This afternoon I asked my new friend Dominika to read a poem by Polish poet Cyprian Norwid. I first learned about this Polish poet through coming across quotations of his in some short works of John Paul II, including his Letter to Artists and A Meditation on Givenness.
Like many Poles, John Paul II was very fond of Norwid’s poetry. In 2001, he delivered an address to the Representatives of the Institute of Polish National Patrimony during which he said, “I honestly wanted to offer my personal debt of gratitude to the poet, with whose work I have been bound by a deep spiritual kinship since my secondary school years.”
So what was it about this nineteenth-century poet that made such an impression on John Paul II and continues to enthuse people still?
Here are a few excerpts from John Paul II’s address:
During the Nazi occupation, Norwid’s thoughts reinforced our hope in God, and in the period of the unjust and contemptuous dealings of the Communist system, he helped us persevere along with the truth, given to us as a duty to be lived with dignity. Cyprian Norwid left an from which shines the light that lets us more deeply penetrate the truth of our being as human persons, Christians, Europeans and Poles.
Norwid’s poetry was born from the travail of his difficult life. It was formed in the light of a deep aesthetic of faith in God and of our humanity in God. Faith in the Love which is revealed in the Beauty that gives the “enthusiasm” to work, opens Norwid’s words to the mystery of the covenant God makes with the human person, so that he may live, just as God lives.
Norwid did not envy anyone anything, nor the honours they received. His poverty in God shines out in the finale of one of his poems: “The crown of laurels and hope are for someone else: for me, the only honour is to be a man“
What sort of response do we have to great lives? Are we able to love the excellences of others or do we have a distain for wisdom, talent, greatness, heroism, and sanctity? This is the subject of Norwid’s short poem “What did you do to Athens, Socrates…”:
This poem reminds me of something I read in Glenn Hughes’ book A More Beautiful Question in which he says, “The point I wish to emphasize is that one of the existential conditions of this ‘always wanting to learn more’ from a classic artwork is the humility that emotionally kneels, as it were, before the astonishing vistas, linked complexities of meaning, and intricate expressions of insight into world, social life, human interiority, and intimations of the divine, that we find in such art.”
Against the conventions of our societies, we have signs of contradictions ever challenging us and inviting us to a more noble existence, befitting our dignity. These uncomfortable reminders rouse us out of our slumbers, mediocrity, and blindness and call us to action, virtue, and a luminous life of joy in the truth.
From Norwid’s life and poetry, John Paul II thinks we can glean some knowledge and understanding about how to suffer, the science of the cross, the dignity of being human, and the daily effort required to grow in sanctity.
Studying noble lives is challenging because it involves a consistent confrontation with heroic virtue and moral excellence. But because every person is the kind of being who is made for goodness, for truth, and for beauty, it is also fulfilling to confront such lives (historical and contemporary) that help give us direction in addressing the fundamental question: How shall I live?
Recently a classmate asked our professor why, in every one of our university classrooms, there are plain wooden crosses rather than crucifixes. A cynical hypothesis was made: Plain wooden crosses are cheaper. But in his address on Norwid, John Paul II presents another possibility:
“It is significant that for Norwid crucifixes should be without the Christ figure, for in this way they could more clearly show the place where a Christian must be. Only those in whose intimate life the event of Golgotha is lived each day can say: ‘for us’ the Cross ‘has become the door.””