Travel, they say, broadens the mind. A winding road leading to Prague, and an equally winding road through the thoughts of those who have contemplated the nature of God, have indeed cracked open my conceptions of the world a little.
I belonged – briefly – to a group that met once a week to pray the rosary. We were a small band of very unlikely people. We met at the home of a very eccentric elderly woman and we prayed and perhaps had a cup of tea and went on our way. It was not utterly uplifting, but was pleasant enough.
One day this woman showed us a beautifully carved wooden statue about a foot tall. It was of a young child dressed in rich, royal robes with a crown on his head. It was called “The Infant of Prague” she explained, and when she was a young girl she had been told that if you kept a penny underneath the statue you would never fall destitute or be in need of money. I was disappointed that she didn’t actually keep a penny – or a dollar coin perhaps these days – under her statue. It was the sort of sweet superstition that I found very appealing.
In fact, when I had been growing up we had a very cheap and ugly, plastic version of this same statue, a few centimetres tall, glued onto the pelmet above a window at home. No penny under that – alas. I had known it was called the Infant of Prague, but more of its identity or significance I did not know.
I was so delighted with this story of the penny under the statue that I must have mentioned it to a few people.
My brother at the time was living in Bonn – a New Zealand diplomat to Germany. During his time off he traveled quite widely in Europe with his family. In the depths of winter one year he traveled to the Czech Republic. Taking a bus tour of Prague at some point, the weather was so cold that each tourist was given a small scrapper to scratch the ice off the inside of the window of the bus to peep out when a notable sight was on offer. By the time they got to the next point of interest the windows would have frozen up again.
He did send to me, however, in response to my mentioning my enthusiasm for the story of the penny under the statue, a photograph of one of his daughters standing – well muffled up – on the steps of “Our Lady of Victories” church – the home of the original Infant of Prague!
He also sent the tourist brochure he had bought, explaining the history and significance of this strange little statue whose reach had extended to the distant sub-tropical antipodes.
. . . from the artistic point of view the Infant Jesus of Prague is a wax statuette approximately 45 cm tall; it represents a three-year-old child in a long white robe, with only the bare feet visible.
The history of the statuette began in Spain. It is the work of an unknown artist and in the 1550s was owned by the Manrique de Lara family. The renewed reverence for the Incarnation, emphasizing the human side of Jesus Christ who had become a mere child, was very much alive in the Spain of the time.
When the duchess Maria Maxmiliana Manrique de Lara married the Czech nobleman Vratislav of Pernstejn in 1556, she brought the Infant Jesus to her new residence in Prague.
During the Thirty-Years’ War the Saxons invaded Prague and pillaged the church and the monastery where the statue was housed. They broke off the Infant Jesus’ hands and threw it behind the altar among the debris, where it stayed, forgotten, for several years.
Father Cyril of Our Lord’s Mother, a man of prayers, considered by many to be a saint, after a prolonged search, found the abandoned and broken statuette. He had the Infant Jesus’ hands repaired, and the “Little Prague Baby” again became an object of veneration of believers, and many extraordinary events were attributed to it, including the protection of Prague during the Swedish siege.
More and more supplicants from all social strata came to seek help and comfort from the Infant Jesus, and reports about his sudden and unusual help multiplied.
In 1655 the Bishop of Prague put the precious crown on the Infant’s head as a sign emphasizing the royal and divine dignity of God who has become a child.
The Infant Jesus of Prague is adored by believers not only in Europe, but also in India, in the Philippines, in Australia, and especially in Latin American countries. A testimony to this veneration are the many sanctuaries all over the world further spreading the fame of this little statue and the reverence for the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, our God and Lord.
A few years later I found myself in the Czech Republic. I had two things to do – I had to run a 100 km race, and I had to find and see as much of the art of Alfons Mucha as possible, an artist I had long loved and who had had a great influence on me. But no, there was one other place I had to visit!
Sir Laurens van der Post, perhaps my favourite author and thinker, has written much about the idea of coincidence and how what we often take as mere coincidence is actually a pattern in life which may be more significant than we imagine.
By a strange coincidence I was reading at the time I was in Prague a book by Sri Chinmoy called “God is . . .”, a compilation of his writings drawn from a variety of his books.
The chapter I had just finished reading was fresh in my mind as I set out early one morning from the hostel to the Metro, across to Mala Strana, up the cobbled streets to Our Lady of Victories church.
I sat entranced before the little statue for several hours as all these disparate threads, dating back years, wove themselves into a new understanding.
In the book I had been reading, Sri Chinmoy had been asked regarding conceptions of God. . .
Can God also be seen as a child?
and had answered . . .
If we feel that God is a very old man, like a grandfather or great-grandfather, all the time pointing out our mistakes and errors, then we are mistaken. We must feel that the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God is our real eternal Friend and Comrade. We must feel that we are all children and that He is our age. In terms of our realisation we are all beginners, because our goal is infinite Light and infinite Bliss, and we have yet to come near the threshold.
There is a child
Crying for you
Inside your heart-life.
Do you know its name?
There is a child
Waiting for you
Inside your soul-love.
Do you know its name?
If we are sincere with ourselves and feel that we are all beginners, all children, then we can feel that God is coming to us as a Child because His Purpose is to play with us. Grown-ups will not play, but a child constantly wants to play, all the time and everywhere. If we feel the necessity of always remaining children, then God can come to us in the form of a Child. He is the eternal Player in His eternal Garden; today He plays with our desires, tomorrow He will play with our aspiration, and the day after tomorrow He will play with our realisation.
When we are consciously praying, concentrating and meditating, God peeps at us like a child. He sees whether we are actually meditating or not. It is like a child peeping through the window to see what his parents or older people are doing. When the child sees he is going to be caught, he runs away.
God the divine Child wants to play His Cosmic Game of hide-and-seek with us. When God hides, we have to seek Him; when we hide, God will come and seek us. In that way we become the sweetest of friends, eternal friends. If God is one-pointed, if He is always catching us with His Knowledge, Wisdom and Vision, then there will be no Game. If one party in a game is by far stronger than the other party and always wins, then the loser will not continue playing. So God comes in the form of a child and peeps at us, His children.
God is my constant Playmate.
My heart is sailing directly
Towards His Silence-Home.