Last night my academic hosts in Poznań invited me to a choral and instrumental concert commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Karol Józef Wojtyła, better known as Pope John Paul II. Wojtyła’s election as pope and his subsequent visits to communist-ruled Poland catalyzed the oppressed nation and contributed significantly to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Among the diverse selections performed at this event was an anthem for choir and organ by the Polish composer Feliks Nowowiejski (1877-1946) entitled “Psalm 136: Ojczyzno.” With only that description, and with the lyrics entirely in Polish, I was left guessing as to the meaning, although I could tell that it was a stirring and pathic text. A little investigation this afternoon added an entirely new dimension to this dramatic anthem.
As it turns out, 136 is the Vulgate numbering for Psalm 137 in English and most other Protestant Bibles. Now, choral settings of Psalm 137 are rare enough; it is one of the most tragic songs in the psalter, and its violent conclusion leaves many Christians unsure of its propriety in the New Testament. (That is a conversation for another day.) But there is also a poignant beauty to Psalm 137 which captures the longing of afflicted believers for their true homeland. My classmates from Geneva College may remember that Dr. Sinclair Ferguson delivered our commencement address on a text from Psalm 137: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The psalmist continues:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,Psalm 137:5-6 (ESV)
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
As it turns out, this is precisely the text that Nowowiejski chose for his anthem. In Polish:
Jeżeli cię zapomnę Jeruzalem, ojczyzno moja,
Niechaj zapomniana będzie prawica moja.
Niechaj przyschnie, język do podniebienia mego,
jeślibym ciebie nie kładł na czele wesela mego.
Jeruzalem! Ojczyzno moja!
With the translation in mind, you may be able to follow the significance of the music better than I first did. Here is a recent performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir (incidentally, led by a conductor who also took part in last night’s performance in Poznań).
All very well, but what does a song about Jerusalem have to do with Poland, and what does John Paul II have to do with Feliks Nowowiejski?
Let me tell you about this morning’s sermon at the Evangelical Reformed church in Poznań (translated for me, once again, in real time). The text was from Hebrews 11:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. . . .
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.Hebrews 11:8-16 (ESV)
Insofar as I am currently experiencing a small taste of what it means to be a “stranger and exile on the earth,” this text already resonates powerfully with me. Having a partly Polish heritage does not guarantee always feeling at home in Poland. But this is precisely the paradoxical situation in which the life of faith finds itself, as Rev. Polaszek emphasized. The Christian life is about learning to feel out of place in what should be our home, and it is about cultivating homesickness for a place we have never been. And if you would like to find an earthly example of this homesickness, you need look no further than the history of the Polish people.
There is a dimension of Poland that cannot really be taught, only felt. But it vibrates all throughout the music, literature, and art of this nation which, for so many painful years, has been a people without a country. For 123 years, as both old and young citizens have reminded me repeatedly, Poland was wiped off the map of Europe, and even after it regained independence it was brutally terrorized by the Nazis and then by the communist regime. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that you can feel that history in the streets and buildings of Poland. Here you can still see tenements with chunks of missing plaster from World War II bombings. It is all astonishingly fresh.
Patriotism and religion, as the ABC interview linked to earlier in this post noted, are inextricably linked in Poland. And I suspect that part of that connection has to do with the need for the Polish people to hold their national identity in their hearts, in the only place where political oppression and indoctrination could not reach. There is a patriotic fire that still burns in the hearts of Poles, carefully guarded for so many years against the Nazis and the Soviets, which occasionally blazes forth in ugly displays of nationalism, but which also sustains the cultural heart of this place. When John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, at the height of communist power, he stoked that inner fire in millions of Polish hearts.
There is a word for this phenomenon which will be familiar to scholars of rhetoric. That word is enthymema, a term that points to the persuasive power of rhetorical argumentation. But quite literally, enthymema means “held in the heart.” Those heart-held beliefs are what drive an audience’s motivations, attitudes, and behaviors.
Psalm 84 says of believers that “in their heart are the highways to Zion.” The Christian has a compass in his heart that points him to the heavenly Jerusalem, even as faithful Jews living in exile could still pray toward the temple and faithful Poles could still hum the national anthem softly to themselves during days of terror. And that fiercely guarded hope for the promise of a homeland is what sustains our pilgrim walk through this vale of tears.
In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes:
The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.
Perhaps now you see how a setting of Psalm 137 could become such a beloved anthem in Poland and find its way into a celebration of the legacy of John Paul II. Ojczyzno is the Polish word for “homeland,” and though I am the exact opposite of an authority on Polish etymology, I am not too dull to miss the connection with the word for “father,” ojciec. The Lord’s Prayer in Polish begins with the words Ojcze nasz. Moreover, ojczyzno is precisely the word used in the Polish translation of Hebrews 11 to speak about the heavenly land for which Abraham longed. It was not merely his homeland but his fatherland, the place of his birth–though he had never seen it. And if it seemed unfamiliar to him, it was only because the gospel of grace alters census records. In the heavenly Zion the Lord places his adopted children from the families of the nations and declares, “This one was born there” (Psalm 87:6).
Jeruzalem! Ojczyzno moja! “Jerusalem! My fatherland!” So Polish history illuminates for me what should be a fundamental attiude of the Christian life: setting the heavenly kingdom to which I am headed above my highest joy. It means participating in something broader than myself. It means learning to speak in the language and inflection of Christ my King. And although I often shame him, I go forward in his promise: “for he has prepared for them a city.”