Sunday, August 31, 2014

Medjugorje's Apparition Hill: Encountering Our Lady's Presence

A photo of Apparition Hill at sunrise
Apparition Hill (Brdo Ukazanja) just after sunrise

Apparition Hill (Brdo Ukazanja) in Medjugorje is one of, if not "the" most sought after locations in Medjugorje and for good reason, it is where Our Lady first appeared to the six visionaries on June 24, 1981.

Marking the spot of Our Lady's appearance is a beautiful white statue surrounded by a protective star shaped fence. Although Apparition Hill continues on for several more meters above this location, the spot of Our Lady's initial appearance is the "spiritual summit" that all pilgrims strive to reach when making this climb.

I had the pleasure of visiting and remaining at this location for countless hours during my pilgrimage this summer and today's post shares some of my experiences. In so doing, I hope it will not only help recapture the spirit of Medjugorje for those who have been there, but also encourage those who are considering a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, a place that truly is as Saint Pope John Paul II has put it, "the spiritual center of the world." 

I don't think enough can be said about Medjugorje and the pilgrimage sites, of which Apparition Hill has a special significance. All of us who have gone to Medjugorje have done so accepting Our Lady's invitation. It is an acceptance of Our Lady who is the first message of all the messages she has given us; that is, Our Lady is Our Mother who is present and she is calling us.

This is the primary reason why many pilgrims, the overwhelming majority, go to Medjugorje. The statue at Apparition Hill is a visible symbol and beautiful reminder not only of the initial apparition, but of Our Lady's invitation to each and every one of us. Our Lady's continues to invite us and make her presence known with her monthly and annual apparition messages and her daily appearances to three of the six visionaries: Ivan, Marija and Vicka.

The view of Our Lady's statue from the main climbing path
The view of Our Lady's statue on approach from the last Joyful Mystery plaque

Upon my arrival in Medjugorje in late June of this year, I was very drawn to Apparition Hill. It was only a few days after my arrival with the pilgrimage group that I came to Medjugorje with, that our local guide scheduled a climb.

The enthusiasm of reaching the "spiritual summit" was evident amongst the group with our energetic and joyful demeanour. Our facial expressions were but a glimpse of the joy we were about to experience of this much anticipated climb that was fully realized upon arrival at Our Lady's statue. Guided by one of Medjugorje's best guides, our initial climb was truly a very special experience. 

Very much in the same way that Cross Mountain (Križevac) has bronze plaques for each of the Stations Cross, so too Apparition Hill invites pilgrims to a spiritual climb with bronze plaques of the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries of the Rosary.

Approximately half up Apparition Hill, pilgrims will see a large wooden cross, marking the spot where Our Lady appeared to Marija on the third day of the apparitions, saying to her "Peace, peace and only peace."

Our guide led our Rosary recitation with beautiful reflections that made this group recitation of the Rosary the best I had ever experienced. Our recitation ended with the the Joyful Mysteries and it is at this point that we made our way to the statue of Mary. 

The ending of the Joyful Mysteries plaques affords pilgrims the choice of proceeding with the Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries, taking pilgrims further up the hill or making a horizontal break toward the statue of Mary.

If pilgrims decide to continue with the other sets of the Rosary mysteries, the placement of Rosary plaques eventually leads pilgrims to the statue of Mary, looping around the hill through an alternate and longer route. Our guide’s intention, as he made it known from the beginning, was to take us to the statue of Mary and rightly so, as this is the prime location and main purpose of climbing Apparition Hill.

At Apparition Hill awaiting Our Lady's appearance to Ivan.
At Apparition Hill for Ivan's apparition

On another day, our pilgrim group made a second climb up Apparition Hill to the statue of Our Lady, but this time the encounter with Our Lady was to be a much more profound experience. The reason being was that we were going to be present during an actual apparition to the visionary Ivan.

The apparition occurred well into the evening around 10:00pm and Apparition Hill was "packed" with pilgrims from all over the world. Our group arrived at approximately 6:00pm only to be met with thousands of pilgrims who had already stationed themselves well in advance. The above photo depicts part of the scene. That is me in the black shirt and shorts with the Rosary in my hand, looking straight ahead at the statue of Our Lady.

Together with my fellow pilgrims I recited the Rosary and we were just a few among many groups doing likewise in many languages. In addition, songs of praise were sung to Our Lady in anticipation of her arrival. It was an absolutely amazing experience! To have been in Medjugorje, on Apparition Hill only 50m away from Our Lady and to have prayed to her as she appeared was a gift that one only hopes for. 

The statue of Our Lady at Apparition HIll
A closer view of Our Lady's statue

By the first week of July, the second week of my pilgrimage, I frequently ventured up Apparition Hill by myself with the hope of entering into a time of divine intimacy with Our Lady. I was not disappointed.

Many of the pilgrims who were in Medjugorje in late June were there for the thirty-third anniversary of the apparitions. Within the first few days of July, there was a noticeable departure of pilgrims and much to my pleasant surprise, the opportunity for quiet and personal time at the various pilgrimage sites increased dramatically. Many times I was alone or with only three or four other individuals. The photo above depicts one of these moments; one of many gifts that I had received.

It wasn't long before I had established my "prayer spot" on Apparition Hill where I could sit, pray and converse with Our Lady. The first photo included in this blog post captures the view from my favourite spot, approximately 20m away from the statue.

In addition to peaceful prayer, this location afforded me a wonderful panoramic view of Medjugorje, the surrounding mountains and valley below. This is definitely the location to encounter Our Lady's presence in Medjugorje.

The beautiful prayer time I experienced, one that was undisturbed and totally focussed was no doubt a shared experience with many who have been there. To be in conversation with Our Lady, to be able to "pray with the heart,” was a beautiful gift. Only those who have been there fully understand the divine intimacy available to all who visit this grace-filled region. For those that have yet to go to Medjugorje, this is what awaits you.

Although pilgrims will find Apparition Hill to be a much easier climb than Cross Mountain, it requires your undivided attention to ensure a safe ascent and back down to the base.

Apparition Hill is not as steep as Križevac, but pilgrims are still confronted by a non-negotiable rocky terrain. Providing some temporary relief are a few clearings, but hardly worth mentioning as the majority of this climb is a continuous series of challenging steps on rocks of all shapes and sizes. It is due to this inhospitable terrain that makes Apparition Hill's recitation of the Rosary a much more beneficial experience; a time that invites pilgrims to enter into the spirit of prayer right from the beginning of the climb.

If you have been to Medjugorje and climbed Apparition Hill, I hope this post has rekindled the spirit of Medjugorje in your life and that it may spread to everyone connected to you.

For those who are considering going, on route or scheduled go, expect to encounter Our Lady's presence at Apparition Hill because Our Lady is Our Mother, she is there and she is calling you!

Hvaljen Isus i Marija (Praised be Jesus and Mary)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Medjugorje's Cross Mountain: The Way of The Cross

A photo of Cross Mountain taken from Apparition Hill.
Cross Mountain (Križevac), captured from Apparition Hill (Brdo Ukazanja) 

In Medjugorje there are a few key locations that pilgrims should frequent and one of these is Križevac or Cross Mountain. It towers 1760 feet above sea level and has at its summit a large concrete cross, the final destination of all who climb it.

The cross was built in 1933, to commemorate the 1900 anniversary of Christ's passion. Completed in 1934, a local tradition was established to celebrate Mass once a year on September 14, in honour of the feast of the Triumph of The Holy Cross. In addition, this year being the twenty-fifth anniversary of Medjugorje's International Youth Festival, a Mass was celebrated at the top of Cross Mountain on August 6, by Fr. Marinko Sakota, the parish priest of Medjugorje, to close out the festival.

View of the valley of Medjugorje between the 7 & 8 Stations of the Cross
Between the seventh and eighth stations during my first climb up Križevac (Cross Mountain)

Cross Mountain has both a physical and spiritual dimension. The climb up Cross Mountain is quite a challenging one due to its steepness and the rocky terrain. There are no man made paths and coupled with an abundance of rocks in all sorts of shapes and sizes, this climb requires pilgrims to have all their wits about them.

Many of the rocks have become smooth over the years from the millions of pilgrims making the same journey, which makes climbing Cross Mountain especially dangerous in the rain. I experienced such inhospitable conditions during one of my climbs, approximately half way up the mountain when it began to rain. It did not detract from my spiritual focus, but it did put me to task to ensure I was prudent and cautious about my climb.

The descent down to the base of Cross Mountain does not offer much consolation to pilgrims. At times, negotiating this rocky landscape can be a series of challenging steps without a flat base to land on. One needs to be careful of leaping down from rock to rock to avoid sore knees. Maintaining a steady pace on the way down will help to ensure a safe return to the base. In my own experience, what ever the physical challenges were at each climb, in no way were they an impediment to the spiritual dimension.

In front of the 13 Station of the Cross
Two of my fellow pilgrims at the thirteenth Station: Jesus is Taken From The Cross

The spiritual dimension of Cross Mountain is one of prayer not only at its summit, but throughout the climb, especially the Stations of The Cross. To aid pilgrims in their penitential climb up the mountain, there are bronze plaques for each Station of the Cross, with an additional special commemorative boulder for Franciscan Father Slavko Barbaric, who died at the spot of the boulder on November 24, 2000.

Father Slavko is a legend in the Medjugorje community, a Franciscan friar whose tireless work produced so many spiritual fruits for locals and pilgrims. In addition to establishing Majčino Selo (Mother's Village)—a place for war orphans, children from separated families, unwed mothers, elderly abandoned persons and sick children—Fr. Slavko has written books such as In The School of Love and Pray With The Heart, and several others which have been translated into twenty languages with over twenty million copies sold.

For those who are currently in Medjugorje, I highly recommend you purchase both aforementioned books at the Franciscan Book Store adjacent to the Information Center. Father Slavko's writings properly prepare pilgrims to enter into the spirit of prayer at Cross Mountain, Apparition Hill, the Blue Crosses, at Mass, before confession, for morning and evening prayers and the recitation of the Rosary. Both books were essential companions during my pilgrimage this summer.

My initial climb up Cross Mountain was part of a group effort, guided by one of Medjugorje's best guides, who did an excellent job of introducing the spiritual dimension of the climb by providing us with meditations and prayers at each Station of The Cross. We were further encouraged by our guide to hold Our Lady's "little stone," the Rosary in our hands and recite it as we ascended to each successive station.

This initial climb was a very special one. It was a wonderful gift from God to journey up the mountain with like-minded Catholics, all of whom were called by Our Lady to journey together during that grace filled time in our lives. Accepting Our Lady's call to Medjugorje entailed many things and the climb up Cross Mountain was just one of them.

Each of my climbs up Cross Mountain were peaceful hours in prayer, in divine intimacy with Jesus and Mary. I am not sure that there are words to adequately describe the peaceful feeling of each step of the climb. The best way to understand this is to experience it yourself.

After my initial experience climbing up Cross Mountain, I decided to frequent Križevac many times during my pilgrimage. Most of my climbs were done on an individual basis accompanied by the prayers and meditations of Saint Alphonsus Liguori's Way of the Cross. These prayers and meditations were a perfect companion during my climbs.

No matter how many times you climb Križevac, it will always be a challenging climb. Certainly if you climb it frequently enough, your physical conditioning will make it somewhat less challenging, but what really makes each successive climb so much easier than the previous one, is the spiritual aspect of it.

From my own experience, it was only after a few climbs that the physical challenges were hardly a concern. My greatest and overwhelming thought each time I approached the base of Cross Mountain was about the spiritual journey of this penitential climb, to encounter Jesus and Mary anew in a more profound way.

A photo of two fellow pilgrims completing the climb of Cross Mountain.
Two of my fellow pilgrims arriving back down at the base of the mountain.

Cross Mountain is a great climb any time of the day, but I found an afternoon climb to be the most preferable. The physical requirements coupled with the intense heat of the day were perfect compliments to enter into the spirit of prayer and share in what Christ suffered from the house of Pilate to Calvary. To keep myself well hydrated I also made sure to include a large bottle of cold water during each one of my climbs.

If you have recently arrived in Medjugorje, are on route or scheduled to go, I highly recommend that you climb Cross Mountain. All of my climbs were a grace-filled time of peace that made this penitential climb a joy.

I hope this will be your experience as well. May each one of your visits to Cross Mountain be a safe and spiritually beneficial time for you and your fellow pilgrims.

Kraljica Mira, moli za nas (Queen of Peace, pray for us)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Medjugorje's Blue Crosses: A Time of Divine Intimacy

The Second Blue Cross, where Our Lady appears each month to the visionary Mirjana.

It seems only fitting that with today being the Solemnity of The Assumption of Mary, I resume my blogging effort by honouring Our Lady with a post that shares some of the grace-filled experiences during my stay in Medjugorje.

In Medjugorje, there are several locations where one can experience divine intimacy, one such place is at the "Blue Crosses." As one who has had the privilege of spending many hours at this location, my post of today shares this beautiful gift with everyone: those who are presently in Medjugorje; those who have been there; those who are on route to Medjugorje and in a special way; those who are discerning a pilgrimage to Medjugorje and want to  better understand the pilgrimage experience.

Unlike the location at Apparition Hill (Brdo Ukazanja) where Our Lady first appeared to the visionaries or the top of Cross Mountain (Križevac), the Blue Crosses are a smaller location, but big enough to accommodate a significant number of pilgrims, many of whom do not stay for a very long time. There are exceptions with both individuals and groups. I happen to be one of those exceptions as I really enjoyed spending a lot of time at the Blue Crosses. 

Although my initial visit to the Blue Crosses was only an introduction, a passing through experience, it was enough for me to grasp the divine intimacy of this location. It did not take long before I returned to it and immediately set goals to visit the Blue Crosses on a daily basis.

Ideally the best time to go to the Blue Crosses is when you will be alone or alone as much as possible, which in Medjugorje means in the company of approximately five to ten individuals who are respectful, quiet and focussed on prayer. During my first week my visits to the Blue Crosses were in the very early hours of the morning, around 5:00am.

The Original Blue Cross in Medjugorje. The Second Blue Cross is at the center right of the photo.

After the thirty-third anniversary (June 25) of the apparitions had passed, many pilgrims left Medjugorje. This was to be expected as the anniversary date was a big draw and typically pilgrims would come for a week in and around the anniversary.

With a fewer amount of pilgrims, my opportunities to spend quiet time in prayer at the Blue Crosses increased both in frequency and length of time. Of the two Blue Crosses, I took an immediate liking to the "Original Blue Cross," and this is where I spent many hours in prayer in Medjugorje.

As I continued with my pilgrimage for several more weeks, the Original Blue Cross became an increasingly ideal location to meditate and pray. Upon the recommendation of our pilgrim guide, I purchased a book written by Father Slavko Barbaric entitled, In The School of Love.

In addition to my Rosary, camera and a bottle of water, Fr. Slavko's book quickly became part of my standard set of includes for my visits to the Original Blue Cross. To meditate on two-to-three chapters, wrapped by the recitation of the Rosary(one set of mysteries prior to and another set) after the readings proved to be a time of divine intimacy in which I received many graces.

It was part of my acceptance to be a diligent student in Our Lady's School of Love. I can not think of a more appropriate book to have accompanied my prayer and meditation at the Original Blue Cross. In addition to the reflections, Fr. Slavko's book also includes quotes from Our Lady's messages and scriptural passages offered to the reader as "spiritual food, heavenly bread for our life, for our healing and for our salvation." If you are currently in Medjugorje, I respectfully encourage you to get this book available at the Franciscan book store near St. James, in the same building and adjacent to the parish Information Center.

The original Blue Cross shot from the back path.
A wider view of both the Original Blue Cross area to the left and the Second Blue Cross to the right.

Medjugorje is a place of great graces and my personal experiences at the Original Blue Cross that made this truth evident to me. Each day in Medjugorje, I recited all four sets of the mysteries of the Rosary. One night I had arrived at the Original Blue Cross only having completed two out of the four mysteries. It was late at night, dark and very quiet. I was with approximately five other individuals, all of us scattered in our own individual location. If you have never been to Medjugorje, the Blue Crosses at night are not illuminated. There are patio lights to help pilgrims navigate the rocky pathways, but once you make your way up to the blue crosses, it is a dark location where you can barely see anyone. I found this to be very accommodating in my desire for personal intimacy with Jesus and Mary. This "accommodating atmosphere" lasted for one set of the Rosary mysteries. 

Before I could begin to recite the last set of the Rosary mysteries and complete my recitation for the day, a small group of approximately twenty-five Italian pilgrims arrived led by a Franciscan friar. I know what you are thinking, there went my tranquility and peaceful prayer time. Well, in the first few minutes, I had the same thoughts, but something happened that changed all that. As the friar began to speak, he provided a brief meditation and then began to lead the pilgrims in a group recitation of the Rosary. The friar's gentle voice and tone prompted me to join these Italian pilgrims in prayer. I did so not knowing how long they would stay. Regardless I set aside my own personal prayer time and hoped that I would have the energy and fervour to continue after they left.

As I prayed with everyone a sense of peace came over me that pleasantly surprised me. I was no longer thinking about that personal "ideal prayer time," but focussed on the group recitation of the Rosary and meditating the various mysteries. This sense of peace lasted throughout the recitation and stayed with me after the Italian pilgrims' departure. I spent further time alone and recited another set of the mysteries to complete my own Rosary for the day. What a grace filled time it was.

Eventually when I left, I marvelled at how amazing it was to have experienced it all. It was God's grace working in me, opening me up to accepting this unexpected event in my evening. What I originally considered to be an intrusion to personal prayer time, ended up being a wonderful gift of God's grace. That day, like everyday in Medjugorje, was an amazing day.

Praised be Jesus and Mary.