BY CHRISTINE HOGAN
The sound of the muezzin cut through the chilled, predawn air. It was an early, 4.30 am, and the call to prayer which had echoed across this land for more than a millennium, began... “Allahu Akbar...” the muezzin began. “God is the greatest.”
I learned to love the sound first when I spent some months travelling in the Middle East and North Africa... Throughout the days, it would sound and bring people to mindfulness of God and their relationship with him.
When I began to understand the words, and understand their inherent submission to God, I loved the call to prayer even more. So when I hear the call to prayer now, I stop, breathe in, and silently give thanks for all that God has given to me.
As I write this, the muezzin is calling again, across the stillness of sleeping Jerusalem. This is holy ground, as God told Moses (Exodus 3:5) ... “take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground.”
But yesterday I heard the call as it wrapped itself around the hills and valleys near Madaba in Jordan. This was close to the Promised Land, which Moses and his brother Aaron, because they disobeyed God and did not have faith in him, did not live to see.
So here I was, between the Promised and the Holy Land en route with our first CathNews pilgrim group. This was something we had planned, worried over, risk assessed – was it ever risk assessed in the 10 days before we embarked! – and dreamed about for month on month.
We had left Sydney on Saturday evening, and kept going... Abu Dhabi, Amman, and then on a bus to Petra. More than a day and a half of travel before the group, led by our historian Dr Brian Brennan, and Ossama our local guide (no dummy this young man - he has a double degree in archaeology and tour guiding) could stand before the breathtaking Treasury of the Nabatean kings.
Obviously Petra is not a Christian pilgrimage site, but it was so close and worth turning our Sunday into the longest day!
Monday morning came in with the muezzin, and before we began our transfer to Jerusalem, many of us popped across the road to St George's Church. This Greek Orthodox complex is home to the Jerusalem map, the oldest surviving cartographic rendition of the Holy Land and Jerusalem.
The first formal religious experience on our pilgrimage for most of us was the Mass which was being said... in Arabic... in this historic church. The cantor was excellent, the mosaics exquisite, and plumes of incense drifted and wound their way through pale shafts of sunlight. With the bells and smells and the priest in the screened off century, facing away from his congregation, it was at the same moment both a step back in time, and timeless.
No sign of the map though – it was covered! So onwards... A short flight from Amman and we were at Ben Gurion International airport and almost into the principal stage of our journey.
Another bus took us from Lod, past citrus groves and vineyards and ancient terracing and an abandoned Arab village... We kept going up into the Judean hills, up to Jerusalem, a place both real and imagined for our little group of pilgrims. On the way we passes two tanks, their treads caked with sand. Lauren our guide said they were being withdrawn after 10 days on the edge of Gaza.
Some minutes later we turned right and the thumping great Ottoman walls of Jerusalem appeared. Another right turn and we were in the grounds of Notre Dame of Jerusalem - not a hotel but a guesthouse for pilgrims for more than 100 years. More on Notre Dame tomorrow...
Our first full day in Jerusalem is about to begin with a walk around the old city... And tonight we have our first guest speaker, the author and foreign correspondent, Irris Makler.. more on her understanding of this holy ground tomorrow as well.
Christine Hogan is the Publisher for the faith-based publications produced by Church Resources, and moderates the discussion boards of CathNews. She is currently on the CathNews Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and this is the first of the blogs she will submit over the next two weeks.
Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.