The 2022 Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
A personal and spiritual view - Kt. Ron Wainer, Sancta Maria Preceptory No. 183
Having recently returned home from the Knights Templar pilgrimage to The Holy Land, it is difficult to find the correct words to write a review of the event. From the moment we met at Luton Airport until we returned back home, every minute of our pilgrimage was something special.
The pilgrimage was not a holiday break. In fact some days was hard slog, but our small group of 13 pilgrims all had something in common. A desire to be with other Knights and their partners, and as a Christian Organisation to strengthen our beliefs and spirituality by following the more prolific steps of Christ and those Knights Templar who had gone before us.
Our group was most ably led by the Provincial Prelate for London E. Knight the Rev’d Father Niall Johnston, DepGtAlm, whose perfection and attention to details was second to none. A delightful Palestinian Christian ‘Sam’ acted as our tour guide. Sam was a fountain of knowledge and had answers to all our questions. There were many more places visited that are not included in this storyline - these are just the ones that were most special to me.
About an hour travelling by coach after landing at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, we stopped off at a high vantage point and looked down upon the Holy City of Jerusalem in the distance. The view was breathtaking and filled us all with excitement and anticipation of what to expect for the next 10 days. As I looked into the distance the words of a verse from the hymn ‘let me be your servant’ came to mind. “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travellers on the road. We are here to help each other – walk the mile and share the load.”
Before we got back on our coach to continue our journey Fr Niall delivered the first of many Readings of the pilgrimage. ‘Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem Psalm 122.’ As we travelled onwards heading to our hotel, Sam explained to us that the word Jerusalem meant ‘City of Peace.’ Sadly, this has never been the case.
After checking in to our hotel and having dinner, we set off, literally across the road, into the Old City and headed for the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall), a place of prayer and pilgrimage sacred to the Jewish people watching them observe the Shabbat celebrations. Returning to our hotel many of us reformed on the roof garden to crack open our duty free and really get to know each other.
Up early the next day, after breakfast and morning prayers, we headed off to the Church of all Nations, also known as the Church of the Agony on the Mount of Olives located next to the Garden of Gethsemane. It enshrines a section of bedrock where Jesus is said to have prayed before his arrest and crucifixion. Literally, across the road from this Church, we entered a secure section of the Garden of Gethsemane where we had our first Eucharist Service led by Fr Niall. I cannot describe how special and sensational it was to receive the Blessed Sacrament at this very spot. The service was reinforced by one of our pilgrims reading Matthew 26: 26-36. After our service our mood was quite solemn and we headed off to the nearby Church of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Inside the Church we saw the stone traditionally identified as the one which Jesus used to mount the donkey at the start of his procession into Jerusalem, where we had another pilgrim reading from Matthew 21: 1-11
The day continued with many other important sites visited. Among the highlights, four stood out for me. Firstly, while we were still in the Mount of Olives was the Pater Noster Church. A long tradition holds that Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father in the cave that forms the grotto under the church. When the Crusaders built a church here in the 12th century, they called it Pater Noster (Latin for Our Father). Throughout the grounds and cloisters the Lord’s Prayer is displayed on beautiful ceramic plaques in over 140 languages.
This was followed by visiting the tear drop shaped Church known as Dominus Flevit where Jesus wept while riding towards the City of Jerusalem. The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, with its fascinating colourful sculptured bronze doors, may well be the place where Peter denied Jesus 3 times. The beauty of the Church was reinforced by one of our pilgrims reading Peter’s denials from John 18: 12-27. The final highlight of the day was visiting Ein Karem the birthplace of John the Baptist, where Mary visited Zechariah and Elizabeth who proclaimed “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear” the full passage was fully read by another pilgrim. Luke 1: 39-56
The following day, a Sunday, although started with morning prayers, was certainly not a day of rest. We were up early with another full day at our fingertips or should I say feet. We entered the Old City at Dung Gate and went onto the Temple Mount where we visited the Dome of the Rock and the El Aqsa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock is an Islamic shrine. At the heart of the sanctuary is the Foundation Stone where, according to Islamic tradition, the prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven. In the Abrahamic religions it is known as the place where God created the world as well as the first human, Adam. Non-Muslim visitors are not allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock or the El Aqsa Mosque. We left via the Damascus Gate. After dinner on Sunday the pilgrims regathered and attended Evensong at St. Georges Cathedral and listened to some heartfelt words from the Rev'd Richard Sewell concerning the current troubles in Israel.
So much was packed into the Monday and Tuesday trips it is hard to remember all that we saw. We started off early and on leaving our coach we climbed a long and very steep hill to enter the old City at Lions Gate (also known as St Stephen's Gate), leaving most of us gasping when reaching the top.
We visited the ruins of the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus miraculously healed a paralysed man and then across to the Church of St Anne said to be the best-preserved Crusader church in Jerusalem. The Church of St Anne, run by the White Fathers, is renowned for its remarkable acoustics and our group belted out the KT Hymn ‘For all the Saints, who from their labours rest’ with great gusto followed by Fr Niall who led us all in a healing service.
From here we travelled along the very moving Via Dolorosa, (Stations of the Cross) the path that Jesus would have taken and ending at the Church of The Holy Sepulchre built on the traditional site of Jesus Crucifixion. The Monday concluded with a visit to The Muristan, the Hospitallers’ peace garden and then on to the incredible St Johns Eye Hospital where together with staff from the hospital we celebrated the Eucharist and had an emotional tour of the hospital.
Early Tuesday morning we visited the Garden Tomb very close to our hotel. This was a very moving site to visit, and we were lucky to have the Director of the site, a Baptist Minister from Essex, as our guide. Then we went on to the Church of the Shepherds Field the place where the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds by the angels took place. The formation of this church made once again excellent acoustics and our pilgrims emotionally sung out ‘Whilst shepherds watched their flocks by night’ and was joined in the singing by other pilgrims passing through. How special it was to celebrate the Eucharist in this location. The reading by one of our pilgrims of Luke2: 8-14 reinforced our vision of that most holy night.
Immediately afterwards we were back on the coach and travelled on to Bethlehem where we visited Manger Square, The Basilica and Grotto of the Nativity and St Jerome’s caves. St Jerome dedicated himself for more than 40 years to the translation of the Bibles, from Hebrew and Greek to Latin.
The Wednesday was another early start and a memorable day. We checked out of our hotel in Jerusalem and started to make our way towards Nazareth. We stopped on way at the River Jordan where we renewed our baptismal vows in a service conducted by Fr Niall in the River Jordan itself. How marvellous is that!! One of our pilgrims read an appropriate reading from Mark 1: 1-11 from the banks of the Jordan. Continuing onwards we passed through the vast Judean Desert, stopping off briefly at Wadi Qelt (also known from Psalm 23 as the Valley of the Shadow of Death) to view the Monastery of St George carved into the rock face. We continued driving through the desert into Jericho and viewed the Mount of Temptation where Jesus went into the wilderness where he fasted and meditated for 40 days and 40 nights. While here the devil tried to tempt Jesus three times to forsake God. A Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation is located at the site. Whilst viewing the area a camel appeared and one of our pilgrims gave in to his own temptation and enjoyed a short ride on its back. After a few more stops we finally arrived in Nazareth to check in to our beautiful hotel, directly opposite the Church of the Annunciation.
Another early start on Thursday morning and we were off to visit Mount Tabor in Lower Galilee and the Basilica of the Transfiguration believed to be the site where the Transfiguration of Jesus took place. The Holy Bible tells us that Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up Mount Tabor, where Moses and Elijah appeared and Jesus was transfigured, his face and clothes becoming dazzlingly bright. We continued over the plain of Armageddon to the Crusaders chief port of Acre, the Templar’s Tunnel, Hospitaller Fortress and St Johns Chapel. Returning back to Nazareth we went inside to adore the Basilica of the Annunciation which is under the control of the Franciscans. It was built over what tradition holds to be the site of the house of the Virgin Mary, and where the angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced that she would conceive and bear the Son of God, Jesus. Returning to the Basilica late in the evening I took some time out on my own to witness the service of the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament to a congregation of around 250-300 persons. The service was live streamed and can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4kO93corkY
The following morning, we travelled to Mensa Christi where Jesus first appeared to his disciples after the resurrection. Shortly followed by travelling to Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee to the Church of the Loaves and fishes. Located under the Altar is a beautiful 5th century mosaic of a basket of bread flanked by two fish. The church is also remembered as the location of Jesus’ third appearance to his disciples after his Resurrection, when he tested and commissioned St Peter as leader of his Church.
We continued on and drove high up a hill to the Mount of Beatitudes on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus held the Sermon on the Mount so beautifully recorded by Matthew 5: 1-12. What a privilege it was for me to deliver the reading to our pilgrims at this location. After lunch the blue skies turned black, the rain pounded, and the wind howled as we boarded our specially commissioned boat ‘Noah’ to sail out on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the gale, Fr Niall managed a Eucharistic service on board for our pilgrims and we were able to sing a hymn against the wind, although I did think that in those conditions the hymn ‘for those in peril on the sea’ would have been more appropriate.
Saturday was our penultimate day and we visited sites in Capernaum, Caesara Philippi, Jacobs Ford and into the Golan Heights having a relaxing coffee in the damp clouds at 1165m above sea level. In the evening after dinner, together with one other pilgrim from our group I attended a candlelight prayer procession back in the Basilica of the Annunciation. I was amazed and dumbfounded that we both were asked to lead the English translation of the Readings and Holy Rosary to the 200+congregation. We were seated up high by the Altar along with the clergy and religious. For me this was the highlight of the trip. The service was live streamed and can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8K_TaEiH18
Sunday morning was our last morning in Nazareth. After our final Eucharist Service together we collected our packed picnic lunch from the hotel reception and drove to the Mediterranean coast making a number of interesting stops. We looked down upon the beautiful hanging gardens and shrine of Bab on Mount Carmel in Haifa the spiritual focal point for Baha'i pilgrims who pray here. While in Mount Carmel we visited Elijah's Cave. Continuing on we visited a number of other places of interest along the way including the Roman aqueduct and amphitheatre in Caesarea Marittima. In the late afternoon we drove back to Tel Aviv to catch our flight back home, full of marvellous and everlasting memories of the 2022 Knights Templar Pilgrimage to The Holy Land.