25th September 2015
I grew up in a good and loving Catholic family and from a very young age, I always just knew that God is love. I had a very happy childhood and I was always a really pleasant and loving child, but when I was just ten years old, it felt as if all of my childhood joy and innocence was just harshly snatched away from me.
For the first ten years of my life, I lived and grew up with a sister who has cerebral palsy, autism and very challenging and violent behaviour. Because her brain was so damaged, in her anxiety she would often scream and cry, lash out and make threats to hurt me, to bite me and to even kill me. As a young child, this was very frightening and I was unable to understand why she would ever want to do this when all I ever did was love her as my special big sister. I felt hurt, rejected, unwanted and confused.
Around the same time that my sister’s behaviour became increasingly complex, my grandmother who was such a loving and devout Catholic woman, suddenly walked out on my grandfather and left him after fifty years of marriage. She then moved to another part of the country without really knowing herself where she was going to go. I never expected that this would happen and even though I didn’t understand then that the reason my grandmother left was because she no longer could tolerate my grandfather’s aggression, I was not too young to notice the very unpleasant and tangible feeling of angst that was slowly and insidiously spreading throughout my family.
Meanwhile, my father was in a car accident. He was driving home late one night when he simply just lost his concentration and collided with another vehicle. He was banned from driving for eighteen months and was to spend this time doing community service. He was told that he was actually very fortunate that he hadn’t been sent to prison. My father is such a good and moral man and he was always such a careful driver. This was just an innocent mistake and so as a child, I wouldn’t have understood why my father would have possibly felt so angry, disappointed with himself or ashamed. Again though, I didn’t know the extent of all of these details then anyway, but I did know that my father was just no longer his usual self anymore.
But soon there were some things that I did grow to understand much more than most – the sharp pang of hunger, the warped mathematical world of calorie content, how to push your body to the absolute limit and what it feels like to hate yourself so much that when you go to bed at night, you hope that you won’t wake up again in the morning.
During this time, my teenage brother went on a diet and I soon started to become absolutely fascinated by food, health, exercise and weight loss. Whilst I couldn’t control what was happening all around me in my life, I could however control what I ate, how much I compulsively exercised and how desperately thin I became.
Just before my eleventh birthday, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and was hospitalised for eight weeks. For nine months, I was fed completely through a tube and I allowed no physical food or drink to pass my lips – not even a single crumb or a simple sip of water. However, I would always receive the Holy Eucharist because I just had an innate understanding that this was much more than physical food. It was and it is truly and fully Jesus, and He was giving me everything that I needed to persevere and to live. He was giving me His love, His strength and His life when I felt completely worthless, weak and physically and emotionally dead.
I remember that when I would often feel frightened, confused and alone during the long nights in the hospital, I would just tightly hold onto my Rosary beads for comfort. I don’t remember if I even knew how to pray the Rosary properly back then, but I do remember feeling that it was as if Our Lady was somehow gently holding onto my hand in some way and that She was answering my prayers when I didn’t even know what to say to Her.
A few months later, my grandmother went on her first of many pilgrimages to Medjugorje in Bosnia and Hercegovina where she prayed very much for me. She asked her fellow pilgrims to pray for me too and she put my name in the prayer intention pages of the Medjugorje newsletter that she would receive back home each month. My name is still within these pages eleven years later and during my first time in Medjugorje, I actually met some of the pilgrims who first prayed for me out there when I was diagnosed with anorexia.
In the years ahead, I frequently relapsed into brief spells of sudden weight loss and when I was sixteen, I relapsed so seriously that the Head Child Psychiatrist at my local hospital told me that if I continued living as I was, I would be dead within six months because my heart would just stop beating.
Around this time, I decided that I would just give up on Jesus. I now rejected the love and the strength that He wanted so much to pour into me and instead this time I blamed Him for all of my suffering. I went on to try and find joy in superficial things but I was never able to feel fulfilled.
When I was nineteen years old, I was discharged from the mental health services because I had finally fully recovered from anorexia. I then gained a place on a very prestigious college course away from home and now believed that the future was to finally hold true happiness, new exciting friendships and much career success for me.
However, at college I soon became surrounded by sexual immorality, bullying, backstabbing and alcohol abuse, and I quickly felt so rejected and disliked by my classmates simply because I did not want to partake in this lifestyle with them. I thus became very isolated and unhappy at college. I just wanted so much to feel loved and that I belonged somewhere. I remember receiving a card one day from my grandmother who had again just been to Medjugorje to say that she had scheduled a Mass to be said for me there. I simply smiled on opening the Mass card, but only because it made me think of her. I honestly didn’t give it much thought afterwards.
One evening, when my mother came to visit me at college, I reluctantly went to Mass with her at the local Church and during the service I unexpectedly just started crying uncontrollably. I can now see easily God’s gentle presence in my life at this time and how much love He had for me because even when I didn’t know He was close or honestly didn’t even want Him to be close to me, He always undoubtedly was. Back then, I didn’t quite know yet though that the only way that I would find the true sense of peace, love, joy and belonging that I was so yearning for would be through finding God again.
I shortly after left college feeling embarrassed because I thought I had completely failed and let everybody down, so when I returned home I soon fell into a deep depression. For several months, my life followed the same pitiful and monotonous pattern of finding an unfulfilling job, quitting the job, feeling worse for quitting the job and then finally searching for another unfulfilling job. Sometimes, I would just give up altogether though and would choose to spend days lying in bed and weeks without even leaving the house.
I became so consumed by my own selfish misery that I didn’t even go to Mass with my family on Christmas Day. The longer I stayed away from the Church, the more I wanted to stay away and the more I felt I was unworthy to ever even return to Jesus. However, at Eastertime I found myself reluctantly at the Good Friday service. My mother was taking my sister there and the only reason that I went along too was because if I hadn’t, it would have caused my sister great anxiety and would have really upset her, which was something that I always wanted to avoid.
But it was when I looked at the outstretched arms of our loving Saviour on the Cross – the Saviour who had been humiliated, beaten, spat at, screamed at, utterly despised and brutally nailed to a wooden Cross for our sake – that I realised just how far I had drifted away from God. Jesus gave us everything on the Cross and now it was as if He was giving me even more than everything by calling me back to Him and He still continues to give us everything that He is every single day in the Eucharist. As I became aware of the fact that only Jesus can give in this immense way, I suddenly became overwhelmed by His endless love and mercy which He bestows on us all in equal measure regardless of whether we want it, whether we think we need it or whether we think we would ever even be worthy of it. The next morning, I made the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in three years.
Over the next few months, I started to go to Mass again, but sometimes I unfortunately would still lethargically slip into my old ways of misery and self-pity and would skip the Sunday service.
At the beginning of June that year, I spent a weekend with my seventy nine year old grandmother, shortly before her imminent twenty-second pilgrimage to Medjugorje. We had such a beautiful weekend together just talking about everything, laughing lots, drinking plenty of tea and eating one too many chocolate toffees. I went home feeling the happiest I’d felt in a long time, but then just two days later my grandmother died very suddenly. Her heart just stopped and she collapsed outside the bank in her local town where she was actually just collecting euros to use in Medjugorje.
My mother then felt that it was very fitting for her to take my grandmother’s place and to go to Medjugorje on the pilgrimage that she was due to take just two weeks later. However, this was to be on one condition only – that I went along with her too. Now, I honestly never wanted to go to Medjugorje this first time. I didn’t really know how I felt about the apparitions and I thought it was all going to be a bit weird and nonsensical. But on the morning we departed, all of this apprehension and reluctance seemed to have just disappeared.
The overwhelming feeling that I experienced in Medjugorje was peace. I particularly remember one day when I was sitting down and watching all the hundreds of people of all different nationalities, personalities, backgrounds, appearances and ages, just gathered around the various areas of Medjugorje praying to God in whatever way they felt moved to do so. For the first time in my whole life, I felt as if I now truly belonged to something incredibly special which I now know is the body of Christ. I returned home to Wales with a new desire within me that I honestly didn’t fully understand myself. This was to go to daily Mass, to pray the Rosary every day and to pray as much as possible, to read from the Bible every day, to fast twice a week and to go to Confession regularly. Not much sooner than I returned home did I feel a gentle tug in my heart to return to Medjugorje and so within just seven weeks I found myself there again having what then was the best week of my life so far.
On returning home again, my life changed completely. My heart now yearned for the daily Eucharist, I took my Rosary with me and prayed it wherever I went, I was no longer interested in secular music or television but was always instead listening to Christian praise and worship music and Medjugorje Adoration music and I much preferred to read a Novena or a book on Medjugorje rather than anything else. My life was no longer about what I wanted but about what Jesus wanted of me.
I now felt a new calling within me to console Jesus who was hidden in the distressing disguise of the poor and the needy and so I started loving and serving Him in the homeless, in those addicted to drugs and alcohol and in those who were in prison. I started fundraising for charity, I carried out street evangelisation work, I spent much more time in Adoration and I went on several different Catholic retreats throughout the U.K. I just felt as if I couldn’t get enough of God!
One year later, I returned to Medjugorje for two months just before I turned twenty one and at that time those two months were the best two months of my life thus far. I spent my time there volunteering at an incredibly busy retreat centre where each day, I met hundreds of wonderful Priests, Nuns, Seminarians, pilgrims, young people and volunteers from all over the world. Hearing so many different testimonies, seeing so many beautiful smiling faces and bright sparkling eyes that were just so filled with the joy of God and sharing our own very personal encounters with the Lord, made me see so clearly how we are all – regardless of who we are and of how we each are called to serve God and of how we each experience God in our own lives – a part of this beautiful body of Christ. Here, I learned how to put myself last, how to forget about myself and how to surrender myself to the complete service of others to such a great extent that I honestly sometimes didn’t think it would even be physically or mentally possible!
In Medjugorje, I learned how to love others and how to express this love openly and without reserve and without the fear of rejection. I was able to accept the love that was being poured out upon me from God and from others and my eyes were finally opened so that I could see how much God, how much everyone around me and how much everyone back home loved me and cared about me. It took a big hug from a really jovial Priest in Confession, an hour crying quietly in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament as I repeated the words “I deserve to be loved” to myself over and over, and somebody who I was working alongside with humiliating me in front of my new friends by shouting at me, insulting me and insinuating that I was stupid, for me to finally know that I’m actually not stupid and that I’m actually not worthless and that I do actually deserve to be loved. I was now able to finally love myself for who I was for the first time in my life since I was just nine years old.
My time in Medjugorje also taught me how to really forgive too. I was able to look past the anger of that particular person who hurt me during my time there, to have compassion on that person, to love them and to understand that they, just like everyone else, have a past and struggles of their own too. I was able to really forgive them and to forgive all of those who had ever hurt me, to see the goodness of Jesus in them all and to love them all, to seek forgiveness in the Confessional for the part that I played in our broken relationships too and to give all of these people, and myself, and our situations over to Jesus. I was also able to finally forgive myself and to let go of all of my own sins from the past too which had been dragging me down for far too long!
I would like to share just some of the many special moments that particularly stand out for me on reflection of my time spent in Medjugorje. The first is the power and the beauty of the Eucharist. Three evenings a week, thousands of people kneel, bow, pray, sing and remain in silence in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and even though there are vast numbers of people before Jesus, each individual person has their own very personal and unique experience within His love.
Also, one day just like everybody else does, I was struggling with my own personal worries when just before receiving the Eucharist at Mass, the Priest whom I did not really know and whom certainly did not know what was troubling me that day, said to me “Don’t look so worried. Jesus is just about to give you everything.” I now really became aware of the presence of Jesus within the Priest as these powerful words were exactly what I needed to hear to reassure me at that precise moment.
The second most beautiful experience for me would be the visible joy on the faces of so many young people during the Youth Festival held at Medjugorje every summer. Fifty thousand young people together were praying, singing, dancing, clapping, laughing, crying, hugging, kneeling before Jesus in Adoration and growing in faith. The joy was electric. I also remember likening all of us youngsters almost pushing past each other to get into the Confessionals at night to a group of youths trying to get into a top concert to get the best seats!
Also, through meeting hundreds of people in Medjugorje from all over the world who were each serving God in different ways, I learned that no matter where you are in the world, what you’re doing or who you’re with, you can still experience, love, be with, follow and serve God because He is always in us, with us, around us and for us! I realised that for the last year I had been quite foolishly searching for one particular place and one particular way to serve Him, but now I know that wherever you are, whoever you’re with and whatever way you are called to serve, you can still discover God. How exciting is that!!
I would thus describe my time in Medjugorje as this. Never before in my whole life have I ever been so completely open to the will of God and to whatever He wanted to do in my life. I felt as if my heart had been opened for one reason only – to be filled completely with the love of Christ. I knew exactly when it was the right time and when I was really ready to step down from the mountain and to go home though because I just felt so euphoric and so excited about sharing all of this love that I had been given with everyone back home. I often felt that otherwise I was just going to completely explode with all of this immense love, joy and peace within me which thus draws me to the beautiful words of Jesus Himself in John 15:11 when He says “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” Thank you Jesus.