benfaremoI’m not sure how it happened, but over the past couple of years, I’ve become more and more interested in Mary. Some of it undoubtedly stems from my interest in the paranormal, and, in a sense, nothing is more paranormal than the divine. As a scientist, I also believe that everything is understandable.

I grew up in a Catholic, Italian-American household and said my prayers every night. Back then, I prayed to God. I don’t remember hearing much about Jesus, except that he loved us. The Sisters who taught me in grammar school somehow spared us the gory details of the Crucifixion. The “accepting Jesus as your personal savior” movement hadn’t started yet, and I figured that if I was praying, I wanted to talk to the top deity. God created the universe, and I wanted to be on his side, and I wanted him to know it.

But where was God? He seemed to do lots of communicating a few thousand years ago. Jesus had not directly contacted us either recently. I was, and to some extent still am, confused about Jesus and the “Son of God” thing. And what about the “virgin birth”? Was Jesus an actual descendant of David as in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke even though Joseph was only his foster father? So much confusion. Mary is simpler: human, elevated to perfection, often in touch through prayer and apparitions with clear messages. Maybe that’s why I’ve been drawn to her.

If you’re “into Mary,” you’ve probably come across reference to Medjugorje, a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina where six residents have claimed to see the Virgin Mother beginning in 1981 when they were children. The story goes that one evening while walking on a hill outside the town, some of the children saw a woman beckoning them closer. They ran away out of fear, but returned with some friends the next night, when they all saw the woman again. Since then, the original six “visionaries,” as they are called, have been receiving messages and visitations by the Virgin Mary, identifying herself as the Queen of Peace. Some receive visions daily, no matter where they are, while others receive them annually on specific days. Her messages vary from joyful to sad, but they are always supportive and urge us to convert to Catholicism, fast and pray. As the local bishop has never sanctioned the apparitions, the Church’s stand is that while they cannot certify the validity of the apparitions, any efforts to honor the Virgin Mary are welcome.

As someone who enjoys traveling, good food and family, I made it a point to visit my relatives in Italy last summer and took a side trip across the Adriatic to visit Medjugorje. I set the city of Mostar – which is breathtakingly beautiful and full of life – as my base. Before its place at the center of the 1990s war in Bosnia, the city had been a centuries-old town with Christian, Muslims and Jews all living in harmony. Thankfully, peace has been restored.

After spending a couple of days in Mostar, I set off by bus to Medjugorje. Here’s my story:

In true European fashion, the bus is clean, on time and inexpensive. Arriving in town and walking up the main street, I take the ever-increasing density of religious souvenir shops as evidence that I am going in the right direction. About 10 minutes later, the Church of Saint James appears. It is large and quite crowded. I open the door to the church and am greeted by a wall of bodies reminiscent of a Christmas midnight Mass. A Mass is being said, but everyone in the narthex is kept out by the locked glass doors. A scoreboard-like sign in the plaza to the right of the church lists the times and languages of the masses. As the Eucharistic procession commences, I leave and visit other areas of the plaza. Off in another direction stands a more traditional white statue of Our Lady. Its small stature, along with the low fence, short pedestal and open circular space make her statue particularly welcoming. This is definitely a good place to pray and, as many others there, I kneel down on the stone pavement. I tried to be sincere as I occasionally try for that vision or apparition – something a bit out of the ordinary and maybe even supernatural. I look, I open my eyes. I close my eyes. I open them again. No miracle, but a good prayer never hurts.

My next stop was to the church-run gift shop – no authentic religious site would be without one. I was impressed by the quality of the items and the fact that all of the profit went to help defray the enormous cost of dealing with thousands of pilgrims. At the adjoining information office, I learn that although the visitations now occur wherever the “visionaries” are, the original site is about an hour’s walk outside town on “Apparition Hill.” I set off on this very hot August day along a sparsely marked route to where it all began. For the first half hour or so, I seem to be the only one interested in visiting the site, but I am soon reassured of my bearings as huge tour buses billow past me and a few souvenir shops appear. In what was probably just a little settlement years ago, a touristy but quaint village opens up before me. The original site isn’t well popularized, so you get more of a “pilgrimy” feel about this area. As the shops become sparser, the incline becomes greater, and the road loses its pavement and sidewalk. At this point, a sign sternly requests that no photos be taken.

Over the next half hour, the path gets steeper and rockier – like that of a dried-up river bed. I can only think, “What were those kids doing up here 30 years ago?!” I started to notice other pilgrims reciting the rosary. The road is ankle-twisting rocky, it’s hot, steep, and so I do the same – only silently. After a while, I pass a huge bronze relief, set off to the side of the path. After passing a few of them,
I realize that they are some sort of Stations of the Cross. Onward. Upward. The trees are long gone. By now, even the bushes are scarce. The path seems to have been plowed by some sort of machine, as the rocks are sometime sharp and jagged. Yet, it doesn’t make sense. If you were going to chop your way up here, why not make a clean path? Would it make the pilgrimage less valued?

It’s very rough now, and I notice quite a number of people with no shoes. These are real pilgrims! I later find out that some pilgrims make the trek on their knees, but I can only conclude that if they do and ever walk again, that is certainly a miracle.

As the path flattens out a bit and curves down and to the left, I see what must be “the spot.” There’s another statue of Mary, a square fence around it. The area is steep and the rocks jagged, but if you look, you can find a place to kneel, and I do.

I introduce myself. Mary, here I am. My first pilgrimage. I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is. I did it.

Am I supposed to feel something in this unofficially holy spot? I feel special in having made the trip, in being there – but nothing I would classify as miraculous. I guess that’s what faith is all about, and if there’s one thing that the Almighty asks of us, it is to have faith.

Even though it is mostly downhill now, the return to the village seems just as long as the way up. I still have time before the next bus back to Mostar, so I have a light lunch in the covered picnic area that adjoins the church plaza. There is no Mass at the moment, so I can actually enter. Most people seem to be congregating to the right of the altar where there is a wonderful statue of the Blessed Mother. Her face is bisque-like and featureless. I like this, as it reminds me that whatever we as humans see of the divine, it is only a small part of what it really is.

I try to empty myself and open myself “to whatever.” I make the effort to move myself to Mary. “Here I am. Here I want to be. Thank you for loving me.” I make the effort to concentrate as never before to lovingly connect to the divine. Eventually, I think that I’ve done about the best I can. I stand and go outside, somewhat drained.

There’s still some time before I need to make it to the bus station. As I sit on the concrete bench in front of the church, I take it all in. Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe …Our Lady seems to like hot, dry, rocky locations. The flower container next to me reminds me of some of God’s most beautiful creations. But, they have the same problem with clover as I seem to have with my flower pots back home.

Before leaving, I wonder: Was my prayer sincere enough, was it loud enough, did it rise above all clamoring for cures, forgiveness, relief? As my hand brushes through the clover, I ask, “Am I on the right track? Did anyone hear me? Let me know. I reached out to you. Could you reach out to me? Maybe just a little sign. A four-leaf clover that you would have had to make in advance for me.”

I bow my head and give a little sigh and smile. My answer is there. A four-leafed miracle stands right out and there’s not another in the pot. It’s an answer directly to me. “Ask and you shall receive.”

This miracolino, this little miracle, is my answer. It’s not a message to the world. It’s just for me. Not too much so as to be supernatural, inexplicable or unbelievable, and not too insignificant as to make a mountain out of a mole hill. Just enough to help keep the faith.

by Nicholas Benfaremo