As part of the “Great Purge” in the clutter of our storage room I at long last got to the surface of a bench that spans the length of the back wall. On this bench I found a box of forgotten books, many of which I had meant to review for shelf space at a later time. I guess the time is now. Among them I found a small paperback published in 1962 that contains the story I’ve included below.
My ironically named purge, joined with the news from Quebec that they are a step closer to legalizing segregation and news from the USA that New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Bosson has informed us that being compelled by law to compromise one’s religious beliefs is the price of citizenship, reminded me that history remains and endless cycle. While evil and persecution is presented as progressive, new ideals they are just the same old tyrannies from the past, alive in the present, and reborn in the future, dressed in the shining white dress of tolerance.
Ivan the woodcutter lived in a cottage in the midst of the tall straight firs. He had dwelt in this spot for most of his seventy years and knew and loved it. There was great pleasure for the old man here listening to the song of birds and watching the wild flowers thrusting their beauty through the soil. Peace reigned supreme in this place and Ivan was happy.
In the woods he had erected a shrine to the Virgin. A simple little thing in honor of God’s Mother, for this was her year and Ivan was eager to show his love for Mary. He had in his possession a statue that had belonged to his father before him, and to his grandfather before that. A treasured family heirloom of little value financially, but to old Ivan the woodcutter it was a beautiful piece of work. Something he could kneel before to recite his Aves, reminding him, as it did, of the spotless Virgin enthroned in Heaven and gazing down with love upon her poor banished children of Eve.
The folk, as they passed through the woods, would stop and admire the shrine of Ivan the woodcutter, for daily he would place freshly gathered flowers before it.
The only relation Ivan had was a young nephew, Stanislaus, his late brother’s son, who came periodically to visit his uncle. Whenever the old man thought of his relative he became sad, for it was a fact that the boy was fast becoming imbibed with the new ideas that prevailed throughout the land: Religion was for the old folk. In the interests of progress it must take a step backwards and become relegated to a position where it would be of no account! Ivan had heard of priests being imprisoned, and even put to death, for daring to flout the government. How different from a few years ago when people flocked to the churches, paying homage to their Lord and Creator. Daily there were fresh decrees issued against the Church of God in an effort to weaken the faith of the people. Churches had been closed by authorities and few remained. It would not be long before these, too, would be closed. The beautiful processions that were once a feature in the religious life of the country were no longer to be seen, such events having been declared unlawful. God and his Mother were pushed into the background to satisfy the whim of an atheist dictator.
Green summer was in the trees when one day a party of soldiers passed by the cottage of Ivan, and seeing the shrine they stopped. It was their captain who summoned the woodcutter from his home.
“Good day to you, Ivan my friend. I see you still follow the superstitious trail by having this shrine erected. You are old and wish to enjoy the few years that remain to you but I warn you they will be fewer still if you persist in this folly. The government has forbidden such shrines and altars to be exposed to public gaze. You will, therefore, in the next three days, have this shrine removed. I could, of course, take such an action myself, but I have heard how you value this image and would not offend an old man’s scruples by taking it from you. You are at liberty to keep it, but let it be concealed where no man may set eyes upon it. A patrol will come this direction in three days. The consequences will be unpleasant for you, should this Madonna still be on view.” With these remarks the soldiers continued on their way.
After their departure the woodcutter fell upon his knees in prayer to her whose image had been the source of the captain’s threats.
Stanislaus was worried. His uncle, Ivan the woodcutter was the cause of such story. That day he had visited him and heard from his lips what had transpired. In vain he had tried to persuade the old man to remove the offending shrine, but the replay was brief: “She stays, nephew! What sort of a man would I be to do such a thing? I have prayed that God will turn the hearts of those who rule over us. I am old and my time is short, but what is left I intend to give to God. Say no more.”
Stanislaus was a member of the local Communist Youth Organization sponsored by the government. As a loyal member he was supposed to report any flagrant violation of the recent decree, but somehow at the thought he felt sick. Why should the authorities interfere with the whims of old people? Let them have religion should they so desire. In a few years they would be no more and the country could stride forward to great achievement under the new laws. The proclamation of a year in honor of the Virgin had, he admitted, stimulated the faith of the people, but what was twelve months compared to the glorious future of the land? As a boy, he had been a Mass server in the cathedral, a lad full of piety and zeal for Holy Church, and he recalled the old parish priest patting him on the head with the remark: “You will do great things for God and His Holy Mother when you are older my son.” Stanislaus smiled when he thought of that and the fact that he was now a member of the Communist Youth Organization.
The sun was shining in all its glory when the soldiers again passed by the cottage of Ivan the woodcutter. To their astonishment the statue was still in its place and fresh flowers before it. The old man knelt there, the beads passing through his hands as he murmured the holy mysteries of her Rosary heedless of the rude gaze of the man in uniform.
“Old man,” said the Captain “you will come with us to appear before the Commissar this very day. As for this nonsense well –”. He started forward with the butt of his rifle as if to smash the Madonna, but the woodcutter, standing across his path, received a heavy blow on the temple which rendered him unconscious.
They carried him to one side and laid him on a grass verge. The Captain smiled. Old Ivan had been stubborn. He turned towards his men. “Now that the old man has been temporarily stunned there is none to stop us destroying this erected superstition.”
A calm voice from the trees interrupted him. “That’s where you are wrong, captain. Let me take my uncle’s place.” Stanislaus stood in front of the shrine with a light in his eyes that astonished the soldiers.
They shot him in the woods as he stood there defiant before his uncle’s Madonna, and it seemed to him, as he lay there dying, that Mary bent down and folded her mantle around him. The birds keened a requiem then for the soul of Stanislaus.
Ivan did not recover to endure the agonies of a mock trial that is a feature of the country in those days. Whether they were afraid of the populace is not known, but Ivan’s Madonna still stands in the greenwood tended by people who were undaunted by threats. The creatures of the air still sing their praises of Mary as they wind their way around Ivan’s Madonna.
— From Don Bosco’s Madonna, pages 73-77.
Image source: Wayside Shrines