Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Religion and Power: An Unholy Alliance

The Czech Republic ranks as the most secular country in the whole of Europe. It's easy to understand why. Its history demonstrates the unholy alliance between religion and power. For this part of the world in particular, religion rouses the memory of occupation.

The conquered veer away from the faith of the conqueror, and too many conquerors rolled through Bohemia. Bismarck observed: "Whoever controls Bohemia controls Europe." Many tried. The Bohemian nobility struggled against both the power and the religious sensibilities of Catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs. Twice, in 1419 and 1618, they met with Catholic legates from to discuss more equitable power-sharing. Twice, each side found the other intractable. The nobles protested in the only way left to them: they threw the ambassadors out the window, resulting in the fabled defenestrations of Prague.

Twice, the impact was disastrous. The first defenestration marked the beginnings of the Hussite Wars, named after a teacher at the prestigious Charles University theologian, restive against the growing wealth, power, and clerical privilege of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin may have regarded Jan Huss (d. 1415) as the "first reformer," but the Bohemian people revered him as a hero of Czech nationalism. He preserved the Czech language against the church's Latin and the imperial German. He elevated the status of the laity, demanding they receive both bread and wine of the sacred Eucharistic meal, where the Roman church reserved wine for the priests. He steadfastly protested ecclesiastical abuse: the sale of indulgences, the practice of secret clerical marriage, the growing wealth and power of the church as a whole. For his efforts, he was invited to a council of the Roman Church in Constance for theological discussion. Upon arrival, however, he was arrested, imprisoned, and burned at the stake as a heretic.

In the Old Town Square of Prague, a statue of Huss faces, not the church, but the Old Town Hall. Huss embodies Czech nationalism, not Czech religion.

The second defenestration marked the beginnings of the Thirty Years' War. After the decisive defeat of the Bohemian estates at the Battle of White Mountain, Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II had 27 Protestant leaders executed on the Old Town Square in 1621. There was a parallel imperial initiative on the religious front. The Habsburgs sent in the Jesuits to re-Catholicize Bohemia. They worked architecturally, installing huge, clunky Baroque altars in the delicate Gothic and Romanesque churches all over the city. It was a visual protest against the Reformation's emphasis on words, words that could be read in the people's language, words that could be spoken by everyone, Christ as the Word of God, not Ambassador of the Omnipotent God.

I finally found a Gothic church without a Baroque altar inside: it had been turned into an art gallery.

Maybe beauty is the only protest against power searching for sanction and against religion longing clout.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Krakow: A Lyrical City

“I don’t know what it means to call Krakow a ‘lyrical’ city,” a friend wrote on hearing my first impression of the city.

What does it mean to call a city “lyrical?”

More important, what does it mean to call this city “lyrical?”

The life of the city rotates around three circles. The first is a circle of royal power. Set on a hill and enclosed by red brick walls, the Wawel Castle and its surrounding structures were built over centuries in styles Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. The stones tell the story of a succession of Polish kings and queens who ruled, died, and were buried here.

At the base of the Castle a circle of commerce spins in tight orbit. Like spokes on a wheel, all roads lead to the Grand Square, or Rynek Glowny, a hub of medieval trade routes that brought cloth and spices, salt and amber into the city center. Around 1300 a permanent roof was built over market stalls to become the Cloth Hall, arguably the world’s first shopping mall. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, effectively erasing the country from the map of Europe, Rynek Glowny became Adolf Hitlerplatz.

One road runs from the market square to a final circle: the circle that contained Krakow’s Jewish population, the Kazimierz. At the end of the 15th Century Jews were relocated to an area nestled in a curve of the Vistula River. A spirit of religious tolerance welcomed Jews from all over Europe to the Kazimierz. The population swelled; the arts flourished; banking brought wealth. In the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis emptied the circle, expelling Jews directly to nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau or temporarily resettling them in a ghetto on the other side of the river. The Nazis built the high walls around the ghetto to resemble tombstones.

Directions in Krakow never urge taking a “hard right” or a “hard left.” Instead, they advise bearing this way or that. But then, none of the streets in any of these circles meet at right angles: they bend into cathedrals or synagogues, market squares or the hard truth of the ghetto.

Today the city’s life revolves around three ancient circles of power and commerce and memory. In their daily rounds, these circles spin off songs of beauty and terror. If you listen closely amidst the rumble of trams and the squawking of tourists, you catch a few bars of haunting melody. It is always in a minor key. Beneath it all, the cantus firmus of an ancient chant, the Vistula flows steadily into the Baltic.

That’s what it means to call this city “lyrical.” Another friend got it immediately.
“Yes,” he responded.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A first blessing....

The first day in another country overloads the senses. A jet-lagged body soaks in stimuli like a sponge: an omni-present odor of lemon grass in the hotel, people’s faces, puff jackets with hoods rimmed in fur, the raw edges of early spring, the cobbled streets, a profusion of Baroque, patterns of signage – and hopefully, the traffic patterns.

In Prague pedestrians have the right of way, but trams trump everything. “Pozor!” means look out – and should be taken seriously. Brown arrows with white letters point out historical monuments, but it takes a while to figure out which. At first pass, the Czech language looks like a jumble of consonants with lots of inflections and a predominance of v’s and j’s, z’s and c’s.

It’s a lot to take in. We walked enough to get down basic bearings. Then, jostled and over-stimulated, we repaired to the slower cadences of the St. Agnes Convent and Museum.

Royal blood coursed through the veins of Agnes of Bohemia (1211-1282), and her parents sought a marriage of advantage. Engaged first to Henry, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Agnes was packed off to imperial court, only to have that union thwarted by a local duke who wanted to wed his own daughter to the emperor’s son. Henry III of England emerged as a potential mate, but the emperor challenged the union. He wanted to wed Agnes himself.

At this point, Agnes intervened, choosing for herself a life of prayer. To safeguard the plan, she secured consent of the pope and land from her brother.

Along the Vltava River, her convent now houses a stunning collection of medieval religious panels and statuary, many devoted to Christ and his mother. In most of these, Christ is an infant, nestled in the arms of his mother and nursing at her breast. As Margaret Miles argues in A Complex Delight (University of California, 2008), early medieval religious art featured the infant Jesus, not the dying Christ. A nurturant mother, not a dying man, captured the medieval imagination.

Over and over again, in icons and statuary and paintings, we gazed on a child, latched onto the breast of his mother, nursing so eagerly we could almost hear him sucking. And on the face of the mother, a smile of infinite peace.

That smile blocked out the blast of the trams, the bustling of the streets, the riot of Baroque.

I held that smile with me for the rest of the visit: it was our first blessing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

When is a square not really a square....

Wencelaus Square is not really a square, but a long rectangle. At one end is the National Museum, a proud monument to Czech culture. At the other end is Na Prikope, a long sloping street. Once the former moat for the old city of Prague, the street encircles the old city with a string of temples to the gods of commerce, international corporations like Nike, Apple, H&M, Boss, Express.

This square which is not really a square is long enough for Soviet tanks to roll down in impressive array, as they did in 1968. This square which is not really a square is wide enough for the flames of Jan Palach’s self-immolation protesting the Soviet occupation to be seen at Na Prikope, the other end of the square. This square which is not really a square is vast enough to gather people, for whatever purpose they need to gather. In 1968 they demonstrated, ushering in the Prague Spring; in 1969 they watched silently, as a Prague winter descended; in 1989 they celebrated wildly, as Vaclav Havel, playwright not Soviet puppet, assumed the presidency. In 2015 they simply march from store to store, bags ever thicker with purchase.

A friend remarked: “The Communists were in power; they were all out for themselves. Now, the capitalists are in power; they too are all out for themselves. Nothing’s changed.”

But something has changed: capitalism will be harder to challenge. People wear the enemy on their feet; they march in shoes branded with swooshes. People write their screeds on computers bearing apples, the original fruit of temptation. Once a country filled with craftspeople, these former-craftspeople now work in a burgeoning “service economy,” importing their leather from Italy, their woolens from Bulgaria, and their woodcarving from Russia. Soon the Czech will import their glassware and crystal from -- Bangladesh?

A statue of King Wencelaus mutely surveys this latest occupation. Behind him is the Baroque fa├žade of the National Museum, symbol of a culture that remains a political force more potent than weapons. After all, Jan Hus resisted Rome with the power of his preaching. Franz Kafka mocked in his fiction the very state he served as a functionary. Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, was a playwright. Preacher and playwrights, artists and writers: traditionally they’ve served as the shock troops of Bohemia.

Were Wencelaus to lead them, how would he wage his campaign? Interviewing activist-writer-intellectual Ivan Klima after Havel re-established Czech independence in 1989, Philip Roth observed the change between Soviet occupation and this new independence: “For you, nothing was allowed, but everything mattered. Now you’re more like us: everything is allowed, nothing matters.” (Ivan Klima, The Spirit of Prague, Granta Books: 1994).