Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Pilgrimage to Holy Russia

Two weeks ago, on August 18, I left for an 11-day pilgrimage to Holy Russia with The Friends of Mount Athos, a charitable organization based in England and the United States. The president of the organization is Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, who led our pilgrimage.

Most of our group of about 60 was from the UK, but there were also about 5 Americans and 2 Danes. Interestingly, about a third of the group was not Orthodox, but are rather Catholics or Anglicans who are interested in Orthodoxy, its liturgy, art, monasticism, etc.

Early Wednesday afternoon, I arrived at the Thessaloniki airport for my flight to Moscow, and I was overwhelmed by this combination Greek-Russian experience. I was taking a discount Russian airline, and the line to check-in was the longest I've ever seen. Being a good American, I dutifully found the back of the line and assumed my place, almost 3 hours before take-off. About an hour later, I was surprised to find myself still the last person in line. Apparently, the other Greek and Russian passengers who arrived after me found the line to be too long for their liking, so they simply inserted themselves somewhere toward the front of it, thus forming a teeming mass.

When I complained to the airline officials, they had a puzzled look on their face and asked me where I was from. When I said the US, they laughed and said: "Well, Russian culture is a little different." Indeed.

When I finally was able to check in, I was then told to take my checked luggage and go stand in another line to have it screened at the one and only machine. Unbelievably, this line was even longer than the first. This time, however, a Russian friend I had made in line offered for me to join him in his place in line about halfway up. At this point, I considered it fair play.

Eventually, I made it to my gate about 10 minutes before boarding a packed flight to Moscow.

Fortunately, my plane arrived at exactly the same time as the group from the UK, so I was able to go with them in the coach to the Danilovsky Hotel, where we would stay during our time in Moscow. The hotel is part of the Danilovsky Monastery complex -- the photo above is of the entrance to the monastery.

The sprawling Danilovsky Monastery has recently, since 1983, served as the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery was founded in 1282 by the Holy Prince Daniel, son of St. Alexander Nevsky.

We arrived at the monastery/hotel in the evening and had dinner and a little free time. The next day, August 19th, was the Feast of the Transfiguration, according to the Old Calendar, which is used by the Russian Church. Most of us chose to attend the Liturgy at the monastery's Church of the Holy Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, pictured above. We attended the "early Liturgy," which began at 7:00 AM. As it was a weekday, it was very well attended by workers who came there on their way to work.

Metropolitan Kallistos told me that sometimes Russian monasteries will have as many as three liturgies on one day. St. Seraphim of Sarov, he noted, always attended the "early Liturgy." Many theologians today, most notably Metropolitan John Zizioulas, would object to this practice of multiple liturgies, inasmuch as the Liturgy is seen as the gathering "in one place" of the whole community of Christians of a given geographical area.

Interestingly, Metropolitan Kallistos told me that, from a pastoral perspective, he didn't see a problem with multiple liturgies, since--in practice--people attending Liturgy in a large city parish, for example, do not, by and large, know each other, and in fact modern city life is characterized by a great deal of depersonalization. It also allows more people, such as the workers attending that day's early Liturgy, to participate.

More photos of the monastery, taken from near the hotel. To the right in the photo above is the Church of the Resurrection, which celebrates not on Pascha (Easter), but on the feast of the dedication of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (September 13), as do--so I was told--all such churches in Russia.

The courtyard in front of our hotel, looking over to the monastery. The walls at the left of the photo mark the entrance to the monastery. The hotel technically lies just outside the monastery walls.

Looking back at the hotel.

Immediately after the early Liturgy, we hurried off to the Moscow river port, where we were to set off on a one-week river cruise on the Volga River, visiting the medieval cities and ancient churches and monasteries of the famous Golden Ring. Here is a map of the circle of cities we visited on the river to the northeast of Moscow. Above is a photo of the port, with many cruise boats lined up on the right. The communist-looking port station is on the left. Here is a link to our tour company's description and photos of our particular boat.

There had been a good deal of concern in the weeks and days leading up to our trip that we would have to cancel due to the raging fires around Moscow and the incredible smog in the area, which was so bad that people were having trouble seeing and breathing. Amazingly, though, the weather changed just a day or two before our trip, and temperatures plummeted from highs around 100 to daily highs around 70. During our whole trip, we did not even see any indication of the fires and smoke that had ravaged the country, and the weather was absolutely perfect.

Our boat left around lunchtime and set off for Uglich, which would be our first stop the next day. Although our rooms on the boat were rather small and spartan, traveling this way is wonderful. The river was very peaceful and the scenery we past was idyllic. Above and below is a photo of a bridge we went under. In the photo below, you can see some people on the bridge, so you get a sense of scale.

From Moscow, we first traveled along the Moscow canal, which has a series of locks built during the Soviet time. In the photo above, we are about to enter one of the locks.

Some of the scenery we passed on Thursday afternoon, our first full day in Russia.

For more photos from the first day, click here.

Look for more posts over the coming days.

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