Monday, October 18, 2010

On the horizon gleamed a magenta sun whose glory seeped like molten gold along the lines of lavender grey clouds. It would have been lovely if that gentle mist could but have lingered a few hours into our journey. In truth, it was the least it could do after the mischief it had caused in the night. I glanced at the clothes I had washed and left to dry the night before, now thoroughly drenched, and made my decision. 

There was nothing clean amongst my clothes, except the deep blue skirt I was wearing and the white top into which I would change along the way. Both of those items would be dirty before the day's end. Furthermore, we would have the day's Mass in Częstochowa, not along the way. Pecuniary issues further helped to settle the question. I would go back to Warsaw that very night, and what I had accomplished in nine days would be undone in a matter of three hours.

Music seeped into the morning air as I listen
ed to our wake-up playlist for the last time. I hardly understood a word of the first song, but I laughed every time. It probably did wonders to squash any sort of grouchiness that may otherwise have arisen from weary pilgrims deprived of coffee.

Tents were being collapsed, and many were donning their white and blue or white and black garb for the entrance to Jasna Góra. Our Lady's icon
would likely be wearing the Diamond gown, and she would be beautiful in her queenly attire, though my personal favourite was either the Millenium dress or the Totus Tuus robe. More people were hastening to pack in flurries of white, blue, and black when Piotrek sleepily strolled by in a T-shirt and pair of shorts.

'Not getting dressing yet?'

'Wha'? oh no, no. These people are crazy,' he gestured drowsily, yet demonstratively, towards the pristinely decked out individuals, 'by the time we get there, they will all be sweaty and dirty, they'll look like drunks--' Whereupon Piotrek illustrated his point with characteristic economy and humour by leaning against a fence that turned out not to be very well supported.
Bittersweet gaiety brewed within me as I reflected with pleasure on the past eight days and then on the fact that this ninth was the last. I supposed I would enjoy the first bath I had on returning home, but it did not seem so superior to bathing in a shed with a basin of water for washing one's self. I had missed cooking, but what I had been eating was of so little account on the journey that I could hardly say I pined for the activity. My bed...well that was a thing I looked forward to with relish, though again not every night had been uncomfortable, especially when surrounded with the best company.

It had all been nine days of reality, and Reality Itself is what Catholics worship. The Earth was a thing barren and unyielding until man made it his own with effort; every day was a weary journey, water did not rush from a natural spiggot that man might easily clean himself. A distance of nearly two hundred miles could not be covered by man's natural powers in three hours. Life, away from the inventions of modernity, was in essence more like what we had been taking part in on our odyssey through the plains of Poland--a daily, physical exertion alongside
clear-eyed people, with God so close and present that one could feel His warmth through the veil of matter.

* * *
With backsides saturated with the heat of the sun, we slowly mounted the hill to St. Pio of Pietrelcina's sanctuary. Alas, it was disheartening to see the church devoted to a holy man of such a traditional bent was a monstrously abstract edifice. When I looked to see how others were reacting, I saw they were all facing away from the church in one direction. With a gawkish stare, I followed their gaze. Then I saw it, and I am sure I must have blanched in spite of my sun-burned visage.

In the distance was the seat of the Queen, the spire of the Bright Mountain. At last, it stood within our view! Eight and a half days of walking,
and now we were nearing journey's end. We crossed ourselves and broke out in a joyous Salve Regina.
(thanks Krzysztof! :)

Descending the hill, we made towards our last stop, and all took to the water closets to put on Our Lady's colours. I regretted my infantile grasp of Polish quite passionately as we convened in the open field to hear Father Grzegorz's final address. Many times passing through encampments we could heart priests bantering and chit-chatting on the microphone as they addressed the groups. Though there was no fault in this, it did mean that the cleric was not always saying something one ought to heed.

With our priests it was different. As someone had pointed out to me earlier, every word they said was meant to either inform or instruct. Not a syllable was wasted. Thus, I knew that as he was speaking to us in the glare of the sun, he was not going on about anything trivial or obvious,
and I deeply wished that I could understand him. When he finished, we all lined up to have the event commemorated in film.
Now the last six miles (nine and a half kilometres) began. I was asked if I wished to carry a flag. Having but held one on the entire journey, I eagerly accepted. I was presented with the larger standard of Lech's white eagle, and I was to stand on the left of the procession while Our Lady's standard, an indigo field emblazoned with golden fleurs-de-lys, was upheld on the right of it.

Andrzej, a doctor who had lived in New York, was standing next to me and observed with good humour that I was carrying a strictly Polish standard and chivalrously offered to relieve me of it when it grew too heavy. I knew that it would eventually as I tried to balance it upright in the wind, but I purposed to carry it as long as I could. Commencing our march in prayerful song, we made towards Jasna Góra.

As we walked the longest trek of our journey, I took a moment to look meditate on the icon's history. St. Luke had been listening to the
Gospel as told by Our Lady. A Greek very likely raised according to the empirical wisdom of Galen and Aristotle, an enemy of Oriental mystery, particularly when it came to the health of man's body, he must have sat with flabbergasted awe before her--the Mother of the Great Healer, He who had cured both flesh and spirit.

The pious doctor would have listened to the soft-spoken, regal woman with zealous docility rather than hurling thoughtless, importunate questions at her. As Simeon had prophesied:

Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed. (Luke II:34-35)

Her heart had been brutally stabbed, but ours would be exposed. Therefore when she stated each event of the Gospel in her simple way, he would not have pressed her for her thoughts at the time. Allowing her contemplations to remain a mystery, he merely recorded:
But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. (Luke II: 19)

So it is when one contemplates the icon he painted. Her beautiful eyes are heavily-lidded, as on Juan Diego's miraculous tilma, as in the paintings of the sainted Fra Angelico. Her fair mouth is closed, as she stares out towards us, her right hand gesturing to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

One of two paintings made by the hand of the Evangelist, this one sojourned from Jerusalem to Constantinope to Bełz to the Pauline monastery in Poland where she now resides. Yet, as venerated as she is
by the Polish people, her image was not to have any more peace than she had had on Earth. On her way to Poland, the army carrying her image was attacked by Muslim Tartars. Perhaps it was a random shaft, or a way of showing his disdain for the Divinity of Christ, but one archer left a mark in Our Lady's face. A horizontal scar in the centre of her cheek.

The Easter of 1430, a band of Hussite ruffians, whether for reasons of heresy of simply those of greed, stormed her chapel, stripped her image of the decorative gown adorning it
, slashed her beautiful face twice, broke it in three places, and left it in bloodied mud.

Restoration was a gruelling, comprehensive process undertaken in Krak
ów. The restorers decided to leave the two long slashmarks stretching from her jaw to just under her right eye as a reminder.
Thirty-six years later, the King of Bohemia attacked the Bright Mountain. This convinced the Polish monarchs to begin fortifying the famous Marian shrine. Thus it became a Fortalitium Marianum.

Almost two centuries later, General Muller of the army of the King of
Sweden, with a force of 3,000, was standing without the monastery calling upon it to yield. With only 170 soldiers, 20 noblemen, and 70 monks at his disposal, the abbot refused to surrender. Thinking to take the 'henhouse' quite easily, the general found himself exceedingly humiliated when forty days of fighting, resulted in victory for Our Lady and defeat for him. This miraculous success encouraged the entirety of Poland to halt the Swedish deluge. A year later, it was vowed that Our Lady of Częstochowa would be crowned Queen of Poland. With a papal blessing, this coronation took place in 1717 A.D.
A few miles into our trek, I ceded the flag. Even in the midst of my elation, impatience was beginning to burn inside me. As I cheerily waved to the onlookers, I could imagine the horrified expressions that would have met such a procession in my native land.

That moment I tried to see Our Lady as our separated brethren see her, devoid of her universal maternity and queenship. I found the exercise
only intensified my devotion to her. If she was not given to us as our Mother, if she was not crowned Queen of Heaven, then imagine the debt the human race owes her! If any of the sacrifices she made had been asked of an ordinary woman, the hardest heart would feel the greatest attachment to such a creature. The sacrifice of a stranger is less expected and not even required, whereas that of a mother is.

In all fairness and with the keenest desire for Christian unity, I can never concede the Protestants any ground concerning Our Lady. This woman was chosen from all time to bear the God-man. The Angelic salutation is the only instance in Scripture were a heavenly emissary praised the
recipient in such terms. Where God nods, I kneel.

She carried the burden of Simeon's prophecy, and that sooth-saying priest himself implied the necessity of her pain for the salvation of souls. My heart has been laid bare before God, and so that could be, her Immaculate Heart was pierced with a sword. Contemplating her as she is, merely human,
provides one with the justification of glorifying her.

* * *

The sun was fittingly seated above the monastery when we stood before the Claro Montana. The entire body of pilgrims was trembling with weary excitement as we set foot on the mile long Aleja Najświętszej Maryi Panny (Avenue of Our Most Holy Lady). It seemed to me as if we no longer walked, but were drawn. Our bodies ached, our foot were blistered, our bellies empty, and our mouths parched, but in view of the Marian Shrine, the setting sun drew us by the force of its gravity.

G. K. Chesterton remarked in one of his stories that it is the privilege of
gods to fall upwards and not downwards. As children of God, it did appear now, and most fittingly, that we were not climbing, but falling uphill--uphill towards the Bright Mountain.

Forth we slowly came, pausing to accept and return the salutation of Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz. He stood with the mayor, another bishop, and a Pauline father or brother on a balcony above the avenue. In response to his kind reception, we sang the Salve Regina, which he joined with evident gusto and sincere affection.

Then it was a matter of waiting. A yard forward, then stopping again and again and again. The sun dyed the dome of heaven with a golden hue as we inched closer and closer. I felt my ankle swell to double its size as we
stood waiting, apparently the effect of inactivity after so much motion. It seemed an age before we were kneeling in the dirt, saluted by an emissary of the shrine, then on our feet again to at last enter Our Lady's chapel.

Linking hands to hold our group together, we entered the Gate of Victory then passed through the narrower Gate of Mourning. Weaving through the shrine's lanes, passing the entrance to the grand Basilica, we turned to the right and processed down the centre aisle of the Chapel.

I was weeping when I looked for the fifth time upon her face, seeing it for the first time as I should. I, a weary, dirty child that wanted her mother, yearning to know what she ought to do to please her, and too often blind to that maternal hand gesturing towards the Child on her arm. She was staring at me now, with a beautiful visage that might have belonged to
any race on earth, with eyes that might have been swollen by weeping. Clemency is in her face, yet this merciful, tender nature only renders it the more hungry to see souls turn to her Son.

And He looks on us with a gesture of benediction, a face disposed to illuminate and to save. One however cannot gaze into their faces together. If one meets eyes with the image of Christ, hers gazes out into the beyond, into the masses of those who do not yet love Him. If one meets her eyes, she abjures the onlooker to contemplate Him. She that is not is turned perfectly towards Him that Is.

There is one mitigating consolation on contemplating the Passion of the Christ, and that is the presence of His Mother throughout His sorrows. It is our consolation when we fail to live as good Christians, that somewhere in Heaven is a creature that has never displeased God, but loves Him perfectly. That was my greatest token of gratitude as I knelt before that immemorial icon; it remains so as well.

I do not know how long we remained before the image before proceeding to the penance chapel where we had Mass. As I knelt waiting for Mass to
begin, I fell asleep in the feverishly warm room. Happily, the beginning of Mass more than roused me from drowsiness and, but for the homily, I could savour all of the Sacrifice. In conclusion to the Vigil Mass of the Assumption was the O prima Virgo prodita:

O prima, Virgo, pródita
O Virgin who of all God's work E Conditóris spíritu, From His creating breath came first,
Prædestináta Altíssimi
Predestined in thy womb to bear
Gestáre in alvo Fílium;
The eternal Son of God most high.
Tu perpes hostis fémina
Thou art the woman fore-ordained
Prænuntiáta dæmonis,
Victorious o'er man's enemy,
Oppléris una grátia
Uniquely filled with heaven's grace, Intamináta orígine. Unblemished in thine origin.
Tu ventre Vitam cóncipis, The life by Adam's sin extinct, Vitámque ab Adam pérditam, That Life thou didst in thee conceive,
Diæ litándæ Víctimæ
Clothed with man's flesh and perfected
Carnem minístrans, íntegras.
A Host divine for sacrifice.

Merces piáclo débita
Death, once the wages owed to sin, Devícta mors te déserit, In its defeat deserteth thee;
Almíque consors Fílii
Thou, consort of thy dearest Son,
Ad astra ferris córpore.
In body to the stars art raised.

Tanta corúscans glória,
Higher, resplendent, glorious, Natúra cuncta extóllitur, Woman most perfect doth ascend: In te vocáta vérticem Our human nature doth in thee Decóris omnis tángere. The peak of every beauty reach.

Ad nos, triúmphans, éxsules,
O Queen triumphant, turn thine eyes Regína, verte lúmina, On us exiled from heaven and thee
Cæli ut beátam pátriam,
With thee to help us may we reach
Te, consequámur áuspice.
The happiness of home in Heaven.

Jesu, tibi sit glória,
O Jesus, who wast Vigin-born, Qui natus es de Vírgine, May every glory be to Thee, Cum Patre et almo Spíritu, The Father, and the Spirit so kind,
In sempitérna sæcula.
Throughout the ages evermore. Amen. Amen.


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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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