Tuesday, August 17, 2010
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.


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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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