Saturday, September 10, 2016

Polish Liturgies

We were privileged to have Holy Mass almost every day during our pilgrimage, and several of these were in English, or partially so, or with translation. And when it was none of the above, I usually had my Word Among Us along so that I could follow the readings in English. Sometimes I followed the Mass parts, too, to help me focus.

So many interesting observations here.

First of all, I loved that when our Polish friends spoke English, they almost always used the term "Holy Mass," not just "Mass" as most English speakers I know are accustomed to say. It simply strikes me as a term of endearment, an expression of love. I wonder, though, too, why I don't use it, and it also strikes me that for me, being so language oriented, it could easily become a matter of scrupulosity or pedantry -- and God help us free from that with everything connected with liturgy! Amen!

Many of our Masses were not typical parish Masses, either because of World Youth Day or the Days in the Dioceses events, or because of the Hallelujah community or specially organized liturgies, or because we were at shrines and holy places, or simply because of all of the lingering-about pilgrims. And when they were typical parish Masses, they were of course entirely in Polish, so I can hardly report on the feel of them from any sense that involves understanding language.

One detail that threw me a bit at first is that the congregation kneels for a shorter time than in the US. I wondered about this, but then during the Mass at Czestochowa, when we knelt in a squashing crowd in dripping heat on a marble floor... I thought just maybe scenes like this have influenced the Bishops of Poland to decree kneeling only in the heart of the consecration prayer. I don't know.

And speaking of squashing crowds, this happened more than once. Those churches with Gothic style floor plans (one narrow seating area down the middle) are wonderful for having multiple Masses happening at once when they are huge, but they are not so great when they are mini-versions and you have hordes of people to pack in. But then again, no one seemed to find it odd to pack into every available space, sitting around side altars, standing in the aisles, the doorways, even outside in the yards when no one could enter the building. No one was having a conniption fit about fire regulations. That was refreshing.

Our last Sunday Mass (a parish Mass) was a strange hybrid of a homily-less Mass with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction at the end, still clocking in at about an hour. I was there early to hear the devotional prayers being sung before Mass. Obviously everyone knew everything because this had happened for always. It was the only time I saw (not necessarily the only time it happened) a church filled with elderly-ish women each dressed in their pretty, colorful scarves. I guess they all come early, maybe not only to pray, but to make sure they have a seat.

I'm remembering now my non-Catholic friend who visited a Mass in Poland last year asking me if it was a common thing for people to basically ignore you at the sign of peace. And I'm chuckling to myself. It really is a strange feeling, and I suppose an even stranger feeling for a non-Catholic, to offer a hearty American handshake and greeting at the sign of peace and be turned down. I probably scared a few babushkas. The other day I was at our local Greek church to buy food and saw how the priest greeted all his parishoners with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. I'll have to brace myself on the other end of the spectrum if I ever want to visit Greece, I guess.

One valuable exercise throughout the whole pilgrimage was the intensity of concentration I found myself giving to what was actually happening in the Mass. Even when the Masses were in English, they were almost never in American English, so there was always an effort required to understand what was being said. I found myself squeezing the words I did understand, sucking them dry, and fixing my mind on what I read when something else was being spoken around me. Occasionally I knew that the reading I had in my book was not what was being read from the ambo (because of a special feast day or votive Mass or whatnot), and then, like straining to see in a dark room I tried to make out a piece of the reading to give a clue as to its whole. Same with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I knew what was happening, but it is a different practice to unite yourself with the action by a means other than words, for me at least, because I am so verbally oriented. I worked my will very hard in those moments.

And you know what? It was freeing. I wasn't aware if the priest had a sing-songy voice or if the lector stumbled over words or mispronounced them, if the sermon was boring or missing the point. I was freed, in an uncomfortable yet real way, from needing language to pray. My prayer was a lot more basic and I missed 95% of the nuances I might normally find in Mass, but I sucked that 5% dry.

And when I came back home, I was relieved to not have to work so hard, and is much, much easier to get distracted and to nit-pick. There is less "thanksgiving" involved.

I served as impromptu cantor a few times, sometimes in English and sometimes in Latin. During one of those Masses during the Diocesan Days in Wroclaw, the music team didn't show and our Encounter group was called on six minutes before the beginning of Mass in a huge church, packed to the gills. My job was Mass parts. Fine. I was mentally prepared because of cantoring for eight years and doing all the music for Masses on Saturday mornings for three years. Everything... except that Gospel Acclamation (which the lector does at my parish on Saturdays). So that moment in the Mass came, and in a split second I realized I hadn't thought of anything. At that moment, I was grateful that my training kicked in my liturgical-auto pilot! I started singing "Alleluia," though it was only as I was singing that I was asking myself What melody is this coming out of my mouth, and how in the world does it end?! So glad for the choir training I carried inside me at that moment, though. The most important thing about leading is to look and sound confident, even when your brain is scrambling!

And though it wasn't a liturgy, the very last outing my daughter and I did the night before we left was to attend a prayer service at our host family's parish. The idea was to spiritually unite with pilgrims who were walking to Czestochowa. Arriving late, we entered one of the only modern parishes I saw there, aptly (for the pilgrimage) named Divine Mercy. A young priest was leading a small group of mostly older women in singing some peppy song that had hand motions. I'm not always that kind of person, but that night I just dove right in. I gather we were singing about walking and praising and praying, and stuff. There were a variety of prayers, I think a decade of the rosary, I think the Bogurodzica, an ancient hymn to the Mother of God. And then, suddenly we were gathering  in a circle and dancing the Hava Nagila. I mean, not all the old women were putting too much energy into it, but we were moving pretty well. I simply could not wipe the smile off my face. It felt so incredibly bizarre, and I kept saying to myself "I'm in Poland dancing with old ladies in a church." I think I probably made the whole room smile because it was like my whole body was laughing with the joy of Divine Mercy. Not to mention my flip-flop had come off so I was dancing with one shoe. It was a perfect way to leave the last Polish parish I entered.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


This post is not about events I experienced in Poland, but it touches on what I have essentially gleaned, or rather, that I'm starting to glean, from having gone. This is from the book Poustinia by Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty, from a final section of the book entitled "The Heart of the Poustinia."

"Poustinia" is a Russian concept that translates to "hermitage," but while there is a physical aspect to what her community lives in Combermere, Ontario, spiritually it is about something one experiences interiorly. Every Christian is called to this by baptism, but as with all vocations, for some this interior "poustinia" is a stronger call than some other universal aspect.

She wrote this is 1973, 12 years before her death. (Long excerpts, followed by other comments):

"...I was surprised on the way back from Barry's Bay (after seeing a movie about the tsar and tsarina) to Madonna House. Such a feeling of total loneliness took hold of me that I was really astonished I am lonely. I have been lonely many, many times. But this time it was a sort of strange loneliness, a loneliness that held me like a vise and shook me.

"I looked at the road. It was like any other Russian road. The trees were like the trees at home. The hills were very similar to what I remembered I had left. I don't know about other people's experience, but suddenly I realized with a most extraordinary realization that I was a stranger in a strange country...

"When we returned home all I wanted to do was to get to my poustinia. I collected my things, went in, and closed the door.

"Now I began to realize something that I hadn't known before: the poustinia, the desert (for that is what it is) brings back memories, memories of a thousand things which we think we have completely forgotten.


"But the realization that was overwhelming me most of all -- like a sea in which I was drowning, now surfacing, now overcome by it again, now surfacing -- the overwhelming wave or remembrance tonight was that I was a stranger in a strange land. There was no denying it. I lived with values different from other people. I was beginning to understand more deeply the darkness of which St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila speak. In such a darkness there is only one light, and that light is God. Unless you hold on to him, you become enmeshed in the meshes of the devil. For the first time since I have started coming to my poustinia, I knew that I was being tempted by self-pity. I also knew that the temptation was well directed because ever since I came to Canada I have been lonely, lonely with a cosmic loneliness of a refugee whom nobody understands or wishes to, and who perhaps was only understood after a long and arduous fight.

"Yes, I knew I was being tempted in the area where it hurts the most. The night became darker...

"I fell asleep after a rough night, and the day was a little better.... The key is very simple. I am a stranger in this land, in this world, by the gift of God. He has called me from my youth as he called Jesus his Son to go to Egypt. Christ was also a refugee, and so were his mother and foster-father...

"The whole panorama of my journey unfolded itself before my eyes... I was a pilgrim. I was a solitary. I was a poustinik, and I never knew it.

"...Ever since I left Russia I have been a poustinik, a pilgrim. I have been fasting from the food of my language and of my people. I have been mortifying myself by adapting myself to the ways and manners of other people. And always I walked in solitude. That was my true vocation -- and I never understood it! I did not understand that it was the vocation of loneliness, that God had invited me to share his loneliness because this was to be the vocation of many. Many people don't realize that their loneliness is an invitation to share the loneliness of God.

"I sat in my poustinia dumbfounded, and wondered why I had not seen the whole pattern of my vocation...


"Yes, today I have clarified something very important to myself -- the essence of my vocation...

"And so you entered a strange land, and you were given silence. You were also given solitude. You were given the type of solitude which is spent in the midst of people. Like so many other Eastern notions, this also seems a bit incomprehensible to the Western world in which you now live -- but it will eventually be understood because God wants it to be understood.

"Yes, he wants it to be understood. Solitude in the midst of people is the Jesus Prayer, the prayer of the presence of God. It is the holding on to God in what may sometimes be a land of total despair, a real poustinia, a real desert...

"...But what has all this to do with you, you the staff workers of Madonna House?...

"...Many of you were solitaries in your heart. You yearned for something bigger than yourselves. You did not know that this was solitude. You were sort of different from the people around you... And so ,,, you arose, seeking what was not there...

"God now extends the same invitation to you as he extended to me. To you also he says, 'I am lonely.' That's what you were, weren't you? Didn't you really start out on your pilgrimage because you were lonely? Now he invites you too to Gethsemane, there to sweat out your struggle with him. He invites you to stand before the High Priest, that is to say, before all those who will in some way or other laugh at you, jeer at you, maybe even persecute you.

"When all this has taken place, he will invite you to come with him to Pontius Pilate, into that terrible solitude, into that totally strange land that man must enter before he dies, that predeath land, the last pilgrimage, where strangers will examine you...

"Finally, he will take yoou by the hand and lead you to Golgotha to be crucified on the other side of his cross. If you follow him all the way into this poustinia which (I'm almost afraid to say these words) he has brought me to the West to reveal, he will bring you to Golgotha so as to give you the complete, infinite, incredible joy of his resurrection. This joy will be your guide into the new land where there is no solitude, no silence, to strangeness. It will be the final pilgrimage of love toward love, if pilgrimage it can be called. This crucifixion you will undergo with alleluias, because now yu will know what it is all about.

"This joy is not only for the hereafter. No. It will be yours, now, dearly beloved, this very minute, tomorrow, the day after, as soon as we accept solitude, silence, strange lands, pilgrimages with Christ. When we accept these things we have accepted loneliness, which is none other than the loneliness of Christ. If we can do this, God will give us tools to bring a rich harvest to him and his Church."


Catherine's vocation resonates in my soul, and though I still chafe at the huge paradigm shift of embracing loneliness rather than reckoning it my enemy, I have to say that it is my chafing that makes no sense in that equation, not the reality that this is where the Lord waits to meet me. Knowing what not to fight is a big step forward.

And I want that joy! I believe in that joy! I believe in the resurrection. Ain't nobody really wants to do the program that gets you there, but maybe more than anything I don't like to waste a thing, and I most certainly do not want to waste a single grace the Lord has given me as a pilgrim.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The End, Before the Beginning

It is every bit as difficult for me to process my crush-and-crumble stage of the pilgrimage as it was to experience it in the first place. How do I even go about trying to pick this up, let alone get a grip on it?

We went to the mountains, because it is what Poles do, what Europeans do. It's what Pope John Paul did. We rested, but to be honest, I don't remember that. Endometriosis was raging against me as we rested. And then, we went hiking.

It was beautiful, and it was exhausting. When it wasn't miles of rocky steps like this, it was worse. I prayed hard while I could, and when focusing on breathing and mere perseverance became all-consuming work, I just united my efforts to my intentions. One of the only ways that I recall that I was surrounded by beauty is that I took a few pictures, and they remind me when I look at them. I was drenched in sweat, puffing, exhausted, and soon enough, every inch of me began to hurt. On the first day of hiking, on one particular step down, I felt something go "ouch" in my right knee.

The next day we were to go again. Many of our number decided to do the more extreme version of rock climbing and left at 3am. Several others opted simply to stay back in our little village cottages. Because I am earnest and did not wish to be disappointing, I decided to go again.

It was not a terrible walk up, although there were patches that required all my attention because there was a sheer drop off one side. We met up with the early morning adventurers and then started back, taking generous rests on the way. But miles from the park's end, that knee that had gone "ouch" the day before all but gave out on me. Soon both right and left steps were painful as my body desperately tried to find a way to compensate for all the pressure. It hurt like the dickens, but I've been glad for that pain, especially since I've returned (and went to the chiropractor). Because of it, I had a chance at one last glimpse of my friend's soul as I have come to know it.

Iwona came upon me sitting on the rocks somewhere, wincing. She asked if I wanted her to carry my packback, but, too far gone for that to help, I laughingly told her, "I want you to carry me!" Well, she propped me up and helped me all the way down. And it wasn't only my broken body, but my crushed spirit that almost stayed on top of that mountain. I was trying to hard to deal, but had almost nothing left. There is that between friends that gives life, that keeps one alive. And I stayed alive that day.

But after that a dark curtain fell in my soul.

I was physically drained, I cried at the drop of a hat, feeling no ability or even interest in restraining myself. Circumstances evoked fierce anger in me towards the same friend who had propped up my life a few days before. It was confusing, because I don't at all get angry easily. I knew it was thinly-veiled heartbreak at the inevitable Goodbye which left me feeling smaller than small, crumpled up and tossed aside like yesterday's trash, which I so fiercely did not wish to become.

And then I had a good long meditation on death. Sunday afternoon I lay on the mountainside alone, and thought about how all that is beautiful comes to an end. Even mountains erode to nothing, and finally, all meets death. St. John of the Cross echoed in my mind... nada. It was not a bitter meditation, but it was sobering. The Lord showed me the danger of stewing in these thoughts, though, and mercifully provided me with a way out of that.

On the day we left the mountains, we traveled to Wadowice, to St. John Paul's home town. One theme stuck with me there:

It says "Time flies; eternity awaits." This clock on the wall of the Church of the Presentation in Wadowice was directly in eye shot from JPII's childhood home. He, no doubt, meditated frequently on the fleetingness of life and on the importance of living for eternity. God was speaking to me of this, too. Everything we experience on earth passes so quickly and is gone. The eternity we experience beginning now is where we must fix our focus.

And then, we went to Auschwitz. Millions of people had no choices whatsoever about their lives being ripped from them, about loved ones being ripped from them. There is so much pain in the world. And to this place came St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and others I don't know. Love was present here, by these people choosing to love.

We went to our host families that night, before what was to be our last whole day in Poland. That black curtain was still hanging down, even while mysteriously my heart swelled with joy at talking with our new hosts. If this had not all been graced, I would have wanted nothing more than to shut myself in a room alone and wallow.

Grace can take the form of one feeling bewildered, confused, and so very deeply not in control. Come to think of it, this is a more realistic view of my life as it stands before God than I normally have!

If you have not already read it (or even if you have!), the blog post Carmelite on a Journey fits here chronologically, after the conclusion of this one. Truth be told, I really needed to tell that story early, out of order, in order to have the strength to tell the rest.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Praying With My Spirit

And behold. we went to the very chapel where St. Faustina conversed with Jesus and which held the original image of Divine Mercy, in the Year of Mercy, but the Lord was not in the chapel. And after the chapel, we went to the Saint John Paul II Sanctuary, but the Lord was not in the sanctuary. And after the sanctuary, the Wawel Cathedral, but the Lord was not in the cathedral.

And after all these, there was a prayer meeting in the mountains.

A prayer meeting that I only went to because Iwona told us we were expected to go. A prayer meeting where I understood almost nothing that was happening. And even though I am using this Scriptural reference as a literary device, if I ponder it deeply I did hear that question being put to me during that prayer meeting like it was to Elijah in the still, small voice: "Marie, what are you doing here?"

We arrived in the little village of Murzasichle in the mountains for the week after World Youth Day with assorted Poles connected to the Hallelujah community. They were there on retreat; I was there, apparently, to have the stuffing knocked out of me.

But early in that time was this evening prayer meeting. I was feeling very small, but at that point I still had the interior resources to face that respectably well. My normal way with just about anything is to give 110% of my focus to what is happening when someone is speaking, or praying. I am by nature a very earnest person. I noticed this, for example, whenever we had a tour guide. I sucked in every word being said and gave my attention thoroughly. It also became evident that by the end of most tours, the guide was looking only at me when speaking, because I think I was the only one "left standing," still paying rapt attention. It is just my way.

But this prayer meeting could not be that way. Almost everything that was said or sung was in Polish or maybe in tongues -- I had that much of a clue! I could not give my attention to any person. But I was profoundly aware that I trusted these friends of my friend -- more than that -- I trusted these fellow Catholic believers. Rather than mentally tracking deeply with what was happening, or working up an affinity in my heart for the person I was listening to, I united the heart of my prayer with whatever they were praying. I put my heart with them. On purpose. I joined with whatever they were praying, and I followed where the Holy Spirit led me interiorly, my attention being held only there.

This is a purifying sort of thing. One of the reasons, I think, that I pay attention to things so hard is that I sometimes want to be in communion with someone so ardently that I bust my butt, for lack of a more eloquent phrase, to give all my energy into hopes for that communion.

And while it is good to give one's energies, there comes a point when one's energies just don't cut it to bring about the communion for which we are made. Flesh gives birth to flesh; spirit gives birth to spirit.

So on that night, I had to admit that I was there not to engage my mental, emotional, or social abilities, but simply to inwardly unite myself in prayer with the Lord, and to spiritually unite myself with my brothers and sisters.

If there is anything I've faced since returning that is hard for me to deal with, it is that the Lord wants me to keep going straight to Him, this way.

Probably I will understand this more in the future, but any kind of striving to maintain relationships that make me feel safe, including my own vision of myself, including striving in my relationship with the Lord, gets a resounding buzzer sounding in my spirit. I can't help but feel that this is a negative, like a chastisement, but the slightest bit of thought on the matter shows me that the Lord is calling me to Himself in a greater way. The problem with the Lord calling our souls is that it always seems painful, because of our sin and attachments that need to be cleared out. Although it sounds ridiculous, it feels a little lonely to pursue only God, and to let my striving stop. It is a death. Death is scary.

But, I am a Christian, and I believe dying in Christ brings about life in abundance.

Monday, September 5, 2016

What World Youth Day was Really Like

As I process the interior stuff of this pilgrimage, I'm going to take a leap right into World Youth Day itself. It isn't that I've said everything that I could say about the Days in the Diocese and the earlier portions, but I'll hold on other observations for now and resume tracking this one aspect of the journey.

Someone commented to me recently how being "right there" during World Youth Day must have been "so powerful," such an "incredible experience of the Holy Spirit" overflowing everything. 

Well, I don't know what you associate with words like powerful, incredible, and Holy Spirit overflowing, but I will tell you that the actual events of World Youth Day were in one way the most draining for me of the whole pilgrimage. The following week won the prize for breaking me to pieces and tearing me to shreds, but World Youth Day is where I had most of the vitality drained out of me. This, too, is part of the pilgrimage process.

The "Days in the Diocese" week in Wroclaw was a blessing. I connected hard and fast with our host family hostess, whose open heart took me right in. We were able to talk almost instantly about matters of real significance, and that was something I dearly needed at that point. So when we had to part ways to go to Krakow, it was a sad portent to me of things to come. 

We arrived in Krakow late at night and I was sleep deprived. Our first day was actually a respite to my soul, because we went to the Wieliczka salt mine, but that story will need to wait for another theme. We were volunteers with the International Center of Evangelization, but we found that the tasks for which our help was sought were usually about directing foot traffic, and that the organization of events was lax to say the least. We ate our meals outside in all weather and slept on the floor of a gym. I felt like I lived on bread and pasta, things I try earnestly to avoid for the difficulties they give me. Mostly, the bulk of every day was about the enormous amount of time it took to move hundreds of thousands of people from one place to another. The evening gatherings with the Pope meant blocking out hours to navigate there and back, to keep in contact with our group, and to manage the basic necessities of life like food, water, and bathrooms. We strained to listen to translations on radio; sometimes it was clear, sometimes I couldn't get it at all, and once my hand cramped hard from holding the radio just so for over an hour.  I also got sick early in the week with a cold and something like a fever, and once again I remembered that I have a tendency to push myself until I am so disconnected with what is happening with my body that I can't tell that I'm sick until I am ready to drop.

But you have to understand, I'm not complaining about any of it.

At this point in the pilgrimage, I knew this is part of how we pray.

It is part of being reduced down to what is really important, and accepting all of these things for the sake of what is really important, which was to pray for the intentions I came there with (even though I hardly felt powerful). It is also to learn to offer to God a heart that wants only Him, and my own basic needs for His sake, so as to be able to serve.

It is also about learning what it means to belong to each other. One of the most absorbing tasks in those gigantic crowds was to try to not lose anyone. The other person's need became my need. It slowed everyone down, but there was nothing for us to hurry towards.

I truly felt my age. I normally feel like a young 48, but during World Youth Day I commented more than once that I needed World Geriatric Day. A teenager, I am not. And there is nothing wrong with accepting this reality, startling as it was.

During the trip to the Saturday Vigil, I was with a group of the sort of old and the youngest who took the train as far as we could go. The stalwart older teens walked the whole way. But even with that train trip, we still had quite a trek in the hot sun. What was really beautiful was the number of Poles who lined the roads to spray hoses on us, or offering drinks, candies, or buckets of water to splash our faces with. A German man, who had come to World Youth Day all by himself because his group had bailed on him, joined us and talked on the way. My son offered to carry backpacks for several people including myself, simply because he wanted to make it easier for us. Mercy really was flowing.

We faced a kind of crisis once we arrived at the site, however. Each of us had a food voucher that was good for a large bag of food, covering our dinner that night, and breakfast and lunch the next day. Distribution, from boxes on semi trucks, was a logistics nightmare. One woman commented accurately that it looked like something out of a Third World news report, and frankly many of the pilgrims seemed accordingly triggered. Until we re-grouped, all of our group stood in a crushing crowd where one could hardly fit a piece of paper between you and the next person. I was fearing for my short daughter with asthma, whether she was going to be able to keep breathing.

We decided eventually to back out and give all our vouchers to my son and another boy who would grapple through the crowd for the food. We had waited one hour; they waited another two. As we tried to verify where they were in the process, we simultaneously heard that all the food was gone and we had to walk a few miles to another distribution point, and then saw the boys with the food bags. They reported people shoving them, and knocking them over to try to get to the food. The boys were our heroes of the hour.

Oddly, they received 13 bags for 10 people. I was a bit frustrated with these boys for moving off with extras under these circumstances, but I think something of the scavenging beast mentality had come over me, so I didn't do much more than bark about it once as we went into the field to find our place. But as we went in, a woman on her own approached the boy with the extra bags and asked where she was supposed to find the food, since the near-by distribution point had run out. He simply handed her an extra. Our three-hour wait made her expression of gratitude all the more profound in my eyes. Shortly thereafter, we met up with two other members of our group who also had not been able to get food. And I learned to simply trust that God provides even through teenage boys.

We slept outside, and it was nice. My daughter woke with a nose bleed in a pool of blood, but we were near the medical tent and they cleaned her up and we were able to get a little more sleep. For once, it did not rain over night. The blazing hot sun gave way to torrential downpours as we walked to the train ride home, safely out of the dirt field.

I read what the Pope said on-line and saw some of the video coverage later on. And strangely enough, I learned what he said not by listening to him it but by living it. It sticks with you better that way.

So, yes, it was powerful, and it was an incredible experience of the Holy Spirit. But it was a hot, sweaty, draining, exhausting, frustrating, tedious path that left me feeling old, weak, and disoriented. Maybe we forget the Holy Spirit likes to use those means to reach into our souls.