The Gates of Dawn
Lessons from visiting a church in Lithuaniaby Ervin Beck
I was teaching expository writing at Lithuania Christian College one day and leading a discussion on my essay “The Ruihley Park Scapegoat,” which had been published in Christian Living magazine. The question was whether the phrase “like Jesus” in the final sentence of the essay was a good use of an allusion.
I thought it was, as a necessary hint at the larger meaning of scapegoat in my essay about how we beat up a childhood playmate. My professional literary friends in the United States had thought it was not, saying it made too blatant what was already implied in the essay. I expected that kind of discussion with my Eastern European students.
Instead, a Russian Orthodox student said that the allusion was bad because it was an offensive use of Jesus’ name, which is too sacred, too holy to be so casually invoked and used in a personal essay. I was taken aback by that comment. But it made me think new thoughts about adoration, worship and Christian faith.
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I was confronted by that question again when we attended a Roman Catholic Mass in nearby Kretinga at the Church of the Annunciation, which is attached to the Bernardine Friary, dating from 1602. The church was packed to overflowing with worshipers of all ages, including many children and teenagers, some of whom had to stand in the aisles.
At first, I thought the angelic music during the service came from a recording. Later I realized it was by an amplified chorus of children, dressed in their everyday jeans and sneakers, whom I could not see because they were too far forward and to the side of the altar.
But I did see many adults in the back and on the side aisles, sometimes moving forward toward altars, on their knees, praying. After the Mass, some worshipers stayed in their benches and spontaneously sang antiphonal psalms in an ancient manner.
It was a foreign way to worship for me, a rational Protestant, but powerfully moving—especially when I remembered that the church had been closed by the Russians in 1945, turned into a museum from 1977 to 1992, reopened upon Lithuania’s independence in 1992 and is now being restored as the town’s main church. The fervent devotion apparent in the service may be related to the community’s having been deprived for so many years of its place of worship.
I observed the same devotion even more dramatically one cold morning in December 2006, when I was walking the streets of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Suddenly the morning sun broke through clouds and shone in Old Town on the towers of some of the 100 churches in the city as I walked up Ausro Vartu Gatve toward the Gates of Dawn in the old city wall.
In the street I heard organ music and singing and assumed it came from the Church of Saint Teresa, which I promised myself I would return to for Mass. I was looking for the chapel of the Madonna of Mercy, known also as the Black Madonna, over the Gates of Dawn. I finally found the little door in the wall of the Saint Teresa Church, opened it and found the long flight of stairs leading to the chapel.
The stairs were worn smooth by the feet of pilgrims, like those now quietly and slowly moving up the staircase. Some stood in place and said prayers, then ascended a few steps and said more prayers. Some were on their knees, praying and gradually moving up the stairs on their knees. The music I had heard was coming from the chapel, where a priest was singing Mass. It echoed hauntingly in the stairwell.
I slowly moved up the stairs myself, a bit faster than the pilgrims.
At the top I strained to look into the small chapel over the gate, packed with the devout, some on their knees, singing responses to the officiating priest. I stood in the anteroom with those who could not crowd inside. Most of the people there were old women, but there were men and younger people, too. Occasionally tourist types moved faster up the stairs, peered inside the chapel, stood a few moments, then left.
Even after the priest finished the Mass and left, pilgrims crowded into the room to see the image of the Black Madonna, pray for healing and perhaps return later with miniature silver hearts, legs, arms or hands to add to the assemblage beside her, in gratitude for the healing their prayers to her had brought.
I moved slowly into the chapel, feeling at that point more like a pilgrim than a tourist, trying to be inconspicuous in my black garb. I did not peer through the large window for its fine view of Vilnius down Ausros Vartu Gatve. Neither did I examine the painting of the Black Madonna and her collection of healing tokens, as I originally wanted to do.
In fact, despite having been there, I cannot really describe the shrine itself. I kept my eyes on the worshipers on their knees. I couldn’t bring myself to kneel and pray to the Madonna, but I did pray in my own way. And to honor the spirit of the place, I even genuflected, something I had never before done.
I wondered why such reverence for the sacred, holy and absolute Other has become so foreign—even embarrassing—in my own religious tradition. These people may not seek peace and justice as earnestly as we do. But Christian peace and justice easily becomes the secularist’s social action, whereas for the Christian it must stem from faithful adoration and worship of what is holy.
At Lithuania Christian College we have tried to help our predominantly Catholic and Orthodox students see that the Christian commitment to peace and justice is a way for them to renew their faith and fit it to the needy postcolonial, postmodern world they are entering.
The pilgrims to the Black Madonna certainly know what injustice is, and they have suffered grievously from it through the Russian occupation that not only closed their beautiful churches but also deported Lithuanians to Siberia and tortured and murdered their friends and relatives in the KGB building in downtown Vilnius. The pilgrimage to the shrine gives them the kind of peace not available elsewhere.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27, NIV).
My musings finished, I went down the stairs into the Gates of Dawn street. Near the shrine I found Sancta, a religious art shop, and bought a candlestick to remind me of the time I joined the pilgrims in Vilnius.
Ervin Beck is professor emeritus of English at Goshen (Ind.) College.
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Ervin Beck is professor emeritus of English at Goshen (Ind.) College.