Ania, the most important thing is love, isn't it?
Every Sunday pilgrims receive a special blessing during one Mass in the small sanctuary of Lesniow near Czestochowa. The blessing on every first Sunday of the month concerns married couples, on the second Sunday - children, on the third - parents, on the fourth - women who expect babies. On 14th February, Valentine's Day, engaged couples have their meetings and there are also those who intend to propose. And this would not be anything extraordinary, after all every Eucharist ends with the blessing, but the way things happen.
'People should be reminded of the power of God's blessing, of the graces it brings', explains Zbigniew Ptak, Pauline Father, the prior of the Lesniow monastery, and the originator of the only Sanctuary of Family Blessings in the small place of Lesniow.
We have gone to Lesniow to see whether people still believe in the miraculous power of blessing.
What is a blessing?
'Blessing is a life-giving action of God. God lavishly blesses those who ask for this gift', the Pauline fathers explain. 'The good that a blessing brings is not some concrete object or gift since what a blessing gives is not in the sphere of possessing. The essential richness of every God's blessing concerns life and fertility. One of the most beautiful statues of the Mother of God has had its home in Lesniow for 625 years. People call it 'Tenderly Smiling'. She is the Patroness of Families, those who are happy and those who have problems. Numerous miracles were described in the books of the sanctuary and lots of requests and thanksgiving were recorded.
It is the first Sunday of the month and on a cold rainy morning I am going to the Lesniow church. In the car park there are cars with registrations numbers of southern Polish cities. Did people want to drive on such a rainy day? Rzeszow, Zywiec, Czestochowa, Myszkow, Katowice...
'A good marriage is rare. People talk about crisis of marriage, and huge numbers of divorces. People want to avoid such dramas. And believers trust that their relationships, which are sacramental, are under special God's protection. Some may be astonished but people really find strength and power in this place. 'I know it from my own experience, my marriage' says Krzysztof from the region of Podbeskidzie. He has been married for 20 years and has been praying in Lesniow for three months.
For many years, during retreats Fr Zbigniew Ptak asked couples to renew their vows. He proposed this form in Lesniow. The renewal of marital vows ends with a special blessing.
'I believe in the power of God's blessing, I believe that people who publicly speak about their love and adherence overcome their feelings and make a step forward, a step to reconciliation, which brings about very good results.'
Today Ewa and Wojtek have come to Lesniow. They live in Katowice. They have a beautiful daughter.
They are well off. They have learnt about the blessing from the Internet. They are undergoing marriage therapy in some counselling centre. They were both involved in the oasis movement and participated in pilgrimages. After their wedding they had only time to attend Mass on Sundays but they have never lost contact with the Church. But something happened that made them stop understanding each other and talk, and now they are hurting each other.
'We believe that God will save us, we draw strength from him', Ewa whispers.
In the middle of the Mass, after the sermon, the priest asks the couples to come to the front and hold their hands. They are to repeat slightly changed words of the marital vows.
'This is the easy part of the task', Fr Zbigniew laughs, 'although now you can see that some of them have not held their hands for a long time and have not looked in their eyes...'
That shame and ineptitude are quickly over. The longer the vows last, the more words are spoken, the brighter the faces are, and the more warmth they show.
'As if they found themselves again, remembered that their love is still in them', an old lady says. She likes to attend the Masses with blessings so that she 'can get warm seeing one's happiness'. One can hear some wistful sound of violin coming from above; this is to have lofty mood. Somebody plays 'Ave Maria'. Most women furtively wipe away the tears. The family members who observe the situation are amazed, especially the children look as if they saw their parents looking at themselves with love for the first time.
'At the beginning of the year we decided to live in separation. Fortunately, we had promised our sons, twins, that if they passed exams to the grammar school they wanted to we would go on a pilgrimage to Czestochowa', Krzysztof, Ania's husband, says.
'The boys passed their exams, so we had to keep the word', Ania adds, 'although I must admit frankly I did not hope that the pilgrimage would change anything'.
But Lesniow was on the way, and a long night of prayer, and the sons who fell asleep, nestled to their parents.
'Some events and feelings cannot be expressed in words. We cannot explain them but we are convinced that the Mother of God from Lesniow saved something priceless in us... The fact that we come here whenever we can is as if paying the debt for which we will thank God for the rest of our lives'.
Even the statistics favour God
Fr Zbigniew tells the couples who come here that research confirms that believers have happier and successful relationships. Recently Americans have published the results of their research. They show that half of 1,500 atheists' marriages ends in divorce but only 2 couples out of 1,500 sacramental marriages, with vivid and strong faith, get divorced.
'We know some couples who come to church from time to time, mainly because of their children, but later they live like us, they treat God as a precious object that is only taken out of the cupboard for one hour or two hours on Sundays and holidays', Ewa and Wojtek from Katowice say. 'In spite of our earlier religious formation we lost proportions what should be given to God and what should be given to Mammon. Most young couples have similar priorities. But the mystery of good life does not depend on money. It is pity that we did not convince some of our friends to come to Lesniow because their marriages have completely been ruined. We believe that we can succeed.'
The second part of the ceremony of renewing the marital vows is just after Mass and the couples wait for a special blessing.
'I know that it is difficult for us, especially men, to overcome our feelings to come here and say before God 'I love you', Fr Zbigniew says. Some men look at the monk with disbelief. 'You may whisper these words. It is enough that the priest can hear it', he smiles.
'But only when he can hear a clear declaration he binds the couple's hands with his stole and gives his blessing. Do not be afraid', he reassures the couples. 'Remember that grace acts, remember that you are standing before God...'
'My hands were trembling', Wojtek says, 'but I felt that the moment would cleanse me'.
'I saw several men had tears in their eyes', says an old woman who likes hearing the blessings, 'but if a man weeps something happens in him...undoubtedly. I chose one couple that seemed to be have a quarrel. They could not look at themselves. But they held their hands like pre-school pupils. They had qualms about that, I felt sorry to look at them. But evidently they did care since they came to church. When the priest bound their hands with his stole and let them kiss each other, I could see sparks and the blushed priest stared at the ceiling...'
The Pauline fathers want people to come for the blessing to Lesniow. They believe that through Our Lady of Lesniow many people will find relief in their sorrows and strength to overcome adversities, no matter what they are. Their experiences tell them how much good can be in those who could trust God. They have witnessed that many times, including situations in front of the Lesniow altar.
'I do encourage other couples to come to Lesniow. This is an extraordinary experience. Before you decide, like we did, to break your relationship, to hurt yourselves and others, begin praying. Begin with Lesniow. Here man can understand the obvious truth that God interferes in marriage, that marriage is not a game between two people but it is some mystery, something beautiful and sacred. Daily life should not choke this reality in man. Problems with children, bills, and money for living are daily realities. Man forgets, simply forgets that what matters in this life, as this monk said beautifully, is faith, hope and love, but the most important of all is love, truth, isn't it?