Voices from Russia

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Svyatynya: Holy Things


They say it is impossible to get Russians out into the streets; that no more than several hundred people would routinely come to opposition rallies. That’s definitely true of rallies and any sorts of gatherings. However, there’s one exception. In recent years, the Virgin Mary and some of Christianity’s greatest saints, most of them dead for centuries, were able to cause tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of Russians to stand in lines for hours, or march in processions for miles, in snow and rain, freezing temperatures and steaming heat. I’m talking about the immense popularity of relics, wonderworking icons, or other holy objects, commonly known in Russian as svyatyni… a phenomenon largely forgotten in the Christian West, but very much alive in the Christian East and flourishing in today’s Russia.

A remarkable procession is currently taking place in Russia, something one would have a hard time imagining in any other modern country except perhaps some parts of Spain, Italy, Greece, or Latin America. Nevertheless, the scale is unprecedented. The Belt of the Virgin Mary (otherwise referred to as the Precious Sash, or Cincture, of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos), the holy treasure of Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, is travelling abroad for the first time. The Belt’s travelling in style; it flies in a private jet, chartered by the tour’s organiser, the influential St Andrew the First-Called Foundation, and six Vatopedi monks accompany it. In St Petersburg, none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin welcomed it. In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, Governor Aleksandr Misharin, and the region’s bishop, Metropolitan Kirill Nakonechny of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye, met the relic with a guard of honour before a procession of some 15,000 people took it to the cathedral. The numbers are stunning, indeed. In St Petersburg, an estimated one million people came to venerate the Belt in three days and nights, according to the local media. People stood in line for twelve to fourteen hours to be able to kiss the silver box containing the piece of camel wool fabric that the Church believes was woven and worn by the Virgin Mary, and take a small band blessed on the relic. In Yekaterinburg, it was 300,000, in Krasnoyarsk, 100,000. The relic’s already been to the Russian Far East… in Vladivostok, and the Far North… in Norilsk, beyond the Arctic Circle. Volgograd and Stavropol in the South are in the days to come. It’s hard to imagine what kind of crowds will gather in Moscow when, by the end of November, the relic arrives in the capital before leaving Russia for good.



Of course, many in the lines are women… the belt is believed to cure infertility. However, there aren’t only women. People come from other towns and cities, wait for hours, if not days, stand in usually calm prayerful lines… so unlike the lines in airports or Soviet-era lines for sausage. The other day, a colleague, whom I hadn’t suspected of particular religiosity, approached me asking about the dates when the Belt would be in Moscow. He’s certain to go and stand in line as long as it takes. People discuss, including in blogs and on social networks, whether it’s worth doing and what’s the meaning of it. Is it a sign of deep belief and special predisposition to holiness? Or, is it a remnant of paganism? How Christian is it, really? My answer… it’s all of the above. Moreover, veneration of, or respect for, or even hunting for various sorts of svyatyni is a core element of Russian religiosity. “Russia knew neither Reformation nor Counter-Reformation with their explanations, symbolic interpretations, and the uprooting of medieval idol-worshipping”, the famous Russian Christian scholar Georgi Fedotov wrote in his 1946 classic The Russian Religious Mind. “The Russian peasant, even in the 19th century, lived as if he were in the Middle Ages. Many foreigners have written that this people is the most religious in Europe. But in essence, it is more about various degrees of maturity rather than about substantial peculiarities of spirit and culture. The same historical factors have preserved the religious perceptiveness of the Russian people in the era of rationalism, while not touching the many pagan customs, cults, and even the pagan worldview both within the church and outside it”. Indeed, what was the original reason for building the Amiens Cathedral… the greatest medieval structure in Europe? It was the head of St John the Baptist… one of the thousands of relics that Crusaders plundered from the Christian East to move to the West. Today, not so many Roman Catholics come to Amiens for that. However, with the opening of the borders and globalisation, Orthodox Christians have begun to, and its Catholic custodians are happy to welcome the new pilgrims. Or, they come to Notre Dame de Paris on the first Friday of the month, when Christ’s Crown of Thorns is taken out for veneration… more than a half of the worshippers would be Orthodox, many of them… Russian.

Quite a few years ago, I spent about an hour in the back of the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, both praying and watching the multitude of people speaking all sorts of languages coming to the altar on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born. There was a group of American Protestant pilgrims, wearing identical t-shirts and badges with some Christian slogan on it. They spoke loudly, laughed, took pictures, and one merry couple even sat on the altar… certainly, not knowing it was the altar, or not knowing what it means… to have their picture taken. Shortly after them, came a group of Russian tourists, not even pilgrims. They were quiet. Women wore some awkward-looking head covers… they were clearly unprepared to be in church. They lit candles, made the sign of the cross, knelt before the star on the floor on the site of the Nativity. They weren’t your regular churchgoers, but they were full of awe before the svyatynya they were near. I remember thinking back then… these American Protestants came here with the purpose of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and they definitely knew a lot more about Christianity, including the Holy Scripture, than these Russian tourists. It isn’t simply part of their culture to understand… or to feel… what a holy place is.

For many people, the hunt for the holy is, of course, magic. A desire for a quick solution to their problems, or some solution, or, maybe, the first time they’d pray. Who knows? If the svyatynya came on tour from abroad, if access to it is limited one way or the other… so the more popular it would be. Eleven years ago, one of the first times a “touring holy” was in Moscow… it was the head of St Panteleimon the Healer, also from Mount Athos, I spent eight hours waiting in line to be able to venerate it. If someone had told me a day before that I’d be able to wait so long in line, I’d laugh in the person’s face. However, it was a very special line… it was easy to wait, easy to stand, people prayed all around you, and so did you. The line itself was a sort of liturgy, too. Closer towards the end of the line, sellers appeared walking along the line offering paper icons and brochures. “You can’t pray to the icons… it’s idolatry”, a teenage girl who I’d remembered standing behind me for hours now, told her friend, as if reciting from some Protestant literature. I couldn’t hold myself, turned back to her, and said, “If that’s what you believe, what’ve you been doing here for seven hours plus? Don’t you see that relics are, in essence, the same as an icon?” She was unsettled by the question at first. Then, her eyes glazed, and she said dreamily, “What if something happens?” She wanted a miracle too.

3 November 2011

Andrei Zolotov



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