Thursday, May 29, 2008

Poland: Following the Czestochowa (Black Madonna)

It was a breezy, March day when I left Radom to visit Czestochowa, the pilgrimage site in Poland where it is said that five million pilgrims travel to visit Jasna Gora (Bright Mountain). It is the site of the 14th Century Paulite monastery, a monstrous cathedral, and, its highlight is the chapel that houses the icon of the Black Madonna. Hoping for a spiritual experience similar to one I had had in Turkey, I was eager to visit the crowded Polish site. For eight months before, I took a trip with three Turkish friends to Seljuk, just east of Kusadasi. Rich in its historical importance, Seljuk is the city surrounded by the famous ruins of Efes, the Cathedral of St. Paul (also ruins), and Meryemana - the House of the Virgin Mary -- where it is said the Holy Mother was led by St. Luke to spend her last days. The Muslims also believe in the Virgin and she is the only woman mentioned in the Koran (some five or more times). Five million pilgrims also come to Meryemana to pay their respects, leave wishes and prayers, and tokens of gratitude for the miracles they claim she helped make happen.

Meryemana is unpretentious in every way. There is an old well and pool where believers are said to have been baptised and there is a small chapel-museum housing a variety of icons. The simplicity was most fitting and I was touched at how the surrounding natural environment was utilized to make the whole place feel more spiritual. Natural well-springs ran with water (it is a very strong belief among the Muslims that water always be available and for free to whomever is passing by); small stone edifices from the ruins were converted into places for leaving tokens and wishes; and, even the church services were held outdoors near a grove of dwarf trees. Inside the house-turned-chapel, I remember one small icon depicting the ascension of the Virgin. She is dressed for burial and Christ is standing over her. In His arms He is cradling a baby, also dressed in white. It took my breath away because I realized the significance of that child in his arms. In most icons, the Virgin is seen holding the Christ Child in her arms, and there - in that beautiful painting - it was Christ who was tenderly carrying The Virgin Mary to heaven. Overall, Meryemana was a worthwhile and beautiful journey for me.

So, I expected something similar in Czestochowa. The history of the monastery is that it was founded in 1382 and that same year, Prince Wladyslaw II of Opole gave the Paulite monks the icon that has become known as the Black Madonna. According to legend, it is said that St. Luke painted the icon in Nazareth, though historians have dated it to as recent as the 6th-7th century Byzantium. How it was acquired by the Polish prince, I am not certain. Most remarkable about the painting are the two scars on the Virgin’s right cheek. The story is that during its journey to Poland, the picture fell into the hands of thieves. Tired of carrying the heavy icon, they slashed at it in frustration with their knives, immediately causing the image to bleed pools of blood. The legend and power of the icon grew when, in 1655 and 1705, Swedish invasions failed to conquer the monastery while the rest of the country was overrun. Eager to see this with my own eyes, I took the train from Radom and arrived in Czestochowa about three and half hours later.

My first impressions were darkened by the sight of Nazi, fascist, and racist slogans splattered along every street leading to Jasna Gora. I even saw one for the Ku Klux Klan which had been painted over by the building’s owners several times, but the hooligans, who seem to run this country, managed to rewrite it each time. Do they even know what the Ku Klux Klan is all about? Isn’t it all a bit too ironic, then, in the city of this holy Christian site? I get enough of these wicked signs in Radom as it is, and to see it so much more in Czestochowa only drowned my hopes.

As I wandered down some back alleys, I heard music and singing from loudspeakers and coming from the direction of the hill and monastery. I was reminded of Turkey and how one can always hear the prayers that float over the air five times a day. I started to relax and, as if pulled by the service being conducted on the hill, made a straight beeline up the main road called the Avenue of Our Lady (but in Polish, of course). My spirits rose just a little. During my stay here, I have become extremely cautious in expecting too much from Poland.

Although the monastery is the site in Czestochowa, the walk up the hill is not at all strenuous. I stopped at the gift shop first, hoping to get more information about the sights I was about to encounter and that was when I first noticed the scars on the Virgin’s face as depicted in the numerous icons for sale. The shop was as kitschy as you can get, but I wasn’t there to shop. I was there for information and I asked a nun in Pidgin Polish about the scars. She replied sharply, “That’s the Virgin Mary! Don’t you know the Virgin Mary?” That’s not what I was asking. I again, patiently, pointed out the scars on the plastic icon and asked again. “Jesu Christi,” she cried, “What language do you need?” Quite stunned by her non-Christian manner, I told her I prefer English. She tossed me a guidebook in English, told me it would be $12.00 and that I could read about it in there. I thanked her quietly and left.

Feeling more than disheartened, I wandered in through the gates, encountering signs warning me that this was a holy place and begging for silence in six languages. However, the areas were all crowded and nobody was paying attention to the any of the warnings in any language. I saw the ugly radio tower of Radio Jasna Gora first. Trying to turn a blind eye to it, I followed signs and wandered from place to place, but nothing drew me until I reached the armory. My guidebook - a year-old, torn-up volume - had stated that there would be a lot of weapons from World War II there and I thought I could do a little research for my book. Although the armory was more than fascinating (and I’m not being facetious), I saw mostly 17th and 18th-century sabers and treasures acquired in the war against the Turks in Vienna (which Poland helped win). So, unless the Poles fought with these in World War II… well, that may explain some things… there was not a lot to see from the 1930s and 1940s. I will, however, add that having already been in Turkey, it was fascinating to see these treasures in Poland and how intricately woven the tapestry of history is.

Moving along, I finally decided to head into the main sites: the cathedral and the chapels. It was time to see what I had come to see, though I had only been on the hill for less than half an hour. I entered the packed chapel just toward the end of a service and was once again surprised to see how many young people were in church. It was Saturday afternoon, after all. Then, I wondered, how many of these same kids are the ones who are spray-painting graffiti in the streets of this country? Many. I can tell you that from my experiences in Radom.

As soon as the service ended, I joined the crowd that was pushing in for the next service, which happens every hour. Everyone was making their way to the front of the altar where, behind barred, iron gates, hung the large icon of the Virgin. It was at least six-feet tall and four-feet wide, so I could understand why the thieves got frustrated. It’s not exactly the kind of treasure you can just run off with without drawing a lot of attention. Around the altar and the surrounding sacristy were thousands of amber prayer beads, hung from every possible place along the walls and facades and creating a warm, autumn glow in the chamber. Except for the murmurs - often impatient at that - of people excusing themselves and the sound of pressed bodies shuffling forward, the chapel was quiet. I was trapped into the crowd before I could change my mind, and I started to pray fervently as soon as I saw the icon looming closer. I wasn’t praying for anything, however, except to survive the attack of claustrophobia that I was having at that moment. My head started to swim and I saw curtains of gray threatening to close off my line of vision. I thought if I collapse there, the crowd would just trample over me. About five rows before getting to the bars (and imagining myself smashed up against the iron with still no breathing room), the loud speakers suddenly started to blare Radio Jasna Gora. Now, mind you, there are still a million signs demanding Silence! and reminding us that this is a Holy Place! A little music wouldn’t have destroyed the atmosphere, had it been the right music. This was not the right music. It was some sort of enthusiastic advertisement for a CD compilation of what I could only fathom to be alternative Christian rock bands. The whole place had turned into a poor excuse for a circus and I frantically tried to get out.

Bruised and emotionally wounded, but finally able to breathe, I headed straight for the outer ring of the monastery and walked in the fresh air. My search for a spiritual uplifting lasted a whole hour. I was ready to go and wanted to leave fast. I headed, instead, for another 3-1/2 hour train ride to Krakow, the real sanctuary for me in this country. In a coffee shop, tucked away in a back alley, is an exhibition of photos from Turkey. I knew that I could reflect on the better pilgrimage I’d made eight months before.

(It is worth mentioning that Czestochowa, solely dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is the only pilgrimage site of its size where there has NEVER been a recorded sighting of the Holy Mother.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am saddened to read your horrible experience at Jasna Gora Monastary. Ours was awesomely different and perhaps involved that same nun who "helped" you. However, she took us (7 Americans without reservations for an american speaking guide)under her wing & guided us lovingly past the crowds right up to the Icon & into the back ways behind the chapel & more & more. She was a God-send. Our experience was a blessing. -Kathie e-nmail: