Friday, August 26, 2011


Today, 26 August, is the non-liturgical feast day of Our Lady of Czestochowa.  In her honor I am re-printing an essay I wrote reflecting on a trip to Poland I took in 2000 (guided by a Polish family I was friends with). 

Knees are arguably the strongest parts of the Polish body, to judge by the extended kneeling on stone church floors that they do. Knees are arguably the weakest of my body, thanks to surgery and other injuries. This leads to a magic moment for me in the monastery of Jasna Gora, the “Mountain of Brightness,” in which is enshrined the “Black Madonna,” Our Lady of Częstochowa.

We attended Mass there at the chapel of the Black Madonna, with a crowd that far exceeded the normal mental picture of “standing room only.” Though it was only during the Consecration itself and Communion that we knelt, the stone was hardly smooth. It took something out of my knees. It was simply standard operating procedure for all the Poles there.

After Mass, we moved up to get a better look at the Madonna. This chapel (and in fact most of the monastery church) is predominantly ebony wood and black marble, trimmed in gilt. The effect is initially gloomy, ultimately powerful. We were at the central entrance to the chapel, when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and Rosary was begun. What happened next is terribly important, but it is hard to describe.

The chapel itself is surrounded on three sides (like a horseshoe) by a kind of passageway. This passageway is completely in view of the chapel on the two sides; the back portion goes behind the altar in which the icon is displayed. The Poles (very, very many of them) were going round the icon in this passageway– on their knees, while reciting the Rosary. I knew I could never do anything like that, partly because it wasn’t “my kind of devotion,” and partly because I knew the condition of my knees. And yet, by the strangest coincidence, I found myself in the line to do exactly this!

I barely made it around. I was in physical agony for the entire 2nd half of this loop, and if there had not been a kind of hand-rail around the chapel, which I clutched with my right hand and arm, lifting myself off my knees for seconds at a time, I could not have made it around at all. I would have had to lie down (and hold up scores of people right behind me), or else stand up (and probably be looked at as a heretic).

Pope John Paul II has written that “in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” Was this a “design of Providence”? What was the point for me of this devotional exercise?

One thing that is true is that this activity is NOT a “devotion.” I believe, especially based on this experience, that no such activity is ever a “devotion.” But they are actions which, if performed with the right disposition, foster devotion. I say this because devotion is a function of relationship, not of activity in itself. “Devotion” is the state in which one is “devoted” to another. To say “I love you” from the heart is to say I am devoted to you in ways that may cost me; I am glad to pay that price for you. To say “I love you” to someone without the proper interior disposition becomes worse than a non-devotion: it is a lie. It becomes a mechanical substitute for authentic relationship, a mask of “the right words” behind which one hides one’s lack of commitment, or ennui, or immaturity, or selfishness. It says “You are not important to me, but I cannot be bothered to be honest enough with you or myself to say so, and so I go through the motions as a path of least resistance.”

For myself, I longed for the proper interior disposition; I wanted to be “devoted.” And so my thoughts crossed to our Lord and Mary while I was on my knees. You suffered and died for me, my Lord; you watched your Son die, Mary. My discomfort cannot identify with your anguish and pain, but let it remind me and make my desire to love you burn with new life. May it intensify my prayer, and may I never shy away from discomfort brought upon me by commitment to the Gospel.

Don’t we all yearn to offer visible, physical, authentic displays of our affection for others? The people at Jasna Gora were in love; they were committed. On my knees I re-discovered my love and commitment, and I re-dedicated myself. Was the visit “devotional”? You bet it was, in the best and fullest sense of the term! I pray the intensity of relationship will never wane, and I pray that other opportunities will present themselves to strengthen me, even if they present themselves through “mere coincidence”! In point of fact, they have in the past and in the present. I know God will continue to shower them upon me– and upon us all– in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this essay. It clarifies the true meaning of devotion. How often we may offer an act, hopefully of generosity to others. If an offer is accepted, are we truly sincere in following through? The essay points out the necessity of examining our conscience frequently. When we make promises to our Lord, do we keep that promise?
    Enlighten our actions, Lord. Grant us your mercy when we falter.