A blog about geographical and spiritual mysteries.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Mysterious Message in Bangkok

I first heard about the mystery of Garabandal in the year 2000 in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was working with a Catholic organization in a Bangkok slum. One night, a Filipino sea merchant handed me a book of “messages.” My reading material—at least in English—was in short supply, so I sat down that night and began to read. One of the recurring themes of the message was, “Garabandal is authentic.” My response was: “What’s Garabandal?” I didn’t know it was a village in Spain. I didn’t know it was the site of a purported appearance of the Virgin Mary in the early 1960s. In a Buddhist country, thanks to a Filipino sailor, I had stumbled on a mysterious message that lamented a forgotten Catholic apparition. Although my interest was piqued, I was busy at that time and my curiosity flickered and died. It wasn’t until several years later, back in the U.S. as the 50th anniversary of the Garabandal apparitions approached, that I recalled the strange, insistent messages about Garabandal that I had learned about, and realized it was a mystery I wanted to unravel.
It ultimately led to my writing this book:
The Mystery of Garabandal E-Book 
The Mystery of Garabandal Paperback

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Mystery of Garabandal

I have always loved a good mystery. One night in Bangkok, Thailand I first heard about a riveting spiritual mystery, which led me, ultimately, to write this book.

The Mystery of Garabandal

In the summer of 1961, four young girls in the small Spanish village of Garabandal began falling into rigid trances, marching backward up hills, and seemingly levitating inches above the ground. And that was only the beginning...

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Vietnamese Gather for Marian Days

Every year, during the first weekend in August, tens of thousands of Vietnamese-Americans descend on the small town of Carthage, Missouri to honor the Virgin Mary for helping Vietnamese boat refugees safely reach the United States more than thirty-five years earlier.
One of those refugees was Michael Vu, who now lives in Dallas, Texas. He was “eight or nine years old” when he fled Vietnam with his family. “My dad orchestrated our escape. My oldest brother left first, trying to go before us and prepare for us. His name was Vu Quang Thanh and unfortunately the China Sea took his life. He was on a boat with about 100 people, and they all perished, they were never found. His name is on the wall in the Prayer Garden. My dad is still looking for him, still hopes to find him, but I believe he’s dead.” Michael Vu shared this story while searching for his brother’s name among thousands of others on plaques in the Prayer Garden.
“When the priests here at the Carthage Congregation say daily mass, they pray for these names in this Prayer Garden. They are both the dead and the living. People who need prayer in their lives. For people still in Vietnam who live under hardship, who weren’t fortunate enough to be able to come here. This is the best place to come and pray for them. Family members gather here every year and pray for one another,” Michael said.
The Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix organizes and hosts the gathering each year on their grounds in Carthage for one simple reason: the Congregation shares the same harrowing story as do the attendees. In Vietnam in 1975, under orders from their superior, this group of priests and brothers jumped into boats and headed out into the open sea. In the midst of chaos and gunfire, all the members of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix escaped and eventually made it safely to the shores of the United States.
Though members of the Congregation were scattered in refugee camps and on military bases, they were eventually reunited on an un-used seminary campus in Carthage, Missouri. In 1977, a couple of hundred Vietnamese from nearby cities like Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield gathered on the seminary campus in Carthage for a day of recollection to express devotion to the Virgin Mary. The numbers began doubling each year, until now approximately 70,000 Vietnamese-Americans make the pilgrimage to Carthage to honor the Virgin Mary along with the Congregation.
“We have a very strong devotion to the Virgin Mary,” Michael Vu agreed. “As we left Vietnam, we prayed to Mary to take care of us. We had a priest on our boat. We had two boats of people. There was a curfew in Vietnam, so we left at dawn. As we left, sirens started going off. North Vietnamese soldiers stopped us. There were about 60 to 70 children below, including me. The soldiers came aboard and questioned us. The priest said, “We’re hungry, and we’re going fishing.” There were fishing nets on the boat. The soldiers let us leave. We believe that praying to the Virgin Mary helped us escape Vietnam. Everyone on the boat believes it was a miracle we escaped. We arrived in Huntington Beach, CA We moved to Wichita Falls TX and we heard about Marian Days there. We felt like we had to go. We go every year. We’ve never stopped."
"We will definitely be here as long as they have it," Michael said. "It renews our spiritual life. Everyone who comes here has the same unity in their heart, one goal, devotion to Mary. It helps us through the year. It has helped adjust here in the U.S. We didn’t know anyone, we didn’t know English. There are seven surviving brothers and two sisters in our family, and every one of us received a four-year college degree in the U.S., except for the youngest son who has Down Syndrome.” Over time, “Marian Days” has become a cultural event attracting parishes, families, and communities from all over the United States.
Included in the festivities are Vietnamese food, both traditional and contemporary music, open-air confessions and masses on sloping lawns, speakers scheduled over several days, and a procession through the town with a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. And although the Congregation hosts the event, volunteers from parishes across the United States do much of the work, including staffing the endless restaurants and food stalls sprawled beneath tent awnings.
Marian Days, while growing from 200 to 70,000 attendees, has evolved over the years and included some growing pains. At one time, wall-to-wall people elbowed for a space to sleep on the seminary grounds and spilled over into the small, bewildered town--and at times the socializing aspect threatened to overshadow the spiritual one.
But the facilities have been expanded and upgraded, including the addition of showers, restrooms, a Prayer Garden, Stations of the Cross, and the Vietnamese Martyrs Auditorium. In addition to camping out in tents on the seminary grounds or filling nearby motels, attendees also set up tents on the lawns of welcoming locals, some of whom invite the same families into their backyards year after year.
Jim Kerr is one of the locals who likes to attend every year “so we can eat something exceptional. I just ate pork intestines and it was very good. We love the Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.” His wife Amy recalled, “One year it was raining. We were with our three daughters. We were getting rained on. A teen boy called over several of his friends with umbrellas—they escorted us to the food and kept us dry. One of our daughters grew up going to this, and got to know the people at the parish who run this restaurant (Queen of Vietnam Church in Port Arthur TX). After she was grown, she moved to the Port Arthur area and knows the same people there now.”
Doug Huynh from Hastings Nebraska fled Vietnam in 1975 when he was eighteen. But he says Marian Days is about more than the past. “When you have a hard time now, you ask Mary for blessing. We come to visit her, to pay our respects and agree to come back. There are Vietnamese from all 50 states, Canada and Australia. We meet other Vietnamese people from all around the country. Some families drive 24 hours—8 hours is easy, we can’t complain. My mother-in-law listens to Bible talks and talks by priests. My kids like to hang out with other kids. There is good Vietnamese food.” Tai Le is one of the teenage boys from Queen of Vietnam Church in Port Arthur who comes every year to work in his parish’s Marian Days restaurant.
“Our parish has a sign-up sheet and we volunteer to work here to raise funds for our church. We also come for the experience of meeting other people and to get to know our faith. The elderly here share their stories and they explain we should go back to Vietnam to learn our history. They tell us you should know history or it will repeat itself. My mother is very devoted to Mary. I choose to go to church every morning at 6 am at home. I don’t expect any rewards when I come here. I just come here to serve others.”
Duyen Nguyen from Arlington TX was blinded in a car accident. “Since 2000, my parents have come to pray for me. Miracles do happen. The doctors said I might see again. One day perhaps I will see again and God will bless me with a miracle. We go to mass here and everything. We go to retreats to listen to speakers. We go to pray and bless ourselves with holy water. Our parents volunteer here. Our church runs a restaurant here. Parishioners volunteer, raise funds for church. We also come for fun.”
Daniel Tran of Rochester, Minnesota floated in a canoe with 29 people for 20 days before reaching Hong Kong. Although a Buddhist at the time, he now attends Marian Days every year as a Catholic with his wife. Indeed, his wife, Yen-Huong, says many Buddhists come to Marian Days as well. Also published on Writers Rising

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Journey to Joplin

I started this blog writing about a pilgrimage to a monastery, but recently I made a pilgrimage of a different kind to the town where I was born--Joplin, Missouri. I had already bought my ticket to Joplin for a 4th of July family reunion before the May 22nd tornado. My parents, as well as numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins, live in or near Joplin. I flew in at dusk and I picked out with relative ease the bright, busy lights at the intersection of Range Line and I-44, and I could see the twinkling lights and tree-covered streets of Joplin as we flew over. It was also easy to spot a wide brown scar cutting through the heart of Joplin which had no lights, no trees, no greenery. The F-5 tornado had carved a six-mile-long path of destruction, at times almost a mile wide, which left more than 150 people dead, 7,000 homes destroyed, and 18,000 cars totaled. But if the aerial view was astonishing, the view on the ground was shocking. Standing at ground zero—say, at 20th and Connecticut, or near St. Mary’s Catholic Church, or across from Joplin High School—it looked like a bomb had exploded from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. There actually was a “ground zero” since many survivors described the eye of the storm passing over them, an eerie calm both preceded and followed by deadly 200 mph winds. When I reached my parents’ house, I sifted through issues of The Joplin Globe that my mom had saved, which included the photographs of all those who had died: The three men with Down Syndrome-- who lived in a group home and died there together--Mark Farmer, Rick Fox, and Tripp Miller. A friend of Mark’s wrote that he rejoiced “in 1 Corinthians 13:10 as they now have perfect bodies.” http://www.neoshodailynews.com/joplin-tornado/x1534029702/Neosho-family-survives-Joplin-tornado-in-car Will Norton, a teenager who had just left his high school graduation and was sucked out of his car. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVSeptS3kec His sister shared that it would only be a short time until Will saw them again because life is so short and “time goes fast in heaven.” Rusty Howard, who was found in Home Depot holding his five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son in his arms. The Pizza Hut manager, Christopher Lucas, who led everyone to safety in a walk-in freezer and struggled to hold the door shut before he died. Another father of two, Randy England, who had been laid off from the La-Z-Boy Factory in November which was, his wife said, a blessing in disguise because he had spent the remaining time with his family. He also was leading a mother and children to safety in Home Depot when he was killed. There are many stories of people who died while sacrificing themselves for others, and many more stories of those who came to the rescue of those who were trapped and injured. While volunteering at Forest Park Baptist Church, I met the grandmother of two children who died. She told me she had received a phone call soon after the tornado struck from her daughter and son-in-law informing her that one of her grandchildren was dead, and the other was “going fast.” She told me the family had good moments and bad moments, but prayer was getting her through. “I pray all the time,” she said. “It’s all God.” Two other children were in the car with their grandmother in the parking lot of Home Depot when the tornado struck. The grandmother told the children to start praying, and ten-year-old Mason Lillard was comforted by the angels she said she could see. Mason was pierced by an iron bar but survived.
Harmony Heights Baptist Church across from Joplin High School was holding its Sunday evening service when the tornado struck. Three members were killed, while the other fifty or so members were trapped in the debris. A group of young people arrived on the scene soon after and began pulling the members from the rubble. On a Harmony Heights Baptist Church newsletter is the following:
Devotion for the morning of May 22
Jeremiah 17:17 Do not be a terror to me; you are my refuge in the day of disaster. “Thou art my HOPE in the day of evil.”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Off the Map

I have pictures, bathed in light, from a land that lies off the map, and after I left, sparkling letters still reached me. They were letters written in such charmingly flawed English that it seemed a crime to correct them, even though the students begged me to.
I hope you are quite well. I am in the very pink of health. I would like to write so many about but my English is very poor. Therefore, may I stop here.
Even though it was some years ago that I visited, I clearly remember one day in particular. We start the day by squeezing into a Jeep which strains to climb a mountain. We cross wooden plank bridges and pass local people on bicycle and foot, toting burdens on their backs or across their handlebars. Our destination is a community of nuns who runs a distant boarding school high up in the mountain. The purpose of the boarding schools, with their dirt floors and outhouses and lack of electricity, is to provide an education for the most impoverished and isolated children in the rural areas, who might have no access to education otherwise.

“They’ll try to feed us, but I’ll tell them we brought our own food,” our guide tells us. “They are too poor to feed us.”
When we arrive, the nun who welcomes us at the door looks bewildered, and she says something startling.
“I didn’t dream you were coming.”
She notices our confused reaction, and explains. “I always dream when visitors are coming, and we prepare for them. But I didn’t dream about you.” She shakes her head, perplexed, as if her own mystical version of e-mail is growing unreliable.
“I’m glad you didn’t dream we were coming,” our guide chides. “Because then you would have prepared us a meal.”
The nun still proceeds to cut open some fruit for us, and children who attend the boarding school draw us by the hand and lead us down an overgrown path to the outhouse. This school is the most isolated and impoverished place I visit, and the crude bamboo structures and sweet children and hardworking nuns are even more diminished by the soaring mountains and roaring rivers that surround them. Struggling nuns and hungry children seem to spring from this wilderness like fragile wildflowers, as unknown to the outside world as they are humble and holy.

On the way down the mountain, the Jeep breaks down three different times. Each time it clanks to a disappointing stop, we pour out onto the road. The final time we emerge, it’s growing dark. We’re on a narrow road in lush forest, and the mosquitoes are starting to hum. A folk remedy for malaria involves scraping the flesh on the neck until raw, red stripes decorate the sufferer’s throat.
“Why do you scrape your throats that way?” I ask.
“The pain of this scraping experience causes you to forget about the fever of malaria,” a student cheerfully explains.

This “remote rural region” is absurdly busy. Passers-by on foot and bike, instead of passing by, stop to inspect our plight. An increasing number of men gather around the Jeep’s engine, poke at it, and make conversation. The women and children gather around us. I can’t understand a word anybody says, but everyone smiles a lot. I have no idea where all these people live, because there is only forest all around. After a while, a man and his elephant walk past. The elephant is draped in chains, and I wonder if it could tow the Jeep. The elephant, though, disappears from sight, heading into the mountains in the gathering gloom. At some point it is agreed that this time, the Jeep is not going to budge. Our journey is stalled.
We are stuck in the mosquito-ridden jungle with our only means of transport a majestic, mournful elephant that is headed in the wrong direction. I’m haunted by the disappearing elephant because I know where he’s going. I’m aching to ride into the mountain darkness, into that nun’s dreams—because anyone can see she dwells with God. As an outsider, with virgin eyes, I saw immediately that this nun was a shining treasure in God’s heart. But the nun and I are separated by an impossible distance—for one thing, I have volunteered to be here. She has not. I’m just flitting through-like a bird, or a bug. She is more like a sheltering tree--this is where she was planted, and this is where she will die. Still, just by passing through this place, I’ve caught a glimpse of God-- the God who dwells on mountaintops with struggling nuns, who dwells with hungry children, who dwells with the abandoned and the forgotten. It’s time to hike out of the jungle, so I turn from the mountains, and we start walking down the road to town.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Searching for the Spooklight

Sorry for the pause in blogging, but I got lost on Spooklight Road. Yes, there is a mysterious light which haunts a deserted dirt road on the Missouri-Oklahoma border known as Devil’s Promenade. I first visited it many years ago as a child. The road was narrow, with spooky overhanging trees. I distinctly remember seeing that burning yellow light hover over the road like a floating bonfire.

Or did I? Since then, I’ve often wondered what it was I actually saw.
Recently, I had a chance to visit it again at a family reunion when we set out at dusk in the 95-degree heat in search of the Spooklight. The Spooklight has supposedly been roaming the area around Hornet, Oklahoma since the time of the Trail of Tears in 1836, and there are stories of it passing through cars, chasing people, and moving at lightning speed. It has been investigated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and shot at by farmers. Theories about what it is range from marsh gas to minerals to earthquake lights to refracted car headlights from Route 66 (although the Spooklight preceded Route 66). Numerous legends are connected with it, including that it is the spirit of two young Quapaw Indians who died there; that it is the torch of either an Osage Indian chief or a local farmer who was beheaded there and is still looking for his head; or that it is a miner’s lantern as he searches for his lost children who were kidnapped by Indians. I have heard variations on these stories, including that the miner is looking for his lost love who fell into a shaft, and that a motorcyclist is also looking for his lost head (although the Spooklight also preceded motorcycles). Whatever the truth, when visiting the Spooklight, it’s important to remember these Spooklight Rules: Rule Number One is this: You will get lost. Rule Number Two: If you look for it, it won’t come. Rule Number Three: If you don’t expect it, it will pop right out. Rule Number Four: If you take a picture, the picture won’t come out.

I remember three excursions to the Spooklight in my youth, but only one was successful. One of the unsuccessful trips involved six adults and six children in a ’67 Pontiac station wagon: three men in the front seat, three women in the backseat, and six children in the rear end. We were searching for the Spooklight based on my mother’s childhood memory. We drove around and around on dirt roads, following her directions, which consisted of, “This looks like the right road…No, this doesn’t look quite right.” Dirt roads in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night on the Oklahoma-Missouri border look amazingly similar. And every single one of them looks like it could harbor the Spooklight.
Eventually, the overloaded station wagon bottomed out on one of those dirt roads, tearing off some crucial piece of the car in the process. I recall at one point waking up to see one of my uncles outside the car holding a piece of the car while the other uncle pushed and my dad steered. Later I woke up and my two uncles, still outside the car, were now running, terrorized by snarling farm dogs. I saw many interesting sights that night, but I never saw the Spooklight.

I made a third trip in my teenage years with my cousins, which involved looking around at the deserted road and surrounding woods and noticing that we were basically sitting ducks in a Friday the 13th type situation. It was just a matter of time before we were picked off one by one by Jason—but not by the Spooklight, which didn’t show.

So years later, at the family reunion, my cousin Jamie offered to drive my sister and I out to Spooklight Road. He had grown up in the area. He knew the way, he claimed. He would take us straight there. It was only a few miles outside of Joplin, Missouri, not far from “Truck Town,” a massive truck stop area just off I-44. We passed by Truck Town and set out for the Oklahoma border in the growing dark. Jamie kept insisting that Spooklight Road was now paved, but I didn’t believe him. How could Spooklight Road be paved? Jamie said it was now “developed” and I imagined the poor Spooklight being crowded out by the suburbs. After a while, though, two things happened: I noticed that Jamie’s gas tank was low, and he sounded suspiciously like my mother had all those years earlier: “This looks like the right road…No, this doesn’t look quite right.” Maybe Spooklight Road isn’t paved, I stubbornly argued, and that’s why you can’t find it. But the changes of the past decades had involved a lot more than just paved roads—Jamie, dangerously close to running on empty, finally got out his i-Phone and looked up the directions to the Spooklight on the internet.

And voila—we were there. We had been in the general vicinity of Spooklight Road, endlessly circling on the wrong roads, at risk of becoming lost forever like some Twilight Zone (or Blair Witch) episode. Except that getting lost on the way to the Spooklight has been rendered obsolete by the internet and the i-Phone.

As Jamie kept telling me, Spooklight Road is now paved. However, the spooky trees still crowd the road, and although there are more houses, the area is still rural. It was a Monday night when we went, and no one else was there. We stepped out of the car and Jamie said, “I saw it. It just crossed the road.” I thought it was a joke, but I turned, and there it was, a small fiery ball hovering over the road. It flickered and floated and split in two and reunited. We walked toward it, but at some point, we got too close, and it disappeared. When we retreated, it appeared again. My sister tried to capture it on her camera phone--but it didn’t turn out.

A few nights later, we took several carloads of cousins and relatives to see the Spooklight. There were lots of other tourists there, too, including a group sitting in their lawn chairs in the back of their pick-up drinking beer. One of them said, “If I just have one more beer, I’m sure I’ll see the Spooklight.” But sticking to the Spooklight Rules, the Spooklight refused to show itself to the mob.
That is, until everyone else had gotten back into their cars and left.
“Look!” I said. “It just came out!”
It did its little dance across the road, sliced and diced itself, and re-assembled. A few last stragglers saw the Spooklight that night—but of course nobody else believed us, and nobody got a picture. The Spooklight seemed smaller than I remembered it being, but maybe I was just bigger. Some people also say the Spooklight is not as active as it used to be, it does not roam the fields like it used to, does not chase cars anymore, and is gradually burning itself out. Or maybe it’s retreating from the encroaching crowds and traffic. Whatever the case, I’m glad I saw it before it disappears altogether.
To get to Spooklight Road, take I-44 west out of Joplin toward Tulsa; at Truck Town, take Exit 4/Missouri 43 south to Iris Road; turn right on Iris Road until it dead ends; then right on State Line Road, and left on E50 (also known as Spooklight Road). At least, I think that’s right. Be sure to fill up your tank before you go.
Also posted on Writers Rising

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Loy Krathong

The Loy Krathong song begins, “In the twelfth month on the full moon…”
By the Western calendar, the festival actually takes place in November, but by the Thai lunar calendar it’s the twelfth month. Not only are the months counted differently, but here in the village it’s actually 2542, since the original Year of the Buddha occurred 500 years before the first Year of Our Lord. I feel as if I’m a time traveler who has been transported 500 years into the future.

Loy Krathong วัน ลอยกระทง is the second-most important celebration on the Thai calendar, and this presumably means the village will go all out. But when the celebration begins, I’m surprised at the dignity and restraint of the celebration. Unlike the prolonged and frenzied partying of the Songkran holiday, this harvest festival chiefly involves launching floating candles across the water to carry our sins away. No Las Vegas-like stage shows, no throbbing outdoor movies, no wobbly carnival rides.
Instead, after dark, we carry our modest krathongs (floats made of banana leaves and bearing flowers, candles and incense sticks) down to the village reservoir. The vast, placid reservoir is already fringed with flickering krathongs, which are bobbing near the shores from which villagers have launched them. It’s a windless night, so not many of the village’s sins have floated out into the middle, except where villagers are splashing and making waves to send them on their way.
Floating our boats of sin away is actually only one of several explanations I’ve heard about this festival. I’ve also been told that the festival involves giving thanks for the rains that irrigate the paddy fields. And in a combination of those two strains—expressing gratitude for the rains and asking forgiveness for sins--I’ve heard we are specifically asking pardon from the water gods for polluting the water. That’s a tad ironic, since the festival involves littering the waters with dozens of krathongs, some of which have come to include Styrofoam.
Still, it’s undeniably a lovely sight when the rivers and lakes of Thailand become oceans of flowers and fire this one night of the year. Perhaps the most spectacular celebration takes place in the ancient city of Sukothai, but the nearby Mekong River becomes a stream of candlelight as well.
But for this festival, the village has plenty of water and floating beauty. And of all the different explanations I’ve been given for Loy Krathong, it’s the asking-for-forgiveness explanation that I like the best. For me, this makes the ritual of Loy Krathong something like a sacrament, a visible expression of God conferring invisible grace. Or, as one definition says, “a rite in which God is uniquely active.” Amen to that. So I silently ask Jesus to forgive my sins before launching my krathong. My Buddhist friend, Maliwan, is crouched beside me, and she pauses before launching her krathong as well. “Now,” she murmurs, “we pray.” She also bows her head. Our candles burn with remorse, our incense sticks send up a fragrant plea for forgiveness. Our sins set sail softly, sadly, but when our sin and regret stall a few feet from shore, we smack energetically at the water, sending the floats outward on concentric ripples of water. All my students are milling around, exchanging greetings and smiles. The whole village is out, and the feeling of a fresh start, a new beginning, is in the air. It’s a beautiful sight, as dozens of candles flicker on the dark water.
Later, three of us from the village straddle a single motorcycle and ride to Ban Dung, where a krathong contest is being judged. Here is the lavish celebration I have grown to expect in Thailand. These krathongs are not modest—they are huge and elaborate, constructed of hundreds of tightly woven banana leaves, sculpted into royal birds and royal palaces and bedecked with festive lights.
But not only are the floating beauties of the water being judged—local beauties of the human variety are also competing for a crown. Beauty contests are another feature of Loy Krathong, and one young woman after another parades across the stage. As she crosses, pauses, and twirls, each woman’s measurements are pronounced over the loudspeakers to fervent applause. Also posted on Writers Rising