Since September, I felt strongly compelled to go to the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Knock in Ireland. It kept coming to the top of my mind. Our Lady of Knock is not the most famous shrine of Mary. I’m not sure it would even make the Top Five with the more famous Lourdes and Fatima. But I kept thinking about it, and I’m learning that if an idea or inspiration keeps coming up again and again, it’s a sign that I need to act on it! In mid-November, just barely outside the 21-day advance purchase window, I decided, “Ireland, here I come!” I needed to find out why find out why I was being drawn there.
As the story goes, Mother Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Joseph appeared in 1879 to 18 townspeople of all ages in front of the rear wall of the local Knock church. The figures did not move or speak while they appeared for 2 hours. The cures began almost immediately after the apparition ended; a local deaf girl regained her hearing after her mother touched her ears with some mortar from the church’s wall. Within months, the cures numbered in the hundreds, putting Knock on the pilgrimage map. Today the physical cures number in the thousands, although many more involve spiritual, rather than physical healing. Pope John Paul II gave his blessings to Knock as a shrine of Mary in 1979. And I was going there to check it out as a future site of a “Mother Mary’s journey.”
All the while, I was wondering what this place would feel like. A Marian shrine is an energetic hot spot. Would it feel like the pure peace I experienced in Assisi? Or the floaty sensations I felt in Lourdes? I couldn’t wait to find out!
Unfortunately, with all this anticipation and comparison, I went there with high expectations. What I wasn’t asking myself was, what if I don’t feel anything? What if I have no connection to this place? Does that mean it isn’t beautiful, spiritual, transformational or worthy of pilgrimage?
I arrived in Knock in the dark of night, and it was only 5:00 on a December evening! On this December evening, an all-night vigil was due to take place in the shrine’s basilica starting at midnight. While I wandered around the shrine’s grounds, the misty rain spit in my face and the wind blew my hair. This was it? I felt…cold, lonely and…disappointed? No thunderclaps or lightening bolts. No divine messages waiting for me at check-in. No sensations. No signs and wonders.
It was difficult to get a sense of the grounds and their spaciousness or beauty in the dark. There was the original old church with a glass-enclosed apparition chapel built onto that same rear wall where the event took place. There was a massive 10,000-seat basilica. There was a sprinkling of other buildings, flickering votive candle stands and a traditional manger scene awaiting the arrival of Jesus. While I took it all in, I wondered, “What is my purpose here? What am I here to discover?” In all honesty, I was trying to keep a lid on my feelings of fear and panic. What if this visit came up empty?
The basilica lit up the night with warmth, light, song and incense. By 4:30 a.m., my bum was numb, the vigil was in its final hour and I heard something in a homily so completely and utterly familiar. It was MY message! It wasn’t earth-shattering or even new. In fact, it’s beautiful in it’s simplicity:
“Just say “Yes” to God’s divine path for you, as Mary said “Yes.”
“Give up your fear, worries and troubles to the Blessed Mother.”
Like an evangelist, the priest asked us in a booming voice, “Do I hear a YES?!!”
I’m sure this woke everyone in the audience up, as it sounded unlike anything they’d probably ever heard before at the Knock shrine. It certainly got my attention. And I need to hear it again and again and again. Just say yes. Give up the fear.
So, what about this sacred place? How do I come to better understand it for myself and for the people I’m leading on a journey here? I sat with these questions in silence for a long time and here’s what I came away with:
It’s a place of energy, spiritual transformation and healing. No doubt.
It’s not Lourdes; you can’t even compare, but the result is the same.
Look to the genuine devotion of the people there.
Meditate on the Blessed Mother.
Take in the holy water.
Really inhabit the space: the chapels, the wide open fields, the trees, the fresh air, flowers, the lush green grass, the texture in the sky and even the wind and rain.
Rest in the vision of Mary.
Share prayers and intentions.
Offer up fear and pain.
And what about great expectations? The answer is simple. Don’t have them. I’m sure my expectations of this sacred place of healing were not all that different from the pilgrim who arrives on crutches and prays to walk away on his own two feet. I was so occupied with comparing Knock to Lourdes and other spiritual sites I’ve visited. I was blowing it up in my mind so much that I knew it was going to knock my socks off (forgive the pun). The experience was going to make me feel amazing! Instead of sensations or instant clarity, I received a simple, very personal message that I needed to hear. That’s it, and that’s enough. And my experience is not going to be the same as the person to my left or to my right.
So, here’s my final message, courtesy of the Rolling Stones, to all of us who make a journey for healing: You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time you just might find, you get what you need – without expectations.
Aw, yeah. Amen.