Virginia Barton

To be a pilgrim — to change

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Catholic Herald, 13 April 1990


The Virginia B who pens this April Chronicle is not the same person who wrote in March. She has been to the Holy Land. You cannot paddle in the Jordan at the foot of Mt. Hermon and remain unchanged. If you’ve leaned against the wind on Mt. Nebo and shared with Moses that first glimpse of the Promised Land, some inward shift of vision is inevitable.

The physical impact of places long familiar through Bible reading works powerfully on the pilgrim as he walks where Jesus walked, sees the calm of hills above, and snuffs the mimosa-scented air. The topography of the Holy Land can have altered little, despite earthquakes, wars and invasions. Give or take a species or two, the flowers of the field and the birds of the air are those of Bible times.

With sleight of mind the pilgrim may strip off the accretions and vulgarities of time and hug himself inwardly;  here, or hereabouts, Our Lord made breakfast on the lake shore for His disciples, taught them the Our Father, and called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree.

And if He stood today upon the gentle slopes of the Mount of Olives, gazing upon the Golden City, He would still be moved to tears.




Many levels

A pilgrimage happens on many levels, from basic practicalities to moments of intense spirituality. This mirrors the nature of man, body and soul. One can either plunge baldly into a pilgrimage, or one can prepare the ground.

Our group of 18 chose the latter course. During the preceding six months most of us had met twice. We were provided with the copious reading list, and a detailed itinerary. Our leader prepared us for the climate, the food, the significance of the sites we would visit, and alerted us to the current political situation. A frequent visitor to the Holy Land over several decades, our leader’s background knowledge was invaluable. He knew the best places to buy olive wood nativity figures, or vestments and candles for the parish priests back home.

He supplemented the obligatory guides, and knew how to put a hotel manager on the mat. His delicate spiritual direction never strayed. It was brief and always attuned to where we were.

And thanks to his contacts we had the great privilege of being received by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the first Palestinian ever to be appointed to this position.

It was also thanks to him that we were addressed by the Franciscan assistant Custos of the Holy Places. As he spoke to us, Peter’s Pence collection took on new meaning. It is more vital today than perhaps ever before, so please give very generously.


Homes of Mercy

We found Palestinian Christians, and Moslems, in one of the Four Homes of Mercy, in Bethany. These homes were founded 50 years ago and they provide maternity and geriatric care as well as a long-term home for the physically handicapped, homeless children, orphans.

Nurses are trained in-house and the resident doctor spoke to us of a variety of needs.

One case must suffice as an example of the work: Aniseh is 11 years old. Her parents entrusted their very spastic daughter to the home seven years ago, unable to look after her themselves.

Like others before her, Aniseh will be cared for, in clean and simple surroundings, with love and tenderness, for as long as she lives.

There is a support group in the UK for this needy work and if you wish to know more about it, or can spare a donation, please write to: Barbara Hook, Flat 31, Wyndham House, Plantation Road, Oxford OX2 6JJ.

Some enterprising pilgrims within our ranks immediately proposed a Bridge Tournament in aid of the Homes of Mercy. It was a pity we had no opportunity to see a similar Israeli charity at work.


Mutual support

Living at close quarters with 17 others for 13 days illuminates facets of one’s character one might prefer kept hidden. One knew one was bossy – but not that bossy surely?

One knew one had a yellow streak – but fancy missing the first view of Jerusalem because one was lying on the floor of the bus in a cold sweat! (The bus was lurching up the hairpin bends from Wadi Qilt at the time).

On the other hand, little acts of thoughtfulness abounded.  One kind sould brought a shoehorn to the El Aksa mosque; another distributed wet-wipes after fresh oranges in Jericho, yet another provided a protective arm in the jam-packed Via Dolorosa.

Each of us could cite a dozen instances. What started as a disparate group of 18 comparative strangers grew into a whole, joined by shared experience. This human friendship was yet another level of the pilgrimage, communion in the true sense.

There is palpable tension in the Holy Land. Outwardly because of the tragic political circumstances, inwardly because the pilgrim is bewildered by a gamut of emotions and a staggering  procession of new impressions. The group offered mutual support, consolation – and  frequent occasions for fun.


High place

But it will be as individuals that we shall stand before the Risen Christ. This loneliness and littleness is aptly illustrated at the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the ultimate “high place” in a land of high places.

The tomb is so small and enclosed, only two or three may creep in at a time. No Christian can fail to be overwhelmed by where he is; or awed by the enormity of what happened here.

In the desert there is only one sound, the moaning of the wind. This, runs an Arab proverb, is the desert weeping because it would like to be a meadow. The pilgrim in the Sepulchre feels much the same as the desert wind.



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