Today was a whirlwind day. I even got more than 11,000 steps in before coming back to my hotel room after dinner. I was ‘warned’ about all the walking, but it hasn’t really been that bad, and when you consider where we are walking, it is more than worth the steps. We began today with a Blessing of the Water on the banks of the Jordan River. Due to exceedingly high rainfall the past few weeks, the actual river was blocked off so we used the area the Patriarch uses when he blesses the water each year on Epiphany. It is a modest but special place, which is under Israeli military guard at all times. Up the hill from the river is a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist currently under construction which contains a 12th Century Altar.
From the Jordan River, we drove deeper into the desert to the Monastery dedicated to the Temptation of Christ by the devil after His Baptism.
It really is a desert compared to the fertile land of Galilee. Bus, then cable car, then a couple hundred stairs, and we finally reached the point at which Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights, and was tempted by the devil. I offered names at the stone on which Christ stood as he was tempted.
We then headed to Jericho and the monastery dedicated to Zacchaeus who climbed a sycamore tree to see the Lord. The tree is protected under glass outside the church which is being refurbished with new iconography.
A delightful old hieromonk allowed me to enter the Holy Altar and to offer names for prayer. You may not realize it, but as a priest I have to carry with me a letter of permission from the Patriarch of Jerusalem which allows me to function as a priest here. Without it, I would be “just another” pilgrim, but with it, I am allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in these ancient monasteries and offer names for prayer. I cannot express what a great privilege it is for me to offer names to God in prayer in these holy places.
A quick stop for lunch in Jericho and then to the Dead Sea, 430 meters below sea level. The Jordan River runs from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, so it seems appropriate to end our day putting our feet in the water having blessed our heads in Jordan in the morning.
Alas, our day was not finished. The Monastery of St Gerasimos the Righteous of Jordan. Several of the original caves are still visible where the first monks lived. The current church was built upon the ruins of the original 4th century church, parts of which were still visible below. It is also believed that one cave was used by Joseph and Mary with Christ as they were fleeing into Egypt. This was the first monastery where relics of martyrs were readily visible. These were the bones of the members of the monastery martyred by the Persions. I again offered names in prayer in the Holy Altar of the main Church.
We then headed to our hotel, but not before stopping for one “view” of the monastery of St George Chotzevas. The monastery is only open from 10am until 1pm, and requires more than three hours of driving/walking, so we were left to view it from a distance. Nonetheless, the stop was worthwhile and inspiring. There are only four monks who live there now, but it was once a thriving monastic community.
I noticed each of the monasteries we have visited thus far, have had as few as one and as many as a few monastics, caring for complexes built for (and originally occupied by) many more. Christians today comprise less than 2% of the population in the Holy Lands having experienced a great decline after the Israeli state was established. Again I am reminded of history. These monasteries, some having been visited by Egeria, have their own historical struggle with eras of persecution and freedom. Once greatly populated monasteries dwindled to a few, or none, only to be rekindled by a new wave centuries later. It gives me hope that someday these empty sacred places will again become vibrant places of prayer and worship.
I was also inspired that places like Jericho had Christians, muslims and Jews all living peacefully together in the same city. There is hope for the world yet.