By Maria Brounstein
Nothing clears the mind at 6 a.m. quite like trumpet blasts, Polish singing and a hard marble floor.
I was one of 200-odd students packed into the very front of the Black Madonna’s chapel at Jasna Góra, Częstochowa, last week. We had arrived on coach buses at around 5 a.m., anxious to see the daily unveiling of the Our Lady of Częstochowa image.
I admit that was I beginning to nod off in my place on the cold floor when the hour struck, but I was quickly roused by trumpet fanfare and the buzz of excitement around me as the gleaming cover began to lift slowly away from the image.
There she was at last — her veil and dress gilt and bejeweled, her gaze intense. I was at once struck by the contrast between her rich garb and her face, which bore two long scars.
After the unveiling, we were given a brief history of the Black Madonna, including when she received her scars during a Hussite looting. Curators had attempted to fill the cuts with wax, but somehow, they always shone through, as if Our Lady wanted them to remain visible to the likewise wounded people who came to see her.
As our three-day pilgrimage brought us deeper and deeper into Poland, I began to see how clearly the Black Madonna reflects her country.
Our first stop after Czéstochowa was the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camp complexes. As our tour guides led us through the Auschwitz, bringing one evil after another before our eyes, I wondered why places of such suffering had not been wiped off of the face of earth after World War II. Surely the people of Poland could not want the memory and presence of concentration camps to linger on their land.
But they have lingered, to different extents. Birkenau was bombed at the end of war, and on the long walk from its infamous front gate to the end of the railroad tracks, I could see row after row of ruined buildings.
Even the gas chambers, which our tour guides told us were capable of killing 2,000 people at a time, were piles of charred stone. The ditches and train tracks were overgrown with flowers and the barbed wire on the electric fences was rusting away.
It seemed that Poland, like its beloved Black Madonna, elected to allow its wounds to become scars before the eyes of the world, strikingly visible against the beauty around them.
I could feel a sense of victory in the way brick had turned to dust and thistles had taken over the paths at Birkenau, just as there was victory in the way the scarred Madonna hung in her chapel still, centuries after the Turkish attack.
Even Kraków, stunning and cultured as it is, had no qualms about allowing its past to remain visible in the form of Communist-era architecture just outside the old town.
All of this seemed to lend more power to the preservation of Polish cuisine, tradition, and art that I witnessed in Kraków, as well as the heavenly victories of St. John Paul II, St. Faustina and St. Maximillian Kolbe.
By their strong faith, the people of Poland have repeatedly commended their suffering to God. The result is a beautiful country, rich with importance in the modern Church and totally free of pretentiousness.
Though the semester is still young, I think that Poland will remain a special favorite of mine long after I return home from Europe. The beautiful, scarred face of the country, so like its dear Madonna, is a sign of hope for my soul and for the whole Catholic Church.