Monday, November 29, 2010

Let us learn from her, the Lady of Advent, to live our daily duties with a new spirit, with the sense of a profound waiting, one only the coming of God can quench. _His Holiness, Benedict XVI

For the lyrics of the above conjoined hymns with an English translation, you may visit one of my previous posts. One of the advantages of being a Catholic, as was admitted to me even by a modern, pluralistic priest, is that we salute two new years. Two chances to make a new beginning.

It was with immense alacrity that I introduced my Advent wreath to my catechism students in our little basement sessions before Mass. I had expected them to be surprised, but not bewildered. Be they American, Polish, English, Chinese, Filipino, Italian, or French, none were familiar with the tradition. Remembering the trouble it had taken me to find appropriately coloured candles, I was hardly surprised at it being a novelty to Poles, but I was unsettled that the same was true for Americans, where Protestants also celebrate the custom. When asked to guess what the wreath was, many opined that it was a menorah.

I do have a menorah: a strikingly beautiful one given to me by an affluent Jewish couple from Memphis, Tennessee. It is not the traditional candelabra we so often see, but a golden relief of the city of Jerusalem. Eight Maccabean soldiers holding torches provide the places for the candles, while the ninth shammas holder stands above them on a street step. I love that the servant stands above the others--yet another echo in the past of what was to be fulfilled in the future. Alas, I cannot post a picture of this beautiful thing, as its weight barred me from taking it to Poland.

At the first Novus Ordo Mass of Advent, the Prayers of the Faithful caused me a little pang, as we remembered the Jews, who would be celebrating Hanukkah on Wednesday. The thought was charitable, but not charitable enough. We did not pray for the Jews' menorah to be entwined with our wreath.

As the Advent season unfolds, we observe two Sundays of sombre purple, with a third of jubilant rose, followed by another of purple. It was oddly asymmetrical to my students that rose should be third and not first or last (how children love reason and order!). I explained that the third week, commencing with Gaudete Sunday, is when we contemplate how our awaiting of the Messiah is nearly over. As when one waits for the visit of a favourite relative, or his coming to the head of the queue, or a sign on the road indicating the nearness of his destination, a wave of giddiness and vindication washes over him. Though this joy will subside into sobriety again, as he still has some way to go, this is a natural and universal experience of man. It is the delight of Wednesday's end: 'I have come to the midpoint; I can endure the rest of the week.' Or of scaling half the mountainside: 'My strength has sufficed me thus far; it shall sustain me that far again.' After walking halfway through dark Mirkwood, the sojourner knows he is walking out.

But one must know what one's destination is and where and when it is to experience this elation. Otherwise one's waiting is sheer misery. I remember shivering at the West Warsaw train station that does not mark each platform with the train coming or its destination. It does not necessarily follow the designations of the timetable either. All changes were announced in hurried Polish, and if my train did come that night I missed it. Hours and hours in the darkness, I waited. I finally comprehended the sentiment behind a proverb I had till then thought rather trite: 'That's a long wait for a train that don't come.' I am more apt to use that metaphor now.

In true charity then, a Catholic ought to remember in his prayers this Advent especially those who wait without any forseeable end to their waiting. They need not be in suspense any longer.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Today is the feastday of Matka Boska Ostrobramska, which is translated as Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, but would be more literally rendered: the Mother of God of the Sharp Gate. English has a habit of diluting powerful titles with more sentimental or comfortable phrases, but this one especially perplexes me, both because of the decision to translate 'ostro' (aštra in Lithuanian, perhaps derived from the Latin 'asper') in this way, and why the Gate was called this to begin with. Having asked knowledgeable persons and having read the scant resources available, I am left to speculate; though undoubtedly a well-versed etymologist could provide me with a perfectly rational chronology of events that led to such a naming.

This past Saturday, I had opened Tolkien's The Hobbit, and the work cast its ever potent spell on me as the world of the grand, epic, and sublime clashed with that of the humble, comfortable, and simple. Poor Bilbo had not known, just as Tolkien had not yet discovered, that the universe of The Silmarillon had at last converged on that of Farmer Giles of Ham.

It was the same I believe for the then yet sleeping giant, G. K. Chesterton, on his visit to the Vilnius in Lithuania via Poland. The journalist from the land where the battles of ideas had already been fought and quite definitely concluded (as he himself discovered later) had wandered into a realm where the Faith was still a contender amongst the forces of modernism. Cultural tradition was still too vital a character to be patronized, and Bolshevism was not the agnostic, neutered pet of the drawing room, nodding by the fire, but a godless wolf panting and circling outside the gate. There was Polska, the bulwark between the new barbarity and the decadent remains of Christendom.

The still unCatholic Chesterton was driving about in Wilno with an engaging Polish lady, when he was suddenly told to stop the car on a wide open street. This woman with whom he shared a common tongue, who was well conversant in his British culture, suddenly was the emissary of a very different world, a stranger:

As we walked under the arch she said in the same colourless tone; "You take off your hat here." And then I saw the open street. It was filled with a vast crowd, all facing me; and all on their knees on the ground. It was as if someone were walking behind me; or some strange bird were hovering over my head. I faced around, and saw in the centre of the arch great windows standing open, unsealing a chamber full of gold and colours; there was a picture behind; but parts of the whole picture were moving like a puppet-show, stirring strange double memories like a dream of the bridge in the puppet-show of my childhood; and then I realised that from those shifting groups there shone and sounded the ancient magnificence of the Mass.
(G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography)

This was the picture he saw, though plated over with the golden robes that typically adorn beloved icons.

She is the Lady of the Sharp Gate simply because that was the name of the gate in which her protective image had been placed. But that which has a commonplace explanation may also have a deeper, and truer, extraordinary one. My name means 'lamb' in Hebrew and my surname means 'blood' in Gaelic. It was not my parent's intention to link my name with the Blood of the Lamb, but I have always had a special ardour for that devotion. Hence, the meaning of my name is a very special gratification to me.

On his visit to Vilnius,
Chesterton keenly felt a cleavage between this reality and the Great Reality. The distinction between dawn and darkness is often quite sharp. It begins with that band of colour, ruddy and lemon toned, against indigo darkness and only later melts into a pleasing softness of iridescent hues.

I glance now at my own image of the icon so kindly brought me from Wilno itself. Dazzlingly resplendent in her plated gown, she leans dolefully over the upturned crescent of a silver moon, before which stands a crucifix. Her hands, crossed over her breast, cannot embrace him, as she merely looks on.

By far, it is the mose engimatic representation of Our Lady I have ever seen. Sweet, maternal, and beautiful as ever, but so distant and melancholy. Neither her hands nor eyes are turned towards her erring children, but lost in contemplation. As I probe this mysterious image with my carnal eyes, I cannot but sigh and wonder how many sharp awakenings I must endure before the Dawn finally illumines my soul.

About Me

My Photo
Warsaw, Poland
Domine, spero quia mundum vicisti. Lord, I trust that Thou hast overcome the world. Panie, ufam, żeś pokonał świat.
View my complete profile