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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Holy Russia

Holy Trinity Lavra, Sergei Possad, North of Moscow Posted by Picasa

My two weeks pilgrimage in Russia in from 25 July to 8 August 2005 came just ten years after my first visit to that great country shortly after my ordination. Ten years ago I had just one week available to me; this time I was blest with a two week stay. My "minder," guide and translator then as now was a good friend from the early days of St. Aidan's (when we worshipped in Stockport in rented rooms), Julia Kuznetsova. This time I was also ably assisted in Moscow by her sister Polina and her brother in law, Ilya. I also had opportunity this year to revisit some of the holy sites of Moscow, (Sergei Possad), new ones in Nizhniy Novgorod, Diveyevo for St. Seraphim of Sarov and the church in Nikolo Pogost where my hosts again were my friends Fr. Vladimir (Chegunov), his wife Galina and their lovely family. Many other new friendships were made on this trip of course, Fr. Nikolai and family, Arseniy, Mikhail, Dimitri, Yuri, Nina, Oksana ... too many too mention. Truly, Russia is a land of great spirit and hospitality.

Much has changed of course in Russia over the last 10 years since my first trip. This is most noticeable in the urban centres and especially Moscow where a certain commercial vitality has emerged. Although many have benefited from economic liberalisation, it has come at a price. Some of the more tawdry aspects of western capitalism (from this writer's point of view), such as profiteering taxi drivers, in-your-face advertising, individualism and consumerism are less welcome developments in Russian urban life. In the countryside I suspect that less has changed, aside from the collapse of statist centralism, which is no bad thing. A certain bureaucratic spirit and deference to authority remains, but I speak as a westerner of course and less inclined to stand in long queues and keep my "trap shut." It will get me into trouble one day I'm sure!

However, there is another older and (in my view) more authentic Russia, indicative of her "soul" and this is Christian Russia, Orthodox Christian Russia, a good deal MORE radical than any human ideology and which guides her still. The Kingdom of God is alive and well in Russia and it was my great privilege and blessing to witness at first hand once more the wonderful renewal of the Church in this land, this "holy Russia." This indeed was why I made my return trip ... to worship Christ in the services and to venerate him in his living images, the People of God ... so warm and accepting, as our Lord Himself.

Moscow afforded the first opportunity to behold the flowering of the Russian Church in the light of freedom, never having died in the Soviet period but awaiting her time to bloom again. From Trinity - St. Sergius Monastery in the north to the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (where I concelebrated the Liturgy on my last day) and indeed in the many churches and monasteries that are being restored both in the capital and across the country, one sees a great beacon of hope and strength for the Russian people in God. My stay in Sergei Possad (Holy Trinity Lavra) was astonishing in the contrast between 1995 and 2005. Today, most of the churches in the great monastery complex are repaired and functioning and thousands of pilgrims pass through all the time. Here there used to be the famous Andre Rublev icon of the Hospitality of Abraham / Holy Trinity which is now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in the city. In respect of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, I should perhaps mention that Stalin raised it to the ground and built a swimming pool over its foundations. The Church today is an exact replica of the original. It's often said but true ... Stalin is dead. Christ is risen!

From Moscow I travelled overnight on a sleeper train to Nizhniy Novgorod (Gorky in Soviet times) which is the third largest city in Russia, nestling by the banks of the mighty Volga and home to the great St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, commemorating the great soldier saint who defended Russia against the Swedes and the Tartar horde. I stayed twice in the city, the first before going to Diveyevo in Julia's parents' flat and then at their dacha and then before returning to Moscow with Dimitri Kiryuhin and his mother graciously showing me round this historic city. Perhaps most memorable from my stay in Nizhniy Novgorod was my visit to the Cathedral where a magnificent spiritual labour of restoring the holy icons and iconostasis is under way. Dimitri, his family and the workers in the icon workshop made us most welcome and inspired us all. Here is their website (in Russian) with icon illustrations of their work.

From Nizhniy Novgorod I travelled by coach to Diveyevo, (history), the great convent cared for by St. Seraphim of Sarov. I arrived on 31st July in the afternoon prior to 1st August which is the feast of the uncovering of the saint's relics, (Julian Calendar). Diveyevo has grown enormously over the last 10 years ... it is now a little pilgrim town and the convent has over 500 nuns! Over the years there have been many saints in this monastic community. Signs of such growth are appearing again now.

The Vigil followed by the open air Liturgy on the feast day was one of the high spots of my visit to Russia, a wonderful spiritual experience. Thousands of believers were present of all ages and both genders, (I say this because the western stereotype of the Russian Church is babushkas in shawls. It would be a bit of an eye opener for a western Christian to see so many young men!) There were so many people present in the lavra square that soldiers had to maintain a cordon against the (orderly) crush. The worship was simply divine, a real presence of the Holy Spirit. The saint still walks the grounds. You can feel his presence .. but you can only appreciate that by being there. If you ever have an opportunity to visit Diveyevo, always accept without delay. You will never regret the decision; indeed it could change your life. Regrettably, I had to leave of course but more blessings awaited me in Nikolo Pogost after my second visit to Nizhniy Novgorod, transported there by Fr. Nikolai and briefly meeting his family before the onward journey by taxi and ferry.

The little rural church at Nikolo Pogost, dedicated to St. Nicholas, was closed by the communists in the 30's. 10 years ago I had the great privilege of witnessing the Church's restoration of this holy site and the coming together again of the local believers, served by Fr. Vladimir (Chegunov) with his wonderful family. My visit this time was a warm and blessed renewal of my own spiritual path and a reacquaintance with old friends ... and a much expanded family. I spent a happy two days in the countryside by the River Volga with the family, also visiting Gorodets and its wonderful folk and historical museums, before returning to Nizhniy Novgorod. After a final party with Julia's family in the flat, a time of enjoyment and a little sorrow at the time of our parting, I returned to Moscow for my final weekend.

In Moscow, Julia's sister Polina and brother-in-law Ilya looked after me again, showing me some of the sites and taking me to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for my final Sunday Liturgy in Russia. What a wonderful experience that was, concelebrating in the restored Church on the Sunday morning and an amazing yet brief tour of the Cathedral complex by a friendly guide, Sasha. It only remained me for to return to the airport for my journey home on Monday with Polina in her car. I looked back on Russia as my flight took off from the airport that day with a light heart and a grateful prayer. May it indeed be God's will for me one day to return to Holy Russia!


Ian said...

Thank you Father for sharing what must've been a wondrous trip. A woman from church is off in a week or so to Greece and Russia to stay at monasteries and visit churches for six months! I must confess the sin of envy. ;-)

Such beautiful (and huge!) churches, and what a blessing it must've been to concelebrated the Liturgy at the Church of Christ the Saviour. It was also very interesting to read your reflections on how Russia, and Moscow especially, has changed in 10 years.

Many years, Father.

Ian said...

And I've just read that page on Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity: wow! Such deep theology in what to me was a deceptively simple icon. Thank you for the link, Father.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks, Father, for the splendid account of your wonderful trip. You are indeed bless.

Thank you, too, for the great links that enabled us to feel we had had the privilege of visiting all those holy places too.

Leetle M.

Anonymous said...

Father, great article! The closest I can get to the Russian Church in Puerto Rico are the orthodox from ROCOR. Do you know about ROCOR?

Antiochian Orthodox Subdeacon in Puerto Rico

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