Nothing happened to me while I was there.
My rosary didn't turn to gold. I had bought one with wooden beads on a thin stringed rope. I didn't see the sun spinning even though I watched for it. But what I experienced were subtle happenings, quiet and easy to miss because they seemed so much more natural, so close to what harmony is all about. So alien to the discordant, jarring syncopation of the life I lived and absorbed so "normally."
| One heart, in smithereens gathered in two hands cupped. Here was loving, irrelevant and discarded. I didn't want any of them-not my life, my heart, nor my loving.
Everything happened when I came back. My whole life spun around 180 degrees. And up to this day, years after, I still feel drifts of the spinning.
Why did I go there? I didn't know. What did I want? I didn't know. Up there on the hill, on my last morning, I held out my hand, held out one earring (one I had worn as a ring, because the other was "pledged" to someone). I placed the earring at the bottom of a make-shift steel bar cross where I had spotted a jutting screw. Placed it there-a token of my offering.
This was life, damaged. One heart, in smithereens gathered in two hands cupped. Here was loving, irrelevant and discarded. I didn't want any of them-not my life, my heart, nor my loving. But I brought them there (to you, Gospa). In returnfor what, I didn't know. Maybe I didn't want a trade. Maybe I just wanted to leave them behind.
Only the silent accompaniment of low cloud forms, the sound of wind against bush and brambles, and the crunching of my shoes on pebbled ground were audible. But I heard the words. Distinctly. Not with my ears, but from somewhere in me. I sucked in my breath and held it because what I heard wasn't my thought nor was it a half-begun phrase in my mind. It was measured. Clear. Spoken, but not by me for I would never have phrased it that way:
". . . . . ."
Seconds went by. Repeat, please. But nothing came. Nothing but the rush of wind. I began my trek down the hill. As is my habit when I travel, I bent down to pick up a pebble and held up a discarded earring-a child's trainer earring! Self-pity claimed me as an orphan. I climbed down the hill as her child.
A sense of being driven, a stubborn determination, a refusal to acquiesce to any compromise marked everything about this trip. It started with a casual phone conversation with my cousin in the context of the next travel adventure (I had never heard about the place till now), and finalized by a refusal to wait for a better time (a reasonable planning time as one would, for any trip). I said, "Let's go."
Two days later, we were booked on a flight in less than two weeks. Much later I read that no matter the desire or the plans, the trip itself would not materialize, but for a "call." And one responded mesmerized by a call.
At this particular junction in my life, I was out of a job. Money was definitely an issue. My passport had expired. To renew would mean additional expense. The trip itself was downright expensive because it was not booked with a group. At Dubrovnik, we would have to take our chances on how to get where we wanted to go. Why not wait for the next group tour, what was our hurry? But I was ruled by an imperative to go-now!
I had my own eccentric reasons. I asked myself: If He walked the earth today, would you-if you heard about the words proclaimed and the miracles taking place-would I, as they all did, travel the heat and the distance from San Francisco to, say, New York on foot to see Him and hear Him?
| Somehow every monkey wrench thrown my way made the going all the more satisfying! If someone was trying to jar me, to make me feel anxious about taking this trip, the ploy was not working.
Two days before the scheduled flight, the travel agent called to say that our flight for Friday had been canceled for lack of a minimum number of passengers. However, we would be booked on Monday, the next scheduled flight. We would lose two whole days!
On Friday, the day of the original flight, a snowstorm hit the East Coast. All commercial flights were canceled. I felt a satisfied glow burn in me as I watched the snowdrifts from a window within the warmth and safety of my apartment.
Monday, upon arrival at JFK in New York for a connecting flight in the evening, I waited in vain for my luggage to show up. On a 45-minute shuttle flight, my luggage was "misplaced"! I was off to Europe; my backpack was flying south to Houston Texas. Where should they forward it? I was asked. I had to laugh at the absurdity of it all! Why wasn't I asking to speak to the supervisor or threatening to sue or venting my frustration loudly? Somehow every monkey wrench thrown my way made the going all the more satisfying! If someone was trying to jar me, to make me feel anxious about taking this trip, the ploy was not working.
I had arrived at this moment in my life in this village accompanied by my cousin and her little girl. There was no older one, no wiser one, no more experienced one among us for guidance, plunging as we did and experiencing this phenomenon. Us three, each a generation apart, leveled down to one heart and one mind-the heart and mind of children.
The youngest among us was just learning to say her prayers and in a year would be preparing for her First Communion.
"I didn't know he died of a disease." She commented wide-eyed.
"What disease?" Did I miss something? "He died on a cross." I offered the studied phrase.
She looked confused. "But-what about . . . he suffered dandaponchos pile it?"
"Oh, that!" We gladly explained in between the laughter and the gospel narrative. But I was out of touch. While my cousin knew her prayers by rote, I was a throwback to the days when the Mass was still celebrated in Latin. I was eons removed from my original faith.
The Mass each day in a church (named after James the Apostle) was ushered in by a graying twilight and the steady peal of church bells. From every corner of the village, bounded on one side by hills and on the other by an imposing mountain with a gigantic stone cross on its peak, one could see the villagers from the fields, from their homes, heading towards the direction of St. James. The old and the young; the weather-beaten farmer and the white-collar worker. Teenagers, as normal as they come, as well as those in typical black punk outfits, complete with spiked hairstyle and stark make-up. The sick in wheelchairs, the cripple in crutches, the pilgrims, the merchants, the hawkers, the robed religious, the group tours, and the backpackers-a ribbon of humanity winding its way towards one direction and meeting in the church courtyard.
| For three hours during the celebration of the Eucharist, I strained to hear a cry, a sob-any sound from a child, or an infant. Anything to confirm for me that we were all still here on predictable Planet Earth. None.
I heard from individuals who had been there at one time and now had returned that in the summer, the crowds overflowed, spilling out into the roads, following the ritual and the songs guided only by blaring loudspeakers. But tonight was a wintry night in early January, with only small group tours, always the faithful pilgrims from neighboring towns and cities, and us, the curious.
I was more than curious. All my senses were on "red alert". I noticed everything, yet I understood nothing. I looked around to see every seat in the church taken. No special assigned seats for special patrons. The only ones who sat closest to the altar were the ones in wheelchairs. The church was packed every night, SRO along the aisles, and crammed at the rear. The only space not invaded was the choir loft, where the visionaries waited for Gospa at seven o' clock every evening.
I was conscious of children everywhere. Every size and shape. Either carried or held. They sat on the laps of grown-ups. They sat on the kneeling pew; and on their faces, a remarkable look of patience. They shamed me as I stifled my yawning. For three hours during the celebration of the Eucharist, I strained to hear a cry, a sob-any sound from a child, or an infant. Anything to confirm for me that we were all still here on predictable Planet Earth. None. Instead, I watched a little girl anticipate the repeating strains of Alleluias. And she joined the singing with more gusto than I, the grown-up.
Seven priests con-celebrated at the altar. But the people took over the celebration. They were the celebrants. This celebration was the apex of their day. They tilled the farms or worked in offices. They tinkered and argued in sweaty garages. They left an impression of marking time throughout the day until they came alive for this moment. I felt the air charged with a longing and a sense of exuberance as if meaningful time was now about to begin.
We were a small band of foreigners, surrounded by those who were "at home" in adoration. In adoration of this Presence of God. Their sense of trust and gratitude permeated the air; gratitude for their lives, for the meager and the abundance; for the peace in their hearts and for the invading imposition of the world in their homes. I felt as if I was trespassing on a love-exchange. From somewhere in the catechism of my youth, I came upon a phrase to describe what I was witnessing and what was now enveloping me: "the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins . . ."
I could not adore. I didn't know how. The realization racked me with a longing and a terrible sense of isolation. My whole life was filled with anxiety for things that mattered but didn't in the least bit count. I had the power to control my life but I didn't know where to bring it. I made decisions that would control whatever outcome, but had no time to notice the hunger of my own soul. I had peopled my life with persons whom I thought would nurture me into some future, but I remained lonely and cut off.
What was left to do, for someone of my particular stripe?
I cried. Silently and without a scintilla of my hard-earned pride, I cried. I wanted what they had. I had no illusions. I wanted simply to adore. I didn't care if my life remained as empty as it was. I could cope with whatever the future was all about. I had no great ambition to fulfill. No place under the sun waiting for me to explore. I wanted only one thing: to sit in adoration. If only at the fringes of this "communion of saints."
| We learned-as each day honed us, with each hour spent-to reconnect with a self we had previously discarded. Five days in a spot on earth experiencing a time-warp and venturing into a different realm.
Nothing in the celebration of the Eucharist was relevant to me. The fact that we listened each evening to a ritual spoken in a foreign language should have caused me to drift away inattentively. If I heard nothing that I could comprehend, why was my whole being so attuned in listening?
I was not the only one.
Each evening we listened to something being said to each one of us in a language meant only for our individual hearts. We learned-as each day honed us, with each hour spent-to reconnect with a self we had previously discarded. Five days in a spot on earth experiencing a time-warp and venturing into a different realm. Five whole days in a crash course of intense connecting. (O Holy Spirit, You began me-complete me.) Connecting in quiet ways. Following the soul as it grazed. Like running after a toddler as it discovers the wide and open spaces of the greenest field.
For the first three days there, I held on to the camera for dear life. Would grasp at anything to insure a barrier existed between me and any "encounter." Then slowly, I let go. Even then, I clung to some measure of disbelief, a sense of safety in being detached, trying my best to "monitor" the goings-on so I wouldn't have to participate or leave room for any opening. But the Spirit will have Its way. Will penetrate any encrusted shell. Find Its way through any man-made labyrinth. And like osmosis, settle in, find home-even in so inhospitable a vessel like me.
Why were we here? Why did any of us leave the comfort and warmth of our homes across the ocean to be here in surroundings so stark and threadbare? Was it only curiosity? Something else had to be working here. I glanced in my cousin's direction. As adventurous as she was, what made her come? What did she hope to accomplish here? How many among us were brought here to this spot out of mere curiosity and now, made aware of the rumbling silence in our innermost hearts?
My eyes scanned the expressions on the faces of the different priests at the altar. Were they as overwhelmed as I was by the outpouring of faith, or was this just run-of-the-mill piety? Why did something feel profound here? And are feelings reliable at this time? Could any of us return to our everyday cynicism and comfortable detachment after we left this place?
What made a young man detour from his backpack travels to come here? What did he hope to find? Where would an experience like this lead him? Or the young honeymoon couple who, while in Florence, Italy, heard about the village and the phenomenon and decided to see for themselves. Would every anniversary of their wedding bring back memories of this place and the strange appeal it held? How long would the impact last?
I became aware of a sense of the extraordinary taking place. Much as I fought the awareness, I felt that we were experiencing the most personal and the most profound visitation. We were being visited. Someone was at the threshold, waiting for an offer of hospitality from us! I reached back into my memory bank for a familiar story of one particular visitation. How did it go? Upon hearing that her cousin was with child, she set out at once to visit her . . .
Who are we-that you should come to visit us? Why bother with our wretchedness? Must you leave such an aura of peace as though you let your mantle slip from your shoulders, to fall gently on us? Have you forgotten the fall of hammering sound as we pounded the nail right through his bones into that wooden beam? Have you forgotten how all you could do was stand and watch while This Flesh of your flesh was hung like a slab of fresh meat before your eyes? Did you rage at God? Why didn't you rage at us? Why thank us now for responding to your call?
| And the reason for this present state of being was always there-the Gift Eternal-ignored and now rediscovered. Handed over, as it were, from Her Heart to ours.
Because "respond" is what one does. And one arrives-crossing over some threshold into Peace-to where all things elicit a sense of contentment. Where laughter is as easy as breathing. Where nothing gnaws or nags or claws its way into consciousness. It merely waits its turn. Where paradox takes over instead of irony. Where anything in the past that seemed unacceptable becomes in this Here and Now simply acceptable. And the reason for this present state of being was always there-the Gift Eternal-ignored and now rediscovered. Handed over, as it were, from Her Heart to ours.
A thousand and more winters ago, perhaps on a similar early January twilight, he had said, "Peace be with you." And his friends had stood their ground and simply stared at him. He breathed on someone. Perhaps, on someone like me, hardened and resisting. "Peace be with you." Again-waiting for a response.
. . . I accept.
I, who pawned my heart away for tokens of pledges-I accept yours, your promise that you will remain with me all the days of my life. Your Word alone is all I need.
I acknowledge my own contribution to the slow stain covering the world, my own bludgeoning of innocence, my own personal foray into violence. You forgive, I accept. If you can forget my past, who am I to remember and mock myself back into self-doubt?
You trust me in the coming days. You trust me in my wanderings: That in any life I lead I will find you. I will listen for your voice, because you will leave the fold to search for me.
You trust me to forge a connection in prayer. Teach me then to pray. To pray. To pray. To intercede with my whole being. To align my own small will with Your Greater Will. To be slain into newness by Your Loving. To wake up now-hungry to love You, Lord . . .
Everything that could happen happened when I returned home. My life spun around 180 degrees. Decades after, I still feel drifts of the spinning.
| Even if I wrestled with new doubts or found myself in dry paralysis, I somehow felt these too had earned their season and would settle into yesterday.
As all things do.
I returned to a "thirst." I spent solitary months with the phone turned off. Reading. Getting my feet wet in spiritual waters. Absorbing old truths with a new heart. Writing. Spelling out the questions and arriving at insights. I found myself even in my sleep, sorting out what I had read and arriving at some level of understanding. I would toss in bed wondering why I was wide-wake at three in the morning and could only be moved to write. The more I wrote, the more I learned.
And strangely, the learning field was my own fragmented self. I became my own test ground. I took on the lives I listened to and mirrored them back to my own. Would not condemn, lest I invite condemnation. Took on another's angst willingly because it too was my own. Chastised myself less, and learned to love myself more.
I began to feel at ease with each day's arriving stillness. Content to stay within the present moment, sometimes just watching the sun timidly rise or slowly set from my window. The noises in my head stopped in their tracks one day. Even if they returned in louder decibels in some far future, I knew I would no longer listen. Even if I wrestled with new doubts or found myself in dry paralysis, I somehow felt these too had earned their season and would settle into yesterday. As all things do.
What I had heard distinctly had come to pass. It was unfolding every day.
"Your miracle awaits you at home."
© Remé-Antonia Grefalda