I never wanted to be a mom. It was never in my goals or my plan for life.
And yet here I am, watching my three-year-old “mow”as I type away in the comfort of a camp chair in the shade of the garage. Right now this kid is the focus of most of my photos and social media efforts. He’s immensely quotable, hilarious, and spontaneous. It’s something that I can’t help but share (lest it drive me crazier than I already am).
But don’t get me wrong. Three is not my favorite age. And yet, just like I didn’t want to be a mom, maybe it is.
I feel the same sort of conflict when I learn about new titles of Mary. I usually maintain that Guadalupe is my favorite, but then I can’t help but mention Lourdes, and Fatima, and at least three others (in no particular order). Now I can add Czestochowa to the growing list.
Czestochowa is in Poland, and Mary’s had a home there since the icon, also known as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, arrived in the monastery of Jasna Gora at least 600 years ago. The oldest documents hold that when St. Ladislaus stopped for the night near Jasna Gora, on his way to his own hometown, he had the image placed in a small church named for the Assumption. In the morning, after the portrait was loaded in the wagon, the horses refused to move.
So there it’s stayed, and it has a whole host of miracles and stories associated with it. It’s said to be so old that its origins are unknown. Some credit St. Luke with painting it from the cedar wood table where Mary would have eaten her meals. St. Helena, according to this tradition, discovered it in the Holy Land and took it to her son, Constantinople, in the fourth century. Then, in the 15th century, St. Ladislaus took possession.
The image isn’t without its scars. A Tartar arrow struck it in Ladislaus’time, leaving a mark on the Virgin’s throat. In 1430, Hussites stole it and vandalized it. Not only did they break it into three pieces, but one of the robbers took his sword and left two gashes in the image. As he was getting ready to leave the third, he fell on the ground and flailed in agony until he died.
Those three scars—the one on the throat and the two on the cheeks—have been repaired. Repeatedly. And every time, they reappear. That’s one of the many miracles associated with Our Lady of Czestochowa, and it’s one that reminds me of Mary’s humanity in a very heart-wrenching way.
How often have I examined my own scars and wondered what good they are? How often have I tried to erase them, to forget them, to deny they exist? And yet, in Our Lady of Czestochowa, I see hope that scars are not the end. They are nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide. They are part of who I am and how I am.
Many of the miracles attributed to Our Lady here are worked on a public scale. For example, in 1655, a small group of Polish defenders was able to fight and drive off the much larger Swedish army of invaders from the area. In 1920, when there were Russians at Warsaw’s gates, thousands of people walked to Czestochowa to ask Mary for help. The Polish defeated the Russians, and schoolchildren now know that victory as “The Miracle on the Wisla (River).”
In the atheistic years after World War II, when the Soviets were enforcing Communism on Poland, the government couldn’t stop the pilgrimages to Our Lady. She stands for much more than just a miracle here or there: she’s the heart of a people.
Modern scholars have plenty to say about Czestochowa’s Virgin. Some insist that she’s 13th or 14th century Byzantine. Others roll their eyes at the miracles attributed to her. They even argue about why she’s black.
One tradition holds that the shrine caught fire, but that the image was left unburned and merely darkened from the smoke and flame. One scholar insists that it is further proof of the Byzantine nature of the image. Another holds that it was restored with darker skin tones in the 19th century.
After living with kids for almost a decade, I can just image how Mary must be smiling about all of this. Isn’t it just like children to come up with their own stories, to embellish the truth a bit, to question indisputable proof? And there’s no denying that when a story’s told by some people, it’s told differently than by others.
Just ask my three-year-old. He’ll tell you all about our day. And I’m quite sure it will be very different from what I experienced…