Our first stop on a visit to the city of Mostar (the capital of Hercegovina, 40 minutes out of Medjugorje) was to a Franciscan convent – home to 30+ nuns.
On arrival, our attention was drawn to something black and white moving in a clump of olive trees on the far side of the convent garden. Thinking it needed closer inspection, we were diverted from our original destination (being Holy Mass in the convent chapel), detoured into the garden and found six nuns harvesting olives; one up a tree giving branches a good shake and others below with rakes and nets, gathering them all up.
We were sure that the lovely sisters would naturally embrace our enthusiasm to be involved. Even though we probably slowed things down considerably, they were good sports and let us help them tip the olives into buckets and roll up the nets - no language translation necessary.
After fifteen minutes of aiding the Croatian olive oil industry, we moved inside for our group Mass in their beautiful chapel within the convent walls.
Is there a 15th station? I grew up learning 14....but that's before one of my groups discovered the 15th.
'Cross Mountain' (Krizevac) is a 'must do' when pilgrims visit Medjugorje. Pilgrims climb day and night, taking their prayer intentions to place them at the foot of the cross on the summit. It is not unusual to see pilgrims ascending and descending in bare feet over the worn rocks. Many sit at the top, praying and singing through the night and come down at the crack of dawn. Priests are known to give the climb as penance to pilgrims in the confessional and visiting dignitaries who think they are going to be treated differently to the common pilgrim are told to climb the mountain if they wish to experience a true encounter.
Those of us willing and able were up early and at the base of Cross Mountain. Armed with pilgrim sticks, barley sugars and a few seconds of regret with the dawning realisation we'd be climbing over boulders the size of Gibraltar, the small but intrepid group trekked onward.
A bit higher to negotiate than Apparition Hill, Cross Mountain has 14 rest stops. Strictly speaking they are the 14 Stations of the Cross, but we claimed them as rest stops at only the second station!
Two hours later, happy and battle weary, God's army was more like 'Dad's Army' as the kiwi pilgrims descended the mountain. A couple of bruises, a minor sprain and a pilgrim stick split in half were the result of a climb all in the name of pilgrimage.
The intrepid group of New Zealand pilgrims had flown the flag for their sisters and brothers who couldn't climb and had limped home with war wounds to show for their efforts. What troupers! The 14 Stations of the Cross on Cross Mountain are now 15 stations and we claim the 15th with pride - The First Aid Station - visited via taxi on the return.
View gallery at pilgrimage.nz
After the world's longest flight (I kid you not!), 17 hours direct to Dubai, the group rested at an airport hotel overnight before flying Rome-bound on another six-and-a-half hour flight. All agreed that they'd never complain about a 12-hour flight ever again.
I have repeatedly told pilgrims that no pilgrim on earth travels as far or experiences as much fatigue as a New Zealand pilgrim. No one can understand the tiredness experienced by kiwis arriving at a place of pilgrimage from the other side of the globe. It's not just physical, it is also emotional and mental because there has been such a built up tension, excitement (call it what you will), so many emotions before they step foot on a plane to depart, that the arrival at the destination is nothing short of sheer relief and extreme exhaustion.
It always generates a laugh when I tell them as soon as they arrive on holy terra firma, that their pilgrimage is now over and they can fly home. There is a collective sigh of relief not just that we've finally arrived, but that their fatigue is understood for what it is by someone who has been there, done that and knows what they're feeling. Even their accommodation hosts in these places of pilgrimage have no understanding. I have embarked on flights to Europe close to 50 times. I know what pilgrimage is. It is an epic journey of biblical proportions and begins at home - when you make the decision to go on a pilgrimage - not at the destination.
Regardless of stopovers in exotic cities and planes with personal entertainment systems, the pilgrimage must be understood in its entirety. The flight is a pilgrimage.
The mantra I repeat like a broken record, 'pilgrimage begins at home' ironically can only be understood by the pilgrim on arrival at the destination.
View gallery at pilgrimage.nz
Would you pick up your pilgrim stick and backpack and set off on ‘The Way’?
Heck yes! I would - I definitely would! How wonderful to be on the moon looking back at the earth. Think of the perspective.
When I look through my telescope at night into the vast expanse, I marvel. I am in complete awe of our galaxy.
What’s not to marvel?
I travel, and it took a few tours of duty for me to stop using my camera to snap amazing sights over and over so I could show everyone what I had seen – a snap fest.
The most incredible sight can be viewed from any country, any continent, any place on earth – just look up into the vast expanse of the galaxy.
I had seen amazing wonders on my travels and had experiences others could only dream of. I continue to have this privilege, but the difference is that now I'm not a young person on my OE in my trainee walking boots, I'm a woman on a mission.
The insatiable desire to travel that never left me was a grace but I was thinking I had to purge a travel bug that I couldn’t shake off. I didn't worry about how I was going to afford to travel, I just made it work.
However, it was only a training ground until the time came for the real mission to begin; I just didn’t know it.
There is a difference between being a tourist and being a world traveller - a world of difference. To travel and explore is the best classroom on the planet. In the words of St Augustine: "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page."
I see tourists wandering around endlessly taking photos of sights in foreign countries until they rush off to take endless photos in other countries. Who tours sees, but who travels, sees more.
I never understand the mindset of christians who go on holidays and yet don't schedule any time at all to spend one single day visiting a holy site or shrine - not one day. These are christians spending thousands on their bucket-list 'trip of a lifetime' or annual holiday and they can't give one day of that trip to the wonders or treasures of the christian world, or places of pilgrimage such as a famous healing spring that has been the instrument of miraculous cures, a church guarding the incorrupt bodies of saints famed for mysticism or stigmata, or apparition sites graced by visitations from heaven. Unbelievable!
How many people comment weeks after returning from a holiday that they don’t feel they have ever been on a holiday?
You will never hear a pilgrim make that comment - not ever.
A pilgrimage does two things; it always points to a destination and it always guides a pilgrim home. You just need to look heavenward for your sense of direction.
No matter what wonders there are to explore, you still look up and see the heavens, just as you do at home and you realise the compass always points homeward. A pilgrim understands this, and if it isn’t understood at first, it soon is.
The Southern Cross, the Crux, is the guiding compass for the traveller returning home to the southern hemisphere. I love to look up on my return home from the latest pilgrimage to see it in the familiar night sky.
Are you a tourist, a traveller or a pilgrim?
You have to decide. Why? Because it will define your experience.
Think well the next time you travel; what will come first in your priorities? the camera, the backpack or the pilgrim stick?
“Every pilgrim has a destination, even if at times he is not explicitly aware of it.”
- Pope Benedict XVI
Patricia is a pilgrim and encourages others to discover the timeless and biblical way of pilgrimage. As the pilgrim's pilgrim, she reports from the field, knowing The Way, showing The Way and going The Way.