Photo: Marian Archives
Scars of Sin
Mercy Message Reflected in the Face of the Black Madonna
Saint Faustina visited Czestochowa on her way to the convent in Vilnius soon after taking her perpetual vows. During the visit, Faustina attended the pre-dawn unveiling of the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa, also known as the Black Madonna.
In Her Diary, St. Faustina recalls that when her prayers before the Virgin were interrupted by another sister summoning her to breakfast six hours later,
...it seemed to me that I had just come ... The Mother of God told me many things. I entrusted my perpetual vows to her. I felt that I was her child and that She was my Mother. She did not refuse any of my requests (260).
I visited Czestochowa five days before my brother's wedding in his bride's small village near Przemysl. That was one day after touring Auschwitz with my father, husband, and sister. When we reached the entrance to the shrine at Jasna Gora, our tour guide told us to join the line of pilgrims approaching the image and to meet her at the back of the sanctuary in 20 minutes.
The Feast of the Assumption was eight days away. Outside, a series of cheering crowds of pilgrims approached the mountaintop monastery every few minutes, finishing journeys that they had made on foot from every corner of Poland. Inside, we pressed slowly closer to the spot where the image hung and listened to the consecration being intoned in Polish.
Beneath the Black Madonna, a special Mass was being offered to bless the rings of the sisters preparing to take final vows. My eyes moved up and down between Our Lady and the altar, not sure where to rest. I had waited months to see the icon — painted, according to legend, by St. Luke on wood from the Holy Family's table and attributed with numerous miracles — but God in the Flesh lay a few feet away, offering Himself to His brides, who with their families knelt quietly in the pews in their black habits and white crowns.
I don't remember which of her many ornate robes the Black Madonna wore that morning, but I remember her wounded face and her hand that gestured toward the Baby in her arms. Praying to Our Lady of Czestochowa had never been a devotion of mine, but as I looked at her, I loved her, particularly for the long scars on her cheek and throat, inflicted centuries ago by invaders and always reappearing over the years despite many attempts by art restorers to cover them.
Back in New York, a few days before flying to Krakow, I had interviewed a woman named Theresa who works in post-abortion ministry in the Bronx. Our Lady of Czestochowa is the patroness of her work. The scars on Our Lady's face, Theresa explained, are like the scars on the souls of post-abortive women: They tell the true story of the abortion war, and they don't go away, even though the world tries to cover them up, clamoring that abortion is a neutral experience.
Staring at the ancient black gashes, remembering Theresa's words, I thought about Auschwitz the day before. The man who had filmed the camp's liberation in 1945 reported that on the prisoners' faces he had seen not elation, but rather only indifference. They didn't care that the Nazis were gone and they were free. Everything had lost its value for them. Opening the camp gates couldn't bring it back. Even the very small children, who would grow up with no conscious memory of their time in Auschwitz, went through life with strange phobias of dogs, men in uniforms, and the sound of the German language. More scars that would never go away.
We finished our procession around the icon, and amid the congregation exiting out the front door, I barely had time to fulfill the promise I had made to Theresa. I unfolded the novena she had given me to Our Lady of Czestochowa. I prayed for her and for souls that have been slashed by sin as Our Lady's face was slashed by arrows and swords. I was almost finished when my father touched my shoulder. It was time to keep moving.
Sometimes it seems there are no sins left to commit. Yet God has given us a constant invitation to mercy and time to answer. He has also given us His own Mother, who, if we ask her, will do for us what she did for St. Faustina: make us her children and refuse none of our requests.
In that icon at Czestochowa, we see a dark-skinned face — a woman's face — and her black child: reminders of ages of suffering at the hands of those who should love them. Her face, torn by our sin, refuses to look away until we see the truth. At the same time, her hands point us to her Son and remind us that by her side we are fighting a battle that Mercy will always win.
Our Lady of Czestochowa, pray for us.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.