Czestochowa, Poland ~ February 1st, 2008
We cross the border, into Poland, and my eyes can see the traces of Communism, holding on long after the thing itself has died away: stark, gray buildings, so barren and plain, all looking exactly like the one before, because everything has to be equal… and it strikes me: it is one thing being taught about an ideology, it is another seeing it in flesh and blood. The whole lands feels so strange and sleepy. And then, here or there, I see a bit of color, where life is beginning to peek forth again: a little paint, a design or two… a flower pot in this window, a new strikingly bright store front over here… a recovery…
And yet there, at the end of the street, the shrine itself rises, and stands against the sky: domes reaching toward the heavens: majestic, imposing, awe-inspiring, beautiful: standing so drastically opposed to the town that faces it, opposite. The gray town behind me, the imposing, old fashioned, sprawling buildings of the basilica ahead: the various parts of it representing the different time periods it has stood through. And above all, as if crowning the place, a statue of the Virgin herself stands atop a pillar, welcoming all who approach from far off.
The main street ends, and a wide walk begins, twice as wide as the street, lined on either side by tall, majestic trees: and it leads one’s eyes straight to the Basilica: almost like the way a Gothic church leads one right to the altar. And my feet walk the way that thousands, millions of pilgrim feet have walked before, over ages upon ages, with so many hurts, so many wants, so many desires… They came in the Middle Ages, to a Mother they could trust, to take their needs to a Son Who would heal them, body and soul; to a mother who would sustain them through the daily challenges and struggles and conflicts of life. They came through the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Hapsburgs had overridden their land, claiming for Austria what had forever been “Poland”, and they were needing the consolation, under a foreign power, of something that was their own.
And they came during the years of Nazi terror, when they were being driven heart and soul into the ground, extinguished from all that they were, all that they knew. And she was still their source of consolation, their strength, their source of survival: she made them hold on, as firmly as she held her Son in her arms, and gave them the hope to rebuild, to be free. For she was the Queen of Poland, and as long as she was there, they knew they were still a people, they were still her children: there was still such a thing as Poland.
And they came when Russia held them firmly in its grip, when their lives and their faith, their thoughts and their very beings were controlled and calculated, until they lived a mechanical existence: they still came, because they had a mother, and she loved them, and she reminded them of who they were. She had always been there before, through war and devastation, and she would be there again. She too, had been attacked before. She still bore the scars of the slashes across her face, made in malicious cruelty against the Mother of God, and the Mother of Poland. But she bore them in glory, now, never changed, never diminished, no matter how many people tried to undo, or make better the marks: and her people know that she keeps them as a testimony of being one of their own: as a source of union. For she is not a stranger to their pain, to the slashes inflicted upon the heart of Poland, upon her dignity, and the dignity of her children: even she has felt the scars, and when her children look upon her face, they hear her say: “There is nothing I have not, or will not suffer with you.”
And one day, a boy came as one among the thousands: and yet he was not lost amid the thousands, for each one is all precious to her, and for this one, she had a special will. And he returned as a young man, when, for him, she is the only mother left, and for that reason, more dear. And he crawled on his knees around the altar, in the procession of all the other Pilgrims, feeling upon his knees the bumps in the marble floor, worn by thousands of knees before him, who have made their way in homage to their mother. And she must have smiled at him in a particular way, seeing him as he would be on the day he came back yet again, in a white cassock, to offer the Mother of God a golden rose from the Vicar of Christ.
And now we are coming, in the same footsteps, feeling so small and weak and vulnerable, overwhelmed in the ancientness and the glory of the place, the presence, seen and unseen, of so many people over so many ages. Who would have thought that I would be kneeling on the same floor, advancing on my knees along the same crevices worn into the marble floor, made by the knees of millions before me: among them a pope, and a saint.
Everyone comes here carrying something: something to offer. The walls are lined with crutches and sticks and other trophies left in gratitude for the pain and suffering that is also left behind forever for so many who walk out of these doors. And medallions cover the walls, documenting other healings, physical and spiritual, graces and favors received. –What do I bring? I have brought petitions: my own petitions written for the Mass we will offer here together. It was my job, and I am so proud and excited, to be given the privilege of giving voice to the prayers of the entire group, and of having my words spoken aloud in such a profound and sacred place: to offer the gift of my words and my heart as an expression of everyone’s hearts, for my friends, to our Mother. It seems a little thing, in comparison with so many weightier offerings, but it is all I have, and I have put my whole self into them.
We gather around the very image of her, painted by the Apostle: by one of those who must have known her so much more intimately than anyone else, packed into the small chapel in front of the icon, spilling over into the larger church beyond. Day after day, hour after hour, the Holy Sacrifice is offered here, with her, in the languages of all her various children, in a constant flow of praise to the Father. And now it is our turn, and I have been looking forward to this moment for so long: to offer to her this small gift of my creation: my words giving voice to the prayers of the whole community, for that one moment, in her shrine.
It seems, though, this offering was not meant to be, for in a cruel twist of fate, running short of time, and needing to move quickly, my petitions are skipped over, and forgotten: never to be heard, never to be spoken, never to be prayed… and the Mass goes on.
Tears fill my eyes, and I try to keep placing myself before the mystery of what we are celebrating, the magnitude of which, in comparison, makes my little words seem so small. And yet it was all I wanted to give, and it has been denied me. Fr. Dave is lifting up the host at the consecration, and saying the words, “Behold, the Lamb of God…” and looking up I see the face of our Mother, right above the lifted Body of her Son: she is also holding him in her hands, holding him out to the world, offering His Body to the Father. And as I watch her, giving her Son to me, I realize something: my petitions might have gone unheard, but they have not been un-received. They have been known and taken up by the one for whom they were intended in the first place… the Lady of Czestochowa. And I think of the words of Fulton Sheen: “O Mother, who, though no priest, could yet on Calvary’s hill breathe: ‘This is my Body, this is my Blood.’” And I see her, above the heads of the priests, holding in her arms the same flesh and blood that they are offering to the Father, and I know she is uniting her own heart to our Sacrifice, as the priest says the words, “With Mary, the Virgin Mother of God…” And I am reminded once more, as I kneel before this altar, before this image, that she gave, and is still giving everything, surrendering all to the will and glory of the Father.
As I look up to her precious face, scarred and beautiful, I feel her calling me, personally, to surrender: to let go of my dashed expectations, and receive, instead, the Son she is giving. And there is a piercing, stinging beauty to this response, this surrender: an invitation to become molded more deeply in her image, to be shaped after her own example, to be given the chance to surrender as she did every moment of her life—it is the pain of losing oneself in order to find oneself. And I give her my prayers, the way she wants them.
The buses are preparing to leave, and there isn’t much time. I stand with a friend in the little shop that had taken us forever to find, facing the little old Polish man who can’t understand a word of English. And we do not know a word of Polish. But somehow, it doesn’t matter: we can communicate: the universal language of customer and clerk. And he smiles so gently and kindly at us, and we wish with all our hearts that we could say something that he would understand beyond the subject of prices and currency: we wish we could share life with him. And then I glance up, and am met with the gaze of the Madonna herself: it is a hand painted copy of the same image from the shrine. It’s as though she’s jumping off the shelf at me, wanting to be brought home. But I have so very little money with me, there’s no way I can afford it: a hand painted image. I take her down gingerly and turn it around, holding my breath: it’s exactly the price of the money I have left.
The old man wraps it up for me, and I walk away, carrying her close to my heart, and my whole being is filled with joy and gratitude. I had given all of myself and all that belonged to me, at her request, and now, in return, she gave herself to me. Because she wants to be more than just the mother of the Polish people, and she is more than the Mother of the Universal Church: she is my own Mother. And I have her with me physically and tangibly now: to remind me that it is in giving that we receive: “What we have seen with our eyes, what we have held in our hands…” because, as human beings, we need something to hold onto. And I am taking with me a piece of the depth, the wonder of that place, back with me to the ones who will never be there. And every time I look at her, I will see in her eyes, the millions of pilgrims that knelt before her, among them a pope—and a little girl who will never forget, or be the same: because she gave her petitions to the Mother of God.