Posted December 11, 2013:
The Yugoslavian Grandma (Pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Part 6)

by Martha Shepherd.

She was an old Yugoslavian grandma. She came into the church our first night there with another broad, kerchiefed lady.

There happened to be a bit of room next to me, so I waved and she came over. We spent the next four hours praying together in Croatian, five to a pew meant for four.

I felt guilty, guilty that pilgrims had taken over her church, guilty that I hadn’t given my seat to her friend, guilty that I was a soft, rich American, and she was poor, weathered, and toothless with the hardships of her life. Because I felt guilty, I was shy with her.

But still we prayed together, along with several thousand others packed into that church like people in a subway at rush hour. And I was aware of her particularly.

At the sign of peace, she grabbed my hand in a huge fearless grip and wished me peace in words I didn’t understand.

She smiled at me, and I suddenly felt that I was none of those things I’d been feeling guilty about. I felt welcome.

Again as we left, she grabbed my hand and holding it up in a good-bye grip, she gave me a plain, uncomplicated, unreserved smile. I wonder if I would have felt more blessed if Our Lady herself had appeared to me. It rocked me to my foundations—the look, the vibes, the acceptance of that old woman.

During our time in Medjugorje, I ran into this woman twice in the fields, herding her sheep, which is what old ladies seem to do there.

The first time she saw me sitting on a wall as she steered her flock down a path. She waved and cried, "Ah, dobra!" (hello), and came over to me as if we’d known each other all our lives. Again she grabbed my hand in that same, lifted gesture, with a big smile of happiness. That was it.

The second time, she was sitting on a board in the sun, watching her sheep and praying the rosary. She called me over to her, had me sit down, gave me a big hug and kiss, and then we were totally unable to communicate any further. End of story.

Don’t ask me why or how, but each of these encounters was as consoling to me as if heaven had opened and smiled at me personally. Each pierced my heart with a kind of sweetness.

Out of those encounters there grew in me an incredulous, amazed recognition: I am loved.

And it also dawned on my heart (not my head which had known this all along) that love and acceptance don’t come to you because you’re good, beautiful, healthy, smart, or anything else. Love is just what human beings are supposed to give each other, what human beings need, what I need.

This old lady was most of the things I, and North America, most dread being. She was old, toothless, fat, uneducated, and poor. But she was not pitiable.

Her hello was a benediction, a gift. She had dignity without any of the things I had thought it took to give dignity. And I learned from her that dignity really has no qualifications, no requirements.

Like many things when I came home, I wondered, "Did it really happen?" But I brought back a souvenir that proves it really did. That souvenir is the fact that I don’t seem to be ashamed of myself as I am. That deep, pervasive uneasiness of shame is not all gone, but mostly it’s just not there.

I keep thinking of the line, "I know in whom I have believed." And if God, the One in whom I have believed, loves me as I am, before whom do I have to be ashamed?

Since my return home, the "word" of this woman has become a command: "Be that! Be what that woman was for you. Just be that!" Don’t worry about yourself, how you act, how you look what you know, what you say. Just offer what she offered. Trust God. And offer that simple acceptance of dignity: "I am a child of God, and so are you."

to be continued


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