Gorzkie Żale: A Polish Lenten Tradition

One of the signs of Lent in the Polish community are the Gorzkie Żale, or Bitter Lamentations, sung at church on Sundays during that somber season. They’re a series of melancholic hymns about Jesus Christ’s passion and death, meant to be a form of grieving for His suffering.

Here’s an example:

The Gorzkie Żale are divided into three parts:

  • Part one recalls Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, arrest and unjust trial. This part is sung on the first and fourth Sundays of Lent.
  • Part two recalls Christ’s suffering from his unjust trial to His being crowned with thorns. You can hear this part on the second and fifth Sundays of Lent.
  • Part three recalls Christ’s crucifixtion and death and is sung on the third Sunday of Lent and Palm Sunday.

The introductory hymn (Pobudka, or ‘‘wake up call’’) is the same for each of the three parts and goes as follows:

Polish text English version
Gorzkie żale, przybywajcie, Serca nasze przenikajcie. (2x)

Rozpłyńcie się, me źrenice, Toczcie smutnych łez krynice. (2x)

Let us pray in contemplation, While we sing this lamentation. (2x)

With eyes tearful, hearts repenting, Let us grieve with no relenting. (2x)

Słońce, gwiadzy omdlewają, Żałobą się okrywają. (2x)

Płaczą rzewnie Aniołowie,
A któż żałość ich wypowie? (2x)

Lo, the sun and stars are fading; sadness, nature all pervading. (2x)

Host of Angels, sadly weeping, Who’ll explain their deep bereaving? (2x)

Opoki się twarde krają, Zgrobów umarli powstają. (2x)

Cóż jest, pytam, co się dzieje? Wszystko stworzenie truchleje. (2x)

Mountains, cliffs and rocks are crumbling; Sealed tombs open, loudly thund’ring. (2x)

Why such sorrow, desolation?Overwhelming all creation? (2x)

Na ból męki Chrystusowej
Żal przejmuje bez wymowy. (2x)

Uderz, Jezu, bez odwłoki
W twarde serc naszych opoki. (2x)

‘Tis Our Savior’s sacred Passion Moving all to deep compassion. (2x)

Touch our hearts, O Lord most holy, With contrition, true and lowly. (2x)

Jezu mój, w krwi ran Twoich Obmyj duszę z grzechów moich. (2x)

Upał serca mego chłodzę,
Gdy w przepaść męki Twej wchodzę. (2x)

By your precious Blood redeem us; From sin, malice, O Lord free us. (2x)

May our Lenten lamentations, Curb false ardor and wild passions. (2x)

Afterward, each part has its particular set of spoken intentions and hymns. The Polish church I attend does the Gorzkie Żale as part of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament after Sunday Mass. The priest actually omits his Homily from the regular Mass and saves it for the lamentations.

Bellotto_Church_of_the_Holy_Cross_in_Warsaw

Holy Cross Church in Warsaw during the 1700s–where the Gorzkie Żale were first sung.

Gorzkie Żale are a particularly Polish Catholic tradition. The words and ideas behind them derived from traditional Polish religious songs sung for centuries in villages. Officially, the lamentations were first written down and sung on March 13, 1707 in Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. Afterward, they spread to other churches around Poland and eventually wherever Poles emigrated.

I encourage all of you to attend a Polish Mass during Lent sometime to hear these lamentations. Even if you cannot understand Polish, the haunting melodies will certainly move you. When done correctly, the Gorzkie Żale truly make it feel as if Christ is suffering right in front of you, and you with Him.

You can read the full Gorzkie Żale at this link: http://www.ststanskostka.org/pdf/Lenten%20Lametations%20.pdf

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2 thoughts on “Gorzkie Żale: A Polish Lenten Tradition

  1. Hi, There used to be a Polish song sung either for Lent or for funerals but it was so heartbreaking they stopped singing it. I believe something about the way it was composed, the tones, and such particularly affected one. Have you ever heard of a song like this? Thanks for your site!

    Like

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