06 November 2012

Conversations with Mary

I come from a very Catholic family; i.e. my mother is very Catholic and by extension so I am. So I grew up watching Jesus of Nazareth every single Good Friday and10 Commandments every Palm Sunday, Song of Bernadette is one of my favorite movies, I was totally freaked out by Agnes of God, I can pray the Rosary in five languages, and I attend Latin Mass as a rule. However I did quit CCD (Catholic Christian Doctrine) classes when I was in the third grade or so because, as I told my mom, "All we do is color pictures of Jesus and it's stupid." Catholics receive a lot of the sacraments as they go through CCD so my sister, brother, and I missed out on a lot of them. I remember once when I was in junior high or so, Mom dragged us all into church early before mass, shoved us at our priest and said "They haven't made their first confession yet. Go."

Thankfully the trauma of CCD and first confession didn't stop my religious development and I was confirmed when I was in high school. But, and I kid not, during confirmation classes we colored pictures of Jesus.

From my mom I also developed a devotion to Mary. Mostly that means I try to say the Rosary often but it also means that I developed a fascination for Marian apparitions. Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe are the ones most people have heard of. There's also Kibeho, Laus, Knock, Akita and believe it or not, Wisconsin. There are many, many others but the one I learned the most about while growing up was Medjugorje (MED-jew-gore-je), Yugoslavia (now Bosnia Herzegovina). And the reason I learned so much about this one was because the apparitions started in the 1980s and the visionaries aren't a whole lot older than I am. So when KMac told me that she found a Croatian family that takes tours of pilgrims to Medjugorje, I was thrilled.

Podbrdo-Apparition Hill
I had no idea what to expect really. I'd never been on an organized tour before let alone a pilgrimage. The fun started in the Philly airport as soon as KMac and I realized that were were on average 35 years younger (in some cases 50!) than everyone else. She and I spent a little too much at the airport wine bar before boarding the flight* figuring we'd need the bolster.

We started right out with a prayer at the gate (one of our number was an 82 year old retired priest). Then (after a loooong lay over in Frankfurt before transferring to Split, Croatia) more prayers and roasaries on the bus from Split to Medjugorje. 

Joyful Mystery #1 - The Annunciation
We got in late the first day, and it was raining, so after exploring the (still) small town of Medjugorje we turned in early to sleep off the jet lag. Big day tomorrow!

Our first full day in Medjugorje we left after the 10 AM daily English Mass to climb Podbrdo (PODE-brr-do), or Apparition Hill. This is where Our Lady first appeared to the visionaries (check out the full story: Medjugorje). In the time since, the hill has been turned into a rosary walk with beautiful sculptures marking each of the 15 mysteries. The walk winds up and around the hill actually in the shape of a rosary.

People praying at the apparition site

About halfway through the Sorrowful Mysteries there is a side path that takes you to the actual site of the apparitions. Here they have built a statue of Mary to commemorate her appearance and people find places among the rocks to sit or kneel and pray.

Statue commemorating the apparition

There are signs here, and everywhere really with reminders to be quite because these are holy places where people are worshiping. Interestingly...the signs are all in Croatian-and Italian. If you're reading this and you're Italian I mean no insult; but Italian pilgrims in Medjugorje are loud, rude, and never shut up.

View of Medjugorje from Podbrdo
The climb up Podbrdo is not easy. There is no actual path other than the part of the hill that's been cleared of brush and trees. But it is still just the side of a mountain covered in mud and sharp, jagged rocks that have become slippery after tens of thousands of pilgrims made their way up and down the hill over the last 20 years.

Naturally, I was pretty darn sure I was going to fall and break open my head. My track record speaks for itself. We were maybe five feet from the bottom of the hill and just as I was prematurely congratulating myself for having made it up and down the hill incident free...when KMac fell! Both of us were shocked it wasn't me.

"Satan was going to throw one of us down that hill and God said ' Throw Kim. At least it will be funny, and she won't try to kill herself by slicing herself open,'". - KMac

She actually injured herself pretty badly and we had to go to the Malteesers for treatment. Not Malteesers as in the candy, Malteesers as in the people from Malta. They run a free clinic in Medjugorje. KMac's knee looked really bad and there was an area of her leg that was totally numb; so I was convinced she had compartment syndrome that I should help by slicing open her leg to relieve the pressure and save her life.

She vetoed this most firmly.

Outdoor alter at Saint James

It was amazing how accustomed I became to daily mass, rosary, and devotions. In fact, we went to mass twice a day! 10 AM was in English and 6 PM, after the 5 PM Rosary, was in Croatian but simultaneous interpretations were offered by Radio Mir in over a dozen languages.

Me in front of St. James cathedral

Every day we went to a talk,  met with a visionary or a villager who had supported the visionaries, or went with our group to pray the Stations of the Cross or visit the local cemetery. I do enjoy cemeteries.

Kinda creepy, no?
Our days in Medjugorje followed a pattern: breakfast at 8; Mass at 10; talk and/or other activity from 11-2; amazing lunch at 2; free until 5; Rosary, Mass, prayers for the sick; then group gathering at one of the local restaurants, Tomato.

Iced coffee
The staff at Tomato knew our tour leaders quite well and were always very nice and accommodating to our group. Apparently each of Mir Peace's (our tour group) groups gets a different nick name, ours was the 'laughing' group. Who knew old ladies were that hilarious? At every group activity and meal we were always doubled over in laughter.

Crowd waiting to hear Vicka
One morning we left early because we heard that Vicka, one of the visionaries who is still visited every day by the Blessed Mother, would be speaking in the next village. The crowd we amazing proving that, even in October when the weather is unpredictable, pilgrims come in droves.

The visionary Vicka

She was amazing; so beautiful and she never stopped smiling and just glowed. It was absolutely inspiring listening to her speak. We also got a private meeting with another of the visionaries, Ivanka. Ivanka, while she no longer received daily visits, continues to receive annual visits and spreads Our Lady's message across the world.

Risen Christ statue-it drips healing oil from the knees

We had one free day while on the trip. A big group took a van to Dubrovnik but, since I'd already been and was in no mood for a 6 hour round trip by van, we stayed behind an a small group of is went to a nearby Ethno Selo, or ethnic village.

Ethno Selo

Shop selling olive oils and brandies

The village is a recreation of what a Croatian village would have looked like back when. The buildings are mostly shops selling art or Croatian specialties like flavored brandy. It's also a hotel and spa where you can go relax and rejuvenate your body and spirit before going to Medjugorje to rejuvenate your soul.

Olive tree

There is naturally also a restaurant where we lunched. I can't even describe the amount of food I ate while in Medjugorje. It's been more than two years since I was last in the region and I have missed the food terribly. Shima, the women who hosted us, is an amazing cook and I stuffed myself every lunch. It was the lunch at the Ethno Selo though that really put me in Seventh Heaven. Mixed Grill. I haven't had mixed grill since years.

Mixed grill!
Mixed grill is exactly what it sounds like-a giant platter or all sorts of grilled meats. Sausages, steaks, pork, chicken, meat filled with cheese...drool. I was so excited to dive into the platter that I forgot to take a picture until I came up for air. It was incredible.

One of the many 'be quite you Italians' signs

Because Satan threw KMac down Podbrdo, we could not climb Cross Mountain later that week. I was not saddened by this at all. Cross Mountain is higher, rockier, more dangerous, and higher than Podbrdo. Broken limbs are not unusual. Obviously not a good place for me to be. Instead of climbing to the top we made our way to the base to pray and be reflecty.

Base of Cross Mountain
The last day of our trip was spent on the Croatian coast. I know, the hardship.This was to give us a chance to relax and let the week in Medjugorje sink in.

The drive to Makarska, Croatia, took a couple hours. There was no time to be bored though, not with the view we had!

Also super glad I was not doing any of this driving.

Makarska is a lovely town on the Adriatic. KMac and I even found a house for sale that we would like to buy. We're taking donations so we can afford the rather low ticket price of just $275,000. Those who donate more than $50,000 get to use the house (at our discretion)!

The Titanik. Awesome

The mountains surrounding Makarska are so high, and the clouds so low, that we couldn't even see the tops of the mountain that day.

Slightly more majestic ships...

Makarska's main church

Main village square
In Medjugorje you can use Bosnian Marks, USD, or Euro but when we got to Croatia we had to change money to the local Kuna. Before leaving DC I dug through my Jason Borne folder (where I keep my passports and foreign money) and grabbed the envelopes holding regional money. I had some Marks left over from a trip three-four years ago and Kuna from two years ago. I also grabbed the envelope of Serbian Dinar. I've got thousands in dinars which translates to a couple hundred USD; so I thought it wouldn't hurt to bring them and see if I could exchange them. Nope. The exchange office not only wouldn't take them but almost wouldn't exchange the dollars I had after I'd asked!

On the way from Makarska to Kastela we stopped at a Lourdes shrine. Lourdes is probably the most popular and well-known of all the apparitions and there are shrines and churches around the world dedicated to it.

Recreation of the Lourdes grotto
The funniest moment of the trip happened while we were here. Amongst the visitors were a bride and groom with a photography team. At first we were thinking what a perfect place this would be for wedding photos. Then the bride started striking some rather inappropriate for the site sexy poses. We were pretty sure this was not part of a wedding, rather a magazine shoot.

At one point, the "bride" was draped along a low wall with the groom standing off in the distance and the photogs snapping away. Into this tableau walked our retired priest. When he was halfway pas the "bride" he turned to her and blessed her and then just walked on. The rest of our group was nearly in hysterics we were laughing so hard. About five minutes later the 'nearly' was no longer a factor after our priest asked us all if 'we saw that poor bride who had fainted?' Then the hysterics were real.

Saint Bernadette gazing at Our Lady
After we got to Kastela we all went our own way to enjoy the water and the beautiful sunset.

Love that the trees are being propped up

Sunset on the Adriatic

Splashing in the Adriatic :)
The hotel we stayed in was nice but I do have two pieces of advice for the owners:

1. Do not put random lofts that serve no purpose in guest rooms. We were pretty convinced there might be a serial killer up there. Although I suppose after a week long religious pilgrimage we'd have died in a state fairly close to grace...

Random loft in our room
2. Never, I repeat, NEVER decorate with horror images.

Are you kidding?!
Because KMac and I both exchanged too much into Kuna and didn't have much else to spend it on, we just kept buying bottles of wine from the hotel bar until we were broke. It also helped us cope with the possible serial killer hiding in the room and the clown. In fact; it was probably a serial killer clown.

How we spent our night in Kastela!
Since I got back a lot of people have asked me, not only how my trip was, but how it was, and what on earth do you 'get' from a pilgrimage? So I say that clowns and serial killers aside it was a wonderful trip. I went into it pretty trepidatiously. I like to think that I'm a pretty religious person but I'm generally turned off by the super excited religious folks. I like to call them Jesus with jazz hands. I was worried that might be the type of person on the trip but thankfully no. Everyone was pretty 'normal', really nice, and even after spending a week entirely in the group's company were we sad to part from some of them. Also Mir Peace, a small organization run by the Croatian family we went with was fantastic. I'd originally tried to convince KMac that we didn't need a group and could just go on our own. Without Mir Peace though we'd never have met some of the visionaries, never had Shima's heavenly cooking, and would have had a far less fulfilling trip. If anyone is interested in going to Medjugorje, I really recommend going with MIR Peace and I'll email you their info if you want it!

Did I receive any personal revelation or miracles? No. Am I disappointed? Actually no. I was hoping to come home with some sort of conversion which I didn't, but I have made some small changes in my life. I discovered while there and now pray the Peace Rosary every day which I think is really something I can keep up. I'm also trying to stop avoiding people I don't like and being nicer to them. Which is not really something I think I can keep up. Trying counts though, right?

I'm still very glad and kind of in awe that I went. Will I go again? I do hope so but I would like to wait until I can take my mom. Will I go 44 times like on of the ladies in our group? No. Especially if it means that I have to climb Cross Mountain during each subsequent trip!

*Usually I fly United out of DC because I mostly travel for work which is USG funded and I have to comply with the evil Fly America Act. So knowing how crap United is I was not really looking forward to my first US Airways flight, assuming it would be even worse. I LOVE US Airways! None of that bogus 'economy plus' crap; all the seats were equally roomy, possibly more so than econ plus, attendants were friendly, and the entertainment system was one of type where you have a library of movies and TV shows to watch! Granted the food was equally as bad and they charge(?!) for headphones...but I am definitely going to try to travel more often on US Airways!

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