I like St. Ursula. She’s the patron of teachers and students, her name means ‘bear,’ and seriously, I have my suspicions that she didn’t start out as a good Christian woman. After having made a pilgrimage in part to her ‘goldene kammer’ in St. Ursula’s basilica in Cologne, she’s become one of the spirits that I venerate fairly frequently. I was almost named Ursula after my paternal grandmother and there are many points of connection that I feel with the saint. Let me tell you her story.
According to Ursula’s hagiography, she was a princess who was sent by her father to a bridegroom on the continent. She traveled with a retinue of 11,000 virgins. She declared that before her marriage, she would make a pilgrimage across Europe, particularly to Rome where she persuaded the pope and at least one bishop to travel with her. They headed toward Cologne where they were set up on by Huns who beheaded everybody except for Ursula who was shot dead with arrows, all apparently in the late fourth century C.E. Personally, I’m dubious. Even the Catholics question the historical veracity of this legend, and for a number of reasons too much and too many to go into here!
The Basilica of St. Ursula contains the relics of Ursula and her virgins. Now, this basilica was built on a Roman Pagan burial ground. According to legend, Ursula started out with eleven female companions. People kept finding bones though, a lot of bones, of either gender and soon ‘eleven’ became ‘eleven thousand.’ The bone room, the ‘goldene kammer’ housing the relics truly is a powerful place, a holy place, and I envy the docent her job. We have the bones of dead Pagans arranged on all four walls in various patterns, occasionally spelling out words like ‘Maria, ora pro nobis’ (hard to see in the photo here) and receiving veneration, quite a bit of veneration as Ursula has become (along with the three kings whose relics also rest in Cologne, at the Kölner Dom) patron of the city.
(The above photo is mine, the little photo at the beginning of this article is not mine, but is from wikipedia, a fifth century fresco of ST. Ursula)
I think her chapel with all its bones was one of the favorite ossuaries that I had the pleasure of visiting last year. It was small – much smaller than I expected which made it particularly difficult to get a good photograph.
(this image is by Mary Ann Glass)
My travelling companion MAG said that it was very clearly feminine space – she was picking up on the presence of Ursula I think, and the reliquaries in the shape of female busts, and the statue of Ursula in the main part of the church.
(this photo is mine, of one of the reliquary busts)
We were watched the whole time we were in the bone room, but that was ok. The docent was a lovely woman who tried to be enormously helpful. She made sure we saw that the bones spelled out words and was otherwise unobtrusive.
(this photo is mine, of the bones which spelled out prayers. I couldn’t get back far enough because of the size of the room to get the full prayer in the shot but this gives one a sense)
The presence of this holy power was palpable.
(This is mine, of several of the skulls in one of the niches in the room. I love how they have ribbon over their faces, as though they are shy and hiding from the glance of the world)
It was a bit of a lesson for me that a spiritworker can’t go happily traipsing through these places without attracting the attention of those venerated there, and sometimes that leads to alliances being formed. I went to gawk at her bones and I came away with the expectation that I would continue to pay respect.
Personally, I tend to think Ursula started out as a local deity or demi-deity in the area (the bear connection is particularly potent for me), something not unheard of with popular “saints.” In the end, it doesn’t matter. She was receptive to my overtures and I have found her a strong and steady presence in my work. Today is her feast day. May she be well hailed.
Here is a prayer that I have adapted.
Holy saint Ursula who was strong,
Pray for us.
Fierce saint Ursula who was bold and courageous.
Pray for us.
Good saint Ursula, charismatic in your leadership,
firm in your purpose,
Pray for us.
You are remembered today
with your companions.
Let us be as fierce in our devotions
To our Gods and spirits
as you were in forging your way
across the land
and in facing death.
Saint Ursula, please
pray for us,
and be hailed.
(Holbein’s St. Ursula)
My purpose for making this trip was two fold: an artists’ residency (thankfully fully funded by the city of Myslenice and the EU), and an ancestor pilgrimage. I ended up doing two pilgrimages, but one was purely by grace and chance. I went over with the intent of visiting four ossuaries and/or bone churches and it’s that pilgrimage I want to recount first.
It was odd: immediately prior to this visit I pretty much stopped painting. Whereas many of the artists socialized and dabbled the first week, I painted almost everything in the first week at a frenetic pace and then slowly allowed myself to transition into ancestor stuff during the second week. There was a very palpable point where I was finished with the art part of things, and ready for the dead-work.
We set out for Czermna, Poland early on the morning of July 15. It was at least a four hour drive from Myslenice (due to traffic, we ended up not getting back till after eight pm). Of all the ossuaries that I visited, I think this was my least favorite. Part of that is due to the difficulty of actually visiting. You see, unlike the other ossuaries, we were not allowed in alone. We were only permitted in with a group tour (which granted, ran frequently). The small chapel was packed, and it was very hard to pray. The dead there also seemed somewhat chaotic in feel. Still, I managed, and given that it is located right adjacent to a cemetery, I managed to slip into a pretty deep altered state almost before I even entered the chapel.
I kept my head covered and made sure to cleanse before and after entering the bone house. I could palpably feel the miasma as I got within a certain distance of the bones. Miasma isn’t always bad. It’s a side effect, a very natural side effect of some experiences, and certain types of contact. Weddings cause miasma for instance, (something that cracks me up every time I think of it lol) from which one must be cleansed. Death has its own kind of purity but it’s very different from the potency of the living. It is miasma, and cleansing is required after contact. From the moment I sat foot on the grounds, I knew I was in a state of intense miasma, something that pretty much continued until I returned home and cleansed. Actually, given the level and type of ancestor work that I do, I’m pretty much always in a state of mild miasma. I realized this and it’s import on this pilgrimage. I’m not yet sure of the consequences of this to other ritual work. I do know that I cleanse frequently but likewise given the frequency of my contact with the dead….I’m not sure how it’s all ultimately going to work. I suppose figuring that out is part of moving to the next level as an ancestor worker.
At any rate, the moment I stepped on the grounds of the church, bone chapel, and cemetery I felt the shift in my energy. I made sure my head was covered and when the tour started, went in. I ignored the tour guide (the tour was in Polish anyway, of which I only have a smattering). I connected with the dead there, introduced myself, paid my respects, and made my prayers.
This ossuary (called Kaplica Czaszek – skull chapel) was a pretty late construction: 1776-1804. To create what he called a ‘sanctuary of silence,’ a Czech priest Wacław Tomaszek dug up over thirty thousand skeletons and used at least three thousand of them to adorn the chapel. The rest are in a pit beneath the chapel. There are an awful lot of military dead there: from the Thirty Year’s war, the Silesian wars, as well as victims of various epidemics. It is apparently the only such chapel in Poland, at least as far as my research has shown.
When I was there, squeezed into a corner next to a wall of skulls and bones, I noticed that many people had brought their children. One poor little fellow was doing ok until the guide opened up the trap door to show the ossuary beneath the church, then the child began to cry. I suppose seeing the pit with the bones frightened him. His parents comforted him quickly and well but I wish I’d had enough Polish to tell him that it was ok. That this was a special place, a good place, that our dead watch over us, and that really, they need somewhere to keep their stuff (i.e. their bones)!
Despite all of this, visiting this chapel was intensely moving. I petitioned them for help breaking through any blockages in my ancestor work and promised to consistently honor them (and brought back a small token to facilitate just that). It was disorienting being in such close contact with over thirty thousand dead and their remains. I had the sense of a lot of people whispering around me. I think this was a really good introduction for my pilgrimage. It was the least intense of the places that I visited, and a nice way to ease into what could have really knocked me on my ass. It allowed me to get a sense of what the remaining sites would be nice, and how I could better prepare. I also got to see what the emotional texture of the experience would be like, and what aftercare I required.
Ironically, by this time my Marian pilgrimage was already underway – I just didn’t realize it yet! I’d already visited St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow and the Black Madonna at Wawel castle – both pilgrimage sites. We had also inadvertently gone to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, another site of Marian pilgrimage where we had the opportunity to pray before Her icons. This was one of the most amazing gifts that I was given during this pilgrimage. For years, I’ve had a surreptitious devotion to Mary. I started honoring Her a couple of years ago because several of my ancestors, who had all had devotions to Her in life, clamored for me to add Her image to my ancestor shrine for them. Occasionally they would ask for things for Her. I was sort of ok with that, but it was uncomfortable. It’s been something that I’ve struggled to integrate into my other practices since they requested it. I was always deeply ambivalent about it though. That all resolved with this pilgrimage. Poland and its intense piety gave me that gift and I am immensely grateful.
I honor Mary now for three reasons: 1. My ancestors want me to. It’s important for them. 2. Here is a Holy Power that allows Her image to be used by numerous indigenous Goddesses so that They can continue to receive veneration. All Marys are NOT the same. I respect this immensely; and 3. She’s a good patron for a godatheow. I also think it’s good to acknowledge where we come from. Mary sustained many of my ancestors through some very dark times. When I first went into ST. Mary’s Basilica, I had to stop and just sit in one of the pews and cry. Firstly, there was a powerful sense of Presence, of a Divine Presence very, very old (and I might add indigenous to that place, well before the advent of Christianity) that heard the prayers of Her people and gave them comfort. There was also the sense of generations upon generations of pain and hope and love and fear and desperation and so many other emotions having been poured out before the shrines and icons. I could sense it layered into the very stones of that Church, and I could sense it pouring from those worshippers present today. It doubled me over. There is something about Marian theology that supersedes the narrow constraints of the Church into which it is tied. …possibly why since the counter-Reformation, Her veneration has been attacked. At any rate, as I spent my days dealing with the dead, She brought a necessary breath of comfort and coherence to my journey.
It really was a place where all the disparate threads of my religious journey came together: Odin, the Norse Gods – my home–, Mary, the Orisha, the Roman Deities…I saw vestiges everywhere and the land itself spoke to me; and always, everything was guided by my dead.
We left Myslenice, and indeed Poland, on July 18, taking a car to Prague. I made offerings the night before we left, to Poland, to Krakow city spirit, to Myslenice town spirit, and to Hermes, and asked for safe passage to Prague, which was granted. It was a quiet, uneventful journey notable only for the shift in colors, and the sudden change in roadside shrines – whereas they were largely to Mary in Poland, suddenly in the rural Czech Republic, the shrines all began to show the crucified Christ (much less interesting to me lol). By Prague, even those vestiges of devotion were lacking. Prague is glorious, beautiful, and was the staging point for the next phase of my ancestor pilgrimage. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.
(all photos are mine. Please do not use without permission).