Taking off for Jerusalem in a week for the Holy Week celebrations, first time in my life this has become possible. Will be staying at a hotel run by a Palestinian family I met some six years ago, whose son was working as a taxi driver as well as a member of the Palestinian Authority. He picked me up outside the Jaffa Gate and took me to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial - and waited for me for three hours, after which he took me to his home in East Jerusalem, where I was feasted by his mother. One of life's mystical connections. He described for me how difficult it was for him to get into the Palestinian territories, even with his 'government connections,' taking nearly three hours to traverse a stretch of road that should have taken fifteen minutes. And we have been friends ever since.
Then in May I take off for the south of France to the coastal port of Saintes Maries de la Mar for the annual festival of the Gypsies in honor of St. Sara and the three Mary's - Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary, mother of Lazarus, and Mary Magdelaine, the 'wife' of Jesus together with their daughter, Sara. According to the legend, the three women and infant girl were expelled from Jerusalem around 40 AD and traveled by boat across the Mediterranean without sails, oars or provisions, arriving miraculously upon the shores of present day France. The story, of course, is an embarrassment to the Roman Catholic Church which has modified the story, making Sara a dark skinned servant. Hence the devotion of the dark skinned and outcast Romany to this mysterious saintly figure. And of course, the story piqued the interest of an American pop novelist, Dan Brown, resulting in The Da Vinci Code.
For three days in May, the Gypsies converge on this sea coast town from all over Europe for their annual pilgrimage, three days of prayers and song and dance and celebration. It has long been one of my dreams to join them (as it has been to join the Christians in Jerusalem for Holy Week.).
In preparation for this journey, I've been re-reading China Galland's great book, Longing for Darkness, Tara and the Black Madonna, which describes China's own pilgrimage through Nepal, India, Switzerland, France, Yugoslavia and Poland in search of images and sacred sites devoted to the dark mother.
China Galland has a wonderful website devoted to images of the Black Madonna, Images of Divinity, though she hasn't updated it in a while - and a very interesting blog, Circles of Love, also not updated, but well worth pursuing.
China also has a wonderful, wise and insightful chapter on her journey to Medjugorje in 1988, and her meeting with the visionary, Mirjana, which is well worth reading for a sensitive, spiritual, feminist but non-Christian view of this on going phenomenon. She also received from Mirjana the clearest account of the controversial statement from the Lady of Medjugorje that 'all religions are the same,' which turns out to be quite different than the apoplectic accounts on some ultra conservative websites.
'All people of faith are one in the eyes of God, only on earth have we created such divisions.'
"Our Lady has never specifically said that our only way back to Jesus is the Catholic Church. She did say that she was 'the mother of All,' and this on more than one occasion."
Not quite the same as the way it has been translated world wide. But then there is so much distortion on the web about this Marion phenomenon that one must be wary and cautious and exercise careful discernment.
I was involved in a minor debate on the issue at the website, Open Tabernacle, in response to a posting there, but after prayer and reflection, decided I was not to enter into a debate, but merely add some reflections in the comments section. In June, I will be returning to the Shrine for my annual seven day retreat, staying at the home of my friend, Phero, who is sixty six years old, who has lived through it all, and who has taught me so much about the history of the village, the rise of the tourist industry, the holiness and the madness, the lies and defamations, and the unparallelled sacredness that fills the valley with light.
To give just one example. I had read on a website hostile to Medjugorje, that the visionaries were profiting off of the phenomenon, lived comfortable lives in luxurious houses and that the youngest visionary, Jakov Colo, lived in 'a luxurious, expansive orange house in the suburbs with a satellite dish on the roof." When I mentioned that to Phero, he said, "Well, let's go take a look at it." I protested vigorously, because I didn't want to become just another silly, crazy pilgrim/tourist gawking at a visionary. But Phero said we wouldn't bother them, just take a look at the house. Off we went in Phero's rattly truck some ten miles outside of Medjugorje itself to another small hamlet that seemed set down in the valley for no apparent reason and he stopped by a modest orange house set aside in a grove of trees. It looked very peaceful and secluded. By California standards (my home state) it would be considered lower middle class. By Croatian standards it was just average, and not as big as Phero's house. It did indeed have a satellite dish on the roof - but then so does every house in the region, because that is how the TV stations are received. A minor story perhaps, but once it gets blown up by prejudice and hatred it became a 'luxurious, expansive orange house with a satellite dish on the roof.'
I had also seen the house of the visionary, Mirjana, in Medjugorje itself and this as well was very modest, though it had an extension on the side for extra rooms for pilgrims. But in terms of taste and luxury it would be considered lower middle class by normal US standards.
This is not to say that all of the disturbing stories about Medjugorje have no substance to them. The tales of money swirling around are too many to dismiss, but even so they must be carefully checked, very carefully, since there is so much irrational animosity surrounding this shrine. However, there are also many sincere observers, some of them original supporters, who have felt obliged in conscience to distance themselves from the shrine. However, it is a great pity that more progressive Christians have allowed the religious right to own such religious sites, (once they have adjusted the messages to remove any suggestion that 'all religions are the same). These conservative groups make such a loud noise and cause such confusion by equating the messages with their own aggressive right wing agenda, which in turn provokes a violent reaction from skeptics and scoffers. If anything, Medjugorje is a progressive Marian movement, and a profound manifestation of the re-emergence of the divine feminine. The messages themselves are remarkably simple and uncontroversial, and they seem to have been composed deliberately to avoid controversy and division, as they scrupulously avoid all of the contentious issues in the Church. In the words of Marija spoken to China Galland, "Fasting, prayer, peace, conversion, and mass - this is the main message of what Our Lady wants." Nothing could be more simple - or more profound - or less sectarian. Progressives in the Church do a disservice to the Church and to the Marian mystery by allowing the ultra orthodox to not only "own" the Marian apparitions as their personal property, but to dominate the conversation. Something profoundly ecumenical is being expressed here at Medjugorje, and this was never more apparent than during the height of the war, when more prayers were uttered in the main Church for the Muslims and the Serbian Orthodox than for their own Croatian fighters. (Phero's vehement testimony). Swastikas and Croatian fascist symbols appeared in the souvenir shops, the Croatian National Defense League terrorized the village, ultra nationalist groups sometimes appeared on Apparition Hill itself, and Croatian soldiers in the field sometimes carried the banner of the Lady of Medjugorje - all of these were distortions of the fundamental message of the Lady in White. But across the threshold of the sanctuary, peace reined and the villagers of Medjugorje remained faithful to the gift that had been given them, the gift of peace and reconciliation.
I will now close these reflections with some passages from China Galland's account of her visit to Medjugorje and the apparition which she witnessed in the church choir:
Marija and Ivan are praying out loud at first, softly, I can hear them, then I feel a clammy heat sweep through me and I no longer hear them. They are looking up intently, at what appears to be the same spot in the air. Then their lips stop moving. They nod their heads as though indicating that they understand something that's just been said to them. Ivan seems to ask a question, but no words are uttered out loud. Marija nods. ...Something clearly has come over them, though I cannot see or even sense anything of what is going on for them. In this moment I have no doubt that they are seeing Mary. I am present for - and very close to - a remarkable event, and I give thanks, put down the camera on the floor next to me and bow low, touching my forehead to the floor out of respect, then kneel quietly with them until the apparition is over, perhaps five minutes. Then they make the sign of the crosss, return to themselves and begin to leave.
I was in front of Marija and Ivan the whole time they were seeing the apparition. I watched them closely from the very start. Marija is guileless and strong. Yes, they seem to see something, why can't it be Mary? What may seem far-fetched to many seems possible to me. I am grateful to have been allowed into the presence of the Mother of God, or God the Mother, as I think of her, but we are always in this presence. Only rarely do we become aware of it....
The simple aphorism "take what you need and leave the rest" releases me from imagining that I have to resolve or understand what is happening at Medjugorje. As I leave I'm acutely aware of how different this experience has been from earlier ones. People stare at the sun in Medjugorje. There is talk of miracles and more mention of Satan than I've heard in years. Yet the quiet flood of joy and happiness that I experienced in the choir loft is a clear indication that something true and good has happened for me here. Many moments here have moved me. Of some, I remain wary.
Cyril's words, "the messages are a mystery, they must be approached with prayer," I took with me from Medjugorje.