Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The Lord prefers common-looking people. That is why he made so many of them.
--Abraham Lincoln to his secretary John Hay, in Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890)

Today, September 28, Czech Christians celebrate the feast of their patron, Saint Wenceslaus--the very same Wenceslaus memorialized in the popular Christmas carol. (Technically he was only the Duke of Bohemia, but got promoted to “king” by the Holy Roman Emperor after his death. Not sure that’s a great consolation prize for being martyred...) The Czech version of his name is Václav, a la Václav Havel, the famous Czech politician--who, like the Saint-King, gives us an excellent example of the Czech virtue of Lidovost  (Folksiness).

Lidovost refers to a sense of being ordinary, down-to-earth, and “of the people”--a value long observed within the Czechs by visitors to their land. Sean Hanley, an Englishman who lived in the Czech region of Bohemia for some time, noted an example of their Lidovost in the “ubiquitous tracksuit” sported by so many of his Czech hosts. Czechs don’t go for people putting on airs, and apparently the humble tracksuit symbolizes a value on Plainness, mirrored by Americans’ own love of our traditional blue jeans. Lidovost contains a good helping of the home-spun root virtue, Humility.

Czechs love a “common touch” in their leaders as well; part of why they adore President Havel is that you are as likely to see him down at a pub grabbing a brew with his buddies as you are to see him behind a podium on TV. (Havel actually worked in a brewery before the Velvet Revolution propelled him to the world stage.) Americans, too, appear to have a preference for “regular guys” in their Presidents--as shown by the popularity of “cowboy” George W. Bush (at one end of the political spectrum) and “bubba” Bill Clinton (at the other). (Whether either qualifies as a true “good ol’ boy” I leave for you to consider on your own.)  

Wenceslaus, too, had a common touch. The son of a Christian father and a Pagan mother, he chose the former tradition thanks in part to the influence of his paternal grandma, Saint Ludmila. When he ascended to the throne, the pious Wenceslaus reportedly planted with his own hands the wheat and grapes that he crafted into the bread and wine used in his chapel.  The historian and hagiographer Cosmas, who wrote of Wenceslaus a few decades after his death, recalls his piety and concern for the common people:

[R]ising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty, so much so that he was considered... the father of all the wretched.

No wonder they love the guy! What a prince! Uh, I mean duke. King! King. And here we are, over a thousand years after his death, still literally singing his praises.   
Wenceslaus’ devotion to his people has gained such legend that the Czechs say in their darkest hour, his statue in Wenceslaus Square in Prague (pictured above) will come to life, summon a squadron of knights who lay sleeping under Mount Blanik, and with the sword Bruncvík shall smite the enemies. Now that’s awesome: A powerful magical saint-king who’s not only humble and pious, but also a military bad-ass. What’s not to like?

We can spot Lidovost in more places than we might think. Abraham Lincoln, for example, clearly shone with it. (Something about homeliness seems to help in acquiring Lidovost... No offense to Honest Abe, or President Havel...) I think I have a special place in my heart for this virtue, since the culture of medicine predisposes a lot of doctors toward a certain arrogance. One ability I’ve tried to hold onto as I move further into my career has been to retain the ability to speak to my patients in plain English, rather than a bunch of Doctorese. I’ve always felt my mother, Big Tree, has set a great example of Humility in her life and I try to emulate it. (Her nickname comes from another one of her virtues, limitless Generosity, reminding me and Kael, my twin, of Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree.)

So today, touch the ground with Lidovost and contemplate being “of the People, by the People, for the People,” as Honest Abe would put it.

May we see the gates of Lidovost, and perhaps make a home there.

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