The gem at the heart
Hugh Baker in the Land of Wenceslas and Hus
LEAVING the airport for the city, early impressions don’t augur well. Lines of elephantine apartment blocks tell you that the heavy hand of communism has rested on this land. Soon, however, these give way to pleasant nineteenth-century suburban sprawl, eventually to be replaced by the city itself.
A magical mixture of gothic, rococo, baroque, art deco and cubism soon lose us in a maze where every new corner unveils a delight to the eye and an uplift to the senses. Even most of the shop musak shows some respect for its inheritance, even if it is not Smetana or Dvorak. Somehow, passing centuries have combined to make a heady confection of architectural beauty which, one senses, no amount of deliberate town planning, no desire to create a New Heaven at man’s hand, could manage. Walking the cobbled lanes, you expect to hear a Chopin nocturne gently cascading from an upper window; and wonder of wonders, you do!
Strangely, the city’s beauties have not grown in the soil humans would choose for such an enterprise. Far from being a backwater of peace this city, being at the middle of the continent, has taken all that continent’s wars, intellectual wrestlings and religious upheavals on the chin. Here, Wenceslas (Duke, not King) is murdered by his own brother, Boleslav I; Jan Hus, whose desire was to reform and purify the Church from within, is burned alive for his pains; four years later, the imposing Town Hall with its famously quirky mechanical clock sees Hus’ followers throwing the Town Council out of a high window; the Thirty Years’ War is started by a similar defenestration two hundred years later; the Jews here are constantly ghettoized, then moved on; the Nazis invade; the Communists invade; the largest monument to Stalin in the world (now thankfully demolished and replaced by a large metronome) looks down on the Vltava river; Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to introduce ‘socialism with a human face’ is mercilessly crushed. Through all this pain and change, martyrs, musicians, artists, poets, scientists and dramatists have risen to make this place the thing of beauty and civilization that it is.
The Vandals are not far from the gates, of course. A foul Tesco has sprouted like some plastic fungus two buildings away from the National Theatre: two hundred yards from where Jan Palach immolated himself, gaudy neon advertises an ‘Erotic Club’. Wenceslas Square now hosts the kind of long distance stag party (the booze is cheap, you see) that ought to be re-directed to Ayia Napa. Even so, take care to avoid these excrescences, and the place does one’s soul good.
This is Prague.
A parable comes into your mind on the flight home. You see a holy city heard of by, and visited by, many because of its beauty. Its outer areas are not so much unremarkable as repulsive, produced as they are by the modern, unbelieving world of the worship of things and work; here be made plastic fittings and aluminium extrusions. Its inner areas are under pressure from the ills of the twenty-first century: road traffic, tourists and pickpockets. Its heart, though, has been made, unconsciously, a thing of exquisite beauty by people who, whatever their faults, let the Faith mould their minds and hands.
This is, may I suggest, a parable of God’s church. Visit its outer limits (or the report it receives from the world) and you will see the world at its worst: paedophile priests, arguing bishops, disunity and dissent… the secular world seems a safe option by comparison. Travel further in, and you find things of this age, that stick out like doctrinal sore thumbs. In the aggressive, assertive spirit of the age they shout their supposed superiority by refusing to consider, complement or blend in with what has gone before. Secretly (or indeed, nowadays, openly) they would like to sweep away what has gone before, and replace it with citadels of modernism. That they are not allowed to derives from the fact that, strangely, people don’t come from afar to see the very banalities they’ve left behind; they come to see something different, ancient, full of monasteries, synagogues, churches and cathedrals – the Inheritance of the Saints.
The Church does not live separately from the world. Like its Saviour, because it wants to save the world, it dives into places where nasty people are doing nasty things, in the hope of being salt and light to that which is rotten and dark. Inevitably, and sadly, it shares in the sin of the world it wants to save. Even when it does not share the world’s moral condition, its people’s outlook on life is moulded by the times in which they are born, and live. As long as it holds on in the dark to the banister of that which it has received from the past – to the deposit of the Faith handed down from one generation of believers to the next – it can, with the Holy Spirit’s help, give the world some picture of a God who has to say to us
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways…
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways
And my thoughts than your thoughts.
but who is willing to reveal himself in human flesh, not only in perfection through Jesus, but in a glass darkly through us. Once we lose respect for the otherness of God, and began to tell him it’s time he shaped up and started thinking like us, we will be building Burger King in the Old Town Square; and who will make pilgrimage to come and see that?
We are far from the first generation of Christians to find ourselves embroiled in the conflicts and contradictions of our time. Sometimes I (and maybe you) would like to creep quietly away from the times and places where God has put me, and just quietly contemplate him and his love. Not only would this mean (for those of us not so called) that we ‘left undone those things which we ought to have done’, but it would also express lack of confidence in what God was doing through us. Hemmed in and weighed down as we are by the demands and dangers of the times in which we live, let us take heart and remember that God is building something lasting and beautiful through us, which will still be there when theological ‘blocks of flats’, and their makers, are long gone.
Hugh Baker, now Vicar (mercifully) of only four Parishes in south Staffordshire
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