What an unreal experience! What a surreal event! What an amazing turn of events!

This all happened because in our week in Israel, we missed our tourist slot for a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane during the daytime due to traffic congestion and were offered a private visit in the evening instead. I should have known then that this was not mere coincidence. Although slightly disappointed at the itinerary change ( I was feeling exhausted after the days events), I realised it was not the end of the world if I didn't go that evening and ,anyway, we had, seen other beautiful places during our whistle-stop tour. However, the nagging doubt, the uneasy feeling remained.
All through the week of the tour I had been preoccupied with the notion of why I was really here, in the Holy Land. The idea of visiting Israel had never entered my head before or even appealed to me but the opportunity arose spontaneously the previous month. Talk about serendipity! I was recovering from treatment for an MS relapse, just got out of hospital and feeling particularly low and vulnerable, as is usual during these times. The phone rang and a dear friend from Liverpool, Bernadette, began telling me of this brief tour to Israel that was happening in November and was being organised and led by a local priest Father Peter, whom I had first met back in my grammar school days. Apparently, someone had withdrawn from the trip and there was a spare place going that needed to be filled.Fr. Peter had asked Bernie if she thought I would be interested in going; hence the call.

Just prior to this call, as I said, I wasn't in the best frame of mind. I was low and feeling rather sorry for myself. It had been less than two years since my last relapse and I was concerned that the disease was progressing and, thus, feeling somewhat frightened and adrift. It was a time when I needed to call on spiritual help of whatever kind as, physically, I was replete. So this phone call, out of the blue, at this particular time, spooked me somewhat. Afterwards, I had the distinct sensation that this was somehow significant and it was about time I listened to the “Universe” for a change, instead of living in my analytical brain. I had asked Bernie to give me a day or two to muse on it and talk it over with my wife after which I rang her back and said “Count me in. Yes, I think the trip might do me good”. So impulsive! I didn't even give any thought to the practicalities of moving about and if I'd known then what I know now about the terrain in the Holy Land, I certainly would not have gone. Still, the wee, small voice within was urging me to be spontaneous for a change, to go with the flow, to turn off the intellect and jump into life again (or at least climb, of sorts).

We had a “ send-off service” before departure from Liverpool. The church was cold that morning despite the throng at Mass. The old Victorian edifice with its looming ceilings and large stained-glass windows struggled to retain the heat inside on this cold November day. As the mass proceeded my mind was on other things as I looked around the people gathered there, trying to visualise their reasons for wanting to make this pilgrimage to the Holy Land. However, there was a bigger question closer to home; why was I there, at this difficult time in my recovering state? Such a varied collection of people round and about m; mainly elderly females, a few middle-aged couples and then my friends and I representing the younger element. I say younger, but all of us were on the wrong side of forty-five to be considered that young! But still, some say age is a state of mind anyway. If that's the case, this morning, here in this cold damp church, I reckon I was feeling about 112!

Up there on the altar Fr.Pete was engrossed in the mass, as usual. I have known Pete since grammar school back in the seventies where he was our school chaplain and over all these years his enthusiasm and joy in saying daily Mass has never waned; he is absolutely rapt in his art. I have often wondered if he ever has any doubts about his faith given all that he has to deal with but I've never had the courage to ask him in case he says, “ yes”, and shatters my illusions. You see, in many ways, Fr.Pete has become something of a legend and inspiration in Catholic circles in this diocese and when we create our legends we like them to stay that way, don' we? One point of surety in the chaos of our lives. It's a big responsibility we place on our heroes, often without their knowledge or consent. We project and invest many of our hopes and aspirations in them, like safe repositories, believing they will keep them protected for us for whenever we may need to draw on them; the ultimate trust, you might say, the ultimate faith.Outside, after mass ,the coach pulled up slowly at the door of the church and the group of parishioners swelled forward with their suitcases to embark. And so to the Holy Land I went.

The week was largely uneventful and so tiring for me. We stayed at an hotel in Bethlehem and because of this, were subjected to intimidating screening and scrutiny by staff at the airports in London and Jerusalem(Bethlehem is a Palestinian area), and the Israeli militia in and around Jerusalem itself. Militia! I use that term reservedly. They were kids with guns! It was very disturbing. They should have been at home on their play-stations and computers or playing football,yet here they were, uniformed and armed. Scary stuff and very sad. Youngsters, robbed of the innocence of their childhood in such a macabre way. Talk about institutional child-abuse! To my mind the Israeli State ought to be ashamed. Nevertheless, we worked with the reality and tried not to let the politics of the region get in the way of our pilgrimage; a kind of “when in Rome” scenario, only this was Israel. After all, I had put a lot of money and effort into getting here in the first place and I was determined to make the most of the experience.
The week panned out as planned with Fr.Peter and our guide Lauren leading us to places such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Cana, Galilee, The Dead Sea, Masada ; in other words, the Biblical route according to the tourist stamp. Lots of Holy places revered within the Catholic faith. Places Id learnt about since infancy and pictured in my mind with suitable awe and reverence.

Why then, you may ask, was I so unmoved by the real thing? These Holy and sacred places appeared to me inanimate edifices, crowded with tourists and yet, for me, without spirit. On a secular level they were impressive but in spiritual terms, well, found wanting! I had come in search of spirit but the spirits, it seemed, had flown; they were no longer there. And, despite such disappointment, I still couldn't shake this feeling that it was important for me to be there. But surely not for this, the tourist tat!

To be honest, the day that our guide told us we had missed our slot at Gethsemane, I wasn't too disappointed. I had been finding the terrain especially difficult to negotiate with my limited mobility and was exhausted. So, in a way, this news was a blessed respite. Or so I thought! On the morning of our penultimate day, our guide informed us that he had managed to arrange a private visit for our party to Gethsemane that evening. It would be after dark but this was the best he could do for those who wanted to go. As I said earlier, I was flagging at this point and somewhat disappointed with the trip, thus far, as I hadn't really been able to engage with the spectacle and history all around me. In truth I was feeling trapped by the physical limitations of my body and disappointed that my expectations of the trip had not been met.

This feeling wasn't unusual or unduly upsetting as I had been here before. For me, it had become part and parcel of the post-treatment climb out of the pit of disease process and back onto terra-firma (however wobbly the legs might be), in order to re-encounter and adapt to life in whatever way I could manage. I had been doing this for over ten years now, so it was not unusual, it was part of my process of “continuing to dance with the alien” as I called it.

Anyhow, back to the Gethsemane visit. It was a toss-up in my mind; stay in the hotel bar to initiate a whiskey induced sleep(spirits of another kind altogether), or trek out again into a chilly, dark, isolated area of Jerusalem. Well, after travelling all this way, I thought “in for a penny, in for a pound”. The realisation that I would only pass this way once told me to “go for it”. Curiously, on the coach journey to the Garden, we were all rather subdued or tired, or even both, as the week was coming to a close. There was a certain resignation about the people in the bus despite the fact that we were going to a place synonymous with suffering and betrayal but also with the beginning of the Passion of Christ. Maybe, on reflection, it was a sadness through association with the historical context of the site. I don't really know.

The bus pulled up outside the Franciscan church that stands next to the Garden of Gethsemane, which is located outside the city walls of Jerusalem and is somewhat isolated. On alighting from the bus, I was acutely aware of the stillness and quiet and the inky blackness of the sky here in contrast to the luminous glow of the city across the valley, in the near distance. We were admitted via a small side-gate by one of the Franciscan priests and entered directly into the Garden which was walled off, next to the church. On entering, I was immediately struck by how small it was, yet how simple, beautiful and peaceful. For a while, I just stood on some raised steps looking down on the garden which was dimly lit by small low-lights to allow walking on the gravel paths that meandered through the trees. In the stillness, I was aware that this was probably the most unobtrusive place we had visited all week(and nearly missed it!), and yet, in this dimmed stillness it appeared to me the most warm and beautiful of sites, which quite surprised me. Here, I was feeling engaged, disturbed, moved; it was as if this garden was calling out to me. It was singing an unclear song and I was desperately trying to attune my hearing into the vibration within my ears.

I descended carefully from the raised steps and walked the best way I could around the laid out paths, my trusty cane conspicuous in its support. At several points I stopped, placed my hand on a tree, closed my eyes and tried to decipher what I thought it was trying to tell me. There was a purpose for me being here, but what was it? Was there something for me to see perhaps? I scanned the garden in the dim light....the paths, the trees, the stones.......What was it that I was being drawn to? Was there a sign of something significant, a statue....what?

Looking around, the garden embraced me with its warm peacefulness, so calm....whilst my fellow pilgrims remained respectfully quiet and prayerful. Yet within, I was becoming quite agitated and frustrated and I knew my spine was edging towards spasm if I didn't do something. At that moment, I turned around to look over my shoulder and caught site of a warm light spilling out from a side-door of the church into the night garden . Many of the more elderly of my party had made their way indoors to the church as the garden was too chilly for them; I had forgotten how the elderly can feel the cold. I followed suit, being enticed slowly by the welcoming church light. However, as much as I wanted to enter the church quickly, my body decided not to co-operate with my will and I was forced to advance tentatively, for fear of falling over.

During this time I was aware of my inner voice speaking to me and repeating the phrase, ”don't be afraid to fall. You've been there before and got up again so what's the problem now?” How odd! How strange! How enigmatic! I was used to hearing my inner voice when reflecting or meditating, but not usually when concentrating on co-ordinating my leg movements in an effort to get from A to B. Whilst being somewhat surprised by this phenomenon, I was able to relax a little and began to move more freely towards the glowing beacon light of the church.

On entering the church, nothing of any great detail struck me apart from the continuing stillness and the shadows looming down the long nave. The main altar was illuminated dimly and we were escorted here by a priest and asked to seat ourselves on chairs placed around the sanctuary in a square formation. From our seated positions we began praying quietly or some of us just sat in our own way and time. In front of the main altar, in the floor, sat a huge, grey stone which, apparently, was supposed to be the stone on which Jesus lay on Maunday Thursday eve, begging his father in Heaven to prevent the terrible events that were about to unfold - it was called the “crying stone”, because this was, literally, where Jesus had wept.

Some of the party took turns in touching the stone with rosary beads and medals, that they might be blessed whilst the rest of us remained seated in the quiet solitude, watching. I was aware of the environment and of watching people around me and yet, somehow, I became detached from the reality. What little noise there had been was slowly filtered out, just like when your ears compress on an airplane, before they pop. I knew I was there, in the physical sense but something else...something extraordinary was happening. Far from being alarmed or disturbed, I figured I was just tired and needed the welcome rest. I don't think I was even meditating or praying.....I was just being.....being there.

After sometime, I heard a male voice speak softly and say “the stick.....the stick.” I looked up and then to either side of me thinking it was my friend Mark saying something I hadn't quite caught, but he was nowhere to be seen. Around me were women from the party and Fr. Peter and his deacon, Carl. However, both men were much further up the sanctuary, praying intently with their eyes closed. I thought no more of it and continued just sitting quietly when again I distinctly heard the voice directly behind my head saying, “the stick...the stick”, with a touch of urgency in the tone. Quickly, I turned around but nobody was behind me and the two ladies either side of me were busy with their rosaries. How strange ! I turned back to face the altar, looking towards the “crying stone”, and simply watched this for a while, enjoying the quiet rest.
After a few moments the voice came again, very loudly and insistent.”The stick...the stick...” I said to myself, “who is that ?” and then “ what does he mean ?” I didn't recognise the voice and I knew for certain it wasn't me. Whilst pondering these strange events and gazing at the crying stone I suddenly was seized by the urge to pick up my walking cane and make my way over to the stone where I, somehow, impulsively, knelt down on both knees, something I have found very difficult to do with ease for some years now. However, I almost glided to the floor and placed my cane onto the sacred stone, holding it there with my right hand and began praying the “Our Father”. During this time I was completely unaware of the surroundings or the time; there was only darkness around me and the illuminated stone beneath me. A loud, strong wind rushed passed me, or so it seemed, and images of the Passion as indicated in the Stations of the Cross, began to cascade across my mind like dominoes falling in sequence.

This place echoed with the ghost of the most extreme suffering endured by a human being, one who even when faced with the foreknowledge of his fate, surrendered to a higher will and thus, ultimately, transcended life and death. For the first time in many years, I felt a re-connection with the faith of my birth, with the spiritual humanity of the man called Jesus, and not the divinity, of which I am largely unfamiliar. The huge image of God with tiny Man at his feet depicted in the Graham Sutherland Tapestry at Coventry Cathedral floated slowly across my field of inner vision: I was that tiny man in the image, so small, so fragile and yet so loved by those dear to me. Strangely, I also recalled that the Chapel of Gethsemane in the Cathedral at Coventry was located just below this tapestry and to the right. What a strange link! In following the stream of consciousness I remembered that the rebuilding of the cathedral at Coventry, after destruction by the Luftwaffe, was symbolic of the death and rebirth of Jesus. That with faith, not necessarily religious faith, one is capable of rebuilding and redemption following catastrophe and destruction. Wow! What a realisation to receive in this place and at this time.

Indeed, if I'm honest with myself, I had felt buried under the weight of illness for many years now. Feeling strangely different and struggling to come to terms with a changed persona, trying to find out who I now was compared to who I was before diagnosis, adrift in a sea of changing identities. In that moment, I knew that a healing had begun for me. Not a cure for my illness, but something much more important, born out of a connection and psychological realisation. Being here, at this time, I now knew why I had been brought here to this Holy Place. All the fear and self-pity that I had been experiencing following my recent health set-back flooded up through my body and out of the top of my head, like a will-o-the wisp. For me, the healing message rang in my ears as I realised that my fear and pain were largely concerned with how I approached and dealt with my illness both psychologically and spiritually; the deeper meaning for me required a choice of different attitude and approach. In this blessed moment, death and life no longer held any fear for me......and I knew, I really knew.... that no matter what storms might come my way, now or in the future, I would be alright. Despite the weakness of my physical form, I understood that my strength lay within me and after so long, I was finally waking up to that fact!

After a time, it was probably only seconds but felt like minutes, I felt the noise of the group begin to filter back into my ears and became painfully aware of the deep hurting in my spine and legs. I retrieved my cane and clumsily managed to stand upright again, feeling an overwhelming urge to get outside into the garden. As I was making my way, falteringly, off the sanctuary I became conscious of some of my fellow pilgrims crying and Fr. Peter staring intently at me, his mouth agape. I desperately needed air and so I hurried as best I could towards the side-door and out into the garden. Once outside, I made my way down amongst the trees feeling a little conspicuous and almost a need to hide away.

There amongst the trees I experienced a vague feeling of forgetfulness or time-lapse, just like when you've been day-dreaming and you suddenly rouse to find minutes have flown by and you are a bit disorientated. I began quickly reflecting on the events that had just occurred and continued to feel somewhat exposed and vulnerable. The phenomena,the voice,the compulsion to act,the stick and the stone,the crying women. Who or what had made me do that? I felt manipulated, used and more than a bit foolish on one level and yet, curiously, on another parallel level, there was a message here, a sign, a quiet, desperate call to understanding.

For some time, I remained in the garden, away from the group, conscious of the need to breathe steadily and to become calm and relaxed. Questions,......such questions reverberating around my skull. Had I, on some subconscious level, been trying to ask for healing or some sort of blessing? If so, it certainly was not intentional as I haven't believed in such dramatic happenstance since I was a kid and anyway, I was still physically the same after the events as before, so no miraculous changes had occurred. However, something was happening!

Intuitively, I knew something momentous was happening, something of great significance had started and I was clearly involved. But what was it? How had it come about? More questions! We were on our last night here so what could it possibly be? I recalled the inner voice from earlier when I first entered the garden and its directive,” do not be afraid to fall”, and I decided there and then to just let things be, not to overanalyse, not to deconstruct the events; just to go with it and let whatever it was unfold in its own way, in its own time. If the Universe was indeed hatching a plan and I was part of that plan, then why resist? What was there to lose?

After a while I began to feel some strength returning to my legs and pulled myself away from the tree on which I was resting so that I was once more upright and steady. I slowly made my way through the low lit garden paths as a fine mist began to wind its way amongst the trees and the temperature dropped, enveloping me with a chilly overcoat. Looking up, I saw that most of the party had made their way down through the garden to the front of the church and were boarding the coach to take us back to our hotel. As I followed slowly, I became aware of footsteps behind me and turned to find my friend, Mark, walking slowly behind me as I staggered, ready to catch me should I stumble or fall, particularly on the steep steps down from the church door to the pavement and the waiting coach. On reaching the pavement, Fr. Peter stood waiting for me at the door to the coach and as I approached he opened his arms and moved forward to embrace me warmly. My friends Mark and Bernadette stood either side of me in support, silent but clearly moved in some deep way. Fr. Peter gently asked if he could conduct a healing ceremony for me back at the hotel with a group of people who he worked with in his healing ministry and something moved me to agree to this as I slowly nodded and tears filled my eyes. After a further embrace from my friends we boarded the bus and set off, back towards Bethlehem and our hotel.

During the journey back through the security wall and checkpoint that surrounds Bethlehem like a vice, I became acutely aware of the psychological metaphor whereby we can build walls around ourselves to contain the pain, the emotion, the trauma of that which afflicts us; the process of denial a defence against what we may perceive as a threat to our notions of reality or normality. In many ways, the obscenity of the security wall around the Holy city of Bethlehem, which for millions of people is regarded as the place were light and hope became re-ignited in the world, can be seen as a reflection of the fear, isolation and hubris of modern man, convincing himself that he alone is master of his own destiny, of his own world, which if unchecked, moves slowly but inexorably towards its apocalypse.

Apocalypse! Where on earth did I conjure that image from? It must be the location teasing out the biblical terms ; the geography of encounter speaking! Anyhow, we finally arrived back at our Bethlehem hotel and I rode the elevator to the third floor to get some water from my room and hang up my coat before making my way back down to the dining room where Fr.Peter had told me the healing session would take place. I didn't really know what to expect from such a session as I had never encountered this experience before. I had been involved in spiritual healing and undertaken some training in healing of a non-faith kind some years before with the National Federation of Spiritual Healers, but this was my first encounter of healing in a faith context.

On entering the dining room, I noticed that there were some chairs arranged in a semi-circle at the far end of the room and a candle was flickering on a side table nearby. There were a handful of people, chosen by Fr. Peter and whom I had encountered during the trip, gathered near the chairs, obviously waiting for me and talking quietly. Besides Fr.Peter there was Carl, his lay deacon, Marjorie, a warm and jolly stout lady who was recently bereaved, my friends Bernie and Margie, Mabel, a middle-aged lady who was recovering from an episode of manic depression and Cheryl, another middle-aged lady who assisted with secretarial duties in the parish house and was, as she had told me earlier,a recovering alcoholic.( I didn't know these people but their stories had been revealed to me at various locations on the trip, quite openly, as if it was something I ought to know about them as a brother pilgrim in the tour). Without wishing to be judgemental, I surveyed the group gathered before me and I thought to myself, why is it that Peter attracts such wounded and dependent people? And apart from Bernie and Margie, they were all clearly dependent, hanging on his every word as Gospel(if you'll pardon the pun) and leafing through their bibles. He was their spiritual leader and they were his followers.

Like me, Bernie and Margie were experiencing some difficult moments in their own day-to-day lives at present but they were working through them and getting on with things. If ever there were two people born to cope in this world, it was Bernie and Margie and so within this healing group gathered here there were at least three of us who were not directly dependent on Peter, in the same way as the others in the group. This was an important point for me as having some of my friends present helped me to feel safe, relax more and be more open to the experience, as I knew we three were suitably grounded to cope with whatever was about to happen.

I probably sound a little irreverent at this stage but I don't mean to be. It's just that as the atmosphere was building in the room a wry thought crossed my mind that here we were in a dining room in the Holy Land, a select group of people, a spiritual leader, a lighted candle about to engage in a solemn ceremony of healing.....well, images of the Last Supper sprang to mind and I smiled to myself about how aspects of our visit had reflected some of the Gospel events and in a funny way, opened up their significance in a modern context. Life imitating art, or what?

We all took our seats in the semi-circle and I was asked to sit in the middle seat of the layout while Fr.Peter began to pray some prayers from his missal. He briefly explained to everyone why we were here and what was about to happen and how his experience of events in Gethsemane earlier in the evening had moved him, so powerfully, to invoke this situation, this healing circle. Whilst Fr.Peter was talking I began to feel a little light-headed and began to meditate feeling, once more, strangely detached from my surroundings yet cocooned in a warm blanket. For a brief moment I recalled being cradled in such a blanket as a toddler in my Mother's arms and I could clearly feel the texture of her hair in my infant hand and smell the heady scent of her perfume as she nuzzled my face into her neck. In that brief, lucid moment, I felt overwhelmed with love and tears sprang to my eyes. Mistaking my moistened eyes for distress, Bernie moved to take my hand and reassure me but I motioned her away. I was calm and really had no expectations of anything dramatic or miraculous happening to me in this circle as I felt a healing of sorts had already taken place for me this evening, before the crying stone, at Gethsemane. Indeed, as I meditated and relaxed, my inner voice assured me that the healing here would not be for me but that the gathering was essential to provide a focus for others. This clearly was a strange message to receive but, as earlier, I decided to go with the flow of events and see what might transpire.

Looking out of the windows, the night was inky black and the candlelight cast our shadows across the room where they hovered and danced, like guardian angels waiting in the wings. Carl the Deacon and Mabel had begun reading some texts aloud from their bibles as Fr.Peter was setting the scene for events. Curiously their voices began to alter and the language that emanated from their mouths was like nothing I had heard before. They were evidently “speaking in tongues” which is something that happens, I understand, during these events. However, I had not encountered this phenomena before in a healing context and was fascinated by what I was hearing. As I surveyed the group I noticed that they all had their eyes closed and were praying intently out loud as Fr.Peter invoked the Holy Spirit through prayer. I simply sat and watched the event as an observer, intrigued by the group dynamic and the power of their intent. I felt the energy in the room shifting and gasped as I felt my heart open and sensed a curious blue and gold light move out to embrace the circle of people around me. They stood up, moved towards me and placed their hands on my head and chest projecting healing thoughts towards me for which I felt truly grateful and moved. However, during this time I felt the urge in my mind to visualise a huge mirror, for some strange reason, locating it , just above my heart. As the healing energy cascaded down through my head like a fountain, I gently manoeuvred the mirror with my thoughts so that some of it became directed at each of the group participants in turn. To this day, I don't know how I was compelled to do this but instinctively, I knew this was the right thing to do. Once more, tears came to my eyes as I prayed that each of these dear, kind people would find healing in their own way and I was deeply moved, sensing a quiet desperation in each of their voices.

The energy continued to flow fast between us and the urge to reflect healing energy as well as receive, pulsed strongly within me. As the ritual began to come to a close, I was aware of the candle flickering and the shadows gathering behind me, observing my benevolent healers with quiet grace. In my mind, I thanked whoever or whatever had created the energy during this event and for letting me be a part of it. A sense of gratitude flooded through me and I now knew why I was here, at this time, with these people. It seemed to me that we were all wounded healers gathered here, just as all mankind are, but when brought together in a spirit of reverence, co-operation and love then maybe miracles really can happen. Who really knows? I know one thing for sure, I was so exhausted after this healing circle that I retired quietly to my room and slept deeply and soundly.

I was woken the next day by the Imam chanting morning-prayer from the nearby mosque minaret, elegantly framed, like a post-card, by the window casement and softly lit by the diffused glow of the early November Sun. Rising slowly from the bed, I made my way around the furniture to the window and gazed down at the palm trees and the scented orange trees in the small garden below; a far cry from the grey, cold morning back home in England. As I stood there gazing, my thoughts turned to the events of the previous evening at Gethsemane and the healing circle. Such strange experiences, mystical and spooky yet curiously comforting. Although no miraculous events had occurred for me I knew and felt, instinctively, that part of me had died in order to let another part of me come to life, a part that I was, as yet, unfamiliar with but which was waiting there, benevolently, for me to discover it and to let it teach me how to be different in the world. This shift in consciousness, this realisation, this call to life was maybe my own private miracle ( or so I like to think of it) and would help me face whatever challenges might lay ahead.

(Names of individuals have been changed to safeguard anonymity)




This story was added on 15th November 2011

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