Wednesday, December 14, 2011


[I wrote this essay in 2000, but in honor of St John of the Cross' feast-day today, I re-post it.]

Congruence is the experience of threads or strands of life coming together to make sense in a larger way than would have been possible if only the individual strands or threads had remained separate. It is the joy of an insight.

Special congruence was a gift I received this past summer, in ways as disparate as a present from my Mom earlier this year, a book I was reading as a result of a commitment to a person with whom I do spiritual direction, and my visit to Poland.

Much earlier this year my Mom sent me a copy of the video of the Frontline special on Pope John Paul II. She knew I would enjoy it. But I didn't get around to watching it until this summer, with her in Chicago. If only her VCR hadn't died, midway into the watching!

But of what I saw, the background and history of Karol Wojtyla and of Poland in general (of which I knew some already) was heart-breaking. This can be discovered in greater depth in the first sections of George Weigel's papal biography Witness To Hope. His Mother's death, his brother's death, his Father's death, came in all too quick succession in Karol's young life. So did the devastation of Poland in World War II. Yet here history was only repeating itself.

For hundreds of years, Poland had formally ceased to exist, as empires chose it as their battlefield and territory: the Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Russians all had their hand in the partitions of Poland; here it was happening again. How did the Poles, and how did Karol Wojtyla, endure it?
During the communist regime, the Church was persecuted and harassed regularly. How did the Poles keep the Faith? How could they manage, in the face of the darkness they had individually and collectively lived for so long, with glimmers of light every now and then?

It was during this trip that I finished reading You Set My Spirit Free. It is a collection of 40 excerpts from the writings of St. John of the Cross, done by David Hazard in a series he calls Rekindling the Inner Fire. They are a powerful collection. St. John has some of the most inspirational and challenging writing about the spiritual life one could ever read. Interestingly, his works had long ago been recommended to me by a friend, who uses them in AA meetings.

The biography of St. John would break anyone's heart. He was hounded by the Inquisition and tormented for his attempts to reform the Carmelite Order along with St. Teresa of Avila. He was locked in a broom-closet for months, being unable to stand up or sit in it, not permitted to wash. He was beaten on a daily basis for weeks. And in all this he could write about the power and beauty of God who is encountered through the dark night, and that surrender to God must also involve surrender of the desire for spiritual consolations. St. John insisted that these would become false gods.

In these readings, I could now understand how the Poles endured their experience: it was the experience of St. John of the Cross, lived as a nation. Even after Warsaw was destroyed by the Nazis, the underground would continue to paint their special resistance symbols on the walls of what buildings were still standing. And no collaboration government was ever established in Poland. During my trip I saw, imbedded in the wall of the rebuilt cathedral of Warsaw, a piece of tread from one of the tanks that destroyed the old cathedral. So the challenge was met, and Faith triumphed over Nazi hatred.

This was the Polish experience, even though they had not read St. John. And yet someone else did:  Karol Wojtyla. The dissertation he wrote for his first doctorate, for work he did in Rome, was on the writings of St. John of the Cross. And how could it not be, when St. John was the prophetic spiritual chronicler of the Polish nation?!

To understand Poland and to understand Pope John Paul II is to understand the insight of St. John of the Cross; to embrace St. John is to experience the radical freedom of surrender of all to God, knowing that Love exists beyond the dark night expressed so miraculously to me in the final
chorus of Les Miserables.  Let me end my ramblings with those lyrics:

Do you hear the people sing/Lost in the valleys of the night?
It is the music of a people/Who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth/There is a flame that never dies.

Even the darkest night will end/And the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom/In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare/They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.
Will you join in our crusade?/Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade/Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?/Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring When tomorrow comes!

1 comment:

  1. This blog ruminating about the resistance of the Polish people brings to mind a book I read this past summer: "Quiet Hero" by Rita Cosby, a
    N.Y. Times bestselling author and Emmy Award-winning journalist. It is
    about her father, Ryszard "Rys" Kossobudzki, a resistance fighter and the horrors faced by him and others of his ilk. He left Poland after World
    War 11, became an American citizen with a new identity as Richard Cosby. Rita knew little of her father's past because he had always refused to answer questions, until she sorted through stored belongings and opened a tattered tan suitcase owned by her father. It is an amazing story of resilience and steadfast purpose. A nation of
    people to be admired.......