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1508 PD: Reporting to you from Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia

Mike Gangwer Published on 16 October 2008

In this third installment of my assignment in Russia, I write of a single day of visiting Russian monasteries.

I was given one day off while working here, a Sunday, and so my linguist, a medical doctor and I began our tour using a Russian automobile, of course.

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In the many years of writing this column, I have often written of religion in many parts of the world. Six years ago I wrote about visiting churches in Novgorod, Russia, and an especially memorable event to one orphanage where I climbed a bell tower. I rang the bells there. I have never forgotten that afternoon.

This time, in Yaroslavl, my hosts are taking me on a whirlwind tour covering nearly 200 kilometers in one day. We enjoyed a sunny, warm and enjoyable trip. My hosts eagerly showed me nearly ten monasteries, including dinner with a monsignor.

The term monastery means a community gathering place generally administered by monks and sisters bound by religious life. At certain time periods, monasteries were closed to the general public. Those living within these walled structures led private and inward lives, devoting their minds to exploring and contemplating all that God was, is and will forever be.

At other times, the monasteries not only in Russia but also in Europe became safe havens during war and civil strife. Many downtrodden city and farm people found refuge in these castle-like buildings. And once inside, were assigned chores and duties, thus earning their place. The refuge included a place where infants and babies were dropped at the front door, so to speak. In fact the monasteries of Yaroslavl proudly note in their history the resting stop for many orphans during hard times.

One must, as I have, realize that without these wayposts in the vast landscape that is Russia, many souls would have been lost. Imagine that very cruel times are upon us, and a mother must abandon her youngest children. She knows that inside these great walls there is safety and solace. In fact she knows in all likelihood she will not ever see these children again. But they have life, and will have a life once times turn better. This very story was drilled into me upon every visit. We should never forget that abandoning your children is less difficult than failing to do so, knowing they may be injured or killed in war.

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In all of Europe this story is told, especially during World War II. Great movies have shown this story, and epic books of suffering have been written. The Russian people have and are coming to terms with their history, and I found this sad and tragic history of war made brighter in the work of restoring the monasteries.

Largely the work is funded by private funds. Many benefactors find themselves helping financially so history can be saved. Young people visiting these monasteries are reminded of war, of sacrifice, of abandonment, and of transformed lives. Such a reminder carries with it the admonishment that never again should it be repeated.

Let me write about three monasteries that are particularly memorable.

The first one is Spaso-Preobrazhensky (Transfiguration of the Savior) Monastery. This monastery is actually part of a Kremlin, a walled fortress, surrounding many buildings that once had a population of 2,500 people. Interestingly, the monks own several hundred hectares of farm land and a herd of livestock including milk cows. Bordering the Volga River, the monastery has a fishery as well, and small orchards of apples and grapes are near the river banks.

During my visit, three monks were recounting the history of this famous Kremlin monastery, captured on videotape and destined to be made into a movie. The purpose was clear: that history is recorded and the history is correct. My hosts and I climbed to the highest reaches of the monastery. We spent time there without any words. Indeed, none were necessary as we gazed out across the vastness of a rural countryside. I found myself thinking like a monk; what a grand place to contemplate life and attempt to find oneself in the simplest constructs of composing a meaningful life. I was so happy. I asked this question all day: what is the meaning of life? The monks replied, “There is no meaning until you yourself bring meaning to your life.” And so it is that one does while composing our lives day after day.

Another monastery nearer the town of Yaroslavl was St. Nicholas. A much smaller monastery and this one did not have a Kremlin surrounding it. The building was nearly destroyed by war two different times. Yet today workers climb fragile scaffolds every day and rebuild this place. As I walked in, the dust particles of very old concrete and mortar hung in the air. The icons here are leavened with gold. Hundreds of candles light the darkness and old women keep a watchful eye that all who enter are respectful, humble and soft-spoken.

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My final visit of the day was Abramiyev Bogojavlensky Monastery in Rostov. The entire Monastery and related buildings burned to the ground just a short ten years ago. But it has been completely rebuilt, and today, houses a hundred young men studying for a life of servitude and dedication. Upon graduation, these young men will be dispersed across the countryside to carry on the pilgrimage of being a monk. This is a voluntary journey. They have nearly turned their lives away from the life we know, and now serve and search for God. I was struck by their determination and their willingness to enter this kind of life.

We toured the large complex, including visiting the dormitory where the young men called home. They showed me their desks, their books and their simple gathering of clothes. This is all they needed. I did find one music box playing in the cafeteria, and the music fit the grand hall as I entered it.

Greeting us was the monsignor and his staff. “Welcome, and will you stay for dinner?” “Yes.”

And so we ate Russian soup (a staple in their diet) some fresh bread, a salad of freshly picked greens, a meat dish (I did not know what animal gave its life for) and then tea. We talked about life in the West and life here, among the walls of this new monastery.

Then without much notice, the monsignor gathered my hand in his, and he took me to his office. There, he showed me a table top with at least a dozen photographs covered with glass. He told me about his family. They were soldiers and one served on a submarine. Most lost their lives during WW II, and his father died fighting the Germans just days before Christmas, 1943. The collection of photos included young people. With smiles and bright dress, they are students or they are working in Moscow. All have chosen a life away from the military and none chose to serve as monks in a monastery.

Yet he grew proud of them all, and in his own way, brought meaning to his life every time he entered this office with his family near.

I have found this day of monastery visits much like many others as I travel the world. They are, like churches and other spiritual places across the vast cultures of our time, places where we may visit and discover that indeed, we are all very similar at the very core of what it means to be human.

As pilgrims, we bring meaning to our lives every time we enter these sacred places. And when we depart as well. PD

Mike Gangwer
USDA Adviser

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