Tag Archives: Czech Republic

Winter Into Spring

We are on the downhill slide of the endurance race that is weathering a Kentucky winter. So far we have experienced a couple of half-inch snows, disappointing in their brevity and depth. Really, they were hardly worth the hot chocolate and chili we threw at them.

A quick peek at the prediction for the first two weeks in March is just plain disheartening in its monotony—mid-forties, some fifties, cloudy, rainy, a little dip into the thirties, some shower/rain events, and so it goes for as far as the eye can see.

Or as far as the eye cares to look.

This is that weird, not-quite-any season that takes hold along about now, and it is hard to take most years, but this year I am taking it harder than usual. I am one of the lucky ones who likes winter and when there comes a big snow, I am excused from showing up at work. I suppose I might feel differently about it if I had to rise extra early, struggle into a parka and gloves, a hat, boots, scrape the car, slide around, curse the cold.

I get to watch snow from a window, hands wrapped around a coffee mug, Netflix screen saver bouncing around on the TV. I might stick my head out the back door and pant as I try to see my breath, and if I manage it, I run back inside and congratulate myself on being so hardy, what with my prairie stock genetics and all.

But this late winter we have had rain, rain, and then some rain. A few frigid days—dangerously cold and frightening—and then, for fun, more rain. And now I gaze glumly at the forecast and see little hope of that last ditch snow, and likewise no promising signs of spring.

How shall we cope with these last days of winter? Surely it will be just days, a couple of weeks at most—before we get glimpses of spring, some faint hint of budding in the yard, a return of birdsong, that awareness, all of a sudden, that yes, the days are getting longer.

I like my signs obvious, even when I am too dense to catch on right away.

A few years back, on one of my trips with Caritas College of Social Work colleagues, we traveled to the Monastery Želiv, where we stayed overnight for a spiritual retreat and then some meetings. It is a beautiful place and they run a successful monastery hotel and restaurant, and where, as luck would have it, they also brew their famous unpasteurized beer.

It is made as it was in the 1300s, and we took a tour of the surprisingly small one-man operation. The beer is brewed in three or four different alcohol contents and we were served generous and redundant samples as we sussed out our favorite. After such taxing work, we decided to take a short walk through the village to clear our heads and enjoy the landscape.

Martin, always the taker of the longest strides, led the way, pointing out trees, details of architectural interest, infrastructure and other things. He stopped at the small wooden fence separating us from a family dwelling, and pointing into the back yard he said,

“Look. Spring.”

I didn’t get it. It was a gray afternoon, threatening rain, and cold. I saw upturned buckets, the ghost of a garden plot, outdoor furniture scattered about.

“No, look. Spring. Mama sees spring.”

There, almost invisible in the grayness of the afternoon, was a clothesline stretched between two slanting and rickety posts. Marching across it were sets of mittens, a dozen or more small mittens to large ones, waving winter goodbye. Then came the gloves, still waving, and finally woolen hats and scarves, fluttering in the damp.

The Czechs seem to me a cold-natured bunch, bundled up at the first little drop of temperature, their homes and offices baking chambers of nice steam heat, students blowing on their hands to warm them and scarves wrapped to their ears in sweater weather. The good Czech mother must have been certain about the approach of spring for surely she would not have snatched her family’s woolens prematurely.

So, you see, a sign. Perhaps our signs of spring are lurking, just there, waiting for us to notice. Something tangible but subtle, a promise and adieu, winter into spring, as easily as that.

Sanctuary

On a hot afternoon in Olomouc, CZ, I was wandering around the city centre, overly warm, and as I passed the doors of St. Moritz Church, I heard strains from its famous organ spilling out onto the sidewalk, inviting me, after a fashion, to enter.

I stopped in because of the music, but also because I figured the church—its first iteration dating back to the 13th century—would offer some relief from the heat, with its thick walls and dark interior.  And it was cool in there, with only the faintest shafts of sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows.  I sat in the quiet, punctuated only here and there by the organist’s practicing.

I wasn’t alone.

From my place in the back I saw an elderly man with two laden plastic bags swinging from his wrists enter the nave through a side door.  He sat for a moment, then  gathered his things and left through the side door opposite, as if this were a regular stop on his rounds, a  throughway or a place to take a breath before home and evening and obligations crowded in on him.

A young mother, much harried, jiggling the stroller to calm the fretful infant, rushed by me, settled on a pew some distance ahead, her hand slowly quieting on the stroller as her child quieted within it.  She slumped, just a little, a silhouette of care and exhaustion. 

Minutes passed, I lost track of time.  From the shadows a tear-streaked woman emerged, anguish etched in every angle of her face.   Some deep trouble has come to her, and it was unresolved and ongoing. Her despair was raw and exposed. She has risen from the kneeler and walked by me quite quickly, passed by without seeing me, or seeing anyone, so singular was her pain and her purpose for being in this place.  Perhaps I should have looked away for decency’s sake, but I did not.

In that moment— a twinkling, really — I knew I was meant to bear witness, to care for this stranger, and be moved by her and thus connected to her, connected even now, years later as I tell this to you.

I sat for a half hour, maybe more, quietly thinking my own thoughts, taking in eight centuries of incense, of darkness and light, of solace and succor, of confession and forgiveness, of sanctuary and peace. 

I remembered all this again, this afternoon, as I read in the UK “Daily Telegraph”  that British millennials  are returning to church in larger numbers than you might think, even those who identify as nonbelievers.  They are coming for peace and quiet, for a place without texts or tweets or a thousand other things that distract and disconnect them.  They seek the sacred. 

According to the  article, young people are  filling the pews for events like choral evensong and stopping by  churches and cathedrals for a few minutes during the week to have someplace quiet to reflect and still their minds, calm their hearts.

A monk from St. Meinrad once told me they have special instructions for the new young brothers,  should they see someone weeping in the great cathedral.  It attracts visitors all the time, and often when people sit in silence in such a place, they are overcome with emotion.  Cathedrals are designed, very specifically, to act as a conduit for the sacred and the divine.  Sitting still with oneself  can provide a similar conduit.  Sitting still with oneself in a such a place with a troubled heart or a worried mind is that, and then some.

The young brothers were instructed to honor the space and the visitors by allowing them to have their feelings in peace, that people don’t need to be rescued from their emotions. Walk quietly, they are told, and be available if someone seeks you out, but in no other way interfere.

In the Middle Ages and during wars and social unrest, churches have offered safe haven to those in need of it.  Walk through any medieval town or village and notice the prominence of the church. Try the heavy wooden doors. Or seek out any heavy wooden door on any place of sanctuary.  Find one unlocked.

Go in.