MY FIRST EVER visit to the Czech Republic was an experience in contrasts. Some time was spent in Prague as a guest of various Czech churches, Protestant and Orthodox, but most was in an Orthodox monastery in a village of eastern Moravia. Attached to the monastery is a conference centre, itself a study in contrasts.
Czech history is a story of valour and grace shining through dark times. For centuries part of the Austrian empire, it became free after the First World War. Its time as Czechoslovakia was cut short by Nazi occupation, first partial, then complete. Its liberation was followed by the establishment of a regime which was part of the Soviet bloc for 40 years.
Prague has been rediscovered by tourists with a vengeance, and now seems crowded and expensive.
But an insight into the Soviet legacy came in a visit to the historic St Veit’s Cathedral, part of the magnificent Hradcany complex of palaces and churches dominating the old city from across the river Vltava.
In some ways it resembled a visit to an English cathedral, a magnificent building full of people with only the faintest perception of its purpose and meaning. But among the visitors there was nothing of the sense of the awestruck that one feels among at least some of the visitors to Winchester or Notre Dame de Paris. The crowd was just noisy and gawking.
Our church hosts had told us of the statistics of religious practice in the country; about four per cent of Czechs practice a religious faith. While totalitarianism has been rejected, there is no automatic return to spiritual values.
The monastery of Vilémov, on the other hand, is a witness to other values. The Czech lands were converted to Christianity in the ninth century by the great missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, but Western influence resulted in the persecution of Orthodox Christianity until this century.
The conference centre is a modern facility next to a church over 60 years old. Both monastery and conference centre are served by a community of nuns. They serve meals as good and healthy as one would meet in Canada, but according to the fasts and feasts of the Orthodox year. (We were there during a fast time, but were served tofu burgers as a concession to non-Orthodox!)
Daily worship in the parish church follows the traditional pattern of morning Eucharist and evening Vespers, sung by the nuns and attended by some villagers.
Among the attenders was a couple whom the archbishop told me were Buddhists.
A gorgeous cathedral in Prague full of the uncomprehending curious and a village monastic church which attracts Buddhists. That’s a contrast.
But it is a symbol of a radical divide, easier to see in a society more profoundly secularized than ours. The divide is between those for whom life is purely material and those for whom the material in this world is the instrument for the spiritual.
As I learned many years ago in the Soviet Union, communist materialism was more theoretically pure than capitalist materialism, but not nearly as successful. When I look at a society like the Czech, I see a world which has exchanged one materialism for another, and a sign of the future directions for us.
But perhaps Czech Christians are more fortunate than we. They recognize true friends among Buddhists, for example, in a way which we have not yet learned to do. What a fascinating century God has in store for us! Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.