Friday, September 24, 2010
I had happily finished the dishes that bright Thursday morning and was marching back to the barn to pack my things before breakfast, when I bumped into Anna Karolina.

'Going to Mass?' she asked me.

'Oh, yes, but where is it?' I could have kicked myself for being caught unawares yet again.

'Behind the...' she gestured towards the barn.

'Dziękuję bardzo!' I replied and ducked inside to get my mi

(thank you for the picture, Krzysztof :)

Rushing through the line of bushes surrounding the barnyard, I stopped short. Beyond that line of green brush was the blue dome and the brilliant sun of Heaven. My soul just then abandoned Earth and fell upwards into that blue. Gazing at the white altar, where presided the candidly robed priest, my heart knew but one truth: we had launched from this temporal realm into the timeless. We were falling towards infinity.

It was St. Clare's feastday, and having read the Collect, I found myself again beside her tomb, wet and cold after a downpour in Assisi in the middle of January. St. Clare, as pristine and aloof as the moon, had mortified her body to the brink of starvation. She had spared no pity for her flesh, forcing it to strive to its utmost to unite with the dignity of her soul. When she died, Earth had already burnt away from her, and my soul shivered with awe and delight as I read the Mass's Tract, imagining the ardent passion with which God must have seized upon her spirit entering His kingdom:

Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thy ear: and forget thy people and thy father's house. And the king shall greatly desire thy beauty; for he is the Lord thy God, and him they shall adore. And the daughters of Tyre with gifts, yea, all the rich among the people, shall entreat thy countenance. All the glory of the king's daughter is within in golden borders, Clothed round about with varieties. After her shall virgins be brought to the king: her neighbours shall be brought to thee.

They shall be brought with gladness and rejoicing: they shall be brought into the temple of the king. Instead of thy fathers, sons are born to thee: thou shalt make them princes over all the earth. They shall remember thy name throughout all generations. Therefore shall people praise thee for ever; yea, for ever and ever. (Psalm 44)

The sun was was yet more blinding, and then chimed the Offertory:

Ádstitit regína a dextris tuis The queen stood on thy right hand,
in vestítuto deauráto... arrayed in gold...

If such might be said of St. Clare, how much more so of her whose shrine for which we were bound?

* * *
I smacked my arm and slayed another mosquito. They had grown more savage since we had passed through Chałupy. This one had been glutted on my blood, and I took a little sardonic pleasure in the fact that what the devilish, flying mite had stolen from me would not be used to feed her progeny.

But, oh, I could imagine neither St. Francis nor St. Clare even bending a joint in their finger against any being of Creation. And it was troubling, for as God is Sum Qui Sum, everything in so far as it exists is good. Yet, when that ugly parasite was designed, what was its purpose? What place could it have had in Paradise before the Fall?

It was time for us to stop, though I would just as soon
have kept walking to outpace the insects with such rapacious bloodlust. And I did so, but in the direction of the pines rising from their green velvet cushions. Having gained some reprieve, I caught a glint of brilliant silk sparkling in the air before me. Gently laying my finger upon it, I traced its way back to the resplendent web it upheld.

Even the spider, in the light of the scorching sun, was beauteously transfigured. Its grotesque form seemed now to be two brilliant hands joined at the thumb, with eight nimble fingers stretching from its body. Eager to spin, pining to weave. Perhaps, these scourges of Creation
, either flitting or crawling, were once beings as beautiful and precious as the pixies of myth.

* * *
The announcement was greeted dispiritedly when at the end of the journey we were told that no swimming in the creek would be allowed. Apparently it contained dangerous bacteria, though there were still those who swam illicitly. One of these brethren found the current to be the more threatening aspect of the water, as it nearly swept him away. There were of course many hands to catch him.

Those who had brought their tents found that night to be a mortification to their spines. The farmyard's air was imbued with the jolly fragrance of apples, but at the price of the ground being littered with the bulging fruits, ready to irk the back or the side of anyone sleeping outside the barn. And when night fell, and we all came together for Compline, the insects I had attempted to romanticize earlier emerged in massive ranks from the tall, damp grass to feed on the pilgrims. Stabbing through any seam, loose weave, or hole, they glutted themselves even through our clothing, and I shamefully resorted to using my modlitewnik as a fan to ward them off.

'Zachowaj mnie, Boże, bo chronię się do Ciebie,'
the fifteenth Psalm began, 'Preserve me, O Lord, for I have put trust in Thee.'

It was well nigh impossible for me to concentrate on the Psalm without linking it to our mundane dilemma. The itching was horrible, and for some odd reason mosquitoes have always had a preference for me. My mental distraction only increased on reading:

Nie będę wylewał krwi w ofiarach dla nich.

I will not gather together their meetings for blood offerings.

It could have been a joke. Sometimes humour plays well into diabolical arts, and it was with a weary sigh that I confided my unfit, distracted offering of prayer to the Lord of Heaven and Earth.

It was only later in the night that the reading from St. Paul's epistle returned to me--offering some solace and hope concerning my fleshly aversion to pain and irritation:

Sam Bóg pokoju niech was całkowicie uświęca, aby nienaruszony duch wasz, dusza i ciało bez zarzutu zachowały się na przyjście Pana naszego Jezusa Chrystusa.

And may the God of peace himself sanctify you in all things; that your whole spirit, and soul, and body, may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Thessalonians 5: 23)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ujrzały wszystkie krańce ziemi
zbawienie Boga naszego.
Wołaj z radości na cześć Pana, cała ziemio,
cieszcie się, weselcie i grajcie.

All the ends of the earth
have seen the salvation of our God.
Sing joyfully to God, all the earth;
make melody, rejoice and sing.

An echo of the psalm sounded in my ears as I set down my bag in Paradise, as the name is translated in English. There was an announcement in which Mass and something about two hours was mentioned. Marzena informed me that as Mass was already going on in the church, our group would have to wait our turn. I immediately glanced at the tea and coffee table. Plenty of time to take some of that and preserve the Eucharistic fast!

My fleshly self was so gladdened on receiving the Java that my soul could not find the power to be saddened at the worldly attachments of her earthly counterpart. As much as I appreciated the fragrant cup of Earl Grey's brew I received every morning, the difference between the leaf of Camellia and the bean of Coffea was like that between the companionship of cat and the fellowship of man.

Sipping my prized kawa bez cukru i bez mleka, I surveyed Paradyż Las with more enlivened appreciation and a greater certainty that Paradise herself would be quite like this. Away from the whirl of larger cities, in these lovely villages surrounded by fields as though by an ocean, one could feel as though he were on an island--on the verge of massive infinity.

Turning from the fair coloured, stucco shops and houses to the magnificent stone sanctuary, I could not deny that I was in a 'thin' place. The dimension between time and eternity was a thin veil in realms like this, and a mere flutter could whip the ephemeral wall away. The portal to Heaven might part at the whim of a zephyr.

I smiled, remembering the fear eternity had inspired in me as child. The grandeur, glory, and might of God so ravished my imagination with its extremes like fire and chill: beauty and truth, justice and mercy, feasting and fasting, and heights of inspiration coupled with depths of certainty. But after such moments of transcendence, tears often clouded my eyes. Lying in my bed at night, I would wonder about my family, my friends, my pets, and how they would react at the impending martyrdom I was constantly imagining, wondering if beautiful, immaculate Heaven could tolerate something as comfortable and dirty as a fireplace or a mossy log. I feared the loss of the homely in gaining my eternal home.

Leaning against the wall of the sanctuary, now open to layman as freely as it had lovingly and jealously guarded its religious so long ago, I conjured in my head the now familiar image of Plato, depicted in swirling, Raphaelite robes, and Tolkien, clad in a decorative waistcoat, and British tweeds. The grand philosopher spoke of the presence of absolute Good in all good things, and I recalled again that no good things would die. Tolkien gestured with his pipe to a painting of his, The Last Homely House, and I recalled that man's destiny lay somewhere between the cozy Hobbit and the fae Elf.

Here in this Polish village where--with a family for companionship--I could easily live out my days, I felt no cleavage between the two realms. I wonder still whether this blessed unity is an aspect
of Polish genius in particular or of Slavic genius in general.

* * *
The forests and their loose, sandy trails gave way to a more rough and wild terrain as we progressed. Snaking slowly along the narrow trail in single file was a necessity amongst the brambles over the rising and falling ground.

It was nearing four o'clock in the afternoon, and I wondered that we had not yet stopped for lunch. I was not too concerned, knowing that we had to atone for the longer time our group spent in Paradyż, but my stomach was beginning to cry out in protest. It was then that those ahead stopped altogether. It was rather confusing and a trifle irritating as there was no visible impediment before them.
As we waited, pilgrims strayed one after another from the path and began to reap a savoury harvest from land long lain fallow. Jagoda, forest berries, lay hidden amongst the little sprigs of bushes all along the ground, and I gladly joined the picking, observing how two of the valiant children accompanying us--a brother and sister of 8 and 6--were eagerly dying their mouths indigo with their feasting. I can only hope, not having any way to check at the time or later, that I did not do the same.

Looking up, I saw that a branch of our party shot off in another direction from the trail, taking a level, but rather meandering, route towards the forest. I was not long puzzled though when I saw those remainin
g on the main trek taking their shoes off. There was nothing for it, but to plod through the marshy trail which was cool with shade in some parts, and warm from the sun in others, while soft, slimy, and squishy everywhere.

Rather enjoying this development, I commented in bad Polish that this wading was quite refreshing. I received a comment back in good English, 'Did you see that dead fish floating by your leg?' My querulous stomach wrenched a little, and I quickened my pace.

Arriving on the other side, we took another break amidst suspiciously Celtic-looking mossy mounds. Approaching them was not advisable as massive anthills lurked about them, and the ants wound everywhere in their continual lines. It took a great deal of searching to find a spot where they did not bite so fiercely.

When we were roused to resume the journey, someone inquired when lunch might be taking place, and we discovered that it had already been held. I couldn't but laugh at my folly, though the hole in my stomach was suddenly more palpable. How the others who had
also missed it reacted, I don't know.
* * *
Hours later at the farmstead, I was glancing about a darkened tool shed, trying to make certain I had left nothing behind after my washing. My bare feet were swiftly covered in soft, powdery dirt as I strode back to my bag, but it mattered not. I was happily clean, had the benefit of a banana and a slice of watermelon in my stomach, and I had learned I was assigned to washing dishes the next morning. It warmed me no little bit to think I was actually assisting in the pilgrimage rather than only taking part.

I studied the image of the Sacred Heart, crowned and sceptered, that sat on the windowsill under the carport where I planned to bed that night. Checking the barn earlier, I saw that there was no more space and with a few humourous thoughts concerning the Scriptural passage--'no room at the inn'--I made my bed next to the car, for fear of rain falling or chickens' droppings if I slept in the open unprotected.

After supper, I finally got to meet the brave young souls who thereafter wished to be known as Frodo and Pippin, the boy and girl respectively. As most well-behaved children, they had appeared shy and quiet when I had encountered them before. As they grew more at ease, I had noticed more exuberance and cheer on their part. They were wild with enthusiasm for The Lord of the Rings and took great pleasure in practising their English by telling me the characters and scenes they liked. They very sweetly bestowed the name 'Arven' on me before being called away.

Having befriended a small black and white kitten, I was able to indulge my affinity for felines, and I probably laughed more than was fitting for a pilgrimage at the stories I was told, oddly as funny when told in Polish before I understood them as they were translated, while occasionally Piotrek forced me to repeat Czech phrases, apparently a very useful thing to do while one is struggling to learn Polish.

When compline was called, I feared some of the joviality might linger on in my mind to distract me, as is often the case with my indulgent train of thought, but as we concluded the hymn, I recognized enough of Psalm 125 to be completely drawn in:

Gdy Pan odmienił los Syjonu,
wydawało się nam, że śnimy.
Usta nasze były pełne śmiechu,
a język śpiewał z radości.

Mówiono wtedy między poganami:
„Wielkie rzeczy im Pan uczynił”.
Pan uczynił nam wielkie rzeczy
i ogarnęła nas radość.

Odmień znowu nasz los, Panie,
jak odmieniasz strumienie na Południu.
Ci, którzy we łzach sieją,
żąć będą w radości.

Idą i płaczą
niosąc ziarno na zasiew,
lecz powrócą z radością
niosąc swoje snopy.

When the lord brought back the captivity of Sion,
we became like men comforted.
Then was our mouth filled with gladness;
and our tongue with joy.

Then shall they say among the Gentiles:
The Lord hath done great things for them.
The Lord hath done great things for us:
we are become joyful.

Turn again our captivity,
O Lord, as a stream in the south.
They that sow in tears
shall reap in joy.

Going they went and wept,
casting their seeds.
But coming they shall come with joyfulness,
carrying their sheaves.

It was in such a spirit that I went to my bed on the pavement. I had drifted into that misty state between waking and dreaming, when one of my pilgrim sisters spotted me, and began speaking to me too quickly for my sleepy head to comprehend. I tried to excuse myself, when I heard an exuberant voice say: 'Is that Rachel?' A moment later, Piotrek's head, upside down from where I lay was in my face.

'What are you doing here?'

'I'm trying to sleep,' I said, hoping I didn't sound grouchy. Confession was not available to me after all.

'Well, there is a space for you at the place where they store hay. Here, I'll help you move your things.'

I bit my tongue and got my things together, fully expecting to say 'I told you so' on going back to the packed barn. It's a good thing I had bit my tongue, or later I would have had to put my foot in my mouth for there was a second barn. 'Room for me after all,' I thought with a smile.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Well, this is what Vatican II had in mind: a more robust and active laity. Will we be heard?

Sunday, September 5, 2010
The first psalm in Tuesday's morning lauds was the eighty-fourth. There was the introductory sentence printed in red: Bliskie jest nasze zbawienie. Close is our salvation. But we do not know what 'close' means when a day may be to God a thousand years.

Afterwards came a canticle from the book of Isaias. I strained my comprehension as we walked, singing that sacred, portentous piece of Scripture. One simple sentence seered itself against my heart as coal burns against flesh:

Moja dusza jest spragniona Ciebie w nocy, mój duch szuka Ciebie w swoim wnętrzu.
My soul is thirsting for Thee throughout the night; my spirit searches for Thee within itself.

I smiled there. Often I have wondered if my religious life was too imbued with romantic indulgence, but such doubts vanish whenever I reflect how inebriated Scripture is with the Love of God.

Kiedy objawiasz ziemi swe wyroki, jej mieszkańcy uczą si
ę sprawiedliwości.
When thou shalt do thy judgments on the earth, the inhabitants of the world shall learn justice.

Justice. I had been told that our first stopping point will be Studzianna-Poświętne. There is a magnificent sanctuary there built in honour of the Holy Family. It is said that the name of the site had been 'Virgin Mountain,' where two young women froze to death rather than risk being outraged by drunken soldiers. Even as Isaias also urges pity for evildoers, my desire for justice is the stronger of the two passions when I hear of such histories.

However, this place is doubly sanctified, for inside the magnificent basilica that loomed before us is enshrined an image of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at table. An image before which a stonemason had been healed and at least two others besides.

There were scattered trees about, though fields separate the basilica from the forest. A booklet I purchased at a nearby kiosk informed me that the soil was poor, and there is a belief in Studzianna-Poświętne that
when the forest reaches the walls of the sanctuary, it will be the end of the world.

Too many were present for the general Mass for us to linger, but our group made a narrow procession up the aisle to quickly glimpse the image. Bedecked in gold and silver after the fashion of icons, though artistically it was thoroughly Western, the image was a warm, simple depiction of the Holy Family at table.

Saint Joseph was leaning across the table as a very small Jesus sipped wine from a glass. One shouldn't be shocked, as wine was often mixed with water in Europe for sanitation purposes. Joseph is holding the glass tenderly, so He will not spill it on Himself. Mary however looks on with misgiving.

I believe that her wise, loving, and intuitive heart often saw portents of her Son's coming Passion, and as she watched Jesus's foster father help him drink perhaps she heard echoes of what had not yet been uttered:

My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

And it struck me for the first time that just as Our Lady had to forgive me for the sufferings of Christ, she also had to forgive Joseph.

Bending on my knees in a brief prayer, I quickly joined the procession out. We dropped on the rich, damp grass surrounded by a sparse circle of magnificent trees, and one of the girls smiled at me.

'So you'll tell Father Grzegorz why you came on the pilgrimage today?'

I smiled ruefully, 'I shall try my best.'

She however was enthusiastic. 'It will make us very international to have an American interview on our video.'

'Biało-Czarno-Czerwona is more than international. It is as universal at
the Church herself,' I replied, glad that I was in such company that I could speak my mind without sounding odd, even if I wasn't always comprehensible.

* * *
I was in Eden less than an hour later as we put down our bags in a realm of lush, velvet moss and tall, naked pines, as stately as roman columns. The priests sat in a circumference around a green basin which would have warranted Thomas Cole's attention, while everyone else laid down their karimatas and seated themselves. Finding a spot of shade, I stretched out on the moss itself and found it to be the finest mattress.

It was a moment after this pleasant recline, that Father Grzegorz found me and asked me to explain why I was on the pilgrimage. As soon as he held up his cellphone to record, my thoughts scattered.
Later I was told that my interviews was one of the best. 'You talked for a long time,' one sister pilgrim told me cheerily. I smiled, imagining how my dear ones back home would have laughingly agreed with that remark. I only hoped that what I had said would be translatable, for it had been difficult enough for me to explain myself.

Every part and fibre of me had always longed in some way to make this journey; it was a reflection of my life itself in so many ways. Attempting to give the true reason for it would have been like trying to paint a picture of the world, of all Creation, of What Is. When my family and friends later asked me about the pilgrimage, my first utterance was: 'It was nine days of reality. I had never felt so close to what is real as I did on that sojourn.'

* * *
My feet ached with every step as we strode through the town, nearly every fence bearing a placard with the colours of one group or other. In houses where there was no sign, there were often a group of children waving to us as we passed by. We at last came to the end of the road where before us lay an open field, fringed with verdant beech trees, and beyond their emerald foliage, a magenta sunset. Turning to my left, I saw a great rectangular tower, topped with a cross.

Looking into this imposing edifice, I saw a tiny chapel, swiftly being decked out in scarlet for Mass. As I knelt stiffly and sorely, I did my best to dispel the awareness of my feeble aches with the contemplation of Saint Lawrence's eviscerating agony. The Collect came swiftly to my aid.

Da nobis, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus: vitiorum nostrorum flammas exstinguere; qui beato Laurentio tribuisti tormentorum suorum incendia superare. Per Dominum nostrum, Jesum Christum...

Quench in us, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the flame of vice, even as Thou didst enable blessed Lawrence to overcome the fire of his sufferings. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ...

Gratias ago.

* * *

Flat plains lay in every direction of the farmhouse where we were staying the night. When I went into the stable for my turn in washing, it had grown quite cold sans tree cover. Upon entering, I was nearly suffocated with the warm heat emanating from the cows. I wondered if the chill of December had been just the right balance to provide the Holy Family at least with a comfortable temperature on the day of the Nativity. It certainly helped me to speed through my washing, which was further prompted by the geese's distaste for my presence.

When I emerged I caught the announcement for Compline in just enough time to grab my breviary. It was a comfort to see the icy crucible of
Studzianna-Poświętne's virgins, and the flaming furnace of Rome's great martyr find their answer in the hymn of the night's hours:

Godzien jest Baranek zabity
wziąć potęgę, moc mądrość i bogactwo,
cześć, chwałę, i błogosławieństwo.

The Lamb that was slain
is worthy to receive power, and divinity, and wisdom, and strength,
and honour, and glory, and benediction.

I turned my eyes up to the heavens, undimmed by any light of man in this open country. The hazy swirl of our galaxy arched across the ethery dome, scratched with the brilliant death of a meteor here and there, and spread like gossamer across the Northern Cross. Near the cross, was that brilliant, pale sapphire called Vega, ever vigilant at its side.

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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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