UKRAINIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF THE USA
CONSISTORY OFFICE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
A Note from Metropolitan-Elect Antony:
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land!
Dear Vladyko Daniel...GLORY TO JESUS CHRIST!
I am so very surprised to hear from you in our conversation this evening, that you have received so many emails requesting details about our present pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As promised, I will try to satisfy these requests - tonight and in the days ahead.
What a joy to be writing to you from the Holy Land where I am traveling with five of our dear priests - Frs. Bazyl Zawierucha, Roman Yatskiv, Todor Mazur, Myroslav Schirta, Steve Masliuk - Subdeacon/Seminarian Adrian Mazur and 27 other pilgrims from our Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Benjamin Baca, St. Antony of the Desert Mission, Las Cruces, NM; Wanda Bahmet, St. Katherine Parish, Arden Hills, MN; Helena Baverov, St. George Parish, Yardville, NJ; Natalie and Oleh Bilynsky, St. Vladimir Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA; Olga Stepowyj-Coffey, St. Andrew Cathedral, Silver Spring, MD; Daria Danyo, St. Vladimir Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA; Marjorie Druash, Monessen, PA; Rebecca Druash-McNulty, St. Vladimir Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA; James and Dorothy Guba, St. Nicholas Parish, Charlottesville, VA; Oksana Hawryluk, Minneapolis, MN; Alfred Henderson, St. Antony of the Desert Mission, Las Cruces, NM; Volodymyr Katolik, Pokrova Parish, Philadelphia; Sandra and Leonid Kondratiuk, St. Andrew, Boston, PA; Ann Korsun, St. Michael Parish, Minneapolis, MN; Janice Meschisen, St. Michael Parish, Woonsocket, RI; Volodymyr and Vera Murha, St. Mary Parish, Southfield, MI; Halyna Myroniuk, St. Catherine Parish, Arden Hills, MN; Nick and Patty Parchomenko, Assumption of Virgin Mary Parish, Northampton, PA; Lynn Szafranski, St. Vladimir Cathedral, Philadelphia, PA; and Donald Zyry, St. Sophia Parish, Bayonne, NJ.
This is a wonderful group of people participating in this pilgrimage for all the right reasons - to develop a deeper sense of spirituality and to better comprehend their Holy Faith. We just arrived this evening at our Hotel on the sixth day of our journey and no one can believe that we still have nearly a week to go! We have seen and experienced so much in the last five days (our first day was a travel day) that the most frequent phrase I have heard at the end of each day is that "if I saw nothing more, the whole trip was worthwhile". Of course, we have six more days of visits to the holiest sites of our Lord's earthly ministry and everyone will continue to be amazed at how much more intense the feelings are going to become as we approach the Holy Sepulchre and the the Resurrection Cathedral, which culminates our trip.
We departed Newark Liberty International Airport for our 10.5 non-stop flight to Tel Aviv, the capital city of Israel. Although it was a long flight, the time went by quickly because there was so much activity during the entire flight. We all agree that we have never seen so many people moving around on any flight we have been on, nor a larger staff of flight attendants, who truly earned their salary!
Regardless of how tired we were after the flight, we were met by probably the finest tour guide I have ever met - an Orthodox Christian named George Stephan, who clearly considers his work to be a ministry in service to our Lord. He is the most informed Biblical scholar I have ever met, who when speaking about what we are seeing quotes extensively from Holy Scripture - both the Old and New Testaments - bringing together the entire history of the Holy Land defined by its most important goal - the ultimate sacrifice of love - in our Lord's Crucifixion, Burial and Resurrection, which forever changed the course of human history.
George did not pamper us by taking us directly to our hotel - it was off on a beautiful tour bus to our first stop in Lod - the site of the Church of St. George the Dragon-Killer - Patron Saint of all the Holy Land. This church is the only Christian church in the entire city of Lydda - modern day Lod - and it is limited in activities permitted. It does, however, have a Christian day-school to which even non-Christians send their children because of the high level of instruction. The Church is the site of St. Peter's preaching and has always been an important religious center to Christianity. The present church was build in the late 1800's over an earlier structure from the 15th century, by special permission from Muslim authorities, which also insisted that a Mosque also be included on the site because St. George is also honored by the Muslims as a Roman soldier during the time of Diocletian - one of the first persecutors of Christians in the fourth century. He is usually depicted in iconography riding a horse and killing a dragon - symbolizing the universal battle between the forces of good and evil - good always winning out. Beneath the altar of the Church is the sarcophagus in which the Saint is believed to be interred. Our pilgrims were able to venerate the tomb.
Our next stop was at the Monastery of St. Sabbas in the desert outside of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. All the men on the pilgrimage were able to enter the monastery and visit the churches and chapels of this ancient and important religious site. St. Sabbas lived in the fifth century and wrote the earliest Typikon - rule of liturgical life - known to the Church and upon which our own typikon is based. He founded several monasteries and was made the abbot over all the monasteries in Palestine by the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 494. We had the opportunity to venerate his relics, which rest in glass casket in the major monastery church. We visited other chapels in the monastery and we were moved deeply in our visit to the cell that St. John of Damascus lived, prayed and glorified God for over 30 years. The women of our travel family walked over the hills surrounding the monastery and were able to see from a distance the physical structure of the site. Although they could not experience the depth of spiritual comfort that the men felt, they were still astounded at the location and structure of the monastery between large hills in the middle of a desert.
On the next day - Friday 19 October - we visited the Shepherds' Field - both the Orthodox and Franciscan sites - where the angels announced the news to the shepherd boys of the birth of the Savior in the city of Bethlehem just a few kilometers away. The Orthodox Church located on the site was an incredibly beautiful site. There was not a single square inch of wall space on covered by written icons depicting the theme of the angels' announcement. We were worried that we would run out of film or disk space in our cameras because of the number of photos taken with the desire not to leave out any. This visit was followed by a stop at the Herodian Mount, where King Herod combined two mountains to construct his own burial site. It was where our Lord spoke the parable about how faith the size of a mustard could move mountains. His listeners, He knew, would completely understand the meaning of the parable because of what the saw Herod accomplish.
Finally, we arrived at Holy Nativity Church in Bethlehem, which was much anticipated by our pilgrims. There were long lines from the courtyard and through the church as we approached the entrance to the cave in which the Christ Child was born. When the church pastor, Fr. Spiridon and another priest, Fr. Joseph, saw our group enter the Church, I was approached, along with our clergy to step out of line to enter the cave immediately and then the Holy Altar to offer our devotion and love to God for the Holy Incarnation. It is the only Byzantine Church in the Holy Land which was not completely destroyed by the various invaders who have controlled the territory over the millennia - including those who came from Europe to "save" it - sometimes doing more harm and damage than the "unfriendly" invaders. In order to better protect the Church from various attacks, the main entrance into it was gradually reduced in size from a large columned Roman doorway to approximately four or five feet and now everyone but the smallest of human beings must bow down low in order to approach the cave of the Nativity. It is unfortunate that there is a great deal of tourist motion and commercial activities that might turn one's attention from the real meaning of the Church. Our group of pilgims waited nearly two hours to enter the cave and prostrate themselves and venerate the silver star that covers the location of the manger on the cave's floor. We all agreed that the wait was well worth it and the joy of being able to touch and kiss the holy site was spiritual ecstasy. I will share other interesting experiences at the Nativity Church with you my Brother Daniel, which are too personal to express here.
Our last stop of the day was at the Kando Family gift center - owned by a Christian family which also permits local Christians to sell their own artistic creations to support their families. The owner of the store, Mr. Shiblis Kando welcomed our group and spoke of the history of his family as the first antiquities dealers in the Holy Land. He presented a gift to Archbishop Antony of more than 3,000 year old oil container, which would preserve the olive oil so abundantly processed and utilized throughout all history of the Holy Land - past and present day.
Early on Saturday - 20 October - we began our journey south toward the Negev Desert and Egypt and to St. Catherine Monastery, on Mt. Sinai. The was another highly anticipated visit for all members of our pilgrimage. This is one of the most ancient of Orthodox monasteries and is the smallest Orthodox jurisdiction - an autocephalous church in itself - one of the most ancient. We did make one stop along the way at the Oak Tree of Mamre, which was where the First Patriarch of the Hebrew nation, Abraham, settled with his vast family and herds after being thrown out of Egypt by the rulers of the time. It was at this oak tree that God made His Covenant with Abraham that He would make him the father of many nations and peoples the numbers of which would be greater that the sands on the shores of the seas. A large church and monastery are located on this site, which is located in the city of Hebron, a place not so friendly to Christians. It has been a difficult task for many hundreds of years to keep this site as a holy one for both Old and New Testament peoples.
We continued the four hour journey through the desert to Eliat - the southern most point of Israel, where we endured the long process of crossing the border into Egypt, where we met our Egyptian guide, Essam and our bus to continue driving for another 2.5 hours to a tourist village, created by the Egyptian government to house visitors to Mt. Sinai. An extra event was offered to all who were brave enough to do so - a three thousand step climb up to the summit of Mt. Sinai which rises above the holy monastery located between a group of surrounding mountains. The hike began at 1 a.m. and we had six brave souls to made the trip. Frs. Mazur, Yatskiv and Schirta, joined by Subdeacon Adrian Mazur, Ann Korsun and Camela Enoki. The rest of us went straight to bed in anticipation of a 4 a.m. wake-up call so that we could be at the Transfiguration Cathedral Church in the monastery for Divine Liturgy.
We did, indeed, arrive at 5:30 a.m. and discovered that Matins still had over an hour to go. We entered the holy site - one of the most holy in all Christian history - and all was in darkness. Only a few candle were burning along with small, dim lights above the lecterns where cantors chanted the Canon of Matins and the hours prior to the beginning of Divine Liturgy. I was the first to enter the Church and was immediately approached by a monk who led me directly into the altar where I met the monastery sacristan and the schemamonk, whose name escapes me at the moment, among other monks. Brother Grigorios immediately came forth to ask for prayers of healing for the sickness of insomnia with which he has been inflicted for years. Br. Griogorios studied theology in Ukraine prior to coming toe the monastery for the last 17 years. A most incredible and moving site for me was that the the schemamonk - an older monk who has abandoned all worldly desire and given himself over completely to prayer and the salvation of souls - stood on his knees while serving the whole office of Preparation - Proskomedia. There are so many who request prayers from the monastery that the office, which had begun before our arrival, continued through Matins and the Hours. There is no set time for the Liturgy to begin...it just begins when Proskomedia is completed.
It was a humble experience to begin the services in nearly complete darkness and feel the daylight as it filled the church gradually by the time Liturgy began. All our clergy and lay pilgrims participated in the Holy Eucharist during the Liturgy, which was an unusual experience for the monastic community. The schemamonk was very careful to ask each individual if they were Orthodox and waiting patiently for them to open wide enough until he was certain there would be no interference with the reception of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We were truly blessed that our visit was on a Sunday morning. The monastery is closed on Sunday, except to Orthodox Christians, and our experience was truly a worshipful one rather that a simple tourist event. Following the distribution of the antidoron breads by my hand, the monks brought forth the relics of Holy St. Catherine - her skull and full right hand inviting all present to venerate them. This would never have occurred with non-Orthodox people present.
As if this was not overwhelming enough, dear Bishop Daniel, we were then led through the side of the altar to the Holy Chapel of the Burning Bush, where Moses stood in conversation with God, Himself. Just as Moses was told to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground, so we all removed our footwear and entered the chapel to prostrate ourselves and venerate the spot where the original burning bush stood and which is now covered by an incredibly beautiful engraved silver disk. This experience was almost too much for all of us...tears of love and humility were flowing abundantly as each person approached and bowed down to move beneath the altar and venerate the site. It was as if no one could speak for several minutes after this experience.
We had planned to return to the village for breakfast and then return later in the morning to complete our visit to the monastery, but the monks urged us to stay because the church and museum would be closed for the rest of the day and we would only be able to see the exteriors of the various monastery buildings. We were so thankful that they were so kind to us as to offer to open the museum for our edification. Oh, Bishop, edification is not strong enough of a word. Although the environmentally controlled museum - created by the Getty Museum for the monastery in return for allowing an exhibit of monastery icons - among the most ancient in the world - to be mounted at the Getty Museum in California several years ago - although it is small it is simply packed with monastery treasures. I will not attempt to describe what we saw at this time, but I am attaching a long series of photographs to show you what we were so close to. Again, I am at a loss for words to describe the experience adequately. I have been most thankful for the presence of V. Rev. Far. Bazyl Zawierucha on this journey, who I asked to serve as devotions and historical director for the trip, and the beautiful description of monastery life, the treasures we were viewing and the history of the iconography so important to the community and the Orthodox world. Fr. Bazyl has been the perfect compliment to George, our tour guide, and the two have continually compared historical facts and points of view beyond the "official" lectures.
We thought the museum was our last experience at the monastery, when suddenly we were invited to enter the ossuary, the building where the skeletons of all the monks throughout the history of the monastery are stacked from floor nearly to the ceiling. The monks are buried at death and a few years later the skeletons are disinterred, the bones cleaned and the skulls separated and stacked upon one another in one room and all the other bones carefully stacked in another room approximately 30' by 30' completely filled to nearly six feet high. This is a normal practice in most Orthodox monasteries where the monks all await together the Great and Final Judgment of our Lord, Who will raise them up once again. It was a powerful experience that really drove home the concept of Orthodox monasticism as a brotherhood that remains together through all time praying for the salvation of the world.
As we were leaving the monastery we were further astounded as one of the monks who had served as a cantor during Divine Liturgy, came out to present to me and some of the other clergy lists of their family members and the monks of the brotherhood asking us to pray for them. These men pray all their lives for the salvation of the world in such a holy setting - and yet, dear Bishop Daniel, they were asking us to pray for them and offering a beautiful holy water container to me personally. It was almost more than I could bear and a completely humbling experience.
It is now almost 1 a.m. and I simply cannot type another word. Although I had hoped to stay up to watch the last presidential debate, which begins at 3 a.m. local time here...I think I will wait to watch the reruns in the morning. You know how much I look forward to those events! We pray for you, dear brother, throughout this pilgrimage and for all our clergy and faithful and all our brothers in the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops and so many others who have asked us to pray for them. I will try to continue commenting on our trip beginning with the events of this day - Monday 22 October - within the next few days. I will try to send you the photos once I have access to the Internet again. Please keep us in your prayers.
+ Antony - one who prays for you always.