Many miles to the North West on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea lies the port city of Haifa overlooked by Mount Carmel. Mary, our local guide from Jerusalem informed us that Haifa was her favourite city because everyone got on well together regardless of their religious affiliation. With this hopeful nugget of wisdom swirling in our minds, we ascended the slopes of Mount Carmel to arrive at the monastic home of the Carmelites, a Catholic religious order dating back to the 12th Century.
The monastery contains a crypt, which is believed to have been the cave of the prophet Elijah. In Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, Elijah is a central prophet whose name literally means ‘My God is Yahweh’. Elijah lived during the reign of Ahab, the seventh King of Israel who reigned for 20 years over a century after the reign of King David. King Ahab was known as a wicked king who promoted idolatry under the influence of his wife Jezebel and who referred to the devout Elijah as the scourge of Israel. Elijah fearlessly faced down 450 priests of the false god Baal and demonstrated the one true God’s power to the people of Israel. ‘When all the people saw this, they fell on their faces. ‘The Lord is God,’ they cried ‘The Lord is God’ (1 Kings 18:39).
As a modern Christian pilgrim, I could not help but marvel at the fierce bravery of Elijah who was zealous in his loyalty to God despite the populist false beliefs of the people that surrounded him on every side. Against the very powerful people that he faced, Elijah remained true to God. It is this one true God that Jews, Christians and Moslems still believe in and struggle to remain faithful to even to this day. This is a valuable lesson for the modern pilgrim who must surely be surrounded by many false gods in today’s fast-paced world, which seems to favour proud progressiveness at the expense of humble loyalty and trumpet the cause of fierce individualism to the detriment of traditional community.
As a science educator, I was also fascinated to learn that the philosopher and famous 6th century BC mathematician Pythagoras whose discoveries about the geometric relationships of the sides of right-angled triangles, which even today are taught to countless school children, often travelled to the Holy Land for periods of contemplation in the sacred place of Mount Carmel. It was also deeply touching to learn that Elijah’s cave, the dwelling place of such a loyal prophet and ardent defender of God’s might is also believed to have been a refuge for the Holy Family during their return to the Holy Land from Egypt where they had been led by an angel to avoid persecution by Herod. Very often, we are all in need of a refuge and God provides a much-needed refuge for the weary pilgrim through his prophets, saints and sacred sites.
According to Carmelite tradition, the first monastery was founded in the 12th Century over Elijah’s cave and was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title ‘Star of the Sea’. One of the oldest scapulars is associated with Mount Carmel and the Carmelite order. In monastic circles, the scapular is often referred to as the ‘yoke of Christ’ or ‘shield’. A devotional scapular, which is worn over the shoulders reminds us of our commitment to a Christian life and provides us with a shield against the fear of death. It is no great weight to wear a scapular or other Godly symbol to remind ourselves of our great need for God and our dedication to Godliness.
Even today, Godliness matters. On our journey in the Holy Land, we also travelled across the Golan Heights, struck silent at the breath-taking beauty of the northern mountains while searching for the road to Damascus. It was on the road to Damascus that St. Paul, then known as Saul first came to know the love of Jesus Christ almost two millennia ago. Like St. Paul, we only get to know Christ after his crucifixion. Like St. Paul, we are blinded by the light of God. Like St. Paul, our experiences of God are both miraculous and revelatory.
As we searched for the road to Damascus, I experienced something of a Damascene conversion. Looking out of the window of the bus after a long day, a rift appeared in the heavy clouds which was filled with a glorious evening sunlight that threw out strong rays of golden light towards us.
As I look at the photograph now, I can’t help thinking that it might just be a beautiful photograph that captured nothing but a trick of nature but given the context of our journey, the photograph still communicates to me the possibility of the impossible. This photograph even now speaks to me of a religious experience that carries great meaning for me. While we searched in vain for the road to Damascus, the light from the heavens above spoke silently to me of Godliness.
At that special moment, I knew that I did not need to find the road to Damascus that the arrogant Saul had travelled along with the persecution of Christians in his heart for after his dramatic conversion to Christianity, St. Paul himself reminded us that God helps us to discover the Godliness within our own hearts. This is the essence of the Christian life.
God’s grace ‘teaches us that what we have to do is to give up everything that does not lead to God, and all our worldly ambitions; we must be self-restrained and live good and religious lives here in this present world’ (Titus 2:11). God’s grace is freely available to us even today and makes our salvation possible. As pilgrims, we humbly open ourselves up to the light of truth despite the darkness that surrounds us. We are helped on our journey by God who helps us to read the signs writ large throughout creation.
As I think about the signs of our relationship with God, which are evident everywhere in the Holy Land, I find myself thinking of our lives upon our return to Ireland. We share our faith through the stories and testimonies that we tell each other. Words are important! As Christians, we learn that creation began with the spoken word: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. … God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.’ (Genesis 1:1). God spoke the world into existence, a spoken word made material through his power and omniscience, whose creative acts are evident to us even today in the stars, the moon, the sun and the in the incredible flourishing of life on our planet.
Our eternal souls carry the creative imprint of God. Wherever we are, we can know God. We can come to better know God by exploring the divine treasures that transcend our understanding through God’s revelation. Just like the prophet Elijah and the evangelist St. Paul, we too can know the truth. Living amidst the glory of creation that surrounds us every day, we can more deeply explore scripture, our sacred traditions and the faithful words of our Church community. God’s eternal word is expressed in human language that we can ‘take on’ just as Jesus Christ, the Word of God, willingly ‘took on’ for all eternity the fragility of human nature. In this way, God’s living word actively fills our hearts and ignites our souls with the undying flame of the truth.