Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Holy Land: Stepping to the Farthest Reaches of My Soul, Not My Walllet


I don’t really want to talk about religion, but my most recent trip involved faith and religion. I’m always open to all kinds of religious beliefs because I believe that all kinds of religion expound on the same essential truth – the individual relationship with nature, with other people and with God. I believe that everyone has the right to worship their God the way they want as long as they do not hurt others. For me I chose to remain and worship my God in the church/religion that my parents introduced me to, but as I get older, I start to lose my faith in the church. Thinking that I needed some sort of spiritual reawakening, I joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land organized by our local parish priest.

Sadly, the so-called pilgrimage turned out to be not a pilgrimage but a tour to the Holy Land. I did not feel like a pilgrim, but a tourist that fell into a “trap.” The line between commerce and religious was fuzzy from the very beginning. The fact that the trip was marketed as ‘Specially Arranged Pilgrimage to the Holy Land” and that we were told that it was filling up fast, made me sign-up for the trip with blind faith (not knowing the whole fact about the trip - total cost, the limit or number of participants allowed to join). I have no complaints about the cost of the trip, it was comparable to the pilgrimage offered by other pilgrimage providers, but it was a little iffy how the people we trust to do the right thing presented it to us. Before leaving, our pilgrim-coordinator met with us three times - to pay the down payment, first installment and final payment.  During the meetings, our priest/prilgrim-coordinator told us what to expect in this pilgrimage: Couples would get to renew their wedding vows in Cana; We get to reenact water baptism in the River Jordan; Walk on the sacred places that Jesus walked, where he taught, lived, died and rose from the dead. I had never been so excited about a trip than to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. So, I embarked on this trip with great expectation: to match the physical steps with spiritual steps to the farthest reaches of my soul, not my wallet.

As it turned out, more than sixty people signed-up for the trip (two busloads). Any reasonable person would know that managing sixty people in one trip is a hard thing to do. Though, I reasoned that the tour operators that had been in the business since 1976 knew what they were doing. However, as soon as we landed from a more-than-fifteen-hour flight, we waited for hours at the airport for the tour operator/director to iron out some issues with hotel vouchers.

We had a list of hotels, but no day-to-day itinerary except on day one, when we traveled from the airport in Jordan to Mt. Nebo that mentioned a visit to a local craft (mosaic tile) museum. The place turned out to be a museum of five animated bible story (Noah’s ark, parting of the red sea, etc.) and animated display (Las Vegas style) of the people of Jordan’s occupations – which was a lead in to the factory/store. It was insulting!  And these became our day-to-day schedule.
  • Our tour director/operator and the priest/coordinator alternated between two buses to lead the prayers on the bus.
  • A visit to a holy site
  • Mass was held every day at a holy site. Each of us had to give money every mass (with a set minimum) for our priest and for the church at the holy site.
  • Buffet lunch (average price $18.00) in the outskirts of town where we had no choice but to eat or not to eat (a tourist trap in the truest sense of the word)
  • A visit to a factory/store (shop ‘til you drop)
We entered Israel via the Kings Bridge and on to Jericho Road where every inch of it was mentioned in the Bible (at least according to our guide). Our guide started his narration by citing the book number and verse number from the Bible that mentioned the place we were seeing. He would then give us a few details about the place or way too many information about the plants. The narration would then change to something I thought still related to the Bible like "collecting tears into a jar as a sign of undying love and fidelity,’ only to find our bus in front of pottery factory/store. Another factory/store lead-in tactic was to talk about the Dead Sea and to talk about love and beauty. The next thing we knew, we were in front of a SPA and Beauty Store with products from the Dead Sea. There was nothing more blatant display of materialism than taking us to a diamond and jewelry factory before the renewal of wedding vows ceremony at the church in Cana (where Jesus performed his first wedding and the miracle of turning water into wine).  Of course, the many who joined this so-called pilgrimage to have their wedding vows renewed at Cana were at the height of their emotion - love.  After all, how many couples could say they got to renew their wedding vows in Cana?  It was very exploitative - taking advantage of people's faith and emotion.  And it bothered me the most.  At that point, I stopped questioning our coordinator’s and tour operator/director’s motivation behind this pilgrimage, and I stopped praying with them.

After the wedding renewal ceremony in Cana, I almost missed seeing some artifacts from the site because we were rushed to go to the Cana Wedding Wine outlet/store. But I sneaked behind when another tourist told me about a small museum at the basement of the church. In Tiberias, I sneaked out from the beauty store to enjoy the Tiberias resort area and the view of the Sea of Galilee and enjoy coffee at a local coffee shop.

Consequently, all that shopping inconvenienced those who did very little or no shopping at all, as we exited Israel. We sat inside the bus for three hours while waiting for others to get their VAT refunds. I do not fault the pilgrims/tourists, but the coordinator and tour-director. The tour director who had been running the business for seventeen years should have considered these consequences and not just thought about her commission from the factory/store.

We sailed and celebrated a mass on the boat at the Sea of Galilee near Kibbutz Ginosar before visiting theYigal Allon museum where the remnant and a picture of a boat from the time of Jesus, dug out by a fisherman and said to have been used by Jesus disciples, was on display. I was surprised how loosely secured an artifact of such importance, so I asked our guide if it was the government responsibility to protect such relic. His answer surprised me more. He said, “It’s all about faith,” pointing to the boat that we sailed on, “The boats are run by a private company. Anybody can operate a business as long as you apply for license and pay taxes.” I learned later that no evidence was found to connect the ‘Jesus Boat’ to Jesus Christ or his disciples. It seemed to me that the boat in the museum was used to package a tour attraction that included the boat rides. Everything was commercialized, even to use the bathroom. We were in line for a long time to get local currency to use the bathroom that had an automated coin system.

Although the commercial part of the trip took away the solemnity of a pilgrimage, it did not take away some of the amazing places we visited. For example, the Church of Transfiguration at the tip of Mt. Tabor, the spot where Jesus transfigured, was beautifully designed by a priest-architect Barluzzi. The artwork inside the church and the view from Mt. Tabor were amazing. The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth enclosed the remains of the House of Joachim and Ann and the site where the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce that she was to become the Mother of God, is one of the largest churches in the world. Today, the shrines or churches that were built over the remnants of the Byzantine churches where most of the religious relics said to have been found or the miracles of Jesus occurred, are under the ‘Custodian of the Holy Land', a Franciscan order approved by the Pope and the Holy See. 

This pilgrimage turned out to be just another travel experience for me.  I wished more time was spent meditating inside the churches of great religious significance, but I felt like a tourist rushed to give way for other tourists.  But it's wonderful to see people of differing culture and religions co-exist peacefully through their churches in the old City of Jerusalem. I was thankful to have a glimpse into some of the places in the world – Golan Heights, Haifa and the West Bank - where I would not visit otherwise. I came home with greater respect of the country I call home, and better understanding for the need for government. For a country or state without a government, look sad.

Secondly, this pilgrimage made me reaffirm my values.  The more I travel, the more I find myself in respect of people and other cultures that practice religions of entirely different beliefs. For example, in Buddhist Thailand, I saw the beauty on how they practiced religion by taking care of each other and the people. In Turkey, the muezzin call to prayers and the prayer chants sounded like beautiful music to my ear that when I came home, I began to appreciate the priest chanting during the mass. In China, despite the thousands of visitor to the Lin Yin Temples, the Lin Yin Hills provided a backdrop of peaceful seclusion for me to have a one on one with God. I take the miracles of life and the magic of nature through the towering waterfalls, natural hot springs, the remains of ancient civilizations, animals not behind cages and the birds and dolphins in the Amazon and wild oceans as “Divine Act.” 

Lastly, from a religious perspective, this pilgrimage made me redefine my beliefs and made me question the authoritative forces (the priest) in my church that defined for me what exactly is “right” and what exactly is “wrong.”

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