PH peacekeeper follows Jesus’ path in Holy Land
(Editors Note: As a member of the Philippine peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights last year, the author made a “spiritual journey” in the Holy Land, tracing the path taken by Jesus Christ during His preachings.)
I TRAVELED alone, mostly unaided, with a Holy Bible in hand and a backpack filled with all the things I would need. While our Lord subsisted on bread and fish alone as he preached and established His ministry, I subsisted on bottled water, falafel or shawarma, canned food and sliced bread.
For the journey, I set a few ground rules: One, I would not hitchhike no matter how tired I might be except if a kind soul offered me a lift; next, I would forgo all the usual comforts I was accustomed to, such as a soft bed or an air-conditioned room; and, lastly, I would not insist on entering a biblical shrine that had an entrance fee, or if I would not be granted permission to enter without paying.
I am not a deeply religious person. I was accused of conducting “simbang-ligaw” as a teen and of making excuses not to go to church as an adult. I always said that I could commune with the Lord anywhere and not just in a church.
I was not physically fit for such a demanding trek. I am now 38 years old with a diagnosed heart condition. Also, a week before my journey, I had participated in a gruelling 19-kilometer Wadi March, which had physically drained me.
I was wary at the start. My stamina was questionable, my knees were gimpy and my back was always strained. I also did not have a companion and I knew no one along the way with whom I could stay during the cold autumn nights.
If needed, I was ready to sleep on the roadside. I was also ill-equipped, on a tight budget, and short of the necessary hiking gear.
Despite these apprehensions, I believed in our Lord, that He would watch over me. I believed in the Good Samaritans who would take care of me while I was on the road. I believed that my family and friends would offer a daily prayer for me. And I fully believed in myself.
My journey started on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010, at Nazareth, where Jesus had stayed since His early adulthood. There, I visited the Church of the Annunciation, the Church of Saint Joseph and the Synagogue Church, where He preached as a boy.
Then I proceeded to the Wedding Church at Cana, where Jesus made His first miracle—the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding Feast. From there, I went through Migdal (formerly known as Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene), passing through Tiberias, where Jesus spent most of His time preaching.
Ready to give up
That first day I almost wanted to give up. My backpack felt heavy, my feet ached, and the unbearable heat and my feeling of solitariness along that long road were taking their toll.
I remember searching for a bus stop to rest for the night but there was none and I had to continue walking. It was then that I asked the Lord for help.
As I trudged on, I came across a nice long stick that helped me walk. I took it as a sign He wanted me to continue. Indeed, God does really provide for everything!
By 8 in the evening, I reached Tabgha and was very fortunate to be accepted by the Benedictine Sisters to stay for the night in their monastery.
Tabgha is the traditional location of the post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes where He fed 5,000 multitudes.
After a nice meal, I joined the sisters in their evening prayers then retired for the night. I declined their offer for me to use a nice, soft bed and just slept on the floor, turning off the air-con.
Sermon on the Mount
In the morning I took a dip in the cool waters of Lake Tiberias in the same spot where Jesus was seen to have walked on water. I then attended Mass celebrated in German at the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes Church.
After breakfast, I proceeded to the Mount of Beatitudes—where Jesus delivered the “Sermon on the Mount.”
Rather than use the highway—the conventional route—to reach the Mount of Beatitudes, I hiked the mountain trail.
Then off to Bethsaida, where Jesus was active as a preacher and healer; then to Kursi, where He exorcised the demons out of the two men possessed by the evil spirits; then to Tel Hadar, where He fed 4,000 people and calmed a raging storm to save His apostles’ boat from capsizing.
Back to Capernaum, the center of Jesus’ Galilee ministry, I took a late lunch. Lastly, I went back south to the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias), boarding a bus there that brought me to Jerusalem, where I stayed the night.
There were events that could have prevented me from reaching Jerusalem that day. The day had been a proclaimed a holiday because of the Holiday Festival of Sukkot (Feast of Booths) and I wanted to catch the last bus trip, arriving at the station just as the bus was pulling out.
Garden of Gethsemane
Then I felt dismay on realizing I did not have NIS (New Israel Shekel) to pay for my fare. But a kind soul volunteered to pay. I learned that he was that young man who had also asked the driver to stop as I was running after the bus.
I may not have made it to Jerusalem and completed my trek if not for him.
The next day, I went to Gethsemane at the base of the Mount of Olives, where the Agony in the Garden took place; the Tomb of the Virgin Mary; the Mary Magdalene Church; the Dominus Flevit Church (Our Lord Weeping); the Paternoster Church; and the Place of Ascension.
Next I went to the Coenaculum at Mount Zion, where the Last Supper was held. I passed through the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross) and also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the last five Stations of the Cross can be found.
Along the way, I also visited the Western Wall, the Golden Mosque, Oskar Schindler’s (of “Schindler’s List” fame) grave, the City of David and the Tomb of King David, the Carmelite Convent, and others.
My journey ended with a Mass at the Cavalry at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Friday, officiated by a newly ordained priest I had met during my trek. I had chanced upon Father Aurelio, from Australia, while I was coming out of Capernaum. Upon learning what I was attempting to do, he gave me his first blessing as a priest and invited me to see him in Jerusalem for that Friday Mass.
On my way back to Camp Ziouani in the Golan Heights, where the Philippine Battalion was based, I passed by Qaser El Yahud at Beit Ha’arava—the Baptismal site at the Jordan (Judea) River.
My pilgrimage was the most demanding activity, physically and emotionally, I had ever done. I covered a total of 65 km by foot and 179 km on transit.
Amusing anecdotes marked my trek. For one, I was not allowed to enter the Saint Peter of Gallicantu Church at Mount Zion as the guard said in jest: “There are lots of beautiful women currently inside … handsome men are not allowed inside. We do not want any competition.”
In conversations with our “kababayan,” I was given the impression that they had not heard of anyone making the kind of journey I was making. Thus, I may be the first Filipino, and a UN Peacekeeper at that, to achieve such a feat.
While I also saw the bad side of people—one gave me the finger—the goodness of others, their smiles and flying kisses, the food and accommodation from strangers— abounded.
My spiritual journey was made without any hidden agenda nor did I do it to make a political statement, although I offered a silent prayer for peace in the Middle East.
I did this basically for my family, that they would continue to believe in me and to be thankful for their “presence” and love although I was thousands of miles away.
I did this to prove that the Filipino spirit of religiosity and sacrifice was very much alive. And I did this for myself, that in spite of my weaknesses and physical frailty, I could achieve many things if I put my heart and mind into it.
And I did this to renew a profound relationship with the Lord, whom I had neglected for far too long, and to ask for His forgiveness for my sins, seek enlightenment, and ask for His Grace.
This is for my wife and my two daughters, for my friends and fellow Peacekeepers, and for the people in that arid land whom I learned to love.
(Maj. Baylon Manalang III is a member of PMA “Kalasag-Lahi” Class of 1997. He was part of the 2nd Philippine Contingent to the Golan Heights from May to November 2010. His “spiritual journey” took him from Nazareth to Galilee and Jerusalem. He is currently assigned with the 303rd Infantry [Brown Eagle] Brigade based at Murcia, Negros Occidental province.)
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