The following story happened to me, on the first occasion I visited the remote village of Medjugorje in Bosnia Hercegovina, in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. I am moved to write this down because yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of Our Lady Queen of Peace beginning a series of daily apparitions to a number of (then) children, many of who still receive messages to this day.
Please don’t groan when I say I want to start this story at the very beginning, at a time when I was only three or four years old in the early 1950’s. It is necessary to provide the context for what unfolded and I’ll try to keep it mercifully brief!
Just about the first thing I can remember thinking is ‘Why me, what have I done to deserve this?’.
You may think this is rather strange behaviour for a young child, especially when I tell you that at this time I was living in a beautiful white painted original Georgian mansion, set in acres of parkland, with it’s own garden maze and pool. This house was literally like something out of a James Bond movie. The ballroom was reputed to be the largest room in the whole of Kent, a picturesque county in the South-East of the country known deservedly as ‘The Garden of England’. It was approached via, what through the eyes of a child seemed like, a mile long drive. I remember, feeling envious of ‘ordinary’ people, even those that lived on the squalid council estates (projects) that were prevalent in post-war Britain.
And the reason for this was the mansion was an orphanage, I was the proverbial bird trapped in a gilded cage. In reality, my reason for envy was rather more personal than this. After all, to this day, I have a love for beautiful architecture. I was nobody’s fool, I knew that I was living way beyond the means of ‘ordinary’ people. No, the real reason that I was consumed by envy was because they had real mothers and fathers and even though I had a mother, she couldn’t afford to keep me, and not unnaturally I felt abandoned and unloved.
A child without the love of a mother has a corrosive ‘black hole’ eating away at his or her very soul.
Phew, that’s the first time I’ve said it in print, but it’s true. The net result of this upbringing was that I became extremely emotionally introverted, the fear of more rejection, real or imagined, should not be under-estimated. At surface level I had developed the protection of a happy even-tempered personality and this helped to disguise the serious, shy and emotionally stunted underlying persona.
Whilst not possessing matinee idol looks (unless you count Rin Tin Tin as a film star), I had at least been blessed with a quick sense of humour and had inherited a reasonable level of intelligence, and the orphanage latched onto this and made me their ‘trophy’ student. Eventually, I was blessed with the extreme luck of being sent to a boarding school (Public School in England or Private School in the States) which during my period of studying there celebrated the 300th anniversary of it’s foundation.
(I throw that last bit of information in to interest any Americans who may be reading this. I’m talking about a time well over 30 years ago so the school had already celebrated it’s centenary years before the American War of Independence!)
Boarding school was the first time I felt a degree of normality.
This was firstly because the dynamics of an old boarding school where not dissimilar to that of an old orphanage, but also because all the other boarding pupils were in the same boat, nobody had parents to go home to! Nobody knew about, what to me felt like a dark secret, and I applied myself to studying because I knew this was to be my route out of charity and poverty. My fear of poverty was more conditioned by the lack of aspiration and ambition of most of those other unfortunates at the Children’s Home. Let’s face it, I could hardly claim I was suffering in a material sense, living as I had been in a mansion and being educated at a Public School! I was determined to be just as successful as the middle-class children I was now at school with.
My adult years were consumed by the need to demonstrate material success.
I was driven by the need to be just as, or even more successful, than my peer group contemporaries. I rose to be a director of a number of companies, and had the requisite big car and big house in one of England’s prettiest and most expensive ‘stockbroker belt’ villages. Unfortunately, for me, I also had the big head that went with the Jaguars, Mercedes and BMW’s!
Whereas, when I was I child, I was a likeable lad (excuse me if I do say it myself) my happy even temperament was, all too often, no longer disguising the darker side of my personality. I was too frequently succumbing to displays of boorish arrogance and bad temper. As a priest told me recently, ‘the theme song of hell is “My Way” the popular Frank Sinatra song’. I wasn’t listening so I couldn’t do it ‘God’s Way’.
Whilst I had an innate feeling of God’s presence in my life and had always felt a sense of his protection I was not really an active Christian. At the time of my first visit to Medjugorje I had been married to a heart-stoppingly beautiful girl of Italian extraction, with classic Sophia Loren looks for about fifteen years.
When I first met my wife I instinctively knew that God meant her for me, don’t ask me how, I just did!
The problem was that she didn’t initially want to fall-in with God’s plan. Understandable really, with her looks and gentle nature she could have courted just about anybody she wanted. Through a strategy of relentless attrition and a continuous barrage of debatable humour she was eventually worn down into agreeing to marry me. Poor girl, she should have trusted her instincts!
What really instantly attracted me to her was not her stunning good looks, though I cannot deny that they helped, it was more the overwhelming aura of grace that she exuded. I’m sorry but I can’t explain it any other way. With the benefit of hindsight I now know that the source of that grace was her great spirituality, her love of Jesus and devotion to Mary, perhaps the legacy of receiving the ‘last rites’ on three occasions as a small child.
My wife was a catholic and I was a non-practising protestant. Whilst this may have caused very real problems for my wife, and for the priest who married us, it was not a problem for me. Indeed, I quite envied my wife for the depth of her faith, it just wasn’t for me! I was totally happy to be married in a Catholic Church and for our daughter, when she came along, to be brought up in the catholic faith. I reasoned that at least the Catholic Church took religion seriously and that my daughter would be brought up exposed to Christian values.
It has to be said though that I was only playing little more than lip service to my own spiritual life. I used to accompany my wife and daughter to church once a month or so to provide moral if not spiritual support and, if I was in my wife’s bad books, I might volunteer or agree to chauffeur her to the occasional Christian meeting, though I wouldn’t normally get involved. Once, I remember, I even bought her a leather-bound family bible as a birthday present, I was back in the good books for a few weeks after that!
It got to the point where, to all intents and purposes, we were leading separate lives.
We were living mutually exclusive parallel lives. I had become impossible to live with, drinking too much, coming and going as I pleased and living life to a totally different agenda. My wife would have had every reason to divorce me but for the fact she was a good practising catholic. Instead we settled for the phoney war of relentless carping and sniping at each other.
Then began a pretty miserable and unhappy experience for the both of us, though I have to confess, it was overwhelmingly a situation of my own making. I had broken the essential bond of trust and the trouble was that it became a vicious circle. The more unhappy we became the more we vented our anger on each other, and what I originally thought of as my fun sense of humour was deployed in making hurtful and sarcastic jokes at my wife’s expense. In my stressed-out unhappiness, I had lost the patience and love to show kindness.
I had become an arrogant foul-mouthed and overbearing male chauvinist, I didn’t like myself at all.
After years of unhappiness and continuous marital strife I knew that I was light years away from the likeable young boy I used to be. The only thing that kept me going was pride. I had enjoyed an unreasonable degree of financial success by most people’s standards in my earlier years and I was desperately trying to recapture those halcyon days. I knew I was good at my job, I just needed the opportunity to demonstrate it again.
Life was painfully bleak, but I had always said to my wife that I would only get married once and I meant it. Besides, after my up bringing, the last thing I wanted to do was to abandon my daughter, she was my pride and joy, and the best thing that had ever happened to me.
The start of the turning point came as a result of my most spectacular attempt to curry favour.
My wife had for many years been reading about the apparitions of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Medjugorge and was desperate to go. Seizing my chance for a week of peace and quiet, and hopefully an extended period of being in her ‘good books’, I offered to pay for her to go.
In due course I found myself chauffeuring my wife and another couple to the airport and went home to face a quiet peaceful week with my daughter. When I returned a week later the people who I met were a revelation. My wife and her friend were bubbly with happiness but her friend’s husband was totally transformed. On the initial trip to the airport he had been uncommunicative, pre-occupied, almost sullen, it was as though he was going under duress, but now he was a totally different person. He was wreathed in great smiles and he had a gentle strength that overcame his natural shyness. I was subsequently told that he had been brought up a catholic but had renounced his faith for twenty or thirty years, virtually all his adult life. Now his faith had been re-lit and it literally shone out of him.
From that moment on I knew I had to take Medjugorje seriously.
Marital life had returned to it’s spirit sapping war of attrition, but in the mean time I went to listen to talks being given by the American evangelists Wayne Weible and Richard Bingold and both were compelling advocates for Our Lady and Medjugorje. As far as my wife was concerned I gave low-key reactions to the effect the talks had on me, just didn’t have the humility to admit the truth I guess, but in my heart I knew I wanted to go.
My wife offered to return the favour and pay for me to go to Medjugorje as my birthday present. It was to be the greatest present she could ever give me, she gave me back my life!
For months and weeks before leaving she expected me to back out, but I knew I genuinely wanted to go, besides, marital life was intolerable, something had to change, and that something was me.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, sure I’d heard all the stories and seen the pictures, but I wasn’t sure how I would react. If people asked what I was doing I said I was off on holiday or, if pushed, I was going on a trip with ‘the church’. I couldn’t bring myself to admit I was going on a pilgrimage. My over weaning arrogance wouldn’t allow me to accept that I was subject to a higher power.
It was bizarre, I accepted there was a God subconsciously but denied him consciously.
The saving grace for me was that the person who had found his faith so powerfully re-lit on the previous year’s trip had, in the interim period, become a good friend, and accompanied me on the pilgrimage. Also, God had a sense of humour because my friend had an I.Q. of Einstien like proportions. There was no way I could shelter behind a blanket of intellectual arrogance. If my friend was humble enough to believe, notwithstanding his infinitely superior intelligence, whom did I think I was trying to kid by thinking I was above it all?
Nonetheless, there was no denying that I was full of apprehension when I got on the plane, how was I going to cope for a whole week with a group of religious fanatics? The funny thing was that as soon as the party got onto the coach to take us the remaining part of the journey from the airport to Medjugorje, it felt natural to be joining in with them in saying the Rosary and other prayers. You have to remember that I had never been a catholic so the rites and rituals were largely foreign to me.
Almost from the very beginning I felt a sense of the Holy Spirit descending on us.
It was strange, a coach load of pilgrims of all age groups, classes and backgrounds came together at Our Lady’s invitation, and we all felt like instant family! It wasn’t just my imagination because everyone felt the same. It seemed to me that we were like the different ingredients you need to make the perfect cake or indeed, the perfect apostle. On my return I was moved to compose a prayer in which I asked the Lord to give me the various blessings that I felt each of my friends on the pilgrimage had brought to the party. Words such as growth, love, teaching, spirit-filled, service, passionate, insight, determination, welcoming, graceful, faith, strength, courage, charitable, accepting, enthusiastic, humour, evangelise and devotion sprang to mind as core characteristics. I hope you see what I mean by perfect ingredients!
I felt that Medjugorje had a serene dignity all it’s own.
As the week went on I came to realise that this simple little village, miles from ‘normal’ civilisation and immersed in prayer, was the nearest we were likely to get to a glimpse of heaven on earth. When I got back I described the experience as being marinated in the Holy Spirit.
By about the fourth day of the pilgrimage, I had fallen into a routine of prayer, talks and services, with walks on Apparition Hill to pray the Rosary’, or a climb up Cross Mountain to complete the Stations of the Cross. After supper there would normally be a last prayer meeting or a talk. Then a friend I had made on the pilgrimage and I would retire to a little bar by our hotel at about 10 o’clock. He would then give me a simple de-brief, over a few beers, of the key hand full of things I should take out of the day’s events. Bear in mind that many of the talks were filled with catholic jargon so they could, on occasion, be a bit impenetrable for a protestant like me.
On this particular night we had been on a trip that day to hear a talk by Father Jozo, the original parish priest of Medjugorje, a truly spiritual and inspirational man. He had suffered beatings and imprisonment at the hands of the communist authorities for daring to support the children in their claims to see visions of Our Lady. He now ran a neighbouring parish in addition to giving a series of talks every day to visiting pilgrims. If this wasn’t enough he also ran a charity to support war orphans.
Father Jozo cares for over 4,000 children orphaned by the recent civil war!
The manager of the bar was about the only dissatisfied person I met in all my time at Medjugorje and, since my friend and I had visited his bar two or three nights running, we started to talk to each other. A short while later my pilgrimage friend left to go to bed but I was heavily immersed in conversation with the manager so stayed on. Over a couple of drinks with him I felt emboldened enough to enquire as to why he seemed to be unhappy, he claimed he was actually a doctor and had lost all his wealth and property in Sarejevo, the wrong side of the ethnic divide.
Fired up by Father Jozo’s inspiring talk, earlier in the day, I was like the proverbial ‘rat up a drainpipe’. I told him in no uncertain terms that I knew of someone who would certainly welcome his assistance and tried for the next hour or so to convince him to offer Father Jozo his help, alas without success.
Our pilgrimage leader had decided to spend the night in prayer on Cross Mountain.
He spotted me in the bar and quite rightly made oblique comments about it ‘being late and a heavy schedule tomorrow’. On learning of his plans to go to Cross Mountain I asked him to hang on for a short while whilst I finished my drink. He, no doubt thinking that I had drank more than enough already, said he wasn’t going to wait, ‘Come now if you want to come with me’.
I had always been brought up with the Victorian edict ‘Waste not, want not’, and this particularly applied to alcoholic drinks as far as I was concerned. I’d paid for the drink so I’d drink it! So off he went into the night.
About half an hour later I left the bar and I decided to go up Cross Mountain but before setting off I decided to go and sit by the beautiful white stone statue of Our Lady outside the parish church of
St. James. Apart from a taxi driver asleep across the bench seat of his old Mercedes taxi I appeared to be the only person in the whole of Medjugorje. It was a black moon free sky, lit only by thousands of twinkling little stars.
There was a breathtaking all pervading peace about the village.
The words of that beautiful Christmas carol, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ came to mind and for the very first time in my life I found I was praying to Our Lady for her intercession.
After about twenty minutes in peaceful prayer to Our Lady I had to decide whether to go back to my hotel to sleep or go up Cross Mountain. Common sense dictated that I go to bed, it was well past midnight by then. However, caught up in the fervour of the aftermath of my prayers to Our Lady I decided I still wanted to climb Cross Mountain. So with a deep breath, and best foot forward, I started to walk the mile or so journey to the base of the mountain.
I’d been there once before, a couple of day’s earlier as part of a small party, and thought that I knew the way. I picked the right road out of the village and patiently walked alone in the darkness. I’m sure that I didn’t pass anyone or for that matter, no one passed me although I have a dim recollection of perhaps two or three cars passing. I got to the T-junction about a mile outside the village and with great confidence turned left.
I walked and walked, then walked and walked some more, until I had to admit to myself that I was lost and had gone the wrong way at the junction. I retraced my steps and after an age I returned to the vicinity of the junction.
At that moment a cock crowed.
My instant reaction was ‘How biblical is this?’ and I struggled in the darkness to read my watch. It was about ten minutes to four, I had been walking for between three and four hours. Perhaps it was the Lord’s way of helping me to work off any alcohol in my system.
Again I needed to make a decision, should I go back to my hotel and get some much-needed sleep, or should I go up Cross Mountain. I took a deep breath, I’d gone this far, and I’d carry on. It was only months later that I realised that I had been given three opportunities to back out, firstly when I left the bar, secondly after I had prayed at Our Lady’s statue and finally just after the cock crowed in the vicinity of the junction. I set off to walk the last few hundred yards to the base of Cross Mountain.
I suddenly became aware that a lady dressed in a long dark, full-length hooded cloak or coat was walking about ten yards ahead of me.
Whilst I never saw her face from beginning to end, I had an impression that her hair was brown rather than black and her skin colour was quite pale. The only detail I can give with any certainty was that she had strong sturdy ankles and she was wearing robust, old-fashioned shoes the type that no western lady would be seen dead in today.
They were built to last for years, with no concession to transient fashion. English readers will know what I mean if I refer to them as ‘Widow Twanky’ pantomime dame shoes. I didn’t notice at the time but, whilst I could see her feet walking along the road in front of me, it’s only now, as I write this, that I realise that I couldn’t hear her footsteps. The thought crossed my mind that this lady shouldn’t be out alone in the dead of the night like this, blame my lack of imagination but it never occurred to me that she was anything other than a local peasant women.
I followed her the remaining few hundred yards to the apron area at the base of Cross Mountain. As soon as I tried to walk across the small stones of this relatively flat area I knew had ‘bitten off more than I could chew’. This was by far the easiest part of the climb, in fact at this stage, it was only a walk, yet because of the dark and cold night dew on the stones I was in grave danger of doing myself serious harm. To make matters even worse, I was wearing my favourite comfortable casual shoes and the soles had been worn glass smooth over the years. I couldn’t really see where I was walking, in fact I wasn’t walking, I was slipping and sliding. I knew I would need assistance.
It was quite a scary moment and I suddenly found that I had approached the lady who was standing by the signs to the left of the apron area. Firstly, in English, then haltingly in Italian, the local second language, I tried to explain that I was a married man to try and put her mind at rest that I wasn’t about to attack her. After all it was the middle of the night!
I found myself, me an arrogant male chauvinist, asking this total stranger, this unknown lady, if I could go up the mountain with her.
Without saying a word she produced a light and proceeded to light my way. She walked in front of me the whole way, she walking in the dark with the beam of light directed behind her to assist me. Every time I stopped, she stopped, and every time I started she started again. The only time she turned the beam forward was when we stopped at each of the large bronze friezes depicting the scene at each of the Stations of the Cross. She would point the beam forward for a minute or two to illuminate the scene for my benefit then she would turn the beam off. Then she climbed the pile of boulders supporting the friezes and caressed the faces of all the participants in the tableaux with great reverence and devotion. I had the extraordinary sensation that this lady knew the people depicted personally. I can’t prove what happened either way, but please take my word on this; it was one of those ‘hairs standing up on the back of the neck’ moments. It was like watching a blind person stroking the face of a loved one. It wasn’t at all frightening, just achingly beautiful to see.
She was an object lesson in love and total humility.
I’d never understood before, humility doesn’t necessarily mean servitude, it’s actually a selfless act of extreme love. After she had spent a couple of minutes caressing the people in the tableaux she would then lie prostrate on the ground in prayer for another five or ten minutes. If you have never been to Medjugorje you will not know that the route of the Stations of the Cross winds up the mountain like a dried-up riverbed. You don’t walk up, you pick your way using the boulders as stepping stones. Everyone else I have ever seen on the mountain, either finds a smooth rock to sit or kneel on, or supports their weight when they pray by only going down on one knee. In fact it’s so rocky many pray standing with just the head bowed. Not this lady, she was spread-eagled on the rocks, and because of the length of time she prayed, it must have been distinctly uncomfortable if not down right painful.
But I never got any indication it was done for gratuitous display, it seemed to me it was a genuine expression of total love and humility.
It normally takes about an hour to climb Cross Mountain, it took us about two. There is a huge white painted concrete cross at the summit and there are a number of steps leading up to its base. The first faint hints of the new day were starting to paint streaks across the sky as I stood behind the lady kneeling in prayer in the dark on the steps a few short feet in front of me. After about ten minutes I felt that I couldn’t stand there any longer, I just had to go and find somewhere to sit!
The Queen Mother
Moving up to the lady’s right shoulder I knew I had to thank her for being my guide and protector, there was no way I could have made it without her help. I didn’t want to disturb her but I owed her my sincere thanks. Summoning up my smattering of Italian I said ‘Bella donna, a mille gracia’ which I fervently hope means ‘Beautiful lady, a thousand thank you’s’. At that, without looking up from her prayers, she gently raised her right hand and waived very gracefully to me, as if to say, ‘Don’t mention it’. It was like watching the Queen Mother acknowledging her subjects.
As you can imagine, I was quite shaken by the total experience and I went over to the flat apron area behind the cross to find a boulder to sit on. A few minutes later our team leader, who had been on an all-night vigil on the mountain, was surprised to stumble across me and offered to walk back down with me. Before we started down, I asked him ‘Can you see that lady praying on the steps at the base of the cross?’ He was a bit puzzled as to why I should ask the question, but peering through the gloom, to my great relief he said ‘Yes’. I was starting to worry that I had imagined the whole thing.
On the way down I told him what had happened to me and at one point we bumped into Father Slavko, the then Parish Priest. Our leader who had led a number of previous pilgrimages knew him and engaged him in conversation, trying to arrange for him to address our party with one of his talks. All the time they were talking, Father Slavko appeared to be looking intently at me. It was most disconcerting, it felt like he was reading my soul!
At the bottom of the mountain, I turned to my friend and said, ‘ Do you know, I never saw that lady’s face from beginning to end’ and then I asked ‘Did you see her face?’. He replied in a matter of fact tone ‘No, but when we stopped to talk to Father Slavko she passed us, and I caught her eyes, they were full of love and seemed to say “You’re safe now”’. He had been on so many trips nothing seemed to faze him.
On the last morning we had a farewell service in a little chapel run by Sisters and, because I was a little late in arriving, I took a side seat, as I didn’t want to disrupt the service. Whilst I could see the main part of the alter my view of Our Lady was totally obscured by a column holding the roof up. As I left, the friend who had accompanied me on the pilgrimage came up to me and asked whether I had seen the statue because it was highly unusual. The statue was one of a pair, to the right of the altar, looking from the body of the church, was one of Our Lord and to the left was one of Our Lady. They were both chiselled from rough-hewn wood and had a distinctly raw power about them. There was also one last twist, the statues were life size, or slightly greater, and Our Lady’s right hand was open and at exactly the right height to encourage an adult to hold it.
Please be my Mother
I went up to the statue and held Our Lady’s hand and prayed a few silent prayers, asking her to intercede in asking forgiveness for my past sins, asking for her help in repairing my marriage, and thanking her for my time in Medjugorje. Finally, I asked her if she would please be my mother. As I prayed this I felt a warm peaceful charge ripple through my body, It was like being under a shower of warm golden treacle. And then a thought popped unbidden into my head, a thought that I had first had nearly fifty years previously, ‘Why me, what have I done to deserve this’.
Six months later, I was received into the Catholic Church, I’m not sure it was totally necessary, I’m sure Our Lord and Our Lady would have been happy for me just to renew my faith within my former protestant religion. However, for me it seemed right, the vital central roles of the Eucharist and Mary seem totally appropriate and provide me with great comfort. This is not a position arrived at by great scholarship, it has been arrived at as an article of simple faith. Perhaps I’m beginning to learn a few lessons after all. It is a decision that has not caused me so much as a second’s regret.
The final surprise
I invited friends and those that could make it from my ‘pilgrim family’ to a small party at my home, prior to the service of being received into the church. I was telling a few people there about what had happened to me on the mountain and turning to the leader of the pilgrimage who happened to be stood by me I queried if he saw where the lady had gone. His reply blew me away. ‘No’ he said, then again in his matter of fact way he said ‘The last I saw of her was as she floated off down the mountain'.
People, ask me who or what I think I saw on the mountain, and in a sense it doesn’t matter. Whoever or what ever I saw was undeniably and literally heaven sent. Was it a devout local lady, was it my Guardian Angel, or was it Our Lady herself ? I make no claims, but in my heart I think I know.
I started this story by saying I was prompted to put it into print because it was the twentieth anniversary of Our Lady first appearing at Medjugorje. That’s true. To mark the occasion I drove a small party in my car to a church in a nearby city so that we could all take part in the celebratory programme. It included the Rosary, Mass, the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and a talk by a well known Marian scholar. Due to problems with the car I only got to hear the talk. In a nutshell, and to paraphrase him unmercifully, he suggested that in all the thousands of daily messages Our Lady has made over the last twenty years Mathew 6 verses 24 –34 stood out as being far and away the most popular source. Indeed, he went on, the single strongest theme over this period has been to trust in the Lord. Just as I have found to my cost, you cannot have a healthy marriage if it is devoid of trust, so you can never enjoy the fullest union with God unless it also is built on complete and total trust. Now that takes real humility!
*For free copies of Phil's CD, Gospa Oratorio, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Since Phil’s experience in Medjugorje he was inspired to produce a Cd. Phil asked his brother Mike a musician, and also a non practising protestant to compile this CD ‘Gospa Oratorio.’ Mike has now returned to his faith.
My name is Marjorie, and I met Phil and his wife Carla in Medjugorje. This is a beautiful CD arranged to Our Lady’s messages. Messages not only for Medjugorje or catholics, but for all the world and all faiths. It is a message of hope, joy and peace.
Phil asks if you possibly can that you copy ‘The Gospa Oratorio’ on to tape or CD and copy his witness ‘A Walk in The Dark’ and pass it on. This way the message of Medjugorje and Our Lady and Jesus will be spread.
Phil and Mike would love to hear this music played with an Orchestra and choir. If you know anybody who may be able to help, please get in touch with me.