(Update: I'm not sure why the original photos included with this post are no longer visible, especially since they were my original photos. But I have 'deleted' the remnants of them, to remove the distracting exclamation points!)
(In gratitude to Our Blessed Mother for the overturning of Proposition 8. Mary watch over us as the long battle continues for full equality in the US. )
It is past midnight here in Prague now and the calendar day has become August 5th. Twenty years ago, at six o'clock in the evening, Our Blessed Mother 'appeared' to two young peasant girls on a hill in northern Slovakia outside the village of Litmanova.
Litmanova remains a simple farming village in Northern Slovakia, barely touched or changed by these sacred events. The peace pervading the valley is extraordinary. This is a sacred land touched by grace, and the villagers know it and understand their responsibility to protect it. If you are here for the Virgin, they welcome you. If not, they turn away. Horses still pull wooden carts slowly through the village, laden with hay, sheep still graze on the hillsides in flocks with bells tinkling, women still go out into the fields with their rakes and hoes to tend the vegetables for market. Daily mass in the parish Church of St. Michael the Archangel is celebrated every weekday at 6pm and the church is filled with devout worshipers, many of them the older women of the village who recite the rosary before Mass with a heartfelt devotion, and in between the decades, sing hymns in polyphonic chant of breathtaking beauty and complexity. The parish is under the auspices of the Greek Catholic Church and celebrates Mass in the Eastern Rite, with the stunning golden iconostasis separating the nave from the sanctuary. When first entering the church, men and women and children kiss the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and touch the hand of the Blessed Virgin. These gestures are performed slowly, reverently, lovingly, tenderly. Prayers are sung not in petition but in praise and honor of living spiritual beings, Jesu and Panne Marie, cherished members of the family. Children play at random in the aisles, altar boys fidget and giggle at one another, and even smile and wave at friends in the congregation. The children have their own little chairs placed in front of the iconostasis. They are children free to play in their Father's House. And through it all, the women pray and chant and sing with a fervor and devotion I have never ever witnessed before in my life. When the service concludes, the older grandmothers, wearing traditional skirts with aprons, heavy woolen socks with plaid designs and colorful scarfs, congregate together by the crucifix outside the church door. They face the cemetery on the hill behind the church, and slowly, reverently, respectfully chant and sing prayers to the dead, asking for their protection and for their guidance as these old women themselves prepare to take their final journey.
There are no souvenir shops in all of Litmanova, not in the village and not at the shrine on the sacred mountain. Two small folding tables in a side niche at the shrine contain several simple plastic bowls filled with medals, some holy cards and postcards, a few rosaries and the one book so far written on Litmanova, published only in Slovakian. A simple dish collects the coins. There are no restaurants anywhere in the valley of Litmanova. There are only four pensiones for pilgrims and even these four are hard to find. There are two simple grocery stores and two pubs, one for the old folks near the church which opens when mass concludes at 7:30 and a second pub outside the village for the younger crowd. Young bucks drive their fast cars and motorbikes through the village, the peace of Litmanova must drive then wild. "Take me to the nearest disco," must be their fervent prayer. Only the nearest disco is not at Stara Lubovna, twenty minutes down the hill, nor even in Poprad one hour away, but a full two and a half hours away in Liptovsky Milukas.
Litmanova, quite simply, is the Marian shrine we have all been looking for in our hearts, a remote mountain village of peace and harmony, touched by Mary's grace and completely unspoiled by any taint of commercialism. High in the mountains of northern Slovakia, hidden away from the world and known to very few pilgrims outside the Slovak and Polish Christian communities, it is pure gift and pure grace.
Our Lady of Litmanov brought with her a simple message of 'purity of intention' and called herself The Immaculate Purity, a phrase less ambiguous perhaps than "I am the Immaculate Conception," uttered to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, but no less pregnant with meaning. When Bernadette was questioned about the faulty grammar of this sentence, she insisted that the Lady had said, "I am the Immaculate Conception."
Catholic philosopher Beatrice Bruteau, in her deeply insightful book, What We Can Learn From the East, offers these comments on the mysterious expression.
The Lady who presented herself as the archetype of the Immaculate Conception also gave another image. She instructed Bernadette to "wash in the spring and drink of it." There was no spring visible, but following the Lady's indication Bernadette scratched the earth, and a trickle of water appeared....(there is also a 'miraculous spring,' blessed by Our Lady, on the sacred mountain Zvir of Litmanova).
Is the free-flowing stream of healing and life, springing up from the earth in which it had hidden and unsuspected, also an archetype? Why not? Perhaps the Lady and the Spring together reveal the secret meaning of the Immaculate Conception
The Spring shows that an archetype, though its power comes from its transhistorical significance, need not be unhistorical. There is real water at Lourdes, and real cures take place there (as at Litmanova). The Blessed Virgin Mary is a historical woman, but as the Immaculate Conception she means so much more. The Lady and the Spring are a double icon of the purity and unity of the life hidden at the center of things, for us hitherto an unknown life, but one which when liberated and raised to consciousness is healing.
We have a number of icons, sacred images, and archetypes in our traditions that we can use or refer to in order to develop our own insights. Sometimes they may lend themselves to our use in ways that go beyond what their official custodians anticipated. But these figures function to provoke vision in us; so we should give ourselves permission to relate to them in creative ways.
The tradition that protects the sacred history of the Blessed Virgin Mary holds that she and her son, Jesus, are special persons, set apart. They have qualities, virtues, powers that none of the rest of us could possibly have. Mary, for instance, is said to be our fallen race's solitary boast, for she alone of all her sex is sinless.
It is my contention that setting these figures apart in this way and denying that the rest of us can have the same qualities that they have makes them religiously useless. If their most important features cannot be shared by us, we may admire them, even worship them, but we are not thereby enabled to attain the goal of our spiritual life. To attain this goal, we must find that we ourselves are free, complete, unified - that is, that we ourselves possess the adorable qualities of the great archetypes.
It is only when the great icons, the sacred persons who image the supreme values, are viewed as paradigms and revelations of what is actually true of all of us that they can exercise their spiritual power. They release that power precisely by revealing to us the secret of what we truly are, so that we may find that truth in ourselves.
I hold that the archetype of the Immaculate Conception is not a privilege reserved to one human being (or to four, in this tradition, counting Adam, Eve, and Jesus), but is a revelation of the truth about all of us. Our spiritual task is to discover that point in ourselves where we are the Immaculate Conception.
Perhaps it is in order to avoid this misunderstanding (of limiting the power of the archetype to one single person in one single historical moment of the past) that the mythic figures occasionally interrupt the historical-time sequence of their story to declare that they represent or embody some eternal truth. When the archetype announces that it is the Way, or the Resurrection, or the Immaculate Conception, it is identifying itself clearly, fairly, and unambiguously, lest we mistake it for something more limited and individual and less universal than it really is...
What I am saying, then, is that this mystery emblem, the Immaculate Conception, is about us. As an archetype it is about our true selfhood, our consciousness, our reality. Our "Mary" aspect is that part of us represented by the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To say that it alone has the privilege of the Immaculate Conception is to say that only this central Mary principle in us is free from Original Sin. ..That there should be at least one point in us that is free is a great discovery, something to be carefully taught in the sacred mysteries by emphasizing its singularity and uniqueness. I hold that this mysterious grace-filled aspect is to be found in everyone, no matter how deeply buried, obscured, and overladen with "sin," and that we have each had it from the beginning of our lives. ...When enlightenement comes, we find that this ground of purity, this Immaculate Conception, in us has become "The Woman Clothed with the Sun," clothed in radiance and generosity. This is another title of the Blessed Virgin Mary and therefore another image of our reality. To be clothed with the sun is to express oneself in unremitting giving, to be a constant output of energy that passes away.
Perhaps there is some strange significance in the fact that the marvelous event of the Buddha's Enlightenment is supposed to have occurred on December 8th, the date chosen for the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Perhaps the secret meaning of the Immaculate Conception is that there is a point in each of us that is free from sin from the beginning, endowed with wisdom and virtue, but - like the underground spring of healing at Lourdes (and Litmanova) - it has been hidden from us by delusive thinking. If so, then the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the archetype of this secret sinless self, may be understood as revealing our true nature to us and thus guiding us to its discovery.
The sacred mountain of Litmanova
to be continued with a more realistic, less poetical view of the village of Litmanova and Slovakia in general, which had two fascist Catholic priests as presidents during WWII, when it was an ally of the Nazi's, and during which time most of the country's Jews were shipped off to the concentration camps of Germany for extermination. However, families in villages just like Litmanova did harbor many Jewish children during the war, only to encounter intense hostility from fellow villagers after the war for threatening the security of the entire village by their acts of generosity. In the next posting, I need to ask the question, Why are there no Romany families in Litmanova, whereas there seem to be many Roms in the small village down the hill on the way to Stara Lubovna.