Fr. Alexander del Castillo had one important reminder as soon as we boarded the bus in Amman, Jordan, headed for Mt. Nebo, where Moses had a glimpse of the Promised Land before he died: “We are pilgrims, not tourists, in this journey.”
Mt. Nebo was the first stop in our two-week pilgrimage to the most significant places in the Christian faith that brought us to Jordan, Israel and Bethlehem.
Throughout the year, thousands of Filipino Christians all over the world go on this pilgrimage that our hotel in Bethlehem serves adobo and nilagang baka for dinner. My family joined one such trip shortly before the Holy Week, the most meaningful time for spiritual rededication among Christians.
The pilgrimage had been a lifelong dream for my 70-year-old mother who saved up for it for years. But we should have gone before Dad was struck with Alzheimer’s Disease, she lamented.
How this spiritual journey impacted on my father—who was silent, and at times, crabby throughout the trip—made it more memorable.
As our itinerary took us to places that figured in both the Old and New Testament, I wished I had paid more attention to the Bible. But I learned that if you focus on the reason for your journey, you will not be lost.
It was easy to be left in awe of the sites, which are as holy as they are breathtaking, like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Old Jerusalem where Jesus was buried, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sea of Galilee and the little Grotto of the Nativity, where a silver star marks Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem.
I was at times truly conflicted on whether I should take a picture, as a tourist would, or pray.
I wanted a photo of Jesus’ tomb inside the Edicule but the long line of pilgrims had everyone rushing in and out of the burial chamber so fast that I ended up with neither a decent picture nor a sincere prayer.
I managed, however, to run my fingers on the bench that was Jesus’ tomb even while the cranky Greek Orthodox priest was yelling, “Quick! Quick!”
Still and all, it was a blessing for our group to get inside the Holy Sepulcher, which had been closed for nine months for restoration and was reopened only three days earlier.
Our pilgrimage started as soon as 40 of us Filipino pilgrims landed at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman.
We headed straightaway to Mt. Nebo, where we viewed the Promised Land. Though it was a bit foggy, our tour guide pointed out the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley, Jericho and Bethlehem.
In Amman, at the “Red Rose City” of Petra, a world wonder, Dad had his first and, thankfully, only tantrum during the trip when he forgot Mom’s name and just kept pointing at her.
We didn’t know anyone in our group and felt deeply embarrassed about this episode, but as we walked through Siq and listened to our guide, Mom and I managed to set aside the uncomfortable moment.
One comes out of the passage with a dramatic view of the Treasury, the rose-colored building carved out of rock.
I fished out $5 for a camel ride, thinking this would be my only chance to do so. But as soon as the 2-meter-high (7-foot) camel stood, I asked to be brought down.
The saddle was unstable, and the ground rocky, but I was atop the camel long enough for the guides to take pictures of me begging for my Mom.
It was also such a funny moment that she finally got past that episode with Dad.
As we headed to Israel by bus, we started getting to know the rest of the group and established friendships that we all hope would last a lifetime.
In Israel, it was quite startling that the first thing we saw in Nazareth, the ancient place where Jesus lived and preached the Gospel, was a thriving modern mall and a McDonald’s.
Still, no amount of modernity could diminish the holiness of city.
The Basilica of Annunciation where the angel Gabriel told a young Mary that she would be the Mother of Jesus Christ was built atop the cave where the Holy Family lived.
It struck me that though the church was huge, it was simple and quite bare, with a palpable sense of divinity inside. It is by far, my most favorite church.
At Mt. Tabor, Jesus appeared before His disciples after His death already radiant in His heavenly glory. Fr. Alex said that everyone could be renewed and transformed, no matter the gravity of the sins committed. Life is about second chances and at this Mass, I felt I had been truly forgiven.
We only had one Sunday Mass throughout our pilgrimage, and blessed were we to have it right at the Nativity Grotto, a cave under the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was born.
After the Mass, we venerated at the spot where Jesus was born, lying on our bellies and kissing the stone marked by a silver star.
Near the Church of the Nativity was the Chapel of the Milk Grotto, where Mary breastfed the Baby Jesus. It was a cave converted into a beautiful church, where the powder scraped from the rocks inside is believed to bring miracles to parents who prayed to have children.
A packet of powder is sold for $2 each, complete with a prayer and instructions on how to use it. I bought one for my best friend and gave the priest the money. He handed me two packets. I tried to return the other one, but he gestured “no” and seemed to say, “Take both.”
A few days after we got home, I saw a high school friend who has had two miscarriages. I asked if she believed in miracles. Of course, she said. A few days later, I gave her the extra packet.
Our pilgrimage included Cana, where Jesus performed His first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding. Part of our Mass was the renewal of the marriage vows of the six couples in our group, including my parents who have been married 45 years.
Dad was puzzled by the ceremony but still had a big smile when told to kiss Mom and pose for photos. Mom was all smiles, too. It was then that I realized what a marriage vow and love, truly meant.
By this time, we were getting to know each one in our group. We had been having meals and walks together, and conversed freely during bus rides.
Mom must have told them about Dad because every time I’d mention his Alzheimer’s in the hope that people would understand why he was behaving the way he did, they’d tell me, “We know.”
Dad enjoyed the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and, when after our prayers the boat’s crew taught us a folk dance and later played an Abba song, he joined in gleefully.
Everybody cheered him on, happy to see him have fun. All the pain I’ve felt seeing my parents grapple with a cruel disease were cast away.
I’ve never seen as many churches as I had in our five-day stay in Israel, each with its own unique part in our Christian faith.
The Church of All Nations, or Basilica of the Agony beside the Garden of Gethsemane, was where Jesus prayed the night before he was arrested.
It was dark inside the church and one feels held in a peaceful embrace.
A highlight, too, was our visit to the Western Wall, one of the holiest places in Jerusalem. There we prayed, wrote down our petitions and inserted them in the tiny holes in the wall.
In Egypt, our visit to the monastery of St. Catherine was noteworthy because the dark yet stunning Greek Orthodox church is home to one of her relics, a finger.
The burning bush, where Moses was asked to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, remains lush behind the monastery, although it is now cordoned off after the monks discovered that tourists were picking its leaves.
There was something about the places we visited that allowed one to converse with God in full concentration. I’ve never had that experience before. Back in Manila, I found myself missing that indescribable feeling because of the din of the daily grind.
At our last Mass in the pilgrimage, Mom thanked everybody for helping us take care of Dad. She couldn’t hold back her tears. Neither could I. Soon there was no dry eye in the chapel.
Throughout our trip, people went out of their way to look out for Dad, some accompanying him on toilet breaks, others keeping an eye on him while Mom and I did some shopping. They all made it a point to engage him in brief conversations even if he only responded with a smile.
Mom and I wondered if our pilgrimage meant anything to him because it tired him out and deprived him of his daily naps. But at the airport when we all said our goodbyes, Dad was teary eyed when he hugged them. He was especially emotional with Fr. Alex, Tita Florie, Erhlich and Froilan.
It was the little miracle that I never expected, but I want so much to believe in.
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