On Thursday 16th November 2010 a party of pilgrims set out from London on a trip to the Holy Land, this is the story of their journey…” Thus did Father Kevin begin his sermon to us during the final Mass of our pilgrimage, celebrated on the lakeshore, beside the Sea of Galilee. It was an emotive moment in an emotive place. This was where Jesus had made his resurrection appearance to Peter, cooking breakfast on a charcoal fire – for Peter this must have been deeply painful, the smell of the charcoal reminding him of that courtyard in Jerusalem where he had denied Jesus three times. Now he is asked three times by Jesus ‘Peter, do you love me?’  Christ affirms his forgiveness and Peter’s guilt, shame and worthlessness are taken away. Peter is given a second chance.

At our lakeside mass it was as if 2000 years had rolled away – from our lighted thurible the smell of charcoal drifted in the air as Father Kevin invited us to reflect on our pilgrimage over the previous ten days – “a journey not always of light; there had been darkness too from which we needed to learn; loneliness, absence of spiritual moments, things we failed to do” - but if we remember Christ with Peter we are always offered a second chance, a fresh start. This was a comforting and optimistic conclusion to a roller coaster journey and one from which it is hard to imagine that any of us returned unchanged.

Why go on a pilgrimage? Why go to the Holy Land? Will being part of a large group enhance or diminish my experience? Will the holy sites disappoint me? How is a pilgrimage different to being on holiday? How might all this impact on my faith? Some of the many questions that as pilgrims we may have asked ourselves, and in reply to which no two pilgrims’ response will be the same.

This article is therefore my personal reflection on our pilgrimage.

More general comment and our action packed itinerary you can see in the text above. It was planned with great care and precision so that we could encounter as many aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry as time would allow. Father Kevin, together with Mother Nicola, Father Stephen and Father Gareth were tireless in their pastoral concern, endlessly patient, and always available to counsel and support when a sight, a place, or an experience brought out deep or unsettling  emotions.

Before we started out, I had read Bishop Tom Wright’s book ‘The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage today’. In it he identifies three reasons to consider pilgrimage to the Holy Land – firstly for educational value, an opportunity to gain fresh insight into the bible stories by seeing historic sites first hand; secondly as a stimulus to prayer by visiting the places where Jesus lived and ministered; and thirdly as an opportunity for growth and deepening of  discipleship. So how did Bishop  Wright’s points resonate with me?

There was no doubt that seeing the places where Jesus had walked and talked, and standing on sites whose names I knew from the Old Testament, brought many familiar bible references to life – the desolate desert road ‘going down’ from Jerusalem to Jericho where the Good Samaritan had tended the lone traveller who ‘fell among thieves’; the Bethlehem fields where ‘shepherds watched their flocks by night’; ‘the stone that the builders had rejected’. There were many ‘penny dropping’ moments when what had been an opaque text became crystal clear. But, for me, following in the steps of the ‘historic Jesus’ had its greatest impact in its contemporary relevance. The parallels between the Roman occupied Palestine of Jesus’ time and the current military presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the tension between Jews and Palestinians, the surveillance at the Temple Mount,  suspicion of being ‘different’, the apparent detachment from hardship and suffering-all these were thrown into sharp focus when following the events of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. We walked the Via Dolorosa, praying at each station, and were constantly reminded of the surrounding bustle of commercial life, the impatience of others trying to overtake us, the sheer disinterest of passers-by – just as it would have been for Jesus.  We reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and were challenged by the sheer volume of other pilgrims speaking many different languages and whose approach to waiting and queuing was so different to our own. We were confronted with the tensions between  the Armenians, the Copts , the Greek Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic custodians of the shrine  all struggling to maintain their spheres of influence. This was a pattern repeated at many of the holy places we visited, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. This was heady stuff and it was easy in the heat and crush to come away without the spiritual high one had expected.  But for me this was countered by the growing realisation that how it is now was just how it must have been in Jesus’ day, and I began to connect with the narrative of Christ’s life and death in a new and more meaningful way.

Following in Jesus’ footsteps in the last week of his life has changed profoundly the way I will engage with the Passion story and enter into our Easter liturgies.

My spiritual highs and prayerful experiences came in places away from the crowds and the bustle– the stillness and timeless quality of the desert; its constantly changing light and shade; listening to the familiar words of the Eucharist in the  beautiful acoustic of the Church of St Anne by the pool of Bethesda; Father Gareth singing the Lord’s prayer there in Aramaic, the language that Jesus would have used; the clergy’s gentle but acutely observed homilies; an outdoor Mass looking over the Shepherd’s Fields in Bethlehem as the sun went down, with a modern day shepherd tending his flock in the distance, all accompanied by the strains of  ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ spontaneously rendered in beautiful harmony. These are just some of the moments that brought an intense flash of insight, a lump to my throat, or tears to my eyes.

What happened to my faith on the pilgrimage? In Bishop Wright’s book he draws attention to the passage in St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (11.1) that speaks of faith as ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…’. There was a lot of that in the pilgrimage – I sometimes struggled with the authenticity of a particular site or the credibility of some particular relic. There was a temptation on these occasions to be flippant or cynical, to discount the validity of nearly two millennia of worship, but in amongst these thoughts came an awareness of the limitations of my human understanding – the seeing ‘through a glass darkly’ as St Paul describes in another of his letters; of fleeting and incomplete glimpses into heaven.

I was constantly struck by the recurrence of references to humility, to letting go of ‘self’. We frequently had to stoop low to enter into a holy place, the doorway made small to remind us that we should all humble ourselves before God, and the many biblical references to ‘the last being first’. This ‘putting others before oneself’ is one of the key elements  that, to me, marks out a pilgrimage from a holiday – both are to be enjoyed (and we certainly had great times together)  but to me a pilgrimage’s primary focus  is  not about  ‘self’ but about companionship and support for each other as we all journey on an exploration of faith.  There were some wonderful examples of thoughtfulness and kindness between individuals on our trip that were humbling to witness.

Yes I also had my dark moments, the times when I let self-interest get the better of me, when I let my individual prejudice or disappointment get in the way of the bigger picture, when I became resentful that a long anticipated high point had failed to live up to expectations.  

But, my pilgrimage experience also taught me that these were insights from which I could  learn, ‘second chance’ moments rather than insurmountable  obstacles to knock me off course.  Now a few months on, I can say with confidence that my faith has matured and deepened  and has a stronger foundation on which to build .

Would I do it again? Well not immediately – I need time to reflect and consolidate what I experienced. How did I feel about the size of the group? I really enjoyed the diverse mix of companions and our excellent Palestinian Christian guide, Sam, made sure we missed out on nothing. Would I recommend it others? Most definitely.