Two articles right next to each other in The New York Times the other day. One about a town in Bosnia (Medjugorje—good luck pronouncing that) where several local residents claimed to have seen and spoken with the Virgin Mary thirty-four years ago when they were children. Three of the six “visionaries’ say they continue to see and talk with Mary every day.
Over the years this small, previously somewhat poor town in Bosnia has been visited by over a million pilgrims, all hoping for divine intercession; miracle cures for terrible illnesses and injuries; relief from whatever physical and mental torment they or their loved ones are going through.
Many of the town’s residents have prospered from this—providing food, lodging, tours and souvenirs for the visitors. Some of the visionaries have grown wealthy, operating luxury hotels that house the pilgrims, and investing in souvenir shops that regularly take in truckloads of pilgrim bucks selling religious articles. A couple of the visionaries get paid big fees to fly around the world telling salvation-thirsty believers about their divine experiences.
Skeptics (and one of them seems to be Pope Francis) suggest that these continuing divine manifestations may be a sort of combination of mental unbalance and sheer, cynical greed. As with all such visions, the Vatican is conducting a long-term investigation into the occurrences to see if they are authentic. Authentic? How could anyone say (unless all the visionaries admitted they were making it up) that such visions actually did or did not happen?
Naturally, in most of the modern world such visual or auditory phenomena are seen as mere hallucinations (I’ve had a couple myself, but they weren’t of the Virgin Mary). But, obviously, there are still places where such things are taken as proof of the divine.
(* Personal note: I really wish one of the visionaries would record the conversations—audio and video. I’d love to know what she looks like and how she sounds—maybe even put it on Youtube and share the good vibrations with the whole world. Also, note to Mary: If your appearance to a few individuals can bring so much solace to a million people who can’t even see you, then why be stingy about it? Why not just appear to all of us all the time? I know I could really use the help right now. Please think about it.)
…Well, nothing new about any of this—Religion (especially the Catholic Church over the centuries) conjoining with the ubiquitous sin of greed. And nothing new about religious visions either. In fact, most major world religions originated with charismatic figures who saw or heard God or his angels—who gave them directions on how people should live their lives (and what bliss, if they followed these directions, awaited them in heaven/paradise, and, of course, what horrible torments awaited them in the other place if they broke God’s rules).
I think that all religion is a combination of the universal yearning for some kind of larger, greater explanation for all the suffering we go through (illness, sadness, pain, loss, and, finally, death) and the timely arrival of charismatic individuals who have seen or heard God and have had his great plan revealed to them. Not so different, really, from politics; a combination of great suffering in a country and the appearance of a charismatic leader who knows why it’s happening and has simple solutions which will solve all the people’s problems. Often these political movements display all the passion and trappings of a major religion.
Perhaps Buddhism is the only major religion that does not call on a higher power or knowledge of a greater plan to deal with suffering in this life—which, in some ways, makes it all the more difficult to practice; there is no god to pray to for guidance—just your inner, humane, pure-hearted self (and maybe that’s what god is after all). And still, humans being the frail vessels that they are, there are many versions of Buddhism in the world that have their share of rigid rituals and a great profusion of devils, beasts and angels.
…Appearing right next to this article was a piece about the U.N. begging the “wealthier” countries in the world to aid all the refugees and immigrants –millions in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands in Europe–who are fleeing their home countries because of civil wars, large roving gangs of rapist-murderers, unbearable poverty, repressive dictatorships and starvation.
We’ve all read or seen or heard the horror stories about immigrants and refugees drowning at sea or suffocating in trucks—men, women and children, desperately seeking shelter from the storm of insane violence that seems to be happening everywhere.
Turkey and Lebanon are overwhelmed with people escaping from ISIS and the war in Syria. And thousands of people are trying to cross the Mediterranean to escape the religious conflicts and repression in Libya and Egypt.
European Union law says all refugees must be granted asylum (protection, food and shelter), but some of these countries are overwhelmed and can’t cope with the continuing flood of people.
I was struck by the appearance of these two articles right next to each other; one about all the time, energy and money spent by people looking for hope of help from another world and the other article about people who are looking for help in the here and now, in the world we can see and hear and touch.
Religions (at least in their holy books and in their best practice) have always combined the two needs—both spiritual and temporal, both the belief in a higher, often benevolent power and the requirement that we do good works in this world—in the present.
I think of Martin Luther King whose faith inspired him (and made him urge people) to act in this world to help people who were suffering, not just advise people to sit back and pray for divine intervention or be quiet and well-behaved until they were finally carried up to their reward. And, of course, Ghandi, who was a man of faith but also a leader who put his own life on the line in the here and now.
Whatever his faults, I think Pope Francis is somewhere on this continuum. My take on him, though he still adheres to some of the rigid dictates of the Church, is that it’s not enough just to close your eyes and yearn for God’s (or Mary’s) intervention or follow all the rituals and assume that guarantees you a ticket to the big show. You have to act right in this world. In Buddhism, it’s right thinking and right acting. If we are all “God’s children” then we are all brothers and sisters. And we need to help each other not just with good thoughts and prayers—though there’s nothing wrong with that—but with deeds in the here and now…
There is no doubt that words and/or a sympathetic ear can occasionally provide relief, sometimes great relief; a feeling that one is not alone in his or her suffering and that someone understands what they are going through and sympathizes. I had a therapist who once told me, “It’s better to be understood than to be loved.” We all need this sometimes and need to give this kind of help, too. Sometimes, religion provides this and it may be all that a troubled soul requires.
I believe words that change lives are as good as deeds.
Think of the books you’ve read or plays you’ve seen that moved you so much you felt you had been carried to a newer, higher place. A friend who really knows you and knows just what to say when you need to hear it, a good lawyer arguing a good case, therapists sticking with you, offering advice, the stirring speeches of a revolutionary or a protester, even an inspiring sermon or the kind words of a clergyman—all these can sustain and lift people when nothing else seems to work.
But, often, in this sad, cruel world, the occasion of suffering requires more than words. Action is necessary. It doesn’t matter how great or how small.
During the horrors and dangers of World War II, we needed the inspiring speeches of FDR, but we also had to have the great sacrifices of the men who landed on Omaha beach and Iwo Jima.
People like Ghandi and Martin Luther King were great souls because they combined the power of inspiring speech with courageous personal action. They are examples of the highest level a human can aspire to. The great mass of humanity will never reach that level, but just trying to emulate them is what it’s all about.
Though, in my time, I’ve done volunteer work, and, when I was younger, helped people when I was working in the New York City Welfare Department, I’ve always been a talker (and, occasionally, a good listener). And because I was a talker I’ve always admired people who spend their lives acting for the good of other people.
I am particularly in awe of people who voluntarily go to some of the most endangered places on earth and help people who are enduring terrible suffering; like the men and women in Doctors Without Borders and other NGOs (non-governmental organizations) where people put their lives on the line to help people suffering from the miseries of illness, starvation and violence. But only a very few people are that capable or courageous. The great majority of us operate in a more local, circumscribed way…
But whatever we do for someone else (in our own families, or rescuing a shelter dog or volunteering at a senior center, etc.), or even just being kind and decent to people as we go through our day… There is, even without a vision of Mary—divinity in this.