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Monastery Stands the Test of Time

February 19, 1989|ELIZABETH CHRISTIE | Christie is a research assistant for the Moscow bureau of The Times

ZAGORSK, Soviet Union — Anthony, a traveling preacher from the Volinsky district on the outskirts of the Ukraine, held the crowd spellbound with his sermon.

Forceful but sensitive, he had a gentle face and a long scraggly beard. He wore a simple black cassock and held a large golden cross in his right hand.

As he spoke about the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, the need to strengthen one's faith and to practice charity, the crowd of listeners at Zagorsk Monastery grew and demanded that he continue preaching after he finished his sermon.

"I am leaving now, and I would ask you not to follow me," he said in a soft tone after repeated attempts to leave. But the crowd pushed closer and passed up money, ruble after ruble, trying to entice him to stay.

"Tell us more about television!" an older woman shouted.

Anthony then resumed his story about a young child who had sat, almost unmoving, in front of a television for two weeks. The boy was a victim of complacency, Anthony said, and thus was unable to take an active part in society. While so absorbed by television, a person cannot respond to his fellow man, Anthony added.

As a traveling preacher, Anthony comes from an old Russian Orthodox tradition that remains alive within the walls of Zagorsk Monastery.

Such traveling preachers are both a new concept and an old memory for the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union. Once a common profession, it almost died under past Soviet repression of religious teaching. But as they listened to Anthony, the people seemed to thirst for every word in a renewed desire for spiritual direction.

Almost Untouched by Time

Zagorsk, a manufacturing town 44 miles northeast of Moscow, surrounds the 14th-Century monastery where the Russian Orthodox Church recently celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in the Soviet Union. In preparation for the celebration, the churches and domes were repainted and the old cobblestone squares repaired.

On this day the golden cupolas glistened in the autumn sun. The birds sang, almost mimicking the church choir. From across a valley the large onion domes of the monastery's churches rose over the surrounding, fortress-like wall.

The monastery seems almost untouched by time. Crossing through the gate of one of the oldest functioning monasteries in the Soviet Union is taking a step into the past when the Russian Orthodox religion was at its height.

That was a time when the czar's children were baptized in Zagorsk's cathedrals and when every home, even the poorest peasant cottage, displayed a religious icon on a wall.

Pilgrimage to Monastery

Today Zagorsk draws the believers whose faith remains as strong as that of their ancestors, as well as Russians who are interested in the Orthodox faith but do not consider themselves religious. Zagorsk, a 1 1/2-hour drive from Moscow, also attracts many foreign tourists.

The religious citizens, most of them women and easily distinguished by their colorful scarfs, were enjoying the crisp autumn weather. Many babushkas, as the grandmothers of Russia are fondly known, sat on benches around Assumption Cathedral, built from 1559 to 1585, waiting for the afternoon service.

Other older women stood, knelt or sat by the church entrances reading the Bible.

Some younger women, in their 20s and 30s, joined in going through the monastery complex, stopping in front of each icon, blessing themselves many times in the Orthodox fashion. For the religious, visiting Zagorsk has become almost a pilgrimage.

The non-religious and the tourists stood back, fascinated but with a reverence of their own as they watched Russian religious tradition somewhat repressed under Soviet rule.

Flowing Holy Water

At the small Well Chapel, built in 1684 beside Assumption Cathedral, the younger visitors who had held back from blessing themselves and kneeling before the icons joined the religious to collect holy water flowing out of a black marble crucifixion.

The line was long and the wind cold, but dozens of people waited their turn to get into the chapel and fill their glass jars, which had previously held sour cream or pickled cucumbers, with the holy water. Unlike the lines outside crowded Moscow stores, the people were orderly and patient.

Once inside, the warmth of many bodies and lit candles was a relief from the biting wind. Some took the holy water on faith, drinking it on the spot and filling their jars to take more home. Others took it perhaps out of superstition or novelty.

For young Russians, who increasingly are rediscovering their national heritage and cultural traditions, and for foreign tourists discovering the treasures of Russia, the beauty and tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church is alluring.

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