Candles and Cannons: Part 6
Memorial for a Dead Pope
This is from a chapter for the original version of Gravity From Above that was never written about my journey in search of European Puppetry that would eventually become the beginning of my Gravity From Above project. This is the fourth part of a long chapter on Poland that initially has little to do with puppetry and everything to do with history and travel. It’s worth a read. More to come!
Poznan and Warsaw, Poland
April 4– 8, 2005
Friday morning, April 8, Marta picked me up around a quarter after 9 to take me back to meet Darek at their apartment. All three of us then walked over to a bus stop to ride the few blocks over to Pilsudski Square in central Warszawa for a public memorial beginning at 10AM as the Pope’s funeral mass was broadcast live from the Vatican. We were running a little behind. As we stepped down from the bus a loud noise pierced the air. Suddenly everyone stopped, frozen as by some prearranged signal. The loudest siren I have ever heard in my life blared out from above me somewhere. No one moved. It was obviously now ten o’clock the memorial had just begun. I looked around me at the empty gray buildings nearby. People who had been filing towards the park had halted where they were. Some heads were bowed. One car drove down the street. The rest stopped in their course. I felt as though I was standing within a strangely crowded De Chirico painting: figures isolated among the bleak architecture. The air raid siren continued for a straight three minutes as my ears bled with the awful sound. And yet at that moment it was not the terrifying sound that impressed me. It was the silence of the people in tribute to their fallen leader. And then the sound ceased. And there was a strange sensation of lightness in my head.
We walked down a street along with hundreds of others towards Pilsudski Square. Someone handed me a newspaper containing the Pope’s last testament. Marta and Darek were hushed as we entered the throng of people. I followed suit. We approached from behind through some trees. A raised cement area crowded with people obscured our view of the crowds before us. But we did have a good view of one of the two huge television screens off in the distance at the other end of the massive square. The mass that I had seen on Polish television in Poznan a few days earlier had taken place here. Now I was standing here myself. I left Marta and Darek to get a better view of the assembly. I went as far as a cordoned off zone where I could make out some cannons. Finding a good spot to stand for a time, I began to get an idea of how many people were standing there in Pilsudski Square. I tried to make an estimate myself. I guessed that there were over a hundred thousand people. I would later find that I was right, though Polish papers initially said a much lower number. But I could see how someone could miscount. If you were standing from a certain angle it didn’t seem so immense. Once you peered over that cement rise, however, the scope of the proceedings was oceanic. This was the largest crowd I have ever been in.
Now I have been in mass crowds before. And I know that groups beyond a certain size take on some strange characteristics. I distrust large assemblies more than most people you will ever meet for very specific reasons. I am not afraid of them. I have no clinical phobias related to them. Yet I remain on high alert. I know that in most cases people in huge crowds are much more susceptible to a kind of mass fever than in any other setting. I remember the palpable insanity in lower Manhattan in 1986 as I wandered among the millions of Fourth of July revelers as they celebrated the one hundred-year anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. I have experienced this mutating effect at rock concerts, sporting events, even Christian conferences. I think it is only common sense to have serious misgivings about the human race as they congregate in mass form. Christ himself certainly doubted the masses. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John He feeds the multitude out of compassion but also chooses to escape them. We are never so close to being like locusts than in large aggregations. Something happens to us then. Like locusts we mutate physiologically into our darker voracious form.
But this time it was different. This was the calmest, most peaceful and attentive assembly I had ever witnessed. 100,000 people all quiet, all respectful, watching a large screen for over two and a half hours. Think of it, standing for two and a half hours essentially watching television together; standing silently, not fidgeting, not talking, and no one off to the sidelines kibitzing or making ironic comments. For an American gathering this is unthinkable. There are always sarcastic onlookers to most events: I have been one myself often enough to know. And most events in our sphere deserve it for the shallowness and unreality of the spectacle of postmodern American life presented to us in such gatherings. But here in Warsaw on April 8, 2005, sarcasm would have been an evil not a good. The sun was shining, a little too warmly but there were many Polish Scouts in different uniforms passing water among the people. These uniformed scouts with red ties were like Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts but much more prominent than any scouting organization in any other country I had ever been to. Into the third hour of the televised memorial some people began to sit as the sun baked them from above. But throughout the service few people left and everyone remained focused. They even prayed aloud when the mass had arrived at the appropriate moment.
As I looked out over that canyon filled with souls between the nondescript buildings of Warsaw’s communist legacy I was again moved by the diversity of the people present. This was not a predictable congregation of religious types. One could see representatives of every strata of Polish society; workers, intellectuals, professionals, mothers with children, students of every age, the nouveau hip and sad old grandmothers who had seen more than anyone could dare whisper. At one point a platoon of military men marched through behind us representing the land, sea and air personnel. They stepped solemnly in unison guns at their shoulders. Now and then a television crane raised its neck above the crowds and half-staff flags. Young children rested on their fathers’ shoulders to get a better view. I moved back over towards my friends. Darek and Marta were silently standing where I had left them two hours earlier.
On the screen the Pope’s body was now being lifted and taken away. The sound of the Polish broadcast was lowered. A bugle sounded with the echoing reverberations of the great square. A Polish voice spoke from a public address system. Unexpectedly an incredibly percussive eruption blasted out of a cannon from off to my right in the cordoned area. For a second everything was deafeningly silent. Then another blast followed. Dogs barked. Heads bowed. Other sounds arose in the distance. Another cannon followed. Then I could hear it. Wailing electrical pitches broke through the sky. Every howling, shrieking, warning siren on every public vehicle joined the cannonade. Another cannon fired. And beneath it all a continuo of ringing tones filled in as the chorus. Every bell from every church in Warsaw rang in accord with this unspeakably meaningful cacophony. Cannon after cannon let loose in unstoppable volleys, twenty-six in all one for each year of the Pope’s reign. And as the cannons cracked the sky with the intensity of histories come and gone I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. And I was not alone. For here in Warsaw where the cannon sounds conjured up memories of things other than that of military might, tears came unashamedly to the eyes of the naturally stoic Poles. They had lost the man who, in a way too mysterious to ever fully explicate, had helped to open the door to their own freedom and beyond that to end the tyranny of communism in Eastern Europe. Tears flowed openly without shame or excess, in deep gratitude and sorrow. A prayer was heard through the speakers. We all bowed our heads. Then the Poles all sang a song together in slow sorrowful unison and it was over.
Marta, Darek and I slowly ambled towards the Stare Miasto, the reconstructed old town. Another screen had been set up there to catch thousands more in the overflow of the memorial. We passed by haunted World War Two and Holocaust monuments and slowly made our way back towards Aleje Jana Pawla II all the while discussing history, the war, communism, the Pope and other relevant subjects. When we had arrived at John Paul II Avenue we could see that the wide sidewalks were now arrayed in candles. There was no way to take a photo wide enough to give anyone not immediately present a sense of the panorama. Both sides of the street were crammed with votive candles, most with brass lids, in some places thirty or more rows deep. Tea candles burned next to vases more than a foot tall. The central median strip was rowed with red and white candles. Some candles bled as their wax expired, leaking red or white or yellow onto the pavement. Flowers lined the walls of the buildings. Occasionally photos of the Pope were taped to windows or were covered in plastic as they lay on the ground. To the left or the right, as far as you could see, candles filled your vision, perhaps millions of them. Again I could feel something tugging at the core of my being.
I stood there on Aleje Jana Pawla II gazing as far as I could down the road. I had been looking for something on this journey. Again I knew I had found something. Not what I was expecting, you never find exactly what you are expecting to find, but something much greater: Evidence. Evidence that it matters what you do in this world. This Christ-like Pope had left a rare, if fallen, example behind him of the power of goodness and love. Millions of people around the world were now experiencing some remnant of that life, now departed from the stage. Here in Poland I knew what that one human life had meant to the life of this deeply troubled globe. I experienced it too strongly to say much more about it on these pages. But I could feel the encouragement he had left behind as a true brother in the faith and in some way as Pope even to one not of his parish. I would not forget this… ever.
And there were still puppets to find in Warsaw.
Alas I never wrote the chapters on Polish puppetry. But you what I did write in a shorter form here:
December 30th 2020
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