You can learn things just by taking the garbage out to the garbage cage and saying hello to people that you see walking down the street. Last Sunday some folks passing by said a hearty hello back, speaking in a faint but very pretty accent. It turned out that they speak Polish. Well, so did I, back in college days, so we had a nice chat. “Wait right here,” I asked them. “There’s something for you upstairs.”
Running up to the kitchen, from its place of honor on the fridge I took down an icon of Our Lady.
That icon came from the thrift shop, where it sat on the bargain shelf because someone had defaced the bottom of it with a magic marker. At the time, wondering who would do an irreverent thing like that, I picked up the icon for a closer look. And glory be — the inscription was in Polish: “With Blessings — John Paul II.” Well. If anybody gets to write on an icon, it’s probably the Pope. So for 99 cents I brought the icon home. It’s lived on the fridge for 12 years, while I took it on faith that some day a nice Polish family would appear as the true and rightful owners. And now here they were! So I ran outside and handed the icon over to the family.
What I didn’t know, though the Pope probably did, was that this portrait is the beloved Mother of Mercy “Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn” (Polish, Matka Boża Ostrobramska). The original (see above) hangs at the gate of the city wall of Vilnius, Lithuania — which used to be part of Poland, as my Polish neighbors emphasized to me. Then when the Russians took over Lithuania, the family’s ancestors got away to safer ground in Poland, carrying a replica of the icon with them. That icon brightened and warmed the little room where the family all lived together.
Now the next generation has moved here to town, where some total stranger burst out of the garbage cage and presented them with yet another replica of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, with a handwritten blessing from their own newly canonized Polish Pope.
They, being Polish, insisted that the total stranger come inside and join them as their guest for a full course Sunday dinner. Then we all discovered that we attend the same large Catholic church, they in their favorite corner on the far right back, I in my favorite corner on the far left front. Next Sunday we’ll try swapping sides and meeting in the middle.
A humble house chore errand, but a pretty good adventure in the end.
Do you suppose Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn is an appropriation of the older Slavic goddess Zorya Utrennyaya? She’s the Aurora who opened the gates for Dažbog’s sun-chariot in the morning; her sister closed the gates behind him in the evening.
Hi Bill! Wow, an excellent point worth exploring. I’m no scholar, but my vote is that the Lithuanians/Polish people didn’t need to appropriate anything. Traditional cultures paid much more attention to doors and portals and their proper maintenance and respect, and there were invading armies and plagues all around, so it’s easy to imagine any settlement rushing to stake out its windows and doors and traditions to mark and guard them. It is interesting to see how even today, and even at an unconscious level, this respect is instinctive. To this day, in Russia it is considered socially awkward and inept to shake hands across a threshold, and your hosts will probably rush you in the door before shaking hands, even if they don’t know that it’s disrespectful to the Domovoy, the house spirit who dwells under the lintel. Chinese restaurants still incorporate decorating principles which soften entry from the street with well placed screens or an ornate fish tank or bank of plants. It makes me sorry to see our youngest high-tech Generation Z-10 students placed in homes where a living room door opens directly on a sidewalk! And to me nothing says hospitality like our older homes with their front gate, ornate garden path with fountain and tiny footbridge, deep covered porch with rocking chairs, welcome mat, lights, and a lace curtained foyer with beviled glass window — a guest passage both elegant and pleasing, and a way to leave the hectic world aside. At work I’ll be moving to a fishbowl cube soon, and will be taking my icon of the Theotokos Portaitissa-Vratarnitsa, a guardian Lady of the Gates from Mount Athos. These gate keepers are all over the world, and rightly so! Now thanks to you I will go learn about Zorya Utrennyaya! L, M
Love this story, as I do all that you write and photograph. Thank you for sharing it. My husband is part Polish and our familyhad a wonderful visit to Poland 20+ years ago; I’ll be sharing this with them.
Dear wendyrud, thank you so much! I deeply appreciate every one of your kind comments. It is also nice that you and I happen to be followers of another blog! In fact, I should go visit that one and see how things are there. It is an honor to hear from a kindred spirit like you. Wow, a visit to Poland! That sounds wonderful! Blessings, Mary
Dear Someone, Pozdrowienia i błogosławieństwa!