Friday, August 27, 2010
I looked up with a start from my packing when I suddenly realized that no one else was in the barn, nor were there any sounds of collapsing e tents, or washing dishes. Looking out into the sterling mist shrouding the morning, I saw a few pilgrims, still stiff with sleep and sore with walking, limping towards the church for Mass. 'Condemnation!' I hissed and then chided myself, 'You know the word for "Mass" in Polish, so why are you always taken off guard?' Grabbing my missal and knotting my kerchief on my head, I ran out to join the other lategoers.

It was a pleasure to kneel before the Lord, free of dirt and perspiration, in the beautiful, half-renovated chapel. The priest rose from his genuflection before the altar in purple vestments. I hastily flipped from the Communion devotions to page 1142: the vigil of St. Lawrence.

Dispersit, dedit pauperibus: justitia eius manet in saeculum saeculi.

He hath distributed, he hath given to the poor: his justice remaineth forever and ever.

I felt myself squirm. How gratified the wants of my peculiar flesh had been on awakening to the chill damp of the morning! Heat, sun, dry air, and the mental and physical inertia that followed were all things I abominated, and here was the Mass anticipating the death of a man who died on the gridiron. The very same who had magnificently said: 'Turn me over, for this side is done.' My mind returned to that terrible day in my youth when I realized I had stopped dreaming of glorious matryrdom and turned my wishes towards a happy, earthly life.

Mass ended, and all hurried back to their makeshift beds to prepare for departure while others went about preparing breakfast. I packed my satisfyingly dry clothes into my damp knapsack with gusto before loading it onto the truck.

One of the young men walking with us, a twenty year old with a smile free of modern youth's typical morbidity loaded his pack after me. With his bright open grin, he held up his prayerbook, which he had accidentally packed with his larger bag the day before. We had made our acquaintance then when he had asked to share my modlitewnik, which in turn had enlivened me enough to carry on singing as well.

* * *
The precious, soft morning had burnt away by the time we reached Nowe Miasto nad Pilicą (the New City on the Pilicą River); the sky was merely a dome with the colour and fragility of a robin's egg, cracked by the sun's merciless heat.

Consequently, all the shade to be found in the town square was occupied. In the centre of this park, the altar was set up for the group's general Mass. Beside it was a massive, metal crucifix with a Franciscan situated at its base, his hand raised in benediction. Our group deferentially made its obeisance to the altar and laid down the standard before it.

We forthwith sallied across the street to the Capuchin Cloister where we
availed ourselves of the friars' hospitable offer of Eastern compote, tea, and water. As the spirited Novus Ordo Mass progressed, we made a prayerful resting place of the Franciscan church.

The majestic beauty of Holy Mother Church's sanctuaries and the startling wisdom of her theologians are enough to convert many with an appetite for beauty and an intellect keen for knowing. Yet, amigst the iridescent myriad of her charisms, she also possesses monuments of simply, selfless charity, drawing in the good and pure of heart. If the mighty splendour of the basilicas or the adamantine reasoning of Scholastics have won souls, so have the wooden altars and simple homilies of the Franciscans.

I noticed from my pew a silvery casket on a smaller altar to the left of the sanctuary. It contained relics of the Blessed Honorat Kozminski, as I learned from the holy cards left in front of it. I frowned, being none the wiser for this information.

Leaving the pew to look about the church, giving wide berth to the active confessionals, I saw the magnificent crucifix in the side chapel to the left of the entrance. It was one of the special sort that always draws me, those with the wounded knees. In my rather heterodox devotion, I often pay more attention to the knees of Christ than I do to the five wounds. Perhaps it is because one must kneel in prayer or it may be because I remember the knees of the gods being clasped by supplicants in mythology. For whatever reason, the sight of those fragile, sorely tried joints peering through his pitilessly tortured Flesh speak to me in tomes.

To the right was a painting of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina and to the left, five of his brother Franciscans who had met their end in Hitler's camps. They would have been his contemporaries, and via the charism of St. Francis, they would have been united in a special way. Did the Italian Capuchin's phenomenal sanctity owe a debt of gratitude to such martyrs as these?

As I knelt
there praying, one of the my pilgrim sisters came and tapped me on the shoulder, telling me I must see the confessional. Though certain I had understood her correctly, the order didn't make much sense. She was not telling me to go to Confession (a Sacrament I had partaken of before embarking on the journey, knowing I could not expect a priest able to give me Confession) but merely to look. She being older than me, I naturally obeyed and proceeded down the eastern row of chapels.

At the end was a handsomely carved, wooden confessional. It was roped off by a thick cord of red velvet, but there was nothing else to explain it that I could understand. I assumed that Blessed Honorat must have been a Confessor akin to St. John Vianney, and the confidence of sinners had made this holy booth his virtual home on Earth. Disappointed with myself for not being able to inquire further, I went back to my personal devotions.

* * *
Yet, my thirst to know would not be in vain. After bread and soup at the town's bus station, someone came up asking if I knew Blessed Honorat's story. Within a few moments, my hungry curiosity was satisfied.

After the Poles had failed to throw off the Russian yoke in 1863, the Czar, 'Liberator' Alexander II, suppressed religious orders altogether, rightly thinking that the extinction of the Church's charisms and devotions would weaken Catholicity itself, and in turn, demoralize the Polish people. Where he opined wrongly of course was in thinking that suppression could snuff out the orders.

Blessed Honorat encouraged those with a Franciscan vocation to live out the Order's charisms in spirit, rather than leave Poland to follow them to the letter. Disguising the Order thus, he founded seventeen congregations that would be approved later by the Holy See through the screen of his confessional--the very one I had had the privilege of seeing that day.

* * *
Foolish is the man who builds his house on sand, but sometimes walking on the grainy substance is necessary. It did make the journey remarkably onerous, but I quickly found that to be more than appropriate when someone whispered to me that we would be walking the Way of the Cross. Our band was leading the way again, bearing the crucifix at the head of the procession. Invited by Włodzimierz, one of our tireless traffic directors, I fell in line to wait my turn to bear the deceptively slender cross, and I would soon discover how heavy it was.

We stopped at the first station: Jesus is condemned to death. There was a large wooden plaque hanging to commemorate it from a tree. All I could make out in the abstract design was a hand reaching into a bowl of water. We began singing:

Stabat Mater dolorosa, At the cross her station keeping,
Iuxta crucem lacrymosa, Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Dum pendebat Filius. Where her Son, extended hung.

Then we plodded on, our ankles turning in the loose, fine dirt that rose in clouds around us, passing through the forest growth not quite tall enough to shield us from the sun, and it became easier to visualize a hot, dusty, journey towards a gruesome, horrific death.

In between the stations, where no longer the Stabat Mater but Polish hymns were sung, my mind would turn to the Act of Resignation:

O Lord my God, I now at this moment readily and willingly accept at Thy hand whatever kind of death it may please Thee to send me, with all its pains, penalities, and sorrows.

I bit my lip and wondered just how much I meant that beautiful prayer.

* * *
Again, the end of the journey came as it always did--a complete surprise. One is growing hotter, wearier, and while one's water bottle is no longer a weight in the bag, it also no longer holds a promise of succour. Then one glances ahead, and the procession suddenly veers into a farmyard where our tricolour hangs on the picket fence.

I discovered to my delight that a great part of the floor in the barn was layered with old rugs and coats, and hence I looked forward to sleeping upon such cushioning. It was even softer than my mattress in Warsaw. While washing the stubborn grime off my feet, I came to know more of my fellow travellers, one of the ladies being a Polish philologist who offered to exchange Polish lessons for English ones: an offer I would have to avail myself of once the holidays were over.

I spoke with Ola, a lovely, compassionate woman who had just started her own practice in neurology, specifically geared towards the rehabilitation, such as that of stroke victims. She was on the pilgrimage to dedicate this work, and I cannot doubt her practice will receive manifold blessings for it. Later I got to know Marzena better, a lady who has the features and hair of a wood sprite, and was always attired in the autumnal, sylvan colours befitting her warm personality.

In my search for still water (alas I shall never sympathize with the European taste for that horrible, sparkling liquid) I got to chat with more of the pilgrim brothers. One held up a bottle, 'Ah, this is niegazowana.'

'Are you sure?' I asked, noticing the label had been torn away.

'Yes!' he said emphatically, twisting off the cap and taking a generous swig, then proffering the bottle. For a moment I wondered if I had to take it, when I saw the look of realization on his face, and was free to burst into laughter along with his comrades. One gestured for my dictionary, which I had been carrying about, and after a moment's search said, 'He drank it unwittingly.' Along with 'multitudinous,' that has to be one of my favourite words.

When encampment had concluded, supper had been consumed, and we had all washed either in the creek or in the shed, the time had come again to sing the hours. Strolling from the barn to the well where we assembled, the sky at last caught my eye.

A massive cloud, perhaps one foreboding of ill weather, was beautifully illuminated in the split colours of the declining sun, while its brow was fringing with blinding silver. The dome of heaven was imbued with hues of violate, mauve, and pale rose, when we began singing praises to its Lord.
Friday, August 20, 2010

Nineteen kilometres, twelve miles. That should be more than enough to get my second wind, and it seemed appropriate that Sunday should be an easier day than others. I loaded my larger bag onto the truck, along with the clothes still wet from Friday's rain, and indulging my neurotic misgivings, dashed back into the barn to make sure I had forgotten nothing. The concrete shelter, bereft of hay, animals, or even machinery, was of course also devoid of mislaid belongings.

'Biało-czarno-czerwona!' a voice shouted followed by the shrill whistle. With my breviary in hand this time, I ran out to join them, keeping my eyes open f
or the newcomers. Apparently some priests from France were to join us today. I thought immediately of the much lauded pilgrimage from Paris to the sublime cathedral of Chartres. It was seventy-two miles, less than half of the sojourn from Warszawa to Częstochowa, but anyone who had walked it was already more prepared than I for this trek.

Today our group led the way before the others. Just ahead of our own standard, which was always accompanied by the image of Christ the King on the one hand and the Divine Mercy on the other, strode a group of six, bearing the crucifix before the entirety of the procession. To walk in front of the cross was to excommunicate one's self from the pilgrimage, as the traffic directors were teased mercilessly for later.

The moment we were clear of the town, the indefatigable cantor initiated the Matins of the Immaculate Heart, followed by those of the Divine Office.

My awkward lips stumbled over the beautiful ninety-second Psalm so wretchedly as to make me worthy of Beauty's wrath. Yet, I was not entirely to blame. The Polish language scorns the diction prized so highly in English, it being a language where the tongue must tap only lightly on the letters, like the hiss of a zephyr over smooth waters. My Southern American enunciation, rendered even more deliberate over the years out of deference to my profession, still has a great deal of trouble learning how to skip lightly in a foreign tongue when it must plod heavily in its own.

Alas, I did not then have the time to translate the Psalm, as we quickly moved on to next song. I saw it was from the book of Daniel and my heart skipped a beat. It was the song of the three saved from fire--the glorification so replete with the beauties of creation, so rhythmic in its invocations that it absorbs the natural world which Neopagans claim to love and exalts it in a manner above the sneers to which these spiritual dilettanti have exposed it. My slow tongue loosed itself at last and flowed along:

Blessed art thou in the firmament of heaven: and worthy of praise, and glorious for ever. All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye angels of the Lord, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye heavens, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O all ye waters that are above the heavens, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all for ever.

O all ye powers of the Lord, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye sun and moon, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye stars of heaven, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O every shower and dew, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O all ye spirits of God, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.

O ye fire and heat, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye cold and heat, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye dews and hoar frosts, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye frost and cold, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye ice and snow, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.

O ye nights and days, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye light and darkness, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O let the earth bless the Lord: let it praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye mountains and hills, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.

O all ye things that spring up in the earth, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye fountains, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye seas and rivers, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye whales, and all that move in the waters, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O all ye fowls of the air, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever.

O all ye beasts and cattle, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever. O ye sons of men, bless the Lord, praise and exalt him above all for ever.
(Daniel, 3: 56-82)

* * *

To my left and right, pilgrims crossed themselves, and I glanced up to behold a roadside shrine to the Sacred Heart. Here we turned aside from the asphalt road onto a dirt lane. It was but a few minutes walk, before our band was immersed in the cool, moist green of the forest. A little clearing opened up on our left, while on the right emerged a stately white building framed by the verdant growth.

In spite of its fine appearance, the broken windows and brown stains at the base of its walls revealed the manor's neglect. At the end of the
edifice though, was an arched door left open, and many of the pilgrims and priests strode inside. I peered into the darkness and saw that they knelt. Looking up I finally noticed the cross atop this part of the building.

Stepping aside to let others pass through the exit, I took out the paper on which I had copied the novena to the Sacred Heart then entered. Touched only by time and elements, the chapel maintained an ineffably serene beauty. All was intact. The intricately carved tabernacle, the altar with its images, and the paintings on the wall. Crowded with dusky cobwebs and sitting upon faded carpets, it was at least unmolested by vandalism.

The Lord was no longer here where there was no one left to praise Him, but the catechism provided by the chapel's beauty did bring me to my knees, as it did the others, and with a bow to the altar that Christ Himself had instructed us to reverence, I began my private prayers.

Exiting the chapel I spied at last two priests of dark, distinctly Gallic visage sitting amongst their Slavic brothers. There were a few French speakers eager to practice with them, but I was comforted that there were others bearing the same linguistic difficulties as I. When we started our tramp again though, I heard a congenial announcement in Polish that something ought to be sung which would give the French fathers and the American sister no trouble. In a moment we were swept up in the medieval rhythm which cannot distinguish between the inner gaiety of the soul and the riotous joy of a dance:

Cuncti simus concanentes, Ave Maria!

Virgo sola existente en affuit angelus
Gabriel est appellatus atque missus celitus.
Clara facieque dixit: Ave Maria!

Clara facieque dixit: audite, karissimi.
en concipies Maria, Ave Maria!

En concipies Maria, audite, karissimi,
pariesque filium, Ave Maria!

Pariesque filium audite, karissimi,
Vocabis eum Ihesum, Ave Maria!

Let us all sing together: Hail Mary!

When the Virgin was alone, an angel appeared.
He is called Gabriel and is sent from Heaven.
Radiant he said: Hail Mary!

Radiant he said, listen, my darling ones:
You will conceive, Mary. Hail Mary!

You will conceive, Mary, listen, my darling ones:
You will bear a son, Hail Mary!

You will bear a son, listen, my darling ones,
You will call him Jesus, Hail Mary!

* * *
Sunday afternoon was as relentlessly bright and merry as Saturday's, though we hardly broke a sweat as walked the curving path up the hill of Michałowice Stamirowice. When we emerged at the top, we promptly fell to our knees before the Church of All Saints. This was where Mass would be said.

After paying our brief respects, we all hastened to exploit our early finish and hang our damp clothing out to dry. Many grabbed towels and made for the portable hot showers across the lawn from our barn. Not feeling especially dirty, I elected to wait until after Mass to wash; cold water would be more than adequate. Even as I unrolled my mat and sleeping bag, I got looks of concern from the ladies about me.

'Aren't you afraid of the draught?' they asked, pointing out the generous spaces between the boards in the front of the barn.

'Nie,' I replied, hoping my answer would make some sense, 'Noc zawsze jest gorąca mi.' Whether they judged my hard, American head incapable of comprehending their concern, or whether my weak grasp of Polish made me deaf, they gently gave up reasoning with me.

* * *

Re-knotting my kerchief around my head, I limped my way to the church for Mass. It was barely large enough to contain us, and I wondered how it would much less fit a parish, until I observed how greatly the scaffolding on the left wall intruded upon the space. Coins fell generously into collection box for the renovation, and as I gazed upon the glories of the chancel it was not difficult to see why.

Mass commenced, and the introit fit the setting most eloquently:

God in His holy place; God who maketh men of one mind to dwell in a house; He shall give power and strength to His people.

Mass was offered amidst the pious assembly, and most piously consummated. A moment after the Last Gospel, we began Vespers. I rejoiced in being able to use my own missal to find the text and at being able to understand without strain the Evening Office:

K: Boże, wejrzyj ky wspomożeniu memu,
W: Panie, pospiesz ku ratunkowi memu...

V: Lord, come to my assistance,

R: Lord, make haste to help me...

The lady kneeling beside me complimented me on my voice after prayers were concluded, which would later bring me a wee bit of trouble.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Now that the star of light has risen, Iam lucis orto sidere,
Let us to God most humbly pray, Deum precemur supplices,
To save us from all hurtful things Ut in diurnis actibus
In all our actions of the day. Nos servet docentibus.

To bridle and restrain our tongue, Linguam refraenans temperet
That wordy war may not resound. Ne litis horror insonet:
To guard and protect our sight, Visum fovendo contegat,
From dangerous follies around. Ne vanitates hauriat.

To drive iniquity away, Sint pura cordis intima,
And purify our inmost soul, Absistat et vecordia;And by spare use of meat and drink, Carnis terat superbiam
our rebel passions to control. Potus cibique parcitas.

That when the day has sped away, Ut cum dies abcesserit,
And He again the night shall bring, Noctemque sors reduxerit,
We may, through holy abstinence, Mundi per abstinentiam,
With purity His glory sing. Ipsi canamus gloriam.

All glory to the Father be; Deo Patri sit gloria,
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee; Eiusque soli Filio,
All honour as is ever meet Cum Spiritu Paraclito,
To God, the holy Paraclete. Nunc et per omne saeculum. Amen.

My foggy brain finally made it through the end of my morning offering, when the whistle shrilly echoed in my ears. 'I suppose we'll get used to it by the end of the pilgrimage,' Basia had laughed the day before as the pilgrims serving as traffic directors had urged us to quicken our pace on the last leg of the journey. I scanned the barn loft one more time to be sure I had left nothing behind, scrambled down the ladder and into a morning covered with a cool, sage mist.

It was not long before the group began its public morning prayers. I followed comfortably along with the Pater Noster and Ave Maria, only having to glance at the written version of the Polish Apostles' Creed. Other prayers seemingly not in the Modlitewnik succeeded them.

Then everyone began to sing. I was taken aback a moment for no page number had been announced. Cunningly sneaking up behind a fellow pilgrim I spied at the top of her page: Godzinki o Niepokalanym Poczęciu Najświętszej Maryi Panny--the Matins of Immaculate Heart of the Most Holy Virgin Mary. 'Which you don't know by heart!' I inwardly scolded myself, but it was not long before I gathered the sense of the Polish refrains, even if my ignorant ears were rather shut to the hymns.

The invocation did require my dictionary:

W: Wbyrał Ją Bóg i wywyższył ponad wyszystko,
O: I wziął Ją na mieszkanie do przybytku swego.
W: Pani, wysłuchaj modlitwy nasze,
O: A wołanie nasze niech do Ciebie przyjdzie.

V. God elected her, and pre-elected her.
R. He made her to dwell in His tabernacle.
V. O Lady! aid my prayer.
R. And let my cry come unto thee.

The baritone cantor's rich voice led us on through the hymns, which flowed into the morning air as wine dyes the fibres of a cloth as it spreads. Gradually I caught the meaning of the refrains between the songs:

W: Pani, wysłuchaj modlitwy nasze.
O: A wołanie nasze niech do Ciebie przyjdzie.
W: Błogosławmy Panu,
O: Bogu chwała.
W: A dusze wiernych zmarłych przez miłosierdzie Boże niech odpoczywają w pokoju,
O: Amen.

V. O Lady! aid my prayer.
R. And let my cry come unto thee.
V. Let us bless the Lord.
R. Thanks be to God.
V. May the souls of the faithful, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
R. Amen.

O Lady, aid my prayer--prayer offered by a distracted, too often despondent, and fickle soul. Remembering the meditations of St. Louis de Montfort, I saw myself in rags, approaching the throne of the King with an apple bruised, worm-eaten, and dirty. Reminded of the guest with no wedding garment, whom the Bridegroom's Father had cast into darkness, I shrank from presenting such a fruit to the King. Then emerged His Mother at my side. Gently she took the apple, washed it in a basin while cutting away its blemishes. She placed it on a silver platter and sprinkled it with flower petals, whereupon she glanced at me, and I begged her to present it to Him herself.

'Amen,' intoned all the sojourners, and we shut the prayer books. I clung a little longer to my image of the Mediatrix, yearning to appreciate it further. Wasn't that indeed the entire point of the pilgrimage?

* * *

An announcement rang out, and I saw every pilgrim, whether youth or aged, lithely swing about their backpacks (a maneuver we all mastered in time) and take out their scarlet breviaries to sing the morning Lauds. So it would follow every morning: an invocation of the gracious Madonna, followed by the songs of him who was after God's own Heart, and then...second breakfast.

At least that's what one man called it, which delighted the cockles of my literary heart. Finding Basia, we reclined together on the long dewy grass at the first rest stop. I took out my missal and found the Mass's readings of the day. It was St. Cajetan's day. A lump rose in my throat on remembering an Alexian brother of the same name, one of the few clerics I have ever known that did not eye me askance for my religious enthusiasm and traditional leanings, but had instead encouraged them.

I glanced at the staff serving as the standard for each group. It was the same as that on the back of the Miraculous Medal, an 'M' hanging upon a cross. Ours was painted white, black, and red with a spray of golden flowers and green grass beneath. How proudly Brother Cajetan would have held it aloft.

'Basia,' I asked, 'Today is St. Cajetan's day isn't it?' She frowned in thought. 'I think today is the feast of a Polish saint.' 'Oh dear,' I thought, 'who knows if I have the same readings we'll have at Mass.'

'You have someone different?' she asked, peering at my missal.
I smiled, 'Yes. Whereas Poland has a universe unto herself of saints, America is obliged to look abroad and everywhere for hers. That's a good thing in its own way though.'

The whistle blew and once again we fell into line on the road, I took out the pilgrimage's little program, soggy and nearly ruined from the downpour the evening before. The logo for this year, sundial etched with the word 'Kocham'--I love--was coloured an eerie, brown hue. The
notion it seemed to present was: 'I love, but time is running out.'

* * *

As if the cantor had read my mind, we were told to turn to page 138 in our songbooks. The next moment we burst forth in song. The hymn, typical to the medieval psyche, was gay and robust in its tune, while somber and earnest in meaning:

Ad mortem festinamus, peccare desistamus, peccare desistamus.

As we hasten on to death, let us refrain from sinning, let us refrain from sinning.

When we finally arrived at Goszczyn, it came upon me as a surprise, as it did indeed everyday no matter the length of the route. 'For yourselves know perfectly, that the day of the Lord shall so come, as a thief in the night.' (Thessalonians 5:2) I smiled. Today's theme certainly seemed to have been Memento Mori.

Another announcement was made. The Mass was to be said in the beautiful church we had passed while walking through the little town. I breathed in gratitude that we had our own Mass apart from the rather charismatic celebration that the rest of Group 17 took part in. My stomach suddenly growled, but glancing at my cellphone I saw there might no time to eat anything and still observe the fast, so I grabbed my washing tub and made off to the woods to make myself fit for entering a church.

Dashing back to the barn to pack away my dirty clothes, I met Barbara. She informed me happily that her father was coming from Warszawa to the Mass to, I think, deliver her a second pair of shoes. I smiled somewhat ruefully to think how easily a car would make the distance we had reached with so much toil. Unfortunately, I could not communicate thus much to Barbara in Polish, so we kept to small talk as we walked to the church.

My stomach gave another pang as we knelt, but quickly subsided, allowing me to smile a greeting to Barbara's father. Mass unfolded beautifully, with the Scripture spoken matching that of my missal, though the other variable parts escaped me. But it was just at the moment of consecration, when a hole is torn in the lantern of time and space, and Light--neither signified nor dismembered, but whole and pure--descends on the Host, that I began to fade.

My flesh went cold and perspiration dewed my body all over. My limbs went slack and my forehead helplessly fell against my missal with a mute thump. Black stars clouded my vision, and I begged God not to faint nor to vomit here in His sanctuary. Barbara stood up to go to Communion, but I could not move to let her pass.

I felt her take me by the arm and lead me out into the cool evening air. Another pilgrim brought a bench for me, while one of the priests came out to see whether I was all right. I replied I was and that they should go receive the Body of Christ. They asked me if I did not want to receive. My innards churned again, and I had the grotesque vision of throwing up after communicating, the Body of my Lord mangled with the bile of my stomach. 'Myślę, że nie mogę,' I replied feebly, and they gently took their leave.

A moment after I saw a young woman approach me. She had that peculiar Slavic beauty, with long hair full of golden waves and blue, almond eyes. Unfortunately she was garbed in pyjamas that showed the beauty of her limbs to advantage, though they would have hardly shocked anyone living in the modern age. She asked me a question in Polish, to which I apologetically stated that my Polish was very feeble.

'Oh,' she said enthusiastically, 'You speak English?'
'Yes,' I said, laughing a little at her exuberance.
'I was hoping to meet an English speaker on the pilgrimage. We only have a few Germans in our group, and my German isn't very good. But are you OK?'
'I'm better now. Just a little puny from not having supper yet, I think.'

She frowned and said with the curious force all Polish women possess despite their delicate femininity: 'You are pale! Really, you are white, and I'm taking you to the hospital.'

She meant the medical facilities that traveled with the pilgrims and set up a temporary facility at every encampment, but I protested against making such a fuss. When Barbara came out again to check on me, my angel of mercy immediately initiated her aid in concurring that I looked like death. Unable to resist, I allowed my arm to be taken and myself to be escorted to the hospital.

'My name is Karolina (Karo-LEE-na),' she said, and proceeded to chatter with me in a soothing way as we strolled to the nurses' headquarters. There was quite a queue on our arrival, but Karolina took speedy care of that. 'Brother!' she called out in Polish, and there I had it confirmed that we were all brothers and sisters on this pilgrimage, Mr.'s, Mrs.'s and Misses being left behind in Warszawa. The young man organizing the line turned, and Karolina showed him my face for his benefit. He nodded and I was shown in.

Thus began my interview with the doctor, a considerate woman who spoke very good English. Her questions were thorough as was her examination. I was of course embarrassed at taking up her time with something of which I was sure I knew the cause, but she made certain of it before allowing my departure, even giving me some medication for my nausea.

Karolina was waiting for me with tea and a smile to gently usher me back to the camp. I could never have felt the same fellowship in her group that I felt in mine, but I shall always be grateful for the reminder that in the end, we are not groups, but souls. And souls can minister to one another.

I went to bed that night without any embarrassing questions about my episode, which had fortunately occurred without making any sort of a scene. I murmured a quick prayer that no such thing would happen again though, before I drifted into slumber. Heaven help me, I was going to finish the pilgrimage.

Slowly, mellifluously, the keys of Franz Liszt began to tap in my ear. My head turned towards the music in a fog of vague incomprehension, until my blurry vision focused on the cerulean, dancing bell of my cellphone's alarm clock.

I violently tore off the bedsheets and scrambled into my clothes. 4:00
ante meridiem, but I knew I had one stop to make before I went to the chapel for Mass. How could I have forgotten to bring my washing tub to the loading truck the night before? I glanced at the gallon sized water jug I had also forgfotten to bring. I hoped that's what the pilgrimage's website had meant in the words my dictionary translated as 'water tank.' Its purpose was for pooling resources, I had supposed, so I bought the biggest one available. Surely, I had understood all the important information on the website, and trying to ease my fretting, I made my Morning Offering.

Out the door, I sped, having checked the plugs and windows three times. Violating all the traffic lights betwixt the tram stop and myself, I made it onboard just as the doors shut. Still too excited to sit down, I slid a window upon and looked out, beholding a bright, magenta sun emblazoned against the grey velvet of the morning.

What a beautiful morning! I thought I had caught it in its waning, but the sunrise's
splendour only waxed, even as I unloaded my things at Plac Teatralny and hurried to the Immaculate Conception Chapel near Plac Zamkowy.

Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, at last! Before ducking into the small sanctuary, I spared a glance for the statue atop the charitable building, Res Sacra Miser. Our Lord, presented as the 'sweet pelican', stood atop a nest, feeding His young from the tissue of His own heart. Desiring to imitate those nestlings, I finally stepped inside.

It had been over six months since I had savoured the Mass of the Old Rite, and it flowed as it always did like balm over a wound, aloe over a burn. All parts made perfectly accessible to me from my missal, I savoured the Transfiguration story over again, letting the white, gilded walls of the church and the solemn beauty of the Liturgy catechize me. Losing only the homily, which Father Gregory Śniadoch delivered from the great pulpit as a priest should, I did take that moment to contemplate what I was doing.

* * *

I was walking to Częstochowa! This would be my sixth visit to the holy shrine of Jasna Góra, but the first time on such a pilgrimage. Walking! 265 kilometers/164 miles! Naturally the Luddite in me was thrilled at the prospect of mortifying the flesh so softly pampered by the modern world, but that was hardly my chief contemplation. I glanced at the devout Poles around me; all of them were strangers to me but for an elderly man whom I often saw at the SSPX Chapel (where I would go to say the rosary for the sake of some fellowship). I wondered if what this journey meant to them had any kinship with what it meant to me.

I do not meant to draw comparisons of devotion or to say that differences of culture may not be bridged by Him in Whom there is no east or west. I merely wish to observe that it must surely be different for Poles to visit a place of such great import to them from the moment when, as babes, they began to learn their history and their Faith. Bloodlines ran through their veins that would naturally quicken their hearts at the mention of the Black Madonna, and their devotion had been nurtured for a much longer time than mine. Yet, I might have one advantage--that of blessed shock, illuminated by wonder and joy.

As an American who did not travel abroad until quitting childhood, the history of the Old World sat aloof from me very much like the world of mythology from history. The still young United States, which had never experienced a Golden Age or a flowering of the Church, was sadly born in the time of the West's intellectual and spiritual decline. It flowered unhindered in a new land, eating the native blossoms that stood in its path, nurtured by a soil with no long history or extensive record of deeds either evil or holy.

The blood of eight martyrs has had to spread over a vast area, and but seven more canonized souls stand beside them on this territory. The Union grew largely with man's natural virtues and vices, avoiding many of the supernatural evils committed in other lands, but alas, some of the supernatural goods as well. For those of the New World who wish to grow higher, who yearn for the security of deeper roots, they must look east across the sea, searching for significance and identity. If any of these are fortunate enough to make the journey in the flesh to the founts of their blood and Faith, they hope the encounter between their book-learning and the material site will be as piercing as lightning.

* * *

Częstochowa. When I saw the sign at the train station the first time I visited, I could but stand agog. This was a name I only knew from history and devotion; its significance had always been that it was the home of the blessed icon. But this was also a town where people lived and in many ways much like any other. It was almost as wonderful and incongruous as stepping off a train at a stop labelled: 'Heaven.' My eyes were not yet fit for Heaven though, and there lay the rub.

Every visit had felt wrong--had felt too easy. The moment was surreal, hardly appropriate for the Church of Reality. It was also over far too quickly, leaving me in a haze of confusion rather than revelation. I had never prepared properly to enter the chapel at Jasna Góra and so had never beheld anything but a very beautiful image, though one in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I dearly wanted to at last rightly see her in the image painted by the Evangelist. I wanted to behold her in truth and holiness as well as in beauty, and then, having looked well upon the Hodegetria, turn my searching eyes towards her Son.

The homily ended, and I looked up from my musings. Father Gregory came down from the pulpit and the Liturgy of the Eucharist began.
* * *

How beautiful the banners were! There were two with horizontal fields of black and white, emblazoned with a red Maltese cross. There was a flag of indigo peppered with golden fleurs-de-lys, much like the Black Madonna's own robe. It was accompanied by a crimson flag bearing Lech's white eagle. Two Polish standards, one of Pope Benedict's, one of the Vatican's, of St. George's, and a blue one with a Jerusalem cross argent made up the glorious fanfare. In the front, two traditional medieval standards bore the phrase, one in Latin and the other in Polish: 'God, honour, and the fatherland.'

Even as I glanced about at all my fellow pilgrims chatting with one another, strange faces all, I couldn't be self-conscious knowing that we embraced such a commonality of beliefs. I was prepared for a silent, somewhat isolated sojourn, but one that would be surrounded with prayer and charity. Thank goodness that my Latin, though rusty, was not dead!

Suddenly, there broke in upon us a rather exuberant chant from one of the groups proceeding before us: 'Hey, hey, hey! Nanana NA! Hey, hey, hey! Alleluia! Hey, hey, hey! Nanana NA...' Overwhelmed with simultaneous feelings of horror, amusement, and shame I fixed my eyes on my feet and tried not to giggle. Yes, that was the other reason I chose the traditional group.

* * *

I gazed sleepily at the grey, unfinished dome of the Basilica of Divine Providence as we sat to take our first break. Happily, I had just bumped into a student of mine from a summer camp where I had been instructing. It touched my teacher's heart that he had been so glad and umembarrassed to see me, and it warmed me that I had made my first human contact since the trip had begun. My head bobbed again, and I took the moment to stretch on the dewy grass and sleep.

When I awoke, I was facing a fellow traveller dressed in a skirt of brilliant purple and fuschia, with chestnut brown hair that hung in waves long past her shoulders. 'Część!' she said sweetly. 'Hi,' I responded sleepily, unwittingly giving myself away. 'Oh, she said, her vivid blue eyes widening, 'You speak English?' And so it happened, according to God's clemency, that not only was I to be surrounded with prayer and devotion, but with fellowship as well. This began with meeting Basia (BAH-shuh). It was not long before we struck a half-Polish, half-English accord.

Yet, the greater part of the day was filled with joyous bursts of Polish songs, religious and patriotic, coupled with Latin hymns and Litanies of the Church Universal. Glancing to the left and right, we saw well-wishers waving us onward, even in the most secular districts of Warsaw. From the elderly to the very young, they waved us onward, the little ones holding holy cards that one of our several priests had handed out to them. Going forth with those gentle adieus, we left the city.

* * *
I gave my skirt one last twist before acknowledging that it would yield up no more water. Assured it would not drip on anything else, I hung it from a beam in the barn's loft, alongside so many other damp garments. The rain that had poured on us at the end of the day had first come as a welcome respite from the heat, until arriving at Bogatki we saw that our luggage, unloaded from the truck, had also been soaked in the downpour. I could hear my pilgrim sisters whispering and giggling as they made their beds, and smiling to myself, I had to acknowledge that the affair was really quite funny.

Climbing into my sleeping bag, I was grateful that the boards underneath my mat were stacked in such a way that I could sleep on my left side, and laying my wet head against my pillow, I softly sang my favourite bedtime prayer:

Protect us Lord, as we stay awake. Watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep rest in His peace.

And how did it go again in Polish?

Strzeż nas, Panie, gdy czuwamy, podczas snu nas osłaniaj, abyśmy czuwali z Chrystusem i odpoczywali w pokoju.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Kings

A man said unto his Angel:
"My spirits are fallen low,
And I cannot carry this battle:
O brother! where might I go?

"The terrible Kings are on me
With spears that are deadly bright;
Against me so from the cradle
Do fate and my fathers fight."

Then said to the man his Angel:
"Thou wavering, witless soul,
Back to the ranks! What matter
To win or to lose the whole,

"As judged by the little judges
Who hearken not well, nor see?
Not thus, by the outer issue,
The Wise shall interpret thee.

"Thy will is the sovereign measure
And only events of things:
The puniest heart, defying,
Were stronger than all these Kings.

"Though out of the past they gather,
Mind's Doubt, and Bodily Pain,
And pallid Thirst of the Spirit
That is kin to the other twain,

"And Grief, in a cloud of banners,
And ringletted Vain Desires,
And Vice, with the spoils upon him
Of thee and thy beaten sires, --

"While Kings of eternal evil
Yet darken the hills about,
Thy part is with broken sabre
To rise on the last redoubt;

"To fear not sensible failure,
Nor covet the game at all,
But fighting, fighting, fighting,
Die, driven against the wall." _Louise Imogen Guiney

As I sit in my flat and ponder the execution and aftermath of the glorious Warsaw Uprising, I shiver. I know what I love so much about the Polish Nation; heroism and martyrdom still breathe alive through a generation not entirely gone from this Earth, pulses beat now that did beat in an age of heroes. There are testimonies in flesh here as well as in stone.

I think of the Polish resistance against the twin heads of the Godless Right and Left, and I find I can believe in anything. Achilles's shield blinds my eyes; the Maccabean sword pierces my vision. The Song of Roland rings in my ears as does the whizzing shaft of Robin, the Hooded Man. Arthur's mallet shatters my stony, sceptical heart, and my faith in man is renewed. Even the cringing treachery of the West and the demonic brutality of the East cannot draw a veil over the deeds of this 'Christ of Nations.'

Sixty-six years hence though, I see worrying trends paired with encouraging ones in a nation despised by the 'little judges,' yet revered by the truly wise. As I ready myself for the pilgrimage from Warsaw to Częstochowa, my first plea is to the souls of the heroes for their intercession. Their nation still requires their aid.

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Warsaw, Poland
Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
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