Archaeology, Masses, Cable Cars, Prayer, Rafting, Swimming. Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, Masada, Qumran, Caesarea Philippi. These are just a few of the elements that made up the Downside Abbey and Clifton Diocese pilgrimage to the Holy Land, as we visited so many of the places associated with the Bible and the Early Church.

Our group of 44 young pilgrims arrived early at Heathrow Airport and friendships were quickly forged among those who had not previously met. The programme was full and no significant site was left unvisited! So we spent four nights in Bethlehem, from which we were able to visit not only the sites of the birth of Christ, the angelic visitation to the shepherds, but we went from there to Jerusalem, where we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Mass at Calvary, Gethsemane and prayed the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. We were warmly welcomed by Br Simeon of Dormition Abbey, and also saw the archaeological site of the City of David, finishing by wading through the water in the long and dark Hezekiah’s tunnel. Rarely (if ever) have so many Christian hymns been sung in that place, I suspect, perhaps to the consternation of other groups! For some people particular highlights were also the visit to the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif, site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and the Western Wall.

We spent a night at the Jericho Resort, which offered the opportunity to relax in the swimming pool and get to know one another better, before going to the desert for a camping experience, where the aim of the organiser, David, was to help groups to experience biblical hospitality. Some members of the group were dreading this, but David and his team were so welcoming that it was impossible not to enjoy the experience. It helped, of course, that the food was good (prepared by the group) and the tents were quite comfortable and surprisingly warm. We awoke early to walk to the top of the nearby hill to see the sunrise, which inspired the singing of a number of hymns!

A couple of group members had wanted to visited Masada, the site of the last Jewish rebellion against the Romans, since they were young boys, and they were not disappointed! It was hot, the ascent by cable car was impressive and we gained a new respect for the Sicarii. None of the group felt any sort of vocation to live in the Greek monastery on the Mount of Temptation, nor at Qumran, but we were amazed at the strength of those who chose to do so.

In many places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem there was a degree of tension between the different Christian groups, who are determined not to break the “Status Quo” agreement, and this tension was perhaps more obviously felt by Dom Anselm and Fr Matt, who came across the Franciscans in the various churches – humour was often rather lacking. In one church we were warned that the group should not laugh!

Things were more relaxed in Galilee. We stayed in Nazareth, and were very warmly welcomed by the Franciscan sacristan when we arrived for Mass at the Church of the Annunciation. From there we were able to visit Capernaum, where Christ healed and taught, and where he and St Peter lived. Mass by the Sea of Galilee was quite an experience, as the corporal, Missal etc had to be held down by rocks, and occasionally grabbed to prevent things flying away or being blown over. The archaeological sites at Jericho and Megiddo were also interesting, and we are now more familiar with the site of the Apocalypse!

The entertainment provided by all the discussion groups on the last evening unearthed a number of hidden talents in drama, music and quiz setting, and set the tone for a relaxing journey back to England, despite a few cases of “Nazareth Belly”.

The fruit of the pilgrimage will be seen in different ways, and will probably take time for all pilgrims to realise. What is clear is that friendships have been forged and cemented, graces and blessings received and none of the pilgrims will read the Bible in the same way again!

Great thanks are due to Rina Bird, who organised all the practical details and ensured that everyone got from A to B on time. Without her efforts the pilgrimage could not have taken place.