Mary Amidst the Mountains

Edward S. Argauer

© Copyright 2019 by  Edward S. Argauer


Photo of the  Madonna at Betania.

Hidden in the rugged Venezuelan mountains lies a spiritual treasure trove of apparitions, miracles and solace for thousands, most of them poor, in a small outlying village called Betania.  This is the story of my quixotic quest in search of the Madonna on Christmas Eve. My expectations were high, and I was not let down, yet pitfalls plagued my difficult pilgrimage. I traversed the dangerous terrain with only my faith, rosary and rudimentary Spanish to safeguard me.

My overstuffed black backpack was missing. As I searched Bogota’s chaotic terminal, I feared the worst: all my pilgrimage gear was stolen. An hour later, with police assistance, I discovered it hidden in a corner and wet - the target of a drug-sniffing German Shepherd who had got to it first. Welcome to Colombia.

Ostensibly, I was traveling to visit my college roommate Franco, but my true vision quest was to see the Blessed Mother at a little-known apparition site in Venezuela. In 1994, there was a window of relatively benign guerrilla activity in Colombia, and though I wasn’t guaranteed safety, it still seemed a fair gamble. My family, however, wasn’t so sure. This would be my first Christmas away from home. But, at 25-years-old, newly converted and sick with the travel bug, it just felt right. On December 21st, a southbound 737 lifted me through the dense, snow-laden clouds over Washington, DC.

In Bogotá, Colombia I spent the last days of Advent with Franco’s family. Their traditions were different, stressing the spiritual over the material. “Ven, ven, ven,” we sang. Come Lord Jesus! 

The previous year the Blessed Mother led me to her Son. My conversion left me walking on air and experiencing a strong sense of Mary’s presence. Through spiritual hunger and gratitude, I had been visiting many apparition sites of Our Lady. In my spiritual quest I gave birth to the not-so-brilliant idea of a solo Christmas Eve pilgrimage to Betania, Venezuela three hours south into the 6,500’ peaks encircling Caracas. I imagined myself alone, rapt in prayer, at a beautiful Marian shrine on Christmas Eve, maybe even witnessing a vision myself as hundreds of other pilgrims had over the years. But, in order to do this, I had to lie. I assured Franco’s family I had friends in Caracas to receive me.

I landed in Caracas at 6 p.m. in time to see the low-slung sunrays flashing around the mountains’ crests. Four people misdirected me before I connected with the correct bus. Warily, I sat next to the friendliest-looking campesino. He noticed me praying the Rosary. “You are Catholic?” he enquired in Spanish. I discovered Carlos was 17, worked in Caracas and could only afford to visit his parents four times a year. His eyes lit up as he asked if I was visiting ‘La Virgen.’ “Ah, she is beautiful,” he whispered, “but, it is very dangerous. There are many thieves around. Do you want to stay with my family?” Here arose every traveler’s dilemma – take the safe path and hole up in a local hostel or choose the road less traveled. I gambled with Robert Frost and replied “Sí!”

The earliest known claim of an apparition was from St. James the Greater who saw the Virgin Mary while he was preaching in Spain in 40 A.D. Today scholars estimate the total number of apparitions claims throughout history to be approximately 2,500 (with about 500 of those occurring in the 20th century alone). According to the Dictionary of Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, throughout history 308 apparitions are attributed to Saints or Blesseds. Only seven Popes have witnessed Marian apparitions.

Betania, which translates as” Bethany.” means “house of affliction.” There, the mystic Maria Esperanza had witnessed 31 apparitions of the Blessed Virgin over the course of 15 years. The Blessed Mother called herself the "Reconciler of People and Nations" and warned of impending war and suffering. Since the beginning in 1984, hundreds have reported seeing the apparitions which were approved by the local bishop in 1987. So, my hopes were high I too would have a supernatural experience.

For over an hour our bus careened through a minefield of potholes and rocks before sputtering to a stop just north of the apparition site. We hopped out and I was immediately seized with awe. Stars carpeted the sky. Not having to compete with light pollution, pinpricks radiated through the inky blackness. I imagined them shining this brightly for the Magi on that Holy Night. Now, this Christmas Eve decision truly felt right again. We picked our way up the mountain while I chatted away in my broken Spanish.

Carlos grabbed my arm. “Ssh, silencio!”. His voice signaled that something was very wrong. I heard footsteps approaching from behind and had the sinking feeling these were Carlos’ friends come to rob the naive gringo. I had been set up. One thief shoved his weapon into my shoulder, its barrel reflecting a silvery gleam of moonlight as their rapid-fire Spanish shot over my head. My family was enjoying their Christmas dinner and I was about to be shot. In a state of panic and anger, I pushed one of the gunmen away from me rationalizing that I was double his size. He yelled something and poked the gun in my chest. Suddenly, this Christmas Eve decision felt so wrong.

“Pasaporte, pasaporte,” he barked at me. I had secured my passport in a money belt over my abdomen. Unfortunately, I also had $600 in small bills, which may sound foolish, but traveler’s checks won’t even get you a ‘cafecíto’ in the mountains, and a lone explorer has to be prepared.

As I prayed to the Blessed Mother and my angel to secure my life, greenbacks and paperwork, the thug thumbed through my passport before throwing it at me. After more quibbling, they took Carlos’ cigarettes and disappeared off the trail. Still shaking, Carlos explained that we were fortunate these undercover police officers were on the right side of the law. He said that when we had passed them earlier, my gringo accent aroused suspicion. Apparently, there could be only one reason I would be high in the mountains of Venezuela on Christmas Eve. Drugs.

Carlos grew silent as we climbed higher. This last section of trail to his house was littered with rubble; I’d discover why in the morning. After negotiating our way up another mile of trail we reached his house. His parents welcomed me with huge smiles, thrilled at having such an unusual, unexpected foreign guest, an ‘extranjero.’ Quickly his mother prepared a well-worn wood-burning stove to cook empanadas. Despite being exhausted from the day’s travel, I was curiously not hungry, but it would’ve been impolite to say no. I ate under scrutiny; after all, a foreigner traveling at this time and in this place was a true novelty. A mangy, café colored dog watched me expectantly. 

In my honor they opened their only bottle of liquor – crème de leche. I smiled a lot as I forced my eyes to remain open. As the night wore on and I drank the liquor, my translating deteriorated. Seeing this they insisted I take Carlos’ mat and I didn’t argue. It was two a.m. as sleep came fast and hard.

Six hours later I awoke to an entirely different climate. The cold, dry, crisp night air gave way to a heavy, intense humidity and 90-degree temperatures. The acrid smell of smoke and burning trash clouded the air. I pulled on my $200 hiking boots and stepped through a makeshift rickety wooden door to the outside. I then made sense of the rubble I traversed the night before, strewn about the paths that masqueraded as roads. I imagined the heavy machinery clawing niches out of the rock-strewn mountainside just large enough to situate corrugated tin-covered hovels slouched on graded ledges. Adjacent was just enough space to encourage a few vegetables to grow next to the dirt floor shack.

Carlos greeted me with a wide smile and a few wrapped empanadas. We trekked through the brush to enter the rear of the Shrine. A long cement wall stood absolutely packed with placards in thanksgiving for healings, miracles and other favors. I observed several women at the far end of the shrine in rapt attention at a spot above their heads. I looked and hoped and prayed, but to no avail. To heighten my disappointment no priest showed up for Mass – my first time without a Christmas Mass.

I hadn’t reflected on the things I would miss while away from my family: the wafting incense at midnight Mass, the Magi figurines, and the large, decorative crèche. Instead, they were replaced with the smoke of burning trash, the bright mountain stars, and a musty, dirty shack as a crib.

I sought a heavenly love but uncovered an earthly one - a family of very humble means living in a small mountainside nook. I didn’t get to see La Virgen and I missed my gifts under the family’s tree. But God gave me something so much more powerful that year, something of which not even Frost could have dreamt, for that Christmas I chose the road less traveled by, and thanks to Carlos and his family of little means, it made all the difference.

I have been published in such venues as Discovery Channel Networks, World Wildlife Fund, and BBC America, I offer a diverse array of writing experience as well as an M.A. in Theology. 

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