to Europe is like travelling back in time: to a fairy-tale world of castles, cathedrals, and cobblestone. Unlike America, Europe has a long history, monuments of triumphs recently gained and ruins of glories long faded, and, as such, constant reminders of the way things used to be.
Americans have no such reminders, although we are painfully aware of our history. “Conservatives” extol the virtues of our founding fathers, stress the original intentions of the Constitution, and lament the historical illiteracy among the rising generations of the publicly-educated. “Liberals,” on the other hand, regularly remind us that ours is a history marred by slavery and oppression, discrimination and disenfranchisement, denying rights to women and exploiting Native Americans.
No doubt Europeans engage in similar debates about their past. But unlike Europe, America is not an ancient land, built on and around the ruins and remains of great civilizations past. No grand medieval civilization ever bestrode our shores and therefore no vestiges of it dot our cities. Antiquity in America means, if anything, the colonial days, which had sparse population and built few lasting monuments—the Old North Church, Mount Vernon, and a few farmhouses.
I finally arrived in Europe two summers ago, fully anticipating to explore the vast cultural patrimony unknown to the other side of the ocean. My favorite destination of the trip, Prague, seated at the veritable center of Europe, our tour guide informed us, was the New York of the 14th century. The continent’s most-populated city, its intellectual center, and the politically-important imperial capital, Prague enjoyed immense prosperity during the Middle Ages which extended deep into the following centuries. And nothing serves as a more constant reminder of this fact than the city’s innumerable splendid churches.
The mother church of Prague, the archdiocesan Cathedral of St. Vitus—officially, of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslaus, and Adalbert—looms prominently on the city’s highest point. The high Gothic edifice took over six centuries to complete, a living testimony to a faith that transcended generations. Standing in its shadow, I was left speechless—this enormous building, with its soaring steeples and intricately carved stonework, erected for the glory of God. And those responsible for this magnificent structure were not backward, superstitious rustics—these were the cosmopolitans of their age.
And all along the winding, medieval streets and arcades that led down from the Cathedral stood countless more houses of religion. Jesuit colleges with Baroque cupolas, Renaissance chapels, churches bedecked with priceless art and gilded statures, each one of them offering nightly concerts featuring the music of Mozart, Haydn, and the other luminaries who once entertained the emperors that intermittently kept court at Prague.
This city of churches, almost all as perfectly preserved as if in a museum, brought me back, ever so momentarily, to an age when God was king and faith not only inspired, but provided the crowning achievement to, the work in which each, great and small, were engaged. Even the New England townships with which I am so familiar, with their pristine whitewashed meetinghouses planted neatly on the village green, only feebly approximated this unmistakably Christian ethos. In colonial New England—in the old clapboard of Harvard, for example—we can discern a sense of an old order: but, yet, unlike the medieval center of
Prague, there is no sense of glory, of triumph, of the sublime.
What adds to the poignancy of rediscovering the Christian triumph of a past age is modernity’s ambivalence about this heritage. Governments acutely sensitive to the demands of the profitable tourist industry, as well as community activists intent on preserving historical antiques, have fastidiously maintained and refurbished these great monuments of Christian culture. Yet at the same time, the principle on which these churches were built remains utterly alien to the contemporary inhabitants of Prague and the other historical centers of Europe.
The Czech Republic—the “nation-state” grafted from Bohemia, Moravia, and a German-speaking hinterland—is Europe’s statistically most atheistic country, a fact proudly cited by our tour guide as she stood opposite both a solemn statue of St. Wenceslaus, Prague’s patron, and a garish memorial to John Huss, the 15th-century fanatic ultimately burned at the stake. The irony of that proclamation was perhaps not clear to our tour guide, or the countless other Czech atheists who lived through the Nazis, the Communist terror, and the succeeding disruptions of this century. But it struck a sonorous note in my mind, a silent elegy to a civilization, which, in appearance, still existed, but, in spirit, had long since declined.
I realized most profoundly this disconnect between our age—our “museum culture” that values the past as something intriguing but so foreign as to be almost fictional—and that which these churches exemplified during my tour of St. Vitus Cathedral.
In a side chapel there stood a glorious memorial to St. John Nepomucene, a patron saint of Bohemia and 14th-century martyr. Legend has it that he earned his crown when, as vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Prague, he obeyed the Archbishop in defiance of the king, and was subsequently drowned by royal assassins. The memorial, erected in the early 18th century, contains the saint’s remains, including a special reliquary for his incorrupt tongue. Equally impressive, however, the memorial was crafted from over four thousand pounds of precious metals, primarily silver, and stands as a crowning achievement of late Baroque sculpture.
In today’s world, we could not imagine any work of art—private or public, religious or secular—made from over two tons of silver, even in an age when the psychological if not actual monetary value of the metal is comparatively lower. Yet such a magnificent display, now a proud cultural relic of the Czech Republic, was intended originally as a fitting honor to the holy man and patron who pleaded for the city before the celestial throne of God.
How odd that logic must sound to our modern ears! We could not likely fathom such an enormous expenditure, and certainly not for what would seem like a superfluous religious project. As a society, we have significantly vaster wealth than 18th-century Prague, and, relatively speaking, much fewer indigent and starving in our cities. Yet even as we fritter away our savings, without thinking, on gaudy electronics, consumer durables, and various other material goods, we would never consider spending money on something similarly showy, and especially not something for God.
Modernity sits awkwardly with respect to these cultural monuments from our past: we cannot resist the urge to admire them, to preserve them; but at the same time, their true meaning, that which endows them with the beauty and transcendence that speaks to us however unclearly, is obscured by the fog of time.
Even where religious faith persists today, the sentiment that inspired and empowered the artificers of Christian civilization remains somewhat incomprehensible.
Our religion has become distinctly a private matter, and, aside from a few public holidays like Christmas effectively sanitized of any spiritual meaning, we are forced to practice it only in private.
Modernity has dealt religion in general and Christianity in particular a heavy blow. We have before us these visible symbols of past Christian triumph, more accessible than ever thanks to modern travel, yet remain devoid of any feeling or even desire to triumph ourselves. Truly, sincere faith does not require the awesome heft of a Gothic cathedral or radiant brilliance of a solid-gold reliquary. But in a society of unparalleled wealth and comfort, we should recognize with shame the fact the religion has so ignominiously receded and an ever-decreasing share of society’s bounty is offered up for the glory of God.
It is not surprising, then, that a society that places its greatest value on material comforts has little appreciation for beauty and the sublime—unless it is found in a museum. Setting our sights on quotidian concerns, we lose our perspective of the grand, the noble, and the glorious. We settle for mediocrity: we are too self-conscious to pursue anything better.
And so it falls with religion as well. We not only cannot appreciate the monuments of Christian civilization for the same reasons as their founders, not only because society has lost the faith, but also because we have all lost the sense of the faith. Christianity has long upheld, as its exemplars, those of impressive and almost superhuman achievements: whether the supreme courage of the martyrs, the extreme erudition of the doctors, and the profound piety of the confessors. It often seems that today this sort of greatness—as far, at least, as mere men can achieve—no longer speaks to us. We are content without greatness, as long as we are don’t have to get up from the sofa.
Today’s Christians would be well served by rekindling the spirit of a past age: to acquire once again an appreciation for glory— ad majorem Dei gloriam.