The Best-Kept Secret in Galilee

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I’m a wide-open spaces kind of girl. I love living ten minutes from the heart of our big city and I love all that it has to offer, but sometimes I need the restorative peace that I feel in a quiet, outdoor place where few other people tread.

Our time in the Holy Land was no different. After our 31-hour travel ordeal and two days running around Jerusalem at breakneck speed trying to see everything, we were tired and needing a breath of fresh air. What to do? Why, run away to Galilee, of course!

We revisited all my favorite spots and hit the Galilee highlights: Capernaum and the white synangogue, Tabgha, the Mount of Beatitudes, Tiberias. And best of all, we discovered a new place that we love, recommended to us by our dear friends who gave us lodging on our trip. Now that I’ve experienced how enchanting this place is, I can’t believe that 1) this place only has a stub of a wikipedia page, 2) most visitors to Galilee never even go there, and 3) I lived four months in the Holy Land without ever finding out about this gem.

So the word’s not out yet, but shhh! I’m about to tell you, if you can keep a secret. It’s the Greek Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles in Kfar Nahum, or Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

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I can’t even tell you how enamored I am with this place. I fall hard for churches, but this one swept me off my feet before I even knew what hit me. (If you go, please leave a small donation of at least a few shekels, because one wing of the church is undergoing costly renovations right now.)

The grounds were unrivaled in terms of how well-kempt and beautiful they were. Orchards of citrus trees, rows of stately cypress trees, and walks covered in grape arbors surrounded the church. The hedges and the stone walls around the grounds hung thick with honeysuckle and fuchsia bougainvillea flowers. From the moment we crossed the threshold of the gate, we were bewitched. We were greeted by the most sumptuous citrus aroma I have ever smelled. And by several strutting peacocks.

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I didn’t think it possible that the inside of the church could surpass the outside in loveliness, but it did. When we crossed the threshold of the church I audibly gasped because what I saw was so beautiful—resplendent ornamentation and chandeliers, and the most stunning iconography I have ever seen.

Don't you love this icon of the paralytic man being lowered into the house where Jesus will heal him? I do.

I’m so sorry that this shot is a little blurry! But don’t you love this icon of the paralytic man being lowered into the house where Jesus will heal him? I do.

The faithful being gathered into Abraham's bosom; note the name Abraham displayed in Greek.

The faithful being gathered into Abraham’s bosom; note the name Abraham displayed in Greek.

Remember after the Lord's crucifixion and resurrection when he gave Peter the injunction to feed his sheep? According to tradition, that occurred on the northwestern shore of the sea, not far from here, so this icon commemorates that event. Do you see the disciples pulling their catch into the boat? And see how Peter has jumped overboard and is swimming to the shore, where the Lord is waiting with the fire on which he will cook their breakfast?

Remember after the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection when he gave Peter the injunction to feed his sheep? According to tradition, that occurred on the northwestern shore of the sea, not far from here, so this icon commemorates that event. Do you see the disciples pulling their catch into the boat? And see how Peter has jumped overboard and is swimming to the shore, where the Lord is waiting with the fire on which he will cook their breakfast?

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All around the church’s domed ceiling appeared icons of the twelve apostles and portraits of the faces of the seventy apostles, as they are called in Eastern Orthodox tradition.

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The information posted in the church told us this about its history:

“On the shore of the Sea of Galilee there is a Greek Orthodox monastery with a beautiful church in honor of the 12 Apostles…It is here that our Lord Jesus Christ chose and called forth His Apostles, here He preached and performed miracles, such as the healing of the paralytic, the mother-in-law of the apostle Peter, the servant of the centurion and many others. Here in the times of Christ was the city of Capernaum.

“In the IV century AD many monasteries and churches were built in the places where our Lord lived, taught, and performed miracles. By the V century the Christian community of Capernaum had grown very big. However, in the first half of the VIII century the flourishing city of Capernaum was completely destroyed by an earthquake.

“Archaeological excavations on the city’s site show that there was a large orthodox monastery here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. At the end of the XIX century the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem purchased a plot of land on the ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum and began to construct a monastery. In 1925…the Church of the Twelve Apostles was built. Services were held in the church until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. According to the U.N. convention and the new borders, the monastery turned out to be on no man’s land. Therefore, there was no more access to the monastery for local Christians or pilgrims and the monastery fell into decay. In 1969, two years after the Six Day War, the Israeli army returned the monastery to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. With the grace of God, despite the fact that it is fairly isolated, the monastery began to return to life.”

After partaking of the iconography within the church, we spent some time picnicking on the grounds, and walking along the shore.

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We picnicked in this lovely spot on the church grounds. See that gate? Behind it are steps that lead down into the water!

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I delighted in the beauty of this site, and reveled in the profound peace and stillness I felt there. The Church of the Twelve Apostles is unlike anywhere else in the Holy Land, and for me it will always be a sacred place.

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Making Hajj to Haram-Al-Sharif

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Haram Al-Sharif, or Haram Esh-Sharif, means “noble sanctuary” in Arabic. It couldn’t be more appropriately named; the disparity between the Temple Mount’s serene grandeur and the cacophonous crowded streets below couldn’t be more marked. When you ascend to the Temple Mount, you ascend to a world apart.

Home to the iconic Dome of the Rock, often referred to simply as “the Mosque,” this has always been one of my favorite places in the Holy City.

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A Muslim guide, a Jerusalem native, approached us and offered to show us around, and we took him up on his offer. His knowledge of the history of Haram-Al-Sharif, and Jerusalem in general, was impressive. He walked us around the entire Temple Mount, structure by structure, relating little-known facts about their significance and history, such as these:

  • The arches on the exterior of the Mosque total fifty-two, for fifty-two weeks in the year.
  • The exterior of the dome of the Mosque was previously lead, then bronze-aluminum alloy added in the 1960s; finally its current gleaming gold coating was furbished by King Hussein of Jordan in 1993.
  • During the second World War Mussolini sent the fine quality white carrara marble that was made into the columns  of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the Dome of the Rock’s companion on the Temple Mount, only a stone’s throw away).

Many more things we learned from our guide in the half hour he walked with us—including the architecture lesson he gave us, pointing out different minarets on the Jerusalem skyline and teaching us how to distinguish the ones built by the Ottomans from those of Mamluk make.

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But the most meaningful thing I learned from him had to do with the pillars of Islam, specifically that of Hajj, the mandate to make pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s life. “When you go to Mecca, millions of other people are there,” he explained. “You feel very small, helpless, and insignificant, just like you will feel before Allah on the day of judgment, when you stand before him naked with your sins. So you go to make Hajj, and you truly feel how you will feel on judgment day, and you come back knowing what kind of person you want to be, how you want to change your life.”

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know how much I cherish the idea of  pilgrimage–going to a holy place or making a sacred journey to come into contact with the divine. I love how beautifully our Temple Mount guide articulated why one should make pilgrimage, and what can be gained from it—how you can be transformed by going to a place as holy and ancient as Haram-Al-Sharif and feeling how tiny and young you are on this earth.

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Back to the Holy Land!

Once upon a time when I was nineteen, I lived in Jerusalem for four months. (You can read all about it in my posts from January through April of 2008.)

Tomorrow I’m leaving on a jet plane to go back! With my husband!

Here’s how it all happened.

When I was twenty-one I decided to serve a mission, and I received my mission call to go to Córdoba, Argentina for a year and a half. My friend Jana said, “My friend Mark served in that mission too–you should meet him and he can tell you all about Argentina and answer your questions about the mission.”

The night Mark and I met, I asked him questions about Argentina and as we conversed it came up that I had lived in the Holy Land. “That’s amazing!” Mark said, “I’ve always wanted to do that! In fact, I’m planning a trip there this summer!” We hung out a few more times before I left, and exchanged stories about life in the Middle East and life in Argentina. I left on my mission, but we continued to correspond in letters and emails. “We’ll have to plan another Jerusalem-Argentina photo exchange when you get back,” read one of Mark’s first letters to me.

Over a year and a half, mine and Mark’s casual correspondence became a close friendship and then steadily and sneakily turned into something more. We had never so much as held hands before my mission, but we both sensed that in the future we would be walking the same path.

I knew that Mark’s planned trip to Israel was imminent, but then I received a letter telling me that he had decided to cancel it last minute “to save money for pharmacy school.” Later I would learn that he canceled his trip because he “just had a feeling” that we would get married and that he would need that money to help get us on our feet as we started our new life together.

Well, he was right! We did get married. (And he was right that we would need some extra cash, too! Weddings and house remodels are anything but cheap.) Our life together has always been full of adventures: frequent road trips to California to visit Mark’s family, camping and hiking in Zion National Park and Goblin Valley; a crazy motorcycle road trip to Moab. I guess I’m pretty spoiled; Mark’s such an intrepid spirit that he always has some little adventure up his sleeve.

But even so, I’ve always felt twinges of regret that Mark gave up his Jerusalem trip for me–for us. I’ve always yearned for the chance to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land together. So we started a Sky Miles credit card and put many of our house-remodel expenses on it. But between pharmacy school, expensive graduate tuition, and all the renovations on our little fixer-upper house, Jerusalem did not seem to be on the horizon any time soon. I resigned myself to the fact that we’d just have to go “someday when we’re done with pharmacy school.”

Then one day last fall I had a conversation with my mom and my brother that changed everything. We were having a circle of intentions, sharing with one another the goals and desires nearest and dearest to our hearts. Faith or prayer or intending or envisioning or goal-setting–call it what you will, but there is great power in having the courage to speak aloud your wildly impossible dream, the one that’s so dear to your heart but also so crazy that you haven’t even been brave enough to tell anyone about it. That’s what I did in that conversation with my mom and my brother. I expressed aloud my intention that Mark and I would go to Jerusalem together in 2014, and I felt a giddy-with-excitement feeling, happy butterflies in my stomach as I said the words. As quickly as the giddiness came it was seized upon by doubt–How could we possibly travel to Israel? We’re poor students living on student loans–how could we ever justify the expense? Even it we had the money, where would we fit it in between school and work?

But the damage was done. The wildly impossible dream had already been set into motion.

A few days later Mark came home and showed me the weekly Travelzoo.com email in his inbox. “Look! There’s a really good deal on flights to Tel Aviv!” It was an irresistibly good deal, the cheapest round-trip flights to Tel Aviv I’d ever seen (and believe me, I’ve wasted a lot of time online perusing those flights over the last six years).

It was an irresistible deal, but we still didn’t have any money for it. And then we remembered the Sky Miles card. Our jaws dropped when we checked the balance–it could pay for about half of our airfare! Unbelievable! Thank you, Home Depot purchases! But still there was the question of how we would pay for the rest of our trip–lodging, food, everything.

I contacted my childhood friend whose family was living in Tel Aviv for her dad’s job at the time. To my delight her family said yes, we could stay with them!

But even still we wondered if spending the money on this trip would be foolish when we still had two years of graduate tuition to pay and our mortgage every month. We wanted wise, and careful, and we wanted to be good stewards over what God had given us.  Is this really a good idea? we asked ourselves. We prayed about it a lot. We were willing to not go.

As if by magic an impressive bonus from Mark’s work (far bigger than any he’d previously received) arrived. More importantly, we felt a feeling of peace. Oh, and giddy little-kid-on-Christmas-morning excitement.

We bought our tickets.

It all came together in one week last fall. And now we’re leaving tomorrow for the spring break of our lifetimes.

Faith is not something passive; it is a creative force with which we invite good things into our life. “Knock, and ye shall receive,” the Savior taught. “Jesus Christ is the high priest of good things to come,” Elder Holland taught.

My mom reminded me that, when I had just gotten home from Jerusalem six years ago and was so homesick for the holy city I loved. “Mom, will I ever get to go back?” I asked.

“Kimberly, the Lord wants good things for you. Things that make you happy.”

We all know what it’s like, also, to pray for and want something so desperately and not receive it. Why do some prayers seem to go unanswered? I don’t know. I expect we’ll all have a list of questions like that when we get to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with the the Lord on the other side. But I don’t think he would ever want us to stop asking, to stop hoping and believing and expecting and inviting good things into our lives.

I dare you to speak aloud and invite something crazily impossibly good into your life. And then tell me about it when it comes true.

We’ll probably be out of internet range most of next week but check back soon and I’ll post some updates and as many great photos as possible! I’m so excited to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Mark!

Six years ago today, in Jordan

Six years ago I spent four months living in the Holy Land, in Jerusalem. To be more precise, in East Jerusalem, the part of the city that is backed by Palestine’s West Bank. During that time I got to travel all over Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan.

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Here is an excerpt from my journal entry six years ago, when I visited Jordan:

5 March 2008

“On our first day in Jordan we crossed the border and then went to Bethabara, also known as Bethany, where John the Baptist baptized the Savior. I touched the water and picked up a flower and put it in my scriptures in the Matthew account.

“(SIDE NOTE: It was interesting to see the Jordanian flag flying on this side of the Jordan River and the Israeli flag flying on the far side. The Jordan River forms the border between the two countries, just like the Jordan River formed the border of the nation of Israel in ancient times.)

“We went to the top of Mount Pisgah, the highest part of Mount Nebo. I’m so glad we got to go! Mount Nebo was something I’ve wanted to do my whole life…There was a huge rusty modern art sculpture of the brazen serpent on top. We read the scriptural account…Then we read—this is my favorite part—the account of how Moses ascended Mount Nebo before he died, and the Lord showed him all the land of the inheritance of his people—all of Canaan, all the way out to the sea—that Moses would never enter. When we were up there, I could understand why the Lord would bring him to the top of Mount Nebo. We were above everything, and we could see everything: the whole land of Canaan. Spread out at our feet, shining in colors of green farm fields and purple brown hills and gray water and blue horizon. I wonder how Moses felt as he looked down upon the land that had been promised to the children of Abraham and Israel for generations.”

So many faithful people, like Moses, never get to set foot in this Holy Land. How did I get so lucky to live there? To wake up to the call to prayer every morning and to spend my days walking that ancient sacred land…why was I thus blessed? I don’t know. But I will be thankful all the days of my life that I was.

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Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

After the remains of Saint James the Apostle were discovered–Queen Helena style–in this little Galician village in the ninth century, it became a booming pilgrimage site. In fact, at its height in the 1300s, Santiago surpassed Jerusalem and Rome in the number of Christian pilgrims who visited it. There were many different pilgrimage routes to the town–“caminos de Santiago”–but all led to the same place. Christian pilgrims who made it all the way to their destination, at the far end of Spain, near the Galician coast, took home a scallop as proof that they had reached Santiago. The scallop also became a symbol of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage: like the ridges on a scallop, all the pilgrimage routes started at different places but ended at the same spot.

Today Santiago de Compostela is still packed with visitors–instead of Christian devotants with pilgrim staffs, they are backpackers and cyclists who have come for hundreds of miles on one of the various caminos de Santiago. And just as they did a thousand years ago, they all gathered in the cathedral at noon for the pilgrims’ mass. The priest offered a beautiful sermon in Spanish about devotion to God. Then masses were sung in Latin, and we all took communion.

Then came the part that everyone was waiting for. There was a huge incense burner suspended by a thick rope from the ceiling in the middle of the chapel. It was packed with incense and lit. Then a group of about six men pulled on the other end of the rope–like a pully–and hoisted the giant incense burner, called the botafumeiro, into the air. Then they started it swinging. It swung back and forth, longways through the cathedral. Then they let more rope out and got it swinging even further, so that it was swinging all the way to the ends of the cathedral! It was unreal!

And of course, the mass itself was very moving. The priest’s message was simple but rang true. And all the modern-day pilgrims, with their hiking boots, unwashed hair, trekking poles, had traveled hundreds of miles to hear it, and to partake in the spirit of pilgrimage.

So, on the subject of pilgrimage, I’ll never forget the words of my Jerusalem professor, Brother Seely, at the end of our four-month journey: “We came here for various reasons–academic learning, personal growth–but really we all came here to go on pilgrimage. And we’ve visited all kinds of holy sites, and this has been a pilgrimage through space. But you’ll come back to the Jerusalem Center twenty years from now and someone else will be sleeping in your bed. It won’t be the same. So it’s actually a pilgriamge through time. And you can’t go back. But the rest of your life will be different because you made this pilgrimage. And you’ll always remember it.”

High on the Mountain Top


Sinai is exactly what you’d imagine it to be: dry. We drove for hours over sand dunes and flat ground so barren that not even sagebrush grew there. Once we had left behind all other human civilization, the flat dry ground turned to rocky and mountainous dry ground.

Mount Sinai and the eminences surrounding it are rugged and jut out of the earth. We set out at 3:00 AM to summit Sinai to watch the desert sunrise. Because we were hundreds of miles from any town or city, the stars were more abundant than I have ever seen them in my life; the whole sky glittered.

Along the trail, we were met by dozens of bedouin merchants who had gotten up in the middle in the night in hopes of making some money from us. “Camel? You need camel? Camel to the top?” “Coffee! Tea! Chocolate! We have!” “Need flashlight?”

The last half hour of the hike was up steep stone steps to the summit. We reached the top just as the first light was appearing over the horizon. I left our big group of students and went with a few friends to the edge of the cliff; we watched the sun rise in silence, then sang a few quiet hymns, including “High on the Mountain Top” and “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

We watched the sun slowly turn the deep blue of morning to its orange glow. I thought of Moses leading his people out of Egypt, and the great miracles that the Lord did for the Israelites. I thought of Brigham Young and my pioneer ancestors, and the great things that the Lord has done for me. Moses spoke with the Lord here more than three thousand years ago, I thought, and his covenant with Abraham is even older than that. But it still applies to me, and someday it will apply to my children, and theirs… To quote a favorite hymn:

For God remembers still
His promise made of old
That he on Zion’s hill
Truth’s standard should unfold

The Lord’s promises are being fulfilled in our day. That is why the most beautiful, breathtaking sunrise I’ve seen is on Sinai. The Lord is the light of our souls, and his promises and blessings are sure.

The Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea

At the church of the Holy Sepulchre, we got a tour from an Augustine monk who showed us the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (not the tomb that Christ was laid in; the one that he acquired after, since the fist tomb was overrun by Christ’s disciples). You have to descend down to the lower levels of the church to get to it, since that all happened two thousand years ago, and people have been building things over the old city of Jerusalem for two millenia.

The tomb is a small cave with no lighting; you have to take a candle in with you. Of course, the candle light adds to the early-Christian effect. : )

The Via Dolorosa

Via Dolorosa means “Way of Pain” in Latin. The Via Dolorosa is the road on which Christ carried his cross through the city of Jerusalem. Along the way, Catholics and other Christians reverence the fourteen stations, or fourteen spots where incidents occurred along Christ’s journey. (For example, one station is where the Catholic Saint Veronica is said to have wiped Christ’s brow with her veil.)

We were walking near the third station, where Christ is said to have fallen while carrying his cross. There is a church, more than a thousand years old, that stands on the spot. We toured the chapel, and when we came out there was a group of Franciscans doing a re-enactment of Christ’s journey and carrying a cross. They carry it all along the Via Dolorosa, following the route that the Savior took. They stopped at every station and read from the accounts in the Gospels of Christ’s crucifixion, and they sang hymns in Latin. We followed them on their journey.