20 October 2016

Return to Sergiev Posad

Sergiev Posad, Dormition Cathedral, photo by Jean and Nathalie (Flickr); some rights reserved.
The summer of 1975 was transformative for me. About a year earlier, I had received a legacy of about $10,000 from my mother's parents in Germany, most of which I used to pay for three years of my tuition at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Most of the remaining dollars went into my adventures of that summer of 1975.

I spent most of the summer in Mendenhall, Mississippi. Thirty years later I wrote about those months with Voice of Calvary. As I say at the end of that blog entry, as soon as my Mississippi service ended, I took off for the Soviet Union.

Now it's been four decades since that visit to the Soviet Union, but I still remember it vividly. Last week, thanks to a New Humanities Institute field trip, I had a chance to return to the site of one of the most powerful and formative experiences I had back in 1975.

On Wednesday of last week, our busload of Institute colleagues and students drove to Sergiev Posad, just a couple of hours away from Elektrostal, and then to the nearby artists' colony at Abramtsevo. I loved both destinations, but my memories were associated with the first of our destinations, Sergiev Posad, where the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius is located, and which I was seeing again after 41 years.

Some background: There was actually a logical link between the two parts of my 1975 adventures. I went to Voice of Calvary in Mississippi as the result of a cancellation. My short-term service there was arranged through the American Friends Service Committee, who in those years offered a program of workcamps and service opportunities. When I first learned of these opportunities, I was a Soviet area studies major at Carleton, and a newly minted Quaker.

The AFSC menu included the so-called Tripartite Dialogues. These events combined seminars and travel; participants included young adults from the U.K., the USA, and a Soviet youth committee, and the Dialogues took place alternately among the three countries. 1975 was to be Russia's turn. I got in touch with Laurama Pixton of the AFSC office in Philadelphia, and signed up eagerly to participate -- only to find out that, because the Soviets had decided to dedicate their resources and energy to the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tripartite series was not going to continue after all.

Laurama Pixton did not want me to give up on the AFSC's service opportunities, so she put me in touch with Nancy Duryea, who worked with the AFSC's youth programs. Thanks to Nancy, I found out about Voice of Calvary, whose summer internship program was one of AFSC's partners. When the Soviet door closed, the Mississippi door opened -- but I just couldn't quite give up on seeing the Soviet Union for myself. Into the brief period between the end of the Mendenhall period and the start of the new academic year I squeezed two weeks of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

That's how I found myself staying for ten days in the Mozhaiskaya hotel on the western edge of Moscow (actually, back in 1975 it was really in the country), going into downtown Moscow every day on the hotel's free shuttle bus to see the sights. I was eager to find out more about church life in the USSR, so I signed up for an excursion to the city of Zagorsk (the Soviet-era name for Sergiev Posad), to see the center of Russian Orthodox life and education. At that time, the Patriarch's offices were in that famous Trinity monastery, along with one of the three Orthodox seminaries that had been allowed to continue functioning in the USSR.

Our excursion bus to Zagorsk was overseen by a young English-speaking woman who worked for Intourist, and who gave us an excellent talk on the architectural and historical significance of Trinity-St. Sergius. When we reached the entrance of the beautiful Dormition Cathedral, we walked from the bright sunshine into the candle-lit glow of the church -- and to our delight, the liturgy was in progress. I had an immediate sensation of being in another Kingdom, not under the control of the Soviet authorities but almost in another dimension.

Swept into this emotional state, I didn't notice right away that one of my fellow tourists was, innocently, about to cause a commotion. She had raised her camera with a flash attached, and a couple of the worshippers were hastening toward her to stop her before the flash might disrupt the service. In turn, a police officer intercepted them, telling them not to interfere with the tourists. I overheard one of them tell the policeman, "We know our rights."

Ottawa, February 1975.
By then I had recovered just enough of my wits to go over to the tourist with the camera and explain the situation: "Please don't use the flash." I then turned around and found myself directly in front of an elderly monk, who enfolded me in a big hug, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I can still feel his beard. Up to that point in my travels, I was feeling pretty lonely in the USSR, thousands of miles from anyone I knew personally, and traveling independently -- but at that moment I felt the opposite of alone.

That instant of connection opened a realization that has never left me. I knew that wherever I might be in the household of faith, literally anywhere in the world, I was among family. Last week I was able to stand in that very spot once again and give thanks for my sometimes crazy and always beautiful global family whose bonds are the golden threads of grace.

Reading Jim Forest's article "Getting From There to Here," revised just yesterday, is what led to these reminiscences.

What did Russia's leading news agency tweet during the final USA presidential debate?

Russia's first monument to Ivan the Terrible; one reaction: "Sacrilege."

Reclaiming evangelism. My question: what specific insights might we glean for Friends?

Will Hutton: As political discourse descends into rage ...
The issues are never going to be settled conclusively: it is impossible to found a society entirely on libertarian individualism; but equally to overstress the role of the public realm in securing the common good has parallel hazards. You respect your intellectual or political adversary because you know you don’t hold a monopoly on truth – and if they are any good, they feel the same way. Battle is joined, and if common ground emerges you are ready to acknowledge it.

Most politicians of left and right in advanced democracies feel similarly. Conviction and personal life stories have led to a series of decisions that have got them elected as liberals or conservatives. But if they have any self-knowledge they know that their opponents have their own integrity and want outcomes that promote human betterment and merit respect. There may even be issues on which common cause can be made.

"No hatred will be tolerated."

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