It was the summer 2006. I was in Croatia for the holidays after finishing my first year of Masters programme in Ireland. While in Croatia, apart from visiting my family, I spent three weeks in a little village in the mountains at the gathering that focused on reconciliation. ROM, short for Renewing Our Minds, is a gathering for young leaders who come from countries where there was conflict. The programme is based on the ‘principles of Jesus’ and it is open for people from all religions (and none). That year was my first time at ROM, I came as a participant. My motivation for taking part was simple. I wanted to deal with the pain from the war we had in Croatia in 1990’s. I knew I had never dealt with it properly prior to that summer, and was convinced that if I didn’t face the pain from the past, it would haunt me in the future, whether I would be aware of it or not. I cried a lot during those three weeks, but it was good. It was like my heart and soul were being purified through the tears.
The little village was thirty minutes from the sea. A nearby lake was a walking distance from the house where we stayed. The whole area was quite beautiful. The programme was rich, from various speakers that shared their wisdom and challenged us, to group discussions, a few trips around the country. We also had a lot of fun. The team that organised the gathering used creative ways in addressing very difficult topics.
However, among all this richness two things stand out for me as I reflect on that time. One of the participants was a young Muslim woman from Iraq. She impressed me. Living in the country that experienced conflict was not a thing of the past for her. Her country was being thorn with the conflict at the time, and yet she showed much grace. I never saw her cry, I never saw her angry, she exuded peace and hope was written all over her face. I do not know what hurts and fears she carried within her heart, and I don’t doubt she had some for we all do, even in times when there is no conflict. Yet she showed courage and love. One day a few of us were at the lake, chatting, and another wave of tears came over me. This young woman, fully dressed in peace, looked at me and said, “Don’t cry, you have to be brave”. A woman from Iraq, country that was at war then, and unfortunately still is, was comforting me?! I will never forget the gift she gave me, comfort filled with grace.
The ultimate blessing at the end of those few weeks happened in the church. It is one of those memories that I cherish as if Heaven itself gave me a pearl to put into my treasure box of memories. Already exhausted from all the tears, not seeing the end of pain, and yet longing for relief, for joy that will last, I walked into the church on the way to the house. It was the only Catholic church in the village, quite old and filled with kitsch, but the Lord was in it, so I came there for some rest. I cannot remember what I prayed for at the time, but I longed for hope, the one that will be deeply rooted inside my heart. Then I saw it. On the shelf at the back of the church. A heart of clay. It was beautiful, made of white clay it fitted nicely in the palm of my hand, and it was soft under touch. Quite pleasant both to look at and to hold at the same time. On one side it had rays carved from the centre spreading out like the rays of the Sun, in the shape of the cross. The other side was smooth and it had a blessing from the book of Numbers written on it. These were the words that I read:
“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you his peace.”
It was signed “St. Francis”, and to this day I don’t know why, with a year 1995 written at the end of the text. That year the war in Croatia ended. Whenever I hear this blessing spoken, it always blesses me; as if God is speaking it directly into my heart and it generally brings tears of gratitude to my eyes. That day in the church I picked up the white carved cross in the shape of the heart. Somewhere within me I heard, “This is for you”. I knew I was not supposed to take things from the church, but there was no way I could leave that gift behind. That beautiful heart of clay brought me joy. Looking at it I even laughed! Later I gave it to a friend who needed comfort more than me, but I still have this memory to remind me that even deep pain has the end. When all the tears are cried out, and our longing thirsty, unsatisfied, there comes hope with God’s grace, shining like the Sun; it rises gently like the dawn within our souls, within our hearts.
© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 29th April 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek