An Interfaith Encounter

My Son the Priest

Pustelnia Zlotego Lasu (Golden Forest Hermitage)
Pustelnia Zlotego Lasu (Golden Forest Hermitage)

As I peered through the bus’ mud-stained windows, the outskirts of Warsaw gave way to Polish countryside and farm houses. At each small town we picked up more passengers. After almost four hours had passed, my mobile phone rang.

“Hello, this is Katerina from the monastery. You come to stay with us tonight?”  

“Yes,” I said, thrilled someone spoke English.

 “The priest will be there to pick you up in Staszow. But make sure to get off the bus at the market, before the bus station.”

The priest himself is picking me up? Clumsily I asked the bus driver in Polish if he would let me know when we reached the market in Staszow.

“Five minutes,” he replied in Polish.

Nie znam (I’m not familiar with it).”  

Powiedz (Tell),” he said, understanding and correcting my Polish.

I thanked him and hovered close by, but even in the falling darkness the market square was hard to miss. Since no one was waiting for me, I sat on a bench near the stop, looking expectantly for a priest. Later I would learn that Staszow was one of the oldest towns in Poland. At the end of the 19thcentury, its five thousand Jews comprised over 60% of the population. Most shops were owned by Jews—weavers, tailors, hatters, furriers. On November 8, 1942, later known as Black Sunday, Staszow’s Jews were assembled in this marketplace, and ordered to march. As soon as they reached the adjacent street, the shooting began.

After a few minutes a short fellow walked unevenly towards me, either drunk or physically impaired. Drunk seemed more likely so I discounted the possibility that this could be the priest. He wore black pants and a white shirt with one side tucked in, matching his lopsided hips. As he got closer, his eyes floated up from the pavement to my face.

“Are you Ellen?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, standing to shake his hand.

“I am Eric.”

“Eric?” I repeated doubtfully.

“Well, it’s not really the translation. I am Irek (Eerek). Come. I will take you to Pustelnia.”  

Apparently Irek was the junior priest. Down the road he stopped at a gas station and grabbed some enormous glossy posters from the back seat, announcing a concert at the monastery.

“Do you know him—Piotr Rubyk?” he asked, holding one up for me.

“No,” I said, confused.

Though I noticed specks of grey in Irek’s short hair, I knew from his face and manner he was young enough to be my son. His voice had a sing-song quality not unlike my young gay artist friend in Warsaw.

“So you are the writer from America, yes?  What do you write about?”

“Well, my parents were Polish and Jewish.  I’m writing about coming back to Poland after the Holocaust, and exploring my roots.”

He said nothing in response, and soon we were at the hermitage. New low-lying buildings bordered the original structure on three sides, like the walls of a fort. In the center, the graceful church quietly meditated, like the yellowed skull bone of a monolithic prehistoric being. Perfectly framed by an arched gateway that led into the courtyard, the church’s beauty and presence overwhelmed me. It was both romantic and strangely penetrating as if a long forgotten sense faculty had suddenly come to life.

The newer buildings around the archaic structure were divided into many sections, with doors to each section. Each door required a different key and Irek struggled to find the right one from his jangling collection.

“Are you Catholic, Ellen?” Irek asked as I followed him through the dining area.

In light of what I’d said, his question made me laugh. Realizing he didn’t know why I was laughing, I quickly felt relieved I hadn’t offended him. As he rolled my new, black suitcase behind him I couldn’t help notice he was hitting it against the corners of tables and doorways.  

Heading to the kitchen to make me tea, Irek pointed to a well which had been preserved with a circular white brick enclosure at one end of the dining room. I’d assumed it was merely decorative but when I peered over its edge, water sparkled from fifty feet below.

“It’s real!” I said.

“The monks gave this water to their animals. They kept animals but not to kill them. They were never eating meat.”  

“So you use the well for water?” I asked.

“No, we have the water from the town now. Do you eat meat, Ellen?” he asked, jotting down a note for the kitchen staff.

“Yes, a little,” I said, blowing on my tea.

“Perhaps you would like to take the tea to your room?”  

Though twice he repeated ‘You are my guest, and a special guest from Obama-land,’ I sensed he’d had a long day.

I unpacked my things in the large room and private bath I had to myself. With meals provided I could settle into solitude, though this was no longer an active monastery. Monks had lived here in silence and seclusion for two hundred years, from 1624 until 1825, when the Russian Czar ruling this part of a divided Poland, had ordered it shut down. The monks had to leave and moved to Bielany, a monastery of the same order near Krakow, then under Austrian rule. Now it was run by the Catholic Church, its previous way of life evidenced by a museum display in one of the long, narrow buildings surrounding the old monastery. But the old church still exuded its enigmatic charisma.

Renovations on the church tower, just opposite my skylight window, began by 7:30 each morning so silence was rare, but as long as I spent the majority of my hours in my room, there was some quality of a retreat.

Each couple or group of guests had its own table in the dining room. As a group of one I also had a table they set especially for me, and ate each meal alone at my solitary island, surrounded by the other groups.

Mornings and evenings, meals were cold and consisted of several types of ham and cheese, along with sliced tomatoes and bread, artfully arranged on serving dishes for each table. Lunch consisted of soup followed by a main meat dish. The cooked meals were generally tasty, but some of the cheese slices resembled synthetic plastic. Day after day, I left them untouched. Day after day, they re-appeared, undaunted by my rejection. The prospect of eating food I didn’t want at my lonely table of one felt grim, and reminded me of my childhood. By the third morning I woke up with swelling under my eyes and requested no dinner for the remaining evenings.

Our Lady of Fatima forest shrine near the main hermitage.
Our Lady of Fatima forest shrine near the main hermitage.

Returning from a walk in the woods one afternoon after lunch, I met Irek in his navy blue car, just leaving from the main gate.

“Do you come to town with me?” he asked. “I go to buy wine for the workers.”  

“For a short time, yes?” I asked, almost rhetorically, and got into the car. The prospect of juice or chocolate seemed suddenly appealing.

He popped a CD into the player and asked if I recognized the jarring rhythms. When I shook no he switched to something classical. It intrigued me, as both a Buddhist and a Jew, to be on such casual terms with a priest. To me it presented a unique opportunity for a deeper exchange.

“When did you decide to become a priest?” I asked, as we drove through the tiny town of Rytwiany.

“When I was seven years old, my father died.”

 “But what made you want to become a priest?”

“When I was eight, I had my first communion.” From the gentle wave that washed over his face, I sensed how that first communion had transformed him, like sunlight entering a dark room.

He insisted I buy whatever I wanted in the store and refused to let me pay him back. “Maybe you would like some beer?” he offered.

I explained that my body was too sensitive for alcohol, and together we carried cartons of wine to the car.

“You know, I will be sixty next year. You could be my son,” I said.

“No, it can’t be true.” He gazed into the distance as if trying to synchronize the gears of two disparate realities “My mother is only fifty-six.”

The next evening, at Irek’s invitation, I attended mass and, as in Czestochowa, received communion. Afterwards he beckoned me back into the inner sanctum behind the altar. Rows of built-in carved wooden seats were arranged in a square formation. He explained how the monks had faced each other, all of them equal. For a moment I could see them, and felt their quiet dignity resounding in the space.

We left the church together, pausing while he locked the arched wooden doors for the night. As we passed between the statues of Saint Agata and Saint Barbara, Irek turned to me.

“You know, if you would like to confess, I am always here.”

Shocked by his offer, its sincerity touched me nevertheless. Every evening I had noticed his warm and joyful mood after six o’clock mass, his spirit light and radiant.

“That would feel strange to me,” I said. “Not only was I born Jewish, but I’ve been practicing Buddhism for many years.”

Irek went on to explain that a priest was merely an intermediary; the confessions went directly to God. Since I’d declined dinners by then, he invited me to sit at his table while he ate and had the server bring me tea.

“You know, we can only feel God in our hearts when we are. . . czysta. . . ,“ he said, searching for the English word.

“Yes I understand what you mean,” I said. “Czysta means clean. . . pure.”  

Purity was an element in many spiritual paths, whether one sought basic goodness, or enlightenment, or communion with God. It was a gateway, perhaps a way of feeling worthy enough to receive unconditional love, or to experience a totality greater than ourselves. Some esoteric traditions, including Buddhism, pointed to a purity that went beyond the dualistic problem of certain things being clean and others unclean.

For a while Irek looked puzzled, thinking I’d said “poor.” Once we straightened that out, he explained that Buddhism wasn’t a real religion, only a philosophy, and that Jews were further away from God because they didn’t have a connection with Jesus. He never asked my opinion.

Perhaps his youth and kindness prevented me from taking offense. Instead I was fascinated by his narrow view. Had he never entertained the notion that there might be several authentic spiritual paths, not just one? Or that people from other traditions might feel just as deeply connected to the divine, or just as inspired, in their own way? Since he was a representative of the generation after mine and, I’d learned, was teaching at the local high school, I worried his indoctrination did not bode well for the future of tolerance or meaningful dialogue.

Later I wondered what I could possibly confess to him, or rather to God. I couldn’t think of any recent bad deeds. Would it be appropriate to confess my self-doubt, my worry of failing, or of not truly belonging anywhere? If religion had a purpose, surely it was to inspire the best of our human potential, God or no God. The conversation I’d had with a Polish friend, four or five days earlier, was still fresh in my mind. She told me she’d once tried to describe her experience to a priest. He wasn’t interested in hearing about it and kept repeating “Sins please. Sins please.” She never went back.

Irek’s attitude disturbed me because of his seeming innocence and good intentions. Next to Staszow, a few kilometers from Kielce, on this charnel ground of Poland, I wondered when people would finally wake up. Was it really necessary to ask how the Holocaust happened? Most people saw no harm in one group feeling superior to another, as long as they were discreet and the most extreme manifestations of this attitude were held in check. Then—when things went too far or became exposed—only then were people shocked and outraged, as if the seeds of prejudice and inequality weren’t there all along.

In the end, one group’s survival meant respecting and honoring all life, not just one religion, one race, or one species. Until the time more of us arrived at this understanding, the suffering brought on by narrow self-interest and intolerance of differences would continue to be humanity’s best teacher.

My departure was the next day. Irek drove me to the bus stop in Kielce, where I would catch a bus to my next destination, the city of Zamosc further east. Since no bus appeared we spent the next twenty minutes, in typical Polish fashion, asking everyone in sight whether a bus was expected, but no one seemed to know. Finally we deciphered the posted schedule and resigned ourselves to waiting on a bench in the hot sun.

“How many people will come to the concert and mass with the bishop this weekend?” I asked.

“We had 13,000 the previous time, so probably 15,000. Father Director is very nervous.”

I’d expected two to five hundred. No wonder the staff had grown noisier and more frenetic each day.

Before leaving I’d visited the small shop near the entrance to the monastery complex and, as a momento, bought a rosary of light blue beads that caught the light and reflected it exquisitely. I pulled it out of my pocket and floated my cupped palm towards Irek sitting to my left. Showing it to him was my gesture of our friendship and I thought it would give him something to talk about.

Immediately energized, he showed me how the beads were arranged in five sections, each associated with one of the mysteries of Christ, and explained how to use the beads to contemplate each of the mysteries. With the sun and heat (and the fact that I was not about to become a Catholic) most of it bypassed my brain.

An hour passed. Any moment the bus had to arrive. I went to find a bathroom before my four and a half hour journey, and as I returned the bus was at the stop.

“Do you have an email address?” Irek asked as I picked up my backpack. I struggled to find pen and paper while he loaded my suitcase into the luggage compartment.  Every transition during these travels made me slightly nervous. No, it was more than that. Every good-bye, every ending, made me anxious. Suddenly I was trembling, afraid the bus would shut its doors before I could get inside.

“Do you know how to buy the ticket?”  he asked as I climbed the three steps up into the bus.

“Yes,” I panted as I reached the driver’s station.

 Hands shaking, I fumbled to find the right combination of bills and coins, my passage from the hermitage’s safety to a less certain destination. The coins fell, rolling on the grooved floor while the driver scowled. I retrieved the coins and paid him, though it seemed to take forever. Abruptly, the transaction was complete. The ill-tempered driver pushed a button and a little box spat out my thin, white receipt. I accepted it, a tiny communion of sorts, and turned around to see Irek, still standing at the curb.

“God bless you,” he called out, as the folding doors closed and I waved good-bye.

A deeper breath came even before finding a seat. I had entered the journey ahead. It would be dark when I arrived in Zamosc, a place I’d never been and where I knew no one. I didn’t even have a reservation for the night.

It was not confidence driving my risk-taking, but the opposite. I knew Poland well enough that I could visit friends and places I already knew, easily avoiding the unfamiliar—or hide within the walls of a hermitage retreat. But the part of me that had been clinging to security had made me feel progressively weaker. Something else in me wanted to shake it loose and find my strength again.  

By eight o’clock the light in each home along the road had been extinguished. It seemed like midnight as the bus steered through the eastern Polish countryside, still an hour from Zamosc. Without the distraction of light the darkness became thicker, almost frightening, yet somehow soothing. As I leaned into the darkness instead of away, simultaneously I felt the internal mechanism of withdrawal—the split of brokenness—that had weakened my life force. The way to reverse it was to turn toward the darkness and embrace it.