Monday, July 27, 2009



KFYR-TV, our local NBC news station, carried a story a few days ago about recent sightings of the Virgin Mary. Famous apparitions of Mary have happened at Medjugorje (former Yugoslavia), at Fatima (Portugal) and at Lourdes (France), and I've heard that people have seen the image of the Blessed Mother in everything from a piece of toast to bird poop on a pickup truck (I kid you not - just Google Virgin Mary sightings.)

These new sightings interest me because they're much closer to home - or at least the place I used to call home, Crosby, ND. Some motorists traveling on Highway 5 about 10 1/2 miles west of Crosby say they've seen the Virgin Mary's image on a 10-foot-tall piece of field stone in a cattle pasture on the south side of the highway.

"Lots of people have seen it, some say they can't see it at all and other people see it right away and it really depends on the time of day," said Shannon Gjovig, of Ambrose (near Crosby in Divide County, ND).

Gjovig said the best time to visualize the image of the Virgin Mary is around 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening. He said light from the setting (summer) sun creates shadows on the rock that creates a likeness of Mary.

"It looks like the Virgin Mary is holding a baby when you're coming from the west,"said observer Dan Goff. Goff was one of the first to witness the Marian apparition. Now many other people claim to be able to see it too. "As soon as I drove over I could see the silhouette of it," Gjovig said.

Here is a link to KFYR-TV's video by Cliff Naylor: At about 1:05 minutes into the video, as the camera zooms in on the rock, I admit, I can see what other people describe: the likeness of a woman's face at the top of the rock, with a veil and flowing robes that extend down the side of the figure to the ground. "You can see the head here from a distance and then it goes down and you can see the shawl," said Gjovig, who, by the way, had intended to paint the massive boulder with some type of artwork, "but since it seems to already contain an image", he plans to leave the rock as it is.

That begs the question, Where did this 10,000 pound rock come from? There was certainly no mention of the Virgin Mary Rock when I was growing up, nor from my aunt, who died about five years ago - and she knew everything that went on up there. Was the rock, like so many North Dakota boulders that cause immense headaches to North Dakota farmers, heaved up out of the permafrost? Was it moved to its present site, and if so, when?

Well, I'm not saying whether the image is or is not the Virgin Mary. Considering its location, it would be natural for it to be either Mary or Martin Luther, as most people who settled there were either Catholics or Lutherans.

But then again, would it be natural to have a rock with a Christian image? Because I'm thinking of another rock with spiritual connections found in this very same area of extreme northwestern North Dakota many years ago. I'm talking about Writing Rock.

Writing Rock, a granite boulder four feet high by four and a half feet wide, is inscribed with Native American petroglyphs, including the thunderbird. Thunderbirds, mythological creatures responsible for lightning and thunder, were central to the stories of many Plains Indians such as the Ojibway (Chippewa), Assiniboine, Dakota (Sioux), Mandan and Hidatsa (Gros Ventre).

Writing Rock, or Hoi-waukon, was "discovered" by white settlers, but no one knows its origins. However, most artifacts of the Northern Plains with thunderbird imagery - bones, shells, pottery and rock art - date from A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1700. On Writing Rock, a large thunderbird is surrounded by many other images incised into the stone.

There is also a second, smaller granite boulder that features a smaller thunderbird. It was once located some distance from the larger Writing Rock. The smaller rock was relocated by whites to a nearby stream in 1919. It was kept at the University North Dakota for study for many years, but has now been returned to Divide County.

While the meaning of many of the images on the rocks have been lost to history, the Native American tribes who lived in the area considered the rocks sacred. They felt that they could foretell the future when reading the changing pictures on the "Spirit Rocks".

If I close my eyes, I can imagine a band of Sioux or Assiniboine Indians trekking their way to Canada on horseback, following very closely what would later become the border of North Dakota and Montana. In the years since the stones were incised, they have become a wayside shrine for these highly spiritual people. Here, nearing sunset on a July day, they camp for the night and hold religious ceremonies and make offerings near the rocks. The next morning, they again head north, refreshed in body and in spirit by the Writing Rocks. (I don't know if the trail came first, or the rocks, but I do somehow know they went hand in hand.)

According to tradition, the supernatural powers of both rocks vanished when whites moved the smaller rock.

So what's the Virgin Mary doing, appearing now on the old stomping grounds of the Native American peoples who once roamed this land? It's all very interesting to me. I no longer go back "home" to this isolated, remote corner of the state (no loved ones left), but it would certainly be worth a trip to see both the Virgin Mary Rock and the Writing Rocks. I wonder what spiritual experience I might have?

I was raised a Lutheran, and we confirmation students were often told by the pastor that the Catholic practice of praying to Mary was "stupid". "Where in the Bible does it say to pray to Mary?", huffed Pastor Klemp. "Jesus said to pray to me." (Fifty years ago, there was definitely no sign of the ecumemenical spirit that exists between North Dakota Lutherans and Catholics today.)

Now I've grown up and shed that denominational hogwash. As I've gotten older I've also done some reading about the ancient Celts and Vikings. I realize that once the Catholic church took away their pagan goddesses, they were bereft. I believe they went looking for a goddess and found her in Mary. And bless the millions of Catholics who have found solace in praying to her. Too bad we Protestants didn't get to have a goddess too.

Frankly, at this point in my life I don't give a damn if people are praying to Mary, or to Jesus, or Buddha, or Krishna or Mohammad. Or to the Native American "Great Spirit" or other pagan gods or goddesses - as long as they practice the Golden Rule and revere Mother Earth. Whatever is going on now or went on long ago at this crossroads on the North Dakota prairie, if it makes people stop and take stock of their spirituality, I'm all for it.



(Writing Rock and the smaller rock can be found at Writing Rock State Historic Site 12 miles northeast of Grenora. The two boulders are enclosed in a shelter and protected by iron bars.)
(Information on the Virgin Mary Rock was taken from the KFYR-TV video.)


Rowan said...

It's a pity that the white people couldn't leave the smaller Writing Rock where it was originally, I'm afraid my opinion of the way the Native American peoples were treated isn't suitable for writing on here! As for the rock near your old home - well, I think some people have good imaginations. Light and shadow can make all kinds of things appear at certain times of day or in certain weather conditions.

grendelskin said...

Agreed - in my mind it doesn't matter what faith a person follows as long as they follow the basic tenets, which are the same for all organized religions (and the disorganized ones!) anyhow.
There have been many times when I've been sensitive around those who would judge me for not "belonging" to their particular group and I've gotten defensive. I need to remind myself that it isn't about the house of worship or the rituals but about the mind and the heart.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

Interesting post - good fodder for thought, that's for sure. I would love to see these two rocks, but so far I don't see any travel that far in our future - but who knows. We often talk about making trips to special sites like these.

gma said...

Things of the spirit are not always tangible. Does spirit choose to show it's face in rocks or a hand in art? Leaving it up to the humans to decide if it's divine or just a rock or a line drawn. I don't believe in coincidence though so whether it's Mary or Shiva, if it causes people to get in touch with the divine spirit within themselves then it's good.xx Writing Rock is sacred. Wish I could get rubbings from that.

Annie Jeffries said...

Whether Blessed Mother resides in this rock (or any other of the places we journey to "see" her), or not, I think the most important thing is that these places all serve as a reminder of the hope we must have in order to trust that through our own actions, the world can become a better place.

Thanks for sharing this Julie.

Anonymous said...

WONDERFUL post! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I believe it doesn't matter what religion someone practices, or what they believe as long as they are kind, law biding, and like you say, take care of the earth. I enjoyed reading your post. It was very interesting. I hope you are having a lovely evening.

Shopgirl said...

This was a interesting post. No matter what, we should let these things alone. All over the world there are things we do not understand. If a rock in the middle of no where gives someone a special feeling or vision, what is the harm. My Grandfather was half Indian, born in Oklahoma. I wonder what he would say about this.
Hugs, Mary

Colleen - the AmAzINg Mrs. B said...

The older I get the more I know religion is man-made and spirituality is God-made. I prefer the latter. Good post :-)

ebrarian said...

It would be very natural to have a rock with a Christian image. After all, Jesus told Peter in the Gospel of Matthew, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church." This was a play on words, since Peter's name means "rock."

I searched for Virgin Mary sightings on Google and most of them require a stretch of the imagination, but this article was fascinating.

Julie said...

Hi Honey,

Thanks for the link. I had never heard of the apparition in Egypt before. It was really interesting.

Love, Mom

Bimbimbie said...

So true Julie... I like to think this Navajo prayer sums it up for me*!*

As I walk, as I walk
The universe is walking with me
In beauty it walks before me
In beauty it walks behind me
In beauty it walks below me
In beauty it walks above me
Beauty is on every side
As I walk, I walk with Beauty

Michele said...

Thank you for the history lesson on Writing Rock, I'd never heard of it before.

Very interesting, thought-provoking post. :)