Polish Horeb

by CJ Bell

I was not angry with him. How could I be? He was a good kid, didn’t complain. He was just sick. Not his fault. Honestly, a part of me was grateful.

We waved goodbye to our fellow pilgrims as they boarded the bus bound for holy sites and, if lucky, glimpses of the pope. Peter and I walked back towards the house.  All the while, eerie tendrils of cloud slid upwards, slowly releasing the village of Bienkowka. As each misty tentacle withdrew, hills dotted by haystacks and farmhouses appeared.  It was as if the dawn were unfreezing them from a hundred-year sleep. An old man passed us in an empty hay wagon pulled by a moth-eaten draft horse. Likely he owned a car, but in this overlooked Polish hamlet, gas was expensive, horses were cheap, time was abundant.

At the house Peter decided to go lie down. I decided to keep walking. To amble without direction. It was a pleasant little town; forgotten and quiet. Flowers grew casually around the houses, here and there chickens scratched contentedly. An elderly man sat on a stump in the sun and said something friendly as I passed. I don’t speak Polish but his smile could not have possibly been paired with ugly words. I wished him good day, “Dzien dobry”—the only greeting I knew.

Bathed in pastoral benediction, I was glad I had volunteered to stay behind. When I’d first been asked a year ago to serve as the chaplain for the pilgrims on World Youth Day, I had been hesitant to accept. Oh I gave good reasons, but in actuality it came down to: I hate long bus rides and like clean bathrooms. Still, I could not pass on the opportunity to see Krakow, the city of saints. To see and hear the new Holy Father speak. Nor was I willing to admit that I had grown so old that the desire for my own bed outweighed my taste for adventure. So I said yes. After countless delays in airports, planes that sought out turbulence, and trying to sleep on overcrowded buses, I had arrived with thirty pilgrims to a village an hour outside of Krakow. Bienkowka was to be our home base for the next week. Today, on the first day of real adventure, I had chosen to remain in this town of a hundred families, keeping an eye on a sick kid. And I was grateful.

At the end of the village stood a grocery shop. It was smaller than most gas stations back home. The proprietor, wearing a clean apron, sat behind a counter filled with meat of unfamiliar cut. Strings of mushrooms hung from nails on the wall. Next to the display of potato chips was a bucket full of actual potatoes, a few pushing forth green shoots. Having toured the economic center of Bienkowka, I began my walk back home.  

Marta, our ‘polish mother’, greeted me at the door with a plate of plain bread. She doesn’t speak any English. “Piotr.” She points upstairs and says it again, “Piotr.” She wants me to take the bread to Peter.

Jen kee.”  Thanks.

Upstairs, Peter has a room that he shares at night with two other pilgrims. The wall decorations indicate that it belongs to a daughter. We have not met her. She was sent to spend the week with relatives deeper in the country. Sitting on a pale pink comforter, Peter is playing an Ultimate Fighting game on an Xbox brought in from another child’s room. “I got some bread for you.”


“How are you feeling?”

He is polite enough to pause the game, “Better.”

“Good. Need anything?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you winning?”

“Yeah, I have this game at home.”

“Well, I’ll be downstairs if you need me.” Maternal, I am not. But he does look to be doing better. A bit of rest, simple food, and the Polish version of Gatorade and he should be up to par by tomorrow.

Downstairs Marta is starting lunch. I slip out to the porch with my breviary. The grandmother is there, keeping a silent vigil from a piece of patio furniture. I wear shorts while she has a shawl wrapped tightly around her. I’m told the years under the Soviet Union kneaded and aged people; tested their tensile strength. Looking at her, I believe it. Hard years hang from her shoulders and face with a cold severity.

It is a bit startling when she speaks. I think she is speaking to me. There is no facial cue to indicate meaning or intent. Just eyes locked onto mine. Smiling, I shrug my shoulders. She says it again, louder, with a guttural insistence. The Polish language does not contain a natural sounding kindness. Looking around, I search for a hint of what she might be getting at. I don’t dare ignore her, but not only am I clueless on what she has said, even had I known, I wouldn’t know how to respond.

She gargles at me a third time, possibly gentler, and looks away. Pretending nothing has happened I open my breviary. She turns on the radio. American pop from the ‘60s floats out of the little transistor. I know the song. A Herman’s Hermits’ hit. Polish Grandma knows it too. She keeps the beat on her knee and occasionally croaks a nonsense word that approximates the sound of the lyrics. With my breviary open it is a struggle to concentrate. The scripture passage is one of my favorite stories, Kings, chapter nineteen. Elijah has traveled a great distance to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the Lord passed before him. First came a great wind that shattered rocks, but God was not in the wind.  Then came an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then came fire, but neither was God in the fire. Finally came a breeze, a gentle whisper and Elijah hid his face because God was there. It is hard to imagine the whisper of God with Grandmother singing all the hits from the ‘60s.  

Complimenting her sense of melody, a nest of baby birds sit above the sliding door. They are a churn of incessant squawking. Occasionally Polish Grandma says things to them (I think) which sound far more gentle than the snippet that had been directed towards me. Lunch finally brings the backyard concert to an end.  Relief is short lived.

Lunch is its own adventure. Dumplings steam from a platter at the center of the table. A pinkish red discharge seeps from their corners. It is a color I have never seen in adult food. Generously, Marta takes my plate and begins dishing up the foreign delicacy. A heaping pile is set before me. Picking up my fork she stops me, dolloping on a mysterious white stuff that looks like sour cream, followed by the tiniest pinch of sugar. Bon appetit.

Mentally I prepare myself to swallow without tasting. To my surprise, it is delicious. With no idea what it is, I have two more helpings. Satiated, I check on Peter. He is playing Fifa on the Xbox, munching on a slice of bread. He shows me he has been drinking the bottles of water I have stocked him with. We make small talk for a turn of the clock before I head back downstairs.  

Viktor, the nine-year-old son, is napping on the couch. With nothing else to do, I pick up my book and join Polish Grandma back on the porch. The radio station has changed. Now it is the opening ceremony with the pope. His voice is unmistakable. There is humor in the fact that I had flown part way around the world to be there in the crowd, to hear his voice boom over the amplifiers. Instead, I’m on the porch with grandma and the birds, listening to the static feedback of a 1980s boombox. I can’t understand a thing that is being said. The pope is speaking Italian. The translation is in Polish. And the birds are in Sparrow.  

When I had agreed to come on this trip, I held a secret hope that the Lord would speak to me. Not literally, but unmistakably. It wasn’t that I was looking for life-altering wisdom or needing an answer to a burning question. I was happy with my priesthood. Still I held a greedy urge for God to manifest Himself to me. For the Divine Master to pass before me and display His greatness. After all these years as a priest, I knew it to be a silly hope. Not because it was impossible, but because it was unnecessary. Still, I held on. Delicately I carried this hope, never letting my full attention rest on it, for fear it might wilt under a direct gaze. 

I try to imagine what the pope might be saying, but nothing comes through. On this porch in Bienkowka, unmistakably, I do not hear the Lord; just a field of static overlaid with an elderly man speaking Italian, and squawking birds. Grandma, however, is focused, and the way she keeps shushing the birds the Lord might be speaking to her.

When grandson Viktor emerges with a soccer ball, I have no qualms with abandoning the pope. It feels good to stretch my legs. Laughing and clowning around in the yard, it is the clearest communication I have had all day. Soon a neighbor boy joins us. Then Peter appears. Passing and shooting, the afternoon slips away while clouds return to the hills of Bienkowka. Marta brings sandwich fixings for an early dinner while thunder tumbles down the valley.

Finally, Viktor wears out and heads inside to watch TV. Peter slips off to clean up. Andy, the father of the house, returns home from work and joins me on the porch. Placing a Polish beer in front of me, we watch the clouds gather and darken. His English, though halting, is understandable. He likes to talk. It helps him practice the English he learned while working in Ireland. He tells me he plays in a band on the weekend. I asked him for a song. Retrieving his guitar, he plays the opening lines to Stairway to Heaven, stops and says, “Musician joke.” Then he launches into the Beatles’ Eight Days a Week, except all the words are in Polish.

Finished singing, he keeps talking with barely a breath between. “My mother like on the radio this type of music. She don’t know words, but knows songs. The radio remembers me to her and when I was young and my father was alive. America and England music not allowed then. But,” he smiles confidentially, “my mother always gave me money to get it.”

He plays a few more, but a near crack of thunder halts the music. With the approaching storm, the birds have quieted down. I ask him about them. It seems odd, the noise and the mess, right above the door.

“I like them. Small beauty. They are good for Viktor. Teach him to see God in world. They have not left uh…nest. Soon. When you see thing fly that not fly before, type of miracle.”

The rain started gently, padding along the roof. The thunder grumbled and the freshest of breezes blew across our bodies. The shower did not last long, a few minutes, yet it renewed all it touched. The green became greener. When it was over, the clouds parted and the last vestiges of the evening sun stretched its hand over the yard. Mother Sparrow left the nest to search for food.

“Look.”  Andy pointed my eyes back towards the nest. One of the chicks had hopped to the edge of the nest. Twisting its head from side to side, it swayed in the breeze. In a motion more tumble than take-off, it rolled forward and fluttered a few feet to a piece of trestle work. A single hop and the tiny explorer turned 180 degrees. Inelegantly, the chick pumped its wings and returned to the nest.  

That night I pulled out my travel journal and jotted down a few lines. The book of Kings came back to me. I had hoped to find God in the thunder of the amplifier, but He was not there. Next I looked for Him in the press and passion of the multitude, but He was not there. I thought I would hear him in the fire of the pope, but neither was He there. Finally there came a small bird lifted by a whispering breeze. And I hid my face.

CJ BELL is a Catholic priest who serves in the Midwest. He has been a pastor, high school chaplain, and high school president. He believes good storytelling has the power to protect us against getting lost, as individuals and a society. He hopes his fiction speaks heart to heart and reveals the beauty we live in.

Photo: “Sparrow” by Bob Bawell

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