Israel Pilgrimage: Final Thoughts

Many years ago, I was visiting Gethsemani abbey in Kentucky for a few days of retreat.  One of the monks commented that there are people who come and then don’t want to leave because it is so peaceful.  He made the point that visitors can’t stay – they are there for only a period of time.  Visitors are supposed to take the peace they found at the abbey and carry it out into the world.  We need to take our encounter with God back to the rest of the world.  Ite, missa est. The same is true for our pilgrimage.

Pilgrimages come in different shapes and sizes, and of course, no two people will experience the same pilgrimage even if they are walking together.  We bring different experiences into the pilgrimage, and we leave with a unique encounter with the Living God.  In some way, we’ve been transformed.  Some may have a large transformation, and others may not see transformation because the seeds have not yet sprouted.

In this particular trip, I had several profound moments of encounter – “close moments with Christ” as we would say in Cursillo.  Most of them had to do with physical contact.  I had not expected this before the trip.  I expected to see and hear new things things that would be impactful for me.  And I did – I heard a lot of really amazing things and saw some beautiful things.  However the deepest moments for me had to do with things I would not have been able to experience in a video or book.

I was pleasantly surprised at how touching the water in the Sea of Galilee felt.  I had a sense of commissioning when touching the rock where Jesus fed the Apostles at the end of John’s Gospel.  I was flooded with emotion when I kissed the spot where Jesus laid in the tomb.  I felt a sense of joy and sadness when I stared into the baby’s eyes at the orphanage in Bethlehem and received a tiny smile in return.  I enjoyed relaxing while floating in the Dead Sea.  I felt pain as I knelt down and my knee struck the edge of the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.  And I had overwhelming peace when I walked amidst the ruins of the monastery at the top of Mt. Tabor where the monks had all been slaughtered.  That’s not something you can get from a book.

I suspect that I will return to Israel again.  As we left, I didn’t feel like it was goodbye forever.  Instead, I felt that I was being sent home to carry my pilgrimage experience home for others.  I am considering getting together another group for another similar trip in the not-too-distant future.  I know that others need to see, hear, and touch the Holy Land.

When I was looking for pilgrims to come along, I had a lot of interested people, but only a handful of people who made the trip.  There were three major concerns: Cost, Timing, and Safety.

Cost: this was not the cheapest trip to Israel.  I found several cheaper itineraries.  However, I wanted to make sure this was truly a pilgrimage with great leadership.  That’s how I chose to work with The Crossroads Initiative for this trip.  Dr. D’Ambrosio and his team did an exceptional job of making a great faith-focused itinerary, with strong scholarship, and top-notch tour guide in Israel.  I don’t think you can do much better than what we received.  So if cost is your concern, perhaps start setting aside a little money each month and prepare for a trip 18-24 months out.  It will be well worth it.

Timing: we chose an itinerary that left between Christmas and New Years.  For some people, that was a difficulty because of their holiday plans.  If I bring another group of pilgrims, we probably will look at an itinerary in late spring.  From a weather perspective, our timing was very good.  The temperatures were cool and comfortable.  You probably do not want to go during the summer – it would be very hot in Israel.

Safety: The news we get in the US about Israel seems to delight in showing conflict.  What we encountered in Jerusalem and Palestine was quite friendly and peaceful.  Every Palestinian person I encountered was friendly.  At no time did I feel the least bit uncomfortable or unsafe.  Having lived in Chicago I can tell you that I felt safer in Jerusalem than I did in Chicago.  Crime statistics for both cities would back me up on that as well.  Sadly, I know of at least one person who was going to join us until their adult children sternly told them not to go because of safety.  From what we saw, I would have absolutely no qualms about sending my loved ones to Israel.

One last tidbit. I often get asked about the little stuffed-animal buddy that shows up in many of my pictures.  His name is “Mr. Hamster”.  Mr. Hamster was created by my youngest daughter many years ago.  She taught herself to crochet and this was her first project.  When I used to travel a lot for work, she would send him with me so that I would have a little bit of her along for the trip.  I would then take pictures of him in interesting places and send them back to her, sort of like Flat Stanley.  It was our way of keeping in touch.  Mr. Hamster has been all around the world with me.  I’ve lost track of his full passport, but I know he has sent home pictures from Canada, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, The Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, Italy, The Vatican, Israel, Switzerland, France, and Portugal.  He’s also been on every one of my bicycle adventures all over the US.  Even though my daughter is in college now, I keep up the tradition of taking Mr. Hamster with me and sending her pictures.

As I wrap up my final thoughts, I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited the Holy Land, and I hope you are able to do it as well some day.  My special thanks to Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio for his passion and guidance on our trip.

I’ve put a link to the blog entries for each day below so that you can find them all in one place.  I have found quite a few typos in the blog entries – I guess that’s what happens when you blog half-awake… I’ll try to go clean them up some time.

If you’re interested in talking more to me about my trip, drop me a note.  I’d be happy to share some thoughts with you.

Deacon Matt

Pilgrimage to Israel – No bikes this time…

Israel day 1: “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?”

Israel Day 2 – The Old City of Jerusalem.

Israel Day 3: The Mountains of Jerusalem

Israel Day 4 – Bethlehem: About The God Child and Children of God

Israel Day 5: Jerusalem Old City – the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre

Israel Day 6: Into the Wilderness

Israel Day 7: A Mountain Top Experience Beyond Words

Israel Day 8: Capernaum, Rocks, Fish, and Loaves

Israel Day 9: A Windy Day with Carmelites, Elijah, and Caesarea

Israel: Room At The Inn in Bethlehem … PA


Israel: Room At The Inn in Bethlehem … PA

I wasn’t planning on blogging about our trip home, but this was not an ordinary trip home. It was an adventure all in its own, a pilgrim postscript of sorts.

Our Saturday started off normally enough with a 1:15AM wakeup call at the hotel in Natanya so that we could be ready for a 2:00AM bus ride to the Tel Aviv airport.  Due to the strict security protocols at the airport, they require that you arrive about 3 hours before departure.  Normally, I arrive about 60-90 minutes before a flight with plenty of time to spare.  Not in Tel Aviv.  I think the 3 hour recommendation is about right.

We checked in at the Swiss Air desk and the first wrinkle in the plan came out: the check-in agent decided that my carry-on and my mom’s carry-on were too big to carry on.  So we were forced to check them through to JFK airport.  I generally just roll with things when traveling – if I can’t control it, just accept it, adapt, and move on.  Not a big deal, but there are two things worth noting here: I’ve traveled around the world with this roller board at least 40 international flights before.  I have been told only three times that it needed checked – two of them on this trip by Swiss Air people.  This small decision had big implications later in our trip.

We boarded our flight and took off for Zurich, then for New York.  The flights were pretty uneventful.  I was able to catch a few hours of sleep and then I binge watched the entire season 2 of Stranger Things on my iPad.  (If you happen to be a ST fan, perhaps someone can clue me in on why MadMax and her brother have any value to the storyline…)

The real adventure began when we touched down in New York City at JFK airport.  It isn’t clear what chaos had already arrived before us.  Was it the snow storm from the day before, was it the collision of two planes earlier in the day, or did someone at JFK just forget to show up to do their job?  Whatever combination of events and/or acts of God that had taken place, one thing was abundantly clear: JFK was one seriously messed up operation yesterday when we arrived.

After landing, our captain informed us that although we had arrived on time, there was not a gate available for our plane to pull into.  We would have to wait somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes to have a gate open.  Here’s what a planeload full of tired people looks like shortly after hearing that bad news.


For the most part, my entire group of pilgrims were OK with the 60-90 minute delay.  We all had pretty long layovers in NYC before catching our flights home.  My Delta flight was at 5:10PM.  That gave me just under four hours before the boarding time.  No problem.

The next update added another 60-90 minutes of delay.  Then another delay.  And another.  Soon enough, I was becoming a little concerned about my flight, and two of my other Lexington people had missed their flights.

A little over 4 hours after our landing, we were finally allowed to deplane.  I had a very short amount of time to make my next flight to get me home.  It would be tight but we could make it if the bags were waiting on the carousel.  My normal international travel routine is to always carry my luggage onboard so it is with me, make a rapid move to immigration, get through, and get to my next flight.  However this time, my bag was under the plane.  If I’d had my bags with me, we might have had a chance.

When we got to the baggage claim, no bags came out for quite some time.  By the time our bags showed up, everyone in my group had missed their flights.  We all maintained very good humor about it.  It is what it is.  I used the Delta app to find another set of flights that would get us home later the same day.  I couldn’t get booked on the app, and the call-in line had a 2+ hour delay.  So we needed to head to the Delta desk to get rebooked.


After finally getting our bags we quickly wandered over to the Delta counter.  There was a very long line that didn’t move much at all.  Only two Delta agents at the counter.  I thought I had taken a panorama shot with my camera, but I don’t have it – so you’ll have to trust me.  The line was really really long.

It is what it is.  10 minutes passed.  30 minutes passed.  Not much movement in the line at all.  Assessing the situation, it was clear that all of the people ahead of me were in the same boat: we all had missed our flights and needed reassigned.  I wasn’t going to get home today, and probably not even tomorrow.  One other thing was certain: I didn’t want to sleep in JFK airport and neither did anyone in my group.

Side note: After hearing that JFK Terminal 4 had a pipe burst today right where we were waiting yesterday, I’m beginning to think JFK airport might be under the ban and subject to herem next. See: NY Post Article


We needed to get home on Sunday and my plan needed quick action before others had the same idea.  I proposed my plan to the group and it was unanimously accepted.  It was time to phone a friend, or spouse to give them an assignment.  Amy’s husband did a great job of locating us two minivans at JFK and reserving them.  I plotted a route home using Apple Maps and then called my wife.  She did a great job of locating 3 hotel rooms about 90 minutes west of JFK … just outside of Bethlehem PA.  It could have just been sleep deprivation, but at that time, it was chuckle-worthy that we would be sleeping in Bethlehem after just leaving Israel.


We arrived around 10PM at the Springhill Suites and I was asleep within 5 minutes of entering the room.  I slept wonderfully.  We got up to finish our trip home.  Sadly I somehow left a very important thing behind in the hotel room.  I had a small vial of water from the Jordan river that I took out of my backpack.  It didn’t make it back to Lexington with me.  I must have left it at the hotel.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel, we were underway.  It was really a pretty fun road trip.  All of us had smiles on our faces and a joyful time.  We talked and a few naps were had.  I didn’t hear any complaining.  Amy found a Coke Zero and I treated everyone to their favorite road trip snack.  Overall, aside from taking an extra day to get home, it was really a nice way to end the pilgrimage.



We arrived home around 6PM and I was greeted by my family and happily received by our two schnauzers.


Stephanie had a great dinner ready for us.  After dinner and a warm shower, it is time to head to bed.  Tomorrow’s another day – I’ll see if Delta’s customer service is ready to handle my complaint yet and help me get credit for my unused flights.

There’s plenty to be thankful about: a great pilgrimage, safe arrival home, and good friends.  But unlike Jesus, there was a place for us to sleep in Bethlehem.  Life is good.


– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 9: A Windy Day with Carmelites, Elijah, and Caesarea

We packed up last night so we could make a quick departure from our hotel this morning. Our first stop was a set of ruins just above the valley known as Armageddon. The tel at Megiddo contains 25 different strata, indicating how many different civilizations have been at this site. This location is located on a very important ancient trade route across the Mediterranean, known as the Via Maris. As different world powers came and went, this area was prime territory for conflict.

We watched a short film about the site and then were going to climb to the top of the tel to see it. Unfortunately, the rains and winds picked up strongly and we had to turn back. So the closest we came to seeing the ruins was to look at the film and the model of the ancient city in the visitors center.

One particularly interesting part of this city. The Canaanites built walls around the city to protect it from seiges. However, their water supply was outside of the walls, which would make it impossible to get water during a siege. So their solution was to make a fairly sophisticated tunnel from inside the city down to the nearby spring. This would allow the city to get water without having to exit the safety of the walls. We were supposed to tour this tunnel, but because of the rain we had to turn back.

From near the top of the tel, you could see the valley below. Armageddon is the place where the final battle between good and bad will take place.

This is a model of what the city would have looked like:

Our next stop was the top of Mount Carmel. Along the way we drove through Haifa. This is a beautiful city at the base of the mountain. It is Israel’s third largest city.

Mount Carmel is famous for being where the Carmelite order started from in the 13th century. But it is also famous for being the place where Elijah challenges the Canaanite prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah proposes a challenge: both he and the prophets of Baal would set up a sacrifice and see who can set it aflame. For good measure, Elijah pours water over the altar sacrifice to the God of the Israelites to emphasize that it is not likely to burn. After the prophets of Baal fail to induce their god (Baal), Elijah calls on God who consumes the sacrifice with fire. Then Elijah kills all of the prophets of Baal.

We had mass in a small side-chapel of the monastery.

There is a cave on Mount Carmel where Elijah resides for a while. Today, there is a church built over that cave located within the Carmelite monastery. This monastery was built and destroyed several times. The current church is quite beautiful and the altar is located directly over the cave of Elijah. I went into the cave and touched the walls and floor. I love seeing these places I’ve read about and imagining what it was like back in the time of Elijah.

The dome of the church is really beautiful, too.

Here’s Elijah’s cave:

From outside of the monastery, the view out to the sea is wonderful. Today is pretty overcast and very windy, but it was still a nice view.

Our last stop of this trip was the ancient town of Caesarea. This is where the Apostle Paul was held in house arrest before being sent to Rome for his execution.

This city was a man-made port city and was the Roman capital of Judea during Jesus’ time. It was an important trade port. Herod the Great began construction of this town around 25 B.C. and named it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. It was destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt by the Crusaders, before being totally destroyed by the Ottomans.

A few years ago, a wealthy man funded the excavation of the ancient city to remove the many feet of sand that had buried it. In addition to the palace of Herod, there is also a hippodrome and a large 4000 person amphitheater.

This amphitheater is the place where Paul professes that Jesus is the messiah and pleads his case since he is under arrest. The amphitheater has been brought back to life and is used for concerts today.

The seas were very rough and windy, and it rained very hard today. In fact the winds were so strong that you had to lean into them to move. Our tour guide said that this is very unusual weather. It did make for some beautiful waves!

Just outside Caesarea is an aqueduct that was built to carry fresh water from several miles away into Caesarea.  It is actually two separate aqueducts – one from Roman times and one added later right along side.

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and checked in for a very short night. We have to be at the airport around 2:30AM to check in for our flight home. We are staying in Netanya at The Seasons hotel. We’re up on the 12th floor and the winds are really powerful up here. I stood out on the balcony and took in the views before sunset. This is the last daylight view of Israel that I will have.

I hope to return some time – hopefully soon. I was pretty excited about this trip, but it has far exceeded my expectations. I came as a pilgrimage. I was also hoping to learn some new things to help my scripture understanding and see some neat things. But God had more great things in store for me as I encountered Him in several places. My heart was touched and I come away with a deeper faith.

In a few days, I’ll write a final installment about this pilgrimage.

Until then,

May the Peace of our God draw you to know Him, love Him, and serve Him.

– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 8: Capernaum, Rocks, Fish, and Loaves

Today was focused on the area around the Sea of Galilee. I am once again surprised by how close everything is. When looking at the map, we know that the majority of Jesus’ ministry was performed in the west and north-west area around the Sea of Galilee. On a map, that seems like a big area. In person, it is very close. I usually ride further than this on my bike on a nice Saturday ride. Suddenly, the world feels much smaller. I have a renewed sense of awe at our God and His providence. How can such a small, seemingly insignificant part of the world, with 12 fishermen, change the entire world? This is not a new thought for me, but I have a new perspective on that thought and a renewed delight in God’s love for humankind. Wow.

Between the time we left this morning and the time we returned, we had circumnavigated the entire Sea of Galilee by bus. I’ve laid my eyes on the same sea where the first Apostles were called. I walked the shores where Jesus called out to them after the resurrection. I touched the rock where He gave them breakfast. I stood and listened to the Word in the place where He fed the multitudes. It was a great day.

We stayed at the Gai Beach resort over night here on the shores of the sea. Last night we were treated to a beautiful moon rise. This morning, we were treated to a glorious sunrise.

Our first stop this morning was to the town of Magdala. This was an amazing part of the itinerary. Just a few years ago, a priest had an idea to build a retreat-like place for the various pilgrims that come through. Shortly after breaking ground, they discovered the remains of the ancient town of Magdala only 2-3 feet beneath the surface. Since that time, they have performed quite a bit of archaeological excavation and unearthed some great things.

One of the major finds is the synagogue in Magdala. Magdala is very close to Capernaum, Jesus’ center of ministry. The scriptures tell us that He went about the towns along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and into their synagogues. We were standing right at this synagogue today. These are the ruins of it in the next two pictures.

One particular find in the synagogue is called the Magdala Stone. It is a stone that was carved to look like the Temple, with significant attention to details. The stone in this picture is a reproduction – the original is with the Israel Antiquities agency until the Magdala Center’s museum is completed.

Also pictured here is the tour guide for the Magdala Center. She was nothing short of amazing. She did a fabulous job of teaching about the site and drawing us into a spiritual encounter with Christ. Wonderful.

Here is a picture of the ruins of the Synagogue.

There are quite a few more ruins that have been unearthed around the synagogue as well. This area is a marketplace. They found fish holding tanks where people could buy fresh live fish.

At the shoreline edge of this property is a church. The building says “Duc In Altum” which means “Into the Deep”. This is a reference to the apostles who were fishermen but called to be “Fishers of Men” by Jesus.

This church is quite beautiful inside. The narthex has four small chapels off of it, each with a gorgeous mosaic telling part of the calling of the apostles. The main sanctuary overlooks the Sea of Galilee. The main altar area is designed to look like a fisherman’s boat. If someone had described building an altar area that looked like a boat, I’d have told them they were crazy… but it worked. I think it also worked because the rest of the sanctuary was so reverently designed that you couldn’t really misconstrue it as a showy piece.

Along the walls of the sanctuary are 11 icons and one painting for the 12 apostles. If you are not familiar with icons, they are not painted, they are “written”. The writer (the artist) fasts and prays while creating the icon. It is a work of prayer and is a visual prayer meant to convey something sacred. So the 12th apostle is Judas. Although he has a painting, and maybe to the untrained eye it looks like an icon, it is not an icon. It doesn’t have any halo, the lettering is not done in gold, and so on. There’s also an interesting story with Judas’ painting. When they unloaded it from the truck to bring it into the church, a dog came up and attacked it. It did some damage to the foot of Judas. They decided it was meant to be that way.

I had my picture taken next to Matthew.

Here’s the picture of Judas. It is hard to see, but you can notice some of the differences in how the person is portrayed if you compare the icon of Matthew with the painting of Judas.

Our next stop was the Church of the Heptapegon in Tabgha, where the first multiplication of the fishes and loaves takes place. This is a fairly new church, built on the ruins of an ancient church. Like we’ve seen in other churches like this, the new church uses some of the walls and foundation of the prior church.

Outside of the church is an olive press from the time of Christ. Olives would be put into the basin, then the big stone on top would be put onto an axle and rolled around the track that is full of olives, crushing them. The mashed olives would be put into baskets where the first part, the extra virgin oil, would seep out and be collected. Then weights would be put on top of the baskets to compress and squeeze out the remaining oil in stages and grades of oil.

Next stop was only a very short distance up the hill to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus taught the famous “Sermon on the Mount”. We had mass up on top of this hill outside under a covered area. During mass, it poured rain. We were gifted with a rainbow as well.

This is a very dry and desert area, so the rain was unusual and quite a blessing for the area. The Sea of Galilee is quite low, so the water is welcomed. Sadly, this also meant that our boat ride out into the Sea of Galilee had to be canceled due to winds and waves.

Lunch was down along the shore at “St. Peter’s Restaurant”. Several of us got a whole fish, bones and head and all. It was pretty good. I’m not sure my mom really appreciated the authentic dining experience – I think she would have probably preferred a fillet. But she was a very good sport about it.

Before and after:

Then came the deepest experience of my day in a somewhat unexpected place. We went down the shore a bit to the “Church of the Primacy”. This is the place where Jesus appears to the apostles after the resurrection. In John 21, Jesus cooks fish over a charcoal fire. The apostles are out on the water and don’t realize it is Jesus on the shore for a while. When they finally figure out who it is, Peter comes into shore and Jesus undoes the three-fold denial of Peter by asking him three times if he loves Him. If you are not familiar with that scripture, I highly recommend reading it. It is one of my favorite pieces of scripture.

This church is built over the rock where Jesus fed the apostles. We went inside and read John 21. Then we had a few minutes. I reached over to touch the rock and was unexpectedly moved to tears. I bent down and kissed the rock before departing. That was quite a gift.

Here is the shoreline right outside of the church. It was a beautiful day and the overcast skies seemed to be the perfect conditions for such a solemn encounter with the Living God.

We then moved on to Capernaum, Jesus central area of ministry. This city was destroyed by earthquakes at least twice. The picture below is the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus taught. This is the place where He stood up and read the scroll of Isaiah about the coming of the Jubilee and told them “These words have been fulfilled in your hearing”. (Luke 4:16-30)

The black basalt rock is native to the area and is the original walls of the sanctuary. The upper stones are not native and would have been from a later Byzantine church built upon the ruins of the ancient synagogue. There have been significant excavations that have revealed the town from the time of Christ.

There is a rather strange looking church here now. It is suspended above the ruins as though it is floating. What we found out is that it is located directly above a very early church that you can see through the floor of the new church. In the second picture, you can see an octagonal wall with a circular building in the middle. These two are ancient churches with the focus being the center section.

Jesus cursed three towns late in His ministry: Bethsaida, Chorazin and Capernaum. See Luke 10:13-20. He cursed them because they did not believe in Him even after they had seen so many signs and heard Him preach in their synagogue. Capernaum was one of these towns. When they built this new church, they did not want it to be upon cursed ground, so it is above the ground.

The tall tree in the middle of this picture is right next to the room where Jesus and His apostles would have stayed when they were in Capernaum.

Our last stop for the day was by the Jordan river. We stood on the side of the river and renewed our baptismal promises, like we would at the Easter Vigil. I got a small vial of water to bring home with me to bless my children with before they return to college in s a few days.

Tomorrow is our last day in Israel. It has been an amazing trip and it is hard to believe it is almost over. Tomorrow night we head to the airport for a flight in the early hours of the following morning.

May God bless you and keep you.

Deacon Matt

Israel Day 7: A Mountain Top Experience Beyond Words

Today we said goodbye to Jerusalem … I hope to return some day with my wife, children, and other pilgrims. I have found this to be a very powerful experience to help build upon my faith. I have learned a lot that fills my head, and I have had many moments that stirred my heart.

We left Jerusalem early this morning. We had a very early wakeup call so we could board the bus for our ride north. Nothing in Israel is very far away, so even our “long” day on the bus wasn’t too bad. Just a couple of hours that passed very fast. Our tour guide and Marcellino did a great job of filling the time with information and commentary about the places we were passing.

Along our way, we entered the Palestinian territory. Our tour guide is named Bader. He is a Palestinian Christian who now lives in Jerusalem with his wife. He is absolutely wonderful. He is incredibly knowledgeable about the faith, scripture, history, the entire area we’ve traveled in, and the sites we have visited. Having him along has been a blessing.

Bader shared with us a lot of background and history on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, how it has impacted the people, and so on. It is very eye opening. As with any issue, it is much more complex than you’ll ever hear on the news.

As we entered Palestine, we had to stop and the Israeli border security team boarded our bus and had a quick look around. A few of us were asked to produce our passports. I was one of the chosen few.

Just a little ways into Palestine, we stopped at a little roadside market for a bathroom break. There was this tank was sitting there. It is a remnant from one of the wars, but I’m not sure which one.

Our first pilgrimage stop for today was up on Mount Tabor. In Luke 9:28-36, we hear about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. There, they are joined bye Elijah and Moses. If you don’t know the story, you should read it. It is a great story! That happened on Mt. Tabor. We were there!

Mt. Tabor is about 1900 feet high, and stands all alone jutting up above the Jezreel Valley. It is quite beautiful. The top of the mount is not huge, so wherever the encounter with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah happened, I was pretty close to it.

Our tour bus took us part of the way up, then we had to transfer to smaller passenger vans to go up the switchbacks to the top. Dramamine was a good idea today.

Once you get to the top, there is an Orthodox church and a Catholic church: the Church of the Transfiguration. Right in front of the church are the ruins of an old Byzantine monastery from the 4-6th century. This monetary was destroyed and all of its monks were killed. As I approached the church and walked through these ruins, I was struck by both the beauty and the solemnity of this place. Although there were clearly horrific days, I felt a sense of peace walking through.

We had mass in the lower chapel of this magnificent church. This was the highlight of my day today. Although this is a fairly new church, it is classic in design and really beautiful. It may be the most beautiful church I’ve seen so far in Israel.

I also had the great privilege of assisting at mass at this very Holy place.

Here is a panoramic view from the top of Mount Tabor. Just gorgeous!

I tried to get a picture from the other side as well, but couldn’t find a good vantage point. This shot is from about half-way down the mountain from inside the van.

The van ride down was actually kind of fun, as long as you really trust the driver not to run off the road. I saw a couple of cyclists making their way up to the top, too. I was thinking this would be a really great mountain to climb by bike! Oh well, no bicycling on this trip.

After safely returning to the bottom, we made our way to Nazareth. Again, I was expecting some quiet town before I came to Israel. It is not a little country town any more. We ate lunch and then walked our way up to the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Along the walk, I ran across this very cute little girl playing among the pigeons. We need to be like Children to truly understand the love that God has for us. This little one was toddling around having a great time, just being with the birds. I sure wish we were all so easily entertained. It also made me miss my children. My two daughters are college aged now, but I could imagine both of them when I watched this little one.

We had another simple pita sandwich for lunch. Filling and tasty.

The annunciation is the term used to describe when Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she would conceive Jesus. You can read that story in Luke 1:26-56. This Basilica was built over the place where the Annunciation occurred at Mary’s house in Nazareth.

The Basilica of the Annunciation is huge. Back in Jesus’ day, Nazareth was a very small little town. This Basilica is large enough to enclose the ruins of the entire town from that time. The architecture is modern. I liked some aspects of it, and I was not quite as sure about others.

The part I liked the most was that the lower chapel altar sanctuary is built inside Mary’s house. I found that to be quite moving.

One other interesting feature: the dome of this church is a Lilly, upside down, facing down into the sanctuary space. The architect wanted you to realize that the roots would be up in heaven. All things originate with God.

Several countries contributed murals of Mary to the side walls of the church. Here is the one from Mexico and the one from Japan. The Japanese one is a mosaic and the shawl is made of pearls. It was the most expensive one in the church. I was very disappointed with the image created by the United States. Frankly, it was ugly and looked like something from The Transformers. In fact, it was so ugly, I forgot to take a picture of the United States one.

You can see more runis of Nazareth under the protection of a roof here:

Our last stop for today was at Cana. This church is built on top of ruins that are believed to be the location of the Wedding Feast in John 2 where Jesus turns water into wine. Although it can not be absolutely proven that this is that location, it is likely the right place and it has been Tradition since about 400 AD.

We had a very nice blessing of married couples from our group. It was beautiful. Tony and Debbie from our parish were one of those couples. They were really cute together and I really enjoyed being part of their blessing.

Below this church, you can see the ruins of ancient Cana and one of the jars that was used for ceremonial washings. This is the kind of jar that was used by Jesus in His miracle, and could possibly be one of them. Most people probably think of a big pottery jar. This is more like a basin or tank.

Today was a great day. I’m looking forward to our day tomorrow. Time for bed.

– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 6: Into the Wilderness

Tonight’s blog will be pretty short. If I get more time later I may come and fill in more details, but I have to be up early tomorrow morning to leave our hotel in Jerusalem and travel to Galilee. I’ve enjoyed Jerusalem and will be a little sad to be leaving so soon.

We started out by traveling out to Bethany in Palestine, to the tomb of Lazarus. This is where Jesus resurrects Lazarus. We had mass in a chapel a few feet from the burial cave. We had a small group of pilgrims from Zimbabwe join us for mass and they were so beautiful and friendly. It was one of the highlights of our day. In fact, they met up with us at lunch as well so it was a joy to see them again. We’ve exchanged email addresses to swap some pictures with each other.

After mass, we took turns climbing down deep into a cave to get to Lazarus’ burial site. Pretty interesting and a little tough for some of the pilgrims to climb up and down the steep and slick stairs. Some of us joked that the reason Jesus called out to Lazarus is because He didn’t want to climb down in person.

Next stop was the ancient town of Jericho. Among all of the desert nearby, you can see why Jericho was overrun by 25 different factions over the years. It is an oasis of green lush vegetation surrounded by desert wilderness.

Below is a sycamore tree like the one that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus.

We arrived in Jericho and stopped by the Elisha fountain which he gave to them. We went up on the “tel” – which is the name given to an archaeological dig. Several things impressed me about this site.

It was really interesting to see how small the biblical Jericho was. I’ve seen bigger yards back home in Lexington Kentucky than the footprint of the archeology space. I’d guess we were talking about 4-5 acres at most. I had in my mind that it was a decent sized city. It does have walls around it that have been revealed in the excavations.

It is, however, the oldest known city at this time. It is the first place where an organized set of roads and a protective wall have been found. There is also a tower that has been unearthed in the rubble that was built 10,000 years ago. The tower was used for their protection – they’d climb into the top and close the top. You can see the tower here in the middle right of the picture. The top has a grate put over it.

It may not look like much of a tower, but it was built 10,000 years ago without any tools but stone. Also, you have to look at it from ground level below. The current ground level I’m standing on is from 25 different rebuilding efforts of Jericho from when it has been conquered in the past.

Another interesting thing you can see in Jericho: the Mountain of Temptation. This is where Jesus is taken and tempted by Satan with power over all the earth. It is amazing how desolate this mountain area is.

We ate lunch at a little place in Jericho. Outside, most of us took a turn riding a camel around the parking lot. Yup, that’s me on a camel.

Our next stop was the Qumran community. I’d love to write a very long blog about this … but I need to get some sleep. Perhaps more later. This is the area where the Essenes lived. These were a sect of Jews who lived a very monastic-like life. Part of their life was to copy the ancient scriptures onto new scrolls. Near the end of their time in Qumran, with the Romans pressing in, they took many of their scrolls and put them into jars in the nearby caves in which many of them lived. They likely expected to return and have the scrolls available to them. They never returned, and the scrolls were found in 1947. Below is a picture of “cave 4” where the first important discovery of scrolls was found.

In the next picture, you can see the hillside with its many caves all over it. It was a very beautiful wilderness place.

Next, we took a short drive down to the Dead Sea. Again, I’d love to write more about it, but time is short tonight. The salt content in the water right now is about 30%. You can literally sit on the water and float. It was pretty fun. Lots of garbage along the shores, though.

The Dead Sea is decreasing at an alarming rate. It has dropped many hundreds of feet since the time of Christ. It looks like at least 100 feet of its drop has happened in the last 40 years. The sea is fed by the Jordan River. But the Jordan is now tapped for water by all of the communities in the area for irrigation and drinking water. So the Jordan is now only a small trickle by the time it gets to the Dead Sea.

This is a picture of my mom and I outside the tomb of Lazarus. I like this one because in this picture, she looks just like her brother, Bill, whom she loves dearly. Bill died a few years ago. May God grant him eternal rest. Very fitting place to recall his life as we all anticipate “the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come! Amen.”

More tomorrow!


Deacon Matt

Israel Day 5: Jerusalem Old City – the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sepulchre

Today was a little later start, which was nice. We also had a change in the weather. So far, the weather has been dry and 50-60 degree weather. Today was in the 40s with rain all day. It was perfect. Perfect? Yes, perfect.

We started by entering the Old City via the Damascus Gate. I was really surprised by what I saw. I had a mental image of some sort of historical city with an ancient feel. Perhaps a tiny bit like Williamsburg in the USA is for Colonial History. What we saw was nothing like that at all. There are 1500 shops in this relatively small space. Storefront after storefront of mostly tourist junk, and most of it exactly the same as the store three doors away. A little while later, we left this particular shopping area and were in the Islamic quarter of the Old City. You can see graffiti on the walls left by Muslim pilgrims who made their way to Jerusalem.

Our objective was not shopping this morning. We were on our way to the first stop of the Via Dolorosa – the Way of the Cross. The Via Dolorosa is a path between the Antonia fortress and Golgotha that recalls the path Jesus Christ took carrying the cross on the way to His crucifixion and death. This custom of retracing Jesus’ steps to Golgotha began in the early centuries of Christianity and is still practiced today as a way to meditate on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are 14 “stations” or stops along the way. At each station, a specific part of the Gospel narrative of His passion is read and reflected on before resuming and going to the next station. Stations 10 though 14 are located within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is a church built over top of the area encompassing Golgatha and the tomb of Jesus. The Via Dolorosa is an act of prayer. The cold rainy day set the stage perfectly and somberly for remembering the passion of Jesus, who died after walking through the streets of Jerusalem.

The first station is at the Church of the Flagellation, which recalls the scouring of Jesus. We stopped here and read the first station and picked up the cross. We took turns throughout the whole Via Dolorosa carrying the cross. Every pilgrim in our group had at least one turn carrying the cross.

After walking a little, we took a stop along the way to visit the Convent of the Sisters of Notre-Dame de Sion near the east end of the Via Dolorosa. This convent building has access to some very important archeological areas under the streets of modern-day Jerusalem.

Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Each time, the new city is built upon the rubble of the prior city. In some cases, buildings will share a part of the previous foundation (I’ll have an example below). In other cases, the rubble is filled in and buildings start from the top of the rubble. As it stands today, the streets of this part of Jerusalem are about 20 feet above the level the streets were at during the time of Christ. From inside the convent, you can access stairs that take you down to the previous street level as well as some ancient cisterns that were part of the water system for ancient Jerusalem.

I learned something new about how the Romans treated prisoners at this site that was fascinating to me. Down in this ruins, you can see the inscriptions in the floor for a dice-game that was played by Roman prison guards. (There is a description in the picture below, and a picture of a lit box around the area on the floor where they found an example of the inscription). What would happen is that the guards would play a dice game that would make a condemned death-row prisoner “King for a Day”. At the end of that day, he would be killed. Recall that they threw dice for Jesus’ garments and He was mocked as King.

Our destination was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb. This church is co-operated by 6 different Christian sects/denominations: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Ethiopian Tewahedo. They often don’t agree on things, which seems to have left the church in a less-than-ideal condition. One might expect that the holiest places on earth, the very site of our redemption, would be a grand basilica, beautiful, and stately. Nope, it is certainly a very large church, but not as stately as most of the churches in Rome.

In the early years of Christianity, Jesus’ cave tomb was a popular place for Christians to pilgrim to. In order to stop this, Roman Emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple upon the ruins to bury the tomb of Jesus. During the reign of Constantine, the Emperor ordered that the temple be removed and that the cave’s rock-face be removed to expose the tomb without destroying it.

The original church was built by St. Helen (mother of Constantine) in 335. It was burned down in 614 during a Persian invasion of Jerusalem. It was rebuilt around 630, but was destroyed in 1009 by a Muslim caliph. The church was rebuilt in 1048.

If you look in the picture below, you will notice a cypress ladder up on the second floor by the windows. It is known as the “Immovable Ladder”. Its story is both funny and sad. It is first mentioned in the mid 1800s and it has remained in that location since. It’s origins come from the inability of the six Christian orders in the site to work together. It is “immovable” because there is an agreement among these orders that nothing in the church may be moved, rearranged, or altered without the consent of the other five orders. This ladder is symbolic: it’s just a ladder. But it shows that we have a long way to go on bridging the divide among our brothers and sisters in faith. Under an order of Pope Paul VI in 1964, this ladder is to remain in place until the Catholic and Orthodox Church reach a state of ecumenism.

Walking in the door, the first thing you see is a slab of marble. This is said to be the place where Christ’s body was taken off of the cross and laid during burial preparation.

Next, we stood in line to enter the tomb place of Jesus. Recall earlier that this was originally a cave but Constantine had it excavated to expose the area. After the excavation, a small rotunda built of marble was built around it, called the Anastasis, which means “Resurrection” in Greek. The rock where Jesus lay was also covered by marble to protect it from anyone wishing to do it harm, especially the invading Ottomans.

After about a 25 minute wait, we took our turn to enter the tomb. During our wait, we prayed with each other and prepared to be in the holiest place on earth. It was somewhat surreal as we entered into the tomb – “are we really here?” I was expecting a little emotion, but as I knelt down and kissed the marble slab covering this place, I instantly began choking up and crying. It was very powerful.

In the gospels, we hear that the tomb was “close at hand”. It was pretty amazing to see just how close it really is. Just a few steps away from the tomb, you climb a staircase that takes you to the top of Golgatha. The rock of the hill was covered by a marble floor so when you walk up, you aren’t really aware that you’re on top of a hill. There are a few places where you can see the rock itself.

We stood in line for about another 30 minutes to get to the place where Jesus’ cross was put into the ground. Once you get there, you go under the altar and put your hand into a hole in the floor and touch the rock where the cross was. That was pretty amazing. Beneath this altar, you can also go into a room below that is at “the foot of the cross”. There is a glass window in the wall where can see a crack in the rock that is said to be caused by the earthquake that happened after Jesus’ death. Many people, including me, brought prayer petitions and left them there. I’ve been carrying prayers for many people in my pocket since I left Lexington. I left my petitions and those entrusted to me at the foot of the cross. Felt good to do that: the burdens of my life were lifted and I helped carry some others’ burdens for them.

Next stop was to go down some stairs to the bottom of the rock quarry known as Golgotha. As we descended the steps, you can see crosses carved in the wall. These are “12th C graffiti” from pilgrims who made the journey to these sacred places.

After a quick lunch, we ventured onward to an Orthodox convent that has a remnant of the original wall of Jerusalem. Note that Jesus was crucified outside of the walls of Jerusalem. At His time, Golgatha would have been outside this wall, even though it is within the current walls today. This particular section of the wall is known as the Judgment Gate. This is the gate that Jesus would have walked through on his way out of the city to Golgatha.

One special feature on this wall to note: you can see what is called the “Eye of the Needle”. This was an opening in the wall that was too big for a pack animal to pass, but a person could fit through. When Jesus says that a camel can not fit through the eye of a needle, here’s likely what he was referring to.

The eye of the needle is a few feet left of the bottom of the archway in this picture above. I stood next to it for scale in the picture below.

A short while later, we were back at our hotel. A quick dinner was followed by some very enjoyable conversation with the pilgrims from my parish over a bottle of wine. We talked about the pilgrimage in general and more specifically about today’s part of the pilgrimage.

I’ve been writing this blog for a few reasons. First is for my family. Second is for myself so that I don’t forget. Third is for others who could not afford to come on the pilgrimage themselves so that they might experience at least some of the pilgrimage.

In closing tonight, I want to reflect on one important thing: the resurrection. We can look at the tomb of Christ as the end. We can say that this is where He died. There’s nothing incorrect about that except that it is NOT the end. It is the beginning. We must never forget that Jesus’ tomb could not contain death. That is the place of our resurrection! Death holds no sting for us. Death holds nothing at all over us. It is through the resurrection of Christ that we have eternal hope for our own resurrection.


– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 4 – Bethlehem: About The God Child and Children of God

Today was another really wonderful day, and very eye opening on several fronts.

The first thing on our itinerary was to depart for Bethlehem. Bethlehem is only about three miles away, but took about 40 minutes to get there. The reason is the large wall that keeps the Palestinian areas separated from the rest of Jerusalem. I’ve heard about the wall. I’ve seen pictures of the wall. I’ve read articles and commentary about the wall. I’ve tried to understand what it really is all about. Today … I saw the wall up close. What I saw made me sad that we can’t find a way to live in peace with our brothers and sisters. You can see a sample of the wall below.

We had to drive far out of our way to a checkpoint to cross into Palestine. Once inside, we quickly arrived at a shop that sells everything from high-end antiquities down to Olive Wood trinkets, and everything in between. The shop owner has an amazing story to tell about the Dead Sea scrolls.

The owner of the shop is the grandson of the man who originally discovered the Dead Sea scrolls. He gave us the full story about the scrolls, their discovery, and filled in some details I’d never heard before. In the past, I’ve read quite a bit about the scrolls. The story I’ve heard is that the scrolls were found by some boys who were throwing rocks into some caves while looking for their goats or sheep. These “boys” threw a rock into the cave and heard a crash, leading to the discovery of the pots that held the scrolls.

Here’s a short version what really happened. This man’s grandfather was a bit of an amateur antiquities dealer. He wanted some men to go explore some caves nearby to see what could be found. These caves were hard to reach because of where they were located on a mountain side. These men worked in the nearby fields and their trade name is something akin to “cowboy”, except for sheep and goats (This is where the story about “boys” looking for goats comes from). It took about two years to convince these two men to explore the caves because they were superstitious and thought that the caves might have spirits living in them. So before they finally mustered up the courage, they got to the cave opening and threw rocks in to see if it was safe or if evil spirits would be there. That’s when they heard the famous “crunch” of pottery breaking, which led to the discovery of the scrolls.

There is a lot more to the story about how the scrolls ended up in the hands of the government, but I’ll skip that because I don’t know if I can accurately remember the details.

Although most of the scrolls were removed from him, his grandfather was allowed to hold onto one pot containing one of the scrolls. It is in the case right behind him. Wow. Really interesting and well worth the trip to the shop!

In the picture below, he is holding a “tear jar”. The women of Roman times would collect their tears into these jars and send them off with their husbands when they went for war. These were considered more precious than perfumes. They were a sign of the love from the woman to her husband. If the husband were to die in battle, the tears would be buried with him.

In the Luke 7:36-50, we hear about a sinful woman who comes to Jesus and bathes His feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them, and kisses them. It is likely that she was not just crying over His feet. She was giving her most precious possession, her collected tears, by pouring them out of a tear-jar onto His feet. She is expressing her deep love for Jesus.

I was very attracted to some of the antiquities, but decided that I couldn’t afford them. One thing I really considered: they had many Roman era coins there. I was really impressed by the “Widow’s Mite” coins. We read about the small copper coins in Luke 21:1-4, but seeing them made me think even more about how minuscule they were. Imagine a small shirt button on a typical man’s shirt, about 1/2 as thin. Minuscule and small. Not worth much of anything. Imagine that being all you had to live on. You’d have to trust God a lot with your life if that’s all you had. There were some other coins that were also made into jewelry that I tried to get a picture of below.

I took a picture of a really neat olive-wood setting of the Last Supper. Our guide explained that this is a pretty accurate understanding of how a first-century Passover meal would have been laid out:

The meal is a celebration meal, eaten reclining on their left elbows (The Passover is a celebration meal). The table is U shaped so that the Host can see everyone and talk with everyone and food can be served from in front of each guest instead of walking over their reclined bodies. The host (Jesus in this case) sits at the head (left side, center) so that he can see when someone has an empty plate. An empty plate means that you need more food. Leaving a little food means you are done. The youngest sits to his right and would be dispatched to serve the food at the host’s request (John sits to Jesus right on the bottom left). Prime guests sit across from the host (Peter sits across) so that the host can talk most easily with them. Peter can communicate easily with John since he’s right across from him – so he can ask to find out who the traitor is. Judas sits next to Jesus, so he shares the morsel with Jesus.

This scene was a great teaching tool. I would have loved to bring it home, but it is about 4 feet by 2.5 feet in size and pretty costly.

After leaving there, our next stop was an orphanage in Palestine, run by the St. Vincent DePaul sisters. This was a powerful and moving experience. I loved it and it made me sad, too.

The orphanage is located next to a state-of-the-art birth OB/GYN hospital, the Holy Family Hospital, run by the Order of Malta, which serves the poor women in Palestine. This orphanage helps young Palestinian women, nearly all Muslim, who have pregnancies before marriage. Some are by sex before marriage, and many are by non-consensual intercourse – sometimes with family members. To be found pregnant outside of marriage is a source of shame and can be dangerous, especially if it involves family members who want to cover up their sinful behavior. So the orphanage takes in the pregnant mothers and cares for them until their babies are born. After birth, the mother leaves and the orphanage takes care of the children until they are 7, then they are turned over to the government in an arrangement that sounds much like the foster care system in the U.S.

The sisters care for these youngsters and raise them. They can not teach them about the Catholic Faith because the government says that these children must be raised Muslim. But what the kids receive is an outpouring of Christ’s love – in the orphanage that is only about 800 yards away from the place where Jesus was born. We watched the sisters taking care of the kids and they were loving those children the same way a mother would take care of her own child. It was quite touching.

One other neat thing: they celebrate Christmas every day that they bring a new baby home. In this town where Jesus was born, how fitting it is that welcoming an orphan into their home is greeted with great love and celebration.

We played with the kids, took some toys for them, and soaked up the wonderful environment. I got some 1:1 time with an infant who just stared into my eyes with her beautiful dark eyes and gave me a little smile. At that moment, I would have signed anything needed to bring her home if I could. Unfortunately, the Palestine government does not allow for adoptions, so these children will be on their own after their period of foster care ends in their late teens.

Leaving the orphanage, we made the short trip to the Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus was born. This is a Greek Orthodox Church that undergoing a very heavy restoration that looks like it will take many years. Along the way as we walked, I saw this interesting coffee shop. I think they have a catchy name – perhaps they should consider franchising.

The door to the church is very small. It was originally much taller but was shortened to keep men from riding horses and camels into the church. Then it was lowered again to make sure you bow down as you enter.

You have to wait in a long line to get to the place where Jesus was born. It took us about an hour. I snapped the following picture while waiting in line. You can see a small sampling of the multitude of icons and oil lamps – it’s Greek Orthodox, for sure! Some of the icons were quite beautiful.

So eventually you go down a staircase into a cave below the church. At the bottom, you find two important places: the place of Jesus’ birth, and the place where the manger was located. In the picture below, you can see the star with a large hole in it. Below the slab of marble and through the hole, you can touch the rock where Jesus was born. If you place religious articles against it, they become third-class relics. So I have some items coming home that are now third-class relics.

After you emerge from the cave, you come up on the other side of the main sanctuary space. Here’s a better shot of the main sanctuary. This is set up for the eastern-rite mass – notice the two sets of doors they’d use during liturgy.

There’s another very important thing in the Church’s history that happened here. Just outside the walls of the church, you find a statue of St. Jerome. I’ll give an incredibly over-abbreviated version of why. Jerome had been tasked with translating the Bible into Latin, which was the popular language of the time. He had done the New Testament and the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures – enough to facilitate having the Sacred Liturgy done in the vernacular. He wanted to complete the entire Hebrew Scriptures, so he came to Bethlehem to complete his work as a hermit. The completed work is what’s known as The Vulgate.

Leaving Bethlehem, you can see the settlements along the Shepherds’ Fields.

Lunch was awesome again. This time we started with about 10 appetizers, followed by chicken and lamb kabobs. Some people at our table also finished off lunch with some hookah. I took a pass.

This region is known as the Shepherds Fields. We saw some shanty areas where the shepherds live down in the valley too. This is the area where the Shepherds from Luke’s Gospel were watching over their flocks. About 2 miles away from the Church of the Nativity is the Shepherds Field church. We had mass in the cave where the Shepherds received the message from the angels to go to Bethlehem to find the infant and to deliver their message to Mary & Joseph. Next to the cave is a church that is built to look like a shepherd’s tent.

Here’s a panorama shot of the entire valley. Jerusalem is far off to the left in the distance. If you look carefully, you can also see the wall and its barbed wire top down in the valley.

We returned to our hotel and had a light bite to eat. Tonight is New Year’s Eve. It is also a special feast day tomorrow, celebrating Mary as the Mother of God. We went to a spectacular mass at 10:30PM to celebrate the vigil of the feast. The prime celebrant was the Papal Nuncio with many other priests concelebrating. It was really beautiful.

Afterwards there was a champagne celebration in the lobby. I ran into this young group of kids from Austria who are here from a group called Kisi Gods Singing Kids. One of the young men gave me about a 15 minute passionate discussion about the musical they have produced on the Book of Ruth. If our next generation is as excited as he is, our Church is in great hands.

Well, it’s 2:00AM here. Enough blogging, time for sleep.

May God grant you a restful night and a peaceful death. Amen.

Happy New Year!

– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 3: The Mountains of Jerusalem

Ok – I’ve not written much about the food so far. My travel blog posts somehow usually feature some discussion about food. I guess this is because I believe that when I travel, eating is a part of the overall experience. We are sensual creatures – we use all of our senses, including our experience of food. So I’ll just put a little bit about food today.

Here at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, we have breakfast included each morning. One of the neat things I’ve never seen anywhere else is being able to eat raw honey from the comb. They have a rack where they pull out a comb from a hive and just set it in with bowls below it to catch the dripping honey. It is true that this is the land of Milk and Honey. I can’t drink the milk, but the honey is the best I’ve ever had. It is a pretty awesome topping to put on oatmeal.

Today’s part of the tour focused on the mountains around Jerusalem. The first was the Mount of Olives. This was a place frequented by Jesus on His way to and from Jerusalem. It is not a very big area, so when we know that Jesus did something on this mountain, we can be pretty sure it was in the local vicinity – we can’t be too far off on our assumptions of exactly where it happened. As a faithful Jew, Jesus would travel from His home to Jerusalem at least 3 times each year for the various festivals and would enter by coming over the Mount of Olives. From the top of the Mount of Olives, you can see Jerusalem right across the valley and it is a pretty short walk to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

Our first stop on the Mount of Olives was the Church of the Ascension. This ancient Byzantine church was taken over by the Muslims and is now a small mosque. In the center of the building is a stone in the floor. This stone is said to be the place where Jesus ascended to heaven. Tradition says that He left a footprint behind in the rock. Both Muslims and Christians believe that Jesus will come down in the way He ascended, so this is a very Holy site with future expectations for the second coming of Christ.

Just down the road, still at the top of the Mount of Olives, is the Pater Noster church – the “Our Father” church. Jesus and His disciples spent a lot of time in this area and it is believed that Jesus taught His disciples how to pray the Our Father here before carrying that teaching to the rest of the world. When you walk in, you find the Our Father in hundreds of different languages on the walls. I also found it in Braille.

Our next adventure was to leave the Mount of Olives and walk down into the valley below to the Garden of Gethsemane. We were there last night for a Holy Hour in the night. We took a traditional route that is used on Palm Sunday, although it is more likely that a route just a little farther south to avoid walking through the Jewish burial cemetery along the way.

From the top of the mount, you can see all of Jerusalem laid out. You can see the eastern wall and the double Golden Gate in the middle of the eastern wall. It is a double set of arches without doors. It is believed that when the Messiah comes, there will be an earthquake that will open these gates for Him to enter.

You can also see the Dome of the Rock and black dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque – the two most prominent mosques in the Old City, built on top of the Jewish Temple ruins. The Al-Aqsa mosque means “The Farthest Mosque” referring to a verse in the Quran. It is the third holiest site in Islam.

As we made our journey down the mountain, we passed through a Jewish cemetery. All of these graves are set to face the Temple in Jerusalem, with the feet facing the eastern wall.

Half way down, we stopped at the Dominus Flevit church. The name means “The Lord Wept”. This is where Jesus wept over Jerusalem in Luke 19. Jesus knew that Jerusalem was to be destroyed. This happens in 70AD – 34 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The overlook from here is really great, too. It is about half way down the mountain.

As I was looking around the grounds of the church, I heard “Hey, Deacon Matt!” I looked up and saw one of our parish’s college students waving at me. He attends Xavier University and has a study abroad this semester here in Jerusalem. He and several classmates from Xavier were studying the Mount of Olives today as well. Being a Xavier MBA alum, I like seeing the kids all decked out in their “X-Gear”. Talk about a small world – I’ve seen two Lexington people in 24 hours here, half way around the world.

Poor Mr. Hamster couldn’t resist checking out the cactus in the courtyard.

Leaving the Dominus Flevit, we continued through the Jewish Cemetery. Graves as far as the eye can see. When Joshua led the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land, 12 men picked up stones to carry to remember the crossing. Today, you see stones on the graves to serve as remembrance of the loved ones.

At the bottom, we arrived back in the garden of Gethsemane. In the daylight, you get a better feel for how small the garden of olive trees is. Since we had been inside the church already yesterday, we moved along. We walked about 2 minutes farther south to the place where the rest of the disciples were while Peter, James, and John waited in the garden as Jesus prayed before His passion.

Next stop: lunch. We started with hummus and some other traditional foods with pita. Then onto the main course. There is a traditional dish whose translated name means “Upside Down”. Basically you sauté up cauliflower and eggplant, then put a bunch of seasoned rice on top. After it cooks for a little while to make the vegetables soft, you serve it by tipping the entire pot upside down and then scooping it onto plates. We each had a serving of “Upside Down” along with a generous serving of roasted chicken. It was delicious. Some fried dough with honey was desert.

After lunch, our next stop was the hill country of Judea, specifically the house of Zechariah: the place where Elizabeth lived when Mary went to visit her. Luke Chapter 1 tells the story. Mary visits Elizabeth when both are pregnant. Mary with Jesus, Elizabeth with John the Baptist. To get there, we had to climb a very long staircase – I’d guess 1/4-1/2 mile long to get to the top.

At the top is a church built on the site of one of Zechariah’s homes. We had a beautiful mass inside the church. Next to the church is another chapel with artwork depicting the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.

This encounter is where the Church receives the prayer called “Canticle of Mary” or “Magnificat”, detailed in Luke 1:46-55. The Magnificat is prayed as part of the Evening hour of prayer in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my sprit rejoices in God my savior. For hea has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their throws but lifted up the lowly. THe hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Our next stop was to go back down the mountain and enter the town at the bottom to where John the Baptist was born.

This area of Judea doesn’t seem very religious. For the most part, everyone we saw were young people enjoying the nightlife of the local cafes.

The church of St. John the Baptist has a small grotto in it where it is believed that John the Baptist was born.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about how Zechariah was struck mute for 9 months because he did not believe God could bring him a child. After John’s birth, the Lord opens Zechariah’s mouth again and Zechariah gives us “The Canticle of Zechariah” (see Luke 1:67-9). This Canticle is used by the Church for the morning hour of prayer every day in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is one of my favorite pieces of scripture.

Upon returning to the Notre Dame Center, we were treated to a great presentation on the Shroud of Turin by a local scholar. There is a permanent exhibit here on the shroud. I’ve been very interested in the shroud for many years but I learned some new things tonight. It is amazing what modern investigative techniques have brought to our understanding over the last 20 years. If you’re not familiar with the Shroud, it is believed to be the burial cloth covering the body of Jesus after His death.

Modern photography techniques and 3D analysis and rendering have provided amazing understanding of the man who was buried in this cloth. All of the evidence continues to strongly point to Christ, including pollen, flowers, the wounds consistent with the type of death He endured, and so on. I was particularly impressed with the analysis of the wounds from the scourging and crucifixion.

Here’s an example of the kinds of whip they believe were used on Jesus. They had little bar-bells on the end.

After the presentation, we returned to the dining room for a light supper and some fellowship.

The Notre Dame center has a gorgeous chapel on the 1st floor. I stopped in and prayed my evening Liturgy of the Hours before retiring to get my blog done.

Time for bed. Next stop: Bethlehem tomorrow.


– Deacon Matt

Israel Day 2 – The Old City of Jerusalem.

After a very busy day today, we returned to our hotel late this evening. It’s about 10:15 PM here, and the dilemma is this: how do I condense an amazing day into a short blog post, not to mention keep it brief enough that I get some sleep instead of staying up all night writing. Let’s see how this goes…

A few minutes ago, my mom asked me what my favorite part of the day was today. I can’t really answer because the whole day was pretty amazing. I had a very powerful experience at one point, but I can’t say that “favorite” is the way to describe it. Different parts of today hit different parts of me: my intellect, my enjoyment of beauty, and of course, my soul.

After breakfast, we began our day by walking part of the way around the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and entering by the Lion’s Gate. The walls we see today are not the original walls that people in Christ’s time would have seen. Over the years and different conquering forces, they have been destroyed and rebuilt. Some parts are on the original foundations of the previous walls, and other parts are only a few hundred years old. There are 8 gates through the walls around Jerusalem.

For those of you don’t know, I am an ordained Deacon in the Catholic Church. Acts 6 narrates the story of where deacons originate from, including one of my favorite saints: Saint Stephen. Also in chapter 6, we see the beginning of Saint Stephen’s ministry in which members of the Sanhedrin and others were agitated by Stephen’s preaching of the Good News. In Acts 7 Stephen is stoned to death for the Gospel, while Saul (who becomes Paul) stood by. Stephen is the protomartyr of the Church – the first to lose his life after Christ’s resurrection. We celebrate Stephen’s feast day on December 26.

Today, we stood outside the Lion’s Gate and stood on the ground where Stephen was stoned to death. It is a very nondescript place. There were dumpsters nearby, a broken down car, and people coming and going freely. As I stood there, thinking of Stephen, I was deeply moved. Marcellino asked the group to pray over the 4 deacons who are on this trip in that spot. I felt my eyes well up a bit thinking about what Stephen did with such great joy.

Our next stop was the Church of St. Ann – built on the home of Ann and Joachim, the parents of Mary and grandparents of Jesus. (In case you’re curious how we know their names, you can read the Proto-Evangelium of James.) This particular church had been taken over by Muslims and turned into a place of teaching of the Koran. It was restored to a Catholic Church during the crusades. The acoustics in this place were nothing short of spectacular. We sang a short hymn and it was amazing. The echo after we finished reverberated for several seconds before winding down to sacred silence.

A few minutes later we walked about 50 yards to a very interesting place, very close by. It is called Bethesda. In John 5 we hear the story of the ill, blind, lame, and crippled man who had been ill for 38 years. Jesus “knew that he had been ill for a long time”. In the story, the man can’t seem to get into the pool when the water stirs up to be healed. The passage refers to the five porticoes. A 20th century excavation revealed the five porticoes here by the earlier walls of Jerusalem. And it also found the pool area fed by a spring. What struck me is this: how close it was to Jesus’ grandparents’ house. You can see St. Ann’s church in one of the pictures below, just at the top of the stairs out of the portico area. Jesus would have likely known this area pretty well. Although it is speculative, I’m guessing Jesus had seen this man many times over many years as He played near His grandparents’ home. The passage even says that Jesus knew that he was ill for a long time. It took some time before God interceded on this man’s behalf – 38 years of illness. Jesus asks him a simple question: “Do you want to be well?” What happens next is a healing. On God’s time. Be persistent in prayer. God’s time isn’t our time. God’s ways aren’t our ways.

After leaving Bethesda, we went to the Western Wall of the temple. For Jews, this is the holiest place in the world. This is the place you have probably heard of where people come to pray and put prayer requests into the cracks of the wall. I have been carrying prayer requests for others, as well as my own. I put on a kippah (sometimes called a yarmulke) and went the wall to pray. I recited Psalm 63, one of my favorites “O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting. My pines for you like a dry weary land without water…”. I prayed for some special intentions and soaked up the experience. I also watched as many young boys made their bar mitzvah by praying the psalms publicly at the wall.

You can see all of the prayers stuffed into the cracks of the wall next to me (I’m in the brown coat).

After lunch, our next stop was the National Museum where there is a scale model of Jerusalem before it was destroyed in 70AD. It was fascinating to see how the city was laid out. Jerusalem was much smaller than I had imagined. Our tour guide and Marcellino described the various buildings, the temple, Harod’s palace, the procurator’s palace, the three valleys and so on. My pictures and notes can’t do it justice. Just too much to soak up – really a great learning resource and I hope to be able to return some day to spend more time here. We got scurried out of the museum quickly because the sabbath time was coming close. I would have liked to do more reading and notes … but I guess that’s just part of the experience that will have to wait for the future some day.

After this, we went to Mount Zion, the place where the Upper Room is. This is where Jesus holds the last supper, institutes the Eucharist, institutes the ministerial priesthood, and gives the Church authority of binding and loosening sins. We made our way up to this place and went inside for a quick visit. There is a sign outside that strictly forbids praying in this area. The upper room is built in an area that is considered to be the tomb of King David (although many modern scholars don’t find this likely any longer), and at one time Muslims turned this room into a prayer room oriented to Mecca before the Crusaders retook the area and turned it back into a church. So with all three major religions having some claim to the area, apparently the answer is to make it a museum instead of a place of prayer. In fact, we had a short prayer over our priests and a guy came in and scolded us for praying there.

The next stop was the Dormition Abbey, just around the corner. According to one major Tradition, Mary slept (died) here before her soul and then body was assumed into heaven. It was very dark inside so the pictures don’t come out well.

At 4PM we had an appointment to say mass at the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, which is built on the site of the house of Caiaphas, who judged over Jesus during His passion. This is also where Peter denied Jesus three times. The liturgy celebrated today recalls “Peter in tears” from Luke’s gospel when he weeps after denying Jesus. I was blessed to be able to assist at this mass and read this Gospel in such an amazing place.

In the floor of the church is a big hole, about 2-3 feet round. It is the entrance for a large cistern that was then transformed into a maximum security holding cell during the Roman times. This is where Jesus was likely held for at least 1 night before His crucifixion. To get prisoners into this cell, they would put a rope around them and under their armpits. The prisoner would then be lowered into the hole. No other light. No windows. No ventilation. No way out. Absolute darkness. Psalm 88 comes to mind. Excavations have now made this cistern/cell accessible by stairs so we went down below. You can see the hole in the pictures below looking up from the cell.

We also saw the place where Jesus was scourged. This was a very powerful experience.

After dinner, we then went to the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before His passion and death. I was surprised by how small the area was. The current garden is about 1/3-1/2 acre. Gethsemane roughly means “olive press”. Some of the olive trees in this area are as old as 2000-3000 years old. My eyes looked upon the same trees Jesus saw. Wow.

We then went into the adjacent church where Jesus prayed while the apostles waited nearby. Inside this church is the place where Jesus prayed so fervently that drops like blood fell to the ground. You can see this exposed area in front of the altar below. We had an hour of silent prayer and Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament in this very special place. As jet lag kicked in for several pilgrims, I kept thinking “Couldn’t you stay awake for one hour to pray with me?” In addition to my own intentions, I also prayed fervently that I might not undergo the test – the test of Stephen or of Christ … but more importantly, whatever tests of my own faith that will certainly come my way.

As you leave, you can see the Golden Gate of the walls of Jerusalem. It brings some good perspective on just how close Jesus was when He could see them coming to take Him for the passion.

One nice surprise also – seminarians from the North American College in Rome were also visiting and they provided the sung prayer for our adoration time. I recognized one of them from our home diocese and was able to say hello.

Well, it is far past my bed time. Tomorrow is another busy day in the mountains of Jerusalem.


Deacon Matt

Israel day 1: “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?”

Today’s post is sort of a continuation of yesterday’s post since I was traveling the whole time. After taking the Swiss Air flight across the Atlantic, our first stop was Zurich, Switzerland. Nice airport, but at 6AM, the international terminal didn’t provide much in the way of entertainment for pilgrims.

Once upon a time, I used to really enjoy unique wrist watches. I still like to look at them, but since I’ve switched to an Apple Watch, I don’t really think I’ll go back to an old-fashioned analog watch any time soon. Nonetheless, it was fun to look over the various Swiss watches in one of the gift shops.

After a bit of a layover, it was time to board our last flight to get us into Tel Aviv. The Swiss Air people decided that my carry-on rollerboard was too heavy for the overhead somewhat arbitrarily. I took a deep breath and decided not to challenge them on it and dutifully stowed my bag, and my mom’s bag, under the plane. All was well in Tel Aviv when they turned up with the rest of the bags on the carousel.

For a country that has so many foreign visitors, I have to give the Tel Aviv airport a C- for handling immigration and customs. Too many people, not enough efficiency in passing them through the passport checks. Compared to Singapore, for example, this airport seemed to be stuck in the 80’s. After getting through, we regrouped all the pilgrims and found our way to the tour bus.

I’m pretty impressed with our tour operator and bus driver so far. More on them in future posts, I’m sure.

A short ride later, we went up to the Norte Dame d’Alliance church. This church is built on the site where Abinadab kept the Ark of the Covenant – where it “rested” after it was returned from the Philistines. The church has some mosaic floors that date back to 500 AD from an original church. The current church is from the mid 20th century. We were treated to a nice view of Jerusalem off in the distance by night from the grounds of this amazing place.

In about 1050 BC, the Israelites tried to engage the Philistines without consulting the LORD first. They carried the Ark of the Covenant before them as though it was a thing to be used, instead of the presence of God’s name. The Philistines routed the Israelites and carried off the Ark (see 1 Samuel 4). There’s a great story that goes along – read a few chapters of 1 Samuel to get the overview. The Philistines eventually decide to send it back after being affected by plagues.

The Ark comes to rest in Abinadab’s home for some number of years – estimated to be 20-80 years.

Then, in the first year of King David’s reign (approximately 1000 BC), King David makes Jerusalem the capital of Israel. He wants to move the Ark to Jerusalem, but after a mishap, David’s profound respect for the Ark causes him to change his plans. He says “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” and so decides to take it to an interim place. Three months later, amid dancing and celebration, David moves the Ark to Jerusalem (See 2 Samuel 6).

Compare this to how Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant. She visits Elizabeth for three months. John the Baptist leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. The old Ark contains the Law, the Rod of Aaron, and the Manna. The new Ark, Mary, carries the fulfillment of the Law, the new High Priest, and the Bread of Life all wrapped up into one: Jesus Himself. And of course we hear Elizabeth say the same words as David: “how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” (See Luke 1:39-45)

We celebrated mass at this amazing sight as we began our pilgrimage. Like the Ark, both old and new, we will be wandering around the Holy Land. Marcellino did a nice job of teaching us about this site, as expected.

After mass, we traveled up into Jerusalem to the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. This is a hotel and conference facility built in the 1800s and owned by the Vatican. It is right outside the old part of Jerusalem. In fact, my back window overlooks the old city.

My hope is to get some decent sleep tonight. We’re 7 hours ahead of Lexington time, so I’m hopeful that jet lag doesn’t affect me too much this trip.

Off to bed.


Deacon Matt

Pilgrimage to Israel – No bikes this time…

My blog so far has been almost entirely focused on bicycling and bike touring. Not this time. Instead, today, I am joining up with a group of pilgrims heading to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. I’ve wanted to go to Israel for a long time. I have so many mental pictures of the places I’ve studied, but have never been there. I want to learn about the context and places – the stage of Salvation History. I’m hoping to come away with new insights into the Scriptures and culture.

I wanted to find a trip where the emphasis would be on the faith and Sacred Scripture, lnot too much on tourism. So… I did some research and decided to book a trip with Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio. He is a theologian and author. I’ve read some of his work and determined that this would be a good fit.

My mom is joining me and I opened the invitation to our parish. We have a 5 pilgrims from our parish and we are joining 53 others from parishes around the USA.

Our trip this morning started with a very early departure to bounce from Louisville airport to Atlanta to JFK in New York. I’m waiting to board our Swiss Air flight across the Atlantic to Zurich, then finally to Tel Aviv.

So far the trip is pretty uneventful, but my iPhone battery seems to be dying much too quickly now. I’m guessing that the 3 1/2 year old battery is finally giving up the ghost. I was able to purchase an (over-priced) power bank from the local Airport technology store here that I can keep with me to give it a boost. My iPhone is my camera for the trip, so I can’t afford it to be dead!

Mr. Hamster made the trip, too. He came home from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology with my Daughter so that he can make the trip and check off another 2 countries on his list. More about Mr. Hamster later.

So. Time to board the flight. Yawn. Hoping to sleep a bit on the way to pass the time. If not, I have downloaded all of season 1 and 2 of “Stranger Things“. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes and trying to get caught up so I can share the discussion with my college aged kids.

Pray for us on our pilgrimage. If you have special requests you want me to carry, drop me an email and I’ll make sure to pray daily for your intentions and offer up any challenges we have on your behalf.


– Deacon Matt

Katy Trail Bike Tour: Epilogue

After getting cleaned up last night, I had a great night’s sleep in my own bed.  I’m sure everyone can relate to the comfort of climbing in your own bed after a long journey.  It just feels like home.  Throughout our journey, we had very great accommodations from the various churches and Deacon’s houses we visited.  But there is still nothing quite like being at home.

The Katy Trail has a bit of a mystique about it.  Most people who enjoy bike touring have it on their bucket list.  It is kinda like a baseball fan wanting to go to Wrigley or Fenway.  The Katy opened in 1990 and was one of the earliest successful rails-to-trails projects, and arguably one of the most successful in garnering interest.  It is the longest single contiguous rail-trail, although I would say that the combination of the Great Allegheny Passage + C&O Canal makes for a longer continuous off-road ride at about 330 miles.

For me, part of the enjoyment of the tour is the getting ready: the research, reading, watching videos, finding blogs, and talking to people who have already ridden the path.  It was harder than I expected to find out a lot about the towns along the path.  After riding it, I think that is because many are closed up old towns, whose soul lies in the past.  The best book I was able to find was “The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook” (10th ed.) by Brett Dufur.  It was last published in 2013 and could use some minor updates, but overall was a good resource.  I do recommend this book if you’re considering riding the Katy.  Dufur’s book has a small chapter on each of the little towns and areas along the way with history and some details about services.  Some of the services information is no longer up-to-date.

Riding the Katy was a very good experience.  We were able to ride all the way from Machens (the farthest east end) to Clinton (the farthest west end) with only about 3 miles of road riding around the town of Sedalia.  That’s 240 miles with 26 trailheads, wandering through the beautiful prairie and countryside of Missouri.

The scenery along the Katy is pretty.  I expected to see much more of the Missouri River – but we really didn’t see much of it.  The Katy and Missouri are relatively near each other from the Eastern end all the way to Boonville, before parting and going different directions.  But even on the eastern part of the trail, the Missouri was often a few hundred yards or more away.  So when we did get a nice view of the Missouri, it was a welcome sight.

I was a little surprised about how much of the trail was out in the open.  Much of the trail is shaded by a semi-mature canopy of trees.  I’d guess about 50-60% of the total trail has trees lining it.  During the early morning or late afternoon, the trees would do a good job of providing shade, however when the sun was directly over head, most of the canopy wasn’t thick enough to provide much shade.

In the prairie areas, there was little-to-no shade at all.  During mid day, we found ourselves picking the left or right side of the trail depending on if there were any trees at all next to the path, just hoping to get a few seconds of shade here and there.

I found the farm country between St. Charles and Jefferson City to be pretty… but a bit repetitive after a while.  The trail is incredibly flat all the way from Machens to Boonville, which doesn’t allow for you to break the monotony by standing out of the saddle for a climb, or coasting down a grade.  It is just a continuous beat of putting one pedal in front of the other until  you reach your destination.  Personally, I like a little bit of variety in my ride to help make the miles pass.

The prairie between Sedalia and Clinton was my favorite of the farm areas, though.  It was very windy up there, but the wind seemed to make the fields come alive, like watching the ocean on a beach.  The waves of air would ripple across the grain or corn, causing them to dance in rhythm.

The western section between Boonville and Clinton provided the most diverse scenery and riding.  There is very little flat riding, only gentle grades, typically about 1-2%.  There are larger sections of tree canopy and more interesting rock formations along the sides of the trail.  Also, the trail is more compacted and solid here.  The surface was mostly older, so it is less dusty and took less pedal power to keep the wheels moving.

I didn’t see very many remnants of the railroad on the trail.  Very few fixtures from the past are still along the sides.  This is the only one I recall – I may have missed others.

We didn’t really find very many places along the trail we would have liked to explore.  Certainly there were the bigger towns like St. Charles, Jefferson City, Hermann, Sedalia, Boonville, and Clinton.  But one thing Joe and I have enjoyed on other trails is the experience of going into smaller towns along the way and meeting the people there.  There is something quite beautiful about the culture of small town America.  Sadly, most of the little towns we passed through appeared to be closed up – storefronts all vacant and very few people to be seen anywhere.

The one town I would like to go back to is Rocheport.  The area near Rocheport has amazing bluffs next to the trail.  The town itself is well maintained, with many nicely restored older homes.  Sadly, I didn’t get any good pictures of the town to share.

Jefferson City (aka “Jeff City”) was a very developed town, as you would probably have assumed.  Since it is the state capitol, there is a decent economy, lots of restaurants, three bike shops, and so on.  If you’re going to ride the Katy, I recommend an over-night in Jeff City.


Overall, the trail did provide some really nice scenery, and it was really nice to get away from busy roads.

As usual, however, it is the many people we meet along the way that really makes bike touring so memorable.  So many people took such good care of us.  Before this trip, we knew none of them.  For the most part, we just called them a few weeks ago and asked if they’d help us find a place to rest – and remarkably, we were able to find housing at every stop.  At every stop, no exceptions, we found friendly people who went out of their way to get to know us and help us out.  We shared meals, prayer time, and stories with total strangers, and by the end of our short visits, we have new friends.

We certainly had our share of challenges along the way.  Joe had a series of flats, most probably caused by having lighter-weight tires.  I had one flat as well, caused by a very sharp pebble on the path.  Then there was the heat, very strong and continuous headwinds from Sedalia to Clinton, and one day for each of us where our bodies just didn’t feel up to the challenge.  But Joe and I helped each other through,  My advice: be well prepared for basic repairs and carry a couple of extra tubes.  It’s much better to be putting your tube patches on in the evening after the ride than taking the time out in the hot sun to set a patch.

As I’ve noted a few times, this is the dustiest trail I’ve ever ridden anywhere.  The eastern half had a lot of fresh gravel on it, and I could see a ‘rooster tail’ of dust kicking off of Joe’s tires whenever he was in front of me.  The dust is so fine that it gets on everything and inside your bags.  If you are carrying clothes, food, or electronics, I strongly recommend putting them inside plastic bags, inside your panniers.

Before and after pictures of rinsing my bike off in St. Charles at the end of the ride:


I really enjoyed seeing another state by bike.  The Katy gives a really nice way to enjoy Missouri.  I’ve driven across a few times, but the bike takes you through parts of the country that most people would not see unless they were local residents.

And that’s what bike touring is all about for me: seeing the country at a slower pace, meeting great people, and enjoying the time away.


Here are a few tidbits of advice if you’re contemplating a ride on the Katy:

  • Use the widest tires your frame can fit.  You won’t likely need any aggressive tread, but you will want thick rubber.  The extra weight will be worth it in flat protection.
  • Carry 2 extra tubes and a patch kit.  You’ll likely need it.
  • Take 3-4 water bottles, especially if it will be hot.  There are very few opportunities to get water on the eastern half of the trail.  The western half seemed much better for water.
  • Carry one meal worth of food and if you’re traveling on a Monday, check for restaurants ahead of time.  There are long stretches without any opportunity for food.
  • Pick your milage carefully.  We pushed 70+ mile days for some segments.  That’s probably a bit too much for most riders.  The surface is pretty slow, so I would probably recommend 45-55 mile days, if possible.
  • Take lots of sunscreen.  Use it.


Overall, the Katy was a very nice ride.  I’ve checked it off my bucket list.  I’m not necessarily feeling like I will want to repeat the Katy unless there was a group of friends or some special event to draw me.  The Katy is definitely nice, but not at the top of my list of favorite trails.  It needs more small-town charm along the way, and a few more opportunities to explore.  If I were to recommend a part of the Katy, I think my favorite part is the area between Boonville and Clinton.  A nice 2-3 day ride out/back along that section would be a great long-weekend ride.


Here are some interesting statistics about our adventure.  Remember that we cut off part of the round-trip by hopping from Sedalia to Hermann by Amtrak during our return:

  • Total Miles by bike: 384
  • Total Calories burned: 13,400 (approximately)
  • Number of full pedal rotations: 156,968 (or 313,936 left + right strokes)
  • 30 Hours, 52 Minutes of time in the saddle.
  • Gallons of water/tea/gatorade consumed: I have no idea.  Lots and lots.
  • Flat Tires: Joe 4, Matt 1
  • Number of Honey Stinger waffles consumed by me: 11.  Yum.
  • Number of meals that included french fries: zero (but don’t ask about bacon, I lost track)
  • Number of days of rain: zero



With that, this brings to an end the 2017 Katy Trail tour for Joe and me.  I have appreciated the prayers, texts, messages, and emails of support while we were gone.  Thank you.

– Deacon Matt

Katy Day 7 – Heading East, Rhineland to St. Charles (69 miles) – and HOME!

We set out early again today, getting a quick breakfast before hitting the road.  We expected the ride to be 65-70 miles , so it was going to be a long day.  Since it was going to be a hot day, we wanted to get as many miles in as possible early in the day.

Before leaving the rectory of the Church of the Risen Savior in Rhineland, this picture caught my eye.  I’m assuming it was put together by one of their quilters.  “Along the way take time to smell the flowers”.  Pretty good advice.

Setting out, it was already a bit warm and humid at 6:45AM.  As we got onto our bikes, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

We made pretty good progress, but the Katy trail is really bumpy through this section.  There have been a lot of trail repairs due to recent washouts.  The new gravel is very soft, with lots of hard bumps.

The Missouri is still running high and fast.  We got close to the river on a few occasions today.

After slogging through miles of rough patches and loose gravel, I was getting a bit tired of the bumping and high-resistance of this section of the trail.  The trail crossed MO route 95 and we took that opportunity to depart from the trail and ride about 13 miles on route 95.  Being on the surface street allowed us to ride a little faster, and definitely much more smoothly.  When we approached Marthaville, we stopped at a gas station to get some gatorade and rejoin the Katy.

Our first destination today was Dutzow, about 30 miles into the ride, and only about 3 miles past Marthasville.  On Mondays, many restaurants on the trail are closed, but the Dutzow Cafe was open for breakfast hours, and we knew we would need a real meal to fuel our ride.

The Cafe has good food and is located right on the trail.  Inside, we ran into a group of cyclists from the Chicago area.  I talked with them and found out that they all lived in the northwest suburbs very close to where I used to live in Algonquin, Il.


The next several miles were mostly in the open, going through farm land.  We still didn’t have any cloud cover and the sun was starting to bring on the heat.

The Katy is, by far, the dustiest trail I have ever ridden.  The western half was fairly dusty, but the eastern end is over-the-top dusty.  My bike, water bottles, panniers, and my body were all coated in a fine layer of limestone dust.  You could feel the grit between your teeth.  There was really no escaping the dust.

A few more miles brought us to St. Charles, our destination.  We took a picture by the Louis & Clark monument.

By the time we finished today you couldn’t even read the bike decals on my bike, not to mention that I was covered from head-to-toe in grit, especially my legs.

Right behind the monument was a water fountain that also had a spigot attached.  The spigot had really strong water pressure, which was fantastic for washing ourselves and our bikes.  The cool water felt amazing, and so did getting rid of the bugs, dust, and sunblock.  Here’s the “after” picture of rinsing the Katy off of my bike:

Joe was really tired today.  He decided that if he could power though, he’d get some ice cream when we got to St. Charles.  I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that the ice cream shop had some non-dairy frozen treats that I could eat!  Yum.

Before leaving St. Charles, Joe wanted to find a book for each of his kids.  We rode up into town, bouncing along the brick-paved street, looking for a book store.  We found it easily and I waited outside while Joe shopped for his kids.

With books in hand, we pushed up the hill to St. Peter Catholic Church, where we had parked our car last week.  We changed out of our biking gear, loaded up our bikes, and got on the road.  We had a very easy, albeit long, ride back home.

Tomorrow I’ll assemble some final thoughts about riding the Katy.  But for now, my own bed awaits.


– Deacon Matt

Katy Day 6 – Heading East, Clinton to Sedalia (44 miles): Bikes, trains, and automobiles 

Today we started our journey back towards our car, which is about 240 miles away. Originally we had intended to ride back the entire way by bike, with a side trip into Columbia MO.  After looking at the high temps for the next few days, we elected to use Amtrak to cut about 110 miles out of the middle of the return trip.

Step one of our journey is to get from Clinton to Sedalia, about 40 miles by bike.  Step two is to take the train from Sedalia to Hermann, plus cycle a few miles to Rhineland for our overnight tonight.  Step three will be tomorrow, to ride the remaining 65-70 miles back to St. Charles, where we left our car.

Step one: complete. We had an uneventful and pleasant ride back to Sedalia, arriving before lunch.

Since we are backtracking over familiar territory, I did not take many new pictures of today’s ride.

We took a little more leisurely pace today since we only had around 40 miles to go.  We ate first breakfast before leaving Clinton, and making our way to Pilot Grove.

I was able to stop and soak up the scenery today. Yesterday, we had such strong headwinds that I had to keep my head down and tucked, concentrating on keeping my pedals going forward.  Today, since we came back the opposite direction, the winds helped us out and I could actually look up and enjoy the prairie and forest canopied areas.

The picture below doesn’t really do this view justice. To my left, there are waves of green corn growing and blowing in the wind. To the right is a huge field of golden wheat, blowing like waves on the ocean.  The wind was very strong and gusty, and the fields danced like a melody.  It really is a beauty to behold.  Notice also – no clouds to be found anywhere, nor any shade.

Our next stop was second breakfast.  We had spotted this restaurant in Green Ridge yesterday.  There were quite a few trucks parked outside – that said to me that the locals must approve.  It did not disappoint.  I had a simple breakfast of eggs, toast, and hashbrowns.  Well prepared and the service was so friendly.  I would absolutely come back here again.

We finally arrived in Sedalia around lunch time with plenty of time to spare for our 5:20PM train.  We spent a little time riding around Sedalia, making sure we knew where the Amtrak station was for later.  We ran into this nice lady and her daughter.  She is an organic farmer nearby and her daughter was heading back to Kansas City for college.  We had a very nice conversation for a few minutes before departing and looking for a little bit of lunch.

Most of Sedalia was closed up for Sunday, but Joe did find this sports bar that was open, so we went by to have a beer and some snacks to tide us over for a while.  We had about 5 hours to kill, so we decided a little time in an air conditioned restaurant was a good start.

We were pretty sure we would not have any opportunity to grab dinner tonight since the only restaruant in Rhineland is not open on Sunday late evening.  So we cycled into downtown Sedalia and went to Subway to get a couple of sandwiches to eat later on the train.  We killed a little more time at Subway while I tried to teach Joe a little about how to play cribbage.

The tiny Amtrak terminal has a cooled waiting area, so we pedaled back there to wait for the train.  Joe tried to nap, unsuccessfully.

It may be hard to see in the pictures, but my bike is completely covered in limestone dust.  Every nook and cranny, every chain link, and even every smooth surface has a fine grey powder stuck to it.  It is amazing how much dust comes off of this trail.  I try to clean the chain each day, but I am quite certain that the oil and limestone dust is making a very nice abrasive that is going all around the drivetrain each pedal stroke.

As we were waiting for the train, I received a text that the train was delayed.  Then a little while later, another delay.  Suddenly, our step two plan needed some tweaking.  We did eventually get on the train, however instead of having an hour of sunlight to ride back to Rhineland from the Hermann Amtrak drop-off, we would not have any sunlight left.  Our arrival time was just about sun-down.  I did not bring my bike headlight with me on this trip because I didn’t think I would need it.  Note to self – always bring the headlight, even though it is heavy.

Dial back a few days ago when we were in Rhineland…  We had an enjoyable evening with Deacon Joe and his wife Elaine.  When they dropped us off that evening, Elaine handed me a piece of paper with her number on it and said that if we ever needed anything to give her a call.  Why did she do that – what were the chances we would ever cross paths again?  God moment.

This evening, I used her number and asked Elaine if they would be able to give us a ride from Hermann to Rhineland.  They graciously said yes and picked us up right at the train.  A few minutes later, they dropped us off at Risen Savior church in Rhineland.

We quickly set about getting showered (yay, really needed it!), laundry done (yay, also really needed it!), and then updating the blog.
Tomorrow, we have about 65 +/- miles to go to get back to our car in St. Charles.  It is supposed to be a hot day, so we will be getting out early to beat as much of the heat as possible.  Tomorrow’s miles are very open in the sun, so we are hoping to cover a lot of path as quickly as we can.

Next Stop: St. Charles, then to home!  I’m really looking forward to hopefully sleeping in my own bed tomorrow.  We’ve gotten used to lots of unexpected surprises on this trip, but with God’s grace, we’ve managed pretty well.  Thank you for all of the prayers and support!


Dcn. Matt