Trip-of-a-Lifetime, by Patty Wirth
In 2015 my eldest sister, Dorothy, died from cancer. She had never married. I was very surprised to receive an inheritance from her. I wanted to do something extra special with this money that I wouldn’t get to do otherwise. I decided that a trip to the Holy Land with Steve Ray as the leader was what I wanted to do. I looked up which trip would fit with our schedule of a good time to be gone. I chose the trip in November. Since I knew from experience (when we went to England) that Zack had a hard time with jet lag, I wanted to go somewhere else first and give him time to relax and catch up. I chose Rome. In my mind, it fit well with the mood of the trip and would be a great place to relax.
We left Helena on Wednesday, November 1. The route was Helena-Denver-Newark-Rome. We were met by a private driver and taken to our hotel in Rome. Everything went very smoothly. After getting settled in our room we went for a walk to see the area and the Vatican. We were only a 5-minute walk from the Vatican. We looked around the plaza and at the long line going through security to get in. We just walked around for an hour or so and then looked for a restaurant. Anna flew from England to spend the time in Rome with us. Tom was in Edinburgh for a conference and was unable to join us.
Friday we did not get an early start. The crowds were big even with the occasional rain. We decided to take the organized tour through the Vatican Museums. It was overwhelming going through all the different collections of statues, paintings, tapestries in courtyards, hallways, rooms. It helped to have the leader point out how an early statue was a model for Michelangelo’s God. There was so much to see, but the crowds were such that you had to keep moving and were simply being pushed along. The Sistine Chapel had so much, but the seats around the edge were all full and there was hardly a place to stand. We were able to relax in St Peter’s. The Pieta was fenced off so you could not get next to it and walk around it, but we could see it clearly. The detail and youth of Mary’s face keep coming to mind. The next side altar is the tomb of St. John Paul II. We were able to pray there. The other times we were in St. Peter’s this was closed because private Masses were being said there. There is so much to see and such a length of history. The side altars, the statues, the details everywhere all have their own meaning and relate a part of history. Here was all the gold and statues that I missed in the Cathedrals of England. Seeing the Cathedrals in England had prepared us for the size and grandeur of St. Peter’s and the others we visited, but not the range of color.
Saturday morning Zack decided that the best way for us to see more of Rome was in a horse and carriage. We were early and the first part of the trip was without too much traffic. We went from the Vatican to Castle Sant’Angelo and a great view of the Tiber. This continued to the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and Piazza Navona. The Pantheon had such a feeling of awe. The dome is 142 feet high and equals the diameter. This building was built in 120 AD, the third Pantheon built in this place. The dome is unsupported concrete. The building is lit by a 7.8-meter hole in the center of the dome. It was the first pagan temple to be transformed into a Church, St. Mary of the Martyrs in 609 AD. This helped preserve it. All visitors walk on the original marble floor! The 60 T columns were brought from Egypt.
We then continued in with the horse and carriage to the ancient Roman ruins. We walked to see the statue of Marcus Aurelius, about whom Anna wrote her thesis on for her Bachelor’s degree. We walked around the Colosseum. The lines were too long to want to go inside. We then walked up the hill to St. John in Lateran, the oldest church in Europe and the Pope’s home Church. Constantine I gave this to the Bishop of Rome to build a Cathedral in the early 4th Century. Much of it is still original.
Across the street from St John Lateran are the Holy Stairs. These were brought to Rome by St Helena in 325 AD. They are believed to be the stairs the Jesus walked up to be questioned by Pontius Pilate. Pilgrims since then have been climbing these stairs on their knees and praying. I wanted to do this after Theresa told me about it and did. There are 28 steps. There is wood over the marble steps with places you can reach in and touch the marble. The wood is very worn and the steps are wide. They must be climbed on your knees. The pace is set by the people in front of you as there were people 3 abreast all the way up the stairs. As I prayed on each step and climbed the pain in my knees increased to the point I was gritting my teeth because of it as I set my leg down on each progressive step. I wondered how my knees could hurt so badly. When I stood up at the top, there was no pain and my knees didn’t even hurt the next day when I kneeled!
Sunday we took the train to Florence and went to Mass at the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore. Zack had seen a documentary on how the Dome was built and it was his top thing to see. He also enjoyed the high-speed train. The frescos were in the dome of the last judgment were fascinating. We met Fiona Stratford after attending Mass and spent the afternoon in the museum with Michelangelo’s David and other works. We could walk around his David and see all the detail and perfection of each muscle. It made me realize what we were missing by not being able to walk closer and around the Pieta. There were also many unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo. The museum showed that it was such a great time for sculptures and painters with so many pieces being commissioned just in Florence. All the sculptures made me think of Chatsworth house that we visited in England where they had brought so many pieces of art from Greece and Rome and had halls lined with it. It was raining and cold our day in Florence so we did not go explore the plazas and see more art. We had a great day seeing just a little of Florence and catching up with what Fiona was doing.
Monday morning Anna and I got up and walked to St. Peter’s before 8. There was no line to get through security and we found an English Mass being said at a side altar. We then spent some time seeing more of St. Peter’s and went back for breakfast. This was our day for a tour of St. Peter’s grave and the Necropolis discovered in the excavation under St. Peters. Everything proves how true history is. We start with the original site of the obelisk in St. Peter’s square and how it was moved. The obelisk was there for the circus, racing track, that was there before the time of Jesus. Much of the tour is the excavated tombs, buildings with shelves to lay the dead on. The family would sit on the roof and watch the circus. This site was outside the city walls and across the Tiber River from the city. During this excavation they actually found a stone saying “Here Lies Peter”. The bones they found had the feet cut off, Peter was hung upside down. The tests they did all proved consistent with being St. Peter. The first Basilica of St. Peters was built with the altar and dome above the grave. When the present Basilica was built on the same site, Michelangelo centered the altar and dome in the same place. You can look up through a grate in the floor and see the center of the dome. It is off by 18 inches of being perfect!! Under St. Peter’s are many chapels, tombs of Pope’s, and the places the popes pray. It is very awe inspiring.
Tuesday Anna and I went back to St. Peter’s and found a Mass being said that we could join. We all then took the rail line and went to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Mary Major. This Basilica was being built within the year after the Council of Ephesus 431 AD. This Council proclaimed that Mary is Theotokos, Mother of God. This Basilica has remained the same size since it was first built. The mosaics of the Central Nave are from the 5th Century. The gold, the beauty, the story in the mosaics, the paintings; we just sat and tried to take it in. There is so much. Here is the original painting of Mary holding Jesus, painted by St. Luke on Mary’s kitchen table. There are relics of Jesus' crib.
Wednesday we flew to Tel Aviv and were driven to Tiberius. We got to appreciate traffic in Israel as we went North. We were one day ahead of the group and got to walk around Tiberius and walk along the Sea of Galilee. There are very old buildings and ruins next to new buildings. Stone is everywhere. All the signs are in Arabic and then English. We met with the group for dinner on Thursday evening. We spent the first nights at the Ron Beach Hotel on the Sea of Galilee. We started early each day to be the first to the first place we were visiting and beat the crowds for at least the beginning of the day.
Our Pilgrimage started with going to Cana to the place of the wedding feast and Jesus first miracle of changing water to wine. We renewed our marriage vows. We took our rosaries because we will say the matching rosary mystery for each of the 20 events in the mysteries. We then went to Nazareth. Everything is steep hills with all limestone. At Jesus time they all lived in caves. There were 25 caves in Nazareth at that time with each having about 10 people in them. The Hebrew word that is translated to carpenter actually means working with hard things. Jesus and Joseph probably walked over the mountain to a quarry and worked there. It would be about an hour walk. Our guide lives in Nazareth. He explained how the family tribe is still very important and how tribal the people are. The Basilica of the Annunciation is his home church. He is rightly proud of it. There is a very intriguing statue of Mary of Nazareth of what a Nazareth girl would look like. (Brown eyes, black hair) A difference in Israel is that the churches were all built in about the 1920’s when England was in control following the Ottoman Empire. The old foundations and stones are all where you can see them. Here as in most of the sites, you go down to the cave for the actual site. We went from here to Mount Tabor and the site of the Transfiguration where we had Mass. We switched from our tour bus to vans to ascended the switchbacks to get to the top of the mountain. This was much better than climbing on foot!! Every site has a longer history. This is also the site where Deborah and the Israelites were fortified before the Lord defeated Sisera’s army as told in Judges 4 & 5. This is where “Mountain Top Experience” is very real.
Saturday started with Mass at the Mount of the Beatitudes. We got to look down on the Sea of Galilee and the hillside the crowds sat on. The surprise was all the field of bananas. We then drove to the Golan Heights and look across minefields to where Steve and Janet have seen bombs being dropped. The valley below us is the road to Damascus that St. Paul was on when he was knocked off his horse. On the drive to Banias (Caesarea Philippi), we got to see many fields of crops. This is the largest source of water for the Jordan River and is the base of Mt. Hermon (there is a ski hill at the top). This was a major surprise. Jesus and his disciples walked for 2 days to get to this site. Jesus was very mindful of the sites where he said things as part of the full meaning. This was the site of temples to many Gods and especially where beginning in the 3rd century BC sacrifices were cast into the bottomless water of the cave as offering to the god Pan, the god of sheep and shepherds. It is here that Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” It was so real being on the site and looking at the massive rock and ruins of the site. We ended the day back at the Sea of Galilee for the Church of the Primacy of Peter and then to the site of the Multiplication of Loaves (on a large rock) near the Sea. Israel is experiencing a 3-year drought so the water level is low.
We started Sunday with Mass at St. Peter’s house. Jesus spent much of his 3 years of ministry with this as his home in Capernaum. Peter’s home is right on the lake and next to the large synagogue where Jesus taught about his Flesh and Blood in John 6. We went to a museum and saw a boat found in the Sea that was the same as the boats used by fishermen in Jesus time. It dates from then. We then drove for more than 2 hours toward Jerusalem to Ein Kerem to the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah and the Church of the Visitation. This was a 1-week journey for Mary! This is a steep mountain, all limestone, lots of steps. We drove on to Jerusalem and the Notre Dame Hotel for the balance of our Pilgrimage.
Monday we started with a shopping stop in a Christian shop in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is now walled to prevent terrorists from coming in. We had to bring passports but weren’t asked to show them. You drive a circle where they could decide to stop you. After the shopping, we went to Shepherd’s Field and had Mass. The field is rocks, caves, steep hillsides. This is the same fields David was herding sheep when Samuel asked Jesse to send for his youngest son so he could anoint him. We then went to the Church of the Nativity. This Church has a door that you have to bend over to enter. It was to keep invaders on horses out and it worked. The Church is under renovation and we could only see a limited amount. The crowd was a couple of hours long to the cave of the Nativity so we didn’t go right down to the place of Jesus birth. We spent time in the courtyard. We had a very special treat at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We waited outside in the courtyard for awhile and then were ushered into the church with other tourists pushed back. We lined up right outside the actual burial place of Jesus. The Franciscan monks that care for the Holy Sepulchre came in after us. 3 of them came in and stood in front of the entrance to the cave. The organ played and they gave us the ceremonial welcome they have been giving guests since the Crusades for the times when there could be pilgrims. After the organ and beautiful chanting, we went into the tomb two at a time. The tomb was empty!! We were in the tomb of Jesus! This changed the world!
Tuesday we drove to the Mount of Olives for Mass. The church is over the rock that Jesus prayed on. There are 8 ancient olive trees that were there when Jesus prayed there. This was on the way between Jerusalem to Bethsaida. The Kidron Valley is between the temple and Mount of Olives. It is not so far, but is steep down and almost right up again. Part of it has steps cut in the rock. Every place you stop and think, Jesus was here and prayed here. It was then to the Church of the Pater Noster where Jesus taught the Our Father and ascended into heaven. We stopped for a view of Jerusalem and the area while Steve Ray gave an overview of Salvation History. It is worth watching on his website. After lunch, we went to the Church of St.Peter in Gallicantu (where the cock crowed). This is also where Jesus was held a prisoner in a cistern with water to his waist for the hours until morning when he was taken to the temple. Part of the stairs are still there, but they no longer let the public walk on them. Next stop took us to the Upper Room where Jesus instituted the Eucharist and when the Holy Spirit came on Mary and the Apostles. We also went to the Dormition Abbey where Mary “fell asleep” before her Assumption, being carried to heaven body and soul. There are beautiful mosaics explaining the theology.
The next morning started at 4 so we could walk the Via Dolorosa to the Holy Sepulchre. We were each given an olive wood cross that fits very nicely in your hand and feels good. We stopped and prayed at each station of the cross. As we walked to the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, a cock crowed in a closed courtyard as we walked by. O’ Peter. The distance was much less than I expected. I was pleased to see how soon Simon the Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus. The steep part of the climb is within the church and now is with stairs. We climbed to the top to where the cross was. You can feel through a hole for the rock that held the cross. On the main floor, you can see a big crack from the earthquake as Jesus died right below where the cross was. We continued down 3 levels to where the dump was where St. Helena found the real cross. We had Mass at 6 in a chapel near the tomb of Christ. I keep remembering the slab where Jesus body was laid to be cleaned before he was put into the tomb. After all this, we went back for breakfast. We then went to the Western Wall or Wailing Wall. This is the holiest place in the world for Jews. It is part of the retaining wall of the ancient temple complex. Some stones weigh 570 tons, 44 feet long, 10 feet high an 12-16 feet deep. The largest stone in the great pyramid weighs 11 tons. This is the site we prayed the mysteries that took place in the temple. After lunch we went St. Anne’s Church, the birthplace of Mary. Saladin did not destroy this church when he conquered the Crusaders in the 12th Century. He converted it to an Islamic seminary. Here is the authentic Crusader architecture. Next to this are the remains of the pools of Bethesda where Jesus healed the lame man. We had a free afternoon and took a taxi to the Holocaust Museum. The first place that had bathrooms like you would find in America! There are many personal items and stories, photos and places. Numbers of people killed in each place, but no totals. It was very overwhelming. It told the stories of how all the countries then including the US refused the ships of refugees and they died. It did not treat Pope Pius XII at all fairly or honestly.
After dinner that evening we got a tour of the Shrine of Turin that is in the Notre Dame hotel. They did not have the real shroud which is in Turin. They have the whole Shroud copied so we walk along all of it and study it. They covered the history of the Shroud and then all the details the new studies show. From studying the wounds they believe that Jesus was hit by a whip, scourged, 120 times! Jews could only whip someone 39 times, Romans had no restrictions. Jesus had to be a very strong, fit man to have lived through this. The model they made from the Shroud shows Jesus to be over 6 ft and muscular. Everything with the shroud is consistent with what is known about Jesus time and death. The blood tests to be AB+ which is what the blood is in every Eucharistic miracle where the host has become heart tissue and the wine actually become blood. The Shroud and Our Lady of Guadalupe are both instances where the picture appears to float above the fabric instead of being absorbed into the fabric. Modern science can’t explain or replicate either.
Thursday is our last day. We took the optional tour and we are glad that we did. We went to the Israel Museum where there is a 1/50 model of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. It really helped locate places walking around it and seeing what the temple looked like. The museum has the Shrine of the Book with many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the entire book of Isaiah. Jerusalem is at 2470 ft of elevation. We drove down to the Jericho and then the Jordan River and the Dead Sea which is -1410 ft below sea level. This is a lot of down, 3880 ft in 25 miles! When the people from Jerusalem were going to get baptized by John it was a big deal. There are miles of barren hills with a few Bedouin homes with goats. We could see nothing growing right now on the hills. Jericho is a green haven and has crops. It has always had reliable crops and water. We got to see a sycamore tree that was like what Zachariah was in when Jesus walked by. We did not sing “the walls come tumbling down”. It does make you think of how long that soil has been raising crops and how many dates have been picked there. The stop at Qumran was the most surprising. The cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were first found, the barrenness, realizing how the water would flow down the gullies, the ruins showing how they stored water and lived. It is believed that the group of men, Essenes, wanted to follow the law more strictly and copied the book. John the Baptist is believed to be part of this group. The Jordan River where he baptized is 2 miles away. Any desert is not more barren than Qumran was now, but the Jordan is green. The Jordan River is a slow moving River when we were there, not too big and fairly muddy. It is water and green in the desert. We did swim in the Dead Sea, and you don’t sink! They have ropes and don’t want you to go out very far. I’m glad we swam, floated more correctly. We finished the trip with a camel ride. The ride was very short and the poor camel got up, walked about 10 steps and got down again. It is the get-up and down that the saddle is important for! Then we went back up to Jerusalem. The bus and new highway made the trip easy. It would have been quite a trip walking! We finished the day packing, having one last Mass, and flying home. We left Tel Aviv at 11 pm and arrived at Newark at 4:30 am. We were home by 4. My bed felt really good.
This truly was as great a trip as I was hoping. It was a trip of a Lifetime. This does change the way I read and understand the Bible. I already knew it was all true and that all archeology studies confirm the truth and the locations. The local Christians are very confident and protective of the sites and defensive of people who doubt. They can take you to Rachel’s tomb and the other old Testament Sites. The survivors certainly protected and passed down the exact sites of Jesus life and death. Christians are only 1.5% of the population in Israel.
There is limestone everywhere. When in Israel you understand why and how easy it was to live in caves. The distance and the steepness of the hills were a surprise that I kept commenting on. You certainly understand the talk of going “up to Jerusalem”. Zack thoroughly enjoyed the power of the Mercedes Diesel bus. Those drivers can maneuver that bus around corners and back into spaces with only a foot on each side.
I am thinking right now as Christmas is almost here of the week-long walk of Maria and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary made almost the same trip to visit Elizabeth and back to Nazareth. The more I study and experience the places of Church history, the more amazing is the survival and flow. The theology and understanding of the architects and artists is so remarkable. The churches let you experience the divine and teach Salvation History in pictures. You can spend hours studying statues, mosaics, and paintings. The cathedrals we saw in England helped prepare for what we saw in Rome and the Holy Land. Michelangelo was a top theologian and really understood what he was saying in his sculptures and paintings. He has taught many more pilgrims in this way than with anything he could have written. His art is the pinnacle of art leading people to God and understanding, but all the other art teaches and elevates too. The churches in the Holy Land are not old like Rome and Europe, but they are where Jesus walked and over the rocks for each special occasion. Everything increases the meaning, beauty, and truth. The best has been done to preserve and rebuild in such a vulnerable area. The Christians work hard and suffer to remain present there and keep our part of the story alive.