Sunday, June 26, 2011

Medjugorje Day Two: Crossing the Threshold

Last evening's 7pm 30th anniversary celebratory Mass was a profoundly moving experience, with record crowds of about 150,000 people spilling out of the amphitheater proper and spreading out over the green fields beyond. Many, many, many children running about freely, this was very much a family affair, and a notable number of 'progressive' nuns were also in view, to judge by their very liberated habits, some of the most beautiful I've seen. A very lovely elderly nun sat next to me, her silver hair tied in a bun and pined with a silver broach.  I'm ashamed to say I forgot the name of her order (French Franciscans), but she was dressed in a delicate linen blouse with sleeves to the wrists, a graceful medal of Our Lady around her neck, a  very long skirt to the ankles made of a lovely turquoise plaid pattern with white cross lines, very lovely to look at, soothing and rather reassuring as habits go, and of course, sandals and white socks. A moment later one of her companions came and sat next to her, with the exact same pattern on her skirt, but in cream color. When I remarked on this, she said with a chuckle, "Oh, yes, we're allowed to choose our own colors." I knew this had to be a very open minded order of nuns.  I wasn't mistaken in my judgement. She took one look at my "Gay is the Way" button and said with an impish smile, "For everyone?" I said, "Oh no, just for me." "Ah, just for you. Well, good for you!" Then she said rather sweetly, "Well, we do change in the church, we really do. It comes slowly, but it does come." And that was that. Both her words and her presence felt like a grace from Our Lady herself. Clearly there was no need for further discussion on the matter.  She was listening to a French instantaneous translation of the service on a transistor radio, which were readily available at the main center of the shrine as well as all over the shops in town. I hadn't known that before hand. Apparently the service was being translated on the spot in fifteen different international languages  including Hebrew, Arabic and Korean. What a profound phenomenon, just that in itself.  During the priest's deeply emotional sermon, the Sister (oh why can't I remember even her name, getting old!), gave me a running commentary, but the gist of it resonated with something I've felt for years about these Marian shrines. You do not come here with a list of requests to make to Mary. You come with only one question: How Can I serve? Then you listen in your heart to the voice of the Divine Mother, who clearly wants some very simple things, penance, sacrifice, prayer, peace, reconciliation, and above all a return to the Churchćs ancient tradition of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. For each individual person, there will be something a little more specific to each one's unique vocation. Once you have listened in your heart, and responded with an open hearted, unconditional surrender to whatever the Divine Mother may ask by way of sacrifice, then you may make your requests, but not before. It was a beautiful thought, suitable to a beautiful day, a profound day, and a day filled with a sense of the holiness of family and the need for families to pray together, and of course that includes gay families, and thank god for the grace of gay marriage in New York.  

The cafes may have been zipping with happy, self-indulgent customers, the souvenir shops bustling with commerce, but once you cross the threshold into the shrine compound itself, silence reigns and it's all pervasive peace is irresistible and profound. The contrast is actually quite shocking, and suddenly you realize why all of the tackiness on the streets is so necessary - as a counter sign and contrast to the holiness of the sacred sanctuary itself. It's as if an invisible wall exists right at the entrance of the shrine, keeping out all of the hustle and bustle outside, but without necessarily passing a negative judgement upon it. Once you have crossed into Mary's space, however, you feel that this is a Divine Mother with a very serious intent and all frivolity stops at the door. Joy is pervasive as well, but it is a sobering joy of the inner heart that coexists with an equally sobering awareness of human sin and suffering, and the profound need for peace and reconciliation within the world and within the church itself. 

I was also surprised at the very few numbers of 'crazies' around, for some reason I was expecting more of them, but everyone in the area seemed composed, prayerful and - I can't quite find the words to describe it, not somber or serious, but clearly aware of a profound and holy will at work here. I'm thinking especially of the large tour groups with banners and flags, their group members wearing hats and bandannas. I expected (judgmentally and uncharitably), I guess, more frenetic energy, more frizzle, more...well, in a word, craziness, so I could look down upon them condescendingly. But this was not to be. Even the flag wavers seemed aware than a divine presence had manifested herself in this holy place with a cry of the heart that precluded all frivolity and co-optation. This was not a charism one could manipulate at will, but a deeply sacred intelligent mystery manifesting a loving request that required profound respect, silence and receptivity. There was one electrifying moment at the beginning of the service when the priest asked for silence, and to my shock, that entire crowd of 150,000 - children included - were instantaneously silent. It was the loudest silence I have ever encountered, and dare I say that Pope Benedict, when he visited Prague three years ago, could not have asked for nor received such a thunderous silence. Clearly the Divine Mother wins hands down over the Papa.

That was yesterday evening, with massive traffic jams leading out of the city for hours afterwards far into the night. Today Medjugorje is almost, but not quite a ghost town in comparison. And it is wonderful to be here without all of the bustle and chaos, but I have to say - for any prospective visitors - choose your pensione wisely and stay out of the city center. For all of my silliness in describing the lively, hugely enjoyable cafe scene, it can be dis-edifying and even disrespectful to everything the Madonna represents in this holy place. Wise folk with a contemplative bent, and this includes a large number of nuns, choose the pensiones on the outskirts, in the countryside, where one can walk in the silence of the day, gaze at the hills, including Holy Cross Mountain and Apparition Hill, pray in silence and solitude and soak up the very special atmosphere  of grace that is Medjugorje. As St. Teresa is famous for saying, "When it is time to fast, I fast, when it is time to feast I feast."  Medjugorje is above all, a call to balanced and wholesome asceticism and self-abnegation, it is a gentle, loving, non-violent reminder that some values and practices of the old church, such as penance and fasting, need to be recovered, but not in such a way as to endanger the precious breakthroughs of renewal and reform that were ushered in by Vatican II. After all, Medjugorje's openminded religious tolerance would have been impossible before Gaudium et Spes, the great Vatican constitution on the Church and the Modern World. Likewise, the witness of the visionaries, not one of whom has chosen to enter formal religious life, is very much a post Vatican II witness in support of the importance of the laity. This was never more apparent than at the end of yesterday's very moving celebratory Mass, with over one hundred (male) priests  concelebrating, when the five visionaries (one being absent because of illness) were brought up to the altar for a brief prayer. Each of them was given a chance to speak, before disappearing again into the church. In the midst of all of that priestly finery and hierarchical splendor, here came the real channels of charismatic power, simple, unassuming, ordinary laypersons, four of them women, two of them men (altogether), and only one of them, Marija, giving evidence of rapidly ascending the heights of Christian holiness - which is why she has become, most fittingly, the chief spokesperson for the group. Genuine charismatic holiness brings with it its own internal authority, instantly recognizable, trustworthy and profound. It was such a moving sight, significant in its implications, and it left us all deeply stirred. Medjugorje is very much a post Vatican II phenomenon and succeeds in giving a loving, non violent witness to the necessity of healthy integration of the very best of the old with the very best of the new. There is no restoration here. There is only new life moving forward, while lovingly preserving the precious spiritual values of the ancient catholic tradition. Mary shows the way. 

2 comments:

The Rev.Tom Gilbert said...

Thank you so very, very much for your continuing commentary regarding your trip to Medjugore. I really wish I was there with you. And, I also wish Our Lady's message of religious tolerance was more widespread. But your posts are helping to do just that and I'm sure there are many who are just finding out about Medjugore for the first time as a result of your blog. As a straight ally of the GLBT community, I am so happy your journey has been a joy. I look forward to more posts from Medjugore. Many Blessings.

Jayden Cameron said...

Thanks, Tom, the posts are a help for me as well as I try to get a handle on this mysterious phenomenon. I'm now going through three books of testimonies from people whose lives have been changed by Medugorje. I hope to comment on them further.