10 October 2009

'With Their King They Honoured God'—St Wenceslas of the Czechs

Today, 28 September, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Martyr Wenceslas (Vatslav, Vyacheslav), King of the Czechs (c. 907-935). St Wenceslas is the Czechs’ patron Saint, and they have a legend that he will return one day to defend their country, much like King Arthur. His father was converted to Christianity by the renowned Apostles to the Slavs, Ss Cyril and Methodius. Here is the account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 386):

The grandson of St Ludmila, he lived as king in spiritual striving in the Faith like the great ascetics, and strengthened the Orthodox faith among his people. He took care when sitting in juddgement that no innocent man should suffer. In his zeal for the Christian faith and his love for his neighbour, holy Vatslav bought pagan children who had been sold as slaves and immediately baptised them, bringing them up as Christians. He translated St John’s Gospel into Czech and brought the relics of St Vitus and his grandmother, Ludmilla, to Prague. His brother Boleslav invited him to stay and killed him at his court. Immediately after this, Boleslav began to make German priests and to have the Liturgy celebrated in Latin. Holy Vatslav suffered in 929. His relics are preserved in Prague.

St Nicholas has also written a lovely ‘Hymn of Praise’ in the Prologue in honour of St Wenceslas:

From a wicked mother, good fruit was born:
St Vatslav, who pleased God.
His wicked mother gave him only a body,
But his grandmother-light and faith and hope.
The glorious grandmother, pious Ludmilla,
Nurtured Vatslav's soul.
As a white lily, Vatslav grew,
And adorned himself with innocence.
As the king reigned, the people rejoiced,
And with their king they honored God.
Yet the adversary of man never sleeps or dozes,
Laying sinful snares for every soul,
And he incited Boleslav against Vatslav.
‘For what, my brother, do you want my head?’
Vatslav asked, but was still beheaded!
But the evildoer did not escape God.
The soul of St Vatslav went
Before the Most-high God, the Just,
The One he had always adored,
And with Ludmilla, Vatslav now prays
For his people, that they be strengthened in faith.
St Vatslav, beautiful as an angel!

But of course, in the English-speaking world, St Wenceslas is best known from John Mason Neale’s 1853 Christmastide carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ (on which, see this page). Here is Mason’s telling of the legend behind the carol, in his 1849 book, Deeds of Faith (taken from this site):

The holy Christmas-tide was drawing nigh. The Church was already far advanced in Advent; and was now bidding her children to look forward to the coming King. Winter had set in over Germany with unusual severity; hedges, fields, and ways, were blotted out in the deep soft snow; the creaking of the rude waggons was silent; the labourer was idle; the plough was in the shed; the spade and mattock in the tool-house.

King Wenceslaus of Bohemia sat in his palace. He had been watching, from the narrow window of the turret-chamber where he was, the sunset, as its glory hung for a moment on the western clouds, and then died away over the Erzgebirge, and the blue hills of Rabenstein. Calm and cold was its brightness; the colours that but now were of ruby and jasper, faded into purple, and were lost in grey; a freezing haze came over the face of the earth; the short winter day was swallowed up of night. But the crescent moon brightened towards the south-west; and the leafless trees in the castle gardens, and the quaint turrets and spires of the castle itself, threw clear dark shadows on the unspotted snow.

Still the King gazed forth on the scene, for he had learnt to draw lessons of wisdom from all these daily changes that we so little regard; and he knew that God speaks to us by this beautiful world; he was able, in a very true sense, thus to make the nights and days, the summer and winter, to bless the Lord, and to praise Him and magnify Him for ever. And so, in that sunset, he saw an emblem of our resurrection; he felt that the night would come, the night in which no man could work; but he knew also that the morning would follow, that morning which shall have no evening.

The ground sloped down from the castle towards the forest. Here and there on the side of the hill, a few bushes, gray with moss, broke the unvaried sheet of white. And as the King turned his eyes in that direction, a poor man—and the moonshine was bright enough to show his misery and his rags—came up to these bushes, and seemed to pull somewhat from them.

‘Without there!’ cried King Wenceslaus. ‘Who is in waiting!’ and one of the servants of the palace entered, and answered to the call.

‘This way, good Otto,’ said the King. ‘You see that poor man on the hill-side. Step down to him and learn who he is, and where he dwells, and what he is doing; and bring me word again.’

Otto went forth on his errand, and the King watched him down the hill. Meantime the frost grew more and more intense ; the east wind breathed from the bleak mountains of Gallicia; the snow became more crisp, and the air more clear. Ten minutes sufficed to bring back the messenger.

‘Well, and who is it?’ inquired King Wenceslaus.

‘My liege,’ said Otto, ‘it is Rudolph the swineherd, he that lives down by the Brunweiss. Fire he has none, nor food neither: and he was gathering a few sticks where he might find them, lest, as he says, all his family perish with cold. It is a most bitter night, Sire.’

‘This should have been better looked to,’ said the King; ‘and a grievous fault is it that it has not been. But it shall be amended now. Go to the ewery, Otto, and fetch some provisions, of the best; and then come forth, and meet me at the wood-stacks by S. Mary's Chapel.’

‘Is your Majesty going forth?’ asked Otto.

‘To the Brunweiss,’ said the King; ‘and you shall go with me; wherefore be speedy.’

‘I pray you, Sire, do not go yourself. Let some of the men-at-arms go forth. It is a freezing wind; and a league it is at least to the place.’

‘Nevertheless,’ said Wenceslaus, ‘I go. Go with me, if you will; if not, stay; I can carry the food myself.’

‘God forbid, Sire, that I should let you go alone. But I pray you to be persuaded.’

‘Not in this,’ said Wenceslaus. ‘Meet me, then, where I said; and not a word to anyone besides.’

The noblemen of the court were in the hall, where a mighty fire went roaring up the chimney, and the shadows played and danced on the steep sides of the dark roof. Gaily they laughed, and lightly they talked, and they bade fresh logs be thrown into the chimney-place; and one said to another, that sp bitter a winter had never been known in Bohemia.

But in the midst of that freezing night, the King of Bohemia went forth. He had put on nothing to shelter himself from the nipping air; for he desired to feel with the poor, that he might feel for them. On his shoulder he bore a heap of logs for the swineherd's fire; and stepped briskly on, while Otto followed with the provisions. He, too, had imitated his master, and went in his common garments; and over the crisp snow, across fields, by lanes where the hedgetrees were heavy with their white load, past the frozen pool, through the little copse, where the wind made sweet melody in summer with the leaves, and rivers of gold streamed in upon the ground, but now silent and ghastly—over the stile where the rime clustered thick, by the road with its ruts of mire, and so out upon the moor, where the snow lay yet more unbroken, and the wind seemed to nip the very heart.

Still the King went on first: still the servant followed. The Saint thought it but little to go forth into the frost and the darkness, remembering Him Who came into the cold night of this world of ours; he disdained not, a King, to go to the beggar, for the King of Kings had visited slaves; he grudged not to carry the logs on his shoulder, for the LORD of all things had carried the Cross for his sake. But the servant, though he long held out with a good heart, at each step lost courage and zeal. Then very shame came to his aid; he would not do less than his master; he could not return to the court, while the King held on his way alone. But when they came forth on the white, bleak moor, his courage failed.

‘My liege,’ he said, ‘I cannot go on. The wind freezes my very blood. Pray you, let us return.’

‘Seems it so much?’ asked the King. ‘Was not His journey from Heaven a wearier and a colder way than this ?’

Otto answered not.

‘Follow me on still,’ said S. Wenceslaus. ‘Only tread in my footsteps, and you will proceed more easily.’

The servant knew that his master spoke not at random. He carefully looked for the footsteps of the King: he set his own feet in the print of his lord's feet.

And so great was the virtue of this Saint of the Most High, such was the fire of love that was kindled in him, that, as he trod in those steps, Otto gained life and heat. He felt not the wind; he heeded not the frost; the footprints glowed as with a holy fire, and zealously he followed the King on his errand of mercy.

Here are the complete lyrics of Mason’s carol, taken from Gordon Giles, O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent and Christmas (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), pp. 105-6:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep, and crisp, and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling.
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’
‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine-logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear him thither.’
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how;
I can go no longer.’
‘Mark my footsteps, good my page;
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Finally, I encourage interested readers to have a look at this page dedicated to St Wenceslas.


Trevor-Peter said...

On at least one point the prose and the poem disagree. Was it before or after Nativity? Doesn't everyone celebrate St. Stephen's Day (at least, when it's celebrated near Christmas at all) after Dec 25? But in Mason's telling of the legend, it was still Advent.

aaronandbrighid said...

Good eye! I didn't even notice that. St Stephen's Day is celebrated on the 26th in the West, and on the 27th in the East.

It seems more likely that the prose telling is the accurate one. One has to be a little more suspicious of the strict veracity of an account when it sounds really good in a song!

The Ochlophobist said...

Lovely post. It has inspired me to purchase a used copy of the children's book Good King Wenceslas by John M. Neale.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> Thank you, sir. Come to think of it, I might like to get a copy for my own wee ones.

Nick said...

Thanks for the lovely post. Your blog often blesses me.

My history in this area is a bit rusty, Boleslav changed the liturgy to Latin; what was it under Vatslav? Greek?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Slavonic, Nick. And the change would not have been simply of the liturgy's language, but the liturgy, priesthood, and hierarchy. Boleslav turns the Czech Church from Orthodoxy to Catholicism, from the Church to Rome.

aaronandbrighid said...

Nick> Thank you for your kind words. The first liturgy to be used in Bohemia was the Slavonic translation of Ss Cyril and Methodius. Many of the Orthodox Slavs, like St Nicholas, see the replacement of the Slavonic liturgy with the Latin Mass by the Poles and Czechs as a betrayal of their Slavic heritage. Many of the German clergy that promulgated the Latin Mass among the Western Slavs claimed that there were only three 'holy languages' suitable for the Scriptures and the services--Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Orthodox refer to this as 'trilingualism' and consider it a heresy.

aaronandbrighid said...

Good timing, Kevin!

Nick said...

Thanks, folks :D!

God bless!