It’s a Sunday morning in Spring.
Welcome to Krakow, Poland.
Krakow, also styled Cracow or — in Polish — Kraków, has been around since the Stone Age.
Yiddish-speaking Jews, of which the city knew a few in later centuries, called it קראָקע — Kroke.
But it’s not to Jewish Krakow that I take you today.
I spent years living in Krakow — always in the Dominican priory. The place has some history of its own, having functioned continuously as a hive of friars since the year 1222.
It is into that priory that I want to take you now.
If there are readers who don’t want to go: I think I understand, at least partially. A monastery in Poland is a hard sell in an Israeli paper — and rightly so.
But for the intrepid or the curious or the just plain nosy, here is a chance to plunge right in —
— into the heart of hearts of Dominican life.
Because this is a Sunday for final vows.
Taking “final vows” or “solemn vows” in the slang of the monastery means that, after many years (usually 5 or 6) of discernment (i.e., figuring things out), you are ready to pledge to remain in the Order “usque ad mortem” — until death.
The community also pledges to take care of you, even when you’re old and gray.
They’ve voted, after debate, to let you stay. You formally sign away all of your possessions — and any future inheritances or gifts you may receive — to the Order. Lawyers notarize the document. You are left with no other earthly means of support.
You promise never to marry — and indeed to refrain from all sexual activity, forever.
You pledge to be obedient to the current superiors of the community — and to their successors. In the Dominican world, those superiors are democratically elected. But still: maybe you won’t like them?
Yet without these vows — poverty, chastity and obedience — monastic life would be impossible. With them, it is merely difficult.
Why do we do it?
I made my own final vows five years ago. I had occasion to reflect on them as we approached the altar in procession.
On the altar is the book of the gospels and — exceptionally — a gold case containing the skull of Saint Hyacinth, the first Polish Dominican, who died in 1257. In this earthbound and earthy way, he is “present” for the event.
The superior of the Polish Dominicans, of which there are about 450 in 20 different communities, waves incense about.
As usual in Krakow, the church is crammed with people.
It is also filled with magnificent music. For this special day — as on great feasts — volunteer musicians join the choir. There’s an oboe, some violas… and also a huge organ in back, installed during Habsburg times.
The director may have funny taste in tights, she may be young, but she’s great at her job. A flick of her wrist and a world is made.
(The people in this choir aren’t professionals: they sing from the heart. A good sampling of the sort of things you’d hear in our church in Krakow is here. But you can also find our stuff on iTunes. Modernity.)
Here the superior, Father Paweł Kozacki, uses a sort of whisk-broom to sprinkle water on the men in black capes in the front row: there are eight of them, all taking vows.
Then he moves through the whole congregation, sprinkling.
Soldiers are sprinkled before a battle. It’s a sign of cleansing and rebirth — and, to Christians, a call-back to baptism.
(As a priest, I’ve done this sort of sprinkling myself, usually accompanied by merry organ-music. It’s fun to take that wet broom, swing for the fences, and slap some solid suited citizen with a few drops straight to the pisk.)
The custom, once moistened, is piously to make the sign of the cross.
Then the liturgy gets going in earnest.
A phalanx of priests in white chasubles, most of them guests for the occasion, sit rather primly on flimsy folding chairs. The grand oak stalls built for the friars years ago have been surrendered, in a gentlemanly gesture, to the laity.
In this particular church, people spread out on all four sides of the main altar, which stands at the intersection of nave and transept — at the crossing point of a cross-shaped house of worship.
Prayers are said; preliminary readings read.
Then the congregation, with the vow-taking friars on the hot seats in front, rises to its feet.
The incense comes out again, in a brass apparatus called a censer.
The book of the gospels waits on the altar…
… until it is plucked from its place by a reliable deacon — in this case, someone who hopes soon to be ordained a priest.
The deacon elevates the book before the congregation (a gesture you may have seen in another context) and carries it to the pulpit where he reads-sings the chosen text.
This Sunday we had John 20:19-31: the story of “doubting Thomas.”
The liturgy glides along, and the men who are about to make their vows try to simulate a patient demeanor.
But Mama knows whats up; what’s coming next.
The men are called before the altar. But not to stand.
They fall on their faces on the floor.
And they lie thus prostrated while the congregation sings a very long litany invoking many, many saints. This is to strengthen them.
Then, the superior asks the men what they ask of the community.
They answer without rising.
They don’t say, “I want to be a Dominican,” either. That would be superficial.
“What do you ask?”
“God’s mercy and yours,” they shout into the floor.
It’s not a line written for a generation of selfie-snappers — and these men were born mostly in the 90s.
But the words have meaning still. Maybe more than they know.
Now they rise, sit, and are addressed by a superior-more-superior-still: the man called “Master of the Order” — the successor of Saint Dominic.
This man is elected in a worldwide assembly that happens every nine years.
The current Master is of mixed French and Afro-Caribbean heritage. Before becoming a friar, he was a doctor who specialized in tropical medicine.
Maybe it’s his French, or the way his slight figure looks even slighter amongst the bulky Slavs, but I always associate Father Bruno Cadoré with Napoleon Bonaparte.
Here, the diminutive Father Bruno commands a whole church from the main altar as he delivers his homily (scripture commentary) on a line from Psalm 118, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (“.אבן מאסו הבונים היתה לראש פנה”)
Christians think that line refers to Christ. It can also open up a meditation on how folks the world despises can be specially loved by God. That’s where Father Bruno went.
(The homily was given in French and translated into Polish. If you speak either, you can listen to it on Soundcloud, here.)
These men may be listening to Father’s sparkling formulations. Or they may be wondering how they got here. It’s been a long road: many exams passed, many rosaries recited, many carrots peeled, many monastic toilets brushed.
Now they’re promising to keep right on peeling and praying and studying and brushing. Why?
It’s time for the actual vowing of vows.
Each man kneels before the Master of the Order, and — in a medieval gesture of fealty from vassal to liege — places his hands within the folded hands of the superior.
He is placing his life in others’ hands; in someone Else’s hands.
The brother says,
I promise and profess obedience to God, to Blessed Mary, to Blessed Dominic, and to you, [fill in name of superior here], Master General of the Friars Preachers, and to your successors according to the Rule of Blessed Augustine and the Constitutions of the Friars Preachers, that I will be obedient to you and to your successors until death.
So as not to forget, he has copied all this out on that homely card.
When finished, he gets a sort of hug.
And that’s that.
The liturgy goes on, the Eucharist is received, and everyone retreats — in a procession that has to shove itself politely through the standing-room-only crowd — back to the sacristy: the backstage of the church.
There the newly-professed thank the Master in a bilingual little speechlet that has probably been rehearsed a dozen times, like the soliloquy from the school play.
Everyone congratulates the brothers.
They get a final pep-talk…
… take a sort of class picture (with the skull, of course)…
… and move off to the refectory, where vast soup-pots of borsht stand under gothic vaults and bigos (the patriotic Polish stew, mainly of sauerkraut) is served beneath a giant fresco of the crucifixion, out of a steaming heater borrowed from an army field kitchen.
Eating borsht in a white habit requires real finesse.
So that was a Sunday in Krakow.
Which Sunday? Glad you asked.
It was last Sunday. And last Sunday was the first Sunday following the Sunday: Easter.
In the Church, the celebration of Easter (the feast of the Resurrection) is too great to be confined to one day. And so it lasts for an “octave”: a period of eight days.
Wonder where we got that idea?
In the tradition, every day of an octave is equal in dignity and solemnity to the first day of the feast. It is as if the Resurrection — the definitive victory over death — stands out of time. Or the world stands still for it. It refuses to move from the stage.
So last Sunday was not just a day, it was the eighth day.
Early Christians said that the Resurrection meant the renewal of creation, making the day on which God accomplished it a day analogous to the first day of creation when God made the light.
In the middle of the second century CE, Justin Martyr (born in Shechem-Nablus) drew a parallel between the Jewish practice of circumcision on the eighth day and the resurrection of Jesus on the “eighth day.”
Then Cyprian, a third-century Berber bishop of Carthage, connected the “eighth day” with the term “Lord’s Day”: “In respect of the observance of the eighth day of the Jewish circumcision of the flesh, a sacrament was given… because the eighth day — that is, the first day after the Sabbath — was to be that on which the Lord should rise again” (Letter LVIII).
This idea of the New Testament prefigured in the Old is emphatically not a Jewish concept. My hunch is: my Jewish readers can handle it.
The eighth day is a day out of time. It is the day of the perfection of creation.
The eighth day is also the impossible day, the unreachable day, the day yet to come.
It is the day of the Lord.
In Krakow, where sun-fried dew and coal smoke rising in the morning can blur the horizon between land and sky — where nude cherubs’ legs dangle down from chapel ceilings to disturb the field of vision of the hoariest old nun — it’s easy to know that the transcendent is immanent: that heaven’s sublimities can suffuse and transmute the solidities of earth.
On this day, young men withdrew from the world in order to serve the world more totally. They drew in in order to go out.
They made promises that are absurd — unless there’s something finer and more lasting than the stuff we see around us.
Refraining from money, marriage and control over where and how you live make no sense today. They might make sense on the eighth day.
And so we do it. Even if — for now — we don’t quite know why.