Saturday, October 04, 2008

Good King Wenceslaus

I promised this essay as part of my appearance on Relevant Radio on the occasion of my parish's patron feast which was last Sunday. Being quick of wit but slow of hand, I am just now getting to this essay. Also, I am drafting a homily/essay for this weekend of Respect Life that I hope to publish here in first draft before the weekend's out. Hey, you folks in the back, stop laughing.

Those outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church - here I will make no assumptions about their being united, in some way, to the invisible confines of said Church - often fail to grasp the import of the previous generations, specifically in the cause of the Saints. This is a generalization which any observant persons could punch holes in. What of Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans? Heavens, even Methodists will often name their congregations for the Saints of old! That is a valid criticism. Looking more closely at the example though, two further clarifications and observations need making. First, notice that with the exception of Anglicans, generally the Saints are of the generation of the New Testament's composition, namely the first century. I have to leave out the Anglicans as just on Thursday, I drove past St. Dunstan's Episcopalian Church in Tulsa. (Pretty sure he's a Saint of the 10th c.). Second, notice that litany of Saint observers leaves out a great number of other Christians, namely those of the evangelical stripe. Now, again this is a generalization that observant folks can pummel down, but it must be conceded this one is more correct that the previous assertion. With all of this said, however, I think my initial assertion still holds that those outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church often fail to grasp the import of the Saints. Told truthfully, most Catholics, the author included, fails to grasp the import of the Saints. How many of you know the feast day of your parish's patron Saint? How many of you have prayed a novena leading up to that day in honor of that Saint? How many of you have done something special for that feast day, either personally or parochially? If I am correct in my assertion, then what is it about the Saints we fail to grasp? To answer that, I need to tell you a story. (Side note: that is one thing I love about being a Catholic; to tell one story or explain one aspect, I usually have to tell you another story as well.)

The tenth century is a funny time in Europe. On the one hand, Christendom, that idea of the Christian political empire, is on the rise, taking from the brow of Byzantium, the mantle of Christian statecraft. On the other hand, Christendom is decaying within. The age of Empire has largely passed. Empire, in my personal opinion, requires a disparity of technological or sociological sophisitication to work. Think about when the next age of Empire appears in the 18th and 19th centuries. Only when those members of the Empire attain the same degree of sophisication, some time in the early 20th c., do the troubles really begin in earnest. The point being is, the 10th c. is a period of foment and conflict. Add on top of this millenial anxiety as the year 1000 approached and the feel for the age comes clear. Into this mix, we begin our story of St. Wenceslaus.

Born around 903 A.D., he is the son of a prominent duke/king of Bohemia. His father, Vratislaus, is a member of the prominent Premyslid dynasty and raised in a strongly Christian family. It is said that Vratislaus's father was converted by St. Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles to the Slavs. (That is another great story for another time.) Vratislaus' mother, Ludmilla, is venerated as a Saint as well. However, the maternal side of Wenceslaus' family is not so happy. Dragomir, his mother, is a pagan who was baptized on the occasion of her marriage to Vratislaus. This was relatively common for the time period and usually meant that the person in question was only in name a practical Christian (not that that situation happens today...). Many of the records seems to suggest that there were hard feelings in the family as Vratislaus wanted to promote the Catholic Faith in Bohemia, and Dragomir wanted the status quo.

As stories about kings and kingdoms go, Vratislaus passes from this life, and at the age of 13, Wenceslaus is sent to live with his paternal grandmother, St. Ludmilla. This is where the story becomes both confused and vicious. Dragomir, furious about the loss of influence over Wenceslaus, secretly arranged to have Ludmilla strangled, a plot which didn't come to pass. She contended with Christian nobles as she pressed for the reassertion of the pagan religion of the Slavic peoples. At the age of 18, Wenceslaus takes over the kingdom and exiles his mother. No one would have batted a eye if she had turned up dead, but this is the first lesson in the virtues of a saint. Wenceslaus, observing the fourth commandment, defended her life while simultaneously defended his people from her influence.

Wenceslaus' reign was tempestuous at times. Often putting out fires or tamping down rebellion, Wenceslaus was very good to his people or at least this is what is recorded for posterity. That wonderful hymn at Christmas sung about him correctly relates the events and practices of his kingship. A plot was hatched, led by his brother, Boleslaus, to seize the kingdom from Wenceslaus and give it to Boleslaus. At the age of either 22 or 28, his brother brought the plan into action and bashed his head in at the door of the local parish church. The records indicate a sword was used but basic familiarity with 10th c. weaponry tells you that a sword of the period is a lead pipe with an edge. While Wenceslaus went his way to his prayers, Boleslaus bashed his brother's head in. However, the story has a happy ending.

The first question answered at this point is who masterminded this plot to kill Wenceslaus. The answer is simple: his mother. Dragomir apparently believed that Boleslaus would be more tractable and pushed him to kill his brother. The last laugh would be God's and Wenceslaus' as Boleslaus is converted to the Christian Faith and exiles his mother again. Boleslaus is the one who begins the campaign for the sanctity of his brother and begins the public veneration of him as well.

First up, the import of the Saints should be obvious. They are examples of how the Faith can and must be practiced in our present circumstances. As the citation from the Gospel demonstrates, not everyone who says "Lord, Lord," will enter into the Kingdom. Rather those who puts those words into action and make them true by their thoughts, words, and even the dispositions of the heart will enter the Kingdom. The Saints recall to mind the power of the Incarnation of our Lord by calling us, in the present moment, to incarnate the Gospel in a way that our present culture can understand and assimiliate. (By thw way, that's where Cyril and Methodius come back in. They were one of the first to translate the language of the liturgy into the vernacular for the benefit of converting the Slavic people. They used the culture as a tool to convert them and not treating it merely as an obstacle. That is the great genius of Christianity and Catholicism in general.)

Second, more to the point, the Saints serve to spur us to conversion in all aspects of our life. This is the flip side of the first point. If the Saints remind us how conversion is indispensible to our lives as disciples, then the Saints also encourage us to examine our lives and look for the places where we have omitted Christ from it. Christ is the light who enlightens all things, even the meaning of my personal existence. To keep the light from reaching the deep places means taking to heart the fact that it is not His light that is weak so much as it is my heart which is so hard to saying yes to him.

For the case of Wenceslaus, I have just a few brief connections I would like to make:
1.) Christians cannot omit their Faith and their convictions from the political sphere. Our Faith calls us to stand against that which undermines the common good. In our day, this is primarily the forces of abortion on demand, contraception, euthanasia, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research. We can add as well issues related to the poor, to the regulation of work standards, to laissez faire capitalism, and international policy related to terrorism. As Wenceslaus brought the Gospel to the public square, and died for it, we too must not be afraid to die the white martyrdom of the snickering and sneering crowds.

2.) Christians must transform the culture by first transforming their home life. Wenceslaus would not be the Saint he is today without his father and grandmother. Frankly, and I must be very directly here, the men of the Church have largely dropped the ball on this matter. Part of this I recognize is a tack that Catholic theology tends to make which can sound very feminine. This might be offputting to men. More to the point, to defer to this though is an excuse. Men find time for all sorts of things but when the formation of the family comes into question, they abdicate. I say, no more of this.

Gentlemen, you must lead your families! This is not meant to sideline your wife as much as it is to support her in her efforts. Imagine how much more smoothly it goes when requests to lead prayers or help kids learn about the Faith or demonstrations of service to our neighbor are shared. Imagine how much more compelling the witness when Mom AND DAD bring the family to Christ. For those unmarried men, you must be busy about the Lord's work. Foremost on that list is discernment of your vocation. Lots of men seem lost and bewildered by the fact that God calls them to a heroic mission within the Church, to serve as either a knight errant (the religious brother), or as a paladin (the parish priest), or as a regent duke (the father of a family), within his earthly kingdom of the Church. As an unmarried man, you are freer to explore the Faith, serve the parish, and delve into the mystery of God. Then don't waste that time! Make better use of it today.

In closing, I want to alert readers to an upcoming event. In January, I am planning on hosting a men's day of recollection here at the National Shrine. It will be on a Saturday, I just don't know which one yet. I want you to pray for me as I make preparations for this event. I get the sense that this is very needed and very much going to be a challenge. Remember the little sparrow in your prayers.

1 comment:

Chris Favre said...

Great story, and great idea. Thanks for the nod to the Anglicans!