It was early morning, a gray dawn, All Saints Day 2008. Poland closes on All Saints Day, nothing but the churches are open on this festival celebration. Even the Pilgrims Hostel across from Jasna Gora Shrine where I spent a silent simple night is not serving meals. The vending machines are locked up behind gates.
On this misty November morning, the streets are empty. It is not tourist season, so the only congregants at the masses today are locals or extremely devoted pilgrims. As I approached the shrine, I heard a distant silvery voice chanting a solitary hymn in Latin. I followed the haunting melody through the front entrance and interior of the pink and white baroque cathedral of the main sanctuary. As I walked by numerous chapels dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, The Solidarity Movement and various saints, the voice became louder. It was as if an Angel was beckoning me on with her ethereal melody. As I wandered deeper into the Shrine, I entered the Chapel of the Black Madonna, and found the source of the song. Mass had started and there was a young nun singing the liturgy. The priest was from Italy, and he was conducting the early morning Italian Mass to about seven people. This mass would be immediately followed by Masses throughout the day in other languages, as announced by the flashing bill board in front of the Shrine.
As I sat in the chairs before the Altar and the Image that has sustained and inspired countless souls for the last one and a half millenia, I started to weep silently from the utter depth of my being. Tears flowed as never before, as if I had been holding them in for decades. Tears for myself, for others, for our world streamed from my eyes, my heart felt as if it would break in two. I sensed all of the sorrows that had been brought to this room, all the desperate hopes.
The ancient scarred dark face peered out from behind her golden frame. The Icon did not seem of this Earth. It was as if this image was a window between the worlds, as if I was looking into the abyss of the cosmos. The Madonna’s features were barely discernable within her adornments, but I felt her penetrating stare. I felt all the failures of humanity swirling about, all the violence, rape, wars, fears, sickness, pollution, oppression, and economic injustice. What pleas had this image heard? No wonder she looked so sad.
Time stood still for me, as I felt the bittersweet emotion of grief and release during the responses and communion. Since it was early and there were not the usual throngs of pilgrims, I had the opportunity to sit through several subsequent Masses in various languages. During the Pilgrim season, the faithful are quickly hurried out after each service with efficient, cheerful precision by the blue coated ushers. It was as if I was having private multi-lingual masses for my own personal benefit, and I could stay as long as I liked in the front chapel, able to gaze uninterrupted on this ancient looking icon of the Jasna Gora shrine.
As my tears stopped, I wondered, how did I get here? How did we all as humans get to this particular point in history and where were we going? The biggest riddle ruminating in my mind as I sat for hours in front of the altar was; who or what was the Black Madonna I had been researching and writing about, crossing oceans and continents to witness, for these many years? The answers that came to me were complex, vast and so incredibly beautiful, they restarted my tears. Only this time they were tears of gratitude. Gratitude for the many gifts we humans receive, in spite of our numerous shortcomings, failures and distractions. I felt gratitude for what the Black Madonna tells us about where we come from, where we are now and where we can go, if only we wake up to the glory of our potential. It was a great day indeed, in this small chapel, under this incredible Icon of hope and endurance. It was a great All Saints Day in Czestochowa, 2008.