THE CATHEDRAL OF VILNIUS

 

VILNIAUS KATEDRA

Senais laikais, turbūt niekur taip iškilmingai ir džiaugsmingai nešvęsdavo Velykų, kaip Vilniaus krašte ir pačiame Vilniaus mieste………….

 

 

By Genrikas Songinas

English translation by Gloria O’Brien

 

In the old days, probably nowhere was Easter more gloriously or joyously celebrated than  in the city of Vilnius and its environs.  The inhabitants prepared for Easter with strict fasting, which underscored the solemnity and importance of the approaching holyday.

 

The Easter celebration lasted four days and during those days all the stores in town were closed, even though many of them belonged to people of different faiths.  City offices were closed, and even the police conscientiously observed those four days, confident that even those persons inclined to criminality would follow their example.  And in fact, during those holydays there were no thefts or other offenses against the law.  If it happened that some crime were committed, it was almost a certainty that the criminal was not a resident, but had arrived from some other place or territory.

 

The holidays began with solemn devotions in the cathedral, and when the cathedral bells began to ring at the hour of 12 midnight, reporting joyous news to the city, a response would come immediately from the bells of Sts.Johns’ Church, then later St. Jacob’s.  Soon they were joined by other churches, and the whole city rang with the sound, echoing to every far corner.  Even the Old Believers’ churches, where Easter would be celebrated two weeks later, could not contain themselves, and their bells would join in the general gladness.

 

The devotions in the cathedral lasted about four hours,. and were very festive, the bishop with his entire household taking part.  The interior of the church was beautifully decorated, with a representation of Christ’s tomb, attended by guards attired in colorful garb of ancient style. Earlier,  before the hour of twelve, a statue of Christ clad in a shroud had been brought to the tomb, and when the bells began to ring, the shroud would be removed.

 

The people were squeezed in the cathedral, because not only the area residents would attend, but many would come in from the provinces, and even from much farther away.  The celebrated choir would sing, and to hear them, many of Lithuania’s dignitaries would come with their retinues, greatly increasing the number of participants.  That day, people were not separated by class or wealth; but all elbowed their way towards Christ’s tomb to pay their respects.  Often a noble in splendid robes stood or knelt alongside a drably-dressed farmer or city-dweller.  That day, all were equal, all took the same joy in Christ’s Resurrection, and that joy embraced the whole city.

 

From the old days, there had spread a legend, that if anyone participated in the cathedral’s Resurrection celebration for nine years in succession with no interruption, the risen Christ would appear to that person the last year, and bless them.  Most folks believed that legend, and even by their family names indicated those who had been so blessed.  Those persons never got sick, and remained happy and blessed through their lifetimes.  People used to say that the last few of the required successive nine years were the hardest to keep, that all sorts of problems cropped up to prevent them from participating in the Easter celebration.  It was necessary to be wary, and to be able to conquer all temptations, and most important, never to wander from the path of a just and honest life.

 

During 1740 the bishop of Vilnius, Mykolas Zienkovicius, was visiting in his diocese, and in one poor little parish’s tiny wooden church he saw a statue of Christ carved by an unknown artist.  This statue seemed very different from the little church, with its tiny windows and its wall darkened with age.  It seemed, through its own beauty and distinction, to heighten the ceiling, expand the walls and transform the old wood of the little church into shiny black marble.  The bishop was fascinated and wanted at any cost to cart the statue away to Vilnius’s cathedral.

 

    -- For this statue, even the Vilnius cathedral is not good enough, and here it stands in a modest wooden chapel – he said.

 

But there was an obstacle, because the elderly pastor steadfastly refused to give the statue to the bishop.

 

  --  This is the only valuable thing we own in this parish – he protested.

 

The bishop threatened to take the statue by force, and shut the old pastor up in a monastery.  The old man, weeping, gave in.  The bishop felt guilty and very uncomfortable, seeing the old man in tears, and in payment for the offence, he promised to enlarge the parish’s limits, thereby greatly increasing its income.

 

The statue journeyed to Vilnius bundled in sheets and laid in a full hay-wagon, the old pastor escorting it on foot, up to the parish’s boundary, which at the time wasn’t far.

 

The rumor soon spread in and around Vilnius, that the bishop had brought an extraordinary statue of Christ to the cathedral, and that it would make its first appearance at Eastertime, standing at the Tomb.

 

Within the city of Vilnius, beyond the Neris river, on a hill by the road to Ukmerge, in his own little wooden house lived the mason Jonas Daugela with his family.  The family was small, comprising only the father and mother, an 18-year-old daughter named Anna and a 20-year-old son, Peter.  Daugela’s family was industrious and orderly, the daughter helping her mother at home, and the son attending the monastery school until the age of 14, when he returned home to assist his father in his craft.

 

There was no lack of work, and they were often called upon to fix or build a stove, hearth  or fireplace, correct a chimney, or to perform some larger bricklaying job.  They earned good wages, though they had no other wealth besides their house and garden.

 

The son, when he was 14 years old, had attended the Easter celebration at the cathedral for the first time, and enjoyed it so much that he proposed to go again the next year.  His father told him about the legend, and young Peter, seized with enthusiasm, decided that he would attend the Easter service nine years in a row.  His father was doubtful about the plan, knowing it would be difficult to accomplish.

 

   --  For someone like us, an ordinary person without wealth, it would  be very difficult to do.  Our work takes us to various places, and time rules us, rather than the opposite --  he said.

 

But Peter wouldn’t change his mind, and from that time, each year he went to the

Resurrection Mass at Vilnius cathedral.  Eight years passed, and 1740 was the ninth year.  As Easter drew near, Peter made certain he didn’t take a job too far from home, no matter how well-paying it might have been.  The father did not insist, knowing his son’s strong desire to fulfill the ninth year’s attendance at the cathedral, and not wishing to obstruct him.

 

Slowly the day drew near.  The great Lenten fast was tiring, but the hope of seeing the Risen Christ gave Peter renewed energy.  Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the long-awaited Holy Saturday arrived.

 

That year, spring was somewhat early; during the past week much snow had melted, and the resulting waters rushed from the hills, swelling rivers and streams.  The melt continued and the waters increased even after nightfall, as cold as it was.

 

On Holy Saturday, as he approached the crossing of the Neris River, Peter heard an unusual loud sound, and when he reached the place where the bridge should have been, he was astonished to see that it was gone, only the pillars protruding from the increasing river.  The roaring floodwaters were carrying ice-floes which, grinding edges past each other, added their own thunder to the terrible noise.

 

Immense slabs of ice, carried by the current, piled up on each other, then slid aside and, diving back into the waters, continuing in the flooded river’s current, flowed along pushing against each other.  Crossing this river was impossible.

 

Peter was despondent.  He had attended the Resurrection Mass for eight years, and now, just when he was about to reach his goal, this obstacle had arisen to make all his hopes and efforts worthless.  Suddenly, he remembered that, near the Hill of Gediminas, there was a place where a boatman ferried people over to the other side.  He rushed over, but in despair he saw that the boat had been docked high on the ground, and the boatman was nowhere to be seen.  Coming closer, through the darkness he saw a person standing at the riverbank, leaning on a long stick.  Peter recovered hope, believing this was the boatman.  Walking closer he asked,

 

  --  Could you take me across the river?  I’m hurrying to get to the Resurrection Mass and will pay you well.

 

The man raised his head, and Peter realized that it wasn’t the boatman, but a complete stranger.

 

   --  You are hurrying to the Easter celebration at the cathedral, but here people are in danger of death.  Do you see that little house in that hollow?  There lives a widow with two small children.  The flood is rushing from the hillside and in a half-hour will overtake the house.  What’s needed here – he pointed – is a channel to be dug so that the water can run into the river.  My hands are injured, and my side hurts, but you are young and healthy, and could do this.  Here’s a shovel – said the stranger.

 

Peter looked toward the cottage – the water was indeed about four feet away, and would surely overtake the house in a half-hour.  Forgetting about his Easter plans, he grabbed the shovel and began to dig.  The earth was not frozen in that area and the spade went in easily.  He worked quickly; though it was cold, heavy perspiration covered his forehead.  The waters were just two feet away from the cottage, when Peter with two strong strokes dug out the last clumps of earth that had prevented the water from running off.  A strong stream caught the loosened earth and with a roar slammed through the ditch into the river.  The danger past, the waters calmed and no longer threatened the little house.

 

Peter wiped his brow and watched with pleasure, the rapid course of water in the ditch.

 

   --  Now we can think about getting to the other side – he heard the stranger’s voice.  – If you aren’t afraid to risk your life, I’ll get you there.  There is still time, and you can easily make it to Mass.

 

Only now did Peter remember the Easter service, and he asked the stranger urgently to get him across the River Neris.  The man led him to the edge of the river where ice-floes of all sizes were thundering past, carried on the swift current.

 

   ---  Do as I do, and do not hesitate  --  he said.

 

They were standing on the riverbank.  It was frightening to see the swollen river’s swiftly running waters with their burden of ice.  Fear overtook Peter, and he wanted to move away from the water’s edge, but his wish to attend the Easter service won out.

 

As a particularly large block of ice moved past the bank, the stranger jumped up on it and so did Peter.  The current ripped the floe away from the bank and carried it to the middle of the river, but the stranger, using his staff to push away surrounding ice, slowly guided them toward the opposite bank.  He used the staff so deftly, it seemed as if they traveled in a boat instead of on a block of ice.  Soon they reached the other side, and they safely jumped to the ground.

 

  ---  Now you can go to the Resurrection Mass --  said the stranger.

 

 ---  Are you not going?  --- Peter asked.

 

 ---  I will be there, and you will see me  --  the stranger answered, walking away into the shadows.

 

Peter arrived at the cathedral before the ceremonies began.  There were not as many people as usual, since the destruction of the bridge and the ice moving on the river kept many people on the other side of the Neris.  He easily made his way to Christ’s Tomb, and, kneeling, he silently prayed.  He didn’t notice when the ceremonies began, nor when the procession started or when the statue standing before the tomb was unveiled, and only the ringing of the bells roused him with the news that Christ had risen.

 

Peter raised his eyes to the statue and was stunned to recognize the statue as the stranger who told him to dig the ditch, and who later carried him across the river.  The statue held a long staff and its pierced right hand was raised in a blessing.  Peter remembered the stranger’s words:

 

   ---  My hands are injured, and my side hurts --  and falling to his knees, raising his eyes to the statue’s face, he whispered,

 

 ---  My Lord, forgive me, but I didn’t know you.

 

Through the flickering flames of the candles, it seemed to him that a forgiving smile passed over the statue’s face.

 

  ---  The Lord be with you ---  intoned a priest from the great middle altar.

 

Peace washed over Peter, and he felt as an exhausted traveler after a long and hard journey, reaching a place of rest.  And he understood, that the half-hour he had spent digging a trench to protect the home of a poor widow with two small children, had brought him much closer to the Lord than nine years’ attendance at Easter Mass in Vilnius Cathedral.

 

He left the church another person, confirmed in his faith and with a peaceful soul.  The ice had passed by, and boatmen were ferrying people over the river.  Arriving home, Peter told his father,

 

 ---  Father, I saw Him.

 

The details of his experience, he told to others only in his old age, having reached 81 years.  This story of his was remembered for a long time by those to whom it had been told, and they repeated it again many times, remembering that Peter reached a gray old age without ever being sick.

 

After that Resurrection Mass in the cathedral, the artistic statue of Christ disappeared.  It was supposed that the congregants of the poor parish had stolen it and carried it back to their own little church, but others believed the statue had returned on its own, not liking the noise of the city and the cold walls of the cathedral.  There was even one woman who swore that, on her way to Vilnius, she met a man with a long staff, resembling the cathedral’s statue, walking on the road leading to the poor little church.  When she spoke to him, he replied only:

 

 ---  I am going there, from whence I came.                                                                                             

 

The bishop forgot about the statue and didn’t search for it.  With time, people forgot, too.  But the poor parish’s boundaries remained expanded.

 

 

 

 

Source:

“Vilniaus Krašto Legendos” by

Genrikas Songinas, printed in Chicago,

1988, Draugo Spaustuve

Publisher Linas Raslavičius

 

© English translation - Gloria O’Brien 2005

This article was printed in Bridges  Martch 2005

 

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