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Gospa od Karavaja

Renee Selvey - Sometimes your only available mode of transport is a leap of faith.

For me, religion had always been a ritual that people took part in to feel better about
themselves. It was always personal, selfish, and over-commercialised. People who followed a
religion were sheep in my mind, indoctrinated. Every year, on the 26 th May, a small town of
Tisno in Croatia, triples in size to celebrate Gospe od Karavaja, a religious festival of
whimsical melodies, delicate aromas and melt-in-your-mouth cuisine to celebrate the visions
of Mary in Italy. People climbed stairs to prove their faith and to pray for the deceased. And
here I was, standing at the base, looking at these two hundred and fourteen stairs, built in the
1720s in Tisno, frozen. Around me, flocks of people were walking up this holy staircase, but
I was motionless. All my life I too had been one of these sheep, programmed to submit, not to
cause a fuss, but now thered been a glitch in the programming, I couldnt move.
I should explain. I live in a relatively rural town in Australia, go to a relatively comprehensive
school, with an opinionated group of friends. I am Australian, however my heritage on my
mothers side is Croatian. She had not been to Croatia since she was sixteen, (my age now)
but had always enchanted me with stories of her home and her youthful escapades. A main
story was of where her mother lived, Tisno, and a very important religious festival there
called Gospe od Karavaja. Again, she hadnt been to Croatia since she was sixteen, but her
memory of this festival was like it had just happened. She described markets lining the street,
to your left, the ocean, to your right, a faade of Romanesque buildings. The markets were
joyful and boisterous, selling art, toys and religious artefacts which led to the two hundred
and fourteen stairs. After ascending these stairs, there was a modest church, with hundreds of
lit candles for the deceased with religious intentions. There are ceremonies all throughout the
day at the church, with the bells ringing continuously. Although these images captivated me

Renee Selvey

from a young age, that was all they were, black and white photographs of memories from a
past time.
But now being here in the person, for me, the ritual was resurrected. The festival was exactly
how my mother had described it, but what she couldnt describe was the music, played by
jovial men on folk guitars, with no hint of the four-chord music in Australia. In fact, in a
word, the festival was genuine. There were no mythical gift givers, no tacky greeting cards
and no commercialised symbols. Even the toys being sold, despite being cheap plastic water
guns, and stuffed toys, didnt feel like they were for profit. My mother also couldnt describe
the smell, and if I were to try, it would be a Sunday roast mixed with an old church, making
me feel like I was five again, eating Christmas dinner with my family. Nevertheless, it added
to the atmosphere of kinship and sacredness that I was experiencing.
There I was, in a thoroughfare, at the beginning of what was supposed to be my journey to
spiritual enlightenment, and I couldnt move. Come on, I thought, If my ninety-six-yearold aunt can climb these stairs, four times already today, why cant I? It wasnt physical
strength I needed, and it wasnt a means of transportation. All my life I had prided myself in
being constantly questioning and critical, but now what I needed was a leap of faith. Despite
being only half a metre in distance, I shut my eyes and jumped onto the first step.
The stroll up the staircase was really quite enjoyable. Trees arms embraced the staircase, and
made me forget everything beyond their reach. Along with the relationship with strangers,
sharing our journey of transformation it was fair to say I had been captured by the moment.
When we finally made it to the top of these stairs, there were two things that struck me
instantly. The sound of the bells, a deafening choir, and the hundreds of candles, an
illuminated graveyard. This was the first time in my life I had understood why people pray
for the dead. It is for the living, a memory for all those who had not met the person, to still

Renee Selvey

appreciate their work. The church itself welcomed me, opening her mouth and calling me
inside. Inside was the painting of Mary appearing herself to humanity. The flock were leaving
their gold and valuables in front, as an offering to Mary, then leaving. I too offered a gift. I
placed my opinionated heart next to the gold and left.
My family and I settled ourselves outside of the church to listen to the religious service.
Obviously, it was all in Croatian, so it meant nothing to anyone in my family except for my
mother. She began to translate, but found that, while she could interpret the words, the faith
and wonder she was feeling was truly untranslatable. After sitting in the dirt for what must
have been half an hour, my father showed us a rock, declaring he can see Mary in it. They all
laughed and said that he just wanted his own miracle. Eventually, he laughed too, but I didnt
laugh. How could I, when I saw Mary in that rock too? Right in front of me, on a rock, was
the Mother of Jesus Christ. The Virgin Mary had come down from heaven, just like she did
all those years ago, to give me the miracle I needed. It was a divine mystery. I know my
father and I may have just seen it due to our unusually high level of susceptibility, but as far
as I am concerned, I saw Mary and that was as much as I needed. And I know my father saw
it too, because after he had finished laughing, he subtlety slipped the rock into his pocket.
Before experiencing Gospe od Karavaja, religion had always been a collection of hollow
ceremonies. But now, every time I look at this completely ordinary rock, I think of the
significance and meaning in these hollow ceremonies and know that religion turns even the
most ordinary things, with a little faith and community, into miracles.

Renee Selvey