Unexpected Encounters – 6th November 2019 – by Pamela Zigomo
Pilgrim newbies – Unexpected encounters, selfies and shopping
First day of the pilgrimage and there were mixed reviews. We were a little dazed after an early morning flight into Tel Aviv and a 2 hour-long drive to Tiberias the day before, we woke up for breakfast and morning prayer at 7.30am excited and apprehensive. As we made our way to the Wedding Church in Cana, our first impressions were that everything looked so modern, we grappled with our expectations of the old versus the new. Of course we knew that the Holy Land couldn’t remain untouched and stuck in biblical times but we were still amazed by how modern everything was – the random McDonalds restaurant along the roadside, the numerous signs showing special offers to join local gyms and get that summer body, the shops advertising the season’s sales. Our first stop was the shops selling Cana wedding wine, many bottles along with souvenirs for family and friends were purchased. We then made our way into the wedding church and navigated our way through several other energetic pilgrim parties into the church – to be honest, it sometimes felt like we were in the middle of a scrum. Seeing so many other pilgrims in this small space was surreal, who knew there were so many of us around the world who had also had this brilliant idea to embark on a pilgrimage in November?! Despite the large numbers we managed to make a little space for ourselves and had the opportunity to reflect on John 2 v 1-11 detailing Jesus’ first miracle – the wedding at Cana. We watched our friends renew their marriage vows or pray for their beloved partners back home; we comforted other friends who used this moment to remember the precious memories of love lost and we also stood with friends who were interceding for couples they knew and prayers yet to be answered- it was a bitter-sweet moment for us all.
We were then back on the coach and on our way to Nazareth to see the two contested sites of the Annunciation. The rich contextual lectures shared by our friendly guide were so educational. We learnt that some scripture scholars believe that the angel Gabriel might have appeared to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, at the well and others believe that the angel appeared to her at her house. Nazareth, the town that was belittled and marginalised in biblical times was pleasant, yes, still modern but very charming. We had a wonderful time by Mary’s Well and the Basilica of the Annunciation, where we meditated on Luke 1 v26-38. The artistic depictions of Mary the mother of Jesus contributed by different countries were captivating, and of course the wonderfully diverse and global pilgrims from CC EG had the double challenge of finding England’s visual depiction of the Virgin Mary as well as those from their countries of origin. We then went on to a delicious lunch at the Holy Land Restaurant – and of course this being CC EG we did just a little more shopping along the way! We finished off the afternoon at Basilica of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor for a peaceful afternoon mass and then returned to the Convent of the Beatitudes for a much-needed rest, reflection and supper.
As we sat together in the chapel, looking back at this first day of our pilgrimage and trying to make sense of it all, what was clear in our time of sharing was that our first day’s pilgrimage experience was complex and full of unexpected encounters, leaving us little dazed but optimistic for what is to come. We realised the pilgrimage experience is multifaceted – it is made up of social, personal, educational and… surprisingly for some of us, commercial experiences. Some members of the group had opportunities to get to know fellow members a little better and pray together while visiting the different sites and other members also had opportunities to speak to pilgrims from other groups in the moments we were waiting to enter holy sites and alight coaches for travel. As we experienced this rather whirlwind first day of visiting four holy sites while some were still recovering from a sleepless night of pre-travel excitement and others were still on Tokyo time after having to rush home from the Rugby Word Cup final, we reflected on how we felt conflicted in being tourists more than pilgrims at times. The realisation that we were seeing the bible stories we read so often come to life left us in awe and we couldn’t help but take the numerous group photos, videos and selfies as well buy the souvenirs from the numerous gift shops that would be a reminder of our special time in this place. We had both positive and negative perceptions about this – some felt the pilgrimage experience was becoming commercialised, but others noted that the selling of souvenirs and so many package tours was essential to maintain the livelihood of the Palestinian citizens. We admired our enterprising and gracious hosts who still made us feel welcome even though we were probably a little frustrating, asking endless questions. Other members shared their relief at how peaceful it was, having had apprehensions about personal safety while travelling in a land with a complex and contested history. We ended the evening in an optimistic mood, agreeing that this journey will be a process, there are no instant pilgrims. It will take us a while to get out of hectic London mode and seek out the transformational encounters. We committed to move forward on our journey being more present in the experience, not letting the outward visible distract us from the inward invisible that is God’s grace.