Mass and Math at Strahov (May 31, 2015)

_MG_5909Written by John Watters

Today we went to Strahov Abbey, high above Prague. Because of its proximity to the city, it is – unlike Doksany and Roggenburg and other out-of-the-way places we’ve visited – a huge tourist destination.

There were the usual Prague-ian throngs from around the world waiting to see the abbey’s wonders, but we were given “rock star” treatment by virtue of our Norbertine credentials, and granted access to places most did not get to visit.

Not that everyone recognizes a rock star when they see one. This being Sunday, we went to the door of the church to enter for Mass, and were refused access by a young novice who was acutely uncomfortable with his role as gatekeeper. Head down, he repeatedly denied the pleas of Frs. Jay and Sal that we were expected, and that we were not “just another one of those tourist groups.” Finally, the poor young man agreed to let Fr. Jay enter to find a higher authority, which he did, and we were allowed into the church. The novice received a curt comment in Czech from another member of the order, and I suspect if there is a prayer equivalent of twenty pushups, he is still somewhere doing them.

Strahov is a big space with a small congregation. I would estimate it holds only about 300 people, but its high ceilings and the typical baroque scale of its furnishings make it feel much larger. At Doksany, where we were the day before, the church was dominated by aged wood, dim light and dark paintings, offset by dazzling white sculptures surrounding the altar. In contrast, the walls in Strahov are of a faded pastel pink complemented by a soft off-white. The ceiling frescoes are much lighter in tone than other churches we’ve seen, again almost a pastel. The statues lining the sides of the church and the back of the altar are all gilt, and the entire place is lit from the back and sides by both natural and artificial light. As the celebrant dispensed incense liberally at the beginning of Mass, the entire place took on a gauzy appearance, much softer and warmer and filled with rich, golden tones than the other places we’d seen. It made for a memorable Mass, in a whole different way than our Pentacost service the week before in Roggenburg (although here, too, the organ shook you to your bones!)

After Mass, Stephen, a novice at Strahov, gave us a tour of the church and the rest of the abbey. I understand one of our traveling librarians has been enlisted to write about the spectacular libraries here, and I will defer to her for that, even though I envy the subject matter. Since this is her Mecca, Disney World and Graceland all rolled into one, though, it’s just the polite thing to do.

But I would like to say a little more about Stephen.

Stephen has a Ph.D. in mathematics, which, like Czech, is a language I don’t speak. In fact, he taught math at the university level for several years.

He told us he felt the calling to join the Norbertine order about eight years ago, but, as he explained it, he likes to finish things, so he completed his doctorate first. (I like to finish things, too, but my goals are usually more modest; getting through this paragraph, for example.)

What I find most interesting about Stephen is where his story fits in the whole “faith and reason” narrative. To me, it seems that when people talk reassuringly about the ability of faith and reason to coexist, it’s in the context that you can retain your faith even after you’ve been educated in the sciences. Or to put it another way, that you don’t have to close the door on your faith once you’ve opened the door to reason.

That always strikes me as apologetic on behalf of faith, though – as if it’s the lesser party, the uncoordinated kid that we’re still going to allow to play, as long as he stays in the outfield.

But then here’s Stephen, who immersed himself in the life of the mind, and then chose to move deeper into faith. You don’t often hear about it working that way – although certainly some medical doctors, cosmologists and physicists have come to increasingly detect the hand of God as they’ve pursued their work. Mathematicians, too: The ancient Pythagoreans believed “God is number,” and many others over the centuries have also sensed something holy in the elegance of mathematics.

As I say, though, generally it’s the other way around – faith squeezing into the corner as reason takes up more and more space in the mind’s elevator.

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk to Stephen about this. I sense his life is a kind of beautiful equation in which he’s carefully worked the numbers and arrived at God. It would be a compelling story to hear.

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