"What is the man doing? Is he mad? Does he want the world to fall about our ears?"
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The priests in the hall were grumbling. They were Vatican diplomats, with long experience of dealing gingerly with the Soviet bear. Perhaps they were worried that the match tossed upon the tinder box would blow up the world. Perhaps they harbored a surreptitious fondness for the Communist way. Perhaps their vanity was hurt. But they were in the hall, the door was locked shut, and angry shouts of men could be heard from within.
Perhaps in the Kingdom of God we will know exactly what was said. But there was the Polish pope, athletic, ardently patriotic, exceptionally intelligent and brave, in verbal combat with the puppet general who assisted in the oppression of his people.
What inspired Karol Wojtyta, now Saint John Paul II, with that love for his much suffering country?
We could call the question foolish, since to the patriot everything about his country is dear; the slow bends of the Vistula River, the abrupt southern mountains, the rolling and fertile plains, the language rich in consonants, the smell of bread and beer and vegetables; the stones of the old universities and churches; the strains of the patriotic poet Adam Mickiewicz; everything. But Karol was brought up in the region of Krakow, near to a town and monastery where something extraordinary had happened centuries before. To this town he went first, when he came to Poland — for the Communists were just as afraid of keeping him out as they were of letting him in. He went to pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Why?
The Electrician and the Novelist
Lech Walesa could tell us why. A few years later, that leader of the movement called Solidarity received the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, observing that it was the first Peace Prize awarded to a Pole, Walesa paid tribute to the ordinary working men and women of Solidarity, who craved justice and right and eschewed violence. Some of those loyal men lost their lives; others were rotting in prison. It was clear that Walesa longed not simply for some material improvement in their lot. He longed for his country's freedom. It was a deeply religious longing.
And that is why he quoted another Nobel laureate, the Polish epic novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, who won the prize for literature in 1905. When Sienkiewicz went to Oslo to accept his prize, you could not find Poland on a map. The nation has no natural defenses from east and west, and has often been vulnerable to aggressive neighbors, Germans and Russians especially. There was no Poland for a hundred years, except in the devout hearts of the Polish people, in their patriotic love and their profound Catholic Faith.
Said Sienkiewicz: "She was pronounced dead — yet here is a proof that She lives on; She was declared incapable to think and to work — and here is proof to the contrary; She was pronounced defeated — and here is proof that She is victorious."
For the makers of history are those who fight for what they believe is right, not those who soften their beliefs so as not to have to fight.
How do you keep a nation alive? Catholics may well learn from the Poles, as our Church's rights are gobbled up by secular enemies. It was never by temporizing, or by becoming half-German or half-Russian, or by going along with the fait accompli. It was by courage so faithful that the world would think it suicidal. It was by faith so courageous that the world would think it mad.
Sienkiewicz himself had recalled to their minds a previous time when it seemed that Poland would be no more. It was the subject of his trilogy, With Fire and Sword, which takes us back to the 17th century and the Swedish invasion led by the vain and ambitious Charles X. The Polish king, Jan Casimir II, is indecisive. The Swedes have overrun the country, suppressing the Catholic Faith, and it seems pointless to resist. Many Polish nobles have made their peace with the Swedes. They were the sorts, we might say, who want to be on the "right side of history," and end up as contemptible bystanders. For the makers of history are those who fight for what they believe is right, not those who soften their beliefs so as not to have to fight.
And that, in history and in Sienkiewicz's novels, brings us to Czestochowa, and the nearby monastery called Jasna Gora — Mont Clair — Bright Hill.
The Long Siege
It is a bitter December, 1655. Twelve thousand Swedes have encamped before Jasna Gora which is both monastery and fortress. They have all the vanity and power-lust of the never defeated. They look upon Jasna Gora as the last fortress to fall. If it falls, every Pole will know that the war is over. Jan Casimir will abdicate, for the sake of his people, and that will be that. The Swedes have cannons, too. Inside the monastery are 300 men, most of them monks inexperienced in war.
An emissary from the Swedes approaches the monastery for a parley. "Father Kordecki," he says to the abbot, "every city from here to the Baltic Sea has surrendered. You are 300. What can you do? For peace, for your neighbors, give in. Don't be foolish and stubborn!" The Swedes add a threat. If the monks do not surrender, they will put the villages nearby to the torch.
It will not be the last such emissary or the last offer and threat. Each new "moderate" who comes to plead with the abbot will point out that the monastery's position has grown bleaker than ever. Some of the defenders have died. The walls are being shelled every day. Food is running low. Ammunition is low. The nobles are settling up. You are priests — you have no business with affairs of state. The young monks are cowed. Why hold out?
Father Kordecki will reject all of these false offers of freedom and kindness. The Poles continue to fight. They engage in occasional guerilla attacks of their own, too, so that the Swedes cannot rest easy. They also continue to pray, and the Swedes from their tents in the snow will often hear, to their surprise and dismay, the sounds of joyous celebration, especially on the feasts of our Lady and on Christmas Eve. That will cause their fury to burn all the hotter. At noon on Christmas, the Swedes hurl into the monastery torches flaming with pitch and sulfur, and explosive projectiles of lead and iron — and this, after the Poles had asked for a ceasefire for the holy day.
One Greater than Joan of Arc
But the monastery is the scene of many inexplicable occurrences. One of the Swedish soldiers blasphemes against Mary and is struck down by a cannonball from the monastery — but the cannon was not aimed at him. The fatal shot ricocheted from the snow. Dense fog descends upon the monastery just when the Swedes are advancing to the walls, and then suddenly dissipates, in apparent answer to Father Kordecki's prayers, leaving the Swedes unprepared and exposed to attack from above. Swedish cannonballs often rebound from the walls to their own, and that is how their chief cannon is destroyed.
The lesson of Bright Hill is to keep the faith even when all around us have surrendered.
In that same fog it seems sometimes that Jasna Gora is bathed in a strange light and poised high in the air, so that the Swedish shots fall short; sometimes it appears low and close, and the shots sail harmlessly over the monastery. The Swedes tunnel into the rock, but meet down there a venerable old man who advises them to give up, for not in seven years would they be able to take Jasna Gora.
What's most fascinating is the testimony of many of the Swedish soldiers recorded after the siege. They saw a woman dressed in blue up on the ramparts, pointing the Polish cannons and bringing ammunition. Some of the Swedes would then drop their weapons in fear. Sometimes they saw a maiden in white, pointing a sword their way. One time one of the attackers aimed his cannon at the maiden, and its breech exploded, driving the iron back into his face. Her bearing struck terror into their hearts. "Who is that witch," they would say, "who walks upon your walls?"
There was, in effect, no such thing as Poland when Father Kordecki refused to budge, and when Henryk Sienkiewicz kept the flame of faith and patriotism alive in the hearts of his countrymen, and when Pope John Paul towered over the flunky, General Jaruzelski. Now we know why Sienkiewicz immortalized the siege of Jasna Gora, and why the patriot Walesa recalled his words. The local boy Karol surely knew the history and read the novel, and when he returned to Poland as pope, he too had only an army of monks, just as Walesa had only an unarmed host of ordinary men and women, against all of Russia's battalions.
Always we will have the world against us. The lesson of Bright Hill is to keep the faith even when all around us have surrendered. For when Jasna Gora resisted, the Poles took heart and rose up against the invader, and Jan Casimir, uniting for the nonce with Muslim Tatars, mustered a force to whip the Swedes back to their land of frostbite across the sea. Jan then proclaimed Our Lady of Czestochowa the Queen of Poland, and dedicated himself to righting the wrongs that the peasants had long suffered and that had called down such misery upon his nation.
When we meet that woman in blue, let us be able to say, "Lady, be gracious to me! I'm a sinner and a fool, but I never laid down my sword for comfort or the approval of the world." After all, the Soviet Union is dead, and Poland lives.
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Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2015 Magnificat
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