Monday, February 13, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 7: Churches and Bones

Something I somehow completely forgot to mention in my first post about Prague: I went to a Christmas mass at St. Nicholas Church.

The reason I'm stunned that I forgot to mention this is that religion was one of my primary motivations for spending Christmas in Prague in the first place. Granted, the trip didn't really quite turn out the way I expected in that regard (I'll get to that in a second), but still. I went for the churches, and I went to a church service, and then I didn't write about it. Derp.

I'm not going to use this blog to expound my personal beliefs about God or my relationship with religion in general; that's complicated and personal and I'm just not going to get into it here. What you need to know is that I grew up going to church, that I was very involved in my church as a teenager, before I went away to college, and that I consider my church to be a big part of my life. That church is a Moravian church. Never heard of Moravians as a religion? That's okay; no one from the U.S. has unless they're from my hometown or a handful of other enclaves, and there are no Moravians in France or Ireland that I'm aware of, and very few in Britain. We're a mainstream Protestant denomination that have a lot in common with Lutherans. The modern church was essentially born in southern Germany in the eighteenth century, but is descended from the followers of Jan Hus, an early [read: before Martin Luther] reformer in the Czech Republic. There's a giant statue of Hus in Old Town Square in Prague, and many of the old churches are places where he preached or that are otherwise somehow associated with him or his followers. (He was burned at the stake, and early Czech protestants were persecuted and forced underground, in case you were wondering.)

So, my interest in the Moravian church combined with my interest in history in general was a big part of what made me so determined to visit Prague. And it was specifically part of my determination to go at Christmastime. It was going to be the first time in ten years that I hadn't spent Christmas Eve at my church in my hometown, and I though I would be less homesick if I was at some Moravian church somewhere--and where better than the city where it all started six hundred years ago?

Well, that didn't quite work. Despite a concerted effort that started well in advance, I had an extremely difficult time finding any information about modern Moravian congregations in Prague. The one I did manage to locate (which even had an English-language website!) was located well outside the city centre and I didn't really have time to go hunting for it. So that's how I wound up at Christmas-morning mass at St. Nicholas, which is one of the elaborate historic churches around Old Town Square. So that was cool, even if it wasn't quite as familiar as I'd been hoping for.

St. Nicholas has been many things over the years; today, it's a Hussite church. I assumed that a Hussite service would be somewhat similar to a Moravian service, since they both stem from the same origins.


Obviously, I didn't understand much of anything being said, so I can't speak for the content of the mass (although the fact that it was called a mass was, in itself, a big difference). Things that stood out to me were the lack of a choir (though I'm not ruling out the possibility that that was because it was Christmas) and the fact that the person leading the service (pastor? priest? Since I don't speak Czech, I have no idea what the correct term is) actually did a lot of singing. Not just leading hymns, but actually singing the service, like a Jewish cantor. It was interesting. I can't remember ever encountering that at a Christian church before. I was also struck by the interior of the church itself; Moravians, historically, are very keen on having everything be plain and simple. St. Nicholas's Church is neither of those things. Its centerpiece is a massive, ornate glass chandelier hanging in the middle of the sanctuary. Everything else about it is equally ornate, from the moldings and stained glass windows, to the showy organ ornamented in gold to the giant paintings and even a crucifix (something you NEVER see in Protestant churches) hanging on the walls. I can only assume that most of that stuff is from St. Nicholas's days as a Catholic church.

Anyway, that was the real start to my surreal Christmas in Prague, and I enjoyed it, though it was strange and I felt out of place. I did, however, get extremely annoyed with all of the tourists coming in and out during the service. Some of them even had the nerve to take pictures, and others would go sit in a pew for a few minutes and then get up and leave again. It was disruptive and disrespectful, and I have no idea why it was permitted, not to mention how so many people could be that uncouth in the first place.

I was actually really stunned at the sheer number of tourists in Prague in the first place. My hostel wasn't full, but it was busy, and Old Town Square and other tourist attractions were packed every day with people speaking English and French and Spanish and German and Chinese. The tours I went on, even the one we did on Christmas Day, were all big groups and all ran into other tours with similar itineraries and similarly big groups. While I did encounter some students and some other young people who were conceivably in situations like my friends and me, working temporary jobs overseas, far from home, there were way more groups of young people around than I thought could possibly be accounted for by those two things, and also tons of couples and even families. I was just really surprised by how many people, especially roughly college-age people and people with young kids, apparently wanted to be away from home for Christmas.

The day after Christmas, Ali and Shayna and I all went on a day trip (well, afternoon trip) to Kutna Hora, a village in Moravia an hour or so away from Prague. Some of you already know where this is going, I bet. The big tourist attraction around Kutna Hora, and the first stop on the tour, is the Sedlec Ossuary, a small Gothic(?) chapel filled with bones. And when I say bones, I mean thousands of them. And when I say filled, I don't just mean in big piles, although there are several of those. I mean that after the chapel had been in use as a disorganized charnel house for many many years, somebody came along and said, "You know what would make this better? If I made decorations out of all these bones!" And he did. He made a chandelier, and a giant coat of arms, and some columns, and assorted other hanging arrangements for the walls, including his own initials. All out of human bones. It's strange and morbid and fascinating. Special display cases set aside from the bone decorations and the neat stacks of unused bones hold some bones, mostly skulls and mostly with very visible injuries, from people who fought in the Hussite Wars.

On the second floor of the chapel is a second chapel, this one totally normal, looking bright and modern and ready for worship. What.

Elsewhere in Kutna Hora, which is a cheerful little town full of brightly colored buildings lining winding cobblestone streets, is another impressive cathedral, recently restored, with more of those delightful Czech stained glass windows and wall paintings. There was a choir rehearsal in progress while we were there, and I wanted nothing more than to just stay and listen and look at all that art. There is also another big, old church in the center of Kutna Hora, but we weren't able to visit it because it's undergoing restoration work right now. Outside the cathedral, lining the walk down to the center of the village, are replicas of all of the sculptures on Charles Bridge in Prague. After you've passed them all, you reach the old silver mine, apparently much beloved by archaeologists, but sadly off limits to the public. In the center, in an ornate orange building called the Italian Court because of its architecture, is the old mint, now a museum. We went on a short tour, but I wasn't especially interested and don't remember very much about it now. (In the first room we were in, while the guide was telling us about the history of coin production in Kutna Hora, I was looking at a series of portraits of former heads of the mint and studying the changes in clothing and facial hair styles over the centuries, if that tells you anything about how much attention I was paying to the tour.) I do remember that there was a ridiculously tacky chapel somewhere in the mint, and I wish I could remember why.

Back in Prague that evening, Ali and Shayna and I hung around the market for a bit and then they took me across the river to show me the Lennon Wall, which is definitely one of my favorite things in Prague. It's just a wall near the river that's covered in ever-changing John Lennon-related graffiti. It was used as a method of anonymous resistance under the communist regime, which led to a lot of tension between authorities and students. People are still writing and drawing on it today, leaving all kinds of messages about love and peace (and grief for Lennon), many of them involving song lyrics. The night I was there, it had changed even in the two days since Ali and Shayna had first seen it. It's just really cool. What it stands for, and its place in political history, but also just as a way of bringing together so many people from so many different places who all share the same ideals. I think it's really similar to the peace wall in Belfast in that way. It reinforces the idea that there is something fundamentally good about humanity, something that's shared across cultures and languages and religions, and it gives me some small hope for the future.

We had dinner (I had Czech goulash, which is very traditional and thankfully not as full of paprika as Hungarian goulash) and some wonderfully cheap cocktails at a jazz club near the castle district, and hung around until the show started in the basement bar, but were unwilling to pay a cover charge higher than the cost of our dinner, so the evening ended there and we said our goodbyes, since I was leaving the following day.

The next morning I did have time to go back into the city centre to try to get some pictures of things I hadn't before. I did not manage, amid the confusing streets, to make my way back to the Jewish quarter where I'd been unable to take good pictures in the dark near the end of my tour on Christmas Eve, but I did go to see the statue of Wenceslas. The whole square around the statue was filled with thousands of red votive candles left as offerings in memory of Havel, along with some flowers and notes. It was a very visual testament to what I'd thus far only heard about the almost universal grief of the Czech people, and it was very moving.

I then returned to the Bethlehem Chapel (which I'd actually found on Christmas morning, but it had been closed at the time), which was one of the sites I was really determined to see, not because of anything that specific, but because it's associated with Jan Hus and it's called the Bethlehem Chapel, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me until I got there and opened the door, you have to pay to actually enter the chapel. Now, even leaving aside my resentment at having to pay to enter a place of worship in the first place, I didn't have time for that. I had a train to catch and still had to get back across town to my hostel to retrieve my stuff before I went to the train station. I just wanted to step in and see the place for a minute. But no. (And for the record, getting there earlier wouldn't have helped, as it had only been open for a few minutes by the time I did get there.) So I left feeling pretty annoyed and disappointed about having missed out another one of the things I'd been most excited about.

Just one more reason to go back to Prague someday...

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