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THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HEREChapter 12 HERE; Chapter 13 HERE; Chapter 14 HERE; Chapter 15 HERE.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

“Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven” (Romans 4:7)

Arriving at the hut, secluded and partially hidden by the surrounding oak trees, Podevin didn’t think to knock. He was too desperate. Instead he barged in and fell to the floor, exhausted from running, overcome with tears of repentance.

“Father! Father, forgive me!” he shouted. “I acted out of anger. I’ve killed a man! He deserved death, truly he did, but it wasn’t for me to decide his fate,” the grieving page’s words spilled out of his mouth between sobs.

Father Jiří, entering the room from the narrow passageway leading to the chapel, approached Podevin calmly and slowly, as if he were expecting him, as though he already knew the act, and the outcome.

He didn’t speak however; he didn’t ask any questions or offer any advice. He simply listened, standing close to the page, his eyes full of mercy, locked on Podevin, weak and weeping.

Podevin narrated the whole account of what took place in the last two days: how he distrusted Boleslav, how he had warned Vácslav but was sent away, and how he returned to avenge his Master’s unjust death. Father Jiří entered the chapel and came back out wearing a long priest’s stole.

He placed it on Podevin’s head, who was still kneeling on the floor. Whispering a prayer, barely audible, he placed his hand on Podevin’s head and blessed him. “Your sins are forgiven you, arise and give thanks to God that He has granted you time for repentance.”

Podevin kissed the hem of the priest’s stole and rose from the floor. 

“You and I both know they are coming for you as we speak,” Father Jiří spoke in a solemn voice as he rested his hands on Podevin’s shoulders and peered into his eyes, as he had at their last meeting, as though wanting to make sure Podevin took in every word.

“Do not fear death, you have repented and the Lord has seen fit to forgive you your sin. Be at peace, die honourably with the knowledge that even your good deeds will be remembered for ages to come. You served your Master not only in household matters, but in the Faith of our Fathers. The Lord will not forget you in His kingdom. Now is it is time for you to leave. They have already reached the forest. Meet them in prayer at St. Agnes’s spring. Be sure to pray for those who will kill your body. But do not be grieved, for they cannot kill your soul,” Father Jiří finished, his soft voice pouring out comfort on Podevin’s wounded heart.

“Pray for me, Father,” Podevin said, his voice growing weak as tears once again began streaming down his pale cheeks. Bowing to the holy priest and clasping his old, worn right hand he kissed it for the last time. Then he turned and left.

***

Just as Father Jiří said, so it happened. Boleslav sent three men to apprehend Podevin. He waited for them at St. Agnes’ fountain. Watching their arrival, rather than dread, Podevin felt at peace. He was grateful to be found worthy to greet them while kneeling in prayer.

POSTSCRIPT

The memory of the just is blessed” (Proverbs 10:7)

Duke Vácslav, or Wenceslaus as his name was later pronounced, was given a Christian burial and laid to rest in St. Vitus’ Cathedral. His God-bearing relics began working miracles immediately, testifying to his holiness both in life and in death.  He was posthumously granted the title ‘King’.

Podevin, his faithful page, was brought to the gallows of the city and executed. For years afterward faithful Christians would visit his grave as well, proclaiming him a true Christian – a faithful, obedient servant of his Master, the King of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslaus.

Therefore, Christians pay heed, whether king, priest, or servant you may be, good deeds and heartfelt prayers will follow you beyond the grave, and you will not only be remembered by men for ages and ages, but by God, in Whose memory we long most to remain.

The End and Glory be to God!

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THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

St. Wenceslaus being adored by his sister-in-law Emma

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HEREChapter 12 HERE; Chapter 13 HERE; Chapter 14 HERE.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

“Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord” (Hebrews 10:30)

Word spread quickly of the Duke’s murder. Podevin was on his way to the rotunda church dedicated to St. Vitus for the daily divine services when a merchant called out the dreaded news.

Hearing this, Podevin’s stomach twisted violently. Despite his weak knees he rushed to the merchant, grabbing him by his tunic, “What did you say? It can’t be true! I was just with him last night.”

“Forgive me, page, it’s true. They say it was Bolslav who ordered it,” the merchant said as he pulled his hat off in respect.

“How?” was all the page could manage to ask as his arms fell limply to his sides.

“With a sword…” the merchant said with downcast eyes. “They say he was run through in front of the church of the Unmercaneries and nothing can be found to remove his bloodshed from the marble floor. His innocent blood remains as a testament that his death was unjust.”

Podevin thought he might be sick; he fell to his knees. Wailing, he began pounding the ground. His ruler and Master –his friend– was dead. He had died an unjust death, a horrible death, with no companion by his side.

Overcome with grief and anger Podevin made haste to acquire a sword. Without a second thought he set out to avenge his Master’s death.

Podevin couldn’t think straight; in fact he didn’t think at all. He acted, propelled by intense feelings of rage mingled with hopeless sorrow for his Master, even perhaps anger at himself for not having been by his side to at least die with him if not defend him.

He arrived at Boleslav’s castle without rightly knowing how he got there. He concealed the sword under his cloak and entered without drawing suspicion to himself. There were servants in like-garb all about rushing here and there in the wake of the ruler’s execution.

Podevin knew who killed his Master because everyone knew who Boleslav’s main conspirator companions were: Tira, Čsta and Hněvsa. They were at Boleslav’s side at all times, and were known for doing all of the coward’s dirty work.

While he and the Duke walked to the guest bedchamber the night before, Podevin happened to see Tira enter a chamber not far from the one Vácslav stayed in. Podevin stealthily crept toward that chamber door now.

With a burning anger in his chest, Podevin quietly entered the chamber. He watched as Tira sat at table, eating. As his back was to the door; he hadn’t noticed Podevin’s entrance.

“You miserable wretch,” Podevin sneered drawing the sword, “God will care for my health and salvation, but you have lost both your health and salvation long ago!”

As Tira jumped to his feet, whirling around to see who was speaking to him, he was met with the blow of Podevin’s sword, “Now you will die in sin for eternity!” he shouted.

Tira fell to the ground dead still clutching his supper’s bread.

The loyal page threw down the sword next to Tira’s body. Looking on the man whom he had killed Podevin’s grief and anger were suddenly transformed into horror and remorse. He stumbled back in shock. His mind seeming to return to itself for the first time since the dreadful news of the Duke’s death burned his ears not one hour prior.

Those who live by the sword, die by the sword… what you’re about to do, do quickly. Father Jiří’s words now rang in Podevin’s ears, as though they had always been there in his mind, something merely stood in the way of the page’s understanding them.

Return and repent, was all Podevin heard now. In a trance-like stupor he dropped his bloodied sword and fled the castle, drawing far more suspicion to himself now than when he arrived.

He nearly ran the entire way to Father Jiří’s hut; not once stopping to see if he was being pursued. He hastened with the hope that he would find that dear old priest in enough time to repent. Although his feet traveled quickly, it was as though his thoughts traveled in slow motion.

He now understood Father Jiří’s every word. He realized the priest-hermit had foreseen his vengeance. He understood that his “youthful loyalty” – as Father Jiří had labelled it – was the reason he rushed to avenge his Master. He anticipated his own death every moment that passed, knowing Boleslav would order him to be killed.

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THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HEREChapter 12 HERE; Chapter 13 HERE.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim judgment to the Gentiles” (Matthew 12:18)

The next morning Boleslav called on Vácslav as he was standing in prayer.

“Well brother, shall we be off?,” he said coming into the room unannounced. “The service is about to start,” he said leering at Vácslav making the sign of the cross as he finished his prayer.

I will sing unto the Lord throughout my life, I will chant unto my God for as long as I have my being, Duke Vácslav finished with a bow.

Turning to meet his younger brother he smiled brightly, “We shall.”

The Duke had an uneasy feeling from the moment he and Podevin arrived, though he did not understand it. However, he obeyed his pressing conscience and sent Podevin home, not because he knew evil would befall him, but because he feared that if evil did indeed await him, his page might act rashly in his zeal.

Walking together, Vácslav noticed Boleslav’s countenance grew more and more stern as they approached the church. Nearing the doors his angry expression now seemed set in stone. Finally the silence was broken.

“Brother,” Boleslav’s sharply turned toward Vácslav, “why did you insist on ruling in your own fashion, contrary to what was best for Bohemia?” the sudden harshness in his brother’s voice took the Duke by surprise.

“Why did you insist on playing the role of father to the wretched instead of a royal leader, a great warrior?” he nearly shouted.

“My dear brother,” Vácslav responded calmly, “I did not choose this fate. I was offered it and I accepted. I was set at the head of our nation. A people which I loved much has served me, no sooner than their ear had heard, they obeyed me,” the Duke answered. Laying his hand on his brother’s arm he said with a titled head, “Offering them love and mercy in return was the least I could do.”

“You are always speaking in riddles!” Boleslav forcefully pushed Vacslav’s hand off .“I despise your lukewarm approach to pressing matters of the state! You’d rather play the monk than the monarch!” Boleslav placed his hand on his sheath.

Seeing his brother draw his sword, Vácslav was no longer perplexed at Boleslav’s unexpected angry outburst. In fact, it occurred to him it wasn’t unexpected at all, but very well planned: “Brother, why do you want my head? Are you, like a second Cain, jealous? But we, like the unmercanaries, could have worked together, side by side in love.” In that moment Vácslav’s thoughts were not for his own safety but for the soul of his brother, which he could tell had fallen into the shadow cast by sin’s darkness.

“You know very well why I want your head, brother. The throne should be mine!” Boleslav answered as he shoved Vácslav.

Looking past Vácslav, Boleslav smiled. The righteous Duke sighed, he knew without turning around who was behind him and why his brother smiled so. 

“May God forgive you, my dear brother,” he said, and he turned toward his executioners, if only because they stood in front of the church.

He lowered his head in the direction of the church and whispered, “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” He crossed himself and felt the first blow come down on him. He fell to the ground.

One among the band of Judases pierced his side with a sword and his blood poured out onto the marble floor as he prayed for God to have mercy, to forgive, and to save. He could hear Boleslav’s voice more full of malice than ever before, “Take him away,” he sneered.

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THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HERE; Chapter 12 HERE.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Psalm 117:9)

Before the Duke knew it almost a whole year had passed since his reunion with his beloved Father. He often recalled their conversations, the fragrant smell in the hut, the priest’s compassionate eyes, his soft, though confident, voice.

Above all, though, Duke Vácslav called to mind the mystical encounter that took place that blessed Christmas evening. From the first moment he found himself adoring the new-born Christ Child, he felt that it was through the prayers of his holy and precious Father Jiří that he was granted such a sweet vision. To this day, the memory of that night filled him with inexpressible joy, his eyes with tears. Of course he had visited his beloved tutor many times since then but nothing held his affections so much as the memory of that night.

He understood, however, that a great temptation awaited him, for when one feels the sweetness of Christ draw closer he can be sure the wiles of the enemy are waiting just around the corner to drive away the newly-acquired grace. The form it would take though, of this he was still uncertain. He nevertheless did not wait to do as Fr. Jiří instructed; he immediately began buying the children sold into slavery in order to protect them.

He looked down at the papers on his desk; there was much civil business to attend to. Picking up his writing pen he set to work until the sound of approaching leather-padded shoes interrupted his work.

“Sire,” Podevin said as he strode across the hall and approached the Duke’s desk. “Your brother, Boleslav, has requested your presence at the consecration service of the newly built church in honour of the holy unmercenaries, Cosmas and Damian.”

“To God be the glory,” the Duke’s voice echoed throughout the chamber, the tall arched ceiling lending itself to the reiteration of acoustic sounds. “Of course I’ll be in attendance, Podevin. Send him word immediately to expect me this evening,” he said cheerfully.

“Master, I’m uncomfortable with this,” Podevin shifted his stance. “Why would he suddenly play the role of pious duke? I’m afraid he may be planning an ambush,” he whispered with a grave face as he leaned his hands on the desk. 

“Podevin! He is my brother. He has his faults, but let’s not be rash in our judgment,” the Duke leaned back in his chair nonchalantly. “This is a wonderful occasion, the feast of two holy brothers, unmercenary saints. He simply extended me this invitation out of brotherly love,” the Duke said as he turned his attention back to the papers on his desk.

“Well, Master, if you insist on going, I insist on accompanying you,” Podevin folded his arms resolutely. He had become more like the Duke’s friend than servant since their encounter together in the holy and humble cave. Although the Duke had always treated his young page kindly, he spoke to him now as a confidant.

The Duke saw Podevin, in just one year, grow from a boy into a young man. He was now eighteen and his youthful exuberance had given way to emerging sobriety. He was as loyal, obedient, and zealous for the sake of his Master as he had always been, but he appeared firmer in his convictions and stronger emotions seemed to accompany these qualities.

***

That evening they arrived at Duke Boleslav’s castle and were given fine hospitality. After his meal Vácslav retired to his bedchamber and asked Podevin to accompany him there.

“My dear page, I understand that you distrust my brother and I thank you for your loyalty to me. But I do not need your assistance here. I will be fine on my own. Tomorrow I will attend the divine service in honour of Saints Cosmas and Damian and I will promptly return to Prague Castle. You need not worry for me. Only pray. Remember, prayer works miracles; you and I have both witnessed this truth. So, I am sending you back to Prague Castle. I will call on you when I return,” the Duke said, his expression full of mercy.

“But Master, no, I cannot and will not leave you here alone with that villain plotting some harm against you!”

Podevin began pacing. He distrusted Boleslav through and through and was not about to allow his Master to be alone with that cunning man.

“Podevin, you have always served me faithfully and obediently. Tonight I ask nothing more of you. Please, obey me; return home,” the Duke said resolutely.

“As you wish, Master. May it be blessed,” Podevin submitted. “Only, be careful, and do not trust that wretch who so clearly takes after your wicked mother who gave you only a body, but contributed nothing to your noble character!” Podevin knew he was taking advantage of his newly blossomed friendship with the ruler of Bohemia, but he could not contain his candor.

“Enough, Podevin, it is finished,” the Duke sighed with a disapproving frown.

Podevin bowed and turned to leave.

“Go with God, my page,” Vacslav said slowly, and almost, Podevin thought, sorrowfully. He turned back to the Duke and thought he caught a glimpse of sadness in his kind, dark eyes.

“Thank you, Sire,” Podevin bowed again and left.

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THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE; Chapter 10 HERE; Chapter 11 HERE.

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Then I was told, ‘You must prophesy again’” (Revelation 10:11)

“Perhaps we should set out, my page,” the Duke said, rising from his seat.

“If you will permit it, I’d like to speak with the boy alone before you depart,” Fr. Jiří asked as he rested his tired hand on Podevin’s shoulder.

The Duke nodded his ascent and the priest and page walked toward the chapel, entering behind the curtain.

“It is said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” Father Jiří turned to Podevin.

“What you are about to do, do quickly.” Hearing these words Podevin felt a wave of unease wash over him. “Afterward return, so that you may be granted time to repent,” the priest spoke close to him, in an authoritative whisper. He rested both hands on Podevin’s shoulders as his soft, powerful eyes locked on the page’s.

“Father, I do not understand. Your words are a mystery to me,” Podevin shook his head. “They fill me with a perplexing fear,” he said, his voice growing weak.

“You have much love and reverence for your Master, but you also have a youthful sense of justice and loyalty. Not long from now my words will come back to you and you will understand their meaning. For now do not dwell on them. Only dwell on this: Many take upon themselves great deeds of repentance, fasting, and vigil, but it is rare for someone to guard his soul from pride, greed, jealousy, hatred of others, remembrance of wrongs, and judgment. In this they resemble graves which are decorated outwardly, but filled with stinking bones. Become a vessel of humility and repentance, Podevin. God will take care of the rest.”

Father Jiří finished. Pulling the page close and wrapping his arm around him he led him back to the table where the Duke was still sitting, reading a large book with a foreign script.

“Are we off then?” the Duke asked, smiling broadly and looking as kind and loving as he always did.

“You are,” the priest-hermit said with a nod.

Podevin still felt uneasy but made the choice to focus on the advice Fr. Jiří gave him that he could understand.

Rising up from his seat jovially, the Duke quickly made a prostration before the priest could inhibit him, and kissed Father Jiří’s right hand.

“Take this with you,” Father Jiří said, handing the Duke and Podevin small, hand-carved crosses.

“Thank you, my Father, O thank you! What a wonderful gift!” the page proclaimed as the Duke smiled.

“Pray for us, Father,” Vacslav said as he flung his heavy fur cloak over his shoulders. Opening the door of the hut he filled it with sunlight.

Podevin followed behind, holding the small cross close to his heart, his gentle smile reflecting his joy.

***

Although they did not sleep for most of the night – the Duke not even a wink – Vácslav and Podevin’s trek back to Prague castle seemed much shorter and easier than it had the evening before. Then again, the Duke reflected, everything that is praiseworthy takes time and effort to attain.

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THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE.; Chapter 10 HERE.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

“But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness”  (1 Timothy 6:11)

“You know well how your mother, after you inherited the throne, took advantage of your youth and began reintroducing pagan customs. You will also remember how your holy grandmother opposed this. Due to the hardness of your mother’s heart, she came to hate holy Ludmilla, to the point of death.   

“The hour at which your wicked mother’s barons came to kill your grandmother we were in the Castle’s chapel praying, as we were accustomed to do every day,” Father Jiri spoke in a low voice. The playful joy he exhibited earlier now gave way to visible sorrow.

“I was in the altar; she was at the reader’s stand. It pleased her a great deal to read the Word of God aloud,” he looked up at the Duke and smiled before casting his eyes down again and returning to his tale.“While she yet read the Psalter, ‘Let my prayer arise as incense before Thee,’ I was preparing the incense.

“Suddenly I heard her gasp and as I turned to peer out the curtain I beheld two barons, one holding her while the other tore off her head covering. Before I had the chance to speak I saw them wrap her scarf around her neck, and she, fixing her eyes on mine shouted, ‘Flee and be saved!’

“I didn’t think then. I acted. I quickly entered the door in the altar that led directly to my chambers, grabbing only a few items; I hastily left the castle, disguised as a beggar. I didn’t stop until I reached St. Agnes’ fountain.    

“Your grandfather had this hut, my small sanctuary, built for me when I yet tutored your father.  He wanted me to have a place to rest and pray in seclusion. It was once very regally decorated but I have no need of décor so I gave what I had away to the poor when I came to live here permeantly.

“News of the evil barons’ capture and your grandmother’s honourable burial reached me here and I rejoiced that she was found worthy to die for Christ. May the Good God perpetually smile upon her!”

Here Fr. Jiří paused his tale. Silence reined. The Duke’s chest was heaving with emotion. He had never heard such detail about his beloved grandmother’s death. Those details were only known by one person, a person he thought dead until now. His heart was full of love and longing, rejoicing and sorrow. He took a deep breath and with a face constricted by a strange combination of pain and relief he began.

“For so many years my heart yearned for your guidance, your care, your counsel,” the Duke said with a voice thick with emotion. “I have felt alone in the world since the day grandmother – and you – were taken from me.

“All those who shared my most intimate thoughts and desires, my longing to live and serve Christ, I believed were dead. I alone survived and this grieved me profoundly,” the Duke said, paying no attention to the fact that his servant was also hearing his most intimate confession. Vácslav was not a respecter of persons, but loved Podevin like a younger brother.

“Your holy grandmother, my dear Duke, was as wise and intuitive as she was good and merciful,” the priest-hermit responded. “I understood in my heart that her statement, ‘Flee and be saved’ did not refer to the barons killing me, so much as fleeing the world for my spiritual salvation.”

“She perceived the dilemma I had been living through for some time,” Fr. Jiřípaused here, exhaling slowly. “Ever since your father’s death, I began to contemplate death more frequently and more intensely. Night and day the same burning question probed my mind: ‘Will I be saved while occupying such a place of honour?’ 

“A strong desire had formed in my heart to flee the world and live in solitude; it was to this thought your grandmother spoke,” he inflected his voice here and gestured toward Vácslav with raised eyebrows.

“She understood the path I needed to walk in order to find salvation, for the man who lives for pleasure is dead even while he still lives. And I feared that I was dead,” he looked at Podevin here.

“I feared that the pleasures of this life inhibited me from my repentance. And so, I have been living here in this hut, unknown to the world, since that time, eight years ago. My intention was not to leave you alone and without assistance, but to seek union with God who brings about perfect peace in unworthy vessels and on account of His great mercy guides and protects those the ascetic prays for.

“Revealing myself to you would have meant the end of my solitude, for if I was not thought to be dead not only would your mother’s barons possibly come to kill me but undoubtedly others would have come to the ‘imperial tutor’. And many times I spoke and afterward was sorry, but I have never regretted my silence. It is this silence that I hold so dear, for in it I hear the voice of Christ.” Here Fr. Jiří reached out and gently squeezed the Duke’s arm as though he was offering consoling words to the thirteen year old boy who loved him dearly, instead of the twenty-six year old ruling monarch of Bohemia.

“I understand, Father. I glorify God for our reunion. I humbly beg of you, do not turn away from me; but rather, receive me once again as a pupil, or more rightly, a disciple,” the Duke said with concentrated eyes.

“Come to me at night, alone, when the moon is full and I will, with God’s help, teach you what I can,” the priest-hermit smiled with tired eyes.

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THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE; Chapter 9 HERE.

CHAPTER TEN

He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him. (Lamentations 3: 28)

“Behold the man…” Vácslav translated slowly, furrowing his brow in confusion.

“How is it that you, a poor hermit, know Latin?” he asked, surprised.

And suddenly as if Vácslav had caught sound of a whisper indicating the hermit’s identity, he said: “Can it be that you are my old, beloved tutor? No! But yes! Your eyes, your eyes, betray you! I thought you were dead! Oh my dear Father Jiří!” Vácslav leapt to his feet, quickly bowing down he took the old hermit’s right hand in his and kissed it.

“Podevin, arise, for you are in the presence of a great priest of Christ!” he commanded in his deep voice.

***

Podevin jumped from his seat in surprise. Taking his cue from the Duke, he also bent low and kissed the right hand of the hermit.

“My dear priest, all these years I feared they had killed you…” great emotion sounded in the Duke’s voice as he knelt before the hermit. He paused and examined the hermit’s face for some time, his own expression conveying what Podevin took to be a mixture of joy and sadness.

“I, I feared they disposed of your body in a dishonourable way,” Vácslav said as tears began to trickle down his freckled cheeks. “Can my ears believe what they are hearing, my eyes, what they are seeing?”

“I understand your confusion my child,” the hermit bowed his head, his own eyes filling with tears. “I will explain everything to you. But first let us not leave the young page in the dark,” he said, stretching out his large, worn hand toward the seats, he gestured for them to sit.

Podevin, himself in a state of confusion, looked expectantly from the hermit to his Master with wide eyes. He had heard of the Duke’s imperial tutor but he – like Vácslav – had been under the impression he had died years ago.

“As you wish,” Vácslav answered the hermit, pausing for a moment he squeezed Fr. Jiri’s hand. Sitting down he gestured for Podevin to do likewise. Taking a deep breath, he began.

“The hermit in whose presence we now find ourselves, is the famous imperial tutor, Priest Jiří. He was a close friend and confident of my deceased grandfather, Duke Borivoj the First. Together with my grandmother, Ludmila, they were converted by the great missionary from Constantinople, Methodius.”

“They had, in fact, been baptized together by the very hands of that holy missionary saint,” the Duke explained, though his eyes frequently strayed from Podevin to the priest-hermit. “Isn’t that right, my dear priest?”

Father Jiří nodded with a gentle smile as he listened with folded hands resting in his lap, his head bowed.

“From that day on they remained close and Father Jiří was invited to live as one among equals during my grandparents’ retirement years at Tetín Castle.”

“After my faithful father’s death, I was sent to live with my grandmother. She enlisted Father Jiří as my personal tutor of Latin and Greek education. Above all else, holy Ludmila wanted her thirteen year old grandson to learn the Christian faith and piety from a venerable priest,” at this Vácslav smiled at Fr. Jiří.

“That’s right my boy,” Father Jiří took up the story with a faint smile. “I, the unworthy one, was the young Duke’s tutor until his eighteenth year, whereupon he inherited the rule of Bohemia,” the priest-hermit explained.  

“Father Jiří’s disappearance coincided with the murder of my holy grandmother. Until now I always believed he was secretly murdered in like manner by grandmother’s enemies,” the Duke finished, his gaze now firmly fixed on the holy hermit.  

“How was it that all these years you have been living in solitude, seeking salvation alone, with God alone?”  Duke Vácslav asked, his face betraying pain, his deep voice becoming thick with emotion once again.

“My dear boy, now that God has seen fit to reunite us I will explain everything,” Father Jiří said with a hand gently resting on Vácslav’s arm.

Podevin was unaccustomed to hearing someone speak to his Master in such an informal manner. However, he was beginning to understand the relationship between this hermit and his Master was anything but customary. 

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THE KING, THE PAGE, AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 Here; Chapters 7 & 8 HERE.

CHAPTER NINE

I have had a dream, and my spirit is anxious to know the dream.” (Daniel 2:3)

Arise my faithful page. You have slept well it seems,” the Duke said, gentling stirring Podevin from his rest.

“Sire!”Podevin said, jumping to his feet.

“The dream I had was incredible! The wonders we beheld! The angels, the saints, the Virgin, the Christ Child! It was overwhelming,” the page said excitedly, straightening out his tunic. “How was it that I felt like we were transported to the cave?” he asked, looking wide-eyed from Vácslav to the hermit.

“So many generations and lands between us, and yet we were there, worshipping with whole nations,” the page exclaimed. His bright eyes, wide with enthusiasm, filled with tears.

“Peace be with you, my child,” the old hermit said, placing his hand on the young page’s disheveled hair.

“It was for our benefit, Podevin. As unworthy as we may be, the multitude of the Lord’s love and mercy is always present, guiding us to worship him more perfectly, more purely, more truly,” the hermit explained.

“So I wasn’t dreaming? It was real?!” Podvein exclaimed.

“Sometimes,” the hermit continued as if uninterrupted, “this requires special gifts of grace, to encourage us on the way to our own personal Golgotha. Can you understand that, my boy?” he asked, gently titling his head to one side.

“Yes Father, I think so,” Podevin answered, feeling a mixture of serenity and excitement. 

“Then that is all that needs to be said of that,” the hermit nodded.

So, the hermit experienced that too, Vácslav silently reflected. Who is this man, a prophet? Is it on account of him that we beheld such mysteries?

***

“Here, have a little breakfast, my dear guests,” the hermit said, laying down a wooden board on the table and placing a chunk of brown bread on it next to a piece of oily yellow cheese.

“May it be blessed,” the Duke said, breaking off a piece of the stale bread.

“You chant very well,” the hermit said, addressing the Duke with inquisitive eyes.

“Yes, my grandmother – may her memory be eternal – made sure I was well versed in the Scriptures and the hymnology of our Faith from the time I was a boy,” Vácslav affirmed. Slowly nodding his head he cast his pensive eyes down. He allowed himself a moment to hold the memory of his holy grandmother– whom he loved more than his own mother– in his heart and mind. 

“And you, my dear old man, also know how to chant well…” the Duke said, looking up and engaging the hermit once more. He wanted to ask the hermit about the presence of a fully-adorned chapel in his hut, about his identity, how he knew what he did, and why–with his clear gifts of prophecy and prayer–had his reputation not reached him in the Castle.

“And what a great thing it is, to know how to read the Holy Scriptures well!” the hermit interjected before he could pose even one of his many questions.

“When we have the words of the Holy Scriptures on our lips, temptations flee. For the little devils who torment us are unable to bear the words of the Holy Spirit Who speaks through His prophets and apostles.” The hermit’s eyes shone in the light of the fading fire with what the Duke almost thought looked like playful joy.

“My grandmother was wont to say that very same thing regarding the Holy Scriptures,” the Duke said with some surprise.

“She was a righteous woman, full of good deeds; with prayer ever on her lips and humility marking her every stride,” the hermit responded with a confident voice.

“She was indeed,” Vácslav said, narrowing his eyes he studied the hermit’s face with concentration and maybe with a little hope.

“Her reputation has spread far and wide and she, to this day, is revered by all Bohemians. But knowledge of her intimate works and virtue is held by few. Tell me, my dear father, how is it that you speak of her as if you knew her? Has God revealed these things to you?” Vácslav asked. Knitting his brow he twisted the ends of his reddish-brown beard with expectation.

“Has it been so long that you no longer remember? Is it on account of my unkempt hair and beard? Have too many years of hardship and toil disfigured me so that I am no longer recognizable?” the old hermit said gesturing toward his simple clothing, his somewhat gaunt face and dishevelled, long grey hair.

Hearing this, Vácslav’s heart started to beat faster; he searched the hermit’s face for a clue.

“Oh, my boy, and what good would it have done for you to remember me, a sinful old man?” he sighed with downcast eyes. “No, no, better to forget,” he said, shaking his head, “Better to be forgotten… forgotten by the world in order to be remembered by God!”

“Forgive me, dear friend, I am unaware that we have previously met,” the Duke said, though deep within he knew there was something mysterious about this hermit whom he was attracted to from the moment he saw him outside his window.

“Ecce homo,” the old hermit said, locking eyes with the Duke. Laying his hand across his chest he bowed ever so slightly.

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Read Chapters 1 & 2 HERE; Chapters 3 & 4 HERE; Chapters 5 & 6 HERE.

CHAPTER SEVEN

“Come ye people… and let us behold wonders that strike and hold fast every mind in amazement” (Tone 5, Christmas Eve, 238)

Podevin struggled to stay awake. Rarely had he felt such a strong sluggishness come over him. Paying heed to the hermit’s words, he indeed sat down after the sixth psalm finished. Almost immediately he began to doze. Every now and again he would hear his Master and the old hermit chanting in peaceful voices, conveying the joy of the Saviour’s birth.

“Christ is born, give ye glory. Christ comes from heaven, meet ye Him. Christ is on earth, be ye exalted. O all the earth, sing unto the Lord, and sing praises in gladness, O ye people, for He has been glorified,” he heard his master chant.

The next time Podevin came to himself, he found he was in a very different place than the small chapel in the old hermit’s hut. He and everything around him was in complete darkness. Or was it darkness? He couldn’t tell on account of the bright light he beheld before him at a distance. He was outside, looking in, or he would be if the light was less brilliant. His vision was weak; his eyes needed adjusting. He was not alone; he thought there were others standing near him. But the light emanating from before him made it difficult to distinguish figures, he simply had the sense that others were standing with him. 

Podevin noticed he was a little cool wearing only his Palace-issued, red wool tunic; but there was no snow and little wind. He could still hear his master and the hermit, only they didn’t sound as close as they had in the chapel.

Suddenly he heard a different voice; more tender, more delicate. A woman’s voice, he thought. Can it be? Yes, it was.

A soft and gentle voice, filled with indescribable sweetness was now chanting, “Thou art my fruit, Thou art my life: from Thee have I learnt that I remain what I was. I proclaim Thee to be the unchanagble Word, now made incarnate. Therefore all creation shares in my joy,” she finished.

Though she no longer spoke her sweet voice resounded in Podevin’s ears. My God, can it be that I stand before the cave of the Christ Child? Is it possible that I heard the voice of the Virgin Mother just now? And thinking thus, his eyes slowly grew accustomed to the brightness, and he began to see figures within the light. They seemed to be within a cave. It would seem he was not only transported to a different place, he was in a different time.

Yes, it was unmistakeable now. There in the cave was a small manger, from which the light proceeded. Beside the manger knelt a female figure, the Mother of God. Just a few feet away from the manger stood St. Joseph, the guardian of the Lord. At least that is what Podevin could surmise.      

Surprising more still to the young page was all the other men and women who stood within the cave. He even thought he recognized some from the images Duke Vácslav had commissioned to be painted and hung on the walls of St. Vitus Cathedral. Finally his eyes fell on his master who stood beside the hermit Jaro.

Now that his eyes had adjusted, he could see those around him with much more clarity. He saw what looked like different people from different ages. Afar off to his right he could see traveling shepherds, walking over fields. It seemed to Podevin that they journeyed at such a distance he shouldn’t be able to see them, and yet he did.

It would seem it wasn’t only his vision which had increased but his hearing as well. As he watched the shepherds travel he heard one ask, “What are these tidings?”

Another responded, “Let us go and see this thing which is come to pass, even Christ our God.”

By the time the second shepherd finished this statement they had arrived. Podevin watched as those in the cave made room for the shepherds who entered and worshiped the Christ Child saying: “O God of our Fathers, blessed art Thou.”

Where Podevin was merely permitted to be a witness to the miraculous events unfolding before him, his Master and the holy hermit were participants in it, he reflected.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 “What god is as great as our God? Thou who art God, who alone workest wonders” (Psalm 76:33)

The Duke watched in amazement at all that took place before him. In a manner passed his understanding he found himself before the holy Christ Child, before His Mother and Guardian, St. Joseph.

It seemed to the Duke that events from long ago played out before his eyes; events that had not yet happened seemed to take place for the first time. It was as if all of history had become present, as though there was no past or future, but only today.

And yet, he somehow managed to continue to chant the morning prayers, though he knew not how. He saw beside him the hermit in whose hut he and his page had entered earlier that evening. Podevin, his faithful page, stood outside the entrance to the cave in the company of many others, each dressed in a manner foreign to contemporary Bohemian.

As Duke Vácslav sang about the three youths in the furnace, the three youths’ trials became reality before his very eyes.

When it came time for the hymn, “Babylon despoiled Zion the Queen,” the troubled history of the Israelites seemed to come alive.

With his own eyes, the Duke saw that by a guiding star the Christ Child drew to Zion the treasures of Babylon from the kings who gazed upon the stars. At this the journey of the magi was revealed.  

Vácslav could hear the whole of creation singing praise to the eternal Word, lying in the manger.

Finally the powers of heaven were heard to declare that the Saviour, Lord, and Master of all had been born. At this all present lifted up their voice in unison. The Lady Theotokos, all the angels, shepherds, magi, hierarchs, priests, deacons, kings, queens, all the faithful, and all creation – all things living and breathing – declared the glory of God:

“Magnify, O my soul, the power of the undivided Godhead in three Persons. We who delight in Christ have attained our desire, being counted worthy of the coming of God.”

At this the Duke noted the Virgin, knelling as she was, grew silent and slightly bowed her head, her posture reflecting her humility. The others continued, “O undefiled Virgin, grant us the grace to worship Christ, your Son, in His glory. Magnify, O my soul, her that has delivered us from the curse!”

Vácslav’s heart could not have been more full; he did not reflect on or analyze what he was participating in, he merely experienced it. He gave glory to God and lived in that blessed, most divine moment.

Before he knew it they were in the midst of the Divine Liturgy, the most grace-filled, true Liturgy he had ever perceived. Although every Christian knows this divine event takes place during every Bloodless Sacrifice, sometimes the Lord, in His goodness, allows the faithful to better understand this truth by experiencing, visibly, the Lord’s divine birth, death, and resurrection. The Duke had heard of such things, had read in the lives of saints that some were given to taste of this experience. It had never occurred to him that the Lord would make him worthy, as unworthy as he felt, to likewise experience such a gift.

The cave was transformed into an inner sanctuary, with countless priests and hierarchs serving at the altar, which though hard for the Duke to comprehend, was the Christ Child’s manager.

And as quickly as the transformation took place, it faded. Vácslav once again found himself, his page and the old hermit in the small chapel, in the hut, at the foot of Blaník Mountain, in Prague, Bohemia, 934 a.d.

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THE KING, THE PAGE AND THE HERMIT:

A CHRISTMAS STORY

CHAPTER FIVE

“What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Luke 7:26)

“My dear man,” Vácslav looked into his mug as he hesitated for a moment. “I do not wish to pass this time with you in vain. I feel as though God has seen fit to reveal to me that you are a man of God. When I saw you gathering winter fuel I was drawn to you; I believe God has put you in my path for a reason. Please, advise me; help me to become a better ruler, a better Christian,” the Duke spoke in earnest, leaning forward and waiting with expectation to hear what the hermit would tell him.

“You are called to be a great example, King Wenceslaus,” Jaro the Hermit said with purpose, sitting up straight in his seat, his face bathed in the orange light of the fire, his eyes animated with emotion. “Not only for your subjects, but for people of all nations, of all generations,” his voice rang with conviction and certainty.

Hearing these words, the strange name Jaro had pronounced, Vácslav’s heart began to beat faster; he felt fear stirring in his stomach. He looked on the hermit with admiration.

“Like the faithful rulers of old – the Prophet and King David, Constantine the Emperor – you too can become great, my dear Duke. In fact, if with the help of God, you are successful in this endeavour, a day will come when they will no longer call you duke, but “king”, and you will not be recognized by your Old West Slavic name, Vácslav, but rather by a foreign rendering of it, Wenceslaus.

“You see, Sire, if you were of the world, the world would have loved you: but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” Here the hermit paused, as though giving Vácslav the opportunity to process all that was being said.

The Duke glanced at Podevin who sat motionless, seemingly petrified by the conversation unfolding before him.

“Man of God, your words fill me with both fear and love,” the Duke began with stalled speech. “Fear, because you speak of me as though I could ever compare to holy rulers, and love because your words inspire in me a zeal for Christ, a zeal to live and die as a faithful ruler, a faithful servant of Christ.”

The Duke did not hesitate to pour out his heart to the hermit. For so long he had supplicated the Lord to provide him a trusted guide. Sitting before this disheveled and yet noble hermit he felt as though he had finally found one.

He paid no mind to the fact that Podevin, his loyal page – sitting closest to the fire with bright eyes as though hanging on every word the hermit said – was hearing this intimate conversation.  He had often called to mind how God is not a respector of persons, and so he also strove to be humble and full of love. Though he felt he often fell short of this aspiration, he nevertheless tried.  

“But how, how, will I do this?” Vácslav asked with wide, hungry eyes leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees.

“Until your final day you must struggle to let your light shine before our countrymen, so that they will glorify our Father in Heaven. Even if you must do it alone, and even if you are considered a fool in the eyes of the world, you must set an example and draw men out of their selfishness. Encourage them to love one another,” the hermit advised.

“You have had a secret desire for some time now, my dear Duke, to buy all children being sold into slavery and give them a proper home.” Here Vácslav’s eyes grew wide with surprise; Podevin’s did likewise.

“I adjure you, make haste and do it. You should not only provide food and shelter to the young orphans, but give them the opportunity to learn and live the Christian faith. With this good deed you fill find peace because you will follow God’s command,” here the hermit fell silent.

The Duke took in all that he heard. He understood the hermit before whom he sat was illumined by the grace of God since he had never revealed to anyone his desire to save children from the cruel life of slavery.

Looking out the small windows of the hut he saw that evening had crept into night. The snow was falling. Big, soft flakes silently falling for the glory of God, he reflected. He knew he should have one hundred questions to ask the holy hermit but at that moment all he felt was peace and pleasure to be in the presence of a man of God. And so he was content to sit in silence, pondering everything in his heart.

CHAPTER SIX

“His servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness”(Romans 6:16)

After sitting in silence for some time the hermit suddenly rose, walked toward a faded woven tapestry hung on the wall and drew it back to reveal an entrance. Having affixed the now draping tapestry to one side, he turned to them, “Come. It’s time.” Bowing his head he entered.

Vácslav exchanged a look with his page and followed after the old man.

The light from the hut’s main room spilt into what Vácslav could now see was a chapel.

As the hermit began to light the oil lamps hung above the stone altar against the wall, Vácslav took in the sights of the room. 

To say the Duke was surprised by the revelation of a beautifully adorned, if small, chapel in this small hut was an understatement. He knew his subjects to be faithful, but it was rare for someone to have a chapel in their home, much less in the hut of a poor hermit.

A mixture of sweet beeswax and frankincense hung in the air. Two medium sized images rested on simple wooden stands in the middle of the room. To the left was an image of the Mother of God, cloaked in dark blue holding the Christ Child. To the right was an image of Jesus Christ as a young man: his face serene, his right hand fixed in the form of a blessing. The Duke noted they looked a great deal like the images hung in his own bedchamber.

They couldn’t possibly be done by the same hand, though. My grandfather had those images commissioned from a visiting monk from Constantinople years ago, he thought.

Having lit the lamps, the hermit turned to him with expecting eyes, “Would you, Sire, do me the honour of reciting the morning prayers with me?”

The Duke nodded and stood to the side of the room where a few books lay on a book stand. Question after question vied for his attention, pleading with him to spill them out before the hermit but he understood there was a time for speech and a time for deeds. Now they would pray, later they would speak.

Atop the bookstand was a three-bar candlestick with large, fresh candles ready to be lit. While waiting for the hermit to finish lighting the candles he began chanting in a deep, low, harmonious voice the words scrolled before him in a foreign script: “What shall we offer you O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens, a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we…” at this point, to Duke Vácslav’s surprise, overcome with emotion, his voice trailed off.

He didn’t know if it were the words of the hymn, the chapel or the mysterious person of this hermit that had evoked such compunction in him. He cleared his throat and attempted to finish the hymn but before he could he heard an old, frail, almost familiar voice sing out, “and we offer you a Virgin Mother.” 

He turned toward the hermit, who was smiling at him. Vácslav was both impressed and perplexed. There was something about the old man that made the Duke feel as though he knew him all his life.

***

Podevin watched with curiosity, both at his Master and the mysterious hermit.

He understood the words of the hymn which his Master chanted. Having been raised with his family in the castle – all of whom were employed in the Duke’s service – Podevin had been fortunate enough to learn to read and write. The Duke felt it necessary for his household to not only believe in Christ, but understand the Liturgical language, Slavonic, a language which had long been in use, but was only given an alphabet when the blessed missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius from Constantinople came to convert their lands. He had heard many stories about them; not only from his Master, but even his own father.

It was, however, not only the divinely inspired words that he found moving, but his Master’s voice and the deep love and longing he somehow communicated when he sang.

“Podevin,” the hermit interrupted his thoughts. “We will now pray the morning prayers. I am going to place this stool here for you so that you can sit if you grow tired.”

“Oh, no, please, I couldn’t dare sit while my Master stands,” Podevin said with his hands raised in protest.

“That is noble of you, Podevin,” the hermit rested his large hand on Podevin’s arm. Looking at him with intense eyes, he said, “It is praiseworthy to push oneself beyond one’s natural capabilities. But I want you to take note of that small stool there against the wall and I want you to demonstrate your perfect obedience. When you grow tired you will rest,” the hermit finished. The kindness in his commanding voice only added to Podevin’s desire to please him.

“May it be blessed,” the page finally answered with a gentle smile.

“Let us begin then…” the hermit said nodding at Vácslav as he joined him at the reader’s stand.

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