A Holy Place

August 4, 2011

To become as fragile as the tiny frogs hiding in the rain

as weak as the night butterflies encircling the lamp

and fear nothing –

To walk in the night from village to village

to hear the dark opera of the grasses

and fear nothing –

To lose yourself among the conifers

and then emerge in an open field

the size of the world,

to feel your own smallness

and fear nothing –

is it  still possible?

There is a place that I would like to show you. It may be far away from where you live, it may cost a lot of money to travel there. But if I can, I’d like to take you there, even if only for a brief moment, even if only through the medium of  a few pictures and words.  It is a place that you most likely have been needing to visit without even being aware of that need, without even knowing of its existence. Everyone who goes there is a seeker, a pilgrim hoping to receive something;   however, everyone who goes there also has the potential to give something. And that might just be what most of us are seeking – to find out what it is that we can give.

So, I invite you to come with me. The  journey is not long, but slow and lilting, lulling you to sleep as the train brushes against the tracks, as a slight breeze comes in through the cabin’s  partially open window. We rumble  past farms and open fields, through a few big cities and many small towns, until the landscape starts to become wooded. Now, we begin to see lakes – mostly small ones, really more like large ponds than actual lakes. Then, larger ones. Eventually we see the mix of old and new buildings that make up the city of Olsztyn, where the train stops. We gather up our things and make our way into the station; after checking the map, we see that we need to take one more train to Gotki. After grabbing some lunch – white borscht and pork chops that aren’t too bad as far as train station food goes – we board this second train. It’s only three stops to our destination, and then we disembark at a stop which appears to be in the middle of a field. For a moment, fear sets in – how will we know how to get where we’re going? But then, we turn and see that Zbyszek is waiting for us in his car, just as he’d promised he would. We get in the car and he takes us to Agroturystyka Bajka, his wife Teresa’s bed and breakfast, where we have arranged to stay for the week. She greets us with a smile, show us to our room and offers us a hand-sketched map to our actual destination:  Teatr Węgajty, tucked away at the edge of a forest, unknown to anyone who does not seek it out, yet nevertheless one of this culturally rich country’s most radical theatre companies.

Teatr Węgajty is a theatre company like no other. It is a place where all are welcome, where there is no hierarchy or division, no boasting or showing off. It is a place where everyone is invited to contribute something, whether by preparing a tasty German potato salad, leading a dance which all are inspired to join, or translating a conversation so that as many people in the multilingual audience as possible might understand. It is a place where an internationally acclaimed musician and composer will not only play his innovative, John Cage-inspired pieces for you, but teach you to create and perform your own; where a group of young girls from a correctional facility will perform a hip-hop piece about famous women and then teach you to write a hip-hop piece about your own experience;  where men, women and children of all ages come together to celebrate a remote village’s 645th anniversary by dancing to an old Hebrew melody while Wacek pumps his accordion and Mute trills on her clarinet. It is a place where you’ll stand in a huge field at dusk while waiting to watch Rui Ishara’s performance of Japanese butoh dancing and discover that the cloud of buzzing mosquitoes above us is one of the most beautiful forms of music we could hope to hear.

Again and again throughout this blog I have mentioned my struggles with religion.  In each pilgrimage I make to Węgajty – and to me, each visit I make there is indeed a pilgrimage, for it is a holy place – I learn the meaning of this complicated, inflammatory word. Religion is not a set of beliefs or dogmas. Religion is not a social institution. Religion is the way you feel when you’ve walked in the rain for nearly an hour, your shoes soaked completely through, and then realize that you’ve gotten lost and have no choice but to go up to a random house and ask strangers for help. Religion is when it turns out that those strangers are actually going to the same place as you, when they introduce themselves and offer you a cup of tea, when they invite you to get in their car and come with them. Religion is when you see that the world around you is teeming with life – frogs and insects,  flowers and mushrooms, each one another manifestation of the divine. Religion is when everything you do – the way you twist and move in a dance, the soup you serve to the person sitting next to you, the determination with which you stand up after tripping over a stone in the road – becomes a prayer, a way of speaking to God and listening for the response that seems to be coming faster than you can take it in. Religion is when you learn that our true nature is not to compete or seek domination, but to collaborate and form a community. In Węgajty I have found that community. Now, my challenge is to carry it with me, back to my home in Toronto, back to my students and colleauges and friends. Back to you. This is the challenge of every religious experience – to make sure that it does not die, to keep it alive even in the hectic daily routine of bills to be paid and papers to be graded, even amid the tumult of global wars and economic crises. Węgajty is a place without fear, without self-consciousness; it is a place where everything is possible, and where art really does change  world. Now, I am trying to share it with others. I hope that these simple lines will offer you at least one tiny glimpse of its beauty.

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.

It will never prove it now,

now that its years are numbered,

its gait is shaky,

its breath is short.


Too many things have happened

that weren’t supposed to happen,

and what was supposed to come about

has not.


Happiness and spring, among other things,

were supposed to be getting closer.


Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.

Truth was supposed to hit home

before a lie.


A couple of problems weren’t going

to come up anymore:

humger, for example,

and war, and so forth.


There was going to be respect

for helpless people’s helplessness,

trust, that kind of stuff.


Anyone who planned to enjoy the world

is now faced

with a hopeless task.


Stupidity isn’t funny.

Wisdom isn’t gay.


isn’t that young girl anymore,

et cetera, alas.


God was finally going to believe

in a man both good and strong,

but good and strong

are still two different men.


“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.

I had meant to ask him

the same question.


Again, and as ever,

as may be seen above,

the most pressing questions

are naïve ones.

 – Wislawa Szymborska, “The Century’s Decline,”

Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska published these lines in 1986. Twenty-five years later, I suspect that many people would agree with her statement. As I write this, the polar ice caps are melting. The oil is being used up. Millions throughout the world go hungry. Wars rage in many parts of the world; terrorism continues to be a threat to all. Many of us who live in affluent societies are disillusioned with our lives, plagued by the feeling that something is missing. Meanwhile, in poor countries (and in the poor sectors of wealthy ones) the daily struggle for survival overwhelms all other concerns.

“How should we live?” is undoubtedly a naive question – so naive that many of us would rather not ask it at all. And yet, it is becoming more and more imperative that we ask it to ourselves and others, and that we try to find some answers. Problema, a documentary film made by Ralf Schmerberg, exhibits the attempt of some of the world’s foremost philosophers, scientists, artists and policymakers to answer questions posed by people from all over the world. On a bright September day in 2006, onehundred-twenty  thinkers from around the world gathered in Berlin’s Bebelplatz (the place where the Nazis burned around 20,000 books in 1933). They sat around  a circular “Table of Free Voices” and simultaneously answered one hundred questions posed originally online by people from all over the world. The film only documents seventeen of these, and I think that Szymborska would definitely consider many of them to be as naive as they are compelling: “What is today’s most important unreported story?” “Why is there no peace in the Middle East yet?” “What does courage mean now?” Perhaps the questions most relevant to my own project included “What is God’s religion?” and “What are the myths that we need to create in order  to change the world for the better?”

The answers vary from the simplistic  to the truly profound and thought-provoking.  The film flips from one respondent to another, declining to identify people by name until the final credits. In between answers, Schmerberg offers a beautiful (though at times disturbing) collage of images from around the world. He also depicts many humorous and occasionally awkward moments which the respondents experienced in between questions (often when they did not realize they were on camera), thus revealing these “experts” to be not all that different from the rest of us. For me, some of the most engaging answers were provided by evolution biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, who talks about the potential (and necessity) for human beings to develop away from social structures based on competition in favour of ones characterized by collaboration, and her conviction that entropy in the universe is and continues to be counterbalanced by syntropy.  However, many of the answers were very thought-provoking and perhaps (let’s hope) even action-provoking.

Because this film makes use of footage taken from several different films, it cannot be shown commercially. However, it has been shown in private screenings and it also available online, and I would recommend it as definitely worth the hour and a half it takes to watch. The film can be found on its main website, http://www.problema-thefilm.org/, and also on Youtube at  http://www.youtube.com/playlist?p=PL2DB3B747AE2A2029; “answers” to the questions posed during this event (as well as many other questions submitted from readers) can be found at http://www.droppingknowledge.org/bin/home/home.page.