Monday, August 22, 2016

Medjugorje: The Pleasant and Not So Pleasant Experience

The view from Cross Mountain, Medjugorje
At the top of Cross Mountain, taking advantage of the solitude and serenity.

Recently, I arrived back from my pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Herzegovina (officially Bosnia and Herzegovina), and it was for the most part a very pleasant and beneficial experience, but there were a few aspects that were not so pleasant; nothing major or terribly disturbing, but it did remind me of some thoughts I had from previous pilgrimages to Medjugorje that I never wrote about.

When one thinks of a pilgrimage, it typically evokes thoughts of a focussed spiritual journey that people take for a variety of reasons: to draw closer to God and Our Lady in a time of dedicated prayer and solitude; looking for the answers to many of life's questions; finding the solution to a problem; seeking clarity on the discernment of a vocation; the healing of any spiritual, psychological or physical needs; the hope for the cure of an illness, condition or disease; and the recharging of one's "spiritual batteries."

These and other reasons are why many go on pilgrimages. For the most part, a pilgrimage is quite a pleasant experience, but there are some unpleasant aspects that one has to deal with. This especially holds true if you spend any significant amount of time in Medjugorje.

To date, I have had the privilege of spending fifteen weeks in Medjugorje, spread out over three pilgrimages in three consecutive years; after a while, you begin to notice and take note of many things. This year's pilgrimage was certainly no exception.

I initially encountered some unpleasant aspects during the first week of my first pilgrimage in June'2014. As a pilgrim focussed on the journey, you tend to put the unpleasantness aside, and move forward with your purpose. This is what I, and practically everyone does on a pilgrimage. You should not let the unpleasantness get in the way. At the same time, there are a few things you can do to help avoid it. I hope that by sharing my recent pilgrimage experience, it will help others to do just that.

Medjugorje Mornings

Whether you are climbing and praying your way up Cross Mountain or Apparition Hill at sunrise, or ushering in the day with prayer at the Blue Crosses, or at your pension, Medjugorje in the morning is truly a mystical place. I have done all the above, and never have I experienced such peace anywhere else in the world.

The morning view from my pansion of St. James, Medjugorje
The morning view, from the balcony at my pension, of St. James, the valley, and the mountains beyond.

Each day began with a 5:00am rise, and after having cleaned up, I began my morning prayers which took approximately ninety minutes and included: personal morning prayers, a meditation and prayer from My Daily Bread, Liturgy of The Hours, St. Gertrude The Great's prayer for the holy souls in purgatory, sinners in the universal Church, and for my family, a prayer for the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary, and a prayer to Our Lady to Spend The Day Well

Breakfast was at 9:00am, which was a perfect time for both me and the owners of the pension I was staying at. Each day's breakfast was something different: scrambled or boiled eggs; ham and cheese; a variety of different cold-cuts; a traditional meat piebiscuits; fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers; and anything that I would have preferred or requested. No matter what I had for breakfast, a cup of black Indian tea and my MacBookPro were mandatory includes each morning.

After having finished breakfast, and surfing the net, my daily excursion would begin. It was typically a choice between the three main prayer sites: Cross Mountain, Apparition Hill or the Blue CrossesAll three locations are excellent choices for the ideal Medjugorje experience; that is, an encounter with God and Our Lady. This is the essence of what Medjugorje is really all about; to experience the encounter as many times as possible.

Cross Mountain

The view of the cross at Cross Mountain after the last Stations of the Cross prayer plaque.
The view of the cross, at Cross Mountain, after the last Stations of the Cross prayer plaque.

Cross Mountain is the most difficult and highest of all three locations—the terrain is also the most rocky and dangerous requiring each pilgrim to be especially careful so as to avoid injury—and it is for this reason that I chose it. This coupled with the Stations of The Cross prayers, from St. Alphonsus Liguori, that I recited during each ascent, made for a much more penitential pilgrimage.

The walk from my pension to Cross Mountain afforded me the opportunity to mentally prepare, and become properly disposed for what really is a prayer with a little bit of climbing, not a climb with a little bit of prayer. I have actually dedicated an entire post on this, Medjugorje's Cross Mountain (Križevac): A Time Of Prayer With A Little Bit of Climbing, Not A Climb With A Little Bit Of Prayer.

A view of the cafes and souvenir shops at the base of Cross Mountain
A view of what pilgrims see when approaching the base (where the steps are) of Cross Mountain: two cafe/souvenir
shops on the mountain itself (on the left), and one of many souvenir shops (on the right) directly across the street.

The one thing that I have never liked about arriving at Cross Mountain was the existence of all the souvenir shops and cafes, some of which are actually on the mountain itself. They are, for the most part, a source of unwelcome chatter, laughter, and singing. In my view, these businesses should not be allowed to operate so close to the base of this prayerful climb.

I recall vividly, from my first climb up Cross Mountain in late June'2014, how repulsed I felt at the presence of all these shops and cafes. Their existence is part of an unpleasant reality: the profiteering at Medjugorje's prayer sites.

The prayer sites are not the only location where profiteering goes on, but they are the most obvious. As one small example, if you have ever purchased a 1.5L of bottle of water at Cross Mountain, Apparition Hill, or the Blue Crosses, for more than €1.00, you have fallen victim to the profiteering.

At the base of Cross Mountain, where there is a sign, guidelines for pilgrims
The base of Cross Mountain, where there is a sign with guidelines for pilgrims to pay heed to. The top-left image indicates that
pilgrims are to be quiet or not cause a disturbance. This is common sense, but 
ignored by many. To the right is a cafe and
souvenir shop, one of two on the mountain itself, and sadly only a few feet away from the first station prayer plaque.

Ironically, there is a sign at the foot of Cross Mountain, with several images that provide pilgrims with some guidelines while at the mountain, and for the climb. The majority of pilgrims have a respectful attitude, and it is clear by the way they act: in a very quiet manner, properly disposed and prepared for a prayerful climb. Others demonstrated quite the opposite, some unintentionally due in part to the initial excitement and joy of a "first climb," and being apart of a group pilgrimage. 

However, there are some pilgrims—a very small minority—that know exactly what they are doing. Their discourteous attitude is demonstrated with loud chatter and laughter; some even go and sit in the cafes, and break out into group singing that typically includes several songs.

As a pilgrim, you try to remain focussed, but sometimes it gets so bad, that you just have to bring it to the attention of those who are either intentionally or unintentionally, violating some of the most basic guidelines. I for one did this on a handful of occasions, never in a fury, but always with a charitable spirit, in a kind, calm and considerate tone, that was well received by everyone.

The third Station of the Cross on Cross Mountain, Medjugorje
The Third Station of the Cross, where between the plaque and the arrow sign, is the back path from the top of the
mountain that leads to the third station.

Sadly, some people are openly defiant, knowing full well that they are disturbing others, as was the case with this one young man who I had to be very candid and direct with. He was the leader of a group that had completed their climb, and were making their way down the mountain from the back path, talking loudly and constantly. As he approached the third station, where I was praying at, I immediately informed him, in a very firm tone, that he shouldn't be in such conversation with his group, that a more suitable location for it would be at a cafe or restaurant...this is Križevac (Cross Mountain)! From the utterance of my first word, he and his group fell silent, clearly understanding that such violations on Cross Mountain are not tolerated by everyone. Needless to say, they continued with their descent in complete silence.

This is one of the unpleasant realities that pilgrims confront during their ascent up Cross Mountain; having to deal with others who, after having completed their climb, descend in full blown "conversation mode." 

Another unpleasant reality of Cross Mountain, during both the ascent and descent, is the presence of beggars. I really don't know how many they are, but on a few occasions, I encountered two individuals that I recognized from previous pilgrimages. Regardless, I sincerely hope that the police and "security presence" in Medjugorje, will seek to remove such individuals from, and keep them off the mountain.

Having initially confronted all this unpleasantness during my first pilgrimage in June' 2014, I employed the same strategy that I initiated back then; climb Cross Mountain at the hottest time of the day, when the overwhelming majority of pilgrims have already finished their climbs, and are no where to be seen. It was a strategy that served me well, as each climb was an undisturbed time of Divine Intimacy with God and Our Lady. On a few occasions, I even had the pleasure of climbing with other individuals, who shared my appreciation for a quiet climb.

If you are wondering how I coped with the intense heat and sun, well the answer is actually quite simple. I made sure to have plenty of water with me, at least 1.5L (sometimes 3.0L), depending upon the day's temperature. Although exposure to the sun was pretty much a constant throughout climb—the most intense times were when I was in prayer at each station—I made sure to pace myself to avoid becoming fatigued: it was a slow climb. This was vital for me so as to not detract from my willingness and ability to concentrate and meditate at each station. Slowly, but surely, I climbed the mountain. 

I don't recommend this for anyone who is not young, healthy or fit enough. Unlike myself, you may also want to wear a baseball cap or hat. Offer it all up, uniting your willingness to suffer the intense heat and sun, with your Stations of the Cross prayers.

No matter what I had to deal with prior to, or during my ascent, nothing minimized or detracted from the prayerful climb, and especially the serenity I experienced at the very top of the mountain. After completing the Stations of the Cross, and my personal prayer to Jesus at the foot of the cross, I would sit and rest at this one particular spot, which is captured by the first photo published with this post. It was a time of solitude and serenity, that afforded me the opportunity for undisturbed and intimate conversation with God and Our Lady; every occasion was a time of Divine Intimacy.

Filii Restoran Pansion

One of the highlights of each day was going to Filii Restoran Pansion, an amazing family-owned restaurant and pension. I came to know the family, as I became a regular customer from day three of my five week pilgrimage right until the last day. Let me tell you, they serve the best food in Medjugorje, and do so at great prices; at least 40% cheaper than you would pay for at any one of the many restaurants on the main strip.

A local plate, cevapi, at one of Medjugorje's finest restaurants, Filii Restoran
Cevapi (large) at Filii Restoran Pansion, just one of the amazing dishes they serve.

After climbing a mountain, or walking (I typically put in somewhere between five to seven kilometers a day, depending on where I went) for several hours in Medjugorje, you build up quite an appetite. I always looked forward to my meals at Filii. The most strenuous walks were on the days that I climbed Cross Mountain and walked to Filii. Although I could have easily taken a taxi, I chose to walk, adding to the penitential pilgrimage experience.

It was during these walks, which took approximately one hour depending on my energy level, that I was completed exposed to the sun. Walking to Filii's was well worth it, because no matter what I ordered, the meals replenished my energy levels, and left me completely satisfied.

My usual arrival at Filii was approximately between three and four in the afternoon, which afforded me plenty of time to eat, relax with a cup of black tea, and still have plenty of time to walk back to St. James to prepare for the Evening Prayer Program.

I highly recommend any pilgrim who is in Medjugorje as of the publishing of this post, or those who are on route, or planning to go, to definitely make Filii Restoran Pansion, a daily destination choice for your eating needs.

A view of Filii Restoran Pansion vegetable platter.
My order of the vegetable platter at the outside patio.

If you do decide to go to Filii, my advice would be to first go by taxi (taxi fares are 5 within Medjugorje, whether you are one person or with three other people) so as to familiarize yourself with the location, should you decide to walk it in the future. All the taxis know Filii—it is one of the best and liked restaurants in Medjugorje—so you will have no problems getting there.

Nothing beats eating amazing food at great prices, within a pleasant atmosphere, served by friendly staff, and prepared by a wonderful family. It is the perfect compliment to good conversation and time well spent with family, friends, or fellow pilgrims.

If you have been to Medjugorje and never went to Filii Restoran Pansion, you haven't experienced all that Medjugorje has to offer.

Evening Prayer Program
Argentinian pilgrims situating themselves well in advance of Mass, at St. James, Medjugorje.
Argentinian pilgrims in front of the back altar.

Each day, after Filii, I would walk to St. James (back altar) prior to the Evening Prayer Program, which began at 6:00pm with the Group Recitation of the Rosary. The Joyful and Sorrowful Mysteries are recited first, which is only interrupted, for a few minutes, to honour Our Lady's apparition at 6:40pm, after which the Rosary continues, followed by the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After, Mass is celebrated, then the group recitation of the "Seven Our Fathers, Hail Mary's and Glory Be's," a blessing of religious objects, healing prayers, and depending on which night: Veneration of the Cross; exposition and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; and/or the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary.

Although most days, I arrived at around 5:30pm, there were several days when I arrived earlier. This afforded me the opportunity to either: take a much needed nap; go to confession; or pray the Luminous Mysteries at Medjugorje's Luminous Mystery Mosaics; and purchase water or ice tea for the evening ahead. 

It was on one of those earlier arrivals that I was walking along at the very front of the altar, when a group of Argentinian pilgrims caught my attention. It was approximately 4:00pm, and they had situated themselves well in advance of the Evening Prayer Program, in the blistering sun. 

I was so impressed that I introduced myself and complimented them on their enthusiasm, and the sacrifice of having to suffer in the intense heat. I decided to ask if I could take a photo of them and they accepted. Those Argentinians are but one example of the pilgrimage spirit in Medjugorje.

After the completion of the Evening Prayer Program, I typically walked back to my pension, cleaned up from the day's activities, and went to bed.

Blue Crosses

The Blue Crosses are one of "the" prayer locations in Medjugorje, and a particularly special location for me; it is a very peaceful place for quiet prayer that I discovered during my first pilgrimage. Ever since that first pilgrimage, I have always experienced Divine Intimacy at the Blue Crosses. Taking only two minutes to climb from the street level, the Blue Crosses also happen to be one of the easiest locations to get to. 

This year, if I did not climb Cross Mountain, I spent a lot of time reciting the Rosary at the "Original Blue Cross," (see photo below), and sometimes at the newer one. Doing so also served as a much needed break from the fatigue of having climbed Cross Mountain for three or four consecutive days. Just as I did with Cross Mountain, I would target prayer at the Blue Crosses between noon to 4:00pm, for the exact same reasons.

A view of the original Blue Cross, Medjugorje
A view of the Original Blue Cross from the make-shift seating under the big tree.

The Blue Crosses, both at the street level, and the short climb to them, are flanked by pensions, cafes and souvenir shops; another section of the "profiteering subculture" in Medjugorje, the worst of which is at Apparition Hill (see photo below). To elaborate a little about Apparition Hill, between the street level and the base of Apparition Hill, pilgrims literally have to run a gauntlet of jewellery stores, cafes, souvenir shops, and a pizzeria on a well made cobble-stone road, that takes approximately two-to-five minutes to complete, depending on your age.

The entrance path to Apparition Hill
The entrance to the gauntlet of shops and cafes, that pilgrims are forced to walk through, before arriving
at the base of Apparition Hill.

Like at Cross Mountain and Apparition Hill, the cafes and shops (see image below) at the Blue Crosses generate chatter, laughter, and noise when a significant amount of pilgrims arrive. If you have ever been at this location, you know how acoustic it is; conversations from the cafes and souvenir shops can be clearly heard from fifty feet away!

In addition, this year I encountered the unpleasantness of group pilgrimage leaders providing orientations (some with very large groups) at this prayer site, right in front the statues of Mary, where many other pilgrims (myself included) were only a few feet away immersed in silent prayer.

On one occasion, I arrived at the Blue Crosses, hoping to have a great prayer session, only to be met by the loud voice emanating from a speakerphone. It was so loud, you could hear it from the street. Needless to say, I did not stick around, but instead opted for a Rosary walk, and a late afternoon meal at Filii's.

The Blue Cross where seer Mirjana Soldo received Our Lady
The second Blue Cross, where the visionary Mirjana Soldo has her public apparitions. Below are
some of the souvenir shops and cafes. 

It is my impression that many people have no idea that they are violating "shrine etiquette," where silence is golden at the prayer sites. For some, the unintentional disturbance they cause is the result of being in Medjugorje for the first time, where enthusiasm and excitement trumps prudence. Some just do not appear to have the presence of mind, that they are at an international Marian shrine.

I met such a group, some very nice young pilgrims from Los Angeles, who needed help. Being right behind them during the short climb to the Blue Crosses, and hearing that they spoke fluent English, I offered my assistance. After the introductions, they asked me for some direction, which spawned a short exchange about the prayer sites. I did all this, informing them in a kind and considerate tone, that we all need to keep our voices down, because at this location, they can carry quite a distance; that the Blue Crosses were only thirty feet away from us. They had no idea, and thanked me.

Concluding Thoughts

A pilgrimage to Medjugorje is an overwhelmingly positive and pleasant experience. It is a place of many graces and blessings, peace, reconciliation and hope; an opportunity to have a more profound encounter with God and Our Lady.

Should you decide to go on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, whether it is your first time, or a return pilgrimage, it will: improve upon your prayer life; strengthen your faith; teach you about the spiritual battle; you will meet and connect with new and like-minded people; reconnect with previously established friendships; you will discover new things about yourself and your life; and develop a much more closer relationship with God and Our Lady.

As St. Pope John Paul II stated, "Medjugorje is the spiritual center of the world." 

The joy and peace that one continuously feels in Medjugorje, for the most part, makes it easy to ignore some of the unpleasant aspects. No matter what unpleasantness one experiences, the focus should always be on moving forward with the purpose of your pilgrimage. The unpleasantness can at times be quite challenging, and as a matter of making Medjugorje a better place for all pilgrims, may require an intervention.

What ever you do, do not let any unpleasantness detract from or diminish any aspect of your pilgrimage. Part of what you can do is take it to prayer, and offer it up. Be patient, kind, and demonstrate by your example what it means to be a pilgrim in Medjugorje.