Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Our Lady of Czestochowa

On Saturday, July 16, we went to Jasna Gora in Czestochowa. That day is the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, so it was a particularly fitting day for me to be in one of the famous Marian shrines in the world, and certainly the Marian heart of Poland.

We were guided by a blunt and funny priest who had lived in the US for several years who looked a lot like my late spiritual director, Fr. John Campbell, S. J.

Here he is with Iwona and Keith. Keith made him re-tell the old joke about how to make holy water several times to get it on video. Maybe it was the Polish accent that made it so funny.

A better historical and pictorial summary than I want to delve in to can be found here. The few observations I'll make about the place are these: The black wood surrounding the famous icon, which I saw in other churches in Poland as well, reminds me of the Buddhist altars I saw in Japan. It is beautiful and striking, and I don't recall seeing black wood in any church in the US except in Doylestown at the American Czestochowa.

Second, this was the only time in Poland that the "Amens" of the liturgy were sung according to the Roman Missal style, which is the way my parish sings them, but almost no other parish I've experienced uses this style. That, in case you are wondering, looks like this:

Mass at the shrine was, I think, my first experience of a Polish crowd during the pilgrimage. Think hot, sweaty, sardines, kneeling to worship God. Pews are for the elderly, the infirm, and maybe those who insist on oxygen. Marble floor for the rest of us. I did not dislike the experience. It did make me wonder how many people would be taken out by one person fainting, though.

What I want to actually think about in this post is relationship with Mary. It is safe to say that the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa elicits on complex response in the souls of Poles. Citizens of the Protestant/secular United States have no equivalent to this "Madonna of Poland," and no equivalent response of soul -- I think it is quite safe to say that, too. Even Catholic Americans really have no one image of Mary that evokes any unified sense of identity or spiritual heritage. At best, we borrow Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico, but unless we are Latino, I think it really feels like borrowing.

It is what it is, our American thing, or lack of thing. It is simply different from the Polish experience, and from that of a lot of other ethnic groups.

My Protestant upbringing did not provide me with any emotional response to an image of Mary except that of something like disgust and pity. My study, conversion, and spiritual experience changed my mind and my gut response. As a Secular Carmelite, I belong to Mary's order. On my last retreat, the Friar told us "You are Mary's gift to her Son; don't ever forget that." She has taught me spiritual truths. She has demonstrated to me her loving care and accompaniment. But with all that said, I do not normally have any emotional movement within me in response an image of Mary.

On the one hand, I think it is beautiful to have a human response to a rich heritage. On the other hand, there can be the possibility that one loves an image ideologically, but the spiritual image is not impressed onto the soul. When Mary's image is impressed on the soul, it is about total self-offering to the Trinity in love for God and love of neighbor. It is about humility and spiritual power, hiddenness and the glory of God revealed. It is about constant meditation on the Word and constant intercessory presence before the Father. If Catholics exhibited the image of Mary in our souls to the world, I think far fewer non-Catholic Christians would be confused about why we honor her so much.

At best, we keep both hands. We need both hands. I was reminded frequently of the custom to pray or sing a Marian antiphon at 9 pm each evening. The United States has never seen such a thing. Could you imagine?! Some of our Polish friends also told us that the practice of the faith is dropping off there in droves as people can relate only to the shell of tradition, which they then decide is not modern, is devoid of meaning, and so is not necessary.

To pray the rosary together fruitfully, we need to come around Mary with the heart of Mary. Mary's heart is in perfect union with God's, and perfectly open to all people, even when that openness brings pain because of their sin. She prays powerfully for God's will of love to be done in our lives. We need to come in the same way: hearts open to moving into ever-deepening union with the Trinity, and hearts open to all people, including their pain and their sin, which we lift to God for His grace and mercy. All the while, of course, soaking in the words and events and power of Scripture. While saying the words together. Hearts, hands, voices. The external and the internal. These must never be torn apart, because we are human and we need all of it.

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