Friday, September 28, 2012
My Conversion Story (II.)
(Continued from I.)
At breakfast that first day in Medjugorje, sis and I met the others staying at our guesthouse. They included a priest (Fr. Pat), two farm boys, a couple of women who had been there before, a few older women, Mario my roommate who seemed “curious” like me, and Vincent, who quickly told us: “I don’t believe any of this stuff. But I am newly retired and was getting in my wife’s hair, and so she insisted I take this trip.” Ah! A man of my own heart, a skeptic. In all, there were seven men and six women in our group.
The village itself was very hilly. Except for the church and its courtyard, everything else was up and down. Sis was out of shape, and as we walked the hills she stopped often to rest. That first night we went to evening mass in the church of St. James, and found it was a standing room only event. We arrived early enough to be in a pew that first evening, but I was embarrassed at all the elderly people and villagers who had to stand. I don’t recall what exactly was special about that first night, but sis and I never did do the “tourist thing” we had planned on the way over. (There weren’t any cabs to be had in the village anyway.) But we did go to that three-hour evening service, the one we had planned to attend only once, each and every night of the eight days we were there, and I knelt the three hours each night on the church’s concrete floor.
The children (then in their teens) were in the church choir loft away from the tourists, and Mary was said to be appearing to them there each night as we prayed the rosary after mass. I can’t adequately describe those nights; the whole place just felt so holy, and we felt so blessed to be there. The nightly mass had many concelebrants --- there were priests from around the world there. We went to a couple of the afternoon English masses, and Fr. Pat celebrated a private mass for our house one day.
During the day, we were led to the homes of the children who were seeing Mary, and through a translator they patiently answered all our questions --- which they must have heard hundreds of times before. We walked through grape and tobacco fields and on day 1 we climbed the hill where the apparitions first occurred. At the half way point up was a small cross with a legend: “Adhere to the words of Our Lady or face the wrath of Christ.” Sis had to stop at this point as did her more elderly roommate, but I went on to the top. There was a cross there also, to mark the spot where it all started. Comments in my picture book from then note: “Mary promises a major miracle, at this site, that will convert atheists and stand for all time.”
We climbed “Cross Hill” on the 4th day there. A narrow, steep rocky path wound its way up; it was very slow going. There were rest points along the way, at which were erected small markers for the 14 Stations of the Cross. Sis only made it to the 5th Station, and only 7 of the 19 who started out made it all the way to the top. Vincent, the total non-believer (like me) made it: “My doctor is going to say THIS was a miracle.” The huge concrete cross there had this engraving: “To Jesus Christ, Savior of Mankind. As a sign of their faith, love, and hope. Was built by the parish of the people of Medjogorje 9/14/33. Save us from every evil, Oh Jesus.”
Standing by the cross, I took in the sight of the tiny village far below, and I looked at my tired (now) friends. And although awestruck by the downward view, I was more awestruck looking up at the huge cross. Who were these people in 1933, who could haul tons of concrete and water up here, a very hard two-hour climb, to create this monument? My analytical mind took all this in; it didn’t make sense. This was insane. It was all insane, I thought, including those slow-climbing women we were passing (again) on our way down. It was around noon. Dressed all in black, they had begun their slow climb up the steep rocky path at daybreak --- on their knees. I stopped, and looking at them and very their visible faith, something came over me, and for the first time I cried, and I didn’t know why. Something was happening here, and to me.
I was to shed many more tears that week.
We heard much talk of miracles at Medjugorje, beyond the apparitions. There were reported medical cures and the pile of crutches left there, other people who said they also had seen Mary, and many others had witnessed the “miracle of the sun,” where it grew larger and radiated lights in all colors, as people stared directly at it with no damage to their eyesight. One afternoon, after I had spent time alone praying in the church, I met sis and her roommate outside. They told me that they had looked up toward the huge concrete cross overlooking the village and had seen a large halo around it. Kneeling down, they saw lights of many colors radiate from the halo, and the vision went on for a number of minutes. They began praying the rosary aloud, and were surprised to hear others, kneeling around them, respond. Many were seeing the same sight. Sis was so happy! And so was I.
I personally never did see a miracle while I was there. I prayed in the church that I would not. I now believed in the events, the apparitions, which were occurring there, but I wanted to see no miracles to prove it to me. I didn’t want to be like my namesake, a “doubting Thomas,” who had to see to believe. And then one afternoon, overcome by all these events, I knelt in the church and prayed that God would change my life. I accepted that I was not correctly using the many talents He had given me; my life was yielding no fruit. And so I gave my life, my will, to Him. “Not my will, but Thy will be done in me.” And I promised if He would show me what He wished me to do, I would do it. My life had begun to change.
Everyone of the group of thirteen who stayed in our guesthouse in 1987 felt their life had changed during our visit. Vincent, the reluctant traveler, couldn’t contain his amazement: “We have to tell everyone about this place.” On the last night before flying home we discussed that living our faith would be more important than talking about this place. And that last morning in Medjugorje, as we walked for the final time the half mile to church, we passed Duane, the farm boy who once confided to me what a great sinner he was. Duane was proceeding to church much more slowly than us, on his knees.
I never went back to Medjugorje. I always thought of it as a turning point in my life. I’d like to think I’ve grown in holiness since then, although the Lord --- and Mary --- know I’ve much more growing to do. I’ve been blessed to see and feel many miracles since then --- including the changing of a silver rosary to gold, something my wife wanted to rush to the jewelers to verify. We’re divorced now. But maybe this was part of a plan also.
On one of the last days at Medjugorje, I insisted that sis and her roommate, Jean, climb the “smaller” hill of the original apparitions which I had climbed that first day. Both begged: “No, we can’t,” but I insisted they could do it, “no matter how long it took.” It was a long climb, a very slow climb, and we made many rest stops along the way. But sis and Jean did make it to the top. And they stopped and prayed, they cried and hugged one another, and me. I’ve given many gifts to people and causes in my life, but I never felt so appreciated as I did that day. I corresponded with Jean for many years afterward, until I received the letter from her children that said they were now caring for her, as her mind and body were failing.
Sis is gone now, and so is Jean. I’m sure they pray for me. I talk to sis sometimes, perhaps even more now than when she was alive. She’s saving a place for me. I know it. And so is my Mother, Mary. I still say three Hail Mary’s to her each night.
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God and His Mother have been very good to me. They dragged me to a place and events where I could not avoid admitting that, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t leading such a good life. And I agreed to change, if they’d help me. If you should ever feel them asking you to change, my friends, don’t be afraid to get down on your knees also and ask: “What would you have me do? Show me, and I promise I will do it.” And I’m sure they will show you the way also --- and you will find joy and purpose in your travels through this world. Travels to home, where they --- and all our loved ones --- will be waiting.
I hope to see you there.