Apr 30, 2011

BACK FROM JERUSALEM, Returned from Palestine

Have returned from Holy Week celebrations in Jerusalem and the beach at Tel Aviv. Still in a state of shock from the experience, and not ready to blog about it yet, but here are some random thoughts. 

 Stayed in a wonderful Palestinian run hotel, the Jerusalem Panorama Hotel. Here is the view from my bedroom window, with the Old City walls and the Dome of the Rock in the distance, and the charming little Palestinian grocery down below - where the old owner eyed me with some suspicion, but whose young son could not stop grinning every time he waited on me:

Such a profound immersion in a rich multi-cultural, multi religious, multi - political experience. For the first time in over 50 years, Jewish Passover, Orthodox Easter and Western Christian Holy Week + Easter all coincided within the same week. My hotel was filled with Orthodox Christians from Eritrea and Ethiopia and Jews from Galilee, Baptists from Namibia - and a rather frightening group of intense black Anglicans from Uganda, whom I encounterd in the Garden Tomb, the Protestant alternative to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I spent part of Good Friday morning and Easter Saturday eve - afternoon at the American Colony hotel, talking with Munther  Fahmi in his revered bookshop. Munther is a Palestinian who has been living in Jerusalem for the past seven years on his US passport, but - though he was born in Jerusalem -  he is now faced with expulsion from Israel by the authorities, who take a dim view of his progressive bookstore with everything available on the Middle East crisis one could possible want. I bought seven books from him and read them in the lobby of the hotel early Good Friday afternoon. The message was clear: One cannot come to Israel to celebrate the Holy Week mysteries of the Passover of the Lord without immersing oneself in the ongoing passover anguish of the Palestinians in Israel, a suffering that also consumes the Israelis as well. Read his story here at Jonathan Cook's website:

At 2pm I made my way down the Via Dolorosa, and by some miracle I managed to get inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher right before it was closed to the public. The crush of people inside was frightening and I had to push my way vigorously into the Orthodox sanctuary, where I managed to find a seat on a bench next to some devout and very friendly Orthodox ladies. They all had large bags beside them, filled with provisions to last the long night until the great ceremony of the Miracle of the Holy Fire on Saturday at 2pm. I had neither the provisions nor the stamina to last the twelve hours sitting on that small bench (and what about using the toilet?). However, I was there for the tolling of the great bell at precisely at 3pm and the beginning of the very solemn Orthodox ceremony. Endless chants and songs, the blessing and incensing of the tomb and sealing of the entrance:

At one point in the ceremony, high pitched feminine screaming rang out in the area around the tomb, screaming such as I have never heard in my life, a piercing anguish and horror that pierced one's bones. It was the cry of anguish one would expect when a plane is crashing or a bomb is about to be expolded - which is what I feared was about to happen. There were many shouts of men, the sound of a scuffle, and these horrifying high pitched screams from women, containing within all of their decibles all of the pain and terror of the world. Israeli soldiers ran into the crowd (I did not really have a clear view, since the ornate entrance barrier of the Orthodox sanctuary barred part of the view.) The lady next to me got up and went over to the crowd at the entrance and stood on tip toe, trying to see what was happening. She came back to her seat and simply shrugged her shoulders at me, as if to say she could not make sense of it all. A frightening moment and the first time in my life I have heard such sounds - sounds, however, which  have been all too common in Palestine and Iraq for many years.

 At 5pm, I managed to push my way out of the church and through the police cordon outside, with crowds of angry pilgrims attempting to push their way into the church. I wandered down the alleys of the Old City to the Wailing Wall, which seemed an appropriate place to visit on Good Friday. And I was faced with this sight:

Saturday afternoon I went back to the Garden Tomb (where I had been the previous day) and there ran into the disturbing Anglican group from Uganda, making quite a loud noise in the garden with screaming and shouting and hand clapping. The very polite British manager of the garden had to come out to quiet them several times, after which they looked very affronted and angry as they paraded around the garden in the company of their bishop dressed in a very bright maroon cassock. They left  the garden shortly after this, leaving a cloud of dark negativity behind them. I asked the director where this group was from, and he told me, "Uganda," with raised eyebrows. While one shouldn't stereotype on the basis of cultural assumptions, it is the Anglican Church of Uganda which has cut itself off from the North American Anglican communion over the issue of 'homosexuality." This group was frightening to observe, and while I regret my prejudices, they struck me almost to a 'man' as being very psychologically primitive. Not so the lovely Black Baptists from Namibia, friendly, charming, jolly, open hearted, each of them wearing their little white baseball caps with the green logo for "Covenant Tours." In this way, on Holy Saturday Eve, in the Garden Tomb, for one brief moment I felt I had encountered the dark stain which contributes to the homophobia of the Anglican Ugandan Church. But perhaps I am mistaken ???

Back at the hotel later in the evening, I spoke with the charming elderly ladies from Eritrea, all in their 60's, 70's and 80's, here on tour for the Holy Week festivities. 

They were going out to their church at 9pm for the Easter Vigil, and were returning to the hotel at 2pm. I asked if I could join them and they laughed and said I would have a much better time joining the 'young  Eritrean men,' for the ceremony of the Holy Fire at the Cave of the Tomb of Mary, down the hill adjacent to the Franciscan Church of Gethsemane. They could not have been more right. The experience was so joyful, so moving, so hilarious and humanly touching that it brought tears to my eyes. The tomb was packed with several thousand young me all in their twenties, as far as I could tell. No children, no teens and very men above the age of 30. There were also several women, clearly wives with babes in arms, but they constituted less than 10% of the whole group. I found myself surrounded by such joy and celebration and had to take many, many photos of couples of beautifully smiling men with their arms around one another - that I had no time to take photos of my own. Here are some poor attempts which do not capture the rapturous joy of this moment and these beautiful, friendly, overflowing young men. How humbling and inspiring to experience the Christian mystery celebrated in such a different way, far far from one's own rather tepid Catholic ritual. Speaking which, after leaving the beautiful men of the Eritrean Orthodox Church I wandered in with a group of Spanish pilgrims right into the Church  of the Garden of Gesthesame for the Catholic Easter Eve Vigil - which was indeed moving and profound, partly because this pilgrim group was obviously from a single parish and were already united in spirit, with beautiful, heartfelt singing. Yet we could not match the boundless, overflowing, rapturous joy filling the Tomb of Mary next door and spilling out into the night.

Back at my hotel in the evening, I listening to the mournful tolling of the Holy Sepulcher bell, a profound sound which echoes over the Kidren Valley and Getheseme up until midnight. It was joined at 10:30 by the haunting sounds of the Muslim Muezzin from the Mosque next door. Such sounds echoeing all across the valley, haunting, beautiful, and inexpressibly  romantic, tragic and sad.

The following morning, after celebrating Easter in the early dawn with the Sisters of Sion at their beautiful Church on the Via Dolorosa, Ecce Home, I took the bus to Tel Aviv and spent the day on the beach meditating on this profoundly moving spiritual pilgrimage, filled with such unexpected encounters and experiences. I've only briefly touched on the meaning of the trip for me, but put simply, one cannot celebrate the Resurrection of the Risen Lord, without immersing oneself in the very real sufferings of oppressed peoples everywhere - whether it be the Palestinians groaning under a 40 year occupation or gay people in Uganda cowering in fear of discovery of their basic identity. 

The following Monday, I boarded the plane for Prague at Ben Gurion airport, vowing to return.

Apr 16, 2011

Preaching Peace thru Holy Week

As we prepare to enter Holy Week, I offer this wonderful web resource as an antidote to much of the hate driven Christian preaching of late. It's called Preaching Peace and here is it's manifesto:

…A strange new world, a new creation, where the old cosmos is truly passing away.  We welcome you to join us, to open your ears to hear, to turn away from being conformed to this violent, hierarchical, sacrificial cosmos and be transformed by the renewing of your mind to the life and thought of Jesus, the model of true humanity, who is leading us into the Peaceable Kingdom.

It is a world where Jesus’ understanding of his heavenly ABBA turns this ‘present evil age’ upside-down.  It is a way of thinking and living that is scandalous and foolish to this cosmos of violent human culture.  It is a world where the eagle flies with the dove, the lion lays down with the lamb, where the young dream dreams and the elders see visions, where there is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no male or female, and a little child leads us all.

Even as Jesus had to explain his life mission to his own disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, we also need to listen to his instruction regarding the meaning of his life and death.  We wish you welcome and say, “Well met,” on the journey.  May the spirit of Jesus lead us as we travel and reason together.

One of the many rich resources of the site is the book, The Jesus Driven Life, which gay theologian James Alison describes as:
“…a great new resource in the Christian Adventure. The Jesus Driven Life is thoroughly ecumenical in its scope, richly biblical in its sourcing and gloriously Christ-centered in its excitement about God.”
James Alison

And this endorsement from one of the most well known 'progressive' Evangelical theologians today, Greg Boyd. (The Wikipedia page devoted to him makes for very interesting reading.)

“For all who sense that there’s something profoundly off with the westernized Gospel they’ve been given, …and even more for all who don’t yet sense what’s wrong, The Jesus Driven Life is a ‘must read’!”
Gregory Boyd

Will the real Jesus please stand up…
Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What has happened as Jesus, the rabbi from Galilee, has been displaced as the center of the Christian faith and replaced with false portraits? How can we understand the relation between this nonviolent Jesus and the violent God of most Christian traditions? What might Christianity look like if it truly followed this Jesus?

These ideas and many others are demystified in this book. Utilizing the work of Rene Girard, The Jesus Driven Life takes us beyond the dead ends and false trails of much Christian interpretation of the Bible. Come discover a new and exciting Way of living in the world as true humans who imitate the crucified and risen Lord!

The Jesus Driven Life is everything you wanted to know about Jesus but were afraid to ask! This is a manual for understanding Jesus’ life and times, his hermeneutics, his understanding of God, his mission, his passion and his model of living the ‘shalom’ of his ABBA.

The website also offers a beautifully re-envisioned Stations of the Cross, which refrains from romanticizing Jesus' suffering or making him a passive victim.

Here is the First Station: (See the complete series here: www.preachingpeace.org/.../The_Stations_of_the_Cross.pdf)  The link doesn't seem to work, put if you do a google search for Stations of the Cross, it comes up about five entries down the list - or it did for me. Very beautifully done.

Station I
Jesus is condemned to die

All: We adore you O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

Leader: Pilate said, “I find no fault with this man,” but when the crowd grew loud, he grew silent. “I wash my hands. You deal with him.” Pilate had the knowledge and the power to stand and say no to the world as it sought to crush the Lord of Life. He didn’t use either.

How many times do I have the knowledge and the power to say no, and stay silent? How many times do I participate, by my silence, in the Passion of Jesus? Who will die because I do not say no?


All: Dearest Jesus, you hear my silence and you still love me. Because you say no to the world, the world says no to you. By the power of your Holy Spirit, give me the courage to stand and say no with you. Help me to take up my cross and follow you.

Like a lamb you stood there silent,

“Crucify!” we shouted, vi’lent,

Pilate washed his hands and sighed


I leave tomorrow for Israel to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem. 

Apr 11, 2011

Swami PrakashakaBOOM Will Fondle No More and The Vatican Goes on Trial

Hardly a laughing matter, but I love this eclectic little website devoted to tracking down Indian guru child molesters. Even the name - GURUPHILIAC- exemplifies the wit with which these highly intelligent people go about their task - debunking the fornicating fakes and creepy gurus, while also taking time to praise a few well balanced, sane and unpretentious spiritual teachers. Does this have relevance to the Catholic scene? You betcha. Most of the kreepy gurus are accused of fondling young girls - with the exception of Sai Baba who fondled them all, but had a propensity for young boys. A Santa Barbara friend of mine was a devotee until her 14 year old son was groped by Sai Baba in a private 'initiation' ceremony. She hauled him out of the ashram that very evening and they were on the next flight back to the US the following morning. What does this mean as a reflecting mirror on Catholic priest molesters? Don't know, really, and wouldn't want to make a 'gay' connection, of course, only to point out that altar boys are far more available to altar priests than little girls are to worshiped Guru Divinities. The common denominator, however, is the undue reverence and obedience given to exalted male priestly figures who claim to have a monopoly on the dispensation of sacred power, and the easy way this reverence can be manipulated and abused. I appreciate this site, however, because they go out of their way to recommend some very sensible spiritual guides who make no claims to complete enlightenment. See Heart of Now.  I also have to admit to a feeling of relief that 'we are not alone' in the propensity of over-exalted sacred figures to satisfy their wanton desires upon the innocent.

Not so with the cover up, however, and this brings me to Queen's Consul Geoffrey Robertson's book, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse, which I've just finished (picked it up in a Florence book shop last February).

The book is far too rich for me to summarize quickly - except to say that he does build a very plausible case for Vatican and specifically, Pope Benedict's, vulnerability to charges of 'crimes against humanity' which could very likely be lodged with the European Court of Human Rights. He also demolishes the argument that the Holy See has any legal standing in calling itself a state, and really has no business having six very vocal observers and lobbyists at the UN sessions. The legal arguments are complex and convoluted, but Robertson makes them remarkably clear and logical. I found it an enthralling, if shocking, read. Yes, we've heard it all before, but never in such detail and laid out case after case - of Vatican obfuscation and obstruction of justice. Nauseating is too delicate  a word to describe the effect on the reader, and one is left pondering the folly of humanity in allowing such a scam to continue for so long. The Vatican, quite simply, is harmful to children.

In reference to groping gurus, here is  Robertson's response:

The Church's response, still echoed by those like Alan Dershowitz who defend the present Pope, is that hierarchical sex abuse occurs in all religious institutions and in secular schools, and it is wrong to 'stereotype' the Roman Catholic priesthood. But the evidence does reliably show a remarkably higher level of abuse in Catholic institutions (see chapter 2) and in any event, the defense misses the point, namely that this church, through its pretensions to be a state, with its own non-punitive Canon Law, has actually covered up the abuse and harboured the abusers. Moreover, this particular religion endows its priests with god-like powers in the eyes of children, who are put into their spiritual embrace from the time when they first develop the faculty of reasoning.....'Catholics are indoctrinated from their childhood that priests take the place of Jesus Christ and are to be obeyed at all costs, and never questioned or criticized.' (Fr. Tom Doyle). A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept. 

Again, the value of the book, in my opinion, is not its exposure of the extent of the cover-up and Vatican intransigence in dealing with requests for confidential information about accused molesters. We've heard all of these stories before, even though Roberson does a great service by gathering so many shocking examples into a single read. The book really packs a wallop because of the tightly argued thesis from a first rate legal mind that the Vatican has no legal ground to call itself a state and therefore no excuse for claiming immunity to criminal prosecution, as it has tried to do on many occasions. The book  has had a wide readership, particularly among other first rate legal minds, and there are already rumblings from Belgium of a test case that will be brought before the European Court of Human Rights charging Benedict with crimes against humanity. The defenses are cracking, and I can only see this as one more hopeful sign of the Holy Spirit - not wreaking vengeance, so to speak, but helping us all to dismantle the false idol we have created out of high priestly authority in the church.

By an odd coincidence,  on the same trip to Italy that yielded this find in a Florence bookstore, I also picked up -in a Vatican bookstore - two books on the traditional sacerdotal priesthood, Jesus Our Priest, by Gerald Collins, S.J. and Goodbye Father, by Richard Schoenherr, a massive sociological study of the Roman Catholic priesthood, completed in 1995, but not published until 2002. Both authors express their deep appreciation and reverence for the mystery of the sacerdotal priesthood in the church and affirm its fundamental necessity for the Catholic charism. Collins is more traditional and more mystical, Schienherr more cognizant of the many contradictions and distortions of sexism in the church which ultimately undermines the very value of the priesthood he so cherishes. But it was a shocking and highly ironic juxtaposition for me to go from Robertson's book to the other two (reading back and forth), and to be reminded so graphically of what horrendous harm has been occasioned by our exaltation of the sacred all male, celibate priesthood. Robertson was, in fact, the antidote to Gerald Collins, even though I found Collin's foray through the history of Catholic reflection on the priesthood to be deeply moving - yet ultimately deeply sad. We have gone astray with something so sacred and have allowed it to be sullied and torn and ultimately discredited. Something of great sacredness is at the core of the Catholic sacerdotal priesthood, but erecting a clerical caste around it (of whatever gender or sexual persuasion), only serves in the end to destroy it. The very nature of the priesthood needs to be redefined and freed from its present straightjacket of ecclesiastical control. How that is to be done I leave to the Holy Spirit - but not in a passive fashion. The signs are being given us of the way forward, it is up to us to properly discern them and then devotedly act upon them with heartfelt dedication.

I end these reflections with Robertson's dammning indictment of Benedict XVI:

What will be required of the Vatican, as a signal of a new commitment to put children first, is the complete abandonment of Benedict's claim that the Holy See has the right to deal with suspected felons under an obscure, inefficient and secret ecclesiastical process. But Canon Law provides a form of power, and perhaps Benedict's fatal flaw is his attraction to power - to the pomp and circumstance of statehood, to the queues of world leaders who come to bend at his knee and kiss his fisherman's ring, and to the satisfaction of having delegates promote his ideology with six seats at UN conference tables. Journalists often tell how this kindly old man offers to share his food with them, but an analysis of his behavior suggests a man in thrall to power and unable to give any of it up - even for the sake of innocent children. When it ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Holy See quoted the words of John Paul II, to the effect that children 'are that precious treasure given to each generation as a challenge to its wisdom and humanity'. John Paul II himself, as we now know, failed that challenge by cosseting notorious child molesters and turning a blind eye to the mounting toll of child victims. So did his closest lieutenant, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. On the question of whether Benedict XVI is capable of the wisdom and humanity to protect the children of his church, the jury is out.

Needless to say, this book was written and published before the recent revelations of criminal cover up in Philadelphia. 

Apr 9, 2011

Martyrs of Disobedience for the Faith, Ludmila Javorova, Father Roy Bourgeois and Franz Jagerstatter

Two significant events have occured within the past week which are signs of the times and harbingers of the future. Members of the underground Roman Catholic Church of Czechoslovakia during the Communist years, including marred and women priests, were honored in Vienna last Saturday (4/1) at its UN City Church by receiving the distinguished  Herbert-Haag-Foundation Award for Freedom in the Church. Present at the ceremony was Ludmila Javorova, the first woman priest ordained by Bishop Felix Maria Davidek, the leader of the clandestine group. Though ignored by Rome after the fall of Communism and told she was not a licitly ordained priest, Ludmila continued to consider herself a priest in Christ, though she humbly obeyed the Vatican order to desist from all essentially priestly sacramental functions. She has lived her sacrifice quietly in Brno all these past years and  has been an inspiration to the Roman Catholic Women Priests Movement for years as well. She is 79 years old.

"At the award ceremony she said: 'The work has been begun. Others must continue it. Even if the Vatican considers the matter closed, it is my firm belief that at some point in the future this dossier will be reopened.'"

At the prize-giving ceremony in Vienna, Bishop Davidek’s Koinótés was for the first time publicly recognised for what it was – a valiant effort to assure the Church’s survival under persecution. In their laudation, the Swiss theologian Professor Hans Küng of Tübingen University, Professor Hans Jorissen, a former professor of dogmatics at Bonn University and probably the leading connoisseur on the clandestine Church outside the former Czechoslovakia, and Professor Walter Kirchschläger of Lucerne University, all deplored the potential that had been lost. As Professor Jorissen said, “The concept of a missionary re-evangelisation in the Czech Republic, which today is one of Europe’s most secularised countries, could have used the experiences of the clandestine Church, which was, and could still be today, a model for re-evangelisation.”

Read the full story here at the London Tablet.
Ludmila's moving and inspiring life story can be read here:

See the equally moving story of the first (clandestinely ordained) Anglican woman priest, Li Tim-Oi, ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong in 1944. Tim-Oi is already being honored and recognized for her sanctity. Read the full story here.

The second event, which is related to the the first, is the formal announcement yesterday (4/8) by Maryknoll Father Roy  Bourgeis that he will not recant from his public support of women's ordination in the Roman Catholic Church, thereby inviting formal laicization  upon himself.  This story has been ongoing for some time and is rapidly becoming one of the iconic events of our time.

(read his full statement at Diane Dougherty's blog here)

Father Roy refers to the long standing Catholic tradition of primacy of conscience and references in particular the witness of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian martyr killed by the Nazis for refusing to serve in the army of the Third Reich. What Father Roy does not mention is that Blessed Franz was pressured by his Bishop and three  Catholic priests he turned to for advice to comply with the conscription order and join the army, all four men insisting that participating in the army of the German Third Reich was perfectly compatible with a Catholic conscience. By not complying, Franz was accused by his bishop of causing "grave scandal" to his fellow Catholics who had joined the army, exactly like Father Roy is accused today by his Markyknoll superiors of causing 'grave scandal' to the faithful and his fellow priests. 
Here is a very interesting comment from a fairly conservative blog in reference to Jagerstatter's meeting with his bishop (what follows the statement, however, is a rather bizarre twist to the story as the writer exemplifies the tendency of the canonization process to squeeze the saintly figure into a more orthodox mold):

Recognising that they could not reach common ground, Bishop Fliesser finally told Franz Jägerstätter that, in exceptional circumstances, one may act 'according to one's conscience'. The Bishop had made a concession to Franz Jägerstätter with this statement, by not toeing the official party line. With this statement, however, he put the onus squarely on Franz Jägerstätter's shoulders. It must have been devastating for Franz to realise that there was no approval from the Church for his proposed action. The responsibility and the consequences for his decision to refuse military service were his and his alone.

Indeed. And how many of these heroic witnesses do we need to convince us of the relative and limited value of 'official authority' in the Church and of the myriad ways in which we are tempted to turn this authority into a false idol. We need to ask ourselves why the same story keeps repeating itself over and over and over again. The striking example of Father Roy Bourgeois is yet another sign from the Holy Spirit of our need to be constantly reminded, cautioned and warned of the dangers of an exaggerated respect for authority and of the holiness of principled disobedience. And as Bridget Mary reminds us at her blog, Pope Benedict has recently canonized two excommunicated nuns.

"Mother Mary McKillop, the foundress of the Australian-based Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, was, in 1871, officially excommunicated by her local bishop, on the grounds that she "'she had incited the sisters to disobedience and defiance." 

"Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods, was once locked into a room in a rectory by her bishop, who was infuriated by her (similarly) independent spirit." He later excommunicated her. 
See also Robert McClory's interesting book, Faithful Dissenters.

The real gift of the Spirit in all of these inspiring stories is the gift of freedom from the mystique of authority in the Roman Catholic Church, and the peace and  joy within the soul  that are the fruits of such dissent and the rewards for walking in the footsteps of the Master. This is why when I heard this recent story of Father Roy Bourgeois, while I felt for his pain, I also rejoiced in his own 'exaltation' (if that is not too strong a word), and rejoiced for the Church as well, which only grows through suffering. He is being conformed to the pattern of Jesus' own dissent from the injustices of his day. What could be a more honorable path to follow than to be called to live 'outside the door' with the poor and the marginalized, while the rich and powerful feast at the table of the privileged within the  hallowed walls of the sacred institution. Paraphrasing Thomas Merton, cautious distrust of authority should be an essential element in the educational process of every newly catechized Christian. We are fallible human beings and collectively we tend to corrupt the very institutions designed to serve and transmit our most sacred values. This applies as much to the formal institution of the Church as a whole as it does to the phenomenon of the Marian apparitions, with all of their bizarre secondary offshoots.  An essential obligation of every conscientious Christian is to be constantly alert to the signs of such corruption, constantly on guard against the tendency to create false idols, and continually attentive to the gentle signs of the Spirit, calling us both to preserve the purity of the essential charism as well as to embody it in new forms more appropriate to the times. The fruits of the Spirit are peace and joy in the midst of trial and contradiction. Let us rejoice in the honor being given to these great dissenters of the faith.


Apr 7, 2011

The Three Mary's, the Dark Mother, and the Mists of Medjugorje

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.