Poland Pilgrim Testimonies/ July 4 to July 13th 2017

From July 4 to July 13th, four young people from Northern Virginia accompanied me on a pilgrimage to Poland. Our objective was to study 20th century Polish Christianity through the lives of our two most exemplary heroes: Pope John Paul II and the Poet Czeslaw Milosz. 


Through the witness of these and other heroic men Poland’s freedom was restored through the power of the Christian faith and of the spoken word – in poetry, preaching and theatre. Below you will find their reflections and witness of unexpected epiphanies and unchosen solidarities – the gift of the Poles.

I am deeply grateful to Adam and Maja Zagajewski who opened doors that otherwise would have been closed to us. These testimonies are a small expression of our gratitude and a promissory note of more goodness and faith in the lives of our young people. – Tory Baucum, Rector of Truro Anglican Church

Emma Wright (St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Duke Class of 2017)

When Bishop Shannon initially invited me to join the pilgrimage to Poland with members of the Truro Anglican Church, I had only a vague sense of the purpose of the trip and of what my presence might contribute. I knew nothing about Polish literature, but I was intrigued by the mention of peace and reconciliation between communities. I decided to join the group partially out of curiosity to learn something new and partially out of my deep desire for unknown adventures. I also felt a nudge from God to go when the dates of the trip aligned exactly with my only days off from work all summer.

I met the three other pilgrims and Tory Baucum, our leader, at Truro on a Sunday morning a few weeks before the trip. Immediately, the thoughtfulness of the group intrigued me. I went back to work at Shrine Mont that afternoon, but I began to spend my rare free moments reading Polish poetry and learning about Pope John Paul II. As a student of Cultural Anthropology at Duke, I was particularly interested in the socio-political contexts for these poems and the prominent role poetry played in Polish history and culture.

Upon arriving to Poland, we spent the first five days of our trip staying in an apartment near Old Town Krakow. Through visiting historic sites and wandering through the city, we began to piece together the historical context of the poetry we were reading. On the first day, one of the most striking images I discovered was that in the central market square in Old Town, the prominent statue featured is not a military nor political figure but rather the poet Adam Mickiewicz. Our group could not think of a single parallel in the United States for this statue. Just being in the physical spaces where so many of the poems were composed and inspired brought the words to life. Each time I reread the poems of Milosz, my understanding deepened. We also had the privilege of meeting with Polish professors and poets while in Krakow, including the renown poet Adam Zagajewski.

Slowly I began to piece together the broader significance of Polish literature and my role in this group. The poems we were reading expressed deep suffering and truths about the atrocities experienced in 20th century Poland, as well as the moments of beauty that endured. Art, particularly poetry and theater, kept the Polish spirit alive in many ways.

Of course, a lot of fracturing occurred in Poland throughout the many occupations, which led us to the second focus of the trip – reconciliation. For me, reconciliation and the work of intentional community building are topics that have remained on my mind and in my heart since returning from the pilgrimage. I have spent all summer working with youth to build communities of love and collaboration that also celebrate and uphold individual identities. This has led me to mediate on the polarity between building bridges and borders between people.

Early this summer, my camp chaplain focused on the idea of polarities as unresolvable tensions in which each side is necessary and has both positive and negative parts. The solution to the negative parts of one side of the polarity is usually the positive part of the other side. For example, one polarity is rest and activity. A positive part of rest might be that it rejuvenates us and keeps us healthy, but too much rest can lead us to feel lazy, lethargic, or bored. The solution to being lazy is not to rest better but rather to be active. Then activity can energize us and release stress, but too much activity can lead to injury or make us tired. The solution to being tired is not to be more active but rather to return to the first side of the polarity and rest again. This forms a cycle that alternates between rest and activity and hopefully allows us to maximize our time enjoying the positive parts of each side of the polarity.

With this framework, I have been thinking about a lot of church and camp topics in terms of polarities. For instance, light and dark, Biblical good and sin, and community and individual. Since returning from the Poland trip, I have been meditating on the polarity of borders and bridges. The positive parts of borders are that they define a community, allowing for a group identity to form. This leads to group traditions, norms, and bonding. However, the negative parts of borders are that they can exclude people, promote uniformity, and silence outsiders. The solution to exclusion and judgement is not to make a firmer border but to extend bridges out into other communities. This allows for some of the positive parts of bridges, such as introductions to new people, inclusion, and diversity. But if a community exists only for its bridges, it has the potential to lose its group identity and the sense of belonging that accompanies that. Therefore, a balance is necessary. We cannot erase borders. We cannot thrive without bridges.

This type of thinking is central to the Borderland Foundation in Sejny. The president of the foundation, Krzysztof, was clear that their work is not only to foster diversity but also to cultivate joint creation and build something together. Finding a healthy balance of borders and bridges feels particularly necessary to me given the global increase of xenophobia and nationalism. Our communities need to learn not to ignore nor avoid conflicting ideas but rather to listen, learn from one another, and create together.

I spent much of the past year studying the anthropology of community formation and group distinction. My focus was on how group identity is formed and challenged among thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, but I drew upon foundational anthropological theories (Durkheim’s “social solidarity,” van Gennep’s “liminality,” and Turner’s “communitas”) that apply in a broader context. Therefore, between my academic background and my current job at camp, I was entirely captivated by the work at the Borderland Foundation. Every aspect of the Foundation seems intentional, from the location in Milosz’s childhood home to the programing to the outdoor landscaping. I am inspired by the testimonies that Krzysztof shared about the influence their work has had in the community, and I think that a similar program in Virginia could build many bridges. This trip deepened my understanding of the potential of art, especially poetry and theater, to change lives. The combination of collective memory and innovative creation in theater taps into something very special. It allows deep truths to be revealed and emotions, past and present, to be expressed. I have always considered myself an athlete and thought of sports as the most ideal opportunity to foster teamwork and to overcome differences for a common goal, so I was surprised by my own attraction to the use of literature as a mode of connection. If I were to prepare for the pilgrimage again, I would want to have more focused study time before the trip to build a foundational knowledge of the poetry. I believe that a certain depth of understanding can only be achieved while physically experiencing the cultural context in Poland and engaging in face-to-face discussions with experts on Polish literature. However, I think I would have gained more from the first few conversations in the week if I had a stronger basic understanding of Milosz’ work.

Before the trip, I was also anxious about what the group dynamic would be like given that I was the only pilgrim from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. But throughout our many travels, conversations, and reflections, the official title of my religious identity rarely entered conversation. Rather, we spoke to our own truths and our academic studies more than anything. If anything, the diversity of our backgrounds enhanced our reflections. From my perspective, none of the pilgrims seemed to feel the tensions that perhaps our parents’ generation might retain between Truro and the Diocese of Virginia. In future trips, I wonder if there might be an opportunity to discuss those past tensions and the formation of the border between our churches more explicitly to further the work of bridge building. I am excited about the future of this pilgrimage, as well as the potential for a community reconciliation program in Virginia. I hope to stay involved with this work throughout the coming year and help to guide the next group of pilgrims along their journey. Thank you to everyone, both in the USA and in Poland, who made this trip possible. And a special thanks those of you who met with us while we were there; your wisdom and generosity made our trip unforgettable. And of course, thank you, Bishop Shannon and Tory, for including me in this adventure.

Josh Christenson (Truro Anglican Church, Wheaton Class of 2016)

I hope this doesn't come off as pompous, but I made my reflection a series of notes that are aphoristic in nature. I suppose I was influenced by Simone Weil in this respect. I also hope they make sense.

The political history of Poland in the twentieth century was a metonym of the spiritual history of Western civilization in the twentieth century.

Our trip taught us the importance of collective memory for art and life.

All great and lasting works of art respect this act of collective memory, and the artist’s individual memory only matters when it relates to its chosen collective memory.

Political change proceeds from memory and the imagination.

Art trains the imagination.

Polish figures of importance for twentieth century history—Pope John Paul II, members of the solidarity movement, poets and other artists—respected the potency of the imagination and inspired others with their faith, hope, and charity.

In a society where the separation between truth and lying is not respected, the imagination’s growth is stunted.

Maybe it’s a Catholic thing, maybe it’s part of poetry or art—whatever it is that causes us to respect the visible world, to respect it despite our dissatisfactions with it, also causes us to love that which is good more greatly.

We live in an age of anxiety: success, force, and necessity are emphasized to the detriment of the human person’s inherent dignity, beauty, and possibility.

Western civilization has experienced a loss of faith in the ability of language to represent meaning, i.e., to compel us, and we rely now more on information than beauty.

It is a curious embarrassment how greedy we can be for the memories and dreams of other nations or people. Does it mean we are dissatisfied with our own memories or do we need reassurance of their reality?

Communicating memories effectively takes great art, and great works of art always address the same problem: the persistence of the knowledge of good and evil.

Isabelle Baucum (Truro Anglican Church, College of William and Mary Class of 2017)

I went to Poland expecting to learn, grow, and develop as usually happens on pilgrimage. I've learned that traveling is just uncomfortable enough that I am able to really notice the substance of my discomfort. Disturbances and unpleasant thoughts that I would ordinarily wave away during my daily routine present themselves with more impact. With new people, new places, and new thoughts to occupy me, nothing is safe. Anything might be discovered and no past certainties and habits are exempt from reevaluation. For instance, I place a great deal of emphasis on my productivity. I’ve begun, in practice, to place achievements and outcomes above my other values. I saw that I was ashamed of loving beautiful things. I was hesitant to delight in what I love.

But while I was in Poland, I heard myself think, "I need more," and did not instantly reject the thought as naive. The trip encouraged me to take my dissatisfaction seriously. Maybe my longing for life that is more than my own is not without basis and not without precedent. And how do I live a bigger life? How do I expand my soul?

While I was considering how to expand the spiritual horizons of my own life, it was also necessary to acknowledge how this expansion includes contact with other, different, souls. Fullness in my own faith requires fullness in my relationships and especially the relationships with people of faith. This is the great gift of the Polish example for me. We encountered a model of behavior that elevated human dignity. Even the dignity of the people outside the “right” class, religion, or ideological persuasion. Of course, theirs is a story in progress. But even the pieces I picked up on struck me as monumentally important. I went to Poland asking myself how I should live and was met with a wealth of spiritual and artistic resources that will inform my search for a very long time.

I shared this experience with three other pilgrims, two literature students and one anthropology students. We were virtually strangers to each other at the beginning of the trip. This proved to be another instance of providence and grace in the making of this trip. I have many treasured memories from our trip. Chief among them are quiet walks with Emma, and the less quiet walks when she would let me chatter in my jet-lagged haze. We were the uninitiated. Not great students of Milosz or Polish poetry like our friends. We shared this, and shared a discipline: anthropology. We had a common theoretical language, softening the impact of our general illiteracy in all things Milosz. We could approach the new authors and literary forms indirectly, not as literature students but students of social arrangements, values, and their practices. I was aware of venturing into unknown territory, territory with promise but still unfamiliar, with a fellow traveler. In this relationship, I felt strongly that this was a pilgrimage in spirit and not in name only. In our ignorance we approached the unknown with open hands, not sure what we needed or wanted but sure that we were at least walking in the right direction. I only saw this dimension of the trip clearly when I met Emma.

Polish culture and civilization were foreign enough to me that I have to forget the parallels to my world in order to keep up. The parallels and lessons can be drawn later, in each moment humility and openness was needed more urgently in order to absorb the stories, literature, and ethos of the place. During the trip, I had a sense that I was experiencing intimate contact with the past. I suspect that I was attuned to this because the Polish past is not my past. My social and national memory is not particularly robust anyway. I do not know if this is a product of my age or because American culture is so young relatively speaking. So the exercise was new and difficult for me-to enter into the memory of other people and see their tragedy.

When we visited Auschwitz, I thought how strange it must be for the people who live in the town immediately adjacent to the death camp. It was a strange and significant arrangement. The placement of the town and camp was, at once, both evidence of life going on and of the persistent presence of the past. The literal proximity that the people of Poland have to their past was striking. Perhaps this was my over eager imagination as an outsider. But I felt memory alive in a way that I was too insensible or careless to see in my home. I suspect that our curriculum had something to do with my heightened sensitivity to this.

On our trip, we considered how poetry and a love of words factored into the resistance of totalitarianism. We gave particular weight to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and Karol Wojtyla. Much could be said about the particularities of Milosz’ poetry or Wojtyla’s theatre connections in the context of political resistance. But I will skip over particularities in favor of a general theme I’ve been attempting to understand. Although I haven’t yet arrived at any definite conclusion, my reflections began to take a definite form after reading Adam Zagajewski’s essay, “A Defense of Ardor:”

It is probably impossible to create an art that could answer to the terror of those extreme experiences in a trustworthy and consistent way, that would "scale the heights" of the lowest depths in modern history. These radical experiences inevitably lead in the end to a rejection of Mozart's sonatas and Keats's odes. Someone will always turn up to insist that literature is just literature and music is only music; and that person...will be right. It is just literature, it is only music. That's the best we have.

I was already asking these questions about the value of art in my life and in my society. Does performance and beautifully written words have anything to offer bleak, thoroughly unromantic, circumstances? Fraud, wrongful imprisonment, indiscriminate violence? In Poland, I saw the same question being asked. Does art have the capacity to deal with these circumstances? Does poetry have a place in this kind of world? Not only was the answer “yes,” but somehow poetry and art are the only appropriate response. Why is this the case?

If horror and injustice disfigure human dignity, then the appropriate response is to safeguard that dignity. I see poetry and the theatre, where words and the human person are ennobled, as a practice in preserving human dignity. I’ve come to understand poetry as a way of awakening the senses and expanding the range of emotional and spiritual perception. This aspect of poetry has value, especially for Christians.

Approaching poetry as an anthropology student and not as a literature student, I considered the social import of words. I considered the possibility of reading poetry as a type of listening to or experiencing the other. It requires patience and humility. You have to allow the sense and impact of the words to reveal themselves to you in their own time. It is difficult to make too many demands of a poem. The skills required to read a poem seem analogous to experiencing another person. Experiencing other people demands humility and attention; insensibility and dulled perception has a spiritual cost. The spiritual stakes involved are hard-heartedness and only a dim passing awareness of the divine in the other. In “Puritans and Prigs,” Marilynne Robinson describes the many concessions one makes in this state of hardness and blunted perception of the other:

If, putting out of consideration the inwardness of people, and putting aside the uniqueness of the terms in which everyone’s relations with the world are negotiated, and excluding the very prevalent desire of people to align themselves with what they take to be right, and ignoring the fact that people have ideas and convictions for which they cannot find words, we choose to believe all the errors of our past are stored in the minds of those who use language we have declared to embody those errors, then we make the less sophisticated tiers of the society the problem and the enemy, and effectively exonerate ourselves. We know what they mean better than they do, so we only listen to hear them condemn themselves. In the name of justice we commit a very crude injustice. We alienate a majority of our people, and exclude them from a conversation of the most pressing importance to them, having nothing but our smugness to justify the presumption.

She assesses what we do to the other when we listen wronglywhen we listen to “hear them condemn themselves”. What happens when we do that? We are in effect, denying the reality of their inward world, the complexity of their personhood, perhaps even their inner divinity. Another feature of this excerpt is that listening is an activity here. Listening is an activity in which you are doing something to and with the other, it is not a matter of passivity or reception. For Christians, there is responsibility and an opportunity in listening.

During the trip, one of the four of us quoted a line from King Lear. It seemed relevant to the underlying theme of our trip. The line was “see better Lear.” In many ways, this trip was a type of physical therapy for our distorted senses. I will continue to reflect on the different dimensions of this trip and I’m sure my understanding will change as I do. But these are my reflections for the present.


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