IVI Pilgrimages

Invitation to Life: pilgrimage to Israel, 8th -17th November 2013

Why go to Israel when we're so comfortable at home?

Get up early.
Leave your home.
Traverse a wet, chilly night to reach the white lights of the airport.
Meet up with your friends and companions on this pilgrimage, most of whom arrive on time, in an isolated zone of the terminal, in front of the area reserved for the  El Al check-in. Lined up behind the military cordon, we have to wait patiently for the security check.
Then, one at a time, the individual inspection, individual interrogation, careful checks and precise double-checks.

Everyone remains patient and considers the necessity of these manœuvres. It's our first contact with a foreign reality far removed from our habitual comfort. Suddenly, peace in France takes on new value, and the Israeli principle of precaution seems quite reasonable, even here, far from their frontiers.
"Welcome to the real world" is the message these young security guards seem to be sending as they weigh us up carefully.. It's all very serious, and these questions must be provided with a verifiable answer - why, where, for how long, who?
The filter is a fine one, and the wait is long, but finally, almost sixty of us obtain our boarding passes.
Other pilgrims will be joining us in Israel. About twenty coming from Marseille, and twenty more from all over the world. And then thirty more, at the end of our stay.

All eyes are glued to the windows as we approach Tel Aviv. It looks fairly spread out, in other words, it looks the way you'd expect a grand cosmopolitan city to look.
Buildings over here, blocks of flats, little houses over there, industrial developments and warehouses all over the place, port activity. From up here, everything seems simple, organised, prosperous. Why come to Israel when it looks much the same as home?

From the ground, we get a clearer picture.
Everyone gets to pick the language of their choice – Hebrew, Arabic, English...
Another security check. Faster this time, except for Yacine, who needs to reassure our hosts.
Then, in the hall of the airport, we meet up with our guides - Michel and Richard, one of them Sephardic, the other Ashkenazic. Two Frenchmen who have settled in Israel, two ways of looking at Israeli society, two approaches charged with different traditions.
It's important to have a guide, especially here, where everything is so intimately intermingled. We meet up with our friends who have just arrived from Marseille...
We meet up with our friends who have just arrived from all over the world.

Finally, there's almost a hundred of us in our hotel at Herzliya, a fashionable suburb of Tel Aviv, where we gather to eat dinner and share prayers for this first evening. Communion.
Then when night finally settles in, we stand at the windows of our hotel, listening to the rhythm of the waves and the foam that rolls in onto the beaches at the foot of the hotel, and the regular criss-crossing of the military helicopters who are keeping an eye on the sleeping coastline.

CesareaA quick start this morning, since we hadn't really unloaded our suitcases last night. Departure on buses for Caesarea, the great city of Antiquity, rival of Alexandria and Antioch – it was the city built to Herod's demands, and which in the end became the local capital of the Roman Empire.
Welcome to Israel. Our first immersion in History – Jewish and Roman History together, since both Herod and Pontius Pilate stayed in Caesarea.

Then we travel to Haïfa, the most beautiful natural port on the Israeli coast, with its bay, its industrial infrastructures, its polyvalent economy and all the rest of it. The most important point is that here, Arabs and Jews live together peacefully, in mutual respect. They all have clear and mutual reasons for doing so. The city is prosperous and it would be worth studying as an example.

Mount Carmel and its Hanging Gardens - at the peak, facing the sea, stands the Carmelite monastery, and a short distance away, Elijah's cave, a holy place for the three monotheistic religions. Our pilgrims crowd in. The cave is small, but our fervour is great. This is, after all, the place where Elijah prevailed over the priests of Baal – also, according to the Christian tradition, the Holy Family rested here on their way back from Egypt. A short prayer and a song were enough to provoke tears. Mysteries of the site and the soul?

Return to the bus, where our prayers lend their rhythm to the kilometres. Each of us in turn has the possibility of presenting themself to his or her fellow travellers, to share personal testimony and to propose a prayer intention, which is followed by a decade of the chapelet prayed in unison. The Virgin Mary is sharing the journey with us. Everyone is happy for her presence.

Then we follow the coastline to reach Saint John of Acre, the fortified city which dates back to the last Crusades. The carefully-adjusted stones bear witness to the power of Christianity at the time of the Crusades. It's an architectonic, built to last for a thousand years.
Peace was so close in those days that it scared some people. It's a well-worn story, unfortunately still true today. A new leap into the past, unless it's the present? The centuries fly by.
Each stone reveals a morsel of History, a chapter of the Bible, and in this country, they are often one and the same.

Lake TiberiasWhen we arrive in Upper Galilee, everyone savours thegentle lightness of the atmosphere - the climate, of course, but not only that. It'sa green and mountainous country, bathed by the Jordan and Lake Tiberias, and ishome to a population which was basically the same two thousand years ago–fishermen, farmers, vinegrowers, producers of olives, fruits, cereals...
It's a land of transit and invasion, but also of commercial exchange, situated only a few kilometres from Lebanon and Syria – the region has become peaceful, much more so than Judea, which is subject to all sorts of tension. Of course, Israel remains vigilant. The status of the Golan Heights is still a matter of geopolitical significance, and the military bases we encounter here and there, the minefields and the ruined tanks bear witness to a tragic past and an uncertain future.
As for the rest, nothing has really changed, the fields are pastoral, the forests are dense, the vines are well-terraced, the orchards are abundant, and little villages are growing in the middle of all the cars and buses full of tourists and pilgrims, who have come, of course, from all over the world. Is it possible to imagine that a similar atmosphere of peace reigned here in this region over two thousand years ago? Yes, without difficulty.
It must be said that Jesus is everywhere. These lands are so impregnated with his passage that it wouldn't be surprising to see Him appear from behind a tree or sitting by the roadside on one of these volcanic rocks that He almost certainly knew.And in fact, the communion between our pilgrims confirms this invisible presence, which, twenty centuries after the ministry of Christ, is still here to give us hope and nourish our intimacy.

We are walking in his footsteps - at Tabgha, the site of the miraculous multiplication of the bread andfishes, and a little further along, the rock on which Jesus is said to have shared his meal with the disciples, at the Mount of Beatitudes, on LakeTiberias. At every stop, the pilgrims gather. Their moments of reverence are sincere, their fervour immense. Each of us is brought face to face with our own intimate relationship with Christ.
In the evening, after dinner, our common prayer reveals the pilgrims' preoccupations, and the prayer intentions repeat the themes which have been evoked throughout the day – inner peace, the reconciliation between different peoples, tolerance and respect for others...

The next day, at Nimrod's fortress, we are the first visitors of the day, and so we don't bother anybody – apart from thewind, maybe. The site dominates the narrow valley which sepNimrod's fortressarates Mount Hermon from the Golan plateau and the road which links Galilee and Damascus. It goes without saying that this position nourished our prayers and our songs. 
Then we take a short cruise of Lake Tiberias, followed by lunch by the waterside.
At twilight, on the road back to our kibbutz, the group makes a halt at thefoot of the Golan, facing Syria, only a few hundred metres away. Lights flickerin the night, revealing the presence of a UNO military base.

Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel, reveals adifferent atmosphere which is almost tangible – here there is much less natural lightness, and greater tension linked to the relations between the different communities. For Christians, it is also the site of the Annunciation and the childhood of Christ.
There is a basilica to bear witness to this, and also a fountain, sites which have become sacred. 

It's easy to imagine Jesus in these streets, travelling from the North to Lake Tiberias by way of the hills and fields. How long would it take? Two or three days walking. No more.
The group divides into two and crowds into the Church of Saint Gabriel, where, according to the GreekChurch of Saint Gabriel in NazarethOrthodox tradition, Gabriel spoke to Mary. After a short prayer, we sang a very gentle song, which was taken up by the monk who managed the entrance – clearly affected by our fervour.

Departure for Judea. This new journey in the bus allowed all those who so desired to talk about these days spent in Galilee, and to share their experiences and their realisations – words flowed easily.
The whole dynamic of a pilgrimage resides in this constant passage between the singular the collective, in the clear and respectful acceptance by the greatest number of the individual revelations shared in confidence by a few.

Jerusalem: a country, a world unto itself, the centre of the world? What label suits it best? Does it need a label?
Apart from the beauty of the old city, apart from the holy places whereeveryone is free to live their own intimate experience – for myself, I don'treally know exactly what, or who... At the Holy Sepulchre, In the Holy Sepulchre churchI don't know what I felt, a presence close to my own idea of God, a presence which was full and entire, encompassing a total absence of doubt and an unfailing patience – more than enough to justify all forms of compassion and determination. What of Jerusalem can we take with us? 

Perhaps a dimension which escapes us, refuses to be tamed, polymorphous, stunning. There are almost too many layers for a rational mind to grasp, too many stories, anecdotes, important events, whether verified or not, legends and dreams. The search for Heaven, obsessive, intoxicating.

We must accept Jerusalem for what she is, without seeeking to understand her complexity, the origins of the question why, and be satisfied with what she offers us. Have we seen anywhere else such diversity, such extreme differences, managing to co-exist in an intelligent manner?
Sitting on a stone at the Jaffa Gate, watching the world go by. It's not an orderly spectacle.

And yet the trembling edifice of confounded certainty still stands. Everyone has their own opinion about this unique city, and many of them would like to change the way it's organised. But it works. The city prospers. The communities tolerate oneanother, as do the religions. It's sometimes shaky, but it works.
Let's look at Jerusalem rather as a prototype. The model, if not the standard for «THE» city or «THE» estate – the mother of all cities, the Muslims could say, since it belongs to no-one, or to everyone, which leads to the same result– since it belongs to History, to humanity, to the history of humanity in the most literal sense, to the human creature in all that we have that is most particular, the desire to create a site to honour our God.
Jerusalem speaks for mankind, for both prosecution and defence. It is a witness to mankind's existence here on Earth, to our activity, to the best and worst of what we do, the most desired and the best preserved. Isn't that rather like a part of the ambiguity hidden within each of us? In that at least, Jerusalem isa holy land.

This Jewish people who have suffered so much over the centuries – the Hall of Remembrance and the Childrens' Memorial at Yad Vashem are enough to convince us - watches its children growing today with ever greater control over their development.
How could we blame them for wanting to create the ideal conditions for their development? These same conditions have been in place in our societies for decades, even centuries.
Israel has dried out marshland, planted new forests, channeled water, developed its industrial infrastructures, its communication networks, heightened its levels of protection, achieved modernity, and participated in the evolution of the world. All that in a few short years. Of course, it's not all clean and pretty. Here, just like everywhere else, human limits weigh against good will, and there is still much uncertainty. Danger is ever-present. The road to peace and tolerance sometimes seems to lead away from Palestine, but sometimes it moves closer. A society on the march, like a young child standing on its own feet, still remains attractive despite its chronic inconsistencies. Who are we to judge Israel?

Today, the future of this country depends on water, the control and sharing of water, the economy of water, and Israel is now turning towards the desert, searching its vast, isolated and unexploited expanses. It's a gamble as great as their hopes for success.

And so - departure for the desert. The road winds through the hills. In the buses, words that had been held back are finally liberated, and tears flow - but, as always, laughter holds its place and faces relax. Joy andwell-being are perceptible ever where.
The sun reaches the highest of the surrounding mountains. Soon it will benight. In the distance, in a hollow between two hills, there shines an oasis. Nearby, a Bedouin camp. The last stop before Tel Aviv.
When we arrive, the hundred and forty pilgrims from our group are offered a warm welcome by these people of the desert, who offer us tea, coffee, cakes, dried and candied fruits in a charming and well-organised space – then we separate into the three Bedouin tents which have been specially arranged to welcome us.
Later on, a celebration dinner and music, carried on into the night around a camp fire, a couple of guitars, songs we all know, plenty of friendly laughter. The pilgrims rediscover their nomad roots.
As for sleep, everyone works out a deal with their own matress. It's a new form of communion, and a new experience for some, but it makes for simple joy for all.
A short night of rudimentary comfort, but unique and warmly human.

We are woken in the night so that we can reach Massada before dawn.
It's a pleasant climb, and the panorama of the Dead Sea behind the hills of Jordan, where the sun is just beginning to glow, is a welcome reward forsorely-tried eyes and muscles.
Some say that the Massada of yesterday justifies the Israel of today.
Others say that today's Israel is a new Massada?
Let's forget all that for the moment. Gathered on the mountain-top, facing Jordan, our pilgrims prefer to close their eyes and pray and sing for inner peace and the reconciliation between peoples.

Then we leave for the Dead Sea, and the beach where the pilgrims float around in the bouyant waters.
On the way back to Herzliya, the group makes a halt at Qumrân, the desert site of the caves, the Essenians and the famous scrolls –and then back on the road.
This ultimate crossing of Judea is the occasion for the pilgrims to offer their final confessions or prayer intentions. Everyone knows that these confessions are offered to the Virgin Mary. Some people are speaking for the first time, while others, who feel that they have not yet opened their hearts entirely, take the microphone and share their experiences in a silence bathed withprayer.
The difficulties that we all share, the preoccupation or anxieties to which we admit, the desires and hopes that we offer... The sharing continues right upto the door of the hotel.

Last night and first departures.
The next morning, we visit the Jaffa Flea Market, with its abundance of fresh products, before we eat lunch on the Meditarranean shore.
We take our leave at the rhythm of the various airline schedules. Groups form according to destinations – the biggest group is for the return to France.
Airport. A long check-in procedure. Boarding. Then Israel retreats as we climb into the sky.
Great landing at Paris Charles-de-Gaulle. Special praise for the pilot.
Final separations. Warmth and emotion. Pilgrims spend their lives meeting their friends again and then saying goodbye. Isn't this like the pilgrimage of life?

Then everyone arrives home.
Why come home when we're so comfortable in Israel?
Perhaps so that we can live and share here everything that we lived and shared over there.

The Church of the Lord's Prayer on the Mount ofOlives – the Our Father in all languages

Text : Jean-Pierre D.

Photos : Caroline T.

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