There is a hill on the edge of Medjugorje where The Blessed Mother appeared to the six young children of the small village on June 25, 1981. On our arrival the first evening, after supper, four of us made a quick decision to climb Apparition Hill, called Podbrdo. On our way to locate the beginning of the climb, we stopped an elderly gentleman for directions; and asking him if he spoke English, puffed out his chest and said, “I am English!” I could not resist taking his picture.
Once we found the beginning of the hill and begun to climb, we passed by a quiet gentleman on his way down, who I thought looked a lot like the Englishman we met earlier. And once we arrived at the location where The Holy Mother first appeared, we saw another gentleman sitting in silence, who I thought looked like the previous two. I took his picture also.
I had read a few books and heard much on the Visions that took place on the hill, and previously envisioned it as being like those of Texas, with its fertile soil and brush growing amid a few rocks, but this hill was unlike any I have been on. Made up of rock, hardened dirt, briar patches and more rock. At the end of our pilgrimage; the day before I left for the states, I tried to get a sample of dirt to bring home, and decided on a few small rocks instead. There was no way to scrap up dirt that had been trampled on for 20 years.
The climb was difficult because of the quantity of rock, but more so because of how worn smooth the stones had become, from literally millions of feet that climbed the hill. On my first ascent, occasionally I noticed small, bright red petals, like splats of blood; I would have thought to be from roses if not for how small and bright they were. Then I noticed poppy growing along the path, but they reminded me of those pilgrims who climb the hill with their feet bare, no doubt sometimes leaving traces of blood.But I must mention the most prominent thoughts that entered my mind as I first climbed Podbrdo. Some of you may be troubled about what I am about to say; but I had a vivid image of a disturbing scene in the movie, The Killing Fields. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Cambodian guide, Dith Pran, is walking through a mass grave from the Communist executions; a swamp littered with bones and skulls. It’s a very dramatic and poignant scene; and when one remembers the story is real, the images make an even heavier impression.
And I am reminded of that horrific scene as I climb Apparition Hill. The rocks appear similar to limestone, many perforated with holes that resemble the eye sockets of skulls. Some resemble buried bones, and a further chilling thought entered my mind as I climbed; Jesus was crucified at Golgotha, the Skull Place; named because of the remains that littered the area. But understand this dear Reader; just as Our Lady chose to appear to children in a Communist country, she further chose a hill that mimics death, and now her appearance has made that hill sacred; and life has begun again for millions of pilgrims who set foot upon that holy mountain.
To continue that thought; if you look closely to the image of Mary on a painting or statue of her, you will notice Satan is under her feet. And this dear Woman, who Satan cannot touch, has a love for us that exist only between a mother and her child. I know of no other bond on earth that is so powerful and so beautiful.
On that first night, the four of us stood at the place where Our Lady appeared just as the evening drew near. A simple aluminum cross marks the spot where she appeared; and still does from time to time. Amidst all the rocks, one can see petitions, prayers and words of thanksgiving. I saw papers inserted in cracks in the rocks and even words scribed on the rocks themselves.The cross had scores of messages stuck to it, like small bumper stickers. As we were told later, the reason why the cross is so simple, because when she is ready, `Gospa‘, will replace it with a permanent sign for all people to see. It will be the time when all people will know she is real. So this temporary cross is a way of looking forward to seeing her sign.Surrounding the cross are many crucifixes. There are small ones and some quite large; ten feet tall or more. I saw memorials of all sizes scattered around, some were small headstones with names and dates mounted on rocks, and some were simply wooden crosses. A large sign stood erect with the simple command, “silence” in five or six different languages.
From there, we looked out over the town of Medjugorje where the far side was gently bathed in rain. Lightning danced lazily in the distance. St. James church, near the center of the town remained basking in the spotlights surrounding it. I heard a dinner bell in the distance, and the sporadic barking of dogs. There always seems to be someone working on a house as confirmed by an occasional hammering echo.
One thing would always catch my attention while in Medjugorje – the people. Especially the children, and as we walked back to the Pansion (hotel) that first night, we passed a group of kids playing ball under a streetlight. And even though the area had been in war a few years before, the only thing we had to fear, were the taxis racing precariously close along the narrow streets. On one close encounter, one of my nieces commented, ”The speed limit must just be a suggestion.”
On the third day, our guide took the entire group up on the hill. An elderly Australian couple joined us. I find it interesting how we see people and our first impressions never are correct. At least mine aren’t. Some people will tell you they know people right away, but I don’t believe them. It’s not until we converse with others, that we know them, by listening to their fears and joys.
The Australians were traveling around the world visiting religious sites of every religion. I had a feeling, perhaps, they were looking for something of which they themselves did not know. The gentleman was a hand surgeon and for some reason, just didn’t match his short round stature. His tall, thin wife is an artist who specializes in oil portraits of obscure people who were famous in their time; such as inventors, scientists and statesmen. On the way down the hill as I escorted her, she confided to me, she had doubts concerning her faith. She looked at all the religious wars and could not see how they could believe in a god. She told me, she was not able to discuss her doubts with her husband. Every time she attempted to, he became angry with her. I’m not a religious scholar, but I told her, the part of religions that are corrupt, are the parts we humans add to it. But I was saddened that this dear lady was not able to talk to her husband of many years, but could to a stranger walking down a mountain with her.
Along the path up the hill are large cast-bronze monuments of the Joyful and Sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. Pilgrims can meditate on the mysteries as they climb. Very seldom did we climb and not see someone kneeling or sitting in prayer at many of these locations.
In the church below, six masses are said throughout the day. One service being three hours in length. From 6pm until 9, the church prays all three decades of the rosary, celebrates the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and sometimes have the Adoration of the Host on display for all to see. But at precisely 6:40 PM, everyday, the time when Gospa appears to one of the visionaries, the service stops for a few moments in holy honor for what is taking place elsewhere.
I don’t remember what day it was, but I wanted to be on Apparition Hill at that time, to sense the peace and solemnity of the moment. As I climbed the hill again in the bright late afternoon sun, I noticed several small trails that branched off the main path. Some were well pronounced and others where very obscure. I followed the beckoning of one path and after crawling literally on hands and knees through briars, I found a cross, about 5 feet high, erected in the rock. Across the arms were the words, “Tipperary Ireland”. A little further up, I found another cross in the rocks that appeared to be made of scrap wood. I wondered how many of these solitary monuments dotted the hill. After getting back to the main path, with my forearms christened with scratches, I chose not listen to any more of the beckonings and stay on the main path.
I arrived at the aluminum cross a little after 6 and found a slightly comfortable place to sit nearby, under the thin shade of a bush. I watched a nun in white garb praying at the cross, touching it and perhaps hoping for a miracle. A large man, his race similar to an American Indian, paid homage nearby, while his wife stood a little behind him, waiting patiently. Their small child, a little girl about 4 in a dirty dress played all around him while he worshiped.
Everywhere I looked, I saw words in many languages either written in marker or scribed with a knife on many of the smooth rocks. Of the English inscriptions, I saw words of praises, thanksgiving and petitions. The one phrase I saw more than any other, was simply, “Thank You.” Near where I sat, I saw a paper folded and inserted tightly into a crevice. There are times when things are not meant to be disturbed and times when you are meant to see. With the help of a key, I was able to extract it; and opening it up, I saw a black and white photograph of a young man in a wheelchair. There is no way of knowing how long the image had been in the rock, but the photo appeared to be quite old. There are times you just know certain things. He looked like he was a man of an East European country and sadly I felt he was no longer alive. I refolded the picture and inserted it back into its niche.
Two military helicopters stoically moved across the horizon like menacing lions wanting to make their presence known; the hum of their engines mixing with the buzzing of insects in the hot sunlight. A lizard slipped through some of the eye sockets in the rocks and disappeared. I listened to the roosters in the distance in the late afternoon, still informing everyone of the sun; while workmen below continued their hammering. Since so many people attend the church services, hundreds of benches have been placed outside, on both sides of the church. Large speakers relay the prayers outside; so the music flowed up to the hill where I sat.
And precisely at 6:40, the music and prayers from St. James ceased, and I bowed my head in respect. There are times when the Spirit takes control; and without warning, a torrent of tears came from within me, and I could not stop them. Like a small child in a cleansing, I fought it. This `gift’ is like a curse at times and I have little control over it. It brings out the deepest thoughts and washes them out for all to see.
There are things in Life that make up your core. You may not want them but they are you. I have learned to use this `curse’ in my writing. And yet I have come to realize as much as I hate it; I would never trade it for anything in the world; for it is my core emotions. Everything sacred and beautiful within me comes from this curse. How can I write without it?
I think the human soul is untouchable by humans, except through the emotions. What emotions touch the soul, affects the individual more than any medicine or disease. Like a delicate sponge soaked with moisture, when the soul is touched, tears come forth. Whether in grief or joy, sadness or compassion, it is the only way that precious core of ours can be seen.