I swim. It’s what I do. And have done since my parents marched their ducklings to the parish pool. Yet, I prepared to do without in the Holy Land; my aquatic expectations were limited to a dip in the Dead Sea.
Little did I know.
San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land was in late May and early June of 2023. The Rev. Mark Stanger skillfully guided us through Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and beyond.
(St. John’s Episcopal Church Map – www.stjohnsepsicopal.org)
Our home base was St. George’s Pilgrim Guest House in East Jerusalem. From there, we ventured forth.
The Natural Environment
The sheer beauty of the natural environment was unexpected. The marbled sky, the varied terrain and the flowing waters reflected this ancient description:
“[It is] a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Book of Exodus 3:8)
The sky was splendid by day:
(Ramallah District, West Bank)
And awesome by night:
(Moonlight over the King David Hotel, West Jerusalem)
The terrain offered not only the anticipated desert, but also lush farmland and mountain peaks.
(Early morning in the Judean Desert)
(Sunrise over desert mountains)
(Desert thistle greeting the day)
Farms in the Galilee region were thriving on plentiful rainfall and cooler temperatures supportive of crop culture.
(View of fertile Beit Netofa Valley, in the Galilee region)
(A local treat)
The Golan Heights had many cherry orchards tended by the Druze people.
(Druze roadside food stand offering delicious fruit and juices)
The Holy Land has mountain peaks, such as Nimrod Fortress, overlooking the valley separating Mount Hermon from the rest of the Golan Heights. The fortress is strategically located to monitor the road from Galilee to Damascus, Syria.
(The fortress has guarded against encroaching armies since Hellenistic times)
Mount Hermon even has a ski resort.
(Neve Ativ, surrounded by the Hermon Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights)
And then, there are the flowing waters. Among the most famous are the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, where I did swim.
(The Sea of Galilee from Tabgha Pilgrims’ House grounds)
(The Sea of Galilee from Capernaum)
(A cruise on the Sea of Galilee)
(Rev. Mark Stanger baptizing at the Jordan River)
(The Banias River, a main tributary of the Jordan River, in a reserve with a natural spring once associated with the Greek god Pan)
(Dead Sea Bathers – Rev. Ricardo Avila image, edited – I am farther out doing a carefully choreographed backstroke, to avoid the stinging Dead Sea water dripping into my eyes)
The Built Environment
The buildings of the Holy Land, particularly within the Old City of Jerusalem, can meet and match the splendor of the natural landscape.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is exquisite in its beauty, complexity and deep religious significance for Christians.
(Dome above the Edicule, venerated as covering the tomb of Jesus Christ)
The Dome of the Rock, or Haram Al-Sharif within the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, glistens above the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
(Dome of the Rock and smaller Dome of the Chain atop the Second Jewish Temple site, built to replace the destroyed Solomon’s Temple)
Another fine example is The Church of All Nations, or “Basilica of the Agony,” next to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
(Basilica of the Agony bedrock, where Jesus may have prayed)
(Detail of the Basilica of the Agony apse.)
So, where might I swim within the built landscape of the Holy Land? Well, in my imagination, here:
(The Chapel of the Apparition, or “Latin Chapel,” within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher)
See the gleaming blue and golden tiles behind the altar? Look closer:
(One can imagine being immersed in a deep blue sea)
I found another aquatic palette of sea green and blue amidst glints of sunlight, within the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Our Pilgrims breezed through the church late one day, after our travels north from Jerusalem. I immediately felt at ease within the basilica, so resolved to return.
Two days later, I did. Alone. I was on my own, except for a small group celebrating a Spanish language mass way up, around the altar. For nearly two hours, I studied the many portraits of Mary. Each massive image was a gift from a nation seeking to depict the Holy Mother through their own cultural lens. The basilica was awash with the sacred feminine.
The fluid aqua of Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadalupe captured my attention:
France’s Mary was draped in a blue robe floating over her body and enfolding the Christ child:
But my reverie stopped, as I stood before the vision of Mary offered by the United States.
(Commissioned in 1972, the monumental bronze, aluminum and glass enamel sculpture is of Mary’s Ascension to Heaven)
The gunmetal gray of Mary’s robes and the conflagration behind her are reminiscent of strife, of war. In 1972, when the piece was commissioned, foreign involvement in the Vietnam war was subsiding. I wonder whether the sculptor drew upon American fatigue with war and the damage it caused, when he created this piece. Mary’s face and hands were mature, her expression sorrowful yet resolute.
The piece triggered memories of my family’s history with gun- metal gray. A great-grandfather was an engineer who came to America while still a “subject of Queen Victoria.” He entered the American Civil War by employing his engineering skills at the Springfield Armory, where innovative weaponry was designed, tested and manufactured for use by the Union Army.
And, of course, my next thoughts were about conflict in the precious Holy Land, which holds such an abundance of natural and created beauty.
The art moved me. Tears welled up in my eyes and slipped down my face. Rather than try to stop them, I put on sunglasses, turned my face to the wall in the nearly empty basilica and let the water flow. Rev. Mark had predicted that each pilgrim might have “a moment” and mine was clearly happening now. The questions about why this was occurring and what it meant, were for later. I knew the pilgrimage had just changed, had become more serious for me.
There was an elemental power in the Basilica of the Annunciation that stayed with me. Even through my tears, I felt surrounded and comforted by a presence. This was so within the church and even later at the Sisters of Nazareth Convent where we were staying during this phase of our pilgrimage. I felt grounded, clearer-headed. I knew that what I had come to the Holy Land for, without consciously seeking it, had arrived.
Thankfully, when we returned to Jerusalem, I was able to swim in the East Jerusalem YMCA, across the street from St. George’s. Ladies were admitted from 6:20 to 7:00 p.m., so there was no time to waste! A decent half-mile swim later, I felt renewed. And ready to examine my experience in the Basilica of the Annunciation.
I sought out Rev. Ricardo Avila, an Episcopal priest who was also a Grace Cathedral Pilgrim. We met in a remote section of the garden at St. George’s Pilgrim Guest House and conversed into the night.
We swam in, around and through my basilica episode to discern its meaning. As I intuited, each of us has had similar experiences in our lives, so Fr. Rico immediately understood the basic questions. As always, the inquiries are whether we have been called to act, to refrain from acting or to simply pause and await wisdom.
As I continued my discernment through the remaining days of the pilgrimage, I reflected upon the appealing people of the Holy Land.
I met Archbishop Hosam Naoum, a Palestinian, serving as Anglican Episcopal Archbishop in Jerusalem and Primate of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. We initially spoke after the Pentecost service in St. George’s Cathedral.
His Diocese includes 28 parishes spread throughout Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. As Primate, he has additional responsibilities in Cyprus, the Gulf and Iran. While Archbishop Naoum was an undergraduate at Rhodes University in South Africa, he also studied with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. May Archbishop Naoum’s advocacy for peace and reconciliation through a strengthened Christian presence, moderate and mediate the tension in the region.
I saw evidence of the challenges he faces:
(Extensive, expressive graffiti on the West Bank Barrier, cutting off Bethlehem from the rest of Israel)
I also met Mahmoud Muna, the esteemed owner of two celebrated bookstores in Jerusalem. One is on the campus of the American Colony Hotel, near St. George’s Guest House in East Jerusalem. When I stopped by, we discussed environmental issues I had noticed during our pilgrimage, such as the surprising amount of waste I saw strewn in the West Bank and even in East Jerusalem.
(Trash, including discarded security gates, hoses, wood, metal and cement fragments and more, tucked into a corner of a Christian cemetery steps away from the sacred Garden of Gethsemane.)
So he recommended I read Waste Siege by Sophia Stamatopoulu-Robbins. The book offers a view of life in Palestine by examining the weaponization of waste and the resulting damage to the Palestinian environment, community health and local economy. The author seeks not just balance, but equity. Equity in the sharing and management of natural resources.
The disposal of waste, a core function of any organized society, appears to be impeded by divisions within the Holy Land. Waste Siege demonstrates how the lack of cooperation and communication among the ostensibly responsible parties breaks down. There are even illustrations of abuse, in the absence of a collaborative structure for providing basic civic services; the author noted that illicit dumping of trash in, around and onto Palestinian land and businesses can occur:
“The waste that surrounds just under three million
West Bank Palestinians is both waste … [Israel]
produces and waste Palestinians produce
themselves. Given that subjected, often indigenous communities tend to become dumping grounds for
the discards of those more powerful, […], it is perhaps not surprising that the Israeli-occupied West Bank is a
dumpsite for Israeli waste.”
(Waste Siege, p.5).
The Dead Sea, 1,412 feet below sea level, provides an opportunity to examine how the environment suffers when basic civic services fail.
(Resort by the receding Dead Sea – Sarah Vestal image, edited)
“Ever since the Jordan River’s freshwaters were diverted
in the 1960s, the sea stopped receiving enough water
to keep its current size. As it shrinks the ratio of waste
dissolved into it increases, intensifying the Dead Sea’s
(Waste Siege, p. 212).
And what waste is the Dead Sea receiving? Jerusalem has had a sewage network opening out onto Wadi al-Nar, or Kidron Valley, making a river of sewage running south to meet more wastewater seeping from an “open end-pipe” in Bethlehem’s sewage network and continuing on to the Dead Sea.
The author was explicit:
“It contains everything people in the two holy cities flush
down their toilets and down their shower drains, including
pharmaceuticals, hormones, detergents, and pathogens.
As the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea is like a drain
in a public shower. (Id.)
Since the publication of Waste Siege in 2020, there have been progress reports about a plan to rehabilitate the “Kidron Stream.” However, as with many endeavors in the Holy Land, the project is not without controversy. It is not helpful that one entity involved in the planning has been criticized for limiting water service in East Jerusalem.
Dominion over water, as well as waste, are key environmental issues:
“The absolute amount of water to which Palestinians
have access in the West Bank aquifers has remained
roughly the same over the past two decades. Meanwhile,
the population increases, yielding a decreasing per capita
water volume access as the volume of different types of
(Waste Siege, p. 213.)
Mr. Muna also suggested Nine Quarters of Jerusalem by Matthew Teller. The apt subtitle is “A New Biography of the Old City.” The book dispels the colonialist notion of dividing Jerusalem’s Old City into merely four quarters. Rather, Teller guides the reader through a more richly nuanced city. An Old City populated with Jews, Christians, and Muslims and descendants of Sufis, Doms, Mamluks, Karaites and many more.
Matthew Teller’s respectful celebration of the ancient diversity of the Holy Land contrasted sharply with this sight as we approached Jerusalem after an excursion.
(Wall along Route 60 running north to south, between the West Bank and Israel)
I thought again about the caretaker of the Greek Orthodox Burqin Church, the “Church of the Ten Lepers,” in the Palestinian West Bank. Christian tradition is that the healing of the ten lepers, referenced in Luke 17:11-19, took place on the site. I watched the caretaker’s elegant face and hands as he tenderly held an icon he described as being 2,000 years old.
And, I thought of the many Palestinian women I met. The ladies in the YMCA pool from 6:20 to 7:00 p.m. were favorites; they welcomed me into the water and into their community. They gave me the gift of truly swimming in East Jerusalem; with each lap of the pool, my head cleared so that I might consider what I had learned during the pilgrimage. By the way, the ladies also gave me a YMCA East Jerusalem swim cap I will treasure.
But I must give one final nod to a tiny nun from the Global South. We encountered each other on my last full day in Jerusalem. She was participating in a Catholic mass within the minute Edicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Surrounding her was an international group of nuns wearing habits of white, cream, light blue and other pale hues. I was standing outside the Edicule looking in through a carved portal. When the service reached the right of communion, she turned toward me. Our eyes met for a few beats of the heart, then we smiled and offered each other the international sign of peace. A moment and then it was over. She turned back to her community and I to mine.
My hope is that the tiny nun and I may take what we have learned in the Holy Land and be useful in the world.