That afternoon it was nice to stop for a service of Benediction at the Church in the village of Przystajn. I then walked as far as a bus shelter on the eastern fringe of Wreczyca Wielka where, sure enough, ‘Starski and Hutch(ski)’ arrived to wake me up and be advised of my business. As usual, explaining myself wasn’t too much trouble, though they didn’t seem as used to dealing with itinerant pilgrims as i’d expected, given our proximity to Czestochowa.
An ancient tradition relates that the Icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa was originally painted, from life, by St Luke the Evangelist. Another legend has it that the wooden panel was at one time a table-top belonging to the Holy Family. What is certain is that for centuries it has held, and continues to hold, a unique place in Poland’s spiritual and cultural imagination, and that it derives this privileged status chiefly from the honour due to Our Lady of Czestochowa as Queen of Poland; her solemn coronation took place in the Cathedral of Lvov, in the company of King Jan Kazimierz, on April 1st 1655. Millions of people visit the city each year, the vast majority pilgrims to Our Lady’s Chapel at the monastery of Jasna Gora (‘Bright Mountain’) where the Icon is housed. I made a bee-line for this Basilica on the morning of Monday 14th of March, Commonwealth Day, arriving in time for 11am Mass - “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” were words i could make out from the priest’s homily. I then tried vainly to track down some things that were supposed to be arriving for me at the Post Office, but had a happier experience at the main library, going onto the internet for free, and managed to get some more photos developed. Deciding to stay overnight, i returned to Jasna Gora to say prayers in front of a very affecting life-sized Crucifix to the right of the sanctuary. After dark i tried a youth hostel but there were no beds, so i opted for quite a good place on wooden boarding under a sort of gangway, where thankfully i wasn’t disturbed. After 8am Mass i tried the Post Office again with no more joy, then the library, and then returned to the Shrine in time for a most impressive spectacle; the solemn ‘unveiling’ of Our Lady’s Icon, in which a screen is mechanically lifted, to the sound of a drum roll and piercing trumpet solo. In the afternoon i had some trouble threading my way through Czestochowa’s residential and industrial suburbs, then found myself on a road through a forest after dark, before settling down to sleep under a ‘big-but-bare’ old oak tree near a petrol station (it didn’t rain, thanks be to God). On the next day, Wednesday the 16th of March, i took a bus from the village of Zrebice back to Czestochowa again, attended another 11am Mass (followed by a ceremonial ‘veiling’ of Our Lady, no less stirring than the ‘unveiling’), and put a tiny little Sacred Heart pin among the innumerable mementoes on the wall of her chapel. At Mass the priest was talking about being ‘children of Mary’, and the desirability of fasting on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays. He also mentioned that such a practice is good for the ‘organism’, words which struck a chord after i opted for something suspiciously more like cake than bread to eat for lunch, and suffered indigestion next day. In the early afternoon i shuttled back to the village of Zrebice, having finally been able to pick up some nice things which my Mum had sent to the Post Office.
|Centre: tiny Sacred Heart pin, Our Lady's Chapel, Czestochowa|
For some time i had hankered after the opportunity to spend a night in the shelter afforded by a concrete gangway running along the side of a building, and in Jedrzejow it presented itself, though on arrival i was miffed that again there were no hotels. Then to my surprise, snow was falling on the morning of Saturday 19th of March, St Joseph’s day. Leaving Jedrzejow i actually had a pretty awful time, getting lost and finding myself walking along a stretch of motorway, and was in a rather black mood, but i must never forget the feeling of ‘hope restored’ when, as i finished saying a prayer to St Joseph*, glorious rays of sunlight punctured the cloud cover for the first time that day, in what seemed a powerful intimation of God’s paternal love. Not long after, in a village called Imielno, this sense of restoration was complete, when i was kindly invited into an elderly gentleman’s house for delicious hot tea and a sandwich; i left him and his wife a thank you note, written on the back of a photograph of the tomb of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko.
*“O St Joseph, Guardian of Jesus, most pure spouse of Mary, who spent your life in the perfect fulfilment of your duties, providing with your own labour for the Holy Family of Nazareth, protect us with favour who with trust turn to you. You know our desires, our anxieties and our hopes; to you we have recourse, for we are confident in your protection. You too have experienced trial, hard work and fatigue, but your soul, filled with the greatest peace, was full of joy for your intimacy with the Son of God entrusted to you, and with Mary, His most sweet Mother. Help us to understand that we are not working alone, to know how to discover Jesus near us, to welcome Him by grace, and to keep Him faithfully as you have done. And grant that in our family all may be sanctified in charity, in patience, in justice, and through the seeking of what is good. Amen.”