The Spirituality of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Chapter 5 Chapter 3 Contents List

          The Cenacle, or Upper Room, is, for us Christians, the second holiest place on earth after the Holy Sepulchre. Here the first Eucharist was celebrated. Here was the meeting place of the first church – Mary, the Apostles, and the first followers of Jesus. Here Jesus appeared to his Apostles after his Resurrection. Here the Holy Spirit descended upon the infant church. Here the Apostles and disciples continued to gather for their meetings (the Council of Jerusalem, for example) and fellowship. From this room the Good News spread to the known ends of the world. Surely one of the holiest places on earth.

          I knew very little about the Cenacle, so I matter-of-factly expected to find a shrine of some kind, decorations, vigil lights, icons and perhaps paintings of the Last Supper – in short, I expected to see many symbols of the astounding events I have just described.

          There was nothing, absolutely nothing! I went in and out of the actual Cenacle several times, thinking that I must have the wrong place. (It’s happened before.)

          When I finally discovered I was indeed in the Cenacle, a flood of powerful mixed emotions overcame me – which is rare for me. I was confused, hurt, angry, bewildered, sad, shocked – all at the same time. There was absolutely nothing here! Not one Christian symbol, not one picture, not one vigil light. Nothing, absolutely nothing!

          I found a stone block (there are not even chairs or benches to sit on) and just sat there for two hours. Now I was guilty of saying what that young man said in this Cave of Bethlehem: “Is this it!” Here of all places one really needed to exercise pure faith. On one of the upper portions of a column there is a mother pelican feeding her starving offspring with her blood. This was a cherished Eucharistic symbol from Crusader times. This is the only Christian symbol in the room. The only others are Muslim, left over from the time when this room had been used for centuries as a mosque. Everything else is bare, and not even clean at that. If I had had the gift of tears, I would have wept then. Who is responsible for this? Why this barrenness and utter neglect? Why, why, Lord, in such a holy place?

          I was to return here several times, but I must admit that on this first occasion I was unable to really pray or enter into the Presence. The shock was too profound. If I prayed at all I prayed against the attitudes and forces that had conspired to keep this place in such a state. I prayed that the walls of prejudice would come down forever. I sat there in sadness because Christ is still not accepted, still not believed in, by his own people.

          For I was on Mount Zion. Down below was David’s tomb. Adjacent to the Cenacle, in the same complex of buildings actually, was a yeshiva, a school for the study of Torah. The Christians did not own this building, and thus had no say over the up-keep of the Cenacle. The drabness of the Cenacle was a dramatic symbol for me of the rejection of Christ. He was not welcome here. “He came unto his own and his own did not know who he was.”

          I’m not thinking only of the Jewish people: most of the world still does not know that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world. This is the greatest tragedy of the world. All others flow from the failure to believe in this Man. He is not just one of the great men of the world, on some kind sliding scale of greatness. There is no comparison between Christ, the Son of God, and all others.

          Despite the emotions I mentioned, I did, on this first visit, manage to be grateful for the immense gift of the Eucharist, and for my priesthood. Here also the tours are rushing in and out. One wonders why they come.

          I left, and walked to the sacred Wailing Wall of the Jewish people that is not far from the Cenacle. Mary, a young Christian friend of mine who was beginning to appreciate the Jewish rots of the Gospel, had asked me to put a prayer in the Wall for her as is the custom. You write a prayer on a piece of paper and insert it into one of the cracks.

          It is very inspiring to see the reverence with which people approach and pray at this Wall. I know this is going against much of modern ecumenical thinking, but I prayed at that Wall for the conversion of the Jewish people to Christ. Isn’t this the will of Christ for his own people? The Father wants all his children to listen to his son.

          On only two occasions in the New Testament do we hear the Father speak, at the Baptism and Transfiguration of Christ. On both occasions the Father says the same thing: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” This is the cure for every evil in the world. What else is there to pray for?

          I prayed for all the Jewish people I know who had been converted to Christ, and thus entered into the fullness of their biblical promises. I prayed for Miriam and Robert and Francois. I prayed for a young Jewish man I had met early in my life who had described to me how, after, becoming a Christian, he had to step over his mother’s body to get out of his ancestral home. From that moment on he was considered as dead by his family. I asked pardon of God for all the sins of Christians against the Jews. Forgiveness is the only answer. Without it, we are all in a “no exit" situation.

          The Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition of our Lady is also on Mount Zion. Downstairs is a beautiful shrine to her “falling asleep.” I prayed for a happy death for myself and all my loved ones. I was glad to see a mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe there. She is not as well known outside of Mexico and the South Western United States, as she should be.

          The next day, my first Sunday in the Holy Land, I thought I would try to visit three places where the Resurrection occurred. I was successful. I walked first to the Holy Sepulchre (I always had trouble finding it). The Coptic liturgy was being celebrated. I prayed with them for fifteen minutes or so, never having prayed with Coptic brothers and sisters before. Perhaps 30 or 40 people were present. Only the men and the priests were singing, and very loudly.  I wondered if all the others knew what was being said and sung.

          Then I attended several hours of the splendid Greek Orthodox Liturgy. Again, not many people were present: two scholas of boys led by a cantor were doing all the singing. . (Among the Orthodox, why do we not hear the blending of men and women voices? It’s more of the Gospel.) The Patriarch was there because in a few days a special celebration of his feast day was planned. I didn’t go to Communion, but did go up and receive the antidoron. This is blessed bread given out at the end of the service. Then I made my way to the Cenacle again.

          Ever since my first painful visit to the Cenacle, and, since I had learned from a priest in the Abbey that no Christian services were allowed in the Cenacle, a desire grew in me to celebrate the Eucharist there. Here of all places, where the Eucharist was first given to us, where the early Christians gathered for the Holy Meal, here of all places the Eucharist should radiate again. After my first visit I had conceived the desire to secretly celebrate the Eucharist. A couple of days ago I had purchased a small silver cup. I had with me a little wine, and a host from the Ecce Homo chapel.

          I don’t suppose any Jewish people will ever read this book. But even if they did, I don’t in any way feel guilty or apologetic for clandestinely celebrating a Eucharist here. The place should be open to Christians.

          I sat a few steps up on the interior staircase (which I don’t think really goes anywhere). I simply took out the bread and wine, prayed some of the prayers of the liturgy, and began the Canon of the Mass. I so wanted the words of Christ to echo again in this holy place. So, once again, I pronounced the sacred words, “This is My Body, which is given up for you…this is the cup of My Blood.” It was the most profound Mass I ever celebrated.

          I spent an hour and half in this way. My thoughts also turned to the Church in persecuted countries; to similar Eucharists taking place at this very moment clandestinely in prison camps, basements, and tightly guarded regions of all kinds. I united with my brothers and sisters who do not have the freedom to celebrate the Eucharist openly in the light of day. But why, oh why, is that the situation in this holy place?

          A friend of mine, Lorne, had given me a reference on Mt. Sion, the name of a Jewish teacher at one of the Yeshivas. I thought, while I was here, I would try and look him up.

          I approached a building in order to make an inquiry. Two Jewish men were sitting outside. One saw my icon and said, “Don’t come in here with that thing on! Hide it or take it off!”

          Well, I was prepared to do neither, so I just smiled, said “God bless you,” and started to walk away. Just a few moments later another man who had witnessed this rather ungracious encounter came up to me and said, “Can I help you?” I told him the name of the man I was looking for. He said, “Follow me.”

          What a painful encounter – or non-encounter – with that first gentleman. What or who was he reacting to? He wasn’t relating to me, mild-mannered Fr. Bob. He doesn’t even know me. Was he relating to my Jesus? He obviously doesn’t know him either: Jesus is the most wonderful Person who ever lived. Then to what was he relating? History? Bad experiences? Christian injustices? What an unreal encounter that was!

          As I was now following this other man I thought to myself: We must meet real people, person to person, not types or constructs in our minds. It’s the only way out of our prejudices and the sins of our ancestors.

          In the space of those two minutes I encountered a rather hostile Jewish person and a wonderfully friendly one. Real people break down prejudices. In every class or group there are all kinds of people. I met Israeli soldiers who would hardly look at me; I met others who spontaneously stopped and offered me rides; or helped me make long-distance phone calls.

          I met Orthodox priests who were quite cold and distant. I met an Orthodox priest who spent twenty minutes with me in pleasant conversation. If only we could always deal with real people and not with abstract concepts. I was sad that that young man at the entrance a few minutes ago did not meet me as a person. Lord have mercy on me for all the times I’ve done that; and especially for all the times my ancestors have done that to the Jews.

          A few minutes later I was introduced to the man I was looking for. I thanked my guide with especially gratitude. I then spent fifteen minutes chatting pleasantly with this man who turned out to be a teacher at the Yeshiva. He was very open, kind and warm.

          The conversation turned to the tours, and how people rush by the holy places. He said the Jews do the same thing. This used to bother him but then he thought that when the tourists went back to their rooms at night, and to their homes eventually, they did reflect upon their experiences, and profit from them. I said I hope so. We shook hands and parted.

          This was my only real encounter with a Jewish teacher of any kind. I was glad I had looked him up. Glad too, in another way: my first painful impression was soon erased by a positive one. The first was a small taste of the pain of Jewish-Christian relations; the second was a taste of the power of the Spirit to overcome the hurt of centuries. All this happened on Mt. Zion. “Come, let us climb the mountain of the Lord,” – together.


          My third Resurrection Station that day was Emmaus. (There is a new devotion out called Stations of the Resurrection. They could be on the back of the Stations of the Cross plaques in our churches, and just turned around after Easter. The Resurrection still does not have the prominence it should have in our devotional life.) Ideally, of course, I thought of walking, like the disciples. But the day was moving on, and I had no idea of how to get there. So I took a taxi. When I arrived, the gate was closed; but I rang the bell anyway. A gracious Franciscan friar (who turned out to be from Montreal!) opened the gate when he learned who I was and where I was from. Since it was the off time, the grounds were very peaceful and quiet. I asked if I could celebrate Mass, and he said I could.

          There are several altars in the basilica. I must have read something from a brochure (I don’t remember), but as I entered the church my eye turned immediately to the altar on the north side. Sure enough, this was the altar of St. Cleophas, built on the foundations of a house “evidently which existed before the Crusaders’ church was built, and seems to be about 2,000 years old.” This was the altar I chose for Mass.

          I was all alone in the church; it was Sunday afternoon. Was it about the same time the Lord had his meal with the disciples? Now, I was eating this Eucharistic meal with Jesus who so graciously met and walked with his friends, and ate that beautiful meal with them. One of the graces of this visit was becoming better acquainted with these friends, or rather relatives, of Jesus.

          Many biblical scholars assert the following: 1) that Cleophas was the brother of St. Joseph, as well as Mary’s cousin; hence he was Jesus’ uncle and Mary’s brother-in-law; 2) that Mary of Cleophas at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25) was this man’s wife; 3) that they had four illustrious sons: James the Less (Matt 4:21), the first bishop of Jerusalem; Joseph called Barsabbas (Acts 1:23), a candidate with Matthias to replace Judas; Judas Thaddeus (Acts 1:13) one of the Twelve Apostles; Simeon, one of the seventy-two disciples, who was the second bishop of Jerusalem. Also, most ancient historians consider Salome as the eldest daughter of Cleophas. More questionable is the opinion that another Mary in the Gospel was also a daughter of Cleophas. The remark in the brochure –I did read a little bit from them – is worth quoting: “It certainly is a comforting surprise to know that St.Cleophas, disciple and relative of Christ, was at the head of a family of faithful followers of the Lord. Thus we may say that, after the Holy Family of Nazareth, the Family of Cleophas of Emmaus, should be considered a model for Christian family life.

          Walking around the lovely grounds that afternoon I had the impression that I was in a home atmosphere where Jesus must have often come to relax and be refreshed by people who loved him and understood him – to some extent, anyway. (Who could really understand him?) I was to receive a similar gift of companionship.)

          I was coming out of the front door of the chapel when the Franciscan superior came walking towards me. As he approached I said to myself, “I think I know that guy.” He was the first to come forth with the name: “Bob Wild!” His name did not come to me as quickly. Turns out we had been together in the Franciscan seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., twenty-nine years ago. As I said, this was a special gift from the Lord, to meet a friend of my own at this house of the friends of Jesus.

          It was a joyful reunion. Father Raphael Bonano (who afterwards was instrumental in getting this book published), gave me the grand tour, and then invited me for supper with the friars.

          The word I receive at Emmaus was “holy conversation.” This word flowed from the delightful conversations I had with Fr.Raphael. I’m sure it also flowed from my meditations on the Gospel story of Emmaus. Along the road, their sadness was turned into joy by the presence and holy conversation of Jesus, who consoled them and explained the scriptures to them. And then, what a joy to sit down with him at table and listen to his gracious speech. (Pope John Paul II says we should use this episode as a sort of “interpretative icon” of the church today: often weighed down with sadness but always accompanied by the risen Lord.)

          My prayer was that the risen Christ would always anoint my speech, that my words would console and bring hope to people, and break for them, in a life-giving way, the bread of the scriptures.

          My second grace was that I was somehow becoming a part of Cleophas’ family. They became my new brothers and sisters, these apostles, disciples, bishops and martyrs, and holy women who were friends of Mary. Imagine all of them together in this house, sitting around a table and discussing the events of this Man, their relative. I acquired some new friends that day; and a greater sense of Jesus’ humanity; he had aunts and uncles and cousins, just like us.

Mass at the Holy Sepulchre

          The next day, Monday, proved to be the high-point of my pilgrimage. I was scheduled to celebrate Mass in the Holy Sepulchre Church at 5:30 A.M. I chose that early hour for at least one obvious reason: Jesus rose in the early morning. But also very few people –especially tours – are around that early. Hopefully, it would be quiet and peaceful.

          In preparation I knelt before the Crucifix on Mt. Calvary – but not for long. I was thinking ahead about my Mass when I suddenly discovered that I had forgotten my little ticket (cartula) stating my time and day. You can’t celebrate without it. Even though I was on Mt. Calvary, I panicked. I practically ran down the stairs to find the Franciscan Father in charge. I suppose I could have run back to Ecce Homo to get my ticket, but did I have time? Oh, no! Don’t tell me I’m going to miss celebrating Mass here at the center of Christianity, the center of the universe!

          I found the priest in charge. Trying to remain calm, but obviously not, I said, as honestly as I could, “Father, I’m scheduled to celebrate Mass here this morning, but I forgot my ticket.” I held my breath. Would I get a hard line or a soft line? God, help me! The priest didn’t seem too upset. It seems it has happened before! He said, “No problem, as long as somebody else doesn’t come with a ticket.” Thank you, risen Lord. What a relief.

          There is a Latin chapel in the church of the Sepulchre. I had been there and seen priests celebrating Mass. I thought that’s where I would be going too. As I was vesting the priest said, rather nonchalantly, “You’re going into the Holy Sepulchre.” I said, “What?” He said, “You’re going into the Holy Sepulchre to celebrate Mass. You have a half-hour.”

          Going into the Holy Sepulchre!  I didn’t even know they did that. I hadn’t seen any Eucharist being celebrated in there since I arrived. Again, I wasn’t ready for this! My whole being started swimming around. Going into the Holy Sepulchre! Going to celebrate Mass in the tomb of Christ! Right in the tomb!

          All I could think of taking with me was the packet of intentions and a little silver chalice I had bought for Mass in the Cenacle. I also decided to place it on every altar when I celebrated Mass, as a souvenir of my Masses in the Holy Land. Two minutes later the priest was escorting me into the tomb of Christ.

          Everything had been arranged. A wooden pallet had been placed over the tomb and on it was arranged all the necessary things for Mass. The good priest reminded me once again of the time limit, and left. And there I was, standing in my priestly vestments in front of the tomb of Christ. Two Sisters from the Philippines saw me enter and came in to celebrate with me. Like the women in the garden, this completed the scene.

          I am not usually discombobulated at Mass, but for the next half-hour I was really in another world. The suddenness of it all was too much. Again, I wasn’t mentally prepared. But here I was. I think I said and did all the proper liturgical things, but I wouldn’t bet on it. All I could think of was the risen Christ, and that here, in this place, my Christ burst forth from the tomb, the first-born of the new creation. And here I was, celebrating right on his tomb the everlasting memorial of that fact.

          I went through the motions and gestures. I remember distinctly praying for my parents and family. I put my packet of intentions on the altar and lifted all those people up to the risen Christ. I pronounced the sacred words, and we ate the Sacred Food. I remember turning at least once to look at the sisters, but they were as lost in contemplation as I was.

          You’re not exactly “recollected” at a time like this. You’re in a state beyond recollection – more like holy confusion and bewilderment. All I could think of was Jesus, Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus now filling the whole universe with his risen presence. Everything was Jesus. There was nothing and no one else for that whole half-hour.  Understood a little better the words of the Evangelist describing the Mt. Tabor experience: “They saw only Jesus.” Maybe heaven will be simply an intensification of this consciousness: our minds and hearts will be inundated with Jesus, and nothing else. I believe it was one of the most sublime experiences of my whole life – certainly the holiest of my pilgrimage.

          I had walked in the tomb in a daze, been there in a daze, and I walked out in a daze. I mechanically took off my vestments and thanked the priest. Your state, after such an experience, is beyond thanksgiving. How do you say “thank you” for that! So I just went and sat in front of the open tomb, just sat there. In some real, spiritual way, I had seen the risen Christ.

          I went back up to Calvary to continue my meditation. As I arrived, a Latin High Mass began in the Sepulchre below. The ancient Latin phrases – “Gloria in Excelsis Deo…Credo in unum Deum…Agnus Dei” – were beautiful. If only we were all united – Jews, Muslims, Orthodox, Latins – we could pool all our aesthetic talents and traditions and create a harmonious liturgy that would astound even the angels. Well, almost. Each tradition has its own beauty. Surely it’s God’s plan that all the artistry and creativity in the world, purified from sin and blindness, converge to glorify his Son, his Beloved One. At present, all the colors of our creative rainbow are fragmented. What beauty there would be if they were all in a magnificent harmony!

          This was my third visit on Calvary. Already some of the consciousness of its holiness was beginning to wear off. How dull we are! How quickly we become “used to” the Holy in a bad sense. The first day we are on our knees; the next day we just hurry up the sacred stairs like in a department store. Or almost.

          Afterwards I went to a little restaurant for some breakfast. A decently dressed, English-speaking man was already sitting in one of the booths. After I sat down he came over and asked for a dime for a cup of coffee. He was obviously an alcoholic. Being still so filled with the Presence of the risen Christ, I couldn’t say anything but, “Please sit down.” We had breakfast together. He wasn’t a practicing Christian, but had been raised in the church. I tried to see Christ in him. I hope he met Christ in me.

          That afternoon I decided to spend more time on the Mt. of Olives. As I was walking there a Muslim boy approached along the Via Dolorosa, saw my icon, and said, “Who’s that?” I’m sure he knew. I said, “Jesus, God, Saviour.” He said, “For us, God up there,” pointing to the sky. I said, “For us, God up there come down here,” also making the appropriate gesture. He smiled. He knew what I meant.

          I stopped again at the tomb of our Lady. On the way out I met a young Orthodox monk who was tending the shrine. He hadn’t been there on my previous visit. He saw my icon and asked if I was Orthodox. I said no, a Roman Catholic priest; but I love the Orthodox. He smiled. Turns out he was a monk from St.Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai; also, he had spent some time on Athos. I was getting closer.

          It wasn’t exactly a conversation we had; I listened mostly. He obviously wanted to make a few points (as is the Orthodox way!) He saw my small wooden Jesus beads and said, “that’s only wood.” Then he went to describe some of the symbolism of the chotki he himself was using. He said each cloth bead was made up of nine crosses, one for each of the nine – I helped him with the next English word – choirs of angels. Then I said: “But isn’t the important thing not the kind of rosary you use but the purity of prayer one says on a rosary.” He smiled and conceded my point.

          He started talking about how loosely we are using the word “church” these days. He said for him there is only one church, the Church which goes back to the Fathers. I said I could agree with that. We stopped there.

          I told him that I was going to visit Mount Athos. He said he had been there several times. He said, “You might not come back!” I said I would because “too many people are praying that I come back, and their prayers are very powerful.” We blessed each other and parted. Nice guy.

          Again in the evening I spent several hours walking and praying on the Mount of Olives. I met a delightful Arab gentleman who invited me to come sometime and have coffee with him. He lived nearby. I said I would. I told him I was hoping to go to Bethlehem tomorrow. He said if it were not for the elections tomorrow, he would take me. I did return to his house for coffee a few days later. Another one of those gifts that come from simply walking prayerfully around holy places.

          When I returned that night to Ecce Homo, and went up on the roof to get some night air, I was greeted by a startling new symbol. There, on top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was a huge, glowing, white electric cross shining splendidly over the whole city. It was magnificent sight, and a cheer-up. I learned afterwards that it was in honor of the Greek Patriarch’s feast day. Oh, if only everyone believed in Christ, and the dominance of that splendid cross was a reality in all the cities and hearts of the earth! May it soon be so!

. . . o o o . . .

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