The people of Prague are particularly proud of the Prague Castle, parts of which date back 11 centuries, but none of which looks like a castle – at least to Western eyes. The castle complex consists mostly of inter- connected buildings that have housed Bohemian kings, Holy Roman emporers, and Czech presidents through the years. Many of the buildings are still used as government offices, surrounded by spacious courtyards, well-kept flower gardens, and the massive St. Vitus Cathedral.
After three days of sitting on hard chairs and eating high-carb Czech cooking, I was desperate for a good walk. So I opted out of an optional forum and struck out Thursday afternoon for a hike to the castle, which appeared to be about two miles from our hotel – and uphill all the way. Thirty minutes of steady climbing brought me to the entrance just in time to see the changing of the guard, an elaborate trade-off reminiscent of what I’ve seen at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The main difference is that the Czech soldiers weren’t nearly so polished as the honor guard at Arlington. Two of them couldn’t keep a straight face during the ceremony, and when the departing guards marched out, they goose-stepped.
The castle complex may have had some very impressive sights that could only be seen by joining a tour, but I didn’t want to pay 950 crowns (about $75) for the privilege, so I wandered quickly through the public areas. Fortunately, those included the cathedral, named for St. Vitus of Sicily, who died as a martyr in 303. Relics of St. Vitus were brought to Germany in 756, so the records say, and in 925 Emporer Henry I of Germany presented to Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia, what were reported to be the bones of one hand from St. Vitus — bones that are now housed in the cathedral.
Built mostly during the fourteenth century, the Gothic cathedral’s grand vault is home to tombs of long-dead Bohemian kings, oversized works of art, artistic altars, intricate stained glass windows, and even a few hard pews beneath an ornate, elevated pulpit.
Surprisingly, there were no banks of candles for visitors to light, as commonly found in cathedrals. Perhaps church officials decided that the dark, stained walls didn’t need any additional patina from candle smoke. So, I couldn’t light a candle, as I usually do, in remembrance of our daughter Bethany — but I still remembered her.
I’m about as far from being Catholic as one could get, so I’m certain there’s much about this and other cathedrals that I do not adequately appreciate. Trying to imagine the effort and expense that went into erecting such a giant edifice long before the invention of power tools or modern cranes simply boggles the mind. Part of me wonders how many poor people could have been helped with the funds that went into constructing a cathedral like St. Vitus’. But, another part of me suspects that many of those same poor people may have found both pride and hope in such a solid reminder of the glory of God.
Cathedrals are designed, I think, for the purpose of making one feel very small before the presence of God, whose greatness and mystery are reflected in the lofty arches and shadowy corners of the vault, and whose love is sensed in the warm glow of sunlight illuminating timeless stories in stained glass.