Bishop Michael Ingham is on sabbatiacal till Advent. He has visited several places, including Russia. These are exerpts from a report of his travels he has written and shared.
|Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow|
Moscow is built in rings or circles, so you get a sense of approaching the inner sanctuary as you move further in, and this is reflected in the brightness of the streets and the state of the buildings. By the time we hit the centre I was awed by the spectacle of a magnificent, dazzling city. Glittering shops, crowded sidewalks, glimpses of illuminated spires and towers between the elegant imperial buildings of Tverskaya Boulevard, and slowly my sense of excitement began to build.
|Bishop Michael Ingham at Red Square|
Entering Red Square for the first time was unforgettable. Mid-morning mist partially veiled the onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, the sun breaking through behind, making a surreal landscape of ghostly spires rising out of the vast cobbled plaza that curves away - they say, like the earth itself. It was a day of total wonder. Having prayed and planned for so long to get here, it felt like a dream come true.
Our little group started out by walking through the quarter where Napoleon's troops were barracked after the taking of Moscow in 1812. After a vodka night, we were told, the soldiers went on a rampage during which they were joined by disillusioned Muscovites, also into the vodka. Together they started a fire that burned down the city. A huge inferno wiped out not only all the wooden buildings but also the entire food supply. The French troops were faced with a Russian winter without food, so they ate their horses. And shortly afterwards Napoleon made them walk home back to France, leaving behind everything they couldn't carry - including thousands of cannon, now on display in the Kremlin Museum.
It took two and a half hours to get 75 kilometers to Zagorsk, or as it is now known, Sergeiev Possad, the town of St. Sergius. Here is one of the most important sites in the Orthodox tradition-a large walled monastery, similar in layout to the Kremlin, housing several hundred monks including many who come from all over the world to stay for a brief time. ...We were met by a little old lady with keys to the various churches, and so I was able to go where few other pilgrims did inside some of the glorious old buildings.
Four or five cathedrals lie inside the grounds, each with a link to a czar or prince and built to commemorate some dramatic event in Russian history. Ivan the Terrible gave money for one, Peter the Great another, and the Empress Catherine another. Sergius had been a simple 15th century monk who gained fame by predicting victory over the Muslim Tatars and as a spiritual counsellor to the mighty and powerful - though he kept his distance from them, living well away from Moscow - and impressed the local people too with his piety.
The walls are adorned with icons. Rublev (pronounced Rubl-off) created several for this monastery alone, though most are now in museums in Moscow. They tell the story of Sergius, his early piety as a child, his encounter with the Virgin Mary (who vowed to protect his monastery - and only Stalin was ever able to close it down for a time) and his life of prayer and work as a hermit. Thousands of visitors make it a place of pilgrimage. Long lines waited patiently to kiss his coffin in which are the miraculously preserved remains.
|Architectural ornamentation at the Kremlin|
I made my way back to Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral, the one with the crazy coloured onion domes. What a disappointment inside. Some French nobleman in the 18th century dismissed it as a 'confectionary box' and I could see why. Marzipan stripes on the narrow walls and passageways, and garish pastel smears on the low ceilings. Actually, I couldn't find a church inside and wondered if I was on the wrong floor, but the place is just a small museum, not a functioning church. Icons stand on display for curiosity rather than for prayer, and the largest spaces in the cramped inner quarters are taken up with souvenir stalls.
During the Soviet era many churches were destroyed or turned over to other purposes. In recent years they have become museums or been given back to the Orthodox church, but I suppose this presents huge challenges to the church in practical terms. The cost of repairs and restorations is simply staggering. And while most Russians seem to regard the church with great respect, and use the buildings a lot for private devotions such as remembering the dead, they don't go to church in great numbers, and young people in particular don't put much stock in [some of] the church's teachings...
The Orthodox Church sees itself as a guardian of the people over against successive political oligarchies and brutal dictatorships. And the culture too. The people respond to it with affection and loyalty, though doctrinal belief is something else. The Patriarch is clearly a powerful man. Russia's history has often turned on a power struggle between the czar and the patriarch, and after the fall of communism the church has returned with strength to its historic role in the nation. It is striking that the most photographed and visited buildings (by both tourists and Russians themselves) are churches.
The message here is that empires may rise and fall, but the Church of Jesus Christ goes forward and outlasts them all.