FEATURE | APRIL 2015
Polish Hymns: Home of Meaning and Spirit
Music and songs are not indifferent, nor is their selection arbitrary. They create personalities and inspire generations. Think of how the rock musical “Hair” led the tyranny of self-expression. Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” dissolved Catholic faith symbols into erotic sexual attraction. “Losing my religion” hinted at a generation’s indifference to organized religion. The list of how songs, and more recently marketing ditties and Super Bowl commercials, form social identity, bond groups, and express desirable values, is unending.
Polish hymns construct a world view of relationships with people, nature, and God. Working on English adaptations of Polish language faith hymns for 20 years, proves these hymns are strikingly different from their North American, Catholic counterparts. Among the faith preferences, I have found the following to be the strongest: 1) solidarity with creation, 2) earth mixing with heaven, 3) religious meaning of food, 3) empathy for the downtrodden, 4) hymnic play and, 5) reverence for ancestors and history. Let’s examine some examples.
Solidarity with creation. I am still emotionally moved to the core as the Resurrection Sunrise procession hymn declares:
“Jesus blossomed forth as a beauteous flower” (jako śliczny kwiat zakwitał—from—Wesoły nam dzień dziś nastał). Jesus’ victory is compared to a flower bursting from the darkness of death and winter. Proverbs call sweet scents, joyous. The profuse and plentiful use of flowers and vibrant greenery at the Lord’s devotional Tomb of Holy Saturday and Easter in PolAm Churches reflects this verdant, resilient, joy and hope. At this vigil of the Lord’s burial, the words persuade not only the angels, but also the sun and moon, to pour forth abundant tears rather than dew (“Weep all you angels”—Płaczcie anieli).
Flowers, plants, trees, and lush vegetation all express a divine presence or solicitude on earth. Eucharist is likened to “the tree of life, blooming with virtue” to angel bread, and to a fountain” (Bądźże pozdrowiona). In a Marian hymn, “hills and valleys (meadows) sing her praises, bless the Mother of our Savior, fountains and all crystal waters.” (Chwalcie łąki umajone, gory, doliny zielone) reflects this identification of a sainted person with the environment. As heavenly Queen, she is also crowned with, or likened to a most beautiful flower, the rose of the spirit, and fragrant lily (“Take our hopes and tie them up as roses”—Zawitaj Królowo/Matko Różańca Świętego, “All Sing to the Queen of the Angels, take roses and weave her a crown”—Królowej Anielskiej Śpiewajmy)
The same is true of the Sacred Heart hymn, “From earth’s deep yearnings,” (Z tej biednej ziemi) and the beloved kolęda refrain, “Hay of the meadow”-the “O siano, siano” of Śliczna Panienka). God is encountered in the hay: earthly spirituality. Nature is a place to encounter the Creator and divinized persons.
Earth mixing with heaven emerges vividly in the carol, “Earth and heaven are one in Bethlehem” (moc truchleje, Pan niebiosów obnażony…ma granice nieskończony—Bóg się rodzi) and the Eucharistic hymn for the procession of Corpus Christi, “God now walks among us”—Zróbcie Mu miejsce, Pan idzie z nieba. The linguistic dynamism of the carol is tempered by a personal closeness to the “celestial Lord” reverently adored on bended knee, with bowed head. Many find it difficult… this mutual, non-exclusive blend of glorious majesty with profound familiarity. Poles walk side-by-side with the Lord they adore kneeling with heads bowed.
Religious meaning of food is uniquely found in one of Catholicism’s few Eucharistic Christmas carols, the last verse affirming: “Lord, once again you come into our midst… Once with shepherds in a stable, now we kneel at your table breaking heaven’s bread.” (Wśród nocnej ciszy). Yet again, Christmas has Eucharistic overtones: “God is present in human flesh, a bountiful food for humanity. He feeds with his Body and gives to drink of his Blood; He desires to lift us up with his chosen ones”—Ach witajże pożądana perło.
A modern Eucharistic hymn relates the axiom of the activist and social justice: St. Albert Chmielowski of Kraków (St. John Paul II’s favorite), “God, you’re good as bread” (Panie, dobry jak chleb). This same hymn considers all bread as global communion and table with those who hunger for God. Cyprian Norwid captures similar passionate reverence for all bread in verse, which has become proverbial: “I yearn for the country, where a slice of bread that falls to the earth is raised and kissed as a gift of heaven.” Hymns even forge a motherly connection to the Eucharistic bread, singing “Praised be Jesus, Son of Mary. You are truly God in this mystery” (literally: “host”)—Bądźże pozdrowiona.
Empathy for the downtrodden surfaces in lyrics highlighted during the Easter morning Resurrection proclamation: “He showed compassion to the lowly” (Wesoły nam dzień dziś nastał). The crying and tears of the Infant Jesus are celebrated and accepted in heart-rending words of many a Christmas carol: “Close your tear drenched eyelids” (Lulajże Jezuniu or Jezus Malusienki). Tears and fear troubles are not foreign to those led by faith. The most well known Marian hymn petitions Mary as caretaker of the baptized, “Save us from the fears inside us…that we may not wander (aimlessly)”—Serdeczna Matko.
However, throughout the Bitter Laments (Gorzkie Żale), nowhere as intensely as in the “Dialogue with the Sorrowful Mother” are tears stunning examples of mutuality in empathy for the suffering. The faithful ask for the privilege to share in the pain of Jesus’ wounds, and the violence of his mother’s mournful grief: “Let me cry with you.” Tears and empathetic expression are authentic, natural means by which people identify and carry other’s burdens. Christmas Eve’s Vigil Supper (Wigilia) and Easter’s Blessed Breakfast (Święcone) find origins and present day practices inclusive of the wanderer, homeless, and homebound, not to omit, a loving, active reverence for the deceased.
Hymnic play is the fruit of persevering through shared compassion in suffering. Polish spiritual resilience and a “neither give up hope nor the struggle” surfaces most delightfully in the resonant “Alleluia” refrains and melodies of Easter hymns, particularly, “Praise the Lord, King of Creation”(Wysławiajmy Chrysta Pana). Such rhythmic play extends itself in Easter practices like tapping children with blessed palms, egg cracking games, and Dyngus Day’s water sprinkling.
Ritual play is also interpersonal worship, not foreign to Polish churches and domestic (family) liturgy. Mutual wishes of joy and loving embraces accompany food sharing rituals and toasting at Easter, Christmas, weddings, the harvest, and when welcoming special guests. Similar emotions emerge in myriad Polish carols. A classmate, who for the first time attended a blessed Easter Meal, remarked, “There were more alleluias sung at this table than at the Vatican’s Easter Vigil!” For this reason, no fully, traditional Polish celebration takes place without music, dancing, and singing. This hymnody combined with wafting incense, joyful bells, and water sprinkling from the comically named “brooms” (kropidła), has the potential to make the North American Mass a little less boring.
Reverence for ancestors and history is a value Poles share with many Latino and Asian immigrants. Songs of mourning unite the sorrow of family survivors with the Lord and his Mother. Particularly evident in the verse: “Jesus, Shepherd of the faithful, grant to them your rest eternal” and in the final verse of the Polish version of the Salve Regina, “O Jézu, Jézu, Jezu, Jézu my only (unsurpassed) love.” (Witaj Królowo Nieba).
Planting of flowers, lighting candles, and maintaining graves express sentiments similar to those experienced at the Holy Saturday Vigil at the Lord’s Tomb: prayer, sorrow, hope, intimacy, perseverance, and resilience. Moreover, many historical religious and community commemorations, especially those of the last violent century—wars and camps initiated by aggressive and vicious neighbors—have hymnic equivalents. Among these, from generations of Poles evacuated by force to concentration camps of Russia’s Siberia are: “God, you shielded Poland (Boże coś Polskę), the national anthem “Poland is not yet lost”, “O God of the heavens” (O Panie, któryś jest na niebie), or the Solidarity era chant, “So that Poland, may be Poland.”
Spirituality celebrated in the hymnic tradition is acted out in family practices and celebrations at home and in the wider community. Songs, for each generation, are not innocuous or indifferent. They express, form and inform a worldview and collective personality of a familiar, accepting, and understanding place called home.
The Polish hymn as the nation’s catechism or Gospel set to music presents hymnic play as an enjoyable alternative to German didactic exhortations; intimate compassion and shared suffering, verses Anglo positivistic “sway”; a divine and human, “green” interconnection, as opposed to individualistic hymns extolling “me” or “I”; spiritualized food as communion, to lilting conceptual generalizations; and heartfelt remembrance of the deceased, verses schmaltzy, fleeting, sentimental tones.
Perhaps the Polish American Liturgical Center at Orchard Lake, Mich. could more intentionally propagate English adaptations as Polonia’s gift to the U.S. Catholic Church.
Editor’s note: Rather than slavish or literal translations, the author has chosen to quote his own English adaptations of the selected Polish hymns.
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