I find one of the great joys in retirement to be the freedom to enjoy "travel". Whether I’m within the United States or abroad, I love seeing new places, meeting new people, and embracing new cultures. One of the most important aspects of retirement is finding something you love doing to help occupy your time and keep you busy, as well as help keep you emotionally and physically healthy. Be it volunteer work, gardening, painting, travel, or whatever, find your niche of retirement happiness to develop and pursue.
Countless articles about travel have been written about every travel topic imaginable. You can access them all online. Rather than write for you about something you can research yourself, I am going to share with you a short story here about a fun travel experience I had and a "small plastic memory" for me it created. Trust me, beyond the amazing sites you will visit as you travel, beyond the food you will savor, beyond the thousands of photos you will take, beyond the treasured new friendships you will make, are the STORIES and memories you will take back with you as you return home. Those stories are priceless. You will make and share many of them with your travel friends.
I have many I could share with you that I think would make you smile, but today, I'm going to take you on a short trip to Poland with me and share a mystery with you involving a very special and unique, even blessed "pig". I hope you enjoy it! Be sure to continue to read and discover the story of the mystery pig.
While touring through Eastern Europe in 2017, I was fortunate to visit the famous, religious icon, the "Black Madonna and Child", housed in the small town of Czestochowa, Poland.
Our visit was on a bright and sunny Sunday morning. The monastery grounds and cathedral were beautiful, ornate, and filled to overflowing with worshippers.
A group of children dressed in white were receiving their First Communion that day. We watched each other with equal, smiling curiosity. After first spending time outside strolling through monastery grounds, we entered the cathedral to eventually pass quietly beneath the centuries-old painting of the "Black Madonna and Child".
The cathedral is a holy pilgrimage site to Catholics who come from around the world to visit it yearly. The busy site has been modified to accommodate thousands of visitors each day. Some information is provided below to give you a brief history of this Catholic icon.
The photos I took don't do justice to the beauty and ornate detail everywhere in the cathedral.
I hope you enjoy the historical account, the photos, and the "Mystery". _
Historical Information: The Black Madonna of Czestochowa (Polish: Czarna Madonna or Matka Boska Czestochowska, Latin: Imago thaumaturga Beatae Virginis Mariae Immaculatae Conceptae, in Claro Monte, is also known as "Our Lady of Czestochowa". It is a revered icon of the Virgin Mary housed at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland.
Several Pontiffs have recognized the venerated icon, beginning with Pope Clement XI who issued a Canonical Coronation to the image on September 8, 1717, via the Vatican Chapter. The "Black Madonna" dates to the 14th century. It is a bejeweled, Wooden, 700-year-old icon. Other Popes to have visited the monastery site include Pope Pius X, and Pope John Paul II.
In the painting, The Black Madonna is holding the Infant Jesus. The figure also features her wearing fleur-de-lis robes, with slashes visible on her right cheek. The origin of the slashes is unknown. The four-foot-high painting displays a traditional composition well known in the icons of Eastern Christians. The Virgin Mary is shown as the "Hodegetria" ("One Who Shows the Way"). In it the Virgin directs attention away from herself, gesturing with her right hand toward Jesus as the source of salvation. In turn, the Child extends His right hand toward the viewer in blessing while holding a book of gospels in His left hand.
There is much more historical information about the "Black Madonna and Child", beyond my brief overview. Please go online to learn more about her, how she came to Poland, and the role She plays today in the Catholic faith. I am not Catholic myself, but you don't have to be to enjoy learning about her amazing history!
"The Mystery Pig of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa"
Upon entering the cathedral on the monastery grounds, hallways narrowed as we walked past paintings of religious figures, ornate statuary, high arched ceilings, and beneath ornate, suspended lighting. Stained glass windows with morning sunlight shining through them bathed elaborate designs on marble floors with a rainbow of colors. Heavily carved wooden doorways, gold clad figures, and crosses and crucifixes of every imaginable size and configuration surrounded us. We walked over large crypts beneath our feet in some hallways. Crypts were covered with huge bronze covers emblazoned with images and historical information of the priests resting within.
The mood was calm, solemn, and reverent. As we drew closer to the central cathedral, the sound of the distant choir singing became less muffled and more prominent. Our group grew closer together, shoulder to shoulder as we entered the crowded cathedral. We walked slowly in a roped-off lane about five feet wide. The lane circled the perimeter of the cathedral, lettering us move slowly to pass beneath the elevated altar, to view the "Black Madonna and Child" suspended high on a wall above.
I shuffled softly past trimmed and capped, marble pillars lining the walkway. Slowing as you walked wasn't really an option. You moved with the silent crowd flow. Sometimes, as I was nudged, I reached out and up to hold to a pillar to help balance myself. That's when I first noticed and touched it. Resting atop the edge of a colorful pillar trim piece, about seven feet off the ground, was a small, "plastic pig", looking down at me. She was only about three inches long. I say, "Looking down at me" because she literally was. She had her head tilted downward, and appeared to be watching me. "She" appeared milk-filled and ready to nurse her litter.
The moving line had stopped as visitors took no-flash photos, but my attention was now focused on the pig. Why was she there? How did she get there? Was she supposed to be there? How long had she been there? My first thought was that a child must have left her. But that couldn't be. No child could reach that high to place her there. I looked around, surrounded by an ocean of people, but nobody was paying any attention to me or the pig, but me. She seemed lonely up there, ignored, apparently invisible to everyone but me. Hundreds, even thousands could have walked beneath her, unaware of her presence. The line shuffled inches forward. Should I tell someone? Do I abandon her? Do I rescue her? The organ echoing throughout the cathedral, the choir singing like Heavenly angels, with Madonna and Baby Jesus looking down to me from mere feet away, I made my decision. I TOOK THE PIG!
Clutching her in my hand, I passed slowly till directly beneath the "Black Madonna and Child". I took the obligatory photos, was in awe of the beauty of the reverent religious, masterpiece work of art, and watched Baby Jesus, looking directly at me. I couldn't keep it. I was standing before an image of the Mother of Jesus and Son of God. That’s a pretty heavy place to be with your conscience. I was a sorrowful thief in His midst. I had to surrender the pig to someone, but who and how? As we made our way on, the pig rested safe and secure in my shirt pocket. My conscience felt better now. After all, I hadn't traveled half-way around the world from Illinois to become a plastic pig thief in a monastery in Poland. My decision was made and my conscience cleared. My "pig theft" would be turned into a "pig rescue" so I could sleep with at night.
When we had first entered the monastery property, our tour group was turned over to the care of a kindly priest dressed in a flowing white robe. He was the very friendly and knowledgeable, elderly, Father Paul.
He shared information with us about the monastery grounds, its history, and the history and role of the "Black Madonna" in Poland and in the Catholic faith.
He led our group, answering questions, sharing an occasional joke, and offered a warm welcome. He disappeared through a doorway as our tour came to a close. I assumed he was going to meet and lead another tour. He would have been the perfect priest to have surrendered the pig to, but he was gone.
The last stop on our tour gave us time to explore a monastery garden and visit a small gift shop. I wanted to go into the gift shop to see if they had a Rosary I could buy to give to my sister as a small gift. After selecting a Rosary, I turned to leave the counter. Standing directly before me was Father Paul. My tour guide and God-sent confessor was smiling at me. After smiling and saying, “Hello Father”, I said, "Father, may I speak to you a moment please?" We stepped to the side. I took his hand to shake it and thanked him for his effort to welcome us as visitors and be our guide. He replied, “That’s very kind of you to say. I appreciate your kindness.”
Releasing his hand, I reached into my pocket and took out the plastic pig. I said to him, "I have a story and confession to make to you about this pig." He gave me a puzzled look as I told him everything. I told him my first impulse was to keep it, but it wasn't something I could ever justify. He looked at me with a huge smile on his face and looked at the pig carefully. Then he looked at me and said softly, "What would you like me to do with this pig?" I replied, "I have no idea, Father. Whatever you think is right." He paused a moment, then spoke. "Maybe you were meant to find and keep this pig. Maybe it was left there for only YOU to find. Maybe you were supposed to find and keep this little pig with you forever so you would always hold a piece of your visit here and a vivid memory of the "Black Madonna" in your heart. I believe that. So, you keep the pig. Both of you have my blessing". He handed the pig back to me and placed it in my palm, closing my hand around it. What a kind and understanding man. He was kind enough to pose moments later for a picture with us.
I carried that little pig with me through Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. She returned with me to the U.S. through customs, where she got a very puzzled look from the Customs Agent. Now she is in a display cabinet in my home. I brought several items home with me from Europe, but none of them are as valued to me as the memory of Father Paul and that little pig.
I've already decided that if I ever return to Poland, the pig is returning with me. If I never return, she can be mailed back to the monastery with a copy of this story. I’m sure they will be happy to return her where she belongs for me. She needs to be returned home, to that same pillar, in watchful view of the "Black Madonna and Child". It's time for her to move on to be found by a new visitor, and begin a new adventure. I hope her new owner creates a great memory with her. I hope it's one as valued and joyful as mine is. This little pig is blessed, and she only deserves the best! If you ever visit the "Black Madonna and Child" in Czestochowa, Poland, look up at each marble pillar you pass by. She may be resting atop a trim piece, waiting there for you!
About the Author
Gene Beltz is a retired, professional educator. Having spent 12 years teaching high school Language Arts, 30 years serving as a Grade School Principal, and State and Federal Programs Director. He has a great interest in current events, politics, family, and travel. "I see learning and sharing as life-long experiences to embrace and grow from. I have friends across the spectrum of issues that I respect, admire, and often discuss differing sides of issues with. Above all, I love family and cherish my wife, children, and grandchildren. I hope my comments create smiles, thought, and sometimes even stir people to action. I think a well-informed public makes our nation wiser, safer, and stronger. I love our country, rejoice in her greatness, and am proud of her efforts to constantly move forward to be better. There is much more about me and my life you may sense as you read my stories and comments I share here with you. I hope you find them enjoyable!"
Contributor since January 23rd, 2018