The Smiling Nun by Lisa Fleetwood
Location: Vilnius, Lithuania
Our final destination is Krakow today, but our flight is to Warsaw. Why? The flights from Vilnius to Krakow are hideously expensive and involve crazy connections like Vilnius>Vienna>Krakow.
Driving? Being transported through Belarus, a country I’d never heard of before considering driving through it, was a no-go due to Visa complications. After working out that flying from Vilnius to Warsaw and hiring a driver to take us from Warsaw to Krakow was really economical compared to the other options, I booked it.
After a quick flight, we land in Warsaw, and our wonderful transport company has arranged a tour of the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, which on the road between Warsaw and Krakow. Many in our group knew nothing about the monastery and as we get out the car, Anthony, my husband, turns to me and asks, ‘What are we actually seeing here?’
I shrug and smile. ‘I guess we’re looking at a monastery.’
This response does not excite him. It had been months since I booked the tour and in between then and now we’ve looked at way too many churchy type things. We have hit the church-wall. Hard.
‘Maybe we’ll see some monks.’
This doesn’t excite Anthony either.
We’re introduced to a nun with the biggest smile who, since I can’t remember her name, is to be referred to as our ‘guide nun.’ Our guide nun cracks a few jokes as she leads us along - like asking if anyone wants to become a monk. She points out the door to the monk’s secret hangout and we offer up our teenager, Sam. He quickly decides the monks life isn’t for him with a shake of his head.
Founded in 1382 by Pauline monks, the Jasna Gora Monastery is beautifully decorated with gold, gold and more gold plus the crutches, jewels and offerings of people who have been healed after receiving the blessing of the Virgin Mary. Our guide nun leads us quietly into the chapel housing the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, an icon (painting) depicting the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. We’re told the Black Madonna has different ‘dresses’, an overlay of jewels and gold that sits over the top of her robes. We hear in a hushed voice from the smiling nun that the dresses were all given as offerings and now adorn the Madonna at different times during the year. Legend has it that the panel came from a tabletop from the house of the Holy Family. It has survived fires, thieves, bombs from WWII, and has been visited by Pope John Paul II and thousands of pilgrims every year, all coming for the blessings of the Holy Mother.
We stand at the back of the chapel, observing the Black Madonna and the brilliantly decorated alter she rests upon. The icon is small and set back in a deep frame of gilt, her bejeweled dress catching the light. Before us, people fill the pews praying quietly with bowed heads.
We then crept into the crypt, which is the only way to enter one, in my opinion. Our guide nun is so incredibly excited that we are able to visit the crypt, as it’s only open in November. How lucky are we? Her smile is infectious and even though I’m not very religious I can’t help but grin back. She has an aura of absolute happiness about her. It radiates from her and I smile in return.
The kids are smiling as well because Mum tells them something she used to say when she was a kid. ‘The cat crept into the crypt and crapped and crept back out.’ The phrase is repeated by Holly and Sam as we creep through the crypt. I see no cats creeping, though. Or crap.
Afterwards, the kids race into the gift shop, but it’s as though the shop is fitted with a revolving door and they come back out seconds later.
Apparently there is only religious stuff in there. Funny that.