Take one broken marriage, a bon voyage phone call to a friend and a don’t-give–a-damn attitude of a 20 something rebel and you have all the ingredients for a journey of a life time. At least it was for me.
Escaping the shame of leaving my quadriplegic husband and the crippling judgment of all our ‘friends’ I boarded a plane vowing never to return to the sunburnt country of my birth. As Sydney disappeared from sight I picked up the journal given to me by my mother, who shed not one tear, (presumably because she knew this was the best thing that could ever happen to her child) and began to write. My first sentence read, “Although I don’t know what is waiting for me in Israel, I do know life will never be the same again.”
I had been to Israel once before. It was during the three months between the end of school and the beginning of university or in my case Teachers College. Having attended a non-denominational school, where there was no discrimination between Protestants, Anglicans, Church or England or Catholics I was given quite a good Christian education. We said Our Father in assembly every morning and sang hymns once a week. The Jewish girls were given no dispensation from kneeling at prayer time, and in spite of my own religion, and I learned and loved the stories of New Testament.
Stepping foot in Israel I became Bastian Bux from The Never Ending Story. Every step felt like I was becoming more and more a part of a book of ancient history. Standing on the edge of the Sea of Galilee I imagined how it might have felt being one of the crowds of people listening to Jesus share his wonderful parables. I ate St Peters fish and thought of Simon, later called Peter and Andrew wading in the shallow waters casting their nets. We made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The cobble stone streets of the old city led me passed Arab street vendors who had been selling their wares like this for thousands of years.
Winding down the narrow lanes filled with sweet and spicy fragrances of rich colourful spices I suddenly came out into a courtyard that looked over the Wailing Wall. Tears involuntarily slipped out of my eyes. Jerusalem was the principal city of Judea in the years between 538 BCE and 70 CE and the remains of the walls of the Second Temple is now the Wailing Wall where Jews who are able come and visit and pray. There is a tradition that if you write your prayer on a piece of paper and stick it between the rocks of the wall God will see it and answer your prayer. I don’t remember my prayer but I think it was that I should find peace and happiness and if that was my prayer then it has been answered a thousand times over.
The great escape from Sydney took place six years later and over the next 4 years I travelled throughout Israel and made many small but significant pilgrimages to holy sites and witnessed some of the greatest wonders of the world. So what is a pilgrimage? A pilgrimage is a journey one makes to a sacred place to either ask for spiritual aid or to come closer to God.
The most challenging pilgrimage I went on was climbing to the top of Mount Sinai. I was living on a Kibbutz as a volunteer and we were painfully aware that in ten days Israel was going to give the Sinai back to Egypt. We were forbidden to leave the kibbutz without permission especially as we were foreign visitors and security was of the utmost importance. Travelling down to the Sinai was out of the question. But a few of us knew if we don’t do it now we will never be able to climb this holy mountain in Israel again.
So we planned our escape and very early one morning we walked out of the gates of the kibbutz and caught a bus to the central bus terminal where we booked ourselves on another bus that would take us to Dahab. Dahab was then an isolated coastal village inhabited only by the local Bedouin. From there we were taken by Bedouin bus to the base of Mt Sinai called Santa Caterina. At 2 am a young Bedouin boy woke us and we began the climb. The sun rose that day, flooding the horizon with pinks and reds and oranges and a blinding ball which brought tears to my eyes
By the time I had taken the last step to the peak of the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments my lungs were bursting for air. Asthma not altitude had given me my greatest challenge and yet, looking around I breathed in the smell of achievement and breathed out a sigh or gratitude. God was there with me. He saw my joy. He heard my laughter. He touched my soul. We sat in silence for a time lost in our own thoughts and prayers. And when the time came to walk down the promise of stone baked pita spread with goat’s cheese and chocolate gave me the strength to carry on. How right I was sitting on the plane anticipating an unknown future. Leaving everyone and everything I had ever known was one of the wisest, ( and bravest) things I have ever done. And of course it goes without saying, life was never the same again.