On August 18, 2010, 43 pilgrims including His Grace Bishop Basil, joined pilgrimage organizer Fr. Joseph Abud (St. George Church, Flint, Michigan) for a journey which would later be described as "life changing" by Kh. Cindy Baize (Holy Transfiguration Mission, Hillsboro, Kansas). At one of the holiest seasons of the year which included the Feasts of the Transfiguration and the Dormition on the Old Calendar, the American faithful joined pilgrims from all over the world as they venerated the relics of saints and visited sites that even Orthodox tours pass over. "Our guide said he had never seen a group received as well as our group and he heard and saw things which he never had access to before." enthuses Bishop Basil. The packed schedule included a nightly Bible study and debriefing session, and some of the travelers even attended the midnight liturgies served daily at the tomb of Christ. Readers can browse the gallery of photos  taken by Fr. David Moretti of St. George, Terre Haute, Indiana.
"I prayed for you all facing the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee," writes Bishop Basil on August 21. Read on for the rest of his pilgrimage diary.
Wednesday, 18 Aug. 2010
Visited St Peter Church (Orth) over house of St Tabitha house of Simon the Tanner, St Michael Monastery (Orth) with its church of St Tabitha. On to Lydda.
Pilgrim groups are here from Greece, Romania, Russia, and us (and probably others we haven't seen yet).
Arrived safely to Tel Aviv. On our way to St. George's burial place in Lydda, then to our hotel in Tiberias for supper, then to Mt. Tabor for services with the Patriarch from 10 P.M. to 3 A.M.
Just visited St. George church in Lydda and venerated his relics and those of St. Procopius and St. John the Hut-Dweller. Saw a rare icon of St. George with his parents.
Thursday, 19 Aug. (6 Aug., o.s.)
Left for vigil last night at 9:15 and got back to hotel at 6 A.M.! Over ten thousand people at monastery atop Tabor - mostly 20's, 30's, and 40's; Russians, Greeks, Georgians, Arabs, us Americans, and TONS of Romanians. All service half Greek and half Arabic. Happy feast!
This morning (Thursday) sail in the Sea of Galilee, lunch and early return to hotel in Tiberias for a relaxing evening.
Lunch on the Sea if Galilee ("St. Peter's Fish", a.k.a. Tilapia) now on to Caesarea Phillipi then back to hotel and quiet evening. Everywhere we go we see tons of other Orthodox from last night. Assume it will be like that thru Dormition - very nice!
Today we are off to Akko (at the invitation of a really fine, young Palestinian priest - Father Elias Khoury), then on to the Prophet Elias' shrine on Mt Carmel (Haifa), Nazareth and Cana. A long day is ahead.
What a day! We started in Akko (Acre) visited Crusader citadel (last stand) and St. George's church where we were received like long lost family; then to Haifa where we visited St. John the Baptist church and again welcomed like family; then to St. Gabriel church in Nazareth (site of Annunciation) and then to Cana (site of marriage feast and Christ's 1st miracle). Tomorrow to Bethlehem!
Saturday, 21 Aug
We leave Galilee soon and drive to Bethlehem for the night, stopping along the way at the Orthodox monastery of the Holy Apostles in Capernaum. More later!
I prayed for you all facing the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee (we've been in this Ron Beach Hotel in Tiberias for 3 nights).
Started at Mount of Beatitudes (we sang them there) then to the Church of the Multiplication of the 5 Loaves and 2 Fish. Lunch at Orthodox Monastery of 12 Apostles in Capernaum.
After lunch we went to site where Christ cast demons from young man into the swine. Now at the Jordan River Baptism site.
Tuesday, 24 August
Yesterday (Monday) did Old Jerusalem: Way of Cross ending at Golgatha, Unction Stone, Tomb of Christ and all shrines in Church of the Resurrection. Then also audience with Patriarch Theophilos III who was EXCEEDINGLY gracious even remembering us from Mt. Tabor. He gave us many gifts.
Then to lunch and walk through shrines in the Old City (house of Ss Joachim and Anna where Theotokos was born, Five Pools of Bethesda or Sheep's Pool where the man paralyzed 38 years was healed by Christ). Today we go west to Jericho and visit Orthodox church of St. Zacchaeus then to Monastery of St. Gerasimos, the monastery atop the Mt. of Temptation where Christ was tempted 3 times by Satan.
Also Bethany and monastery built over home of S. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, visit Lazarus' tomb, then to Dead Sea, Qumran (where Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940's, I believe), and a lot more.
Tuesday, 24 August 2010 - Supplemental
1) Bethany: Orthodox convent built over house of Ss. Lazarus, Mary and Martha; Orthodox church of the Raising of Lazarus; Tomb of St. Lazarus.
2) Jericho: Orthodox Monastery of Prophet Elisha with the ancient trunk of the tree St. Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus, the Monastery of on the Mt. of Temptation which has a church enclosing the cave where Christ live and fasted for 40 days after His baptism (Jordan River is nearby) and where He was tempted.
3) Judaean wilderness: Orthodox Monastery of St. Gerasimos (A.D. 455) which has a shrine church in a cave where the Holy Virgin with the Christ Child and St. Joseph stopped to rest after fleeing Bethlehem on their way to Egypt to escape King Herod's slaughter of the Holy Innocents.
4) Qumran: (Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered there) and the Dead Sea.
Then back to our Notre Dame Hotel for supper and a restful evening.
Tuesday, 24 August - Supplemental
Tomorrow (Wednesday): 4:30 A.M. Procession of the Epitaphios of the Theotokos from her home near the Holy Sepulchre to her tomb in the Garden of Gethsemane. Liturgy at her Tomb 6:30-8:30 A.M.
Breakfast and then bus to monasteries of St. Sabas and St. Theodosios, Hebron (Oak of Mamre) and Nablus (tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
Wednesday, 25 August
Wed: Hebron (tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob & Joseph, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca & Leah. Oak of Mamre where Holy Trinity appeared to Abraham (Orthodox convent).
St. Theodosius Monastery (Orthodox), cave of Three Magi & tombs of St. Theodosius, his mother, and the mother of St. Saba, St. John Moschos, mothers of Ss. Cosmas & Damian, mother of Ss. Arcadios and John and many other sacred relics.
Monastery of St. Saba with his entire holy body, cell of St. John Damascene & many holy sites.
Thursday, 26 August
Forgot to mention that yesterday morning 10-15,000 people walked in procession with her epitaphios from site of the Virgin's repose to her tomb in Gethsemane.
Today (Thurs.) we go to Nablus (Orthodox church at Jacob's well), Ramallah, Taybeh, Rafidia, and Mt. Sion (supposed sites of King David's tomb and the Upper Room of the Last Supper and Pentecost). Taybeh is Biblical "Ephraim" and hometown of Fr. Constantine Nasr of OKC, OK. It is an all-Christian village.
On our way to Mt. Sion we stopped at the church of St. Peter built over the House of Caiaphas where St. Peter thrice denied Christ before the cock crowed.
AM procession for the Holy Virgin as described in earlier text (about 5 mile walk). Visits to Hebron, Nablus (Shechem Jacob's Well, new. Hieromartyr Philoumenos, Fr Justin, Mt Gerazim, Samaritans), Taybeh and Ramallah.
Friday, 27 August
Fri: AM Lamentations at the Tomb of the Holy Virgin and visits to Orth Convent of Ascension on Mt of Olives (Virgin's Rock, head of the Forerunner), shrine of Ascension (Christ's footprint), Greek church of Ascension destroyed by Israelis, Pater Noster Church, Church of All Nations (Rock of which Christ prayed in Gethsemane), Garden of Geethsemane, Orth Convent of St Mary Magdalene (complete relics of St Elizabeth the New Martyr and her companion St Barbara), Tombs of Ss Joachim and Anna and St Joseph the Betrothed in the crypt of the Holy Virgin's Tomb.
Saturday, 28 August
Sat: AM walking tour of St James Armenian Monastery (head of St James Brother of the Lord), St Mark Syriac Monastery (icon of the Holy Virgin & Child by St Luke), Wailing Wall and Temple Mount, Pool of Siloam. Orth Monastery of the Cross (where tree grew which was used for the Holy Cross), Orth Monastery of St Symeon the God-receiver (grave of him who said "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace...), Orth Monastery in Aim Karem (place of the Visitation of St Elizabeth and the Holy Virgin and of the Nativity of St John the Baptist).
Tomorrow (Sunday 8/29) we will attend Liturgy at the Orth Monastery of the Prophet Elisha in Jericho (I wrote about our visit there a few days ago) on our way to Eilat, Tahba (border crossing into Egypt) and drive into Sinai desert to St Catherine Monastery (orth) at the foot of Mt Sinai (well, burning bush, Ten Commandments, relics of St Catherine). We stay there until Tuesday when we drive from Sinai back into Israel, visit Masada, dinner in Jerusalem, and 11:30 PM flight from Tel Aviv to Atlanta to Wichita - arriving there around noon on Wednesday.
Sunday, 29 August
We loaded all of our bags and a Lenten breakfast (tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, hummos, giant falafel, fresh bread, apples, dates, pears and halawah) on the bus at 7am and departed Jerusalem for Jericho at 7:30am. We arrived at the Monastery of the Holy Prophet Elisha (where the sycamore tree of St Zachaeus' is enshrined (I told you about it when we visited earlier in the week) at 8:00am and they were already chanting the evlogitaria ("Blessed art thou, O Lord, teach me" - but in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem they sing "teach us" - "thy statutes."). The priestmonk -Fr Philoumenos - is Greek but he served half in Arabic since all the congregation and the chanters were Palestinians. One of our priests served the Divine Liturgy all in English and the Palestinians asked us to chant the responses in English too. They were thrilled that Orthodox from America were in their church! After Liturgy we ate our Lenten breakfast and then around 11:30am we began our long drive south to cross thee border from Israel into Egypt bound for St Catherine's Monastery at Mt Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula. We arrived at the guest house at 8pm, ate a light supper and am now going to bed. Good night!
Monday, 30 August
We are staying at the guest house (each of us 44 pilgrims has a bungalow of our own) which is a 5 minute drive from the monastery. We left the guest house at 9am and made our way through the monastery with hundreds of tourists from around the world. Pretty awful. BUT I met one monk at the icon museum (Fr Neilos from England) - all of the other monks disappear into a secluded area of the monastery far from the tourists from 9 to noon every day. He looked at me and said "You are not tourists" and I told him he was correct since we came as Orthodox pilgrims from America. He then guessed that I was Bishop Basil from Wichita - I wrote a letter in mid-July announcing our coming. He said we could shop in the gift shop now (it is only open from 9 til noon - the hours for tourists) but that we could come back at 4PM for Vespers when only Orthodox pilgrims may enter the monastery (even using a different door than we did with the tourists this morning). We were then taken into the secluded area of the monastery to visit with Fr Justin (from Texas) with whom I have had email contact for many years. He said the monastery was indeed expecting us and so after Vespers they will bring out the major relics of St Catherine (and others as well), open for us the Chapel of the Burning Bush and the monastery's ossuary and other shrines that are only for Orthodox pilgrims (not tourists). By the way, in the ossuary are the bones of the thousands of monks (many of whom are saints) who have lived and died at the monastery (which dates from the 4th century) and the complete relics of St Stephan (mentioned in St John Climacos' book "The Ladder of Divine Ascent") vested in his Great Schema. St Stephan used to sit at the archway at the base of the mountain and confess all the pilgrims before they ascended to the top of Mount Moses (where he received the Ten Commandments). We came back to the guest house at 11am and will leave again for the monastery at 3PM. More later!
Forgot to mention that the two highest peaks in Egypt are both here - the monastery is at the base. The first is Mt Moses and the second, and the higher of the two, is Mt St Catherine where angels brought her body after her martyrdom in Alexandria in the 4th century (later monks brought her body down to be enshrined in the monastery). A chapel is at the top of each peak.
We returned to the Monastery of St Catherine today (8/30) at 3:30PM and went first to the ossuary where disinterred bones of all monks who have lived at the monastery since the 6th century (when it was enlarged and fortified Emperor St Justinian) are reverently stored - bishops to one side (south side) and the others in the opposite side (north side). St Stephan sits between them (east wall). The monastery has only 6 graves and all are always occupied. When another monk dies the one who has been buried the longest is disinterred, his bones washed and placed in the ossuary (the crypt of a small church right outside the monastery walls), and the newly deceased monk is buried in the newly unoccupied grave. We all chanted "Christos anesti" and then went into the monastery. As we arrived they sounded the talanton then the semantron and lastly the bells. As we entered the church (where St John of the Ladder was installed as abbot and St Gregory of Sinai worshiped) while 9th Hour was being read. I was ushered to the bishop's stall to preside over Daily Vespers (saying "O gladsome Light", "Vouchsafe", "Peace be to all", and "Lord, now lettest."). The priest commemorated abbot Archbishop Damian (who was not present) and me.
Among the departed the founders were prayed for: the pious Emperor Justinian and the devout Empress Theodora. Our group of Orthodox pilgrims from America were joined for Vespers by a groups of Orthodox pilgrims from Greece and from Russia. After vespers we Americans remained in the church and Fr Justin (the monk from TX) gave a detailed talk to our group about the history of the monastery. He then brought out the two major relics of her for our veneration - her skull and her right hand. The clergy were invited to venerate first followed by all our pilgrims (the Greeks and Russians left earlier). Another English speaking monk (Fr Nektarios from Australia) chanted during the veneration - the apolytikia of St Catherine, the Transfiguration (the feast of the church) and the Dormition (we are still in the Afterfeast here). We clergy were invited to go into the holy place and venerate the holy table and remain there looking at other treasures until all our people were finished venerating St Catherine's relics. By the way, those who venerated were given a silver ring blessed on the relics and bearing the insignia of the Monastery (the initials AK - for St Katherine in Greek) as well as the full spelling of the name. After all had venerated the relics we stood in the courtyard (near the Burning Bush) while Fr Justin told us the life of St Catherine. Fr Neil (the monk from England I met his morning) joined us as did a young convert woman from Oxford England (she attends Ware's parish and the Essex monastery).
Fr Justin then took us for a detailed visit to the museum displaying the monastery's most precious icons (including the famous Christ of Sinai) and manuscripts (including the remaining section of the Codex Sinaiticus - the other three portions were borrowed from them over a century ago and never returned and can be found in thee British Museum, and in museums in Leipzig and St Petersburg. We returned to the guest house at 7:00PM - a very different visit as pilgrims this afternoon/evening from our visit this morning with the throngs of tourists. Our guide said he had never seen a group received as well as our group and he heard and saw things which he never had access to before. It was really VIP treatment. We leave Sinai early tomorrow morning (6:30), cross back into Israel, take supper in Jerusalem, drive to the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv (must arrive there by 8:30PM) and catch our Delta flight to Atlanta at 11:30PM.