An Underground Museum

I had an enlightened conversation the other day with the young daughter of my wife’s best friend in Moscow. In her young age of only 15, she has had the great fortune of living abroad with grandparents in Canada for half a year, and so she has some perspective on her own motherland. Since all of her family members are practicing artists, it is not surprising that our discussion revolved around art. But art for a Russian means something different than for an American, or rather the people have a different relationship to art. For a Russian, paintings are not simply objects which are consigned to museums, available for an elite segment of society that can afford the time and money to develop a taste for “that sort of thing.” They are rather like windows to the soul of every Russian, companions to them along the way, and just as everywhere present in society as icons are ever-present in the churches. Continue reading

The Beauty of Language

IMG_5286June 6, Birthday of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

It has happened to me twice now, so there is no denying its power. We travel today to the Moscow Pushkin Museum on the anniversary of A. S. Pushkin’s birthday Jun 6, 1799 for a concert of poetry and music performed by children of the age of my own. The show begins with a recitation of the great author’s poetry. Just like several years ago when I came for the same event for the first time, I understood not a word of it. But just like then, I still could not help but weep for the beauty of it. Continue reading

Sochi on the Mind

Just getting ready to sit down as a family and watch the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony tonight in Sochi, Russia on the Black Sea. It is a long and often difficult road for any city to host a worldwide event like the Olympics, and we have personally traveled that road with Sochi. Went there several times as a family and blogged about it as well, for those interested in reading something else about this resort, seaside beauty besides Russia’s stance on homosexuality or difficulty with security. We can’t wait ourselves to see on TV how much they have built since we visited a few years ago.

The Tsar’s Car

July 4/17, 2013
Feast of the Royal Martyrs: Tsar-Martyr Nicholas, Tsaritsa-Martyr Alexandra, the Royal Crown Prince Alexis, the Grand-Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and those martyred with them.

On this family feast day of ours, I thought it fitting to share a few words of what the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas has meant to me personally. His heavenly intercessions have brought me from spiritual rags to heavenly riches and now I owe every breath to his pleading for me and my family before the throne of God. Continue reading

Learning a New Language and Culture

Some people have asked what it is like to learn another language or culture like the Russian language. I am not the best person to ask as I have only become assimilated enough to carry on a broken conversation for about 5-10 minutes by myself without my wife’s assistance. But still, I feel like there are a few good things to expect while planning to come to Russia.

The language is the first big challenge, but it is not as insurmountable as it might seem at first. Before considering any pilgrimage, a person has to reach deep within and ask, “Why am I going on this pilgrimage?” It is a question which ought not to be confused with the more selfish one, “What is in it for me?” since you are going on pilgrimage for others as much as for yourself, to intercede to the saints on their behalf.

When first learning the language, there are many helpful programs to listen to. Most recommend Rosetta Stone, but I personally like the Pimsleur Language Program, available in toto at the local library (I recommend the complete course in three parts, not the quick and easy versions). I listened to all 90 lessons one summer that we were in Russia for three months and it helped me break the sound barrier: that uncomfortable silence when someone asks a basic question in Russian and you don’t have anything to say for yourself.

At this point, someone might ask, “Why go to that trouble if you have someone to translate into English?” Certainly, this makes it easier for you the English speaker, but two things are lost in translation: 1) The directness of speaking to another person face to face, however faltering, without the help of an interpreter, and 2) The full attention of the person who agrees to translate. Just because someone knows how to speak two languages fluently does not necessarily mean they are good at translating from one into another; it is a skill all its own, and a worthwhile skill, but it requires work which the single-language speaker often takes for granted.

I remember the first time I met someone in Russia that I wanted desperately to speak to directly. Each one of the few words I knew were so pregnant with meaning. How surprised I am still by how much meaning can be packed into so few words. Like the apostle Paul who preferred to speak 5 intelligible words than 10,000 in an unknown, un-interpreted tongue, I think more is communicated by what is left unsaid than by what is said. The apostle John reminds us in his first epistle that people will know we are Christians by our love, not our words, and thankfully love is a universally understood language, spoken primarily through the eyes directly to the heart.

So, once you have mastered a battery of basic words and phrases, the second challenge is a much harder one and much more nuanced. It is the realization that everything you want to say and do in English doesn’t always translate well into Russian no matter what words you use. A good example is what we each consider the mark of highest praise for another person. For America, it might be a person’s sense of humor or that they know how to have a good time. For a Russian, someone who behaves like this at the outset of meeting him/her will make the other person conclude that he/she is a little crazy. For a Russian the highest note of praise is usually another person’s degree of seriousness, while the average American might want a very serious person to lighten up a bit before getting to know them better. In so many of these cultural comparisons, it is tempting to cast judgment in either direction, but I believe the Lord would have us be multi-cultural which means in this case refraining from judging the differences as better or worse. For us who are learning, they are just different; to make a right judgment, we really need more information or background.

Vive la difference as the French say. May our differences not only be allowed to exist, but may they teach us to suspend judgment until we expand the horizon of our understanding.

Arriving at Divyevo

Monday, July 3/16, 2012, M. Hyacinth

Today is our recovery day and a chance to catch up on emails and blog posts. Arrived early morning to Moscow and have been in the apartment ever since, just resting. The following is a first post of our trip to Divyevo:

Friday, June 30/July 13, 2012,  Synaxis of the 12 Apostles

We arrive early morning (5:30am) by overnight train and take a bus to Divyevo. On the way, we take a triple dip in one of the four holy springs surrounding St. Seraphim’s village of Divyevo. When we check in at our hotel at 8am, it feels already like the day has been spent.

Traveling as pilgrims with two young girls is a bit of an experiment for us. The hotel we are staying at for the next couple of nights is comfortable enough, but we travel all in one suitcase without the usual toys and games. One whole bag is dedicated to food and provisions for tea, as you never know on pilgrimage where and when to eat the next meal. So far our little pilgrims are doing well with an afternoon nap that we finally talked them into.

Almost finished with the St. Seraphim life, but I have not really been here long enough for a strong impression to form. We heard one general introduction to the monastery and its life, how St. Seraphim was invited by the Abbess Alexandra to be their father confessor and protector. Also, there is lots of talk about how Divyevo was chosen as the 4th place on earth especially dear to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary (the other three are Iberia (Georgia), Mount Athos, and Kiev). It makes me wonder why Jerusalem was not included, but perhaps it is because the Holy Land is a given, in a category all its own.

Still, it seems significant that two of the four places are in Mother Rus (Ukraine was originally part of the ancient kingdom). Questions still linger for me about why she chose Divyevo and why St. Seraphim is so special especially for Russians. I have my ideas, but we will see how the pilgrimage unfolds.

Eating Manna at the Monastery

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July 2/15, 2012, Placing of the Honorable Robe of the Most Holy Theotokos at Blachernae (5th cent.)

I always feel uncomfortable when someone asks about my favorite food in Russia, for like the Israelites in the desert, it is not so much about what’s on the menu as the relationship with the Provider. Manna, what the Israelites ate in the desert, literally means “What is it?” But a better question than this is, “Who gave it?” For in both cases of manna and monastery food, they clearly come from heaven.

At the Divyevo trapeza, the free one offered to all pilgrims, the menu never really changes: soup, bread, tea, and that ever useful, multi-purpose, everywhere present KASHA. True confession that I have never really liked kasha, probably because of its plainness. I probably have asked the disdainful question of the Israelites about it as well, “Just what exactly is it?” In America, its humility places it on the bottom of the breakfast menu. We really only know one kind of kasha, oatmeal, and no one but a health nut ever really orders it. Yet there is something about kasha which makes Russians love it, for among other things, it is ordinary food which gives strength and endurance to pilgrims.

Food, reminds the apostle Paul, does not bring us near to God. We are no better if we do not eat, or if we do eat (I Cor. 8:8). It is rather the setting or context that can help us in our salvation. Our family has never had a meal in a monastery that did not taste delicious because of how it was consecrated by love for God and prayer. The lives of the desert fathers and the record of the deplorable things they consumed testifies that God can indeed turn stones into bread.

While we in America obsess over the right restaurant or the perfect gourmet experience, we miss the point. Kasha, like the ancient Manna, directs our attention away from gourmet obsessions toward thankfulness for whatever God provides.