Yours Truly in front of the Headquarters of Multinational Division (North), Autumn 2000
This past weekend marked the tenth anniversary of my first return from Bosnia, at the conclusion of ten months' active duty as a peacekeeper in Tuzla. (Shortly thereafter I returned to Bosnia for an additional 18 months' work as a civilian.)
I cannot believe that a decade has passed so quickly. But it undeniably has.
It's a decade that has seen the world shift beneath our feet, and, possibly, the world has slipped through America's fingers.
But as for my Bosnian experience, I still have not yet been able to write about it in full .... particularly what I saw as part of my work in Srebrenica, where the Srebrenica Massacre took place on July 11, 1995, and which left a mess I spent the better part of two years trying to help clean up.
The Srebrenica morgue at Tuzla. Each white bag to the right contained one of the dead. There were more than 4000 in storage at the time I visited the first time in 2000.
Some months back, a friend, who will remain anonymous, asked me to write about Bosnia on his blog. I sent him the following reply:
You've asked me to discuss my Srebrenica experience.I am still unready to describe in detail what I saw at Srebrenica. Perhaps soon.
I'm afraid that I really cannot do that. Not yet.
I was stationed in Bosnia from January 2000 to May 2002 with the US Army at MND Headquarters in Tuzla. I also served a year on active duty training before that. For the last year and a half I was there, I had the title "Deputy Political Advisor to the Commanding General, Multinational Division North" - a civilian intel analyst for the senior State Department official there, the Political Advisor.
Over the course of my stay there I traveled extensively throughout Bosnia, and was very often in the cities of Srebrenica, Bratunac, and Zvornik on official business--largely consisting of having "friendly discussions" with Bosnian Serb officials to "enlighten" them that it was "in their interest" to leave the Bosniacs ("Bosnian Muslims") returning to their old villages alone.
Sometimes they listened to us.
I also served on a committee that founded and began to build the Srebrenica Victims Cemetery near the "Battery Factory". They buried the first identified victims there shortly before my departure from BiH.
Let me sum it up my Bosnia experience by metaphor: in my youth, I was a bit of a WW II scholar; I was very interested in the phenomenon of the Holocaust in particular. But it was theoretical to me; I am an American born son of WW II veteran, and it was all books and movies, and I had a childish wish to have known my father's opportunity to fight evil.
But: it struck me then--this was the 1970s, mind you--that I thought I was born too late; there were no Nazis left to fight; they were only movie villains in the end.
It wasn't until I saw the International Morgue for Srebrenica Victims at
Tuzla that I discovered that this was not true.
And I discovered that Holocaust is not a historical event but an ever-present possibility. All it takes is the will, and the right circumstances, to make it come again.
I don't believe in collective guilt. I DO however believe in individual responsibility for mass crimes, and those responsible have not yet been brought to justice.
Srebrenica was a singular act of hideous evil, and proof that the lessons learned in 1945 have not been digested, even 300 miles from Germany. Industrial holocaust and assembly line mass murder remains entirely possible in this day and age. If it happened in 1945, AND it happened in 1995, it can happen again.
God help us.
As to a longer explication of my Bosnian experience--I'm still trying to come to terms with it. I haven't been able to write it down.... well, perhaps it is not yet time.
Please understand: This short letter is hardly the place for me to describe my
experience; it is a matter of which I still often dream.
I will say this:
The stench never leaves you.
I'm sorry I cannot write more. Perhaps again, soon.
Much respect and blessings to you,
Richard L. Kent, Esq.
In lieu thereof, I'd like to rerun the following essay, which I wrote in 2002, after visiting a small town in southern Bosnia called Medjugore. It is a controversial place: in June 1981, several teenagers saw what they claimed was the Virgin Mary.
Some of them are claiming to see her daily to this day.
And who knows? Maybe they do.
The Stones of Apparition Hill –– A Medjugore Meditation
(Written February 2002)
The first thing that caught my attention about Herzegovina were the stones.
The border between Bosnia and Herzegovina is unmarked by any road signs. Unlike the rest of the country, which is riven by ethnic hatreds and an interethnic Inter-Entity Boundary Line, there is no real political division between the two lands.
You see the change from Bosnia to Herzegovina through a sudden change in scenery. One minute, you’re in Bosna (as Bosnians call their country)--all is green and hilly and woodsy; the soil black and deep, the mountains old and worn and friendly, like the Adirondack Mountains or the Appalachians. Next minute, Herzegovina: you’re surrounded by forbidding white stony mountains—the Dinaric Alps, southernmost sweep of the Swiss Alps—far higher than those of Bosna and covered with white stones and low, gnarly brush and tumbleweed. No self respecting Tolkeinesque dwarf would live here, as there are no minerals to be found, all is sea bottom shale to the horizon and beyond. It is as if you have suddenly crossed from the Tennessee Smokey Mountains into a white, limestone version of the Utah Rockies.
This is Herzegovina: the mountainous hypotenuse along the southern border between Bosnia and Croatia. The mountains are tall and jagged, a high series of limestone waves that stand from here to the sea, some 80 miles southeast from the border. The mountains are white, unbelievably white. The stone here is former sea bottom, billions of years of seashells piled one upon another and compressed, then pressed into the sky again by continental drift. The mountains reach to the sky in waves until they challenge the sea to the southwest.
Hence the stones, which are nasty and sharp and jagged, from the tiniest pebbles to the largest borders. Limestone is porous and, for rocks, relatively easily dissolved by rain and flood, so one often sees holes eaten in the stone by the rainfall. But the stones crack and split as they decompose under pressure of summer rain and winter ice——so the stones get smaller but tend to retain a vicious jagged edge.
The soil that results from this limestone erosion is highly acidic, making the land here unsuitable for most agriculture: only grapes and tobacco thrive in this otherwise inhospitable farmland.
This makes for poor living for the residents.
If the land is tough, the people who live here are tougher. The poor soil, the poverty of the populace, and their harsh and uncompromising attitude toward outsiders make the Croats of Herzegovina reviled by the rest of Bosnia as obstreperous hillbillies. "The only things that grow in Herzegovina," they say, "are rocks and Ustashe" –– that is, Croat Nazis. Croats in western Herzegovina don't see themselves as Herzegovinian, much less as Bosnians——they're Croats, dammit, and this is part of Croatia. If you have any questions to this end, just look around: flags of Croatia, and not Bosnia, are everywhere. Fighting here tends to be vicious, as it was both in the Second World War and the recent civil conflict.
By any indication, a very unlikely place for the Virgin Queen of Heaven to reach out to the human race. If it was, as Ogden Nash said, "odd of God to choose the Jews," then it is simply bizarre for Him——and His Mother——to choose as unrelenting a poverty-stricken hellpit as Hercegovina to give a Beethovian kuess fur allsem welt.
And yet that is precisely what is alleged to have taken place. And who knows? Maybe it did.
* * * * *
We left Eagle Base at eight o’clock Monday morning, stopping at Sarajevo in the early afternoon in Butmir and stayed overnight——to give those of us on the trip the opportunity to do a little shopping in Sarajevo before the main event the next day. (We could have gone straight through, but given that the English mass is only given at 10:00 in the morning, that would have required a departure time of 2:00 AM—or ‘oh-dark-hundred,’ in Army parlance—so the decision was made to split the trip into two days.)
Sarajevo continues to recover from the war; every visit reveals fewer rubble piles and bullet holes and more bricks and mortar and concrete. There's still a lot of war damage, to be sure, but it is clear that the city, now firmly under the control of the Bosniac/Croat-run Federation, is well on the road to Wellville. Business investment and international aid is making its influence felt at last. The legendary Holiday Inn, scene of the opening shots at the start of the war and a notorious smoking wreck at its end, is now reconstructed and repainted a with a bright yellow faççade that covers the worst of the devastation. Sarajevo's own Tin Towers, which are two world-famous apartment towers, named Momo and Uzeir after two local cartoon characters (think Abbot and Costello), have had all the external glass replaced and have regained their prewar look, although the apartments within continue to be slowly restored.
But not all is well. The rock pile at the Oslobozdenie newspaper building remains a towering monument to hatred and folly and the accuracy of Bosnian Serb artillery. The old Bosnian National Parliament building at the other end of the main highway down the center of town is a shattered reminder of the day Radovan Karadzic stood in its chambers and called for genocide against the Muslims. The main highway remains pockmarked with shell holes, which sink continuously. And the heavily guarded American embassy, targeted just three months ago for bombing by Algerian Islamic fascists, is a reminder too that the events of the world has not passed Sarajevo by.
I have been to Sarajevo at least twenty times since I first came to Bosnia, and every visit is a delight. One friend of mine described his first visit as akin to "being unexpectedly seduced by an older woman," an assessment I share. This visit revealed its own new delight—a recently opened (and authentic!) Chinese restaurant, complete with Chinese food, Chinese waiter, and Chinese menu that you can’t read. The hot-n-sour soup, the pot stickers, the General Tso’s Chicken—well, they weren’t great by American Chinese restaurant standards, but to me who has not eaten with chopsticks since the start of the war, 'twas magnificent.
The restaurant was only two blocks down from the famous Latinska Most, so I decided to take a little historical moonwalk before returning to base.
For almost a century, the Latinska Most, or Latin Bridge, was named after one Gavrilo Princip, an individual of some historical note: he it was who, through bad planning and worse luck, put two bullets into the hearts of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in 1914, sparking the first world war. After the end of the war, the Serbs decided that he was a hero of the Serbian people and named the bridge for him––kinda like Dallas having a "Lee Harvey Oswald Memorial Book Building". The spot he stood upon when he fired the shots were memorialized by two sunken shoe marks in concrete, so that the historically curious could imagine themselves firing the shots that detonated Europe.
Welcome to the Balkans.
The Serbs, shortly before the war broke out in 1992, dug the concrete block from the sidewalk and took down the nearby monument, moving them to their ‘‘capital’’ in Pale where they could be better appreciated. The Bosnian Muslims, having themselves had their fill of Serb assassins, closed the nearby city museum celebrating the killings and restored the original name to the bridge. An off-colored marble block in the wall covers the spot where once stood Princip's memorial.
I myself have stood there, where I tried to visualize Princip to have done, not to imagine killing, but trying to imagine the kind of nationalist madness that could, and did, drive Europe to cultural suicide. For it is clear to me now that the killing of the Archduke marked the bloody true start of a 20th Century which—it is now clear—hasn’t entirely ended yet.
* * * * *
We spent the evening together at Butmir, a multinational military base just outside the city and the true capital of Bosnia, where the High Representative maintains his offices and the Stabilization Force – SFOR – has a headquarters. A bizarre rainbow uniforms can be seen as all of Europe’s militaries form its denizens—the gates are guarded by Bulgarian(!) military police, the base is administered by French foreign legionnaires, the Russians and NATO all have representatives, but the commander is, withal, an American. The rooms are very nice (the first place that gets rebuilt in any occupation is the rooms occupied by the occupiers) and the food, while not spectacular, is acceptable in a Euro-breakfast kind of way. But it’s still a military base. The only thing that makes Butmir a delight is that it is the only place in Bosnia where American troops can wear civilian clothes and drink beer.
We sat around and got a chance to know one another in a way we could never do on Eagle Base. Here I chatted with a thirty-five year old Massachusetts state legislator (and the only member of "Democrats for Bush 2000" in Massachusetts!) who was here for six months’ active duty. Here too was a hard but still attractive female sergeant major, twice divorced and not quite sanguine about any chance at a third, blowing smoke from her three-pack-a-day habit. Here were our two Chaplains (both Protestants) and a half dozen grizzled and ancient warrant officer helicopter pilots who, after their third beer, started recounting Viet Nam war stories that held nobody rapt.
I sat back and drank beer and thought. I was finding it interesting how the trip was laid out. Leave at 8:00 on Monday, beer and visits to Sarajevo, overnight at Butmir, leave early the next morning, arrive 10:00 AM, an hour for Mass, an hour for a walk up Apparition Hill, an hour to shop at the tacky tchochkes shops and eat—then leave.
That was it. Some 48 hours away from base for a three hour visit to Mejd, on a Tuesday in the winter. That would be it. No more.
The Chaplain’s Assistant who organized the trip was a university administrator and mother of two college students. I looked at her over my beer as she sat down next. "S0. What did you think of Medjugore?" I asked her. "Is this really worth the trip?"
"Oh, I guess. The people on the trip seem to be enjoying it."
"But do you think the Virgin Mary is actually present here? Actually visiting?"
"Heck if I know. Anyway, I’m Protestant."
Then it struck me. The two chaplains accompanying us were also Protestants and far more interested in our behaving ourselves than in our spiritual enlightenment. The only Catholic priest at Eagle Base, who told me privately that he thinks the whole thing is bogus, was very visible in his absence. And the whole affair had far more of an air of a vacation tour trip than it did a religious pilgrimage. No prayers were said at any point of the trip, even the next morning, when we gathered to leave. We just boarded up the bus and left.
Definitely not a USDA approved pilgrimage.
* * * * *
The drive was pretty but rather harrowing—there is only one main 'highway' down the center of the country, from Sarajevo to the sea, a two-lane asphalt ribbon that parallels the Netrevna River’s long slow walk to the Mediterranean. The road’s fully repaired now and the tunnels restored; you can drive a hundred klicks an hour, if you dare. The main danger is people attempting to pass blind curves, the #1 form of early demise now that the war is over. My theory is that Bosnians must rely on the Force as their guide—but judging from the death tolls on the local roads, my guess is that their midichlorian count isn't quite high enough for the conditions.
Or maybe being a war survivor makes you, shall we say, disregard the threats of peacetime.
As we pulled into Mostar, I saw a sight that chilled my blood. Mostar, thirty miles north of Medjugore, is the only city in Bosnia where the fighting was truly three-sided: Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs all contested control of the city for three and a half years. The Serbs claimed it as they claimed the Netrevna River, which passes down its center, as their border. The Croats coveted it because they claimed it as the capitol of their bogus republic, "Herceg-Bosna." And the Bosniacs wanted it because, well, just on general principle.
Mostar—the city name comes from the word ‘‘Most,’’ or Bridge—is most famous for the sixteenth century Turkish-built bridge over the river in its heart. The light, airy structure, a straight arch without supports, was the largest of its type until the twentieth century. It was built in 1555 on orders of a Bosnian Muslim who had become Vizier of the Ottoman Empire—a gift to his home town. A beautifully designed triumph of stone engineering, this great leap forward in bridge technology was one of the seven wonders of the medieval world; and it was nearly indestructible, having survived 350 years of warfare unscathed.
Until, of course, 1993, when Croat vandals shelled it into the river because it was built by Turks. Or to blame it on the Serbs. Unless the Serbs really did it. Who knows?
What appalled me more than anything else about Mostar were neither the devastated bridge, now being reconstructed, nor the huge number of blowed up buildings, of which I have seen already too many. What appalled me was a huge Catholic cross at the top of the highest mountain overlooking the city, built after the war as a deliberate screw-you to the Serbs and Bosniacs: a brightly lit sign that "This is a Catholic Croat city, and there is no place in it for anyone else." I’m here to tell you, I’d blow it up in an instant if I could. That cross is not a symbol of Christ; it is a symbol of hate: a We Don't Like Your Kind sign as clear as neon.
* * * * *
The city has somewhat recovered, but the outer villages remain devastated. The devastation became more widespread the more we approached the Medjugore turnoff.
We curved up the side of the mountain toward the village at the Medjugore exit. The village—which literally means ‘‘between the mountains’’—was over this high rocky wall and about five minutes past the local county seat, Citluk (pronounced ‘‘Cheetluuk’’), just at the foot of the mountain’s opposite side.
And as we came to Medjugore, all of the sudden, I noticed something strange.
No destroyed buildings.
Nothing. No gaping roofs, no devastated houses, no wrecked factories, no shellholes, no landmines. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Sing it again.
There was no war damage to be found in Medjugore.
It took me a good ten minutes for it to register. It wasn’t as if the buildings had been totally repaired since the end of the war. This is what all of Bosnia used to look like, once upon a time, a long time ago.
Do you know how alien a sight that is in Bosnia? I’ve seen open graves and devastated villages, wrecked houses and human skeletons, bullet holes and shell holes and mortar holes and shrapnel holes. Even in Tuzla, which survived the war untouched except for artillery fire, you can still see spalling on buildings from incoming 122 mm ‘‘top gun’’ rounds. I’d become so used to human devastation that it was an alien sight to see ...
And here Our Lady of Supposedly Medjugore had been visiting for twenty years.
And what was her message? What is her message?
* * * * *
Look, I know all about the scandals and the nonsense and the horse hockey associated with the so-called apparitions. I know about the fact that the HDZ (the nationalist-socialist Croatian National Union) party leaders all control the hotels, gas stations, food outlets, restaurants, and kitschy touristy souvenir shops in Medjugore. I know that the Hercegovocka Banka, founded by Medjugore businessmen, was the worst bank in Bosnia until SFOR closed it at gunpoint last year.
I know that Catholic commentator Michael Jones had his life threatened by Croat organized criminals when he questioned the veracity of the visions. I know that the previous year’s attempt to break the Croat territories out of Bosnia—an attempt at revolution that cost me a lot of sleep—was entirely financed by Medjugore tourist profits.
I also know that the Croat nationalist HVO militia guarded Medjugore like the apple of its eye, and the reason the village was never attacked in the war was that the Croat paramilitaries fought like the devil to keep the Serbs and Muslims from devastating the place——which they would have dearly loved to do.
You have no idea how much of an oasis Medjugore is until you’ve seen blowed up buildings ad infinitum, ad nauseam for two years and find the one spot in the country where the war didn’t reach. That sight alone was water to the parched.
* * * * *
We pulled into the parking lot of St. James’ Church about 10:15, and piled out into the Church for the English mass, which was already just underway.
Three Irish priests read the liturgy; we arrived just before the start of the Gospel reading, which meant we could still receive communion.
I wish I could remember what the sermon was about, but frankly, I was so overwhelmed by the whole am-I-really-here of it all that it didn’t register. I did note however, that the celebrant ad libbed a bit at the end of his talk, greeting us "peacekeepers" from America and noting that our mission and Our Lady’’s was the really the same. If true, I hope that Our Lady's bureaucracy in Heaven is better organized and more efficient than the U.S. Army.
St. James Church is remarkably large for such a relatively small village; it was built and dedicated in 1969 to replace the previous structure, which was damaged by settling of the foundation. It was entirely ordinary, and remarkably Amchurch in its design and structure. The Mass, however, was lovely, and used the Irish English language translation rather than the Novus Ordo used in the US. (The hymns, unfortunately, were right out of the Oregon Catholic Mess hymnbook, but for this occasion I sang them anyway.)
After the end of Mass, we stepped outside and met our tour guide, a young local woman who we hired to give us the barest introduction of what happened: six children seeing the Virgin on the hill called Pobrdo, now called Apparition Hill, the first time on 24 June 1981. (Serbo-Croatians are remarkably Hobbitlike in their simplicity regarding place names; ‘‘pobrdo’’ just means ‘‘the foothill’’).
The famous story that the children saw the Virgin and told their parents—who threw shoes at them for being crazy. The next day, 25 June, the children went back to Pobrdo to get a second look. This time, Our Lady spoke with them, in the presence of several score witnesses (though only the children could see her, of course.) That day, 25 June, is now noted as the first day of the apparitions, since she spoke on that occasion.
Fast forward to the next day: the children, fleeing Communist secret police, fled to the Church, where they were protected for a few hours by the legendary Father Jozo, who was arrested and spent 18 months behind bars for barring police entry to the Church. There, on that occasion (only) did Our Lady appear to them in the church—in the sacristy, now called the Apparition Room. (On the orders of the local bishop, who was completely hostile to the apparitions, the children were barred from holding any more meetings with the Virgin in the church. And so they have, at least at the Parish of St. James.)
And so the story was telescoped. All but one of the ‘‘children’’—today they’re aged 38 to 40—scattered around the world during the war. Two of the boys attempted to become priests but left. (In previous days that was a source of shame, but given the rotten state of the Church in our era....who knows?) All have now married; three live in Medjugore (though one is married to a former Miss America and lives in Boston in the summer). Interest in the apparitions have waned and the events themselves have become almost mundane, just a bizarre near-footnote to the almost Zappaesque monstrosity that is the history of Bosnia since 1981.
Three of the six visionaries receive daily visitations, though only one has a ‘‘message’’ to tell the world, which is broadcast from Italy once a month. Three of the six have received all ten of the famous ‘‘ten secrets’’ and are no longer receiving the visions. The other three, two in Mejdugore and one in Italy, still receive daily visitations and have received nine ‘‘secrets.’’ When the last one receives the tenth ‘‘secret’’, the visitations will be over.
Or so they say.
* * * * *
By any rational account Medjugore is – there is no other word for it – nonsense. It is the end result of either a drawn out lie, mass delusion, or a Satanic manifestation, piled upon by the desperate desire of Catholics around the world to have some proof, some tiny sign, that the nullity they call God has not abandoned them to be eaten by a meaningless history. Catholics, that superstitious lot, want to believe that they won’t evaporate at death, and they’ll put their faith in anything, whether Polish pope, pedophile priest, or Eucharistic magic cookies, to convince themselves that they haven’t been fooled by a bureaucratic money vacuum that sells wolf tickets to a nonexistent Heaven.
To paraphrase Gandalf’’s words of counsel to the Forces of the West, ‘‘That would be the prudent thing" to so believe. Or not believe.
But: ‘‘I do not council prudence.’’
I have not seen anything but twenty year old pictures of the visionaries. I have not even read anything but one book about Medjugore since coming to Bosnia, so I’m not an apparitionist by any means, and haven't the slightest idea if they’’re receiving visions of God or not.
But I have climbed Apparition Hill. That is enough for me. For now.
* * * * *
The path to the base of the hill starts at a garbage heap (where tourist buses dump their loads, passengers and trash alike) and extends perhaps fifty yards, infested by gift shops that sell simple wooden rosaries at a euro a pop (though they’ll accept your dollars, thank you very much). I bought one rosary and walked to the base.
I mentioned the stones of Herzegovina. As we stood at the foot of Pobrdo, which is perhaps a mile from St. James' Church, I looked up this steep, nasty near-mountain, which goes up about a kilometer from the valley floor.
Twenty million pilgrims have not worn the path up the hill in the least.
Oh, there is no vegetation on the path, and the snakes that once infested the area have fled rather than be crushed under the heels of the pilgrims. But the rocks and stones themselves are unworn. Perhaps a century of pilgrimage may change this. But for now, the long, slow walk up the hill is an exhausting, dangerous enterprise. As I was the only civilian in our party, I was also the only one not wearing combat boots——which I regretted the first time I slipped off and twisted an ankle into an unnatural angle.
The path up the side of the mountain, the higher I went, was a perfect model for the pilgrimage to God while alive on Earth. It is not a walk in the garden; it's a nasty struggle, with every step a potential stumble and fall. Each fall, when it comes, has consequences of pain, and possibly permanent injury, possibly even death.
As we climbed ever higher, the Village came more and more into view, the Church of St. James to the center, a gleaming jewel on the flat plane that is the village land; off and high to the left, Kricivac, Cross Mountain, where the villagers built a high cross in 1933 to in celebration of 1900 years of Christianity.
And still the climb continued. The struggle up the mountain is punctuated by brief stops for prayer, one of the decades of the rosary, the first five being the Joyful Mysteries: The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Nativity, The Presentation, and The Finding of Jesus in the Temple. Hail Mary, Full of Grace. Our Father. Glory Be.
Each of the stations are marked by exquisitely beautiful original sculptures from Italy, of incredible intricacy and obviously made by a loving believer. Fredrick Hart would have been proud. These stations were the only things of beauty to be seen on this remarkably harsh and ugly mountainside.
The rocks seemed to get sharper the higher we climbed. I have never seen anything like them: they gleamed in the midday sun, sharp as dragon’’s teeth. They reminded me of the anti-tank obstacles we used to discourage unfriendly visitors at Eagle Base.
I began to consider the stones themselves. Why put a shrine in the middle of dragon's teeth? Surely there is some meaning to this.
Stones: What are they? Why are they symbolic of faith and spiritual growth? How can these things be a sign of God?
Stones: so easy to hand that every house in Medjugore, indeed almost all houses in Hercegovina, are built from the rocks of the ground rather than from brick and mortar.
Stones. The anthropologists tell us that they were our first tools, chipped into sharp edges to kill animals and cut meat: the first tools and the first weapons.
Stones chipped and sparked make fire, the gift of Prometheus.
Stones cut and polished were the first valuables. Diamonds and sapphires and beryl and onyx and jade: baubles that we use to attract mates much as penguins do even today.
Stones hold ore, and are used to make metal, the skeleton of civilization.
The sword in the stone: mythic symbol of the power that is given only to the worthy but once given to the righteous can bring peace and prosperity to the land.
The stone of Abraham, on which he almost sacrificed Issac. Or was it Ishmael? (The Muslims and Jews have been arguing about that one for 1500 years.)
The great hewn stones that made the Pyramids, the tombs of the Pharaohs.
Ebenezer, the Stone of Help, set by Samuel in thanksgiving. 1 Samuel 7:12 says, ''Samuel took a stone and named it Ebenezer, saying ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’
The stones of the Rocky Soil of the parable, where the Seed fails to take root.
The Great Stone before the grave of Christ, thrown aside as by an army to reveal His Resurrection.
Ka’aba, the Heavenly Stone, the meteorite revered by Muslims worldwide as a sign of God from the heavens.
The Stone of Scone, upon which the true Kings of the Land of the Scots are always crowned.
The Garden of Stone, Arlington national cemetery, where heroes lie in hope and reverence.
And of course: a pile of bloodied stone at Ground Zero, and the fortress of stone called Pentagon.
I tried to understand. Obviously the stones were important, indeed crucial, to the Medjugore experience. But what was the pattern? It didn’t fit yet.
We came to The Place of the Apparition. No improvements up here, save one: a marble statue of Our Lady of Peace, marked with the date: 25 June 1981. She stands on a pedestal in the shape of a Star of David. She stands on a carved stone cloud: for it is said in all her apparitions her feet never quite touch the earth.
Given the rocks here, that makes perfect sense--for it is indeed Our Lady, then she has long since completed her earthly pilgrimage; why would she need to cut her feet anew?
I stood before her and prayed, prayed to her my private and most important intentions, and begged for what I need the most: to be reunited with my wife and sons*, whom I had not seen since 9/11.
And I considered the perfection of it: a view of Our Lady of Peace, looking down over the only village in Bosnia that I’’ve ever seen that has known unbroken peace through the last ten years of torment and blood.
Behind the statute of Our Lady were a number of polished stone memorials: most, if not all, in Croatian, thanking Our Lady for this or for that gift granted.
But even among them——some were broken and shattered, having fallen over in some windstorm or other, breaking on the rocks below. Even these permanent memorials could not be permanent here. Sic transit gloria mundi.
I stood back and thought: Of course. Of course. Now I saw it.
The stones here were no coincidence. The people of the village have had twenty years to improve this path, much as they have improved the town and improved the church through the profits of the visitors. Yet, aside from the carved stone Mysteries——nothing. No change. It is every bit as dangerous and forbidding a climb as ever it has been. And even the polished stones we leave as memorials are riven by the stones of the mountain when the winds blow.
To reach to God is to climb a stony mountain, on which you can stumble and fall and be hurt, even permanently. We must eternally climb, with no rest in this world, and pray only for perseverance.
And yet, on the way, Our Lady, a sign and symbol of God’s mercy, the Mother of God, Theotokos—awaits to comfort us in our exile and our empty loneliness, until the journey is complete.
Whether the apparitions are real or not is of little import to me now. But the pilgrimage we finished was perfect sign and symbol for life itself on the vale of tears called Earth.
Presently, I turned away and returned to the village below.
* * * * *
As I climbed down, however—stepping carefully, for the descent was every inch as dangerous as the ascent—I admitted to myself a small bit of disappointment. For one part of the Medjugore experience had eluded me.
It is my strange gift that I can always tell the presence of the truly divine in my life through some small validating sign: something that makes it clear to me that what I have just experienced is of divine origin. Such a sign is almost always subtle, but very clear when it happens: it is almost always some bizarre coincidence. Something that makes no sense as anything but a radical violation of the laws of probability. In other words, synchronicity and serendipity: for in my experience there IS no such thing as luck. Weird things happen to me on occasions like this.
I expected something. Anything. An unexpected friend. A surprise gift. A small sign that I was doing that I was supposed to be doing.
But here, nothing. It was just as if I had visited a nice little village, climbed a mountain, saw a statue, climbed down, spent far too much money on souvenirs and rosaries, and ... that was it.
I tried to ignore the lack of synchronistic validation, but I will admit I was disappointed. There was nothing to speak of, nothing.
Maybe the absence of a validating sign is a sign that I’m fooling myself, I thought. Maybe there is nothing here but a well-guarded village with a lot of tourists. Oh well. The Church has committed worse frauds than this, if that is all that it is.
We didn’t even get a final external validating sign. Here we were, loaded down with hundreds of dollars worth of rosaries and statuary, and we couldn’’t even find a priest to bless the items before we left the town. So I have hundreds of Medjugore rosaries, still unblessed. Oh well.
* * * * *
Three days after we returned from the trip, I was having dinner with a friend -- that officer from Massachusetts who had once been a state legislator. He had been very quiet and uncommunicative through the six hour drive home from the village. I did not press him on the issue, but it seemed to me he was somewhat disturbed by the visit.
But today he was a bit more personable, he invited me to join him and we ate together in the chow hall.
"So what did you think of Mejd?" I asked him as I dug into my badly overcooked chili.
He looked evasive, then shook his head.
"I’m a really bad Catholic," he said.
"What do you mean by that?" I said, trying to ignore the fact that he hadn’’t answered my question.
"Look, you know what was said to Thomas the Twin? That’’s me. I’ve seen, and I’ve believed. I’ve known all my whole life that Christianity is the truth, and I’ve wasted my life as a lousy Catholic."
"Hooookaaay. . . " I said, trying to draw him out.
"When I was six years old, I was dying of a blood infection. I had a 105 degree fever. The doctors told my parents I wasn’’t going to make it, that there was nothing they could do. So my parents called in a famous healing priest. (He named the priest, but I had since forgotten his name.) Father came to me to give me last rites. Have you ever heard of him?"
"He’s very well known in Massachusetts. He set his hand on my head, and the next day, the fever was gone. He saved my life. I’ve known my whole life that Christianity is the truth, because he saved my life."
"Okay." I was trying to see his point.
"Do you remember when I got off the bus to go to the rectory? I tried to track down the priest, but there wasn’t one, so we just left, right?"
"Yeah. So what?"
"Do you know who the secretary is in that rectory?"
"His personal secretary. No jive. I recognized her at once."
"It doesn’’t surprise me in the least," I replied.