Voices from Russia

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Behold, the Most Pure Cometh!

In pre-revolutionary Yekaterinburg, it was very crowded every 9 July as a motley crowd of locals and pilgrims from all over the province flooded into the town. They all came with the same purpose in mind, to honour and venerate their beloved Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God, and all were filled with the same spiritual joy during the feastday dedicated to the icon. Nobles and merchants, petty bourgeois and peasants, everyone hurried to the convent where the icon was kept. There was a solemn and reverent religious procession, a bustling fair, the touching singing of the sisterhood chorus, the generous hospitality of the convent, souvenirs and hand-made gifts by the nuns, all of this and more awaited those who went to the “Tikhvin Days” at the convent…

Today, the sisters of our convent return to our city its beloved icon, and they revive the holiday in its honour.

The Ancient Icon

According to legend, the wonder-working Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God appeared in Russia in 1338. The first time it was seen, it stood bathed in unearthly light above the waters of Lake Ladoga. Then, it appeared in different places until it finally stopped in Tikhvin, where a special church was built to house it. In 1577, an edict of Tsar Ivan Grozny decreed that the icon was to be housed at the Tikhvin Monastery. At various times, copies were made of the wonder-working Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God, and these, in turn, became as venerated as the original. One of these copies was brought to Yekaterinburg on 9 July 1811.

The Celestial Abbess: The Protectress of the City

Church of the Assumption in Yekiaterinburg, where the Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God was brought in 1811

In the morning on 9 July 1811, the bells rang out the holiday from all the belfries in the city. The harmonies of the bronze heralds proclaimed the joyous news: “Behold, the Most Pure cometh!” The crowds streamed from all the churches accompanied by the singing of the bells. The multi-faceted crowd sparkled with the festal vestments of the priests and minor clergy, icons, bright clothing and kerchiefs… everything merged into one united and colourful flow. The banners floated over the heads of the crowd and the praises of the Queen of Heaven sounded continually. The joyous crowd moved together, merging into a deep and moving river of humanity. It was a religious procession of the whole people, acting as one. Yekaterinburg thus greeted its new sacred object, the Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God, a precise copy of the ancient wonder-working image. The innumerable believers rejoiced and a glowing spiritual joy overfilled the soul of Abbess Taisia, superior of the Novo-Tikhvin convent, who had the sacred image brought to Yekaterinburg.

She distinctly remembered the day more than five years ago when, as the simple laywoman Tatiana Kostromina, she left her humble home to go to the bustle of the imperial capital of St Petersburg to ask about the conversion of this small skete into a regular convent. She prayed fervently, and she implored the Queen of Heaven to help her achieve this goal! Without any money, without any recommendations, she left for the northern capital, where no one knew her and she knew no one, to bow in supplication before the Holy Synod. From whence did this modest and illiterate daughter of a master workman in a Ural factory get the determination, despite the seeming impossibility of her quest, to turn to the mighty of this world, to insist, to plead, yes, to convince…? The mother abbess, in recalling all of this, could not assign the source of her determination to anything other than the beneficent aid of the Queen of Heaven, to whom she herself and all her sisterhood prayed incessantly with great zeal. They shed their fervent tears precisely before the Tikhvin icon in the small cemetery chapel.

The Most Holy Mother of God did not leave them barren and bereft; she did not leave them without Her aid. Soon after she arrived in St Petersburg, Tatiana found patrons to help her with this God-pleasing endeavour. Then, she met with Prince Golitsyn, who was the Oberprokurator of the Holy Synod, Admiral Fyodor Ushakov, who is now glorified as one of the saints, and other well-known people of that time. Prince Golitsyn was a childhood friend of Tsar Aleksandr I, and he convinced His Majesty that the intentions of the suppliant from the Urals were pure and merited support, and that led to a favourable outcome of the whole affair. Need I mention that the tsar himself was devoted to the Tikhvin icon? According to the terms of imperial decree, the new convent was to be called the Novo-Tikhvin convent.

Here it was, the daughter of the master workman, Tatiana Kostromina, now Abbess Taisia, entered Yekaterinburg precisely on the feastday of the Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God. She returned to the sisterhood after long years of separation with the precious sacred image, the Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God, a precise copy of the wonder-working icon, which had been made to her order.

A Hospitable Abode

A photo taken near the turn of the 20th century in the sewing workshop of the convent. The sisterhood was renowned for the high quality of their workmanship.

From that time forward, on the day that the Tikhvin icon arrived in Yekaterinburg, 9 July, was a special holiday in the town, it was a unique day in the city’s life. Preparations for it began long before the date. The sisterhood made convent souvenirs, painted icons, wove patterned carpets, and sewed and embroidered tablecloths, curtains and other household items for sale at the Tikhvin Icon Fair on 9 July. The items made by the sisters were famous for their high quality of workmanship, so, both townspeople and pilgrims eagerly sought to buy them.

Two weeks before the beginning of the holiday, the superior of the convent erected spacious tents in the cloister courtyard for the lodging of poor pilgrims. The most zealous amongst them came to the convent ten days before the festivities began. The nuns gave free food and lodging to anyone who came. The reserves of food, pastries, and sweets required for this were simply stupendous. All of the visitors were enraptured by the aroma coming from the sisterhood’s bakery; no one could resist the fancy bread that the sisters made themselves. The religious procession with the Tikhvin icon was an impressive spectacle, in front, some 50 priests and minor clerics, followed by the sisterhood of the convent (before the revolution it was some 1,000 strong!), and several thousand laity, both local and pilgrims came behind. The procession wended it s way around the convent, which was, truth to tell, a small monastic town.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the convent was actually a small monastic town

Every year, everybody, the locals and pilgrims alike, expected something new and different at the festival. For example, in 1913, an unusual fountain was unveiled. It was a refined metal cross, from which cold drinking water flowed. A newspaper at the time wrote, “Hundreds of hands are stretched out to this ‘miracle’, in order get a drink or to wash their faces”. Near the “cross”, encircled by flowers, was the Tikhvin icon, and unceasing laudations and prayers were said before it.

Return of the Sacred Image

Years passed… the faith atrophied in the hearts of Orthodox Christians and love shrank away… a revolutionary maelstrom engulfed Russia… the angelic peals of the bells were no longer heard, the banners were trampled into the dirt, and no one in the city sang praises to the Lord and His Most Pure Mother. The Novo-Tikhvin Convent was padlocked and the sisters were banished, and the sacred image… the Tikhvin icon, so long a fixture of the city… disappeared without a trace…

…2008, Yekaterinburg in Russia. The terrible persecution and war against Christ and His Church are now only entries in dusty history books. The golden crosses atop our churches rival the sun with their dazzling beauty and the revival of Orthodox Russia is rung out by the many-voiced bells of the city. Our convent came alive, yet again. We yearned for the return of our most revered sacred object.

“For a long time, we wished to have in our convent the same icon as was here in pre-revolutionary days, and, now, in 2008, we finally decided to do it. The sisters themselves painted a precise copy of the ancient Tikhvin icon”, related Nun Devora, the supervisor of the iconography atelier of the convent. Several months ago, some of the sisters drove to Tikhvin, were they studied the special features of the old image, how the old icon was painted, its size and other necessary details, and only after this did they begin the project. They ground the pigments, they prepared the paints, dissolving the elements not only with solvents, but, with their prayers. Reverential fear changed into quiet happiness. Having been in the proximity of the original sacred image, with the consciousness of taking part in a great endeavour, it sometimes caused them to pause in trepidation, but, their zealous faith in the constant aid of their Patroness gave them strength. Well… the face of the Most Pure Mother is complete, here is the Christ Child clinging in trust to His Most Gentle Mother… the gilding, the symbol of the brightness of Paradise of God covers the surface of the board. Some more time, and all the work shall be done…

Archbishop Vikenty of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye (1953- ), one of the greatest and most-respected archpastors in the contemporary Russian church

In July, Archbishop Vikenty of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye shall bless the finished Tikhvin icon in the course of the liturgy in a special visit to Tikhvin. On 8 July 2008, almost two centuries ago to the day of the arrival of the original image, the icon shall be delivered to Yekaterinburg on the feastday of the wonder-working Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God. Once again, the bronze heralds shall peal out to the Orthodox faithful the same wondrous news: “Behold, the Most Pure cometh!” Again, the clergy and thousands of believers shall march in procession in order to carry the long-awaited sacred image down the streets of the city to the gates of the resurrected Novo-Tikhvin convent. Everything shall be just as it was in the olden days. The icon shall be encircled with living flowers in an open-air shrine decorated with more flowers, and laudations and prayers shall be said before it yet again. Yes, the fair shall return, and the sisters shall show their traditional hospitality to all guests.

After the festival, the icon shall be placed in the Church of All Saints, as this is the only church restored so far in the convent complex. In 2010, for the 200th anniversary of the convent, the icon shall be transferred to the newly-restored Cathedral of St Aleksandr Nevsky.

Through the prayers of the Mother of God, the beloved icon of Yekaterinburg returns home… yes, the locals bow before Her yet again, laying their hopes in prayer before their gracious Patroness.

Most Holy Mother of God, help us!

22 May 2008

Novo-Tikhvin Convent, Yekaterinburg RF



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