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.


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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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