I was originally going to post today about my first week in the city, getting settled in my apartment and internship, and getting to know Moscow. But something happened to me today that is just begging to be written about, so I will hold off momentarily on the horrors of my evening commute.
Anyway, today I decided to get out of the city and took the train to Сергиев Посад (Sergiev Posad,) to visit the Holy Trinity Lavra, a monastery that is one of the holiest places in Russia: it is considered “the center of Russian Orthodoxy” and is a major pilgrimage site. Last year it celebrated it’s 700th (!) anniversary and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But I did not travel there because I was particualrly interested in it as a spiritual or historical site (although it had quite a rich history, if you’re interested.) No, I went there mainly because it is featured in War and Peace, as the site where (spoilers!) Natasha Rostova is reunited with her former fiancé Prince Andrei after he is gravely wounded at the battle of Borodino.
I arrived at the monastery looking particularly Russian, as you can see, which may explain some of what followed.
I walked around for a while, and peeked into some of the cathedrals. Found the tomb of tsar Boris Gudonov, and considered getting in line for some holy water from the spring, but was dubious of its origin and decided against it. Then I saw the giant line of people waiting to get in to the Trinity Cathedral (the “heart” of the monastery, where, my guidebook said, the tomb of St. Sergei is located.) The line was pretty long, and it was was rather warm out, but I had just ridden an hour and a half from Moscow to get here, so I figured I might as well see everything. So I got in the back of the line.
So I waited in line. And waited. And waited. At one point, a woman handed me a small prayer book, which I noticed everyone around me appeared to be reading. So I tried to read it too, and found it extremely difficult. I then flipped to the back and found a small dictionary– apparently I had been trying to read Church Slavonic (or something like it.) I continued waiting in line, people-watching and questioning whether going into this cathedral was even worth it, for probably and hour. I finally made it up to the entrance of the cathedral, and that was when I noticed something was off. Plenty of tourists, it seemed, were just walking in and out of the cathedral willy-nilly– not waiting in line at all! And no one in line seemed annoyed by them. Something was up. Why was I in this line? But at this point I figured I’d waited this long, I might as well follow the line into the cathedral.
Finally, finally, I rounded the corner into the cathedral, and noticed everyone in front of my was picking up small candles from a desk. Not wanting to stand out, I did as well, although I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I was getting increasingly worried that I was about to make a huge fool of myself. We made our way into the cathedral proper, and I could see that the line I was in did, in fact, have a destination: a small raised platform in the back-right corner of the chapel, over which a priest was intoning something, with a group of women at times harmonizing in response. At this point, everyone in line started crossing themselves. Again, not wanting to blow my cover as an increasingly-confused tourist, I just crossed myself every time the woman in front of me did. I resolved to just follow her actions exactly, because at this point I was in too deep– I couldn’t leave the line without making a huge scene, and possibly deeply offending the hordes of babushkas around me. My guiding principle to a happy life in Russia is to not do things that anger the babushkas, and this has worked out for me so far.
So I surrendered to my fate, following the line and mimicking everything the woman in front of me did to the best of my ability. When she bowed, I bowed, when she lit a candle and placed it on this huge candle stand, I did as well, even though it resulted in me getting hot wax all over my hands. Finally we reached the little raised platform, and, continuing to mimic the woman in front of me, I crossed myself, knelt, touched my forehead to this sheet of glass on a raised gold structure, and, looking through the glass as I kissed it, realized that I had just waited in line an hour to kiss the tomb of St. Sergei.
I crossed myself a few more times for good measure and hightailed it out of there. And will be much more wary of the lines I get into in the future.