My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Pilgrimage on our bus called Hope - Jericho, monasteries and baptismal vows

We have had three action packed days around Jerusalem and are excited about heading for the Sea of Galilee and following in the footsteps of Jesus on his lakeside ministry. Our bus is the first to set off, and early. We have another busy day ahead.

We leave Jerusalem in a north easterly direction into the Judean Desert and towards Jericho and the River Jordan marking the eastern boundary of the occupied West Bank. Our first stop is in the desert and we get out of the bus for a steep walk up hill towards a cross on the summit. At first glance, the desert looks totally barren and unable to sustain any kind of life. But that is an illusion. The curiosity of the dormant botanist in me is aroused as I spot a tiny but brilliantly colored flower among the stones and fissured rocks. Soon I see another, and another, and before long I have spotted and photographed something like 15 different species, of flowering plant for later identification. And the cross? I have absolutely no idea what this commemorates. Perhaps someone could let me know?

St George of Koziba monastery
The purpose of our stop was not for me to go on a plant foray though. From the top of the hill we look far across to the other side of the valley and there clinging it seems to the sheer rock face we see a monastery. It is incredibly well camouflaged, built as it is from the rocks which surround it. This is the monastery of St George of Koziba, renowned for its hospitality which has been extended to women since the sixth century. The monastery dates from about 480 AD when it was developed by one John of Thebes out of a small oratory built by five hermit monks. There were numerous cave dwelling hermits who came there for divine liturgy on Saturdays and Sundays but it was the monk George of Koziba, originally from Cyprus, who developed the monastery in the second half of the sixth century, hence its name. Destroyed by the Persians in 614, it was restored in 1179 but fell into disuse again. The monastery we now see was reconstructed in the late nineteenth century and completed in 1901. Sadly we only viewed this place from across the valley. It is clearly of interest to visit. The prophet Elijah stayed here on his way to Sinai, and here St Joachim wept when he realized his wife Anne was unable to conceive, and he heard from an angel that they would bear a child, the future Virgin Mary.

But we must hurry on. We have a rendezvous to keep at the River Jordan, where we are to celebrate the Eucharist with the other groups and renew our baptismal vows…
We have a pre-booked slot at the original baptismal site of Kasr al- Yahud on the banks of the River Jordan just north of where it flows into the Dead Sea. There are four other sites, mostly in forbidden military zones. The other main one used by pilgrims is the Yardenit Baptismal site at the southern most end of the Sea of Galilee.
Baptisms in the river Jordan, Jordan side
the River Jordan
It is sobering to see the fence to our right as we make our way in the coach to the baptismal site adorned at frequent intervals with bright yellow warning signs about land mines in the area. And we also notice plenty of soldiers around, presumably for our protection.

In spite of the almost inevitable tourist razzmatazz at the main building, at least there are clean loos and refreshments and the opportunity to hire a white one-size robe to do the ceremony properly and go for total immersion for those who wish to. I'm sorry now that I didn't do this. Only two from our party did! Any way the current was extremely strong, and weak swimmer as I am, it was probably wise that I simply paddled.
No one knows where in the River Jordan Jesus was actually baptized by John. But in the end that doesn't really matter. The significance of the Eucharist ceremony and the formal renewal of our baptismal vows is still very meaningful and indeed moving.
On the opposite bank of the river, on the Jordan side, there are renewals taking place where pretty much everyone is going for total immersion. We noticed that they clearly appreciated our extremely gutsy rendering of our hymns.

A  rough Sea of Galilee
Our next stop is again to view a monastery from afar across a valley. This time it is the monastery on the Mt of Temptation, and it really does cling perilously, it seems, to the vertical rock face. We really have no idea where Jesus was tempted by the devil, but this situation seems as good a place as any to reflect on the story. The legend dates back to the early twelfth century, that here at the summit Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would only worship him. (Matt. 4: 1-11).
Monastery of Temptation

We have stopped by the cable car station, from where little gondolas take you up to a restaurant and from thence to the monastery. But we did not do this. Instead we forgot for a short while that we were pilgrims not tourists, as from the wayside stall we bought jewellry, refreshed ourselves with freshly pressed orange and pomegranate juice, and were hugely entertained by our bishop taking a camel ride!
Tired after a long day, we make our way to Tiberias for our stay on the shores of the Sea of Galilee...

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