God and Man in The Poetry of Karol Wojtyła – John Paul II – chapter IV

IV. The Testimony of a Christian

Participation in the work of the Second Vatican Council in the years 1962-1965 and the nomination to the office of archbishop metropolitan of Cracow, marked a new phase in the life of Karol Wojtyla. It also constituted a direct preparation to undertaking the mission of the Peter of our times. The experience the universal Church, contacts with the Council Fathers from all over the world as well as numerous foreign trips, particularly to the Holy Land, enriched the Cracow Bishop with new experiences which found their reflection in his poems. The new poems reflect the process of the inner maturing of the Poet who now becomes a Church dignitary and who takes upon his shoulders the responsibility for faith and the community of the faithful.

In the 60’s of the twentieth century, Rev. archbishop Karol Wojtyla continued to publish his new poems under an assumed name. In the poems, he took up national issues in the context of the Catholic faith. On the whole, he expressed his views on the issue of the presence of Christ in social life, but he also returned to the more personal theme, relating to the experience of the closeness of the Savior in his own life. The mature Poet also looked boldly into the future meditating about his own death. The latter topic returned with a new force in “Tryptyk rzymski” /The Roman Triptych/. The poet is aware of his maturing in faith and of the need to give testimony to others.

1. The Mystery of Baptism – “Wigilia wielkanocna 1966” /Easter Vigil, 1966/

Karol Wojtyla’s subsequent poem entitled “Wigilia wielkanocna 1966” /Easter Vigil, 1966/ was published by Rev. archbishop Karol Wojtyla in the spring issue of the “Znak” monthy in 1966. It appeared under the pen name A.J. [Andrzej Jawień]. The date which appears in the title of the poem is very meaningful as it indicates the millennium year of Poland’s baptism, an event which was celebrated in all of Poland very solemnly, thanks to the initiative of Poland’s primate Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński. At Easter of the same year, there were celebrations connected with the anniversary of the baptism of king Mieszko I, who was baptized on the 14 April 966 in Gniezno. At exactly the same time, the communist authorities celebrated the 1000th anniversary of Poland’s statehood, imparting to these celebrations a totally lay character and disregarding entirely the church celebrations . The Polish Church headed by Primate Wyszyński and all the bishops emphasized that the millennium of Poland’s history is closely associated with Christianity.
The poem Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/ written by Rev. archbishop Karol Wojtyla is a literary reminder of this historic event. It belongs to a handful of works written at this time and devoted to the issue of Poland’s baptism. The author looked at Poland’s baptism and at the thousand years of Poland’s history in the light of Christ’s Resurrection. He referred to the Messianic tradition which had its roots in the Romantic period and which perceived Poland as the Christ of nations, buried by his enemies and rising from the dead in the likeness of the Savior. A still closer context of the Easter Vigil is Stanisław Wyspiański’s play Akropolis /Acropolis/, whose action takes place at the Wawel castle in Cracow on the Paschal Night. It was this play that young Karol Wojtyla referred to in his drama entitled Jeremiasz /Jeremiah/, written in the year 1940.
Yet, in his poem Wigilia wielkanocna /The Easter Vigil/, the Cracow bishop placed himself above the Romantic Messianic tradition. Here he looks at Poland’s history so as to discover in it the plight of man who realizes his humanity through his relation towards God. Man who is conditioned historically and nationally enters into a mysterious relation with God in which he is able to realize himself.
The poem consists of seven parts, each of which in turn consists of shorter poetic works. In the first part entitled Inwokacja /Invocation/, the Poet conducts an internal dialog with himself, wondering what his relation to the history of Poland is. He stands side by side the famous historians: Thietmar of Merseburg and Wincenty Kadłubek. He takes a look at the excavations from Wiślica, touching the earliest historical sources, the very “root of his own tree”. He looks for his beginnings – the sense of his life: “The tree is a body physical. / The history of men, such as I, looks for its own Body.” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 143). The Poet – contemporary man reaches out to the past, so as to get to know himself through history.
When he looks at history, the Poet comes to the conclusion that in this world man lives shorter than a tree , but his life is being prolonged through the generations that came before and those that will come after him. From his observation of history, the Poet draws the conclusion that man realizes himself on two levels: within himself and in God. Both these dimensions become united creating the history of man who is united with God: “Each man in history loses his body and goes toward you. / In the moment of departure / each is greater than history / although but a part (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 144). Paradoxically, thanks to becoming united with God, at the moment of death man transgresses time and other limitations becoming a part of God’s infinity. Man will survive in God although his earthly life is shorter than that of a tree.
In an internal dialogue with a materialist, the Poet engages in a polemic with those who believe exclusively in the material existence of the world. It is true that the human body decays and perishes, but there still remain things that used to belong to man. These things bear testimony to him: “Things do not die a personal death, / man is left with the immortality of things ” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 144).
There is something more in man; something that does not die – namely his humanity. By assuming human nature, Jesus Christ, God-Man also saved the bodily character of life from perishing: “Never separate man from things, the body / of his history. – Never separate people from Man who became / the body of their history. Things cannot save / what is utterly human – only Man.” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 144). Christ who died on the cross conquered death opening a new perspective of eternity before man.
The first part of Easter Vigil, 1966 ends with a prayer addressed to Christ: “I call you and I seek you, oh, Man, in whom / man’s history finds its body” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 145). He is the image of life and death. In Him history finds its sense and man his survival.
In the second part, entitled “A Tale of a Wounded Tree”, archbishop Wojtyla returns to the motif of Poland’s history by recalling the silhouette of the first ruler of Poland, prince Mieszko I. He is, as it were, a gardener who engrafted faith in Jesus onto the old Slavic tree, for future generations: “I shall not taste of this fruit when it grows./ My son will, my grandchildren will and their children.” (Wigilia wilekanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 146). Although the prince was aware of the fact that he would not be able to taste of the fruit when it grows, yet he made incisions on the branches with confidence, trusting that the new fruit, the new tree – the cross – would bring a large crop.
The Slavic tree which has been grafted with the tree of the cross, asks why it should accept a new branch, and why it should supply it with its nurturing juices. In spite of its surprise, it consents to accept the tree of the cross. It agrees for it to grow in the next generation of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The grafted tree then addresses the tree trunk using the following words: “don’t be afraid when I die – don’t be afraid to die with me, / don’t be afraid of death – look, I revive: / death only grazed my bark.” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966, /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 147). The tree grafted into the Slavic trunk is an image of the tree of the cross and a symbol of Christianity which was introduced into the bloodstream of the social and personal life of Slavic Poland. The tree of the cross extends to the future and past generations. It continues to give new life.
In the third part of the poem, entitled Spojenia /Seams/, the Poet reminds us of the spiritual growth of Poland, which thanks to Mieszko’s baptism had joined the Christian world thereby opening new spiritual horizons before the whole nation. The spiritual growth of this Slavic strain gave birth to Copernicus who had changed the whole vision of the world. In the mentality of the Poles, Mieszko was the author of a “Copernican-style” revolution, as he led the people who had previously been the subjects of deities to God who spoke to them in their own language: “When he sought his gods, and fearfully uttered their names / then it was clear: God does not live / in the seams of the world, in human entanglements of fate, / but speaks in his own toungue” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 148). Mieszko made a wise choice and led his subjects out of the dark recesses of superstition and fear of the gods. Poland’s baptism became a breakthrough moment, at which God spoke to Mieszko in his own tongue and he in turn was able to reply to Him in the same language. Through baptism Mieszko and his subjects entered into the mystery of the Divine Fatherhood and they began to feel like the children of the only God. They were introduced into the mystery of the Word and Love.
In Poland’s history, baptism is associated with the formation of a modern language which is capable of expressing what the soul feels. The Poet ponders and reflects on the mystery of the soul in which the merging of the concepts and meanings with words took place: “How did the word God sound on this wave, what its first / meaning, / before it arrived at the meaning it has / in the eternal Word?” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 149). An important role in the process of combining concepts and sounds, was played by the heart and man’s emotional involvement. The identification of the experience of Fatherhood, of Word and of Love with the written or oral expression, was being effected in this very spiritual process. In Poland’s history, the experience of the God of revelation brought about “unity” and national identity.
The fifth part of the poem, entitled Echo pierworodnego płaczu /Echo of the Firstborn Cry/ is devoted to deliberations on the issue of freedom. The experience of faith in God, which brought unity and identity on the level of speech, feelings, concepts and desires, did not destroy man’s freedom. It did not deprive man of the right to decide about himself. The Poet observes that the man who accepts the God of faith, becomes even more aware of his own freedom which is perceived as the right to choose between good and bad. In God, man is able to perceive even more clearly the right to choose: “You have remained in us for ever in the sign of our divisions. / In the sign of our divisions Your unity is manifest, / the unity of Man and Word” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 150). At the same time, the Poet is aware of the inner split which he refers to as a “division” that is a consequence of the original sin. The consequences of the misuse of freedom by the first parents have also had to be borne by the Poles throughout their history: “years later, a thousand years on, we will bring You / the riches of all our desires, riches of our defeats (will, our will: the firstborn cry echoes through the lowest / deck of history)” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 150). The Poet emphasizes that man is constantly being summoned to fill freedom with love, as it is only in this way that he can safeguard himself against the errors of misused freedom.
For the Poet, freedom is a vacuum which man has to continually fill with content. This freedom man at any time become a great threat to man: “In this vacuum vertical lines were breaking, horizons narrowing – / frontiers of freedom. Freedom confirmed itself again and again, / freedom outgrew men” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 151). The Poet concludes that the gift of freedom may be misused by man. It may pose a threat to him as an act of lawlessness, a wish to realize man’s own selfish desires and an act aimed at limiting other people’s freedom. Misused freedom leads to man’s downfall and to degrading his dignity. The answer to the question: how one should take advantage of one’s freedom was supplied by Christ on the cross. He became a measure of freedom for man, limiting it through a rejection of evil and at the same time, extending it to the limits of infinity through a total gift of Himself.
In the sixth part entitled Obrzęd /Ritual/, the Bishop-Poet sings a hymn in praise of the earth on which man takes root for life, but at the same time, cannot quite identify himself with it: “There you take root for life and for death, / and it crushes you into dust” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 151). On earth, man confronts the “compulsion of being”; yet love frees man from this compulsion. It lifts him above the plane of death. Man has received life which gushes out from the earth, like from a water spring. Water is the symbol of life which is stronger than death: “Water speaks more of endurance than of passing” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 153).
The Poet reminds us that during his life on earth, man discovers laws that govern the earth and in doing so, he acquires Wisdom which tells him that life is stronger than death. A clear sign of this victory is the light which does not come from the earth: “Faithful to you, earth, I speak of the light / you cannot give me. I speak of the LIGHT / without which no MAN is fulfilled” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 153). The light becomes a sign of hope in the midst of the process of continual passing. Man receives this light from God, and is thus enable to resist the destructive process of passing.
In the final part which, like the entire poem, bears the title “Easter Vigil, 1966”, the history of the earth, water and light finds its solution in the Paschal Mystery. On the night of the Paschal Mystery, man becomes a witness of the battle of light and darkness, of good and bad and of Christ’s victory: “This is the Night…this is the night of strife when hope and despair do battle within us” (Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/, p. 154). On Pascha Night Christ-the Light descends into the earth’s interior, overcoming darkness and death. From the earth’s interior, from Christ’s tomb, there radiates the light of Resurrection. The Church, the community of believers which constitutes a sign of Christ’s victory in history, is born from keeping watch over Christ on the Night of the Pascha.

2. National Identity – “Thinking My Country…”

As regards both form and content, the poem Myśląc Ojczyzna…/Thinking My Country/, written in 1974, is a continuation of Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/. It was first published under the pen name Stanisław Andrzej Gruda , already after the election of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla to the Holy See in the year 1979. The work has the character of a poem which at times gives way to a meditation or a philosophical essay. It consists of six parts which in turn contain shorter lyrical sections or else philosophical reflections. By means of poetic images, the Poet tries to express his relationship to his native land and to himself.
In the short introduction which opens the poem Myśląc Ojczyzna…/Thinking My Country/, the Author declares his love and attachment for his native country which constitutes an inner space within his heart. He declares that he regards his native land as a great good and a treasure hidden at the bottom of his soul: “When I think my Country – / I express what I am, anchoring my roots. / And this is what the heart tells, / as if a hidden frontier ran from me to others” (Myśląc Ojczyzna…/Thinking My Country/, p. 155). The whole history and the desire to broaden this spiritual space is concealed in this concept.
In the second part, entitled Gdy dokoła mówią językami…/All Around They Speak with Tongues/, the Poet reflects on the language which in the past was common to all people. Yet, in time, the languages became divided, like the streams which have their sources in the mountains. Among the multitude of languages, there is one which we can call “our own”. The language of the Poles grows out of their thoughts and creates a spiritual home, a single family of people who feel and think in a similar way. The Poles speaking in their own tongue constitute islands “surrounded by the ocean of a universal human speech”. Even if in the past they flowed out along the riverbeds into the world, today these rivers have dried up; the common tongue and the feeling of unity with Poland has disappeared. Polish is a difficult language and its scope is limited to a relatively small number of people.
Language determines one’s awareness and the feeling of national identity: “Thus enclosed under one speech among ourselves, we exist / deeply down to our roots, waiting for the fruit of ripeness and of crises” (Myśląc Ojczyzna…/Thinking My Country/, p. 156). The Poet does not feel in any way restricted, due to a relatively small range of his native tongue and a certain “limitation” resulting from the high degree of its difficulty. He is proud of the traditions handed down from generation to generation and of a certain dose of mysteriousness which is created by one’s native language.
The notion of one’s country is also associated with the landscape – in this case Polish landscape. One of the characteristic elements of this landscape are among others, fields of wheat. The poet remembers the characteristic swishing sound of the scythe which in time gives way to the monotonous hum of the harvesters (Myśląc Ojczyzna…/Thinking My Country/, p. 156). In this way, the unavoidable transformations are being effected.
In the third part of the poem, entitled Docieram do serca dramatu…/I Reach the Heart of the Drama/, the Poet passes to the historiosophic reflection on the plight of his native country. He speaks with bitterness about the gift of freedom which was often abused in the past. He emphasizes that one has to continually fight for freedom: “Freedom has continually to be won, it cannot merely be possessed. It comes as a gift but can only be kept with a struggle” (Myśląc Ojczyzna…/Thinking My Country/, p. 156). The Poet recalls the times of national greatness when freedom accepted and treated in a mature way had yielded magnificent fruit. Yet he also remembers the era of the so called “golden freedom” which led to the division of the Country and to national misery. He recalls the times of the heroic struggle for freedom as well as the heroes for whom “freedom was dearer than life”. At the close, the Author appeals to those who have bound their plight with Poland and asks them for forgiveness.
In the subsequent part entitled Refren /Refrain/, the native Country looms to us as a road which is running up the slope to the hilltop; in order to reach the summit, one has to continually climb the steep road. Centuries ago, Christianity- the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, had entered into this Polish reality. In the last part of the poem entitled Myśląc ojczyzna, powracam w stronę drzewa…/Thinking My Country I Return to the Tree/, the Poet reflects yet again on the role of Christianity in the history of Poland. He sees both victories and defeats in this history. He reminds us of the need to remain faithful to the law of conscience and the need to fight with one’s weaknesses: “Weak is a people that accepts defeat, forgetting that it was sent to keep watch till the coming of its hour” (Myśląc ojczyzna…/Thinking My Country/, p. 158). Vigil is nothing else but active expectation for the arrival of the One who is the Redeemer and who continually comes.
Reflection on the history of victories and defeats leads the Poet to the notion of hope which emerges from the Paschal Mystery. His message has a universal character as it concerns not only one’s native Country, but also all nations that are expecting “new earths”.

3. Eschatological Reflection – “Meditation of Death”

Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/ is the last poem published by Karol Cardinal Wojtyla before his election to the Holy See. It appeared in the third issue of the “Znak” monthly in the year 1975, under the pen name Stanisław Andrzej Gruda . In the poem, the poet takes up an important existential topic which is associated with issue of death. He looks at this problem from the point of view of a man who is aware of the passing time and he presents this problem from the point of view of a priest who confronts the fact of death in the context of faith in Christ crucified and resurrected.
The poem consists of four parts each of which takes up a different aspect of death. In the first part, entitled Myśli o dojrzewaniu /Thoughts on Maturing/, the Poet presents an existential description of dying as a process of maturing to the ultimate encounter with God. This maturing is described as a “descent to a hidden core” which is accompanied by the process of gradual dying: “the cells grow calm – though their sensitivity still stirs, / the body in its own fullness / reaches the shores of autumn” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 159). The process of approaching the frontier is referred to by the Poet as a condition where the “surface meets the depth”, a process of “penetrating the depth”. At this stage of the slow death of the body, the soul “opposes death” and is evidently looking for resurrection – it matures to the “difficult encounters”.
According to the Poet, approaching death should be looked upon at the same time as approaching the end and the beginning, as “the end of cultivation is already its beginning”. This process of approaching death is accompanied by “fear” which may be experienced as panic or else as the “beginning of wisdom”. Fear is not a flight or an escape when the transition is taking place in love” “We enter this space, / we depart from that beginning, / and so we slowly return: / for maturity is within love, / transforming fear” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 159). Love offers one a chance to mature in peace to the ultimate encounter.
The Poet anticipates the moment of passing from life on earth to eternity, imagining it as a reaching the “shores of autumn”. He sees both fear and love which struggle with each other at the moment of death. Fear is a form of defense against death and an attempt to return to “existence”, to being, which man has grown accustomed to during his lifetime and is still cherishing in his heart. On the other side, there appears love which draws man in the direction of God in whom “existence finds all its future”. Man walks as if on a rope stretched between the past and the future: ” When we find ourselves at the shores of autumn, / fear and love explode their contrary desires” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 160). The poet’s words touch on the drama of departure from the earth and death. Maturing to this moment leads to the wish to meet God.
In the second part of the meditation, the Poet confronts the Paschal Mystery so as to look for the answer to the dramatic question about death. At first, he states that one cannot stall the process of passing: “You cannot stop the passing currents. They are many. / They mill around, form a field where / you yourself pass, reconciled / because after all something does surge;” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 160). Death is an obvious fact. By observing the passing of the world around him, man grows accustomed to the fact that he has to die. He repeats the truth propagated by the existentialists that life is a journey towards death. Yet man is always looking for a glimmer of hope: “…you will fall lower, this you know for certain; / you turn to dust, / this you know for certain. You exist always deathbound, bound always to the future / which always steps into your current” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 160). Confronting the unavoidability of death, the Poet asks whether it can liberate him from the necessity of passage.
The answer to the dilemma of passing and of the journey towards death can be found in the Paschal Mystery which, paradoxically leads from death towards life. Experience shows that man journeys from life toward death: “Mysterium Paschale – / the mystery of Passage / in which the order of passing is reversed, / since we pass from life to death – ” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 161). Yet Christ reversed this order through His death and Resurrection. However the moment of “Passage” remains a mystery which was confirmed by Christ and by all those who experienced death. The only proof is the Eucharist – the memento of Passage.
In “Mysterium Paschale”, the Poet repeats like a refrain the words: “You cannot stop the passing currents”, emphasizing the inevitability of passing. Yet in this law of passing, there is also inscribed growth, as death leads to life. Christ changed the direction of passing: “ONE of us , one of many / crossed all passing currents, / changed the direction of field where everyone passes” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p.162). Christ’s Pascha is a turning point in the entire process of passing. This mystery was discovered by Peter and John, who ran to Christ’s grave, hardly able to believe in what they saw with their own eyes. The Poet sees here a certain similarity to the shepherds who went to Bethlehem to find that God’s Son had been born. From the grave, the apostles went along the valley of the Cedron stream, through the Garden of Olives to the top of the mountain, as if tracing back the successive stages of the Passion which had led to the Lord’s death. For the Poet, all of these places are witnesses of the truth of Christ’s “Passage”. They help man to discover within himself the spiritual place for one’s own passage: “In each he planted a place of birth, / in each he unveiled a place of life / which grows beyond the passing current, / grows beyond death.” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 162). This place in the human soul is open to the mystery of resurrection. It is a leaven which rises thanks to faith.
In the third part of the poem entitled Bojaźń, która leży u początku /Fear Which Is at the Beginning/, the Poet returns to the issue of the original fear which is associated with human existence. The fear appears at the very beginning of man’s life and gradually grows as man matures towards death. Yet man carries within himself an expectation which is full of hope: “Sliding into death I unveil the awaiting, my eyes / fixed on one place, one resurrection. / Yet I close the lid of my body, and the certainty / of its decay I entrust to the earth” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 163). Confronted with the inescapable truth about death and the decay of the human body, man concludes that it is only God who “can retrieve our bodies from the earth”.
The necessity of passing is juxtaposed by the Poet with faith in Christ who had gone through the gates of death. Only Christ “can retrieve our bodies from the earth”. Thus faith in Christ becomes our chance to overcome the fear of death: “This is the last word of faith going / to meet the necessity of passing, / the word that answers the record / not contradictory to being (death is contradiction) (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 163). Faith in God which allows one to experience Him through the veil is continually being juxtaposed to death and passing.
The third part of Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/ ends with a prayer requesting God to grant us faith which would allow us to overcome the fear of the body and accept with courage the mystery of death. It is at the same time a request for the strengthening of the spirit which experiences the fears associated with getting to know God.
In the fourth part of the poem entitled Nadzieja, która sięga poza kres /Hope Reaching Beyond the Limit/, the Poet turns to hope which is being juxtaposed to death. It is hope that allows one to await the world’s decisions with calm and it is hope that gives sense to our daily efforts. Hope is like a ray of sunshine which comes out of Christ’s empty grave and is like a “space of a great mystery”. In this reality, there appears Christ who gives sense to the passing of the body and to death: “In that space – the world’s fullest dimension / YOU ARE / and therefore both I / and my slow fall to the grave / having meaning: / my passage unto death; / the decay turning me to dust of unrepeatable atoms / is a particle of Your Pasch” (Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 164). The Poet walks along the road of life surveying the reality that surrounds him. While experiencing the transience of this world, he tries to make out the face of Christ thanks to whom he is able to recover hope.
In the world of passage and decay, it is hope that allows the Poet to break away from annihilation. Yet hope cannot be confirmed by experience or else by human knowledge. Hope is only built on Resurrection: “I wrestle with myself, / with so many others I wrestle / for my hope / No layer in my memory alone / confirms my hope, / no mirror of passage recreates my hope, / only Your paschal Passage “( Rozważanie o śmierci /Meditation on Death/, p. 165). Hope wrings the Poet’s “self” from the embrace of death and passing; in his daily life, the poet rests his fear on the Word and forgets about the pain of passing and the uncertainty of the human plight.
The Poet experiences a breath of Wind – the power of the Holy Spirit which opens his heart to the operation of the Paschal “PASSAGE”. The resurrection of Christ gives rise to hope within his heart and becomes a foundation on which he builds his present and future. Hope opposes death. For the Poet, the poem becomes a way of expressing his hope in eternal life in God and at the same time, a testimony of a personal search of an answer to the drama of death.

4. The Face of Christ – Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Anxiety

One of the last poems by Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, entitled Odkupienie szuka twego kształtu, by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi /Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Anxiety/ was written in 1978 and was subsequently published in the “Znak” monthly in 1979, already after the Second Vatican Council . The poem consists of four parts and it has the characteristic form of short verses which give way to philosophical-religious meditation in prose form.
The Poet engages in an internal dialogue with Veronica who, in accordance with the Christian tradition approached the Lord Jesus and wiped His face during the Way of the Cross. Veronica, similarly as Simon of Cyrenea, found herself on the “trail” of Christ heading for Golgotha and became a witness of the great mystery. By touching Christ, she herself became involved in the work of Redemption. Yet, unlike Simon, she voluntarily approached Jesus so as to commit an act of mercy to Him.
The first part of the poem, entitled Weronika /Veronica/ is a record of the poet’s personal reflection concerning the passing of the world. The Poet continually witnesses this process, experiencing it in his own interior. The passing of the world leads to an inner split within him which he wishes to give sense to: “Thus the earth flows by, ordinary days remain. / Between me and the earth there is a continuity, / and a hiatus – a most curious crack in the universe” (Odkupienie szuka twego kształtu, by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi /Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Anxiety/, p. 167). This inner crack within man forces him to continually look for a goal. The Poet’s thought, full of longing after God is what wrenches him out of the routine of “ordinary days”. It allows him to enter into himself and come out into the space where he looks for people and God. It is in this reality that he meets Veronica, with whom he enters into a dialogue: “I wait here for hands with their fill / of daily tasks, / I wait here for hands bearing / ordinary linen.” (Odkupienie szuka twego kształtu, by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi /Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Anxiety/, p. 168). Her gesture of wiping Christ’s face, takes on a special significance as an act of disinterested love. Veronica did not desire fame of any kind. She overcame her own fear and apparoched the Convict, so as to show him her compassion.
Thanks to the gesture of wiping Christ’s face – the Poet observes – every man has a chance to discover within himself the power of disinterested love and the magnitude of his own humanity. Man must rediscover the hidden potential within himself: “No ready footpaths for man. /We are born a thicket / which may burst into flames, into the bush of Moses, / or may wither away.” (Odkupienie szuka twego kształtu, by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi /Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Ankiety/, p. 169). The gesture of disinterested love has to be continually nurtured in one’s heart, until it becomes a natural reflex and an everyday need. It is in such love, given straight from the heart, that the Poet discovers the “seed of eternity”.
In the third part of the poem, the Poet meditates on the mystery of the very name Veronica. He wonders what she must have experienced when she approached Jesus carrying the cross: “Did you first learn to cut your way / as the crowds pushed toward the place of Execution – / or did you always know how? / Since when, how long – tell me, Veronica.” (Odkupienie szuka twego kształtu, by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi /Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Anxiety/, p. 170). The Poet refers to Veronica as „sister”, perceiving within Her heart a great desire to be close to Jesus, to sympathize with Him and assist Him. Already in the way she looks at Jesus, one can detect great love, which she confirmed by her bold act. The image of Jesus became ingrained in her heart. Love allowed her to reach the Lord Jesus, to overcome fear and enter into a close relationship with Him; a symbol of this relation is the reflection of Jesus’ face on Veronica’s kerchief. Veronica’s kerchief reflects the cry of many loving hearts that are looking for Jesus.
The culminating point of the poem comes in the fourth part entitled Odkupienie /Redemption/. Here the Poet observes that after Jesus’s had passed her by, Veronica remained alone with the kerchief in her hand. In her heart, there arose a vacuum which continually pined after the closeness of Christ: “He is gone. When man departs, the closeness flies away / like a bird. / A gap in the heart’s flow – and yearning breaks in. / Yearning – hunger for closeness.” (Odkupienie szuka twego kształtu, by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi /Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Anxiety/, p. 171). Yet Christ remained in the mystery of Redemption and continually passes through man. He brings peace which is the consequence of man’s union with the Lord Jesus.
The Poet ends his meditation on the presence of Christ’s image with a reflection on Veronica’s mysterious linen. It is the linen that became the starting point of the search after the One who made an imprint of his face: “Redemption looked for your form to enter / the anxiety of all men” (Odkupienie szuka twego kształtu by wejść w niepokój wszystkich ludzi /Redemption Seeking Your Form to Enter Man’s Anxiety/, p. 172). Redemption enters the life of every man creating an internal space within his heart w2hich may be filled exclusively by Christ.

5.The Fruits of Faith – “Stanislas”

The last poem written by Karol Cardinal Wojtyla and published already after his election to the Holy See, was entitled Stanisław /Stanislas/. The title of the poem points out to St. Stanislas, a Cracow Bishop and Martyr, whom Karol Wojtyla succeeded as bishop of Cracow in the years 1963-1978. Cardinal Wojtyla supervised the preparations to the celebrations of the 900th anniversary of St. Stanislas’ martyr’s death that took place in Cracow in the year 1979. The above anniversary was celebrated by him already as pope during his first pilgrimage to his Fatherland in June of 1979. In 1972, on the anniversary of the St. Stanislas’ nomination to the Cracow bishopric, Cardinal Wojtyla initiated preparations to the jubilee of the martyr’s death.
In Karol Wojtyla’s poem, St. Stanislas looms to one as “the first ripe fruit” of Christianity in Poland. Less than a hundred years since Poland’s baptism, which was accepted by prince Mieszko I, Poland produced a martyr, in this way confirming its attachment to Christ and its readiness to testify about Him toward nations. This testimony of the first Polish martyr served as an occasion to make comparisons between the history of the first centuries of our Fatherland and the contemporary times. At the same time, one should note here that with his poem Karol Cardinal Wojtyla took part in a lively debate on the relation between the authority represented by the assassin – king Boleslas the Bold, and the spiritual authority of the Church. The Cracow archbishop perceived St. Stanislas as a moral authority pointing out to the need to subordinate one’s private interests to the Divine law. At the same time, he wished to express his opinion about the ongoing discussion on the role of the Church within the state.
At the same time, the author of the poem Stanisław /Stanislas/ meditates on the extraordinary relation between the mission of the bishop-martyr and the penitent king-traitor which affected Poland’s entire history. St. Stanislas’ martyr’s death became an important element in the process of acquiring Christian and national identity by the Polish people. The attitude of the king-penitent did not undermine the authority of the state, but showed its strength in the light of faith in Jesus Christ. After Wigilia wielkanocna 1966 /Easter Vigil, 1966/ and Myśląc Ojczyzna…/Thinking My Country/, the poem Stanisław /Stanislas/ became the third important commentary of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla on Poland’s history.
The poem consists of two unequal parts. The first, much longer one, constitutes an attempt to describe the Church and its nature. The Bishop-Poet presents the Church from the perspective of his own personal experience and in the light of Poland’s history. The author experiences very profoundly the moment of its birth within his own heart: “I want to describe the Church, my Church, / born with me, not dying with me – /nor do I die with it”. (Stanisław /Stanislas/, p. 173). The Church is perceived here as a divine-human reality which is timeless thanks to God, and which opens the perspective to the past and to the future. It is a sacrament that is a sign of the presence of God in the world. Thanks to the Church, a Christian is rooted in God, “who is the Father”.
The Church as the divine-human reality became associated with a concrete space on earth which lies “in the Vistula basin”. Thanks to it, the Poet remarks, everything that people experience on earth, finds its reflection in heaven. For the Church carries within it, in its sacraments, Jesus Christ who is God. This union with God is effected through individual decisions taken by the people who live on this earth. St. Stanislas occupies a special place among the first Christians on Polish territories: “I want to describe my Church in the man whose name was Stanislas” (Stanisław /Stanislas/, p. 174). Bishop Stanislas confirmed his attachment to the Church with his own blood, with the sacrament of Christ on earth. In this way, he confirmed the baptism with water which had taken place one hundred years earlier.
The Poet describes the moment of St. Stanislas martyr’s death, and carries out a profound analysis of this situation. In accordance with the traditional accounts, the Cracow bishop was murdered with the sword of Boleslas at the time when he was celebrating the Most Sacred Sacrifice: “At that moment, the Body and the Blood being born / on the soil of human freedom were slashed by the king’s sword / to the marrow of the priest’s word, / slashed at the base of the skull, the living trunk slashed. / The Body and the Blood as yet hardly born, / when the sword struck the metal chalice, and the wheaten bread” (Stanisław /Stanislas/, p. 174). The death of bishop Stanislas had a symbolic dimension. Not only the Church, but also the Polish national identity were born from his martyr’s blood united with the Blood of Christ.
The Bishop-Poet empathizes with the situation of king Boleslas. The Church was not born from the word of reprimand addressed by king Boleslas to bishop Stanislas, but from the blow of his sword of death: “[The Church] will be born of the sword, my sword which severs / your words in mid-flow, / born from the spilled blood” (Stanisław /Stanislas/, p. 175). The Holy Spirit combined into a single event the shedding of blood of the bishop with the word of Christ proclaimed by the priests. Thanks to the martyr’s death, the word was endowed with a new strength of leading toward Christ.
In the subsequent stanza, the Poet looks at this historic event from the perspective of a martyr. Bishop Stanislas was convinced that the king will accept the penance and will change his life. Yet, the bishop’s words did not exert an influence on the changing of the king’s attitude. What was needed was the martyr’s death: “If the word did not convert you, the blood will” (Stanisław /Stanislas/, p. 175). In the first century of Christianity, the Martyr’s death proved to be decisive in accepting the faith in Christ.
In the second part of the poem Stanisław /Stanislas/, Cardinal Wojtyla presents a wide perspective of his native land which he traveled the length and breadth of. He delights in the landscape and then takes a look at its people; he comes to the conclusion that it is a “land of hard-won unity”, a land which is torn up into regions by the princes and separated into three major sections during the time of the partitions. Yet, it is a land which nevertheless continues to exist in the hearts of his countrymen, a land “through this tearing united in the hearts of the Poles as no other land” (Stanisław /Stanislas/, p. 176). The Poet ends his poem with a statement that the name Stanislas was granted to all the Poles.
Cardinal Wojtyla’s last poem before his election to the Holy See, is a great hymn in praise of faith in God which was revealed in Jesus Christ. St. Stanislas is an extraordinary martyr who witnessed the union of this faith with the soul of the Poles and the birth of the Christian and national identity. Paradoxically, this death did not destroy the young Polish state, but helped to further strengthen the national spirit.

6.The Fulfillment of Man’s Plight – the Roman Triptych

A poet may never rest as his sensitivity to the external world and his personal experiences need to be continually externalized. On entering the boat of St. Peter in order to steer the Church across the stormy waters of the contemporary world, John Paul II did not rest either. Poetry accompanied him also in the Vatican, in the very center of the Church, becoming once again a way of expressing what is inexpressible.
In the year 2003, the St. Stanislas Publishing House in Cracow, published John Paul II’s poem entitled Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/ which was subsequently translated into over thirty world languages . The poem consists of three parts, as it were of three great canvasses or three acts in a play. The poet guides us through three realities, so as to finally confront the last and final one which is still before him. In the first part, we are invited to take part in a mountain hike and to contemplate the beauty of nature. The second unveiling of the triptych is multi-layered. Together with the Holy Father we admire the magnificent legacy of Michelangelo: the creation of man and of the world, and the scene of the Last Judgment. While admiring the magnificent colors, we pass on to a contemplation of the Book of Genesis which describes the work of creation. In the background, there emerges a reflection on God the Creator who creates things out of nothing. He is the eternal vision and utterance. The third act of the Triptych takes us to Ur in the land of the Chaldeans, from where Abraham sets out on his pilgrimage of faith.
In Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, John Paul II returns to the primeval way of expression. For poetry and drama constituted the very first means of expression of one’s reflections regarding man and the world in which he lives. After years of teaching through the written word – it is enough to mention here the great papal encyclicals: “Redemptor hominis”, “Dives in misericordia”, “Dominum et vivificantem” – the pope returns to poetry. Maybe the reason for this is that the language of the symbol is more suitable to express the mystery which is God and man who is looking for his place in this world.
In the poetry of John Paul II, one can feel a great longing after the return to the beginning, to the lost paradise, where man was close to God. Yet the pope does not suggest that we should surround ourselves with some Romantic illusion. He surveys the world around him and it allows him to discover in its beauty God the Creator: “How amazing is Your silence / in everything, in all that on every side / unveils the world of creation about us…”(Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 509). He looks at the world of art, at the world of colors and shapes and comes to the conclusion that everything which God created was good: “It is the Book of Beginnings – Genesis. Here, in this chapel, Michelangelo penned it, not with words, but with the richness of a riot of colors” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 512). The Author’s realism consists in the fact that while seeing the beauty of the beginning, he also notices the presence of sin, the Last Judgment and the finite nature of his own life. He returns to the beginnings is faith, where Abraham, the “father of faith” teaches us how to listen to God and how to set out on a journey.
When reading the Roman Triptych, we come into contact with a Master of the word who is trying to overcome the resistance of words, so as to tell us about God who is present in the universe. He uses different colors to render the beauty of the world and of its Creator: the green of the forest, the silver of a mountain stream. The space in which God lives is full of light. Like a medieval master, the Author of Triptych wants to introduce us to the mystery of the universe, where God invites one to co-participate in the act of creation: “He is the Creator. / He embraces all things, creating them and / sustaining them in being” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 511). The pope is at the same time a mystic who encourages us to contemplate the infinite beauty and good.
In the Roman Triptych there return motifs which were undertaken earlier on in Karol Wojtyla’s juvenile poetry and plays, in the philosophical treatises (Miłość i odpowiedzialność /Love and Responsibility/, Osoba i czyn /Person and Deed/) as well as in the papal teaching: e.g. the theme of creating man in “the image and likeness” of God, endowing people with the ability to pass on life, fatherhood and motherhood, man’s pilgrimage through life, suffering and sacrifice, man’s longing after God’s closeness and unity. It is as if the Holy Father wanted to express what he did not express till the end in the encyclicals; it is as if he wanted to take us by the hand and lead us to the Source.
St. John of the Cross wrote poetry about the soul which is looking for God, which sets out on a journey and experiences nights of cleansing; he wrote poetry about the fire of the Divine love. Afterwards, he explained the meaning of his poems in his philosophical treatises. John Paul II comes forward with the idea of poetry as a supplement to the papal documents, an invitation to meditation.
The first part of Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, entitled The Stream is a reflection on the beauty of nature and the mountains. The Holy Father introduces us to the way he experiences the mountains. We see a wood which slopes down to the valley creating what looks like a bay. The dark green of the trees clearly cuts itself off from the forest glade. Further down one can make out the contours of the mountain stream.
From the poetic image there emerges a White Figure. It is as if we found ourselves somewhere in the Chocholowska Valley or somewhere above the Kalatówki glade in the Tatra mountains. The pope listens to the silence. He invites us to admire the mountains and its nature, to set out on a hike upstream and inquire about the origin of this beauty, and about its Creator: “The undulating wood slopes down / to the rhythm of mountain streams/ To me this rhythm is revealing You / the Eternal Word” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 509). The first part constitutes a prelude to the great work. The poet set out on a journey uphill following the mountain stream to its source. During his walk, he enters into his own interior where he discovers a mysterious place of encounter with the Eternal Word. He pauses, so as to experience the beginning and ask for the end.
In the second part of Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, we are transferred to the Sistine Chapel. Following St. Paul, the Author reminds us that in God “we live and move and have our being” (Ac 17:28). This very first experience of our existence serves the Holy Father as an opportunity to ask the question: who He is – the One who gives us life. He is the Word that gives the beginning to everything. He is the principle and the first archetype which we detect in every creature: ” He – the First to see – /saw, and found in everything a trace of his Being, of His own fullness. / He saw: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 511). In the Word of God, one finds hidden the whole world animate and inanimate, which was and which will be in the unknown future. The Book of Genesis expressed in words the mystery of existence and creation. Michelangelo expressed it in magnificent images and colors on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Together with the Holy Father, we stand at the threshold of the Sistine Chapel, admiring the beauty of the paintings executed by Michelangelo. We can see the separation of light and darkness, the creation of the seas and oceans, the creation of man: “Here, then – we look and see / the Beginning, which came forth from nothingness / in obedience to the creative Word. /It speaks from these walls” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, II, 1, p. 513). A glance at Michelangelo’s illustration of the creation of the world leads the pope to pose a question concerning the Creator himself. Right now, the White Shepherd bids us stand at the threshold of the Book of Genesis and admire the goodness and beauty of God who created the world and man. This beauty was rendered by Michelangelo with a riot of colors.
By creating man, God inscribed in his heart his image and likeness: freedom, ability to love, give life and reason. All these gifts were good and pointed to God the Creator: “And God saw that it was good. / He saw, and He found a trace of His Being – / He found a reflection of Himself in all things visible” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 514). The whole of creation, and particularly man is a magnificent work of God which reflects His magnitude and goodness. In the eyes of God, everything was good and innocent and that is why, the first parents were naked and did not experience shame in the presence of each other. Their gaze was clear and “everything was uncovered and transparent” before their eyes. They got to know the world in God. He who is the “Communion of Persons” reflected His unity by creating man as a man and woman, destining them for unity through mutual complementation and self-giving: “God bestowed on them a gift and a task. / They accepted – in a human way – the mutual self-giving / which is in Him ” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 515). They experienced unity in fatherhood and motherhood reaching out to the beginning and participating in the mystery of creation.
Yet sin disturbed this clear vision and introduced anxiety into this perfect reality. As history of the world shows, in this good world, there is also evil. The author of the Roman Triptych observes that on Michelangelo’s beautiful painting one can also detect a serpent which introduces an element of misunderstanding that is reflected on the faces of Adam and Eve as mutual accusation. Sin had revealed everything and the innocent nakedness of the first parents turned into defenselessness in the face of death.
A culminating point in the second part of the poem which complements the image of creation described by the author of the Roman Triptych is Judgment. This image dominates the entire poetic vision contained in the second part of the work. It is the end and height of transparency. Not everything dies, but man stands before the One who is the Lord of life and death. He is the Judge who knows the beginning and end: Non omnis moriar – /. What is imperishable in me, / now stands face to face before Him Who Is!” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 517). In Christ-Word, man finds the sense of his history from creation, through sin, right up until Redemption, as “the universe came forth from the Word, and returns to the Word”.
From reflection on the beauty of the world, the Holy Father leads us to reflection on passing which finds its completion in eternal God. The truth about passing is referred by the Poet to himself. It is here in this chapel that after his death, the cardinals will gather in order to elect the pope’s successor: “It is here, beneath this wondrous Sistine profusion of color / that the Cardinals assemble – / the community responsible for the legacy of the keys to the Kingdom” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 518). Reflecting on the truth about the beginning and end of human life, the Pope reaches a point when he becomes aware of his own death. Yet while reflecting on this fact, he does not succumb to fear or freight. He is filled with an extraordinary realism and courage that flow from a conviction that not everything ends on this earth. The Author realizes that he too will pass, but after him there will come the cardinals who will elect a new Peter. The latter will take care of the “legacy of the keys”. In the succession of life and death, the Author perceives a “transparency of history”.
In the third and final part of Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/ which closes John Paul II’s reflection, we are led to Ur in the land of the Chaldeans as well as to the hill of Moriah, associated with the biblical Abraham. The latter is a symbol of a man who travels the earth, who has believed in the promise and experienced the presence of the Invisible. The latter came to him in the shape of Three Travelers: “There were three travelers whom he received / with great respect. / Yet Abram knew that it was He, / the One. / He recognized the Voice. He recognized the promise. / A year later, with Sara, they both rejoiced / at the birth of a son” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 520).
Abraham who believed the words of God, received a new name and became a sign of God who is present among his people. The patriarch went even further and he did not hesitate to sacrifice to God his own son Isaac on a hill in the land of Moriah. Abraham became an augury of the perfect sacrifice which was made by God the Father of His Son Jesus Christ. Out of love, God gave his own Son: “For God revealed to Abraham / what it means for a father to sacrifice his own son – a sacrificial death. / Abraham – God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in Him / should have eternal life” (Tryptyk rzymski /Roman Triptych/, p. 523). Abraham made a covenant with the Eternal Word and in this way became a sign for all travelers journeying through the earth.
The Roman Triptych constitutes John Paul II’s mature reflection on his own life and on the plight of man – a traveler journeying through the world. Man is taut between the beginning and death which acquire a new sense thanks to the Word – Jesus Christ who being the Beginning and End, the Alpha and Omega had at the same reached out to death. In his journey through the earth, man has been equipped by God with faith which was revealed for the first time by Abraham. Faith is the guide that leads one through the wilderness of the world and is the only point of reference in the midst of the passing time and the changing forms.

The mature poetry of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla and subsequently of the Holy Father John Paul II, describes the experience of fulfillment in faith which is expressed in the acceptance of one’s own plight, as well as of the joys and sorrows, anxieties and queries associated with one’s faith. Like Abraham, the Poet confronts boldly the challenges of life. He explicitly names the places where Christ had touched him with His presence. He boldly goes out to encounter the adversities and difficulties of life, deeply convinced about the fact that he is being led by the One who is his Master and Friend.

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