Violence, oppression, manipulation, disease, and death: these are the topics with which I have been occupied during the last couple of months. I teach history to high schoolers in Kraków, so most of my lessons are not too uplifting. Massacres and genocides have become merely statistics for me and just facts of life. While I enjoy the study of history, especially those episodes of human triumph, I have noticed its tendency to make me see humanity with a cynical eye, which, like a blackhole, swallows up all the light.
Yesterday, after long hours of teaching the Cold War and particularly the doctrine of M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction), I needed to take a break. I walked around Kraków’s Old Town and towards Wawel Hill. These little journeys are how I revive my spirit and try to see a higher light through the gloom of history.
Kraków may not seem to be an ideal escape from human brokenness – anyone familiar with its history will know its perils in abundance. Yet somehow, Kraków’s history is linked to the great hope for man realized in Christ.
Wawel Hill is the most prominent of all the memorials of Poland’s glorious past. It is the Acropolis of Kraków, where for centuries the Polish monarchs and bishops shepherded the realm from their respective seats of authority. I pass by Wawel multiple times a day on my way to and from work, and it never ceases to amaze me. A little more than a hundred years ago, the area was mostly in ruins, used as a soldiers’ barracks for the Austrian army. But during the last century, Wawel has been restored, having long endured in dark times as a sign of hope for the re-awakening of Poland.
The artistic genius who more than anyone looked to Wawel as a sign of hope for the re-emergence of Poland was Stanislaw Wyspiański (1869-1907). Friends of Wyspiański said that he would often lead them to Wawel and say: “This is Poland.” Not only does it have the cathedral and palace, but it houses the royal tombs along with Poland’s national poets and saints. In his painting “Early Morning near the Wawel Castle” (1894), Wyspiański paints Wawel appearing from the fog as if reemerging as a source of meaning for his own day, and for ours. At the end of the Planty path leading to Wawel is a lamp which, according to Professor Andrzej Szczerski, is a sign of hope. In the shape of a triangle, the lamp can be read as the “Eye of God,” and the light as the light of recreation signaling the reemergence of the hope that lies hidden in Wawel’s past.
Shortly after national rebirth in 1918, Poland was occupied again in 1939. Hans Frank, the head of the General Government in German-occupied Poland who styled himself as a king, made Wawel his headquarters. From there he ordered the deaths of millions in nearby concentration/death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, spreading darkness across the land. Yet, despite the lengthening shadows, the light of hope was not extinguished. And it still has not been extinguished, even though a different darkness now approaches.
I am referring to the darkness of forgetfulness. Based on my limited perspective, a growing number of young Poles have a weak identification with Polish history or partake in its memory. It seems the past does not live within them like it did for so many Poles who came of age after Polish independence in 1918. Poles like the young Karol Wojtyła understood themselves in the context of Poland’s living memory. And monuments like Wawel meant something dear to them. I have been told that on the morning of the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, the young Wojtyła continued his way to Wawel to serve at Mass. He wanted to stay, come what may, clinging to this great rock of faith. Such symbols pointed to Poland’s glorious past and inspired hope in a bright future. But the Poles that I see walking the streets of Kraków today pass these monuments without notice, absorbed like the rest of us in the virtual reality mediated to us via our phones. Perhaps familiarity has bred forgetfulness. It might just take an American like me who did not grow up with such symbols to help Europeans reawaken and embrace the meaning that surrounds them.
This encouragement is one of the things I hope the Spe Salvi Institute will accomplish. Catholics in America need Catholics in Europe to be strong, and to recognize the treasure of their Christian past. I want to inspire the next Wyspiański who will bring people to Wawel and exclaim: “This is Poland.” But the contemporary threats to this recognition are more disguised and benign than they were in the past.
Western capitalism has brought much material good to Poland, such as full grocery stores and McDonalds, but it has also encouraged a way of life detached from the Church. The temples of the markets (the malls which are quite nice in Poland) are more alive than the temples of the faith. Even though, unlike other parts of Europe, Polish churches are still packed on Sundays, some Poles under thirty have perhaps never stepped inside one. Experience with the empty rapture of shopping is increasingly more common than the peace that comes with adoration of the living God.
Right now in Poland, it might seem like the darkness is growing. In fact, today is the winter solstice: the darkest day of the year. Yet like the shining lamp in Wyspiański’s Wawel painting, the humble light of hope still shines.
I walked towards this lamp through the Planty on my way home from work. The sun was already long gone. But in addition to the lamps, Christmas lights were on. They brought to mind the great Light that we will soon celebrate in Christmas: The Light who enlightens the Gentiles and delivers us from the dark powers of despair.
Teaching twentieth-century history might have darkened my view of man. Yet my walks to Wawel with Wyspiański’s painting in mind have forced me to see a more humble, supernatural light at the end of human history. Rejoice this Christmas in the incarnation of the Light that gives hope.