A Glance of the Heart

Blog of Ewa Bartosiewicz

The scent of Advent

One of the most important passages in the Gospel for me is the anointment in Bethany. Mary breaks a bottle of precious Nard oil and its scent fills the whole house. This fragrance accompanies me every year during the Holy Week, because a creative Franciscan priest from Poznań once decided to give all participants of the liturgy a tiny vial of real nard, and since then I always solemnly open it on Holy Monday. This scene was also the subject of my contemplation at this year’s retreat and made me realise how much I have recently focused on caring for the bottle, and not for the precious oil inside. It was then that I desired the experience of Paschal fragrance to spread over more of my life.

Recently I realised that Advent also has its fragrances. The smell of incense and candles, orange and cinnamon, pine needles and hay, honey and ginger, frosty air in the morning … These are not the smells that accompanied Jesus during His birth (maybe apart from the hay ;)), but they are the smells that correspond with the time of waiting for Him to come back. They express a longing for warmth, for the sun, for closeness. They make life brighter on these gloomy days.

Earlier this year, I was inspired to pray with the book “Touch, Feel, Taste” by Ginny Kubitz Moyer, which offers simple prayers based on all 5 senses. When my head was full of different thoughts, I needed an encounter with God that would involve my body and allow me to experience a God who transcends what is logical and understandable, penetrating everything with His Presence. On the threshold of this year’s Advent, this thought came back to me, especially in terms of fragrances. They have been with me for some time thanks to the aromatherapy diffuser that I received from my students and which immediately caught on in my everyday life, relaxing my shattered nerves in a bit of cedar, rosewood and marjoram. There is also raspberry seed oil on my cupboard and lavender bath salt in the bathroom. At the desk, an Advent calendar with teas inside, waiting to be opened (brilliant idea!), so that my home can fill up with new fragrances that stimulate the senses and open up the soul.

There is something about smells that makes it possible for us to remember the circumstances in which we smelt something for many years. They can also clearly influence our mood and are literally responsible for the fact that life has a taste (maybe it is worth appreciating at a time when many people have lost their sense of smell and taste, at least for a moment). Fragrances also have a special property – they quickly reveal the company we have spent our time with. Pope Francis said that it would be good for the shepherds to smell like their sheep. I think it would be very good if each of us would be filled with the scent of God. May this be our Advent experience.

In the end it doesn’t even matter

This year, for the first time in 11 years, during this November time, I visited the graves of my relatives in my home region. Well-known cemeteries with a thousand lights make an impression and provoke reflection on life and death.

I visited a friend of mine from elementary school, who was severely depressed in high school and committed suicide in her freshman year. I visited the vice-principal of my high school, who died on the day when he was supposed to be on the board of my oral Polish baccalaureate exam. I visited my Grandma, who passed away 2 years ago when I had definitely too many difficult goodbyes in one week. Each of these people and each of these deaths somehow influenced me and broadened my horizon of thinking. Over the last few weeks, I have been drowning in a sea of ​​small things to do, tests to be checked, lessons to be prepared, and tasks to be checked off my list. I desperately need a change of perspective and a constant reminder of what is really important. When looking at the end of life, questions arise about what is worth living for and what would be worth dying for.

At one of the cemeteries in Białystok, we found a piece of paper surrounded by a handful of candles. It read: “Victims of the humanitarian crisis at the border.” Is putting my own candle there really the only thing I can do? Am I sure that I couldn’t have done more? My conscience bothers me when I think about someone dying pointlessly. Because of political games, because of a drunk driver, because of a madman with a gun in his hand, because of war, because of a pandemic… Could it have been avoided? I can’t save everyone, but haven’t I neglected the opportunity to save anyone at all?

A song from many years ago came back to me.

I tried so hard
And got so far
But in the end
It doesn’t even matter
I had to fall
To lose it all
But in the end
It doesn’t even matter

In the end, nothing will matter. Only if I proved to be human at the right moment.

To act or to pray?

Maria and Martha. Contemplation and action. It is difficult to remain indifferent to today’s Gospel. Many times for me it was a remorse: “I should pray more.” Today I am convinced that this conclusion is not always appropriate. I think the best part Mary has chosen is not just that she listened to Jesus instead of running around the house, and Martha’s mistake was not at all that she worked too much and didn’t have time to sit at the Master’s feet.

The key to this story may be Martha’s attitude and the fact that she has taken the worst part by far. She decided not only to do what she clearly did not enjoy, but also tried to force others to do so, causing them to feel guilty. Don’t we all know such attitudes? I have met many people in my life who have done a lot, but it did not give them life at all, only bitterness. However, with great determination they tried to convince the whole world that this was what they had to do and looked down on those who had chosen a different path. I have also met people who were convinced that intense action is wrong because it always leads to empty activism and lacks depth. But will we only gain depth by multiplying the hours of prayer? Not always!

It seems to me that the line between the best and the worst is not the line between prayer and action, but the line between being with God and being next to Him. You can act without God, but you can also spend long hours in prayer without God. So what matters? To be here and now with all of ourselves every minute of our day. Then joy and peace will come, and God will make sure that everything is done. Easy! But how difficult to implement 😉

The apostol with a past

Today we celebrate the apostle Matthew. I must admit that this is my favourite character from The Chosen series for various reasons, but the most important thing for me is that I started to look at this apostle with much more realism. I knew very well that Matthew was a tax collector and that it meant working for the occupant and collecting high taxes from his Jewish brothers. I also knew that tax collectors often dictated much higher rates than the Romans demanded to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. It seemed to me, however, that at the moment when Jesus said “Follow me” and he got up and followed him, the whole reality changed forever and Matthew became a friend loved by everyone … it couldn’t be so!

We often wonder if Matthew was worthy to be looked at by Jesus; we ask how it is possible for someone so rich to quickly decide to change their whole life. However, we probably rarely realise how much regret the Jews must have felt towards Matthew for the tremendous betrayal he committed while collaborating with the occupier, and how hard it was to forgive him. Certainly, the apostles reminded Matthew of his past!

Each of us has made mistakes in our lives that become a huge burden after many years. Sometimes we are directly reproached by others, and sometimes we are so unable to forgive ourselves that despite repeatedly entrusting it to God in confession, we are unable to close a chapter. I think that today, while celebrating together with Matthew, we can ask him for his intercession in this particular matter – so that our past does not obscure our present. God always sees us here and now. May we be courageous in building God’s world, remembering that our history (whatever it may be) has shaped us in such a way that we want to follow Jesus today. That’s always worth celebrating.

Unreliability of human plans

Recently, in Sunday’s second reading, we read the letter of St. James. This letter has many interesting threads – more and less known. While praying today with this letter, my attention was drawn to a fragment which was given the title “Unreliability of human plans” (Jas 4: 13-17):

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”— you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. Instead you should say, “If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.” But now you are boasting in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So for one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, it is a sin.

After 2020, we cannot pass by these words indifferently. In the pandemic, many of us lost loved ones, jobs, and money, but it seems to me that every single one of us has lost our plans. It turned out that in the 21st century we cannot predict everything, we cannot deal with everything. Probably for a short time, but still, we’ve learned a little bit of humility towards the unknown future.

Yesterday I found out that my uncle from my extended family died after a very short illness lasting only 3 months. In one moment, not only his plans, but also his family, friends, co-workers’ plans proved to be unreliable… Nobody is ever ready for death. It is hard not to reflect on the fragility of life at this point.

In Spanish, the phrase “hasta mañana” (until tomorrow) is often used with the addition of “si Dios quiere” (if God wills it). I like this saying very much, because it makes me realise that although I have a million plans for tomorrow, next month and in half a year, which I always don’t have enough time for, ultimately life is not in my hands and the only thing I can do is trust in the One who has it in his hands entirely. He sees the big picture, so I can focus on being here and now.

10 years later…

Today I read the story of a 19-year-old Simon, who left Poland for the Vatican on a pilgrimage without money. He said that he had met such human kindness that although he sometimes slept at bus stops, sometimes he also ate like a king. It reminded me of the stories of Kinga Choszcz (a polish traveler), whose stories inspired me to embark on my own journey. Today it has been exactly 10 years since I got on the plane and wrote on FB: “I’m flying, flying, flying :)”. I landed in Kenya, where I spent 11 life-changing months and wrote almost 130 blog posts about it (unfortunately without English translation 🙁 but if you want to use GT, you can start here).

I also set out on my pilgrimage across Africa with no money, but I know exactly who supported me on this path. Every month, over 30 friends helped me financially so that I could eat and pay those who hosted me. Their generosity allowed me to leave a some money in all the places I stayed, hoping that it would strengthen the good work I witnessed.

Today I know that I would not be the same person if it were not for my African adventure. To a large extent, it has shaped my heart that wants to accept everyone else as they are and try to understand what has shaped this otherness. Today I am a so grateful to God and everyone who was there with me personally and spiritually. I wish everyone could have a chance to experience such a pilgrimage!

The sun and the rain

On Sunday, I was returning from my last holiday trip, remembering many amazing moments of the last two months, but also thinking with curiosity about the upcoming school year, which promises to be fascinating for many reasons. However, I did not expect that inspiring experiences would await me on the regular S8 route between Wrocław and Warsaw. The sky in front of me was covered with soft round clouds, from behind which from time to time a timid sun peeked out and nothing foreshadowed a great downpour that hit the car window in an instant. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw an image like from a dark movie – a wall of rain and darkness. I had the impression that I was on a thin line connecting two worlds.

The simultaneous sun and rain reminded me of an important moment during my retreat. When I saw the exact same view outside the chapel window while praying, I realised how joy and pain intertwine in my life very often lately. A very deep joy, a feeling of incredible happiness, the thought of being loved, chosen and gifted; at the same time, a very acute pain, penetrating the deepest layers of my soul, making me burst into tearing tears at the least expected moment. They exist together and do not interfere with each other at all.

More than two months have passed since it is officially known that I have left the Society of the Sacred Heart. The pain is still the same, but there are also moments of joy. I received an enormous amount of support, which I kind of expected, because it is a human instinct to offer a helping hand to someone whose life has collapsed. However, I did not expect the two messages I received from my former students from the time of catechises in junior high school. Maybe some of you remember that it was a difficult time for me. Apart from many great memories of extracurricular activities, my memory of the religion lessons themselves is rather traumatic and one of the biggest failures of my life. I could not cope with the unruly youth, and the feeling of helplessness accompanied me almost every day. Now, years after those experiences, the rain and sun met again in one moment, because these two surprising messages have arrived. My students thanked me for my testimony of faith; for showing them a God who loves; for not being afraid to talk to them on difficult topics … I was shocked to read what they wrote! If it weren’t for the dark clouds that hung over my life now, I probably would never know about it.

I keep learning that rainy days are needed and do not exclude the sun shining at the same time. If these two worlds did not fit together, we would never have the opportunity to see a rainbow in the sky.

Under the fig tree

Today in the church we remember Nathanael, so we read this amazing Gospel passage, in which there are so many interesting moments: “Can anything good come from Nazareth”, “Come and see”, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no deception in him.”, “You will see greater things than this”… Each of them is suitable for a separate inspiration for prayer and reflection. Today I stopped at the words: “I saw you under the fig tree”. I am not the first or the last to wonder what actually happened underneath that tree and how much it must have mattered to Nathanael as he immediately recognises that Jesus is the Son of God. I think that the version shown in “The Chosen” (S2, E2) looks quite likely, where Nathanel experiences a situation in which his life fell apart. Under the fig tree, he says goodbye to his plans, asking God why they were ruined, since he was sure about serving Him all the time. There he also opens up to God’s guidance and finally allows Jesus from a suspicious Nazareth to assure him that he will see more than he can imagine.

Each of us has moments in our lives when we cannot understand why our history unfolded this way and not another. We may feel that everything is going in the opposite direction to what we previously recognised as God’s way. Meanwhile, maybe this is the moment when Jesus tells us clearly: “You will see greater things than this!”. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but ultimately He will show us a perspective much broader and more amazing than our narrow and human imaginations.

The key to this story, however, may be “no deception”. It seems that coming to God in simplicity, telling Him what hurts us the most and at the same time opening ourselves to the unknown, will be closer to God’s way than forcing Him to implement even the most pious, but still our, plan.

Pilgrims of the last hours

Today’s Gospel about the workers of the last hour reminds me of my personal pilgrimage experience from 3 years ago. Today I wanted to share with you what I discovered then:

“The alley towards Jasna Góra in Częstochowa, 8:15 am, there is still a pleasant chill of the morning in the air. I walk proudly at the front of the pilgrimage, with a lively step, because the painkillers for my tendinitis already started working. In my heart I carry many intentions, but also the hardships of the last days of the journey. Suddenly, in the midst of the thoughts of meeting the Marry and Jesus, for whom I am going on this pilgrimage and to whom I have devoted my whole life, a completely different idea appears. I thought of all the people that have joined us during the weekend or even on the last day before entering Częstochowa and were now walking with us in the same alley. After all, they did not have to endure the terrible heat, they did not come to the medics in the evenings with symptoms of allergy to asphalt, their legs did not hurt, they did not have corns on their feet and they were not taken them from the route by an ambulance. They did not fold wet tents and they were not bitten by mosquitoes during the evenings. So how can they come to Jasna Góra Monastery with us? Will it be fair?

And then suddenly I felt terribly stupid, because as never before, I understood the parable of the workers of the last hour (Matthew 20: 1-16). I saw myself claiming my due so perfectly, even though I had an appointment with God for a denarius. And I got much more than a denarius, because it was not in Częstochowa that was the best, but during the whole journey – I met beautiful people, I experienced the real closeness of Jesus in my suffering, I had the opportunity to share my relationship with God and talk to people who were also looking for Him. I experienced a lot of joy and selfless help, I praised God with all my heart by singing and I laughed every now and then. Did I really envy those who came on the last day and entered Jasna Gora among us? Not at all!

That day I understood how perfidious Satan’s whispers can be, how he easily manages to reduce my thinking to a simple comparison. However, when I start to think about it, it turns out very quickly that whoever came on the pilgrimage at the last day, actually wanted to go from the beginning, but did not get any leave from work; the one who asks for something to eat on the street has never dreamed of being homeless; the last-minute convert is not the most lucky one, because he missed out on a lot of good, investing in everlasting parties.

There is only one question worth asking – am I living the best I can? There is a saying that goes, “If anyone judges your way, lend him your shoes” and there is a lot of truth to it. Looking with jealousy or pity at another person, I have no idea what he has gone through in life and whether the path he is going is the best one. But surely then I do not have time to love him which is the most important.”

The converted wound

We are celebrating the Ignatian year – a commemoration of 500 years since the conversion of St. Ignacy Loyola. It turns out, however, that in Spanish this anniversary sounds a bit different, because it’s the 500th anniversary of “the wound” of St. Ignatius. It has been 5 centuries since the founder of the Jesuits was wounded by a cannonball during the defence of Pamplona. This was, indeed, the beginning of his conversion, because reading the lives of the saints during the convalescence pushed him into giving his life completely to Jesus, but nevertheless this “wound” matters. Sometimes you has to travel 2,500 km to discover such a simple truth.

I have received a gift from God to celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius in Pamplona, ​​where it all began for him. This is also where I started my retreat, which was a time of healing wounds and regaining spiritual strength before the long journey that awaits me (if I follow Ignatius’ footsteps, it will really be a veeery long way). Jesus’ feet also accompanied me. Those that walked many miles on earth, were anointed by a friend from Bethany, carried the weight of the cross… and then were immobilised by sharp nails, but only for a short time, just to walk the earth again very soon. This time different, converted, resurrected. Still hurt though.

We all have wounds inside of us. Sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. But never so great that God could not turn them into glorious scars. This is what Cristóbal Fones SJ sings about, in this song (my translation below):

At the end of our life we will arrive
with the wound turned into a scar

Love will take its toll.
The road will leave us a thousand footprints.
We will stumble over the same wall.
Any disappointment will make a dent in us.
But we are children of a God that is in love.
Thirsty seekers of answers.
We are pure ambition that You sowed,
so that your kingdom would flourish.

We will fight to death with the ego.
We will feel that time is pressing on us.
We will hold on to our defeats.
We will lose the music and the life.
And yet, we will continue dancing.
Because that’s how we are, humans that belong to you.
Bearers of an unquenchable fire.
Believers in a world without borders.

We are excited about our fragility,
dreamers who do not despair.
We will never give up tomorrow
although today the storm touches us.
And if the motives crack
for having chosen your flag,
we’ll keep walking cracked,
because your Gospel is now our land.

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