On the Polish pilgrimage trail

If you are driving around Poland in August and come across a large group of people on foot, you may just have stumbled across some of the thousands of pilgrims who are wending their way to Częstochowa for the annual pilgrimage.

Their destination is the Black Madonna, a painting of the Virgin Mary that is said to be responsible for certain miracles. While pilgrims visit the site all year, around 500,000 will be aiming to time their arrival at the Jasna Góra (Bright Mountain) Monastery for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15. Groups of pilgrims set off from all around Poland on foot, with the trip from Warsaw taking around 10 days.

I have made my own pilgrimage to see the Madonna, although I confess that I just caught the train. I also avoided the Big Day, figuring things would be pretty crazy then. But then, around 5 million people make the pilgrimage every year so it’s pretty busy most of the time. For 2010, you can make that 5 million plus one curious Australian.

Arriving at the train station, I wandered the couple of kilometres up to the Monastery along a broad, tree-lined avenue. You see the Monastery almost immediately, perched up on a hill on the western edge of the town.

It would probably be impressive enough to warrant a visit on its own, with a main Basilica that is a stunning example of church architecture in a country with a fair bit of competition on this front. But it’s the Black Madonna that people come to see, housed in the Chapel of Our Lady, just off this main Basilica. You’ll know it by the discarded crutches that line the walls, symbolic of the miracles that she is believed to have performed.

The Black Madonna is supposed to have been painted by Luke the Apostle on a table once used by Joseph and Mary. While many details of her origins are lost in the mists of history, she is thought to have arrived in Częstochowa in 1382. The painting’s face was slashed by church robbers in 1430 but legend has it that, no matter how often she was restored, the scars that were left from that attack have always re-appeared. Even in a country as abundant in religious iconography as Poland, it’s impossible to overstate the reverence people reserve for Our Lady of Częstochowa, as the Black Madonna is also known. She was even officially declared Queen of Poland in 1656, when she is said to have intervened to repel an army of invading Swedes.

The painting is now shrouded by a golden panel, which is ceremoniously lifted twice a day at 6 am and 1.30 (2 pm on weekends). Most pilgrims hope to see one of these unveilings. Hence, at 10 past 1, I dutifully took up my place amidst a couple of hundred other visitors, readied my camera, and waited.

Trumpets sounded. Drums rolled. And very slowly, the golden panel lifted, revealing bit by bit the famous image beneath – the Madonna holding the infant Jesus. All around me pilgrims stood or knelt, their eyes fixed on the painting, motionless except for the movement of their lips in prayer and their fingers over their rosary beads. It took at least 15 minutes for the Madonna’s whole face, scars and all, to be revealed. I’m not religious, but I was mesmerized. And moved beyond words at the absolute joy and devotion I saw in the faces of the pilgrims all around me.

While I didn’t come as a pilgrim, I figured being Australian and all I’d travelled a fair way to get here. So as the congregation around me burst into a hymn, I decided it wouldn’t hurt just to say a little prayer.

Leaving the chapel, I took a wander around the rest of the Monastery, which has a variety of other museums, halls and chapels. I also paid the two zloty to climb to the top of the bell tower, where I pondered the whole experience while contemplating the view out over the town.

Whether I was just caught up in the moment or something else, there really was something entrancing about Mary’s eyes. I certainly felt I was experiencing something very special and very spiritual. The overall impression was strangely humbling, and unexpectedly moving. While I really just went for a look, it’s ended up being the thing I most often talk about when people ask me about the highlights of my time here.

It has the added advantage of being relatively easy to get to (as long as you’re not on foot, of course). A couple of direct trains a day go from Warsaw and the trip takes just under three hours. So it’s feasible to leave in the morning, see the afternoon unveiling, and be back home in time for dinner.

So was my prayer answered? Well, as they say, what happens on pilgrimage stays on pilgrimage.

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