“A soul should be faithful to prayer despite torments,
dryness, and temptations; because oftentimes the realization
of God’s great plans depends mainly on such prayer.
If we do not persevere in such prayer,
we frustrate what the Lord wanted to do through us
or within us. Let every soul remember these words:
‘And being in anguish, He prayed more fervently’”
~ Saint Faustina, Diary, 872
[with reference to Luke 22:44].
During the recent three years, my hopes for returning to Stockbridge and the surrounding region in the Berkshires never left my thoughts. As it has become less of a health risk to congregate and travel in this present time of late-pandemic, there are more possibilities for roving and visiting. If we’re really out of the covid depths, how shall we consider the past several years? Writing in the first-person, I never stopped working or meeting expenses, soldiering on as what I call one of the working wounded. The effects of last year’s housing loss continue and things remain unresolved, having humble resources in an incurably gentrified part of the country. When I hurried out on the road two years ago to visit with my father in his final days- and then returning after his funeral- I drove through the Berkshires. There was no time to stop there, neither were there opportunities to lodge amidst all the pandemic protocols. The circumstances were anything but leisurely. My years of memories of southern Berkshire County and the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy, continued to provide inspiration. Along with physical health adversities and general economic hardships, the covid era has been marked by what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges as a national epidemic of loneliness and isolation. I’ve fallen back on every useful self-care strategy I’ve cultivated, even dating back to my childhood years. It’s of critical importance not to mind one’s own company and stay constructively balanced, especially at work.
Though I cannot claim to be an expert at self-discipline and motivation, at least I know to persevere. And I’m sure to write about it. When Le Cirque des Élephants upstairs starts pounding away and blaring me out of my thoughts, I grab my books, writing, and a chair- and flee outside. During rain and snow, I perch in the building’s entrance, bundled up, writing, and reading. It all merges with my devotions. When I think of Stockbridge, I always recall the Divine Mercy Chaplet, its austere eloquence and thoughtfulness of the needs of others. Others can also mean those who inconsiderately stomp on their neighbors. Everyone needs a prayer. The revered Chaplet as recorded by Saint Faustina in wartime Poland was taught to me by a colleague- Sister Sylvia Comer- about eighteen years ago. The devotion never left me, and it only intensified during quarantining, lockdowns, and coffee-breaks while working in isolation. Meditate upon the Passion, and pray for mercy to strengthen others and for oneself. Be mercy for others, especially when generosity and consolation are painfully elusive. San Juan de la Cruz, in 16th century Spain, famously taught “impart compassion where you do not find it, and then you will discover compassion.” Customarily, as observed by the Marian community in Stockbridge, the Chaplet is observed at 3pm, referred to as the hour of Divine Mercy. In recent years, my insomnia awakens me at 3am most every night, becoming my additional hour of Divine Mercy. It is included by many, and I do the same, as integral with the liturgy of the hours. About 2 ½ years ago, when the intensity of quarantining made it so I could hear a pin drop downtown, those portions of daily psalmody helped provide lifegiving structure.
Conversely, when I think of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the environs of Stockbridge come to mind. The westernmost area of Massachusetts is contiguous to the higher elevations of southern Vermont and eastern New York State. The waterways and woods resemble parts of my home state of Maine, though without the coast that I see every day. Nonetheless, it is New England, complete with the unmarked, winding roads and very small towns. The site of the Shrine, Eden Hill, was the destination for the emigrating Polish religious community in 1943, and continues today as the much larger congregation of the Marian order who nurture the legacy of Saint Faustina. Her diary has been preserved and kept in print by the Marians. The community welcomes one and all, daily- including pilgrims such as myself. I’ve traveled there many times, always grateful for the place, prayer, and people as a complete experience of sanctuary.
True to pilgrimage form, some major effort was needed long before taking to the road. My usual marathon-minded durability makes it unnecessary for me to test the understaffed workplace logistics. Requesting days off however, despite my overabundance of earned time, demands resourcefulness and diplomacy. In the general emergence from winter in my midst, I saw an unclaimed week and seized upon it. Getting the time approved, seeing to auto maintenance, and exchanging messages with my destination, the pull of pilgrimage became an imminent journey. I began assembling writing and reading material for the sojourn, and in the cramped hovel those items were visible to me each day- including unpacking the hat I bring with me on all my retreats. It has a seashell sewn to it, which is the badge of pilgrimage. And true to personal form, I continued working as industriously as usual, and with a small Divine Mercy icon at the side of my desk computer.
As road day drew closer, I realized I would be arriving in Stockbridge right on the Feast Day of the Divine Mercy. As providential as it sounds, it just happened that way- though it did inspire me to leave Maine earlier in the morning than planned. The highway travel was smooth, even with showers and mountain fog; after all it was a Sunday morning. Indexing across the car radio dial along the Massachusetts Turnpike, I picked up a broadcast with interviews of various Marian friars talking about the liturgical holiday, Saint Faustina, and welcoming listeners to the Shrine. As I typically do, I glanced at the radio and said, “on my way.’ It was a good thing I had found that station, as I began to see single-file traffic after exiting the highway in Lee, extending all the way to Stockbridge. Impressively, drivers were civilized and patient. I wondered, “Are these all pilgrims, too?” The radio station began broadcasting the outdoor church service from the Shrine, and finding a parking space in the thick of the village, I proceeded to ascend the steep hill, hearing the singing choir’s music, my steps parallel to fellow sturdy walkers. I later heard that at least 12,000 pilgrims were in attendance that day, surprising the resident community and all present. How wonderful to arrive in such festive contrast to the misery I managed to interrupt back in Maine.
Descending the Hill later, the village center in Stockbridge was replete with visitors, albeit too early for tourism season. Many café patrons and pedestrians were recognizably clergy and members of religious orders. The stately Red Lion Inn offered special rates for the week, and very thankfully I was able to lodge there, close to the Shrine. The 250-year-old Inn was in early-spring maintenance mode and thus uncrowded and very comfortably peaceful. The full-width front porch made for an added place of retreat for me, between Eden Hill, nearby hiking trails, and the village. My room in the Red Lion consolingly reminded me of my old place which I miss very much. I especially savoured the high ceilings and the Inn’s muffled ambience, reminding me of better days. Integral to the pilgrimage was the pleasant company of fellow guests, trading stories and insights. I made numerous notes, wrote letters to friends, enjoyed time to read, and visited with the resident cats.
At the Shrine’s book store, I asked for a volume of Saint Faustina’s words, “small enough for bus commuting.” The little book has since joined my twice-daily trek and coffee breaks. Throughout my week in Stockbridge, I was sure to be in attendance for Mass followed by the 3pm Divine Mercy Chaplet. There are many to be commemorated, especially Dad and Sister Sylvia. The days were calm and salubrious, replenishing me for me return to the world of struggle and uncertainty. I’ve learned over the years that pilgrimage not only comprises the return travel, but also proceeds on with every day and every task. It is essential to keep these in mind, with all the beautiful things I saw and heard- along with remembering the mountain air, as the pursuits of betterment and stability must continue.
Saint Bonaventure wrote about the soul’s itinerary en route to God, and referred to how our pilgrimage is “kindled by the desire for the heavenly country.” The difficult road ahead is fueled by nourishing experiences and contemplation. The painful absence of respite in these recent years has been profoundly felt, and I must find ways to keep well- even while searching for a healthy place to live, and for better work. Writing of life’s itinerary, Saint Bonaventure added, “the route is illuminative and the pilgrimage is adhered to by love of the destination; philosophy is to be engaged in the understanding of the stages by which progress may be made along the route.” Ascension is made in progressive steps as on an upward ladder, and his words accompanied me in the Berkshires as they do on my daily city streets and transactions.
During my week at the Shrine, following the afternoon’s liturgy, one of the Marian friars gave all of us in attendance his blessing. He also blessed the devotional articles of all in attendance, such as icons and rosaries. Then, in a well-placed teachable moment, he said to us, “don’t just go home and put these things away in a drawer: bless others! Think of the many people who wish they could be here, and also those who don’t want to be here.” Another officiant earlier in the week preached about exemplifying the meaning of these prayers. Indeed, the work I do with the public and as an educator permit for many opportunities to apply merciful perspectives and ways of communication, albeit in a merciless world. It is unbearable to countenance thoughts of being a lamp concealed under a barrel, after years of consistently intense hard work and persistent defeat. I know enough to remind myself that few are fortunate enough to realize their potential, and many have it far worse. Saint Faustina surely could not have known- and would not have wanted to know- the reach of her words and her example of resilient faith. Among the assorted prayers in her journals is one of gratitude for her ability to love God by whom she need not lower her ideals. She elaborated:
“Although the path is very thorny, I do not fear to go ahead. Even if a hailstorm of persecutions covers me; even if my friends forsake me, even if all things conspire against me, and the horizon grows dark; even if a raging storm breaks out, and I feel I am quite alone and must brave it all; still, fully at peace, I will trust in Your mercy, O my God, and my hope will not be disappointed.”