During these challenging pandemic days of isolation and anxiety, when the future seems so uncertain, I find myself revisiting more hopeful times. One memory in particular, a pilgrimage to The Black Madonna of Częstochowa, has been on my mind leading up to Our Lady’s Feast Day today, August 26th. The circumstances around my visit there ten years ago—a health crisis, a travel ban, fear—are similar to those facing many of us at this moment. What can I glean from that long-ago trip to Poland that will help me feel more positive now, as well as fortify me with the stamina needed to face what appears to be a second COVID-19 wave here in Finland?
In 2010, my husband, Otto, was diagnosed with “moderately aggressive” prostate cancer. Originally, his oncologist promised that surgery would take place four months later, before Midsummer. However, as April approached, Otto was informed that it would be delayed until “sometime next fall.” This news was a harsh blow to our already fragile emotions, and we worried that the cancer would spread over the next five or six months while he waited in the surgical queue. (Those of you who have been in this situation understand that waiting is often the hardest part.) It didn’t help that Finland was under a dark cloud that winter with little snow to brighten the bleak landscape; our moods grew increasingly darker, too.
As Easter approached, we planned a visit to the Eternal City, confident that Rome’s festive celebrations and sunny weather would bring much-needed relief and diversion. However, soon after purchasing the airline tickets, our excitement was snuffed out by smoke from Eyjafjallajökull.
The images coming out of Iceland looked apocalyptic: billows of black ash and red-hot lava spouting from the volcano into the air and onto the surrounding environs. This eruption of Eyjafjallajökull had created an enormous ash plume that was spreading across Europe, making it hazardous for aircraft to fly. Already, all of the UK’s air traffic had come to a standstill; the next day, the plume was headed toward Scandinavia. In other words: us.
“Let’s see what tomorrow brings,” I told Otto, trying to hide my disappointment. Our flight was scheduled to leave three days later.
My husband wasn’t so optimistic. “Just look at those winds. There’s no way the Finnish Aviation Authority is going to allow flights in and out of Helsinki,” he said.
Unfortunately, he was right.
After our flight was cancelled, I tried to find another travel destination that could safely be reached by land or sea, but other affected travelers had the same idea, and all the ferries to nearby Tallinn, car rentals, and trains to Lapland were sold out. I was about to give up, resigned to Otto cancelling his vacation, when a local city bus nearly knocked me down. Plastered on its side was an advertisement for “FinnLines” with an enticing, colorful photo montage of the ship’s destinations: Travemünde in Germany and Gdansk in Poland.
“Poland,” I thought. “We’ll visit the Black Madonna of Częstochowa!”
I had read about the miraculous icon in a Polish guidebook, which listed The Black Madonna as the country’s #1 tourist attraction. Housed in Jasna Góra Monastery, the revered relic was allegedly painted by St. Luke on a cedar table that Jesus had made, and brought to Constantinople by St. Helena. Over the centuries, its sacred history had made it a target for theft and destruction, including a forceful, yet unsuccessful, Swedish invasion in 1655. During WWI, citizens of Warsaw had prayed to Our Lady of Częstochowa for deliverance from a Russian attack and were granted the “Cud nad Wisłą,” or Miracle of the Vistula, when the soldiers retreated.
With curiosity and interest, I headed to the FinnLines office to see about a reservation to Poland. By some small miracle, a berth had just opened up. Bingo!
One week later, after crossing the Baltic and taking a train from Gdansk to Częstochowa, Otto and I arrived at Jasna Góra Monastery, where hordes of very enthusiastic teenagers were playing various instruments and singing, much like the “rock concert” scene my guidebook described. Inside, more worshippers were receiving Holy Communion, kneeling in prayer, and queuing to get closer to The Black Madonna. We joined them on our knees.
In addition to the smoke from the incense and lit votive candles (from which The Black Madonna gets her name), I was overwhelmed by the vast number of gifts left behind by pilgrims who had received graces and healing after visiting the shrine. Strands of amber jewelry, crutches of those who could suddenly walk, and silver tokens representing once-afflicted body parts hung from the walls. The Pauline monks who live at the monastery have kept careful records of these miracles since 1402.
When Otto and I reached The Black Madonna, she wore a “gown” that glittered with small diamonds, pearls, sapphires, and rubies. (Apparently, her attire is changed every day.) The icon showed Mary holding Baby Jesus with one hand; the other pressed against her heart. Both Mother and Son wore brilliant gold crowns held up by angels with purplish wings.
This dazzling depiction of Mother Mary was juxtaposed by the quiet, somber expression on her face and the two distinct parallel gashes on her right cheek. I’d read that her image had been defaced in 1430, when Hussite soldiers looting the Monastery were thwarted in their efforts to steal the icon. When it suddenly became too weighty, one robber threw it down and slashed it with his sword in frustration.
After The Black Madonna was recovered, artists tried to restore the original image, but attempts to erase the scars on her cheek failed. Some believe that Mother Mary’s scars are a symbol of her great suffering on earth and a reminder to us that sorrow is also part of our existence. In light of Otto’s cancer and the stress we’d experienced leading up to our visit to Jasna Góra, this message was oddly consoling. So were the crowds of others seeking blessings and cures.
As I gazed upon Mary and prayed, I felt warmed by her maternal radiance and satisfied that she had heard my prayers. Otto and I left Częstochowa buoyed by hope, deepened in our faith, and reassured that he would be healthy again. When we returned to Helsinki, good news was indeed waiting. (I won’t divulge it here, as it would give away the ending of another story I’ve written about this pilgrimage. Let’s just say that my husband is 10 years cancer-free.)
Now, as health concerns about COVID-19 continue to loom over us and our loved ones, I am still tapping into the serenity and comfort of that visit to The Black Madonna. Although the months leading up to our trip to Poland were full of uncertainty and angst about Otto’s health, the experience continues to be a blessing.
Happy Feast Day to those celebrating today!