A Pilgrim in Progress

Medjugorye, the town where I’m headed, appears as a small dot on the map of eastern Bosnia-Herzogovina. I struggle to pronounce the name. Medju in Croatian and Serbian means between. Gorye means mountains. To get there I travel by train from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, through the Neretva Valley. The dark river cuts through the jagged limestone mountains, like wire through cheese, hewing a path through massive stone outcroppings, some of which hang precariously over the water. Others protrude from the mountainside looking as if enormous stone fists from within the mountain had tried to punch through. in Croatian and Serbian means between. Gorye means mountains. To get there I travel by train from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, through the Neretva Valley. The dark river cuts through the jagged limestone mountains, like wire through cheese, hewing a path through massive stone outcroppings, some of which hang precariously over the water. Others protrude from the mountainside looking as if enormous stone fists from within the mountain had tried to punch through.

Fog hovers in the dark valleys, hangs over the water, rises and falls as if it were breathing. I’m entering a world of tremendous beauty and heartache, a haunted world bearing wounds. The crumbled remains of bombed houses and barns dot the hillsides, a grim reminder of the war in 1992 in which so many lost their lives. But atrocity, I read in my travel guide, is nothing new in this part of the country. In 1941, the Ustashe, a Croatian ultranationalist group, rounded up Serbian monks from a nearby threw them into pits not far from Medjugoriye. A few months later, thirteen hundred Serbian civilians were, like the monks, thrown into pits and left to die. Forty years later, against this backdrop of violence, six teenagers living in Medjugorye saw Mary. These sightings would no doubt have been dismissed as a hoax, or the collective hallucination of suggestible teenagers, had not Mary continued to visit these mystics, now in their early fifties, over a period of many years.

Since the first sightings over thirty million people have journeyed to Medjugorye, about one million each year. My reason for traveling three thousand miles to this remote pilgrimage site is, by my own estimation, ambiguous. I could say I am a pilgrim by proxy. A good friend of mine had for many years wanted to come. For a variety of reasons, she couldn’t, and I could. But, as I walk from the tiny bus station toward the Catholic church where throngs of pilgrims cluster beside the outdoor stalls, I know I don’t belong here.

Raised a Presbyterian, I learned to love the quiet, somber God of the Presbyterians. That God crept silently from one stained glass pane to another, casting long swaths of colored light in the air, over the pews, the clean floor, our shoulders. After ten years at that church, our family left and joined a Pentecostal assembly. I loved and feared the God of the Pentecostals. This God rushed like wind, alighted as fire, visited people in dreams and delivered prophetic messages. Some years later, I put the Penteccostal Assembly behind me and went to graduate writing school. But as I passed the Catholic church on my way to classes each day, I thought of my friend. I remembered her fierce intellectual and spiritual enquiry and how it led her to the Catholicism. I remembered her devotion and how for her, the church was a sanctuary and refuge. At that point in my life, I needed a refuge. I was in an abusive relationship and I was not thriving in graduate school. Rather than buckle down and prove to the program director how serious I was about writing, I took at job at a Cheese and Puppet shop, enrolled in Russian language classes, attended martial arts classes to help me get the courage to ditch the fiance, and the joined the Roman Catholic Initiation class at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.

The little parish of St. Thomas Aquinas became the oasis in my spiritual desert, a burning coal in the deep mid winter of my heart. I loved old white-haired Father Dismus and how he skipped down the aisle for the alter. I loved the other parishioners and the pursuit of the holy amidst the profane and ordinary. I loved their deep generosity. And then, as I so often did, I left.

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