From 16th to 26th October, Sean O'Leary travelled with 40 other pilgrims from St Aidan's Cathedral Parish in Enniscorthy to the Holy Land. Here he shares the first of a series of reflections on the places we visited.
'For me our pilgrimage to the Holy Land began chronologically in the historical sense near the ancient city of Jericho, believed to be the oldest inhabited city on earth, which was first settled over 10,000 years ago. It is said to be the first city occupied by the Israelites upon reaching the Promised Land following their exodus from Egypt about 3,400 years ago. It is near the Salt Sea, now called the Dead Sea, where the waters stopped flowing to allow the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant to cross safely (Joshua 3:14-17). The Ark of the Covenant housed the sacred tablets received by Moses from God on Mount Sinai upon which the ten commandments were inscribed.
This extremely ancient city also features in the New Testament. Towering over Jericho is the Mount of Temptation, said to be the location where Jesus’ love for God was tested by the Devil (Matthew 4:8) during a time of intense solitude for Jesus following his baptism in the river Jordan before he began his ministry. Jericho is also the place where Jesus healed the blind (Matthew 20:29) and inspired Zacchaeus to repent (Luke 19:1-10). It is on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho that the Good Samaritan proved himself a worthy neighbour to the unfortunate man who fell into the hands of bandits (Luke 10:25-37). It is in this parable that Jesus reminds us to go and do the same ourselves. It is in Jericho that the pilgrim can immerse themselves in human history, confront the sinful temptations of this world and contemplate the deep spirituality of Christianity. We are all called to be good Samaritans.
We also visited the tomb of King David in Mount Zion in the old city of Jerusalem. King David was the second and greatest King of Israel who reigned 3,000 years ago. As a young shepherd, God chose David for kingship because of his pure heart. It is David who through his faith in God bravely defeated Goliath with a simple slingshot. It is believed that this heroic act opened the eyes of Israel to David’s spiritual power, power that was entirely composed of humility before God. It is King David who humbly takes the Ark of the Covenant into the city of Jerusalem.
The Book of Psalms, which contains one hundred and fifty psalms of prayer, praise, pleas and gratitude within the Biblical Wisdom Books, is ascribed to King David. These ancient psalms still resonate with the pilgrims of today for each pilgrim can meaningfully say the words: ‘Our soul is waiting for the Lord; The Lord is our help and our shield; In him do our hearts find joy; We trust in his holy name;’ (Psalm 120: 1-2).
To stand before King David’s tomb now under the care of a Jewish seminary group is to be transported to another age that foreshadowed the coming of Jesus a millennium later. I entered the small room, stood before the tomb and placed my hand reverently upon it as if reaching back into time itself.
After bowing my head and offering up a silent prayer, I retreated to the outer room and discretely made a small donation to the sanctuary. Amidst the crowds, an elderly rabbi noticed my very small action of giving and asked me about it. Feeling overawed by the experience and somewhat addled by the rabbi’s inquisitiveness, I could only nod and state that it was the right thing to do. The rabbi nodded seemingly satisfied with my answer and blessed me with the words: ‘May God go with you’.
David’s son Solomon succeeded him as King and became widely known for his wisdom. It is King Solomon who built the first great temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant nearly 3,000 years ago. This first temple was destroyed after the Siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC.
A second temple was built over twenty years later, on the same site known as the Temple Mount, and expanded upon in the time of Herod the Great but was all but destroyed in 70 AD. Only the Western Wall remained relatively intact and it is this wall that we also visited during our pilgrimage.
For the Jewish people, the Western Wall forms part of an open-air Synagogue, the holiest place where Jews can pray, an enduring symbol of devastation and hope as well as a sacred place of tears, prayers and love. For Christians, it is a wall of the temple where Jesus worshipped. It is the same temple where Jesus angrily threw out the money changers, an act reported on in all four Gospels of the New Testament. Jesus tells us through his faithful disciples that: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’ (Matthew 21:13). Today, all people are welcome to approach the wall and pray with covered heads.
Approaching the Western Wall plaza through security, pilgrims and curious tourists alike are exposed to the scope of humanity that visit this exalted site. Again, I was humbled by the weighty antiquity of our beliefs, the rich spiritual history of our relationship with God and the profound history of our sacred actions that are built securely upon divine covenants. At this enduring symbol of humankind’s relationship with God, I inserted the prayers, that loved ones had written back home on small pieces of paper, into the crevices of the ancient stones.
I reverently bowed my head and placed my forehead gently against the wall. Placing the palms of my hands against the wall at either side of my head, I slowly recited the three prayers of the Rosary. I repeated each prayer three times. During the prayers, I experienced an intense stillness that seemed to defy time itself. Instead of the everyday thoughts that usually occupy my mind, I felt a strange connection to everything that had ever existed, that exists now and that will ever exist long into the future. In that precious moment, God’s grace offered me a tantalising glimpse of our complete connection to all of creation, a connection that brings with it a deep sense of belonging and an enduring conviction of the almost shocking appeal of the Almighty.
I stood back dazed. Words do not do justice to the thoughts and emotions that followed my prayers. Time itself ceased to matter, and I knew deep within my heart that in the end it is only God that exists forever. God is the Ultimate Truth!
Our prayers reveal to us our own eternal souls, which bear the divine imprint of our eternal God. It is a deep mystery that we must learn to live well in this troubled life for our precious souls were created to live in peace and love forever. It is impossible to express adequately, it seems impossible to live up to, but it is equally impossible to ignore.
As I stood there shocked by this great love that I could never ever deserve in this life nor earn for myself, I was approached by two young Jewish men wearing traditional skullcaps, one of whom asked me where I was from. Where indeed was I from? I could only think that we all come from God but noticing their seemingly casual expressions, I chose geography over theology and responded ‘Ireland’ with a hesitant pride.
The two men smiled and inquired whether I was on a pilgrimage. I nodded with the words ‘I am a pilgrim’. The two men nodded at each other and bid me welcome. One of them gave me his mobile phone and asked me to take a photograph of them. I took the phone and lifted it before my face to take a photograph. The two men placed their arms over each other’s shoulders and stepped back towards the Western Wall until I held up my other hand. I took the photograph and handed the phone back to them. They smiled and bid me farewell with the words ‘May God go with you’.
I could tell you that this was just another random encounter between strangers, the type of encounter that happens every day and that we largely ignore because we’re too busy to care or even to notice. But this would be a lie.
Standing before the remnants of the second great temple to God, this ancient temple where Jesus worshipped, this small interaction possessed the weight of providence. Noticing these small everyday interactions and the countless other interactions with our friends, neighbours and fellow pilgrims through life takes nothing away from our busy schedules but it gives us everything. It is nothing less than a magnificent window onto the greatness of God, who is the Ultimate Truth.
When we open our hearts to God through our prayers, through our sacred traditions and through our interactions with the world around us, we nourish our very souls. We are all called to be people of God'.