My wife and I are just recently back from two weeks in Poland and Ukraine. How recently? We are still encouraging each other each evening at 8:30 to stay awake for another hour, and our eyes still pop open at 4:30 in the morning (but with a little will power we roll over until 6:00).
I was giving lectures on liturgical theology at the Catholic University of Lublin at the invitation of a now dear friend who hosted and guided us those two weeks, Fr Boguslaw Migut. He also took us to my lectures at the Ukrainian (Greek) Catholic University in L’viv. Fr Boguslaw holds a chair in liturgical spirituality. I know that many in North America are interested in the relationship between liturgy and spirituality, but I, personally, am unaware of any chair in the subject here, and found that fact interesting.
There are a good number of other impressions that are also interesting as I now attempt to remember them and sort them out. I would like to share some cursorily, and one at some greater length.
1. The Poles like to correct the geography acquired by someone like me, raised during the cold war when the nation was behind the iron curtain, and say that Poland is not in Eastern Europe, it is Central Europe.
2. The Polish sense of humor contains a delightful critique of presumption. It can be trained on both clergy and laity. “A taxi driver struck a man at a crosswalk. He climbed out of his car crying ‘Oh no! I have killed a man.’ Then he saw a cassock and cried, ‘Oh no! I have killed a priest.’ And then he saw an Episcopal ring and cried, ‘Oh no! I have killed a bishop.’ And from under the taxi a voice gasped ‘An archbishop.’” Another concerns a caricatured figure of the over-efficient and self-important housekeeper in the rectory. “The congregation gathered for liturgy and this housekeeper comes out to make the announcement: ‘I’m sorry, there will be no mass this morning. The priest is ill and I’m not feeling very well, myself, either.”
3. A mix of old and young. The Dominicans came to Krakow in 1222 and we went to their evening prayer. As they processed by, I counted fifty brothers and only five appeared to be over forty years in age. Sometimes one sees an old tree trunk from which new, green shoots keep emerging, and here new vocations sprouted from an 800 year old trunk.
4. We were privileged to attend an ordination of eleven to the priesthood in the cathedral at Lublin, presided over by four bishops of the diocese. The seminary choir sang beautifully, and people brought bouquets of flowers to give to the new priests. It was standing room only, shoulder to shoulder, and yet the people found a way to all kneel for the Eucharistic prayer. It was fascinating to watch the distribution of communion in such cramped quarters. The newly ordained brought the Body of Christ into the crowd which somehow opened an aisle for them, like the sea moving back for Moses. Then, when the priest reached a spot, he began distributing communion and little eddies pooled around him as people came forward and then stepped back. No organization, but no chaos.
5. An interesting mix of icon and statue in Poland. The décor is mostly baroque. Yet in the gold and silver, and under the chubby cherubs, one finds in the Lublin cathedral an icon which wept miraculously sixty years ago, and that day is celebrated in the local calendar.
The reference to icon brings me to one longer reflection, perhaps of more interest to you than this travelogue.
We celebrated Pentecost Sunday at the shrine of the icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa. When I say it was standing room only here, I mean that one could scarcely raise one’s hand to make the sign of the cross. Just when I thought our little corner of the Church was full, half a dozen more would shoulder their way forward in an attempt to glimpse Our Lady. Thus we ended up before a side altar, without a line of vision to the main altar, and could not see any of the liturgy.
Someone once said that Europe was lifted at a tilt and all the consonants rolled into Poland. I cannot understand a word of Polish, but I could follow where we were by the structure. Then they did the Sanctus in Latin, and I felt strangely at home. And then the bells were rung at consecration, and I had an almost mystical experience (which is quite unnatural for someone of placid, Norwegian temperament).
I had been taught – though exactly by whom I cannot say – that consecratory bells were bad. Somewhere in the books that I have read on the history of the mass, or from classroom lectures, I had been taught that these bells were rung for only one reason: to wake up the laity who weren’t able to follow the Latin, and so were doing private devotions. Since we don’t want anyone doing private devotions any more, therefore the bells are neither needed nor desirable.
But when I stood there in Częstochowa I had a different experience. The sound did not enter my ear and turn left, to my brain; it entered my ear and turned right, to my heart. The bells did not remind me of something; they carried me somewhere. The sound linked me to an action I knew was going on at the altar. It did not make me think of the consecration, it enveloped me into the sacrifice.
An Orthodox friend of mine once objected to calling icons “a window on heaven,” because you only look through a window. He called them “doors to heaven,” because you walk through a door. Some similar shift happened in my experience of this sound. It wasn’t a school bell, or an alarm bell, or a fire bell – it wasn’t sending me a message. It was an acoustic pathway that I took into the presence of Christ. An aural anaphora.
The experience makes me question my conclusions from the histories of the medieval mass I have read. What was it really like for those believers? Have we judged their liturgical action by our standards?