Thursday, March 11, 2010


Today is Monday--we left the noises, conveniences and comforts of comfortable “civilized” places to go into the Sinai wilderness—with no hair dryers, cell phones or restaurants. Two days in the desert (which I am still reflecting upon and writing about). Today we left the desert at St. Catherine's Monastery. I marvel over the whole experience in this wilderness but right now I marvel most at the miracle that is St. Catherine's. Since the fourth century it has rested in the valley below Mt. Sinai. Standing in silent testimony that there is something far greater than we. It served as a safety and refuge from persecution. It cradled the beginnings of monasticism, Christian thought and teachings. It withstood centuries of invading armies taking and destroying most everything else in their paths—the Bedouin, the Arabs, the English, French, the Germans—they all came here yet did not touch or tear down this place. Muhammed placed his hand on the agreement assuring its safety in 638, Napoleon rebuilt its aged and crumbling north walls and maintained support of its protection while in Egypt and years beyond.

This morning the cooing of the doves awakened me. I went out and sat on a nearby terrace to be with them as they called to each other throughout the monastery grounds. The sun was just rising and it began touching the rugged, jagged peaks of the mountains surrounding this place.

I went to them—the doves and their calling—and sat—for a very long time it seemed. I sat watching the sun rise and listening to the doves calling—I listened for the way continuing my journey—on learning more how to maintain and grow an openness of spirit.

In this place called St. Catherine's I felt such an assurance there there is openness of spirit—here the places of worship for Christians and Muslim stand side by side. The cross and minaret both reaching together upward. The calls to prayer and the bells join together—somewhere—somehow we have lost how to do that in this world

For now, I am thankful for openness of spirit and knowing that we too are part of this miracle of the mystery that is St. Catherine's

Posted by Jan Therien


There is a rich silence to the desert that seems to me like the music of God. These ragged peaks rise out of nothingness to break the horizon, row after row. Closer, these rocks, with levels of subtle color-red, yellow, orange, beige, black, wine, and beige in turn, layers and shapes in a cacophony of loneliness, with the craggy personality of windblown holes and formations, each unique, delicate and lacy. Every moment, with sunlight's difference, it all transforms again, changing color and texture. These rocks do indeed cry out.

Looking carefully, there are other muted songs here: tiniest white flowers growing out of sand; volcano black basalt scattered like manna; camel bones bleached and fading; the Bedouin camel driver kneels in prayer as we lay claim to pallets on the sloping sand.

And then there are the stars,, whose silent praise is a ravishing gift that steals sleep, the shining of heavenly lights, brilliant, even at the moon bowl's rise, that lifts our eyes and calls out “Glory!”

When our voices still from our own small stories, then we will hear the songs of the desert. These are songs of greatness, survival, beauty, and a love that creates and recreates out of nothing, out of chaos, out of what keeps us separated from its power. This is the music of God, uncluttered, revealed, the deep and wide silence that rolls over our hearts, minds and bodies when we willingly come out to listen.

I know now that somewhere inside I have longed for the rich, full, and beautiful stillness which sings of the One who longs also for me.

Posted by Jan Fuller

Saturday, March 6, 2010

GETTING ONLINE harder than I have experienced before in Egypt. Right now I am sitting with one of the security guards in the Luxor airport as people pass through on their way to the departure lounge -- the best place in the building for a wifi signal.

The guard's name is Wail. We have been having a discussion of Adam and Eve and the meaning of the story in his tradition (Muslim) and mine. He will give me something he has written about his interpretation of the story so I can read it later. Thank you, Wail!

Posted by Deborah Hunley


We began our preparations last night after one of the busiest days--six sites. The desire to be away is very real now but how did Moses and Hebrews leave so much for the unknown?

Will we mourn for leeks and melons or be content to listen and learn something completely new?

This time to slow down and pause is wonderful for our travel-weary physical bodies but could we wander for forty years? As out pilgrimage leaves the teeming life of the Nile, may we also find new spiritual life in the desert just as our Hebrew forbears found a new religion, life and identity.

Posted by Kerry McCarty


The one overwhelming fact that is apparent throughout this country—apparent from the moment we stepped off the plane in Cairo—is the contrast found in every scene. One is surrounded by contradictions.

Another overwhelming fact is the scale of everything—man is but a speck compared to the monuments.

Nowhere was this contrast more pronounced than when we disembarked at 7 a.m. in the city of Luxor. A city of approximately 450,000, Luxor lies in the fertile delta of the life-giving Nile River. Lush greenery greeted us as we wound our way by motor coach to the West Bank of the city. An excellent 4-lane road took us past bougainvillea hedges, date palm trees, handsome buildings, and rows of lopsided houses seemingly propped up by clothes pins. Our coach shared the road with donkeys, sheep, and an occasional camel as we passed verdant fields of sugar cane, wheat, onions, and clover. Despite the early hour, men, women and children were busy in the fields or scurrying around the dirt yards.

A 15-minute ride soon brought us to the huge, tan, undulating mountains and desert terrain of Luxor . Our destination: the Valley of the Kings. Here we visited two or three excavated tombs of ancient royalty. To stand before one of the entrances carved out of sheer rock was an unforgettable experience. Talk about feeling small! To enter and go deep in the earth, surrounded by drawings and hieroglyphics on the granite walls was beyond unforgettable. The kings wanted to be buried in style, with real records of their lives' work. Stylized drawings, primitive yet sophisticated, gave accurate accounts of flora, fauna, favoritism with the gods (or disfavor), the weather, and everything else worth remembering.

The king's crypt is always in the final chamber of these tombs. Most of the tombs follow a similar plan with slight, if any, variations. Alas, King Tut's tomb , famously opened by Howard Carter in 1922, was not open to the public today. Each of us remarked on the stillness of this vast, dry, colorless, mountainous area.

Next stop, the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, more commonly referred to as “Hot Chicken Soup.” This colossus of a temple stretched for miles, and was built more like an American version of a memorial, with central axis and rows of statuary in front. The “first female pharaoh,” as she was called, had a struggle in life, but left many lasting remembrances in death.

Next came a stop at the Valley of the Queens, and more royal tombs. Memorable in all of the tombs, in addition to the larger-than-life scale, were the vivid colors of the engravings on the granite walls, ochre birds flirted with green fish, while scantily clad kings marched in striped tunics. Lizards floated in blue water under starry skies—simple, sophisticated drawings—centuries old!

Afternoon adventures took a hot group first to Karnak, then to the temple of Luxor. Both temples are on the East Bank, dedicated to the living (as opposed to the West, which is for funeral crypts). Karnak encompasses over 100 acres, and the scale is beyond any imagination. The temple of Luxor is smaller, but no less impressive. Ramses II is the Big Guy here, but the Avenue of tre Sphinxes, still being excavated, was the star attraction. When complete, over 1,350 sphinxes will connect Luxor Temple to Karnak. Now that is scale!

We are an enthusiastic, weary group.

Posted by Barbara Dickinson


As Christian pilgrims, we take the reverence with us. We have a tendency to locate problems outside of ourselves and blame others for our experience and our reactions to them rather than accept responsibility for our own inner work.

We are traveling by small cruise ships north on the Nile, stopping to see holy sites of ancient Egyptians. Today we dock and ride in horse-drawn carriages to Temple Kom Ombo. To enter we must pass through a gauntlet of shops and the aggressive vendors trying to make a living for themselves and their families by selling wares to visitors from other countries. This feels like harassment and tugs at the heartstrings.

Once we have entered the temple, there are masses of guides and tourists competing for space to view the intricate carvings on the walls. It is noisy and could be construed as irreverent, yet I find myself centered in the ancient yearning for the holy and the transcendent that I sense in this sacred space. As I touch the intricate carving of a bird, I imagine the vast numbers of others who have touched and been touched by the beauty here. For me, I find myself in touch with what the Episcopal Church calls the Communion of Saints. I suppose a strict interpretation of the notion would exclude ancient Egyptians and their devotion to ancient gods and goddesses as fellow members of the Communion of Saints; but for me, it includes all humanity aware of the sacred aspect of human life and the life of all creation.

Obviously, my intellectual construct concerning God is as different as my culture, language and world view is different. However, on pilgrimage I believe the gift I bring to ancient holy sites, viewed by most as strictly tourist destinations or historical curiosities, is an inner reverence for the people who once found meaning and spiritual sustenance in these places.

It is not the job of the guide or the leader of the pilgrimage to create a sense of reverence in us. It is our own inner work that opens us to the presence of God that permeates everywhere we go and everyone we meet. Our inner work, our life of prayer, study, service, worship, self-giving, and spiritual reflection are what bring reverence to the places we go. We are the prayer that moves through Kom Ombo as we are here. We are the embodied love of God here. We are the sacrament of Christ consecrating this ancient ruin to the glory of God.

Posted by Julia Ashby


Herodotus said after visiting Egypt during the Roman era, “Egypt is the Nile's gift.”

We drove through Cairo at dawn to catch the early flight to Aswan. The almost full moon was still up and the huge city just starting its frantic day. From the bus window I saw a woman in a burqa with a large box balanced on her head hail a bus and then climb on with the box still perfectly balanced. Several donkey carts merge in the not yet scary traffic carrying produce to market.

Aswan is a very different place. Although a city of 600,000, after Cairo it seems like a small town with a more relaxed pace. We go to see the high dam that changed life in Egypt from “before” to “after”. Our guide, Ashraf, always has two or more (often opposing) explanations for everything. The benefits of the high dam are that the Nile no longer floods every year, the water is regulated and electricity is generated for development and progress to modernize Egypt. The opposing reality is that the Nile no longer replenishes the scarce arable land that feeds Egypt so now chemical fertilizers are used, which wash into and pollute the Nile.

Then we go see the lovely temple of Isis on the island of Philae, which had to be moved after the dam was built to save it from being half submerged for half the year. A remarkable relocation of a 4th century BC temple for a lost goddess.

Oh yes. Also, hundreds of thousands of Nubians had to be relocated as their villages sank below Lake Nasser south of the high dam.

Hard choices for the people of Egypt with scarce natural resources and the desire we share for “a good life”: safety, security, the joy of seeing children and grandchildren thrive.

It makes me dizzy to see the monuments and artifacts of a highly developed culture spanning 5,000 years smack up tight against the forever-under-construction apartment buildings for the ever-increasing urban population.

It humbles me to hear the call to prayer and see men remove their shoes and prostrate themselves in prayer.

I am so thankful for the collective wisdom, kindness, and great good humor of my fellow pilgrims. They steady me.

We're having a wonderful times, truly. Wish you were here...

Posted by Pam Wiegandt

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Tuesday started with news at breakfast that our luggage had arrived. We all rushed back to our rooms to change. It seemed like such a good thing, after having put on the same clothing three days in a row. But when I returned that evening, I had a vaguely unsettled feedlng. I had my face creams, my outfits, my this and that. Yet I had had no trouble doing without. Did I really need to spend time worrying about what to wear? I was reminded of the book called "The Paradox of Choice." The book discusses the studies that show that excessive choice is stressful, because a person seeks to make the perfect choice, rather than just a good choice. And then we fret over our choices.

We ride our bus through neighborhoods where people likely have little choice in their lives. And whose few choices seem dismal to us. There is poverty everywhere. Are they less happy than we are with our stressful lives? We presume so, but yet we saw happy, playful children, people conversing everywhere. Perhaps we are the ones who seek to escape our lives through drugs and alcohol, not them.

We traveled to the Pyramids Tuesday, to view the way in which the pharoahs sought to escape this life and travel to the next one. Hard to describe the immensity, the scale, the concept. One could almost believe in aliens. We all went inside the Great pyramid of Cheops and had an indescribable experience. We were warned about the possible claustrophobia, and indeed it was hard to fight feeling paiched at times. You enter through a narrow passageway and are soon crouched over as the ceiling drops lower. The air gets warm and stale. A line of people are going in and a line coming out. At most points, you are squeezing by each other or taking turns, for the passage is narrow. you feel as if there is too little oxygen and you fight the urge to hyperventilate. The lighting is dim and you have no idea how long it will take to reach the burial chamber as you ascend up the steep ramp set with little wooden footholds. But then you are inside the granit chamber, a rectangle 8 meters high, 15 meters long, and 10 meters wide. you wonder about spending eternity in such a place. And then as the room fills, you realize it times to trek down. outside, you gasp for air, dizzy, but glad you made the journey inside the tomb, and back out among the living.

I will leave with a quote that frames this journey for me, from " Japanes Pilgramage" by Oliver Statler; To intellectuals, religion seems strange. But the point of a religious life is mental and spiritual training, and that cannot be achieved by oneself. We need help from some source.... The point of the pilgrimage is to improve onself by enduring and overcoming difficulties." I am sure that our difficulties are not monumental, but the challenge is still approach this adventure with an open heart.

-- Sharon Burnham

Monday, March 1, 2010

More of "Expecting the Unexpected"

Thank goodness Deborah prepared us by sending us that last reflection before we embarked on our pilgrimage, i.e., "Expecting the Unexpected". I guess I tend towards optimism, with a base in reality. I pretty much expect things to "go right" but also do not fall apart when they don't.

I set out on the pilgrimage with very few plans, other than following the itinerary, if it could be kept. I knew that there were many things that could happen. And guess what? They have!

It started out with our plane in Roanoke having a leak, needing a mechanic, taking off late and things haven't been on schedule very much since then. Because we were late leaving Roanoke, we had very little time at Dulles but that was a "hurry up and wait" experience too. Then we had a long layover in Frankfurt and most of us had slept very little on the plane from Dulles because it was so hot and noisy. We toughed out the layover, finding things to do and finally just staring into space a lot! But by the time we were to leave, there were high winds that kept our plane g rounded for quite a while. Little did we know that there were gale force winds in Europe and Frankfurt was on the edge of that storm. The pilot prepared us for having to remain in Frankfurt but finally got the clear to take off. Bad1 news: our luggage had to remain behind us and was to come on a later flight. UH-OH!

You guessed it, we have been in Egypt now for more than a day and we have no luggage, except for Eric Shelley who brought everything in carry on luggage. We just don't think his 6 pairs of underwear are going to be enough for all 15 of us!

This is tough and disappointing but still wasnt enough to dampen our spirits the first day in Egypt. We truly have had a full and glorious day, seeing the Egyptian Museum with its endless and magnificent antiquities. We also visited the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue, Egypt's oldest synagogue; Church of St. Sergius, where the holy family stayed for safety while in Egypt to avoid Herods decree to kill all male babies; the Coptic Museum; and the Hanging Church, where our guide worships.

These destinations, except for the Hanging Church, were all on our itinerary. But the experiences today were at least unpredictable. They were even more meaningful to me as a follower of Christ than I could have guessed. I will let you know about one in particular, although I am sure that an of the pilgrims could tell you about several others.

At St. Sergius, I did not expect to see a beautiful icon of Mary and the Christ child draped in blinking "Christmas tree lights"! This sight in front of the worship space WAS UNEXPECTED. One might have found it silly or comical but somehow the unexpected in this case was touching. And when we viewed the entrance to the underground cave where the holy family took refuge, I found myself overcome with tears at the thought of this scene. The people who offered the holy family hospitality, Mary and Joseph who lived for 3.5 years trying to protect their baby, who therefore lived to become our Savior.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Our luggage??? More wonderful experiences in Egypt? The next blogger will have to let you know!

Posted by Melissa Hays-Smith

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


We had a dose of this earlier in the week. The pilots at Lufthansa, our air carrier for most of the journey, went on strike 5 days before we were scheduled to leave. Fortunately, they were back at work within 24 hours and our departure from Dulles shouldn’t be affected.

Then it turned out that the Egyptian government has changed the practice of issuing visas to groups entering the country and we will have to prepare for the new routine, with each of us going through the line individually, paying for our own visa stamps, and reassembling on the other side, rather than having our guide take care of the transaction.

In the great scheme of things, these are very small events, hardly worth mentioning. But they raise the specter of the unexpected, which is so much a part of pilgrimage. If we wanted to have orderly, predictable, calm lives, we wouldn’t travel. We go on pilgrimage—at least in part—because we are seeking the unexpected, hoping for something we cannot yet name, open to the changes and chances of new places, people, and experiences.

For the same reason, it’s important to travel light. We can make ourselves crazy trying to prepare for any eventuality—bringing all the right clothes, packing everything we think we might need, reading everything written about the places we’ll visit before we get there. Preparation is good, but being too prepared can make the journey so predictable that we might as well watch a National Geographic DVD.

A better approach? Make modest preparations. Tend to your spirit. Remember that we are traveling in community, that we will watch over and care for each other on the journey, that there are people waiting for us in Egypt—and readily accessible back home—who will also watch over and care for us, and many more who will gladly share their knowledge and support.

And then expect the unexpected, and be grateful for the adventures ahead.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


For Western Christians traveling in the Middle East, the experience of being in a religious minority group can be disorienting. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, and it begins as soon as you arrive, exhausted and jetlagged. There are mosques instead of churches, minarets instead of steeples. The sound of the muezzin intoning the call to prayer wakens you early each morning. You may see observant Muslims pausing to pray during the day wherever they happen to be. You will not see Christians doing the same.

As pilgrims in Egypt, we will be guests in a Muslim country. Good guests naturally wish to honor their hosts and respect their hospitality. We do so by learning about and appreciating the uniqueness of their land, people, and culture, by receiving gestures of kindness with grace, and above all, by giving them the benefit of the doubt. We are people of good will. We trust that they, too, are people of good will. We have every hope that there will be some benefit to our encounter with each other. Otherwise, why travel?

But we are pilgrims, after all, and Christian ones at that. We will not have the same freedom to express our faith publicly that we would in, say, Ireland. We must think carefully about how we can practice pilgrimage without calling undue attention to ourselves and possibly offending others. We must learn to carry our faith in our hearts—deep and strong—without the external supports we are so used to. And we must be glad and grateful when the rare opportunity to meet other Christians is offered to us.

There will be similarities as well as differences. We will find that in some ways, we are not so different from our Muslim hosts. with them, we can readily affirm that God is great, that there is no other god than God. Like them, we also seek to submit our wills to God's will. Perhaps we can even find in each other the welcome companionship of those who are seeking to live lives of faith in a world that is increasingly devoid of it.

Posted by Deborah Hunley


This satellite image of the Nile River shows how stark the contrast really is between water and no-water, fertility and barrenness, farmland and desert, life and death. Egypt is a large country, but most of its territory does not have enough water to sustain life, so almost all of the population is clustered around the river and the rich delta that forms where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Imagine what it would be like to call this place “home.”
If you lived along that long green ribbon, what would it mean to you that the desert is so vast and the river is so narrow? Can you trust that the annual inundation* will come this year, as it has in the past? How vulnerable are you? Will there be enough to go around? How might your experience be different from delta-dwellers, who are surrounded by vast miles of fertile soil with no desert in sight?

The River helped make Egypt a rich and powerful empire. But here's the other thing--the water is not "Egyptian" water. It comes from other places, other peoples. Heavy rains in Ethiopia fill the Blue Nile and send the flood waters rushing downstream. The White Nile flows out of central Africa before joining her sister near Khartoum. And so, while Egypt flourished in ancient times through the extraordinary fertility of the Nile, that gift came from far beyond her borders.

That's a reality worth pondering. So much of what we are, what we have, what we hope for, comes from a source upriver. Isn't that as true for us as it was for the ancient Egyptians? What what is our response to such grace and generosity?

* that is, before the construction of the Aswan High Dam...

Posted by Deborah Hunley

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


As we prepare for our journey to Egypt, friends and family are asking for ways to stay in touch while we're away. In particular, they'd like to know where we'll be each day, what we're seeing, and any impressions we'd like to share.

Here's the thing: there's a fine balance between letting people who care about you know you're OK -- you and your luggage arrived safely, your digestive system is working properly, and so on -- and spending so much time recording your thoughts and experiences that you don't have time to be a pilgrim -- which is, after all, the point.

So here's what I propose: I'll put the word out that this blog is up and running, post the itinerary and weekly reflections I've been sending to the group so others can view them, and let pilgrims and others comment if they like.

Then...when we begin our travels, I'll hope to snag a pilgrim volunteer every day or so to post on the blog -- that way the folks back home can see what we're up to without too much disruption for any one person. Sound fair?

Posted by Deborah Hunley