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It is as holy a spot as I have visited, standing there like a medieval castle, the monastery of Jasna Gorá ("Bright Mountain") deep in the rural heartland of southern Poland at Częstochowa, where there is a rarefied air that puts one in mind of the Vatican crypts, of the spot of birth in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, of the Crucifixion spot at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In one locked, heavily alarmed room, a library that is off-limits to normal visitation, the prior showed me a Bible with a wooden cover that dated back to about 1585, a century after the invention of the printing press, and a book signed by various dignitaries who have visited here, this inner sanctum, including Karol Wojtyła, as a seminary student and young priest (in the 1940s), then as a bishop (it is the room where the national bishops have special meetings), later as Pope John Paul II. Others who signed the book included Nicholas I of Russia, various royalty, John F. Kennedy, at least two other Popes (Pius XI and Benedict XVI), and Heinrich Himmler, when the Nazis had overrun Poland.

There are 13,000 volumes in this incredible inner sanctum, along with two massive tables each made from twenty-four types of wood, so valuable the Nazis tried to remove it.

Many things the Nazis -- and other invaders through the years -- have tried to do have fallen flat at this miraculous spot that was founded when horses pulling a cart with a sacred image of Mary with Child, en route from Ukraine, and said to have been painted by the Apostle Luke himself, refused to move, a place that has blossomed to the point where three to three-and-a-half million pilgrims visit each year (including more than 100,000 each year walking to the shrine from up to 400 miles away; they even come here on motorcycles or para-glide here).

It is like the Blessed Mother -- the "Hodgeteria" -- has formed a bubble of protection over this spot.

Though her image has been damaged over the years -- by invaders, by fire -- no one has ruined it nor conquered this spot.

Even under the yoke of Communism, those who came here felt free.

A hundred monks minister to the place. It is the third most visited Catholic shrine in the world.

This is a shrine where, as John Paul II -- who visited many times -- put it, "one has to place one’s ear at this holy place in order to sense in which way the heart of the nation beats in the heart of the Mother," a shrine that dates back to 1382 (some say even before), a shrine of uncountable miracles (the walls are filled with more than 10,000 votive symbols of miraculous healings, a mere fraction of what has happened here).

It is a place that I strongly recommend as a pilgrimage spot (I was taken there during a visit to Poland for national release of The Other Side in this country, including an interview at the radio station at the shrine itself).

It is impossible to describe the feeling of standing in close proximity to the image during Mass, as thousands mill in and out and liturgies and devotions progress through the day.

These are the kinds of places that edify. These are the shrines that inspire. These -- the ancient ones, the sanctioned sacred spots -- are important in this time of turmoil.

For turmoil cannot reach the heart of such a place.

You can feel that.

You can sense the hundreds of millions of prayers that have been said here, the pleas, the veneration -- by leaders, by popes.

I can't recount the entire history, for it comes with such ferocity. The Byzantine image was brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople and then Ukraine-Ruthenia and was in danger from Marauding Tarts who repeatedly besieged the castle of Prince Ladislaus, where it was kept in a special chamber.

You have seen this image countless times. In Europe, in much of the world, it is as prevalent if not more so than the image of Guadalupe -- both deeply miraculous.

Although the image had been struck in the throat with an arrow, Ladislaus took the painting and headed for the secure city of Opala to preserve it from further damage. Painted by an Apostle!

On the way he stopped for a night of rest at the knightly village of Częstochowa and placed the image in a small wooden church until morning.

When Ladislaus tried to continue his journey the morning of August 26, 1382, his horses refused to budge and he took that as a Divine sign and decided the image should remain in a chapel there.

Lights have been seen.

Miracles have occurred. This is the "Black Madonna," originally painted, it was said (since reconstructed), on a tabletop built by Jesus Himself.

The wood is still there.

Neither the Tartars nor the Swedes nor Nazis nor Communists could bring it under their full control.

In 1430, historians tell us, Hussites overran the monastery and attempted to take the portrait. It is said one of the looters attacked the painting twice with his sword but before he could strike it a third time fell to the ground writhing in agony and died. (Both the sword cuts and the arrow wound are still visible in the painting.)

Notes the Marian Library at Dayton University: "John Paul II’s life was closely connected to Jasna Góra. In 1946 he experienced the solemn consecration of his nation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary celebrated in Częstochowa; in 1956 Cardinal Wyszynski inspired, prepared and officiated at Poland’s Vow to Our Lady of Częstochowa in order to initiate the millennium celebration of Poland’s Christianization with a nine-year novena. In 1957 an exact replica of the image of Our Lady of Jasna Góra went on pilgrimage to every Polish parish with the intention to deepen or awaken the bond between Mary and the parishioners. For the Polish people the pilgrimage of Our Lady of Jasna Góra meant a continuation of Mary’s Visitation recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Twenty-two years later during his first home visit as Pope, this very icon reached its final destination and was welcomed by John Paul II in the parish church of Częstochowa.

Częstochowa is not just one of many Polish pilgrimage places but its National Shrine. For John Paul II this fact meant that “one has to place one’s ear at this holy place in order to sense in which way the heart of the nation beats in the heart of the Mother.”

The heart of the world is meant to beat likewise.

-- Michael H. Brown

[resources The Last Secret and The Other Side]

[Michael Brown retreat in Charlotte, North Carolina]

[Photo at top courtesy of PL Travel]

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