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Believing in Miracles 

Of Prague, Religion and the past 15 years

Prague -- the miraculous Infant of Prague is a wax baby doll, 400 years old and roughly "the height and weight of a prairie dog," as I described him when we first met in the winter of 1989. The Infant, known to Czechs as the Jesulatko, is the best-dressed religious icon in all the world. In 1989 he owned 45 spectacular costumes. Now he sports 70 -- glistening gowns, capes, vests of silk and gold brocade to match his marble throne and his tiny jeweled crown. Carmelite monks at the Church of Our Lady Victorious change the Infant's outfits according to the seasons and feast days; for a small fee you can climb to the tower museum and marvel at the rest of his wardrobe.

Much has changed since last we met. Only Prague's winter weather seemed the same, cold and gray and brooding. When I visited the Infant in December 1989, the Czech capital was in the first flush of the delirium that greeted the Velvet Revolution, ending 40 years of Soviet-imposed communism. By sheer good luck, I arrived on the train from Budapest the very day the old government fell, the day half a million Czechs thronged Wenceslas Square and Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek exhorted the crowd from their balconies, though few of us could hear them.

It was the first and only national euphoria I've experienced, however vicariously. Most Americans like me, too young to remember V-E Day, will die without savoring one of these moments of soaring hope that reveals a whole people embracing the future and believing the best of each other. Grinning patriots wearing red-white-and-blue ribbons roamed Prague's freezing streets for days, embracing strangers and flashing the universal V-sign, which in Czech means "svobodu" -- freedom. In a cafe near the Old City Hall, a beautiful dark-haired woman who spoke no English took off her ribbon, pinned it on my sweater and kissed me on my forehead. Late at night on the Charles Bridge, a thousand candles illuminated the statues of the saints and students huddled around oil-drum fires and sang "We Shall Overcome" in Czech.

"My face was wet," I wrote in my notebook after leaving the students and their midnight vigil. "I'll remember it the rest of my life."

I was 44. For a secular realist whose adult experience of politics had been assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate and Reaganism, this flood tide of optimism was like taking heroin. After three days, it was like taking an overdose. I retreated from the giddy streets, late on another arctic afternoon, and ducked furtively into the Church of Our Lady Victorious. The church was empty and pitch dark except for a single bulb backlighting the famous Infant, and three candles burning on his altar rail. We were alone, the two of us -- the overdressed wax doll, famous for miracles, and the agnostic famous for dismissing them. If this was a contest between faith and doubt, the little rascal must have won. I was exhausted and emotionally overwrought, and the darkness and silence and the shadowy choir of early-Baroque angels may have helped him, too. But what I wrote of our meeting was this: "Prayer struck me as the only adequate response to the accumulation of feeling I felt in that place."

"A miracle is occurring in Prague," I wrote also. "If you think democracy is your true religion, come to Prague now, as a Muslim comes to Mecca or a Catholic comes to Lourdes." My account of the pilgrimage to Prague was subtitled "Do You Believe in Miracles?"

That long weekend with the Velvet Revolution produced the most atypical outburst of enthusiasm and optimism I ever committed in print. When I returned with my wife on the 15th anniversary of Prague's miracle, the American presidential election had just been sealed and certified, and even guarded optimism seemed light years beyond our reach. The grim weather suited our mood. Prague, too, in the natural course of things, had trimmed its sails and lowered its expectations.

"I feel that what we believed and what we hoped for did not happen 100 percent," a retired engineer, shedding a single tear, told an American reporter.

Welcome back, Prague, to the world of scaled-down dreams. The Czech Republic, separated from Slovakia in 1993, is a new member of the European Union -- the amorphous but ever-expanding leviathan that reminds some Czechs of the Hapsburg Empire, which swallowed their fierce little country for 400 years before disgorging it in 1918. Unemployment in the Czech Republic stands at 10 percent, and, worst of all, the Communist Party is making a comeback, with 15 to 20 percent of the vote in recent elections.

"It's older people who have no education, they miss the old communist days when no skill or initiative was necessary to make a living," said Martina, our brilliant guide with two university degrees and a diplomat's grasp of world affairs (in Prague you need at least one degree, two foreign languages and a year of training to guide tourists). "In the new economy you need academic credentials and technology, and first of all English so you can work for foreign companies."

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