This past Saturday, I returned to the U.S. from a week-long stay in Medjugorje – a small village nestled in the hills of Bosnia-Herzegovina, not far from the coast of the Adriatic Sea.
When asked, most people cannot point to this place on a map. They’ve never heard of Bosnia-Herzegovina, let alone the pilgrimage site of Medjugorje. But when Ukraine was invaded by Russia a couple weeks before my trip was set to fly out, EVERYONE knew that it was simply too close. And they let me know, too.
Prudently, I had decided early on that I would not tell my family that I was traveling abroad. I didn’t want to worry them by disclosing that I was exploring international borders during times of COVID. When news of a war broke out, I was very grateful that I didn’t have to subject them to the fear of traveling with that in the background.
My traveling companions, however, were faced with a different battle. For the weeks leading up to our departure, they were bombarded with news articles and social media headlines that warned of the growing troubles that were sure to happen in Ukraine. Time and again, they were begged not to go.
Long story short, we kept our eyes on the news, said our prayers, and eventually took off from Chicago and arrived safely 24 hours later in Medjugorje.
I have many things I could say about my pilgrimage – many stories, many wonders, many moments of introspection and dialogue with God. But one thing that stands out incredibly that I’ve been sharing with others since my return is this: fear. Americans live in such deep fear. And we don’t even realize it.
Regardless of what you personally believe about Medjugorje, its story, or its continued path presently, there is one thing that no one can deny after spending time there, and that is the immense peace, the fervent faithfulness, and incredible simplicity of life. Because of the time of the year, we had not yet reached peak tourist season, so many of the shops were closed for the winter and pilgrims were quite sparse in the area. This was a blessing for those in my group; we weren’t distracted by shiny things and were allowed a very private experience where we could more deeply escape the noise of the world and immerse ourselves into listening for the voice of God.
Every night, we attended the Church of St. James for the Evening Program – a three- hour portion of the night that consists of confession, the rosary, Mass, and Adoration. Each evening, the locals would fill the church: aisles, seats, alcoves, walls were all covered shoulder-to-shoulder with people. Each evening, we would worship together. Each evening, a concerned local next to me would usher me towards the priest so that I, too, could receive Jesus in the Eucharist (like Zacchaeus, my short stature made it easy for me to get lost in the crowd). And each evening, the heaviness of the faith could be felt all around.
What was so apparent to me when I returned to the United States after a week of spiritual rest and rejuvenation was that those people hold something dear that we just don’t know here: the absence of fear. Or perhaps, it’s not so much that they hold on to something they don’t have, but they just more fully embrace the peace that comes with deep faith. Since coming home, I have felt slapped in the face with fear, with overattentiveness to media outlets that have a history of spinning the truth to gain viewers, and with social media snippets that are more clickbait than they are facts. We have become accustomed to living in fear, and when fear isn’t readily nearby, we feel we have to make up our own reasons for it, just to “be safe.”
While I feel like I live a fairly fearless life, it’s by no means because of anything that I’ve done, but because of what Jesus says in the book of Matthew. I often read over this passage when stress or anxieties overwhelm me, and I’ve felt that this has rang even more true as we currently face the battles at our periphery. In chapter 6, verse 25, Jesus says:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? … Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself…”
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? No, the answer is no. Fear is a paralyzer, it stops you in your tracks, it makes you doubt the directions of God and His gentle whisper and encouragement. It tells you that He is not in control, that He can only shelter and hold you so far before you must do it yourself. Fear makes you in control, it makes you your own god.
Had I been fearful, I would never have gone to Medjugorje. I would not have encountered the beauty of the people, the richness of my traveling companions, or the healing that I received. I would not have had prayers answered in the right place and right time that I had been waiting for. I would never have felt the weightlessness of the Lord’s peace or realized the great trust I can put in Him alone.
I think C.S. Lewis brilliantly encapsulates this phenomenon of fear in The Screwtape Letters:
“We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human's mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”
Fear opens the door to the doubts and twisted truths of Satan. Allow peace to barricade your heart against that which is evil and deceiving. As you prepare to make your own journeys, your own retreats, or even your own disposition on the events that are happening in this world, I pray you choose to root yourself in the courage, truth, and peace that Christ alone can bring. The heavenly Father knows what you need and will provide generously.