Saturday, June 25, 2011

Report from Medjugorje: Day One

Have just arrived in this great Marian shrine city and it is truly wonderful to be here (With News of New York's breakthrough victory for gay marriage ringing in my ears). The place is absolutely hopping, cafes are full to the brim, streets are mobbed with friendly, happy tourists, the whole spirit of the place is upbeat. 100,000 people are expected for this evening's 6pm Mass in honor of the 30th anniversary of the apparitions (together with most of the visionaries). It looks very much like a beach resort in the Cayman Islands or Pattaya, Thailand, in the height of the tourist season. Everyone is having a great time, cafes are making money hand over fist, the strawberry Sundays are piled high (no wonder those devout elderly lady pilgrims have such large behinds! I saw one of them eating one of these monster things and I told the waiter, "I'll have one of those!).  Everyone seems in a jolly mood, Irish, Italian, Bosnian, Croatian, Chinese, French pilgrims all pigging out in the cafes. In a word, Medjugorje in the summer is a fun place to be! This may seem a bit irreverent, but it's how I feel right now. The spirit of the place is joy, and judging by just a few conversations I've had so far (with some jolly Irish people at the table next to mine) people put aside their religious differences and just rejoice in being here. 

However, the one thing I can't find and wish I could are all of those five star restaurants with the fine wine lists and linen table cloths which the most hostile critics of Medjugorje insist are here as a testimony to the crass decadence of the place. All I can find are row after row after row of Italian pizzerias, all with the same prices (4.50 euros for a pasta dish) and all serving portions big enough to feed an elephant - and one fairly decent fresh seafood restaurant on the main road, fully booked. I asked the lovely  articulate young lady at reception at the Grace Hotel on the main road and she just shook her head, a bit  nonplussed by such request. She thought the La Casa Hotel outside of town had an upscale restaurant with a good wine list but it was for hotel guests only. "There's just not a market for this here right now." I slapped my bony chest and said, "I'm the market." I'm all for penance, prayer and fasting, but please give me at least one night with a decent bottle of wine and some haute causine. My remark elicited a tinkling laugh from the young woman, who said, "Well, maybe you should open one."

Bingo, I thought. That's why Our Lady has led me here, to open the first really classy restaurant in Medjugorje with a first class wine list. How could it miss? Unfortunately, I don't have any capital, so scratch that idea. Then I looked around and wondered what else the place could use. There are already some fairly decent shopping centers on the outskirts of town and several new sports centers, giving Medjugorje the look of a prosperous middle class California suburb - but still a long, long way from the upscale seaside suburbs like Newport Beach. There is one empty looking designer label store that seems to have gone no where. We certainly don't need a cineplex, with those horrible Hollywood blockbusters with their grotesque violence. And then it occurred to me, what Medjugorje really needs - and I ain't kidding (despite the fun I'm having with this tongue in cheek reflection). A first class, family oriented water park replete with whirlpool baths, water slides and multiple swimming pools. Medjugorje is hot in the summer, it's beautiful, the vistas of the blue mountains in the distance are stunning, it's brimming with a sense of profound peaceful wholesomeness, it is a safe place to bring the kids, but it's missing the final ingredient. After prayer, penance, Mass, the rosary - someplace to take the kids to make them feel that Our Lady and her shrine are a cool place to be. A water park would be it and the ingenious entrepreneur who financed it would make a fortune (not that that's the point). 

I spent last evening in the lovely Mediterranean home of my friend, Emil, in Mostar, the tragically divided city 30 miles south of Medjugorje which figured so prominently in the Yugoslav wars in the 90's. It was a peaceful time for me, eating outdoors by it's famous bridge, browsing through the bazaars, swimming in Emil's pool in the evening and playing with his beautiful sweet Hungarian retriever, Luna. I was completely relaxed. Then I boarded the bus to Medjugorje - and 30 minutes later disembarked, a twenty minute walk from the center since the traffic jams made it impossible for the bus to go further. Suddenly I was transported into an entirely different atmosphere of peace - utterly different from the relaxed mood of the evening before. This interior peace is subtle, gentle, sweet, unobtrusive, yet it penetrates the soul like a fine mist - and it explains the joy on peoples faces who are so enjoying themselves here. It is also a peace that envelops and includes everyone. I am presently wearing a small rainbow button that says, "Gay is the Way,' which has elicited some smiles from the waiters but nothing else so far. Just my way of being naughty and making a small statement, and I wore it into church this morning for Mass. No one seems to  notice or care. We are all having too much fun in the cafes. Pity about the 5 star restaurants, however. I would dearly love to find one. However, their absence has only further convinced me that the critics are full of shit. They've disappointed me once again, and so I say, if you haven't come here and judged for yourself - in an openhearted spirit of prayer and peaceful discernment - then your word lacks an essential ...verity. No doubt there are many elements about the phenomenon that need airing and exposure, and such 'truth telling' is undoubtedly healthy. But without the actual experience of breathing in the profound peace of Medjugorje, and asking those important questions here, in a spirit of openhearted discernment, then your word will lack that essential balance and will only lead to distortion and confusion. There is no need to affirm Medjugorje, it simply is for those who feel the need for it, others are free to find their spiritual nourishment elsewhere, and I for one feel no need to proselytize on its behalf. It's simply not important. What I do feel called to do is to resist its defamation. Only in a spirit of prayerful balance can one view the authentic and the inauthentic and discern the difference between them. Medjugore is simply a wonderful, fun place to be for the entire family. It is full of joy, full of peace.

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