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Mementos of our journeys

Pilgrimages to our spiritual and historical roots: Part 2

The hundred Singapore Methodists who travelled with Bishop Dr Robert Solomon all returned spiritually refreshed, carrying with them lasting memories of what they had seen and learned. At their reunions from time to time, they would recount these highlights, which were like the “mementos” travellers come home with. In these pages, we bring you some of the highlights and personal reflections of these modern-day pilgrims.

“ISRAEL, WHERE IT ALL BEGAN” touched Professor Kon Oi Lian profoundly. She wrote: “Walking the land where Jesus of Nazareth once walked made the historicity of our incarnate God uniquely alive. Kneeling in prayer in the Church of All Nations (Basilica of the Agony) at the foot of the Mount of Olives, I was strongly moved and strangely humbled by the privilege of belonging to the universal church of believers through the ages and of all nationalities.”

Imagine, in Capernaum on the shores of Galilee, we were standing on the very foundations of the house of the Apostle Peter!

Prof Kon’s sister, Ms Kon Mei Leen, was similarly appreciative: “Visiting the land where Jesus walked gave me a new appreciation of the gospel narratives.”

We visited the “Wedding Church” in Cana, built by the Franciscans in the 19th century. It commemorates the first miracle performed by Jesus where he changed water into wine at a wedding feast. Those from our group who came as couples could not have chosen a better place and occasion to symbolically renew our wedding vows in a little chapel in this church.

It was, however, a poignant experience for us to visit Caiaphas’ house to which Jesus was taken during the night two thousand years ago. Here in the courtyard, Peter denied Jesus three times “before the rooster crowed”.

We were in the dungeon beneath the house where Jesus was kept, before He was scourged, tried and condemned to die on the Cross for us. We held a short devotion and said a prayer in remembrance. As we trudged up the well-worn stone steps leading from the dungeon to Caiaphas’ house, we asked, “How many times have we ourselves denied Christ?”

Our 16-day trip, “In the Steps of St Paul”, tracing the Apostle Paul’s three missionary journeys, was well received. Many of the pilgrims have a heart for mission work or had gone on mission trips, and they were keen to find out why and how Paul was so successful in this ministry even though he had once spoken out against the churches.

Our first stop was Athens, the cradle of democracy. No visit to Athens is complete without calling on the Acropolis; so there we were soaking in the splendour of the Propylea, the Erectheion and the Parthenon, and the panoramic city sight below. We then ascended the nearby Mars Hill where Paul preached to thousands.

Thereafter, the coach took us to all the significant places that Paul had visited and from where he had spoken about our Lord, among them, Corinth, home to Paul for 18 months; Thessaloniki, which still exists as a city; Philippi, where he delivered his first sermon in Europe and sowed the seeds of Christianity; Troy, the legendary city where the Trojan War took place; ancient Ephesus, whose most spectacular building is the Grand Theatre, built to hold 24,000 spectators, and from where Paul preached and the Ephesians revolted; Antioch, the headquarters of Paul’s missionary journeys; Tarsus, his birthplace; and Cappadocia, an area in Central Anatolia in Turkey, best known for its unique moon-like landscape formed by volcanic eruptions and by the erosions of wind and water, underground cities, cave churches and houses carved in the rocks.

Mr William Sathyapaul, 88, the oldest pilgrim, who went on the first Holy Land visit in December 2005 and subsequently two other pilgrimages – “In the Steps of St Paul” in 2006, and “Pathway to Reformation” in 2007 – said: “I was particularly thrilled to go on the St Paul journey. The sites we visited inspired us, and the steps St Paul took were clearly marked for us to follow, reminding us that where the Lord goes, we will go too.”

Mr. K. K. Han found the idea of retracing Paul’s footsteps and experiencing a glimpse of his missionary journeys “compelling”. He said: “Our pilgrimage took us down the road from the modern to the ancient world where Christianity was first spread to the Gentiles. “I could feel something of Paul’s time in the ruins. As we retraced Paul’s footsteps and as we stood in places where he not only preached but where he and his companions were ridiculed, arrested, beaten and jailed, I was in awe of Paul’s leadership and tenacity. I wondered: If I had faced the opposition and trials he faced, would I have doubted my own calling?

The “Pathway to Reformation” journey from Nov 25 to Dec 9, 2007 was a “star attraction” not just because we were looking forward to a better understanding of why and how the Protestant movement evolved, but also it would provide a magical winter Christmastime in beautiful Switzerland and Germany.

In between cherished memories of the Christmas markets and post-card sceneries, we learned that German monk and theology professor Martin Luther (1483-1546), is generally acknowledged as the man who ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

We were also reminded that other “giants” of the Reformation, such as Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and John Knox, had contributed to the movement. However, there was not always complete agreement among them.

We visited modern cities and quaint towns such as Wittenberg, the German city most associated with Martin Luther, and whose Luther sites attract Protestant pilgrims and history buffs from all over the world; Eisleben, where he was born and died; Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, home to the unique and imposing Grossmunster, built in 1090 by Charlemagne on a shrine for local martyrs and where Zwingli preached the Reformation from its pulpit; Geneva, Switzerland’s second largest city, with its several sites of religious interest, notably those associated with John Calvin; and numerous cathedrals and churches.

“From the summit of Mt Sinai, we just wanted to sing ‘How Great Thou Art’!”

– Mrs Esther Seet.

Egypt was an eye-opener for us, even though it is mentioned 614 times in the Bible, as someone has counted. The wonder was not in the familiar stories in the Bible, but in its role in the early Church history.

We “crossed” from Cairo into the Sinai. We stayed the night in St Catherine Village near the foot of Mt Sinai. Barely past midnight, we sent off a party of five from our group with prayers, for their hike up to the summit of Mt Sinai. They reached the summit on foot at 5.30 am. Shortly after, they witnessed the marvellous scene of a beautiful sunrise.

Mrs Esther Seet, a member of the ascent team, gazed in awe at this wonderful creation of God and pondered on the Book of Genesis. She told us: “From the summit of Mt Sinai, we just wanted to sing ‘How Great Thou Art’!”

Added Mr William Tok: “We could see God’s magnificent creation unfolding from the Heavens above to the Earth below.”

At the foot of Mt Sinai, we visited the grounds of the monastery of St Catherine. We saw “The Well of Moses” and the bramble bush which the St Catherine monks believe to be the burning bush that God confronted Moses with.

On Egypt’s role in the history of our early Church, what a revelation it was to hear Bishop Dr Solomon tell it: “Coptic Cairo is a part of Old Cairo which was … of great importance to the early Christians. Egypt was one of the first countries to embrace the new Christian faith in the first century AD … Coptic Cairo was a stronghold for Christianity in Egypt until the Islamic era, though most of the current buildings of the churches in Coptic Cairo were built after the Muslim conquest of Egypt.”

Up till 1054 AD, the Christian Church was ONE, but it was not spared the many theological and doctrinal divisions between the five Patriarchal Centres, one of which was Alexandria in Egypt.

Hence, Alexandria was an important stop on our journey. The highlight of Alexandria was St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. The present building is said to stand on the site of the church founded by St Mark himself in AD 60. We held our devotion in the right transept of this ancient church and our “travelling choir” sang three hymns, under the direction of Mrs Rosalind Goh.

Another exciting theme for us was the visit to three Coptic Orthodox monasteries in the desert: St Bishoy’s Monastery, Monastery of the Syrians and St Anthony’s Monastery. Monasticism is a life of solitude, prayer, contemplation, charitable deeds and manual labour. The monks are all allotted work according to the skills they bring along from their previous secular lives.

All the monasteries have high walls which protected them from the marauding Bedouin tribesmen of the desert in centuries past. Alas, a medieval wall of dried mud is no longer adequate defence against the modern-day grenade launchers and tanks.

Mrs Kam Kum Wone was particularly impressed with the Egyptian Christians’ faith. She said: “Although surrounded by the majority Muslim community, the Christians there still continue in faith to worship God, trusting the Almighty to take care of them. This is inspiring. My prayer is that God will protect the Christians in Egypt.” – with additional reporting by Peter Teo.

Story by Peter Chen,  Pictures by the Pilgrims

NEXT ISSUE: ‘Our Wesleyan Heritage’ journey

Peter Chen is a member of Aldersgate Methodist Church.