WESTERN DIOCESE PILGRIMS ON A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY TO THE HOLY LAND
Western American Diocese - With the blessing of His Grace Bishop Maxim, a group of 17 pilgrims [G17 plus] from the Western American Diocese embarked on a spiritual journey to the Holy Land starting July 10, 2008.
- DAY ONE
Their spirtual odessy began with a visit to the Church of the Navitiy of our Lord Jesus Christ in Bethelhem, which is the oldest Christian church in existance today. The original church was built by Czar Constantine in 329 AD and today's structure was buildt by Roman Emperor Justinian in 527AD. Father Blasko said prayers in front of the birth place of Christ and all pilgrims were annointed and blessed by Holy Oil during this ceremony. They also were able to see the manger where Jesus was laid down in swaddling clothes.
Next the Shepard's Field was visited, where the Angels announced the birth of Christ to the men attending to their flocks. Their spiritual journey continued to St. Sava of Jerusalem Monastery, where all the men from the group venerated St. Sava's Holy Relics. Once upon a time this monestary had 5,000 hermits and ascetics living in caves within this compound. Today 15 monks remain living in this monestary, among them Father Gregory from Hilander Serbian Monestary from Mt. Athos. The day concluded with a visit to St. Theodosius Greek Monastary, one of the founders of monastic life. The pilgrims were blessed and venerated the tombs of the mothers of St. Sava of Jerusalem, Sts. Cosmas and Damenianos, the Healers, and other mothers of known Orthodox Saints. Prayers were offered in all these places for all the faithful in our Diocese and especially for those in need and those suffering in Kosovo. The spiritual journey will continue through the Holy Land.
- DAY TWO
Filled with the Spirit of the visit of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem and other holy sites, the pilgrims began the second day by visiting the Last Supper room where the first holy eucharist was performed by our Lord Jesus Christ and His Disciples. We felt the significance of this most
important sacrament of the Holy Eucharist established by our Lord for our salvation. Even though the room is not used today for services, we offered the prayers for unceasing participation in the Holy Sacrament established here. From this holy place we were taken to the tomb of King David who set the example for unceasingly praising the Lord with Psalms and expressing repentance throughout our life.
After the visit to David's tomb, the group retraced the steps that our Lord Jesus Christ walked on the way to the dungeon where our Lord was held before His trial. Intense emotions were felt as we venerated the shadow of our praying Lord that still remains on the dungeon walls. It is not by coincidence that the dungeon is next to both the residence of the high priest Caiaphas and the place of St. Peter's denial of our Lord. All of this was foretold by the Old Testament prophets which led the group to visit the birthplace of the forerunner of Christ, St. John the Baptist. Witnessing his birthplace in the cave parallels our experience of seeing the Bethlehem cave where Jesus was born.
The meeting place of the mothers of both St. John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ was our next location of interest, which is currently a Russian Orthodox monastery.
The day concluded with a visit to the church dedicated to St. Elijah the prophet, followed by group confessions in preparation for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.
- DAY THREE
Leaving our hotel not quite in sync with the ringing of the morning bells at the nearby Church of the Nativity and missing early morning traffic because of the Jewish Sabbath, the group had all in their favor to arrive in Jaffa on time for a holy day that would turn out to be very special for all the pilgrims.
Father Blasko participated in the Holy Liturgy and all the pilgrims took the Holy communion at the Russian Orthodox Monastery of St. Peter on the Feast day of Saint Peter and Paul!
We later shared with many other fellow pilgrims fresh bread, cheese, fruit, cookies, and mint tea spread outside like a picnic on a sunny, but hot summer day.
Before leaving, we were blessed to be able to visit the revered site believed to be where St. Tabitha was resurrected through the Saint Apostle Peter.
On we went to Lyda, where St. Peter healed Ananais. St. George had lived here, and his holy relics were placed at the beautiful Greek Orthodox monastery. Upon veneration of his holy relics and the tomb, the fragrance of unforgettable holy myrhh drew us to spend more time within the small underground room.
Next, we drove the fertile Sharon Valley, where "Arabs of 1948" still live as generations of their families had done before them.
Then from the highrises of Tel Aviv to old Jaffa for a taste of some authentic native cuisine -- delicious falafels.
In store was a short rest along the cool Mediterranean with a view of Tel Aviv across the water which delighted the shutterbugs.
At the next stop in Caesaria, we saw part of the well-preserved ten-mile aqueduct built by King Herod.
The day's final destination was the city of Nazareth where we visited the site and the church of the Annunciation. We all drank water from the spring underneath the church where Saint Archangel Gabriel announced to Saint Mary that she was chosen to be the mother of Saviour, Jesus Christ. It was a moving experience to spend the night in the place where our Lord Jesus Christ spent His childhood.
- DAY FOUR
We were wondering how it was possible for each day to be better than the previous day. Perhaps the beginning of our experience is in the head but soon travels to the heart.
God has blessed the group with Youri Romashouk, a native of Jerusalem and one of Fr. Blasko's parishioners, as our guide.
This morning on Sunday, Father Blasko was blessed to serve with Father Miroslav, a Russian Orthodox priest, at Mt. Carmel at the church of St. Elijah, where St. Elijah lived for some time.
On the way to Mt. Carmel, the group made a visit to the location of the house of St. Joseph, St. Mary and baby Jesus in Nazareth.
As usual, while traveling to noted places of biblical importance, we heard stories from both the Old and New Testament. Our bus passed through a Bedouin village and began to ascend to Mt. Tabor. Mini buses were secured to reach the peak and the Greek Orthodox monastery and Church of the Transfiguration. Upon entering the church, we began singing the troparion prayers. Knowing we were at the place where our Lord was transfigured made a strong spiritual impact, further strengthened by veneration of the wonder-working icon of the Mother of God.
Among the miracles at this monastery every year on the feast of the Holy Transfiguration a cloud comes down from Heaven to the level of humankind so people can touch it.
After the transfiguring experience at this holy place, we proceeded to the Jordan river. It was late afternoon so we were virtually alone, except for one Ukranian woman busy keeping her head above water praying for an Orthodox priest to arrive and bless the water. After the blessing of the water, the pilgims immersed themselves in the River Jordan, where our Lord was baptized.
- DAY FIVE
Monday morning began with a visit inside the church at Cana of Galilee, where our Lord and His mother were guests at Simon's wedding. The well known story of His first miracle of turning water into wine for the wedding guests took place there.
Inside the church are two of the original water jars used at this wedding in Cana. Around the jars we noted papers with the names of couples seeking prayers for their family marriage life.
After saying our prayers at this holy place, we proceeded to the monastery and the village of St. Mary Magdalene in Magdalen where we spent the rest of the day on the Sea of Galilee, where our Lord Jesus Christ called His first disciples, walked on water, and miraculous fishing took place.
After hearing how much Jews are charging for the boat ride at this sea, we were not suprised that our Lord Jesus Christ walked on water.
- DAY SIX
Today we physically walked where our Lord Jesus walked. While traveling through the valley to the Mount from which He gave us His most important sermon about the Beatitudes, we once again considered the Beatitudes, the new covenant, and exhortations to true righteousness. This was the "Valley of Seven Springs" when He was there, though only one now remains. It was interesting to observe the topography along the Sea of Galilee and later on the golden hills of Jericho.The church on the Mount is in an octagonal shape to represent the eight Beautitudes.
The church built where Jesus fed the 5,000, the Table of the Lord, is German Benedictine and built along Byzantine lines.
At the foot of this mountain by the Sea of Galilee, we visited a beautiful Greek monastery dedicated to the Holy Apostles who come from this region.
Next came Capernaum, a large town of 30,000 when Jesus was living there. The excavations are most interesting, including first and fourth century synagogues; the black basalt under the white limestone indicates the temple to which Jesus went. The darkened skeletons of large communal houses is across from the home of St. Peter's mother-in-law. Many miracles occured in this place.
On the West Bank, we were kindly welcomed by the monks of the Greek Monastery of St. Gerasimos, dating from 450 with some of the original mosaic designs still remaining in the floor. Stepping down into St. Jerome's cave, we felt some relief from the over 40 degrees celsius heat.
Another very thrilling day for all!
- DAY SEVEN
Our days always begin with prayers, Bible readings, and lives of the Saints of the day, followed by comments on the days readings. As we set out this morning for the wilderness where the Devil tempted Christ, we were prepared for new experiences in the land of the Lord, experiences that would help us feel nearer to Him. We already knew to expect goosebumps and feel ever more humbled. Sights of the Judean Desert, Bedouins, and camels and continuous historical and Biblical accounts from our guide accompanied us on the ride.
In our travels through Jericho, we first stopped at the Greek Orthodox Church of Zaccheas and saw the oldest sycamore tree in the world, which was planted almost 1,600 years ago in commemoration of his meeting with Jesus. Inside we received explanations of some of the icons there that related to the story.
Approaching the Mount of Temptation Monastery, we saw the caves in the side of the mountains, where the monks used to fast for forty days before entering the Monastery. Inside a room, we were most blessed to see, touch, feel, kiss, pray by the rock that tradition holds Jesus may have sat upon and fasted for forty days in this wilderness.
An arduous path led us up to St. George Monastery, originally the Church of St. Mary, within which lie the relics of St. John of Romania. It was so special and pleasurable to be able to talk with three monks there, one Serbian, one Greek, and an American from San Francisco, who had converted to Orthodoxy at the Russian Church in the city. They served us cool beverages and warmed our hearts as they stood waving good-bye from a terrace almost all the way down the mountain.
The day ended with a dip in the Dead Sea. Floating no matter what we did in the water and everybody slapping the black mineral-laden mud on his skin, we thought we were all healthier and beautiful. It was fun, and we were all relaxed. Another day was conquered, and the Pilgrims were far from divided!
- DAYS EIGHT AND NINE
The pilgrimage itinerary's farthest point was a visit to Mt Sinai and St. Catherine's monastery, dating to 5th century, which are both in Egypt. The group drove 7 hours to the border of Egypt, passing Qumran Caves, Masada, where ~1000 Jewish people took their lives rather than submit to Roman rulers, and stone sculpture of Lot's Wife. Once at the Taba Border, we had to go through security and obtain a separate bus in Egypt, and were charged an exit fee to pass through to the Egyptian side of the Taba border. The fee is only in special cases where people want to cross the land border on the Taba side of Israel, as a condition between these two countries that were previously at war but now have a peaceful cooexistance to share this border.We were welcomed by our guides, Marko and Isaac, and our security officer, who was dedicated to our group for the entire time spent in Egypt. On the way to Mt. Sinai we enjoyed beatiful scenery of both the Red Sea and the desert.
We stopped by the Meryland hotel next to St. Catherine's to rest and had dinner before our midnight Divine liturgy at St. Catherine's small side church, which Fr. Blasko got special permission to hold. The liturgy was beautiful and intimate in this small church, only lit by candles in the moonlit night. The tour guide later told our group that this was the most special memory of his experience with our group, listening to us sing our responses and take communion before dissembarking on our special journey up Mt. Sinai. Some people from the group chose to walk the entire path up the moutain whereas other adventourous souls took their chances on the Bedouin's camels, who knew the route by heart, even in the darkness. The trip took appx. 4 hours by foot or appx. 2.5 hours by camel and everyone must go on foot for the last 750 steps to the top of Mt. Sinai, which was very strenuous, as the slope is very steep and slippery, in addition to being dark. Many people used flashlights along the path to keep their footing; however, God's moonlight lit the way for our group, allowing us to glimpse at the amazing valleys below us.
Once at the top we found that we were not alone; many groups of people from all over the world, representing different Faiths were there gathered on rocks as a homage to Moses receiving the Ten Commandments upon this very spot. Once the sun rose, the view of the valley below was spectacular, and you did really feel yourself closer to heaven and God at this great height, as if you were looking down at the entire world below you.We stopped to say a prayer in front of the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox church, which is associated with St. Catherine's monastery. The descent down the mountain was no less challenging than on the way up. Many in our group that walked decided to take a camel back down, only to realize that riding a camel down the mountain is much more uncomfortable than the ride up. The great physical effort we made reminded us of the spiritual efforts we need to make to fullfill God's Commandments.
Upon returning to St. Catherine's monastery, located at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we were blessed to venerate the Holy Relics of St. Catherine; see the burning bush; Moses' well, where he met his wife; and the holy icons in the museum dating from the 4th and 5th Centuries, which are the oldest icons in the world, surviving the Iconoclasm.
After all this climbing, our tired and dusty group went for a refreshing swim in the Red Sea on the way back to the Taba border. We all were exhausted by the physical strain of our journey but our hearts and souls were alive with the memories of our once in a lifetime experience.
- DAY TEN
As our time in the Holy Land draws near, we have had an exceptional day today. The pilgrims had an audience with His Holiness Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem. On behalf of His Grace Bishop Maxim and the pilgrims, Father Blasko expressed gratitude to His Holiness for this blessed opportunity to meet with him and receive his holy blessing. Having in mind the significance of the role of the Patriarch of Jerusalem as the guardian of the Holy Sepulchre, Father Blasko asked for his prayers for all of us most especially for the suffering Serbian people in Kosovo and Metohija which will always remain the Serbian Jerusalem. As a small token of our appreciation, the newest edition of the Orthodox Study Bible with both the Old and New Testaments was given to His Holiness.
In his remarks, His Holiness Patriarch Theophilos reminded us of the significance of the holy places in the holy land emphasizing that everything that we saw and venerated is true and original and could not be denied by anyone in the world. He appealed to us to be witnesses of the authentic Orthodox Christian faith by sharing our experience with others upon our return to America. His Holiness presented Father Blasko with a gift of a pectoral cross.
Before wandering through the narrow streets of the colorful, busy Arab bazaar, we paid a preparatory visit to the Holy Sepulchre Church, where we would all come for the midnight liturgy.
Outside the main door, many were kissing a crack in one of the columns that has a story connected with the difficulty of the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Churches sharing this great holy place. At one time, in the 14th century, the Armenians locked out the Greek Orthodox Patriarch with the faithful outside the church in order to attempt to recieve the Holy Fire by themselves which comes from Heaven every year on Pascha. After hours of waiting, the Greek Patriarch and the faithful prayed outside the church, and as a result, the Holy Fire appeared and cracked one of the pillars of the entrance of the church which is still visible as a sign of this miracle.
Just outside the Holy Sepulchre church, we visited the three old chapels of St. Jacob, the Forty Martyrs, and the Myrrhbearers.
- DAY ELEVEN
Having rested in the morning, we continued our pilgrimage by going to Hebron, Palestine, where the most clear old testament revelation of the Holy Trinity appeared here to Abraham as three angels in one voice. The ancient oak still marks the place.
Up the road we visited a spiritual treasure: a Russian Orthodox church and monastery, dedicated to forefather Abraham and Sarah. The plainer, blue and brownish-gold arched walls stretched far back to the altar, but we were struck more by powerful feelings than by its beauty. The shroud in which St. Mary was wrapped is encased there, and we were able to venerate her wonder-working icon. Then Father led us in prayer and was joined by the monk, who'd helped us enter the grounds.
After more shopping and watching the glass blowers and potters at a nearby factory, we revisited the Church of the Nativity in order to pray for the children killed by Herod. There is a small chapel to remember and pray for them underneath the main floor of the church, and it is possible to see their poor bones strewn about through barred windows in the stone wall below the altar. We walked back to our hotel through the Arab Quarter for an evening rest.
- DAY TWELVE
Come on, it's so hot, where is so-and-so, look at that, don't slip, watch the crowd, and other such comments follow us on our daily excursions, but the reward is always bigger than you could imagine.
Today we began with our guide, Samir, at the Mount of Olives from which our Lord began his triumphant ride into Jerusalem. There is a magnificent view of the city from here, white buildings and the golden domes, specifically the Golden Dome, where the original temple stood and is now covered by a mosque.
Another beautiful golden dome on the mount of olives was the Russian Orthodox Convent of Mary Magdalene. The tomb of St. Elizabeth, their benefactor, rests inside. The luxuriant garden of the church is how you might visualize the Garden of Gethsemane, located below this monastery. In the Garden of Gethsemane, which was our next stop, grow only olive trees, now fenced in because of the myriad of visitors to the Garden and the Roman Catholic Church beside it. Some of the trees are probably 3,000 years old, and this is known to be just where Christ prayed to His heavenly Father before He endured His passion before the crucifiction. The Catholic All Nations Church or Agony Church holds a small piece of the rock upon which Christ had been praying. Next, we saw the empty tomb of St. Mary, the Mother of God, at the Greek Orthodox Church and were made to understand it is the correct place of her assumption. Viewing below us, we could see an unusually shaped dome representing the tears He'd shed.
Along this way, we stopped to venerate the footprint of our Lord upon His Ascension.
We also went to Bethany to visit the tomb where Lazarus lay until Christ raised him from the dead. The Greek Orthodox Church of Martha and Mary stands on the place where Mary ran to Jesus to tell Him her brother had died. This is the place where He said, "I am the life and the resurrection." After a delicious lunch in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, we relaxed and shopped and wandered into more areas of the large bazaar.
- DAY THIRTEEN
Our last day before preparing to return home was spent in Jerusalem, going in the morning to the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus had healed the blind man. On the way to Siloam, we enjoyed the beautiful view of the Kidron Valley! Before, it had been hard to realize how actually close together places are.
Our guide provided us with more historical information to explain such churches as Our Father, where Jesus Christ taught His disciples the Lord's Prayer, which is written in many languages on the walls outside, including those of Biblical times, as well as Serbian. Inside was the tomb of Princess Aurelie Marie de Bossi, who'd bought back the originally Byzantine church from the Muslims and restored it.
Next was the Wailing Wall, which is partitioned so that men are on one side and women on the other. There were many Jews praying at their holiest place.
Later in the day along the "Via Dolorosa" - "The way of grief.", we passed the church of St. Stephen the first martyr and we made a stop at the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God, the place where she was born, and offered our prayers to her.
Another holy place we visited was the site where Jesus Christ healed the paralytic, the pool of Bethesda.
Following that, we walked Christs' painful route on the way to Golgotha before crucifiction. The walk began from St. Stephen the Martyr's Gate and concluded at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There are fourteen stations, specifically marking the locations of His condemnation, humiliation, flagellation, and agony, which He endured for our salvation. Within the church of the Holy Sepulchre, we again venerated those places connected with His crucifiction and death and, also, saw the tomb in which Joseph of Aramethia had been buried in because he'd given his new one for Jesus Christ, fulfilling Scripture.
Not a real good-bye because we're carrying all our transfiguring memories and experiences home in our hearts.
- DAY FOURTEEN
Our special thanks go to His Grace, Bishop Maxim for his blessings for this pilgrimage, and also His Holiness, Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem for his blessings in the holy land. Last, but not least, we are thankful to Yuri Romashouk, a native of Jerusalem and member of the church of the Most Holy Theotokos in Orange County, and all the other people who helped us to successfully accomplish this holy journey.