PRAGUE! ONE OF MY FAVOURITE CITIES… built on a bend in the river whose name I can never remember – the Vltava. The Charles Bridge lined by statues and artists, the cathedral and the castle on the hill, the Old Town Square with its astronomical clock whose apostles appear every hour on the hour, and a wonderful spectrum of architectural styles from romanesque, gothic, renaissance and baroque through to art nouveau (we’ll ignore the ‘Stalinist baroque’).
But the large sprawling bronze sculpture in the Old Town Square signifies what makes Prague very special in my estimation. A cluster of figures is portrayed on a raised platform, one taller and apart from others including a priest holding a communion cup. This group represents a vital link in a process stretching right back to two ninth-century Orthodox monks, and forward to today’s pentecostal movement.
For the path to the World Christian movement, in my interpretation of history, passes right through this city.
The monks were brothers from Thessaloniki in Greece, Cyril and Methodius, the first bearers of the gospel to the Slavs in this part of Europe. They created the ‘Cyril’-lic alphabet to give the Slavs the Bible in their own language. Later Rome gained control of the region, and Latin liturgies were imposed. But the people always remembered having had the Scriptures in their own vernacular language. This led to generations of protest, climaxing in the emergence of John Hus, the leading figure in the bronze cluster, as a spokesman for the grievances of the Moravian and Bohemian peoples against a Roman Catholic church badly needing reform at the start of the 15th century.
Hus, the rector of the university, came to realise the primacy of Biblical authority via teachings of John Wycliffe brought back to Prague by young Bohemians studying at Oxford. He began calling for reform in sermons delivered in the large Bethlehem Chapel still used today by the university for graduations. Inside you can see wall paintings reproducing artwork from old manuscripts, depicting scenes from Hus’s life (if you don’t visit on a Monday, when it is closed, as we discovered to our disappointment on the Share the Heritage tour). These include his being burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1415 at the Papal Council of Constance, despite the emperor’s guarantee of a safe return trip from Prague.
Also on the wall is Hus’s motto: Veritas omnia vincit (Truth prevails), which has become the national motto, Pravda vitez. Vaclav Havel noted this in his speech to the Vatican on the eve of the new millennium, at a symposium on ‘Master Jan Hus’ which led to his reinstatement and an official Catholic apology for his execution.
Hus, said Havel, was ‘one of the archetypes of (the Czech republic’s) cultural, religious and moral identity’:
‘For hundreds of years, the name of master Jan Hus has been inscribed in the mind of the nation especially for his deep love of truth. In June 1413 Hus writes…: “And if I cannot liberate truth in all manners of things, then at least I shall not be an enemy of truth, and I wish to resist consenting until death… Truth prevails over all.” He repeats a similar idea a week before his death in a letter written on June 27th, 1415 from the jail in Constance to the masters, bachelors and students of Prague university: “Stand on the recognized truth which prevails over all and retains its power until the end of time.”
‘Master Jan Rokycan had an abbreviated form of this statement, The Truth of the Lord Prevails , engraved on the front of the Prague Tyn church. A similar motto, yet one adapted to a different epoch Truth Prevails – as the two-word expression of the deepest aspirations and experience of our history – was entered by Act of the National Assembly on the National Flag and National Emblems of March 30, 1920, into the large emblem and on the flag of the president of the free Czechoslovak Republic.
Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred then became the motto of our peaceful revolution which, in November 1989, brought down the communist regime and opened the current chapter of our history.
The first president of the Czechoslovak Republic, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, was painfully aware of the onerous shadow of the Constance verdict cast over the spiritual life of the nation. Even today, his words possess an extraordinary acuteness. In his essay “Our National Revival and Our Reformation” (6/7/1895) he writes:
- “We are the nation of Hus and we like to call ourselves thus – but are we truly and in fact that nation of Hus?
- We are not.
- Not yet. In our national striving there is a great paucity of inner life, of spiritual life (…)
- The Constance pyre is being fed and revived by the indifference to the last truths of life, by indifference to the last destinations of man.
- We are weighed down by the burden of indifference.
- Our national programme is being weakened by liberalism.”
In the same study he writes:
- “How small, how narrow-minded is our current life,
- how almost totally lost are we in futile politicking and agitation,
- and how insipid are all those manifestations of national life that receive general recognition as work for the nation! (…)
- To materialise our Czech idea we must sweep away the Constance pyre, the pyre of prejudice and non-love (…)
- The death of Hus and the fate of our nation at the time of the Reformation and counter-Reformation must be a lesson
- that no-one in the world has the right to violate religious conviction.
- True followers of Hus support religious freedom and freedom of conviction.”
Havel continued, quoting from Hus’s Exposition of the Faith:
“Therefore, Faithful Christian, seek Truth, listen to the Truth, learn Truth, love Truth, speak Truth, uphold Truth, defend Truth until death; for Truth shall deliver you from sin, from the Devil, from death of the soul, and, in the end, from death everlasting.”
In this context, I would like us to reflect on Hus’s speech on peace, which the Czech master was not given the chance to deliver in Constance. Hus intended to address to the council and the entire Church an appeal for a threefold reconciliation: the reconciliation of man with God, man with himself, and man with his brother, whereby the reconciliation in the first instance, that is peace between man and God, has according to Hus “such implication that no other peace would be possible without it.” The essence of the second kind of peace, that of man with himself, means according to Hus “the subjugation of the flesh to the soul, since the flesh should serve the soul.”
The third peace, that of man with his brother, is “expressed by brotherly love and therefore anticipates faith and hope. Drawing on faith, we must surely believe that the community of saints empowers every chosen good Christian to serve the good of all people; the same as an evil man harms here on this world every Christian, no matter how distant he may be.”
Hus, like very few thinkers before him, lays emphasis on man’s conscience. Not just obedience to authority and institution, albeit most self-respecting, but personal decision which cannot be delegated to any other person and which is based on one’s own conviction – that is Hus’s novelty. He thus anticipated not only the further development of European religious thought, but also the values embedded in the foundations of the modern-day ideals of human rights, democracy and civil society.
Everything points to the fact that the great contribution of Jan Hus to European history is that of the principle of individual accountability. Truth for him was not merely a freely transferable piece of information, but a life attitude, obligation and entitlement. A new crucial social quality thus stared emerging – that of the concrete and unique human being and his transcendetally anchored responsibility. It is namely this quantit
y which ought to be recognis
ed by the entire modern civilisation, on which this civilisation should lean, unless it wants to fare badly.
John Hus remains a national hero in the Czech Republic, and a reminder of the number of times the Moravians and Bohemians have felt betrayed by the outside world. His followers, the Hussites, decided in 1467 (50 years before the Lutheran Reformation began) to organise themselves as a new church, the Unitas Fratrum, after being excommunicated and hunted down by the church authorities and forced to meet secretly in the woods. One stream of followers successfully took up arms against the Catholic rulers, going into battle with banners emblazoned with the rather comical symbol of a goose – ‘Hus’ in their language. Others were more pacifistic, but all used the sign of the communion cup, which they offered to all believers, not just priests, to signify the priesthood of all believers.
When the Reformation did break out across Europe, both Luther and Calvin recognised the trailblazing work of Jan Hus. Calvin lamented, “If only we had listened to the Bohemian doctor!”
The story does not end with the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic victory at the Battle of White Mountain, and the re-institution of Roman authority in Prague. The Unitas Fratrum, alias the Ancient Moravian Church, is forced to recant, go underground, leave the country or face death. At this stage a second Czech national hero emerges: Jan Amos Comenius, the last bishop of the Unitas Fratrum, whom we repeatedly encountered on our recent Heritage tour. He leads us directly to Count von Zinzendorf, who introduces us to John Wesley, who in turn leads us to William Carey and the modern missionary movement. Out of the Methodist movement came the Salvation Army, the Holiness movement and eventually the modern pentecostal movement.
So that’s why I say the path to the World Christian movement goes right through Prague.
Till next week, and more about Comenius,