A visit to Medjugorje

In the autumn of 1996 I took a ferry from Ancona across the Adriatic to Split. There was a reasonable swell, into which we heaved through the night. I slept little in the “aircraft style” seats, keeping an eye on my knapsack, in which all of my travelling possessions, and a significant portion of my worldly possessions were packed. I was travelling with cabin luggage only, which kept the volume down, and made the airports mercifully easy to leave. By dawn we were sailing down the Dalmatian coast. We moved in behind the shelter of the string of elongated islands that parallel the coast, and came into Split. I’d met a Kiwi on the boat who suggested we get accommodation together in Medjugorje. I agreed, having become all to aware of the cost of single rooms. It was a bad mistake.

From Split we took a bus down the spectacular coast road, and eventually turned inland. The Dayton Agreement had come into effect, and had formalised the borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Medjugorje was well inside the the country. The border was marked by a collection of armoured cars, some IFOR and others from one of the armed forces of the area. A soldier looked at passports on the bus, and we went on. As we moved further into the country, we passed through ruined villages, the houses pock-marked with bullets, some burned out shells showing the holes from the tank fire that had destroyed them.

We rolled into Medjugorje past an IFOR post, and found ourselves in back in Croatia. There were Croatian flags strung across the street, a Croatian police station, and a Croatian post office. So much for the Dayton Agreement.

There has been a lot of building over the past decade, to judge from recent photos. Even then it was a thriving pilgrimage centre, with plenty of accommodation and plenty of souvenir shops of a Catholic character. I immersed myself in the pilgrim’s round; my Kiwi companion looked for girls and drank a lot.

Pilgrimages in Medjugorje focus on the local church (St. James), Cross Mountain, and the Hill of Apparition (Podbrdo). Some kilometers away is the Franciscan monastery; the order is responsible for the parish. Father Jozo Zovko, OFM, who was the parish priest at the time of the first apparitions,played a prominent supportive role in the early years, and was still at the monastery in 1996.

The hills in the area are relatively new, geologically speaking. Layers of sediment had been slowly laid down and packed solid into laminates of rock. Then the whole structure had been broken up, and chunks of it thrown up at crazy angles to form those hills. Their slopes were faced with dragon’s teeth; the edges of the laminates exposed at sixty or seventy degrees, harrying travellers’ footfalls. Up these slopes the armies of pilgrims clambered.

Podbrdo was the lesser trial, because it is close to town, and the site of the apparitions is not far up the hill-side. The mysteries of the rosary were presented in bas-relief on large copper plates positioned along the circuit up to and back from the focal point. Cross Mountain was more arduous. It is further from the town, the mountain is higher, the way steeper, and the cross is right at the top. The path, as well-worn as the Podbrdo path, was marked with similar plates portraying the Stations of the Cross.

The church maintained a packed schedule of of morning and evening Masses in various languages. No sooner had one Mass finished than the next group would be pressing at the entrances. In between, the confessionals were busy, and often some visiting priest could be seen sitting outside in close conversation with a penitent.

After a day or two, I met a couple of backpackers from Oz. I’ll call them Grant and Adrian, because I have forgotten their names. They were from Adelaide. They had come in the hard way; from Macedonia, presumably through Serbia, into the shattered Sarajevo, where they had spent a night in their sleeping bags, and on through Mostar.

Adrian was a robust young Australian atheist, and Grant was an easy-going young Australian Catholic. He had an auntie who had been to Medjugorje, and who had told him about seeing the miracles of the sun. What’s more, she had the video to prove it. The combination proved irresistible to to Grant, so he had made a point of visiting on his backpacking travels. Adrian was just along for the ride.

I had heard many stories about the place, but the aunt’s video intrigued me. I was sceptical about it. It it existed, then the perceived behaviour of the sun was not some psychological effect—an explanation I rejected in any case— nor even a direct miraculous and simultaneous intervention in the perceptions of a large group of witnesses, but something far more puzzling. The easiest course was to discount the story.

Grant’s attitude was interesting. He arrived with an expectation of seeing miraculous events. That expectation virtually amounted to a demand, and when they did not immediately occur he began to express his disappointment. I was more circumspect, having no preconceptions.

I went up Podbrdo one afternoon, praying the Rosary in the desultory company of many other pilgrims, and I encountered a group who were excitedly examining the sun. “Oh yes, look at the colours.” So, with many others, I squinted into the brightness, hoping for some revelation, but being forced soon enough to look away. When I did, all I could see was the after-image. Then my prayers began in earnest. “Please don’t let me have damaged my eyes.” I walked past a little, old nun who had been engaged in the same squinting, to the same effect. Seated on a rock in front of her was a woman wearing a white T-shirt. “Oh, look,” said the nun, “her shirt has turned to gold!” A couple were walking past me at that moment. One whispered to the other, “Of course. You’ve been staring at the sun,” voicing my unspoken opinion.

I was by nature cautious of the power of desire over perception, and had long been a devotee of my unscientific notion of scientific method. At the time I began to open myself to spiritual experiences, I let the guard of my scepticism lower. As a result, I learned many things, most of them false.

I became involved with charismatic Christians, and relished the release in the mild ecstasies of speaking in tongues, and the mutual prayers for healing and the laying on of hands. One of the conventions of such prayer was “resting in the Spirit”. Under the influence of the Spirit, the prayee would, for what of a better word, faint. Such an outcome was known in the trade as being “slain in the Spirit”, with its overtones of baptism and resurrection. The slain one would then “rest” before arising refreshed.

Accordingly, the ritual of such prayer involved a “catcher”; it was a role I had often assumed. At the time I became involved, much of this procedure had become ritualised, and the slain ones would collapse just so, to be caught under the arms and lowered gently to the ground. After a seemly interval, they would stir again and, if necessary, be helped to their feet. The interval tended to vary directly with the abandonment of the collapse. I was frequently slain, my falling making no concessions to safety, and my resting being correspondingly longer. I became increasingly suspicious of myself, but, suspicious as I was, I could never resolve for myself the engine of this behaviour.

A few days into my visit, I joined one of many parties travelling to the monastery. We toured the monastery, visiting the outside cellar where a group of priests had been killed by occupying German troops during WWII. Afterwards we made our way into the church of the monastery, where we were treated to a long address by Fr Jozo. He and a few fellow priests than began the rounds of the pilgrims, praying a blessing for each. A young priest prayed over me, and was clearly startled when I keeled over. In doing so, I made the effort to twist a little, as I was aware there was no catcher. I was one of the very few that day who reacted so, and it was probably this priest’s first such experience.

A friend of mine had been in this same monastery some years before, when the fever was running higher. She was a long-time devout Catholic, and had been resistant to the charismatic influence. She also had strong opinions about the dangers of mobs and the herd mentality. All of her opinions were firmly held and firmly expressed. She had described her encounter with Fr Jozo to me before I left Australia. He was praying over people, and they were dropping like ninepins. As he approached her, she resolved not to fall, thinking the display to be, at the least, over the top. He reached her, and lifted his hand over her forehead. Before he touched her, she felt a bolt of energy and down she went. All I can say with certainty about my experience is that it was nothing like hers.

Because I was living out of cabin luggage, I had to wash clothes frequently. I often faced the problem of getting them dry in time to pack for the next day’s travels. In Medjugorje, I saw something I had never noticed at home. It was getting cooler, and during my stay I saw the first snow on the distant mountains. One morning I hung out some washing on the line on a balcony near the room. The sun was not long risen, and shone in the cool air directly on the clothes. Almost as soon as its light hit the very damp washing, water vapour began to rise like steam. For me, it was minor miracle of the sun.

I had been there for four or five days, and Grant, like me, had seen nothing. He was fuming. “If I don’t see anything, I’m going to tell everyone that Medjugorje is a fraud.” His attitude amazed me, and I thought, “That’s exactly the wrong attitude.” I saw him again that evening, and he was cock-a-hoop. “I’ve seen it.” What happened? He had gone to the church, feeling quite angry. He saw a priest, and collared him. The priest was English, and had come on pilgrimage a number of times. “Have you seen it?” “Yes, I have. In fact, I can now see it anywhere. I see it when I am at home.” “What do I have to do?” Outside the church was a crucifix. The priest suggested that Grant go there and pray, asking to be shown. He did, looked up, and saw an image in the sun. He rushed off to where he was staying with Adrian, and excitedly told him the news. Adrian looked, and he saw it too.

The next day was their last, and I met them in mid-afternoon on the way back from Cross Mountain. There was a layer of thin high cloud. I asked them if they could see anything. They both looked at the sun and described something that, as I recall, resembled a delta or triangle. They simply continued to look directly at the sun as they described it. I tried to do the same thing, but despite the haze of cloud, I could not stand to look, or squint, for more than a few seconds. For them there was no squinting, and seemingly no limit to the time they could spend looking into the sun.

This experience was invaluable for me. Walking beside these guys, I could detect nothing unusual, and, more telling for me, I simply could not look at the sun in that way. I had long thought that this one aspect of the phenomenon was a challenge to scepticism, but to see it demonstrated so immediately was startling. If this external evidence was irrefutable, why should I disbelieve their description of what they saw?

I still leaned to the view that the intervention occurred at the level of the individual. There is a variety of effects displayed by the sun; pulsing, moving erratically, displaying multiple colours, and containing images. In the latter case, there were differences in what image people saw. Many Catholics saw a host—the Blessed Sacrament—in the sun; Protestants might see some tri-partite image. In all cases, the sun and retinas don’t mix, so, unless some hitherto unexplored bodily process exists by which the eye can sometimes protect itself from such intense radiation, the effect is not psychological. I was still not prepared to entertain the prospect that such phenomena were external, “objective” realities, that Grant and Adrian, as they walked beside me, were perceiving a world every bit as concrete, every bit as real, as the one I perceive; every bit as real, but different.

In the back of my mind was the aunt’s video. It only came to the foreground when I went to the web to check some details for this posting. I found a YouTube link, and following it, I found a number of videos taken by Medjugorje pilgrims. Here are a some of them.

By the same token, here is an example where the observed phenomenon did not register on the video. The comments with the video explain the observations. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMPUR5EVPg4

It is trivial to fake such videos with current technology, and I do not offer any of them as evidence of the event portrayed. I simply say that this is the kind of video that Grant’s aunt took, and I now must come to terms with the fact that such events are recordable. It throws all of my previous thinking about these phenomena into disarray. It is as though a parallel world has been revealed to some, including Grant and Adrian, and kept hidden from others, including me. The fact that no explanation is likely in terms of the tools of our understanding of the physical environment underlines the limitations I had already detected in such tools and the philosophy they expressed.

My Kiwi roommate, as I said, drank a lot. He spent every evening in a bar, and would come back to the room late and drunk. We had found a double room in a house down the road a little from the Post Office and the bus station, on the road by which we entered the town. It was run by a middle-aged woman who seemed to have the care of a couple of children. She spoke very little English, and a neighbour translated for her.

On what was supposed to be our last night there, he came back very late and very drunk, waking me when he came in. Some time later, I was woken again by his jumping out of bed swearing at the unknown person who had “pissed in me bed”. He flipped the mattress over, collapsed on the bed, and went out again like a light. In the morning, I decided to act as though nothing had happened. We packed and left the proprietor to find the mattress and the crumbs from meals of bread and cold meats, a mess to which I had contributed.

I can’t remember why, but I decided to stay another night, so in the evening I went back to see if I could get a single room. The owner was clearly very unhappy to see me, and I felt a surge of guilt for not offering to help clean up the Kiwis’ bed. She let me a room though, for which I was extremely grateful.

I left the next morning, and was treated to another view of the glorious Dalmatian coast from the bus. In Split, waiting for the ferry, I gave some money to one of the beggars, and was soon surrounded by a small group whom I had to refuse. There was a market, and I bought a pair of “genuine Levis”, which was so ill-fitting that, back in Italy, I had to perform surgery with my tiny Victorinox scissors, a needle and thread in order to make them wearable. They saw me through the rest of the trip though.

I ran into the Kiwi again in Jerusalem in company with a young woman, whom he had presumably asked to share accommodation with him. Small world.

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