Gorzkie Żale. A treasure of Polish spirituality and culture.

The beginning of Lent marks the beginning of the Gorzkie Żale in Poland. A deep-rooted popular devotion in a meditation on the Lord's Passion coupled with chants in the form of a sorrowful lament that is experienced on the six Sundays of Lent.

Ignacy Soler-February 22, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes
Lenten Gorzkie Żale

In the Castilian language the word procession, and more specifically the expression "Holy Week processions" is something known, there is a general knowledge of what it is about, although other aspects of the Christian faith are ignored. The same can be said of the singing of the saeta. For those of us who have had the good fortune and grace to experience Holy Week in the streets of Seville, the memory of the pasos through the narrow streets of the Santa Cruz neighborhood and listening to a saeta, painful, moving and full of passion, a cry of faith and love from a balcony, is an unforgettable experience. The popular tradition continues to preserve forms of manifesting faith that are present by force of habit.

The Gorzkie Żale or Bitter Regrets

A popular way of living and expressing Christian faith in the Passion of Jesus Christ, in Poland, is the Gorzkie Żale which has been translated as Bitter Lamentations.

This popular devotion consists of a meditation on the Passion of the Lord together with chants in the form of a sorrowful lament. This pious practice is lived the six Sundays of Lent, always in the temples, before the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and lasts more than half an hour depending on the length of the passion sermon led by the preacher on duty.

Meditation on the Lord's Passion has been an uninterrupted practice since the beginning of Christianity.

The Eucharistic celebration, especially the anamnesis, the memorial, recalls and actualizes the paschal mystery, that is, the Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. For this reason, some saints used to repeat that meditation on the Passion of the Lord, even for a very short time, is worth more than a rigorous fast of bread and water for a whole year.

St. John Chrysostom maintained that what he could not obtain by his merits was granted to him by the wounds of Our Lord Jesus Christ and he wanted to sing unceasingly the victorious sorrows of our King. "He, on the cross, has conquered his ancient enemy. Our swords are not bloodied, we were not in the fight, we have no wounds, the battle we have not even seen, and behold, we gain the victory. Theirs was the fight, ours the crown. And since we too have won, we must imitate what soldiers do in such cases: with voices of joy we exalt the victory, we sing hymns of praise to the Lord" (PG 49, 596).

This popular and pious meditation on the Passion, the Gorzkie Żale or Bitter Lamentations, was composed in the early 18th century with a structure similar to the liturgical office of Lauds.

The first time they were prayed was in 1707 in the church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw, on Krakowskie przedmieście Street.

For those who have ever seen photos of the destruction of Warsaw after the Second World War, surely have in mind the total ruins of a street with a church, and standing out the figure of Christ fallen among the rubble embracing with one hand the cross and the other raised towards the sky, with the inscription Sursum Corde.

Whoever walks along this famous Warsaw street today can see that Christ, with the cross and the inscription precisely in front of the Church of the Holy Cross.

The craft of the Gorzkie Żale

The Office of the Bitter Lamentations has three parts. The first part is sung on the first and fourth Sundays of Lent, the second part is celebrated on the second and fifth Sundays of Lent, and the third part is sung on the third and sixth Sundays.

The structure of each part is as follows:

1. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the Monstrance.

2. Song of the "Invitation" (common to all three parts).

3. Recitation of the intention (different in each part)

4. Singing of the "Hymn" (different in each part)

5. Song of the Lament of the soul before the suffering Jesus" (different in each part but with a common refrain).

6. Song of the "Dialogue of the soul with the Sorrowful Mother" (also different but also with a common outline).

7. The chanting of the ejaculatory "For your painful passion" (three times and common to all three parts).

8. The sermon or meditation on the Lord's Passion.

9. Blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.

A moment of prayer

I have participated several times in the Gorzkie Żale and once I was invited to lead and preach. I can say that it is exciting, it is a devotion full of pietism and feeling, which moves and invites to pray and atone for our sins that have been and continue to be the reason for the Passion of our Savior.

The one who actively participates in the Bitter Lamentations easily, moved by grace, is filled with sorrow for one's sins and desires reparation.

I will quote some of the sentences in my own free translation only from the first part.

Singing of the "Invitation".

It can also be translated as Callin this first and common chant, which gives rise to the name - Gorzkie Żale, Bitter Lamentations - is prayed and sung more or less in this way: "Bitter lamentations penetrate our hearts, and let springs of living tears flow from our pupils. When contemplating your passion, Lord, the sun loses its warmth and is even covered with pain. And the angels also break into tears at such great suffering. The rock cracks, and the Lying One rises without a shroud! What is happening? All creation is trembling. Christ, seeing your Passion fills my soul with pain. Strike now without delay our hard hearts and may the blood of your wounds save us from falling. When I enter into your Passion, my heart breaks".

Recitation of the intention.

I now transcribe the intention of the first part.

 "With the help of divine grace we begin the meditation on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us offer it to the heavenly Father to the praise and glory of His Divine Majesty, humbly thanking Him for His great and unfathomable love for the human race by deigning to send His Son to endure cruel torment by accepting death on the cross.

We also offer this meditation in veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Sorrows, as well as the saints who have excelled in devotion to the Passion of Jesus Christ.

In this first part we will meditate on what Jesus Christ suffered from the moment of his arrest in the Garden of Olives until the accusations in his wicked trial.

These outrages and offenses towards the Lord, who suffers for us, we offer them for the Holy Catholic Church, for the Supreme Pontiff with all the clergy, as well as for the enemies of the Cross of Christ and for all the infidels, so that the Lord may grant them the grace of conversion and repentance".

The singing of the "Hymn".

There are five sung stanzas of which I translate the first one: "Sorrow penetrates the soul and the heart breaks with pain. The sweet Jesus on his knees in the Garden prays with sweat of blood and is ready to die. My heart breaks".

The Song of the "Lament of the Soul before the Suffering Jesus".

"Jesus, to a cruel death prepared, meek Lamb sought by all, Jesus my good beloved / Jesus for thirty coins delivered, for an unfaithful disciple betrayed, Jesus my good beloved/ ...'.

Thus we sing and pray up to ten stanzas to finish repeating: "May you be blessed and praised, Jesus incarnate and mistreated. Be forever adored and glorified, my good and beloved God!".

What sticks in my soul the most is the continuous repetition of "Jezu mój kochany!" Jesus my good beloved! A refrain, a refrain, which is repeated incessantly like lovers who tirelessly say to each other: I love you!

The Song of the "Dialogue of the Soul with the Sorrowful Mother".

In this sung dialogue between the Virgin and the Christian soul, Saint Mary begins the first verse and it is sung only by women. The second verse is the disciple's response and is sung only by the men. In this way the six verses alternate. "Oh, I am the suffering Mother, in agony of immense pain, with a sword piercing the heart / Why dear Mother do you suffer such great sorrows / Why is your heart so wounded / Why do you tremble with cold / ..." The canticle ends with the desire of the Christian soul: may I weep with you! This is the purpose of the canticle and meditation of the Bitter Sorrows: that the Christian may know how to look at Christ in pain and at his Mother, that he may move his heart to compassion, to conversion, to sorrow for his own and others' sins, to pious weeping, to tears of love.

Next comes the preaching on some mystery of the Passion.

According to the Polish custom it usually lasts between twenty and half an hour, but nowadays it is tried not to exceed fifteen minutes so that the whole ceremony of the Gorzkie Żale does not exceed the limit of one hour. It ends with the blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.

Music in the Polish liturgy

Logically, all chanting is always accompanied by organ music. In Poland, in any mass, even daily, there is always an organist who sings and plays. Music is very present in the Polish liturgy.

The Chair of the Hispanic World of the Catholic University "John Paul II" of Lublin has edited a Spanish version of the Gorzkie Żale, Bitter Lamentations, with all the texts of the three parts and adding musical scores. It has a prologue by Cardinal Omella and its third edition is from the year 2020. Logically what I have written is based on that edition, but the small parts of translations into Spanish of the Gorzkie Żale, present in this article, are my own, not those of the authors of that publication.

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