Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Brief Return

Hi everybody! It's been a while, but I'm back—or rather I'm in the same place I have been all semester, that is, Jordanville. As many of you may know, I'm in my fourth year. As some of you who have been seminarians in Jordanville may know, the fourth year is considered by some to be the year of искушение—temptation. It is said that this is the year in which seminarians have the most work to do, in which they feel the most emotional pressure, and in which they might even wish to leave the seminary, though they are so near the end of their student careers here. I have not been exempt from the infamous troubles which haunt those seminarians in my year.

The first of my искушение seemed harmless but ultimately could have made life very different for me now, and for you, as my readers. During the summer music school this year, I learned of a position in Chicago chanting at a certain parish. I was drawn to this opportunity to make some money to pay back my student loans (from when I attended the University of Hawaii), but ultimately I realized that I had better finish what I'd started here at the seminary before moving on to other, very different occupations in life.

Moreover, there are all the regular temptations to be found around the seminary: the urge to gorge oneself on meat, which develops after protracted periods of deprivation from such fare, the desire to sleep in past 5:30 in the morning (my snooze alarm and I have become well acquainted), and the wish to read through the prayers in the cathedral so fast, at times, that "Gospodi pomiluy" begins to sound like "GOS-pmph, GOS-pmph, GOS-pmph..." But these are the types of challenges that can easily be faced when a person takes the days one at a time, and tries to act sincerely in every part of a daily routine.

So though the fourth year is bound to present me with more challenges and its own unique brand of temptations, I am sure that with your prayers and with the help of my fellow seminarians here I will make it through—and I will be able to lay back and enjoy my senioritis next year in peace!

Ghostwritten by Sophia Urusova, girlfriend. :) Mwahahahaha!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Catching Up

My neighborhood.

After an interval of 15 months, I am finally back in my native land. I was sitting in the lawn of my family home, sheltered by the shade of the octopus tree, when I realized that I had not updated my blog since June. Of course, that needs to be rectified.

I spent most of my summer working part-time in the bookstore. I was in the bookstore for only about twenty hours a week, so I wanted to do something more with my time. I ended up helping Fr. Cyprian reorganize the many, many, MANY keys he has to hundreds of doors in the monastery and seminary. I also started to cook the monastery dinners on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a task which was mostly stress-free because dinner at Jordanville usually involves reheating lunch and maybe making a little bit more salad. I've been using my time in the kitchen to experiment with cooking. After all, one has few opportunities to have at one's fingertips a professional-grade kitchen (complete with a giant stick blender) and a group of diners who are willing to eat almost anything.

Meanwhile, I interacted with both the summer boys and the students of the Summer School of Liturgical Music. There were fewer summer boys this year so I hardly noticed them, but I saw the music people every day for the space of about two weeks since I was auditing typikon classes at the music school. I learned quite a bit about the order of divine services, including more about the Biblical Odes than most people need to know.

I also went to a couple of weddings. My friends Anthony and Bridget married each other in late July, a pleasant wedding with catered barbecue and country music. I got seated with some old Jville friends and had a great time. Three weeks later, I went to the wedding of my friends Alex and Juliana Cooley. But that deserves another blog post. In between the weddings I went to St. Vladimir's Memorial Church in Jackson, NJ for the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus. It was a business trip, just like the one we took last year, but we sold quite a bit more due to the increased number of people.

Last weekend's activities were packed like sardines. First I went to Boston for a meeting with my editor, an event very cleverly disguised as a date. It helped that my editor is also my girlfriend. I then took a bus to Albany for the Cooliana wedding, and went back to Jordanville Sunday night. On Monday morning, I went to Syracuse for my trip to Hawaii. I hope to write about my trip in the several weeks to come, since I plan to be doing more than just sitting around and eating pineapples all day.

A Muddy Liturgy

I woke up on top of my bed in a bright room; I had fallen asleep without turning off the light. I fell unconscious again.

It was a little before six. Groggily I dragged myself out, got dressed, and walked out the door. Fr. Ephraim was standing in the lounge with the summer boys. "John, do you want to come with us to the woods for an English liturgy?" I figured, what the hey.

The Summer Youth Program is a great opportunity for young men to spend three weeks at Jordanville to get a taste of the quiet life of the monastery, do fun things and have spiritual discussions, and also do hard labor build character. It was a small group of five teenage boys. We piled into the big white van and drove up to the lakeside chapel, only to get stuck in the mud. We had to walk the rest of the way to the chapel.

It had been raining hard the past few days. Thankfully we're on high ground, but the people in Herkimer and Utica have had a tough time with flooding. It has gotten so bad that during the liturgy prayers are offered beseeching an end to the rain.

We walked about a third of a mile in the mud and wet grass, to the small stone chapel, with a grayish, weather-beaten wooden roof. A score of people filled the interior. Fr. Luke was serving at the tiny altar. The interior of the chapel is partially frescoed, with prominent icons of both St. John of Rila and St. John of Kronstadt, after whom the chapel is named. The singing was mostly in English, and was sung by some local women and a novice nun. The nun in question was dubbed "the coolest nun ever" by one of the boys because of the bright red galoshes she wore.

The English liturgies at the chapel are done on average once a week, but the schedule is erratic and is known only through word of mouth. But I highly recommend it, especially to English-speaking pilgrims.

Pierre Bezukhov (Part III)

After Pierre introduces Andrei and Natasha, they quickly fall in love and get engaged. However, Andrei’s strict father, Prince Nikolai, is suspicious of the union and makes Andrei wait a whole year until the wedding (they did things quicker in 19th century Russia). Andrei also made the engagement secret, so Natasha would be free to break it off without social repercussions. Andrei then went abroad to recuperate from his old war wounds.

Natasha, who was staying in Moscow with her family, then encounters Anatole, Pierre’s brother-in-law. Although Anatole got secretly hitched in a shotgun wedding to a Polish woman, he didn’t consider it an impediment and tried to seduce Natasha, convincing her to elope with him. Natasha fell in love with Andrei, but she fell in lust with Anatole. Pierre’s wife Hélène, knowing that Natasha was engaged, encouraged Anatole’s depravation, and the plan nearly succeeded until the very last minute when Anatole and his lackey were found out. The damage was already done: Natasha had already sent a letter to Andrei breaking off their engagement, and blinded by her feelings for Anatole became hostile to everyone. She finally became heartbroken when she found out that Anatole was married all along.

Pierre then comes into the picture. Before he left, Prince Andrei told Natasha to go to Pierre just in case anything was wrong, because “he’s absent-minded, but he has a heart of gold.” Pierre comforts Natasha, who thinks of herself as a ruined woman, despite not having yet done anything. Having lost both Andrei and Anatole, she feels unworthy of love. Pierre says differently. He declares to her: “If I were not myself, but the handsomest, cleverest, and best man in the world, and were free, I would this moment ask on my knees for your hand and your love!” From those words feelings awoke in Pierre which he did not realize before. Going home, he sees a comet in the sky—a portent of the coming chaos of 1812. The peace-loving Pierre was about to be enveloped in the horrors of war.Natasha, though relieved by Pierre’s words, still struggled through a long illness and depression. As for Pierre, he gradually fell in love with her, though because of his marriage did not act on his feelings. Nevertheless, he still thought things like: “Well, supposing N. N. swindled the country and the Tsar, and the country and the Tsar confer honors upon him, what does that matter? She smiled at me yesterday and asked me to come again, and I love her, and no one will ever know it.”

His love for Natasha, the coming war with Napoleon, and his Freemasonry all converge together in a rather humorous passage in which he works out the meaning of the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation. L’Empereur Napoleon, if the French alphabet had numerical values like the Hebrew, adds up to 666. Pierre calculates using various names, like L’Empereur Alexandre and La nation russe, before using his own name in various combinations, such as Comte Pierre Besouhoff, Le russe Besuhof and so forth, before finally fudging his own name (and French grammar) to get L’russe Besuhof, which also added up to 666 and made him feel like he, like Napoleon, was predestined for some kind of great act, which would “lift him out of that spellbound, petty sphere of Moscow habits in which he felt himself held captive and lead him to a great achievement and great happiness.”

This Pierre, in the summer of 1812, is very different from when we first encountered him in 1805. As a young man Pierre led a dissipated life in which he had no idea what to do in life and ended up being turned this way and that by the people around him. When he got married and went through the sufferings of a cheating wife and a brush with death, he got a little serious and committed himself to the causes of Freemasonry and philanthropy. Though he still leads a dissipated life, he has a burgeoning love for Natasha. He’s a little better than the beginning, in terms of being an active rather than a passive character. But he has to learn his last, painful lessons through the horrors of the war to come. In the summer of 1812, Napoleon invades Russia and “war began, an act opposed to human reason and to human nature.” The French take Smolensk (which ends up getting burnt down) and threaten Moscow, leading to the great battle of Borodino. Pierre visits the battlefield out of curiosity, but ends up getting caught up in the conflict. Before the battle, he meets up with his old friend, Prince Andrei, and has one last meeting, which both knew would be their last; Andrei is wounded in battle, and dies after a long struggle. When the battle begins, Pierre is at first observing, but soon begins to participate, starting with carrying ammo for the troops. His fancy hat and coat and his demeanor amuse the rank-and-file soldiers, but his persistence in the heat of battle win their admiration and respect for “the master,” as they call him at first mockingly, then endearingly.

Borodino soon turned into a slaughterhouse for both the Russians and the French. Pierre sees his new compatriots die violent deaths one by one. The French keep sending in troops and cannonballs, but the Russians hold their position despite the heavy bombardment. In the chaos he ends up in a desperate altercation with a French officer. “Am I taken prisoner or have I taken him prisoner?” both the Frenchman and Pierre thought to themselves as they gripped each other, the stalemate broken by a closely-fired cannonball. Pierre manages to escape, but not without becoming traumatized by what transpired that day. The French move to capture Moscow, but their wounds at Borodino would prove fatal.

Upon his return to Moscow, Pierre starts acting erratically, and he becomes convinced based on his obsessions with fate and numerology that he, L’russe Besuhof, was destined to end the evil of the Antichrist, Napoleon. He hides out in the house of his old mentor, Osip, and acquires a peasant’s outfit and a pistol. His plan was to assassinate Napoleon as soon as he entered Moscow in triumph.

Several incidents weaken Pierre’s resolve. First, he inadvertently saves the life of French captain from getting shot by a madman. Second, in his wanderings through the deserted and burning city of Moscow, he ends up saving the life of a small child and defends an Armenian woman from a French soldier-turned-robber. For his pains, he is arrested by the French, and having found the pistol on him, is almost executed. He witnesses the brutal execution of suspected “arsonists” accused of setting fire to buildings in Moscow. He is locked up in pitiful circumstances. He is forced to march a long time and is subjected to all kinds of deprivations.

Yet far from breaking his spirit, these difficulties served to purify Pierre’s soul, giving him a new sort of freedom, the freedom that comes from having inner peace, which he had sought in so many ways: “He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of town life, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning—and all these quests and experiments had failed him.” By suffering deprivation, Pierre learned that the simple pleasures of life, such as having good food and basic hygiene, were the most essential elements of earthly happiness, with anything in excess often becoming a hindrance. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, who realized that pursuit of wealth, glory, and pleasure were in the end paths to vanity. Pierre realizes through his time as a prisoner of war that the freedom that he had was precisely what prevented him from achieving happiness.

Pierre also has a second mentor, after Osip: a simple peasant-soldier named Platon Karataev, whom he met as a fellow prisoner. Platon’s words mainly consist of old folk sayings and stories. His prayers are simple: for example, each night he would ask God to “lay me down like a stone, and raise me up like a loaf.” It was Platon’s simplicity and love in the midst of imprisonment which had a great impact on Pierre. For Platon, life “ had meaning only as part of a whole of which he was always conscious. His words and actions flowed from him as evenly, inevitably, and spontaneously as fragrance exhales from a flower.” Thus, Pierre reaches an epiphany. After a long march, he starts laughing:

“Ha-ha-ha!” laughed Pierre. And he said aloud to himself: “The soldier did not let me pass. They took me and shut me up. They hold me captive. What, me? Me? My immortal soul? Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!…” and he laughed till tears started to his eyes.
Pierre realizes here that true freedom comes from within, and what’s more, everything is connected with everything else in a mysterious way, and somehow a man encompasses all of it. Looking up to the stars, he says: “And all that is me, all that is within me, and it is all I!” Through this he—and Tolstoy—come close to the Patristic teaching that Man is a kind of microcosm of all creation; indeed, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite states paradoxically that Man is indeed a macrocosm within the microcosm of creation, because of the superiority of the human being created in the image of God.

Platon dies on the way, being shot by the French because he was too ill to go further. Pierre is freed by some partisan fighters, and when he gained his new found freedom he became a different person. Though he remained the same absent-minded intellectual, he became overcome with a kind of “happy insanity” in which he would love others not for any reason, but merely because they existed. Through this experience of love, Pierre had “grown so clean, smooth, and fresh—as if he came out of a Russian bath [banya]…out of a moral bath…” as Natasha put it after she reunited with Pierre. In the end, Pierre marries Natasha, his wife having died because of mysterious circumstances. His life begins anew, and he becomes tied down—happily—with his new wife, who will not even let him look at another woman without flying into a jealous rage. Like the biblical Job, he is rewarded for his endurance in patience, and achieves external happiness as well as—most importantly—inner tranquility. As Plato once said, “Call no man a hero unless he has conquered himself.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What I Saw in Russia: Postscript

I left Russia nearly three weeks ago. The whole experience almost feels like a dream to me. It’s hard to put into words what one feels during a trip to a strange land—all the unexpected sights and sounds, the novelty of travel—and I tried my best to describe what I saw in this series of posts.

The Russia trip has affected me on multiple levels.

First, as a singer, I realized that I had to step up my game; I was one of only two basses in our small choral group, so our mistakes stood out. I have a long way to go, but the trip has taught me what it means to be a confident singer able to lead in one’s vocal part.

Second, as a pilgrim, all the holy sites and especially the many crowds amazed me. Orthodoxy is thriving in Russia, despite the many decades of persecution. I can’t say that the situation in the Russian Church is perfect, but as long as there are devoted laymen and at least a few good shepherds, whatever problems may come up can be overcome.

Third, as a traveler, I mostly learned what not to do (turn in all of one’s papers before going abroad, for example). Also, I traveled with a very good group. We were all friends, but I got to know everyone a bit better, quirks and all. I’m sure that they learned a lot more about “Seminarian John” than they ever wanted to!

I hope you enjoyed reading these posts as much as I enjoyed writing them. The summer here in Jordanville is long, but it will be well-spent. A new post will not be long in coming!

Update: I guess I lied.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 8

At the convent, we said our last good-byes to Nicky, Alix, and Nastia. It would be the last time I would see any of them until perhaps after summer. And the last time I would see Nicky as a bachelor. Nastia said, “John! You are a REAL bass!” After everything that happened that week, I took it as high praise.

We left our bags at the convent and changed into street clothes. The girls were relieved because they were finally able to get out of their long concert dresses. “It’s so hot! How can you walk around in black dresses all day?!?” Natalia had said to me more than once on Saturday.

Everyone’s flight (except mine) was relatively early in the morning, so the idea was to say out all night and enjoy Moscow before taking off. As for me, I wanted to fly standby to be with everyone else. Besides, I wanted to enjoy some free time after all the hustle and bustle.

Photo: Irene. All others by Alika (except when noted).

Our initial goal was Gorky Park. We were led by Irene, an American acquaintance of mine from San Francisco. We walked from the convent, going in the direction of Christ the Savior Cathedral, and went over a bridge to a park. On the metal trees on the bridge there were quite a few locks, some of them heart-shaped. Apparently there arose a superstition that if you put your names on a lock and put it on a tree, your marriage would last.

Alika is a pretty good photographer.

In the park we saw some people playing with fire. To be exact, they were fire-dancing, something more likely to be seen in Polynesia than in Moscow. Some of them were pretty good, others looked like they were just starting out.

David: “Have you touched the water? It feels like a base!”

We walked through the streets of Moscow. It wasn’t exactly New York, but it did have a gritty, big-city feel to it. There were several large nightclubs which seemed to be competing on how many decibels they could produce (I imagine people had to sign waivers at the door). We also passed by probably the ugliest statue we had ever seen, one of Peter the Great atop a bunch of stacked ships reminding me of the game Jenga. Rumor has it that the statue used to be one of Christopher Columbus, until the original client refused the sculptor’s offer. The sculptor then switched heads and said it was Peter.

From Wikipedia. Yep. Kinda looks like Columbus.

Just hanging out, with a giant church in the background. Photo: Irene

When we made it to Gorky Park through a rather ambling path, we found most everything closed and the area not very hospitable to a group of eight young American tourists. We took leave of our guide. And then we tried to think of what to do next. Thankfully we found the nearest Shokoladnitsa, an all-night café-bar. I ordered a mojito, and we had time to think out what to do next. Poor Matthew kept looking for wi-fi, which everyone seemed to be able to connect to except for him.

The Kremlin at night.

We then did a bit more wandering about, and it seemed that ever fifty paces or so we would walk by a church. We went to another café and went back to the Kremlin. There we found a 24-hour Planet Sushi. Planet Sushi happened to be one of those restaurants at which we could eat for free, so we (the ones who were still awake) jumped at the chance to eat there.

By this time most of our party was pretty tired and collapsing in their seats, so for the most part the sushi was split between Cooley and me. We got several platters of sushi and sashimi. I also had a bowl of chicken ramen, which was so-so.

“Hey Meri, there’s a lox and cream cheese roll,” I said.

“Really!?” Meri perked up at the mention of her favorite food. She took a bite, and her eyes sparkled.

4 am sushi!

Overall, the food was actually really good, especially considering that Moscow is nowhere near the ocean. It certainly beat any sushi joint near Jordanville! To be honest I was getting a little grumpy but the sushi made up for everything.

By the time we finished it was approaching sunrise. We paid our bill with the gift card we had and set out for Red Square, which was almost completely empty. As we walked past Lenin’s Mausoleum, I sang “God Save the Tsar.” We stopped by St. Basil’s Cathedral to take pictures, of course.

David: “There, I made the river cleaner.”

We finally arrived back at the convent, a little more than six hours later and pretty exhausted. I was surprised, given my lack of sleep over the past week, that I was still standing. We got our bags, piled them into the van, and went to Sheremetyevo. It took us a mere twenty minutes to get there, much shorter than the hellishly long time it took to go *from* the airport in the beginning.

Getting one last nap in at the convent.

We checked in our flights, but unfortunately I couldn’t get on everyone else’s flight and had to wait until the afternoon to take my original plane. Even still I went with everyone to the gate to see them off. We had one last (free!) meal at TGIFriday’s, where a man wearing cat ears and lots of “flair” took our order. It was adequately American.

Ten o’clock came, and I said good-bye to my traveling companions. I then waited, on the cold floor of Sheremetyevo, writing my first blog entry.

Five hours later, the plane came, and I met with Fr. Andrei at the gate; he was taking the same flight. “I’ll make sure you get back to Jordanville,” he said. On the plane, I watched a Russian romantic comedy (pretty lame) and The Artist (pretty good) and dozed off a bit. When I got off the plane, I went through customs easily, got my checked luggage, and took a taxi with Fr. Andrei to the Synod building in Manhattan, where I stayed the night on a cot in the conference room. I ran into Bishop Peter, who was also staying at Synod, in his own room. That night, when I washed up to go to sleep, I drank some fresh New York City tap water.

It was delicious.

But wait…there’s more!

Monday, June 3, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 7

Sunday was finally here, the last full day of our trip. It was hard to believe that the trip (and this blog series) was coming to an end. But as they say, everything has an end except for sausages, which have two.

We got up extra early to go to St. Tikhon’s University in order to practice with their choir for liturgy. I was half-asleep again. Their choir was made up of many current and former students, both professionals and amateurs. There were about forty girls and five or six guys (there must have been quite a few female tenors). Practice went well enough, and the music was evenly divided between us.

We then went to the university church, was was still large but dwarfed by the other giant cathedrals we’ve visited. One man randomly went up to me and said in Russian, “Excuse me, but are you Filipino?”

It was the first real antiphonal liturgy in my life: we even alternated the verses for “Bless the Lord” in the beginning. Bishop Theodosy was serving again; it was our fourth hierarchal liturgy that week. I was pretty exhausted through the whole thing and was going flat all the time, but Communion lifted my spirits. At the end of liturgy, I said, “You know how they had nap-time in preschool, and we all hated it? I wish we had nap-time. Nap-time is wasted on children.”

Our fellow choir was very kind and hospitable to us, and gave each of us little icons of the Mother of God. We then took a picture together:

After another bountiful lunch (in which I didn’t touch a drop of wine) we had our first concert of the day in the Conference Hall. I was happy to see my friend Ksenia, whom I hadn’t seen in three years. She had recently moved to Russia after a year teaching English in Japan. I had met her in San Francisco, so Nicky and Alix were also happy/surprised to see her. As for the concert, you can see the last part for yourself:

Following the concert we had an informal meet and greet session with the audience, and I made some new friends. As is normal for Russia, there was more singing. And then some people set up two pianos and were playing some pieces.

We soon had to leave the University to go to the Protection of the Mother of God Church in Yasenevo, a suburb of Moscow. (In between we also squeezed in a trip to the shrine of St. Matrona.) It was the parish church for Lia, one of the readers in our concert and highly involved in youth activities in the Church. When we got to the church we were amazed: it was one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen, and it’s not even complete! The interior and exterior both have scaffolding, and only the lower church was finished.

We entered the lower church. There were replicas of many of the major sites of the Holy Land, from Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre. Everything was copied in minute detail. In a sense, I got a two-for-one deal with this trip.

The concert was very well-attended with Lia’s youth group, and a large number of disabled people. At this point I was completely exhausted and ready to faint, and the only thing I paid attention to was the many mistakes I made. But despite everything, due to God’s mercy we got a wonderful reaction from the audience. The highest praise came from Fr. Melchizedek, who said that he didn’t even need to say his Communion Rule that night, because the concert was prayer for him. You can listen to the concert and see pictures here.

After the concert we went to the Optina Hermitage dependency nearby, where we had one final dinner. Fr. Melchizedek was a very friendly, good-humored man, and judging from the health of the parish, an amazing priest.

We went outside and took some group pictures. The girls got some babushka-sized headscarves, so they posed for some photos, which I helped take (“Now imagine you’re seeing something in church you disapprove of! A sixteen-year-old girl just walked in wearing pants!”). We then piled into our van and went back to the convent. It was getting pretty late, but the night was just beginning!

* We stay out all night!
* Trouble at Sheremetyevo
* One last meal
* Back again

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 6

After last night’s long dinner, we got to sleep in. Around eleven, we went to Christ the Savior Cathedral for the Seventh Annual Vera i Delo (Faith and Deeds) forum, in which young people from Russia and all over Europe would come to discuss contemporary issues facing the church today. There, I also met some people I knew from San Francisco.

The Cathedral Hall is literally an Orthodox convention center. Around the central stage are rows of plush seats for over a thousand people. Behind the stage is a giant marble mosaic of Pentecost. We were seated in the front rows. While we waited for the event to begin, I was jotting down some notes for the blog, Alex Cooley and Alika/David made crossword puzzles for each other (“Babies in Pouches” = “Marsupial”), and Meri and Natalia played Hangman.

The forum began with a drum line. Seriously. I Am Not Making This Up. It was pretty awesome. I turned to Cooley and said, “We should do this for St. Herman’s!”

The first part of the forum was a long Q&A session with the panelists on the stage, which included Fr. Andrei. After about an hour or so, we ducked out to take a short tour of the Cathedral. I had seen it in the live broadcast of the Paschal service on Youtube, but of course it’s even more amazing in person. There was tight security at the entrance, which made sense considering certain recent events.

After our short visit we followed our tight schedule and went to the Martha-Mary Convent, which was founded by the Grand Duchess St. Elizabeth, the sister of the martyred Empress Alexandra. There we did our first concert, which turned out all right. The concert was a mixture of spiritual music and readings concerning the life of St. Elizabeth. The juxtaposition of the readings and the music was very powerful. For example, after the reading about the St. Elizabeth’s martyrdom at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we sang the Cherubic Hymn, which was reportedly what she and her companions began to sing when they were thrown down the mine shaft. The particular arrangement chosen was a favorite of the tsar and his family, so it’s possible that it was the one sung on that fateful day.

Nicky had us stand separated from people of the same vocal part. This prevented us from depending too much on our neighbor and made us focus on the conductor. Many in the audience were residents of the convent’s House of Mercy, including a few orphans. Following the concert the Superior congratulated us and presented us with small wooden eggs with St. Elizabeth’s monogram.

We then immediately went to the convent’s church to sing vigil. The convent church has some interesting architecture reminiscent of Vladimir/Suzdal architecture of the 13th century or so, especially the carved designs on the outside. The interior has spiritual frescoes painted by Nesterov. Vigil went well, and the church interior had a calming effect.

After dinner at the convent, it was already getting late and we had to get up early the next day to have rehearsal, so we went back to the dorms. Us guys finally got the router, and we had dependable internet for pretty much the first time in the trip. And I finally had a (sort of) good night’s rest.

* Liturgy at PSTGU
* Several Concerts
* Jerusalem-in-Moscow
* The Optina Podvorye

A Boring Day

It’s been relatively quiet here at Jordanville since I got back from Russia. Due to the time difference I’ve been going to sleep and getting up very early, so making it to liturgy has been no problem for me this past week. I’m working in the monastery bookstore for the summer, and nearly everyone is gone. It’s quiet, almost like a ghost town.

My work duties are light. I’ve been doing this since my first year, so I have a good idea of what to do, especially when something unusual happens or someone wants an obscure book in Russian. I encounter the same customers, plus quite a few pilgrims. This weekend, we had a group from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who bought many books for their parish, as well as half the Easter Egg pendants.

Today, as I was finishing up, another regular came in: Mrs. Papkov. She lives not too far from the monastery, and is the mother of Fr. Andrei, the ROCOR priest in Chicago. Every time she comes into the store she has a story to tell. Or rather, a whole set of them. Being over ninety, she has quite a bit of life experience.

“Khristos Voskrese!” she said as she came into the store.

“Voistinu Voskrese!” I said, and congratulated her on the recent marriage of her granddaughter.

I’m not sure how it happened, but she launched into one of her stories set during the Second World War. She lived in a village, on the Azov Sea, which was occupied by the Germans. “The Communists left, and for one week before the Germans came there was anarchy,” she said. “Everyone did what they wanted, there was robbery.” When the Germans came they treated the villagers well at first, and played old Russian songs on the radio again. They told them about how life in Germany was great, and how everyone should go there. “They didn’t open the school, though, not beyond seventh grade, because they wanted us to go to Germany.” When the carrot didn’t work, the stick did, and the Germans forced people to go to Germany to work. Mrs. Papkov went to a brick factory to work. There, she saw a line of people being marched to a concentration camp. She said all this with a smile, something I guess you could do after living for so long.

She then told me about her mother, about how she was caught in an Allied bombing during the war. “The hospital was bombed and she was the only one to survive. Interesting, no?” She then took her leave of me. “You know my son? His daughter was married. She’s a smart girl!”

Moments after Mrs. Papkov left, a young girl with full cheeks and a yellow skirt wrapped around her legs came into the store asking to be shown the church with her family. The girl just graduated from college in Canada and was going back to the States with her family. We came out to meet the parents, who were from Belarus (“Ah, my friend is getting married in Belarus!” I said) and the very tall American boyfriend. I gave the short spiel about the church (I did write the Wikipedia article after all) and showed them the interior. The American had never been inside an Orthodox church before, and he found it pretty interesting. “No pews,” he said. He also found interesting how the dome inside was supported by the four pendentives instead of a circle of columns. “You know your architecture,” I said to him. The family thanked me and went on their way.

It was then that I realized that even on a “boring” day like today, interesting things still happen that are worth writing about.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 5

Friday was an eventful day. We got up early in the morning, got into our van, and drove to the heart of Moscow, the Kremlin. Outside the Kremlin we got out our stuff and put it through metal detectors. It was Patriarch Kyrill’s namesday (and a public holiday), so security was pretty tight. We also got special tickets for his namesday liturgy at the Dormition Cathedral. It’s an understatement to say I was excited. I was pretty ecstatic, at least, the part of me that wasn’t asleep. Not only did we get to see the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (at least, from a distance) we also got to see the Kremlin, and Dormition Cathedral! I had written about the cathedral in a paper for my Russian Church History class which turned into an article for Orthodox Life. My article was based on books; now I got to see the real thing.

My first impression of the Kremlin is that it’s a lot bigger than I thought. You could even say that it’s bigger on the inside. After all, that whole area used to be the entirety of Moscow! All the churches and government buildings and history bowled me over. I couldn’t believe it! And actually, I still can’t believe that, just over a week ago, I was there.

We went to the entrance of the cathedral, which was a little smaller than I had imagined it to be, though still much larger than any Orthodox church in America. There, a TV crew was filming, and a reporter took Nicky and then Alika aside to be interviewed. A familiar-looking metropolitan was walking into the church, and all of us went to get his blessing. “Christ is Risen!” he said in English.

“Who was that?” I said to Alex.

“That was Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev,” he said.

“Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!! That was ALFEYEV!!!” I did a double fist pump.

Then, I was taken aside by the reporter lady, who asked me a few questions about the importance of the day, how I became Orthodox, etc.

Photo: Alika
I came back somewhat dazed: “Did I just…was that…haa…”

“This is John, star-struck,” Meri said.

Liturgy in the cathedral was amazing, as you can see from this video:

The Sretensky Monastery Choir sang the liturgy, and we had…not quite front-row seats. The church inside was very crowded, and it was one of the few times that I wished that I was seven feet tall. There were not one but TWO patriarchs: Kyrill of Moscow and Theophilos of Jerusalem.

Plus about forty bishops. Photo: Alika
The church interior was beautiful, with ancient frescos and a huge iconostasis dating from medieval Muscovy. Of course, with all the people there it was hard to focus on any one thing. Before the liturgy ended we decided to avoid the rush and left the church. We waited outside for the big procession to begin.

Outside, we saw the Patriarch’s armored Mercedes surrounded by his bodyguards. A large group of Filipino tourists from LA of all places also approached me and asked me questions, beginning with “Are you Filipino?” “Why yes, on my mother’s side.” This elicited quite a positive response, and we explained a few things to them about what was actually going on today.

Before the procession began, we saw on the front steps of the cathedral a man and his wife, who almost looked like they were there by accident. Earlier we were shooed off by security, so we were confused. “Why are they standing there? Is he the Patriarch’s brother or something?” Someone said. It got even stranger when the man started to wave his arm up and down in a rhythmic fashion. Then the bells began to ring. It turned out that the man was the conductor for the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, and thus for all the bells of Moscow. It goes to show that you can’t judge someone’s ultimate importance from outward appearances.

Sea after sea of red vestments led the procession, followed by the people.

Just a few of them. Photo: Alika
The procession was from the Kremlin, through Red Square, down the streets of Moscow, ending at the monument to Sts. Cyril and Methodius. The Patriarch gave a stirring speech, which I didn’t get at all, except that it involved Russia somehow. I was baking in the heat and humidity, carrying a ridiculously-large backpack, and beginning to nod off. Standing.

We finally got out of the crowd and headed to lunch, again at Il Patio. After that, we went to the Martha-Mary Convent for a long (2-hour) rehearsal for the concert. And then finally, finally, we got some free time.

I went out in a small group of about seven, wandering around the neighborhood. We found an interesting Indian-themed restaurant-bar called the Bhagabar, which had Indian food and cocktails at exorbitant prices. I had a ten-dollar whiskey sour. We mainly paid for the ambiance and the freedom to sit down and act like ourselves (instead of our tourist or performing versions). We played several games, including a sentence game in which we made up stories using two words per person. We ended up chronicling the misadventures of “Seminarian John.”

Free time was drawing to a close, and we all had to go back to the van. A short ride later, we were deposited in front of a restaurant. Apparently we were to be treated by a potential donor. The man was friendly and spoke pretty good English. Dinner went on well into the night. Unfortunately, I was still pretty exhausted, and started falling asleep despite my best efforts while our host was telling us his life story. Natalia tapped me on the arm. “Wake up, John!”

“HUAAAAAAHHHH!!!!” I woke up with something in between a scream and a gasp, startling poor Natalia and everyone else on the table. It was a pretty funny moment.

Before too long, we had to take leave of our generous host because it was getting extremely late. Thankfully, we got to sleep in that night!

* An Orthodox convention center
* We perform our first real concert
* Vigil at the convent

Friday, May 31, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 4

We got up a little later on Thursday and went to the main offices of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University in order to register our visas and meet with the university administration. Going to Russia requires a lot of paperwork, including registering your visas once you get there. If you don’t register your visa, you might end up not being able to go back to Russia on your next trip!

When we got there we had some time before the meeting started so we went down the street to a local café to get some coffee. A note about coffee-houses in Russia: they also tend to serve alcohol, hence there’s a good number of “café-bars” on the street. The café we went to was no exception, but I didn’t feel like vodka at nine in the morning. Instead I opted to get a Russian pie, or pirog. The first pirog I saw looked good, until I was told by one of the guys working the counter that its filling was turkey and prunes. “That might be a good combination of sweet and savory,” said Natalia. I was not convinced, and demurred, explaining to the man the association between prunes and old people in Florida. “But it’s good,” said the man, in perfect English. I bought a lemon-filled pie. Natalia was disappointed in my lack of gastronomic boldness, and frankly, after eating the lemon pie, so was I.

We got back to the university in time for tea and turning in our passports. We then got to meet the rector of the university, Fr. Vladimir, along with several other university officials, who explained to us the basic rules of living in the dorms (like no smoking, drinking, or appearing drunk) and promised us towels and a wi-fi router.

For the meeting, I was relatively dressed up in a blazer and dark pants. I figured that we were meeting someone important and that since I packed some nice clothes I might as well use them. That got me some compliments. Alika said, “Oh, John, you look like you belong on The Bachelor! ‘Will you accept this rose?’” There’s a nice feeling from wearing well-fitted dressy clothes, and I probably should do it more often. Fr. Vladimir gave us some roses from St. Matrona’s grave…and now I really did look like I belonged on The Bachelor.

Suited up! Photo: Alika

After our meeting with the rector, we went to a little museum dedicated to the artist Viktor Vasnetsov. Vasnetsov was prolific during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he mainly did paintings and other works centered around Russian folklore. His most famous painting, Bogatyrs, hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery.

Bogatyrs (1898)

The museum was the artist’s old home. Entering it I relived the famous scene in War and Peace where Natasha visits her uncle’s home and dances:

There was something essentially Russian about the place, something I’d like to call folksy asceticism. Vasnetsov was a devout Orthodox and a monarchist, and his way of life in this old house was, in his words, “pre-Petrine”. I felt at ease in this house, a feeling not unlike the lower church in the Feodorovsky Cathedral the previous day.

A common scene in the van. Photo: Alika

After the museum, we went to the Epiphany (Elokhovsky) Cathedral to sing vigil for Saints Cyril and Methodius. The church was the patriarchal cathedral after Christ the Savior was destroyed by the Communists until the end of the Soviet Union. This time we were the right (main) kliros, singing in a gallery high above the nave. We used a few pieces from the composer Lapaev, who was a hit with everybody. After the vigil, we did a short mini concert and then had a festal meal in the cathedral trapeza. On the way back we were in a choral mood, and sang rounds.

* Live from the Kremlin, it’s the Patriarch’s Namesday!
* The largest procession ever
* We finally have free time
* Dinner with a donor

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 3

I woke up early again, took a shower, and got my things ready. We were leaving St. Petersburg that evening. Before we vacated the Lavra, David and I went to the monastery cathedral for the end of liturgy. The Trinity Cathedral was built in the same baroque style as other St. Petersburg churches, but what struck me was the high ceiling, which created a huge interior space. That space was very good acoustically, because the very small kliros was able to make a very big sound. It was a mere quartet, but they made a clear and unified sound. I forgot myself and did a prostration during “We Praise Thee” even though it was still the Paschal season.

View of the Lavra Cemetery

We took our van to the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, which was having its altar feast. Vladika Theodosy was going to serve with the same bishops as yesterday. We entered through the lower church, which was the size of a large Orthodox church in America, and went up the stairs to the cathedral proper, which was, as usual, impressively large. The church was built during the time of Elizabeth, and is of course heavily influenced by the baroque style of the period. I liked the color scheme, which was gold and navy blue. “Oh hey, you match,” I said to Natalia.

They were reading the hours and a priest was doing a general confession for a small crowd of people. We were placed right in front of the altar for the service. I can’t imagine the liturgy being terribly different from what it was in Elizabeth’s time, though perhaps the music would have been more Italianate. The choir sang in a gallery high above the nave. The deacons came out swinging their censers, using that same incense which I still want to identify. The people crowded around the three hierarchs serving. There was a chain separating the vestibule from the nave with a sign prohibiting entry to tourists. This was a working cathedral.

After liturgy, our group ate at the festal banquet. I met Fr. Constantine, a jovial protodeacon who said the loudest litanies. He wore a bright red cassock over his massive frame. We talked about parish life in Hawaii (“I hope your parish turn into diocese!”) and about the Russian Church. He said to me, “Of all Russian saints, only one-third before Revolution! Two-third from Soviet time!”

The meal, like most meals in Russia, consisted of a ton of appetizers followed by the main course. There were also quite a few (we lost count) toasts. Everyone on the head table got up to make a toast, which was followed by singing “Many Years”: “Mnooooooooooogayaaaaaa Leeeeeeetaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” The wine was nice and sweet. Nicky then said to me: “John, stop drinking! We have a concert to sing!”

“Nonsense! Wine makes me a GOOD singer!” At that point, my face was starting to resemble the wine in my glass. Alex Cooley took away my glass.

The cathedral choir got up to sing a set of hymns which were very good and very loud. “Tough act to follow,” I said. And then we got up to do our mini-concert. It went okay (they liked us) but I under the influence I made a couple of mistakes, including one big one at the end.

Moral of the story: Friends don’t let friends sing drunk.

We soon excused ourselves and headed to the shrine of the Holy Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg. Blessed Xenia is the most famous holy fool of the Russian Church, and tens of thousands of pilgrims visit her tomb in the Smolensky Cemetery every year. Like always, our group skipped the line and sang a moleben surrounding her tomb with Vladika Theodosy serving. It was awesome. I also liked the cemetery itself, which was more unkempt and woodsy than American cemeteries, which look more like golf courses.

There’s something about this cemetery that screams out “LIFE!”

Our last stop in St. Petersburg was the Feodorovsky Cathedral, completed in 1913 in honor of the tricentennial of the Romanovs. It was built in the style of churches of Rostov common during the reign of the first Romanov tsar, Michael, in the early 17th century. The church was desecrated by the Bolsheviks and turned into a dairy. After the fall of the Soviet Union restoration work began, and a thriving parish founded.

The lower church of the cathedral is done in a style similar to early churches. In other words, it was the exact opposite of the Baroque churches I saw in St. Petersburg. This gave a respite to my senses, and I felt at ease.

View of the Altar

The upper church was still being restored, and the walls were white and perhaps waiting for frescoes. A very large iconostasis, carved according to the style of ancient Rus, towered over us. Hanging over the nave was a large chandelier in the shape of Monomakh’s Cap, the crown of Russian tsars. We sang “Eis Polla Eti Despota” in the nave, perhaps the first time the words have ever echoed off the church’s walls.

We then took the Sapsan back to Moscow. An aside about trains. Train travel, as opposed to bus or plane travel, is superior in many respects. You aren’t crammed together like sardines, there’s not as much traffic on a rail line, and the view is better. The only advantage that a plane has is that it’s a faster way to go somewhere, but one should add the time it takes to check in one’s bags, go through security, etc.

On the plane I had several interesting discussions about the 50th Psalm, film adaptations of great literature, and life in Hawaii. In three and a half hours we reached Moscow. I missed St. Petersburg so much (or perhaps it was the dormitory bed) that I hardly slept that night.

* I Suit Up!
* Another museum!
* Vigil for the Patriarch’s namesday

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 2

I woke up early, a little past six o’clock. I quietly gathered my things and went across the street to McDonald’s, where they had (as I hoped) wi-fi. I ordered an orange juice. The lady taking my order asked me a couple things which I did not understand at all. Seeing my confused look, the manager just told her to let whatever it was go. I sat down, opened up my computer, did my first Russian facebook status, and turned in my paper for Russian Literature. I was now finished with my third year of seminary!

I got back to the Lavra in time to leave for our first event: the feast day (St. John the Theologian) of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. We were to sing the liturgy there with three other choirs. The Academy was a short walk from where we were staying, and the church was very large, and integrated with the building itself. We were walking in as the Hours were being read. The reader had a little confusion over what hymn to read, causing a priest to come out and berate him. I smiled to myself and thought: They’re not so different, after all!

Liturgy was amazing. Imagine a choir you listen to on a CD, like the Sretensky choir. Now imagine three such choirs, live. The three other choirs we sang with were a men’s choir, a women’s choir, and a mixed choir. The men were dressed in black cassocks, and the women were all in identical blue dresses with white headscarves. They were a part of the choral music school associated with the academy, and thus it was a uniform for them. Another thing I noticed was the beautiful incense, which was very strong, sweet, and straightforward.

After liturgy, we had a festal meal in the Academy’s trapeza. There were all kinds of cold cuts and cheese and the best and meatiest soup I’ve ever had. And then they served us the actual main course. I was warned by my friend Greg that this was going to happen, but I filled up on the appetizers anyway. My other traveling companions were a little more surprised. This unexpected overeating was going to repeat itself over the next few days. After lunch our youth choir got up and did a mini-concert, which turned out okay and the seminarians cheered us on.

We then had a tour of the Academy’s extensive facilities, and also a small museum which had Patriarch Alexis II’s mantia, among other rare items. The Academy even had an online radio station which intersperses contemporary music (I guess if Smashmouth counts as contemporary) with readings from the Fathers.

We then went to several cathedrals and the huge Hermitage museum. Our first stop was the Kazan Cathedral, which was impressively large. Then we went to the Hermitage, one of the largest and most beautiful museums in the world.

We had two hours.
We were just in the Winter Palace part of the Hermitage, which used to be the palace of the Romanovs. I was very tired (“John’s falling asleep again!” Alika would say time and again) and we were rushed through the rooms so I wasn’t able to appreciate the art as much as I could have. It was kind of a sensory overload. But one of my favorite pieces in the museum was this giant mechanical peacock clock:

After the Hermitage we had a gelato break, and then went to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb. I quite loved the architecture of the church, which was reminiscent of medieval churches of Old Muscovy, with a more than passing resemblance to St. Basil’s in Moscow.

Next we went to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which was built by Nicholas I. Everything was very large and the size of the altar itself was amazing. I also got to visit the grave of the great general Mikhail Kutuzov, who led the Russian Army against Napoleon. We sang “Memory Eternal” for him. One thing I didn’t like about the cathedral (and the other cathedrals in St. Petersburg) was the ubiquitous presence of kiosks, which made it feel more like a tourist attraction than a place of worship.

At St. Isaac’s we found the last two members of our choir, Meri and Natalia, who had flown into St. Petersburg that very day. Meri, who had spent six months in Petersburg over a year ago, was very happy to be back, though not so happy that we had gone to see the Hermitage without her.

We then (yes, there’s more) went to the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress, which is where nearly* all the emperors and empresses of Russia after Peter the Great have been interred. We served a litya for them in the fortress’s cathedral, which you can see below:

After that, we had a short tour of the Fortress, which is undergoing some restoration work.

As the night came to a close, we had dinner at the Il Patio restaurant. The food wasn’t bad (though again, due to factors I noted yesterday, a little slow) but the cocktails were pretty darn good. I had a mojito to cool off after the long and rather hot day. It was refreshing.

* Another big cathedral!
* Why you should never drink before a concert
* A visit to St. Xenia’s grave
* Going back to Russia Moscow!

* Remains believed to belong to the Royal Martyrs were interred in 1998, but these have not yet been affirmed by the Church as being authentic.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 1

I’d like to tell you a story about how I met your mother my trip to Russia. But first, a caveat: for the entire week I was a little loopy since I suffered from major jet lag and slept on the average of four to six hours each night. So the events which I will recount did not necessarily happen in the order I tell them in, and the details might not be completely right. There’s also quite a few things about which I would not tell you because you would never believe me.

We landed on Monday morning at the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport. Julie, Matthew and I were part of an 11-member choir singing in Russia. The three of us were to meet up in the airport with our driver carrying a sign saying “ПСТГУ* — SYNOD” but we couldn’t find him outside, so we ended up staying inside at a cafe. I was going to get a bottle of water but stopped when I realized that in rubles it was five dollars. Little did I know that this was not only an airport price, but indicative of Moscow prices in general. Julie and I also were going to look for the airport’s Orthodox chapel, but it was a bit far away.

We went outside again, where we fended off the mosquitoes. It was surprisingly hot and muggy, considering that it was early summer. After a while we finally found our driver, who almost was going to leave because he wasn’t able to find us! We piled our stuff in the back seat of a large Nissan van, and zoomed off to Moscow.

Did I say zoomed? Perhaps I should say crawled, or limped, or inched. A team of Volga boatmen pulling our car would have taken us to Moscow faster than in the hellish traffic jam that we faced for what felt like two hours. If Dante were alive today and rewrote his Divine Comedy, Purgatory wouldn’t be a mountain but the traffic jam we were in. What made things worse is that we didn’t have air conditioning in the summer heat. Nevertheless, we were in high spirits: Matthew hadn’t been in Russia in six years, and for Julie and me it was our first time. The three of us amused ourselves by looking at the Cyrillo-English signs, and rejoiced when we saw our first Макдоналдс.

Finally we approached Moscow. Buildings seemed bigger, there were more parks, and the traffic cleared up a little. As we entered the city, what struck me the most was the strange combination of architecture. Crumbling Soviet apartments mixed with ancient onion domes and the brash palettes of New Russia. It did not strike me that we were in Russia until I saw the Kremlin and Red Square from my window.

“Oh, St. Basil’s is smaller than I thought,” I said. That did not keep me from saying “oooh!” and “ahhh!” to every church we passed by. If I started crossing myself after passing each church in Moscow, my arm would have never stopped moving.

We stopped at the Martha-Mary Convent, where we picked up Fr. Andrei Sommer, the organizer of our trip. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the dormitories of St. Tikhon’s University (the aforementioned «ПСТГУ») to settle down, sign up for our rooms, and unpack. The dormitory was not terribly different from other college dormitories, except for the small wooden chapel in the courtyard. The four of us ate at the dorm’s small cafeteria, which served Russian food like pirozhky, cutlets, and other things. I ate some kind of cutlet and drank pear-flavored soda, which was pretty refreshing.

After a lot of waiting in the heat, the second half of our Moscow group, comprised of Alex Cooley, Alika, and David, finally arrived; their flight was delayed. We basically left as soon as they showed up, because we had to take a express train that night to St. Petersburg.

In downtown Moscow we stopped at a department store for dinner. Where we met up with Vladika Theodosy of Seattle, who was going to be traveling with us. I’ve known Vladika from shortly before he was consecrated a bishop in 2008. He’s very good with the youth and so I was glad to finally be able to travel with him. We also finally met up with our maestro, Nicky Kotar, with his equally-talented fiancée Anastasia.

This restaurant, along with every other restaurant we went to, was owned by a Russian émigré from South America who went back to Russia and became a successful restauranteur. He let us eat in all of his restaurants for free! We’re all very grateful to him, so I hope he won’t be offended if I list off several interesting things I noticed about restaurants in Russia:

First, they always serve bottled water (regular and sparkling), never tap, because nobody drinks the tap water in Russia. Second, they serve the meal somewhat differently than in America, which seems to cause service to be slow with a larger group. Third, there is no tipping, just like in the rest of Europe.

After dinner, we walked to the Leningradsky Station, a short distance from the department store. Not looking where I was going, I banged my shin hard against an iron hand truck. “We call that the first Moscow stress,” Anastasia said. I answered that it was the second, if the traffic jam from Sheremetyevo counted.

As we waited on the platform, our tickets and passports in hand, the trains from St. Petersburg arrived, and a very Russian-sounding song about Moscow started playing. It was pretty catchy and became an earworm for Cooley and me. Here’s a full version of it on Youtube, complete with the singer himself in all his 80s glory:

The express train we rode—the Sapsan—was pretty fast and a smooth ride, and we got to Petersburg in about three and a half hours. The train ride itself was sponsored by the owner of the railway, who also sponsored our plane tickets. “Imagine if the president of Amtrak sponsored a Orthodox choir traveling to America!” said Fr. Andrei.

We were greeted in St. Petersburg by a very large, boisterous and friendly man named Alexander, who is probably an important personage in the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. We also met Daniil, a young Ukrainian man who acted as Vladika’s cell attendant during the trip.

After we exited the station, we were amazed by the old-world European architecture lit up by the city lights. I would call St. Petersburg the Paris of the East, but since I have never been to Paris, such a comparison is impossible for me. A short van ride from the station brought us to the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra, home of the theological academy and our place of rest for the next two days. We took our things to the diocesan guesthouse. At the guesthouse, our party gained another member: Alix, Nicky’s younger sister. There were two of us to a room; David and I shared Room 12. Each room was equipped like a hotel, complete with towels (which most of us didn’t bring) and other toiletries. For some reason, David and I got these neon orange indoor slippers that everyone else didn’t have.

What impressed us the most was the showers. They looked like some kind of spaceship pods, with two sliding doors, two shower heads (fixed and movable), and full-body massage jets. After this very long journey, these little comforts helped us fall asleep quickly, which was good because this was just the beginning.

Stay tuned tomorrow for:
* The first of several hierarchal liturgies
* Unexpected overeating
* Baroque churches!
* And the completion of our fellowship

* There were a number of speculations about what “PSTGU” stood for. My favorite was something like “Pittsburgh State Theological Government University.” Actually it stands for «Православный Свато-Тихоновский Гуманитарный Университет» or St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities.

Monday, May 27, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 0

I write these words on the cold floor of the Sheremetyevo Airport’s Terminal D, awaiting my return flight to New York. I haven’t slept in over twenty-four hours and doubt that I will sleep very much on the plane. But while I still have clarity, I’m going to write the first part of what I would like to call

What I Saw In Russia, or, The Drowsy Seminarian.

My first recollection is of standing in line at the Megabus stop in Albany. I was at nearly the end of the long queue. Behind me were a man and woman in sunglasses; the woman wore large hoop earrings. Their favorite pastime seemed to be people-watching: “The girl in the green shirt…She’s got flats…That guy’s got nice arms…It’s a bit much…” I took my seat in the crowded bus next to a sleeping student in sweatpants, with my carry-on between my legs. The safety video was done by a girl who consistently mispronounced the definite article before words beginning with vowels. Instead of “thee aisle” and “thee emergency exit,” she said things like “tha aisle” “tha emergency exit”—it ground my gears a little. The seven-thirty bus left close to eight, and I had to make it to JFK by noon. Otherwise I would miss my flight to Moscow.

I was part of a youth choir chosen to represent the Church Abroad in the Motherland. In addition to participating in services, we were to sing a specially-prepared concert with readings in commemoration of the four hundred years of the House of Romanov. The whole trip was sponsored by generous Russian donors. Not one to turn down anything free, I jumped at the chance when Nicky Kotar offered it to me. Several grueling rehearsals and last-minute stresses later, I was on my way to New York and everything was smooth-sailing. From Penn Station I took the LIRR and then the AirTrain to the airport. In all, the whole process of traveling from Albany to JFK took me less than four hours, even with some traffic.

At the security line, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see my friend Matthew, who is a seminarian at St. Tikhon’s, formerly of Jordanville. After clearing security, we went to the gate, where we were met at the last minute by Julie, the third person on our flight. She had endured a long bus ride to New York, which did not arrive until shortly before our flight. We got on the plane, which left in the early afternoon, set to land in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in the morning. During the nine-hour flight, I watched the movie “Ruby Sparks,” which I thought was a pretty good romantic comedy and interesting deconstruction of modern notions of romantic love, especially the ideal of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” They served two meals on the flight which were pretty good for airplane food. Unfortunately, in the entirety of the nine hours I had ended up sleeping only two; this would have repercussions for the rest of the week.

We landed in Sheremetyevo perhaps a little before nine o’clock in the morning. I was now in Russia. Little did we know how crazy, exciting, and moving the trip would become.

Get ready tomorrow for:
* Russian soda
* Showers, space-age and otherwise
* Drowsiness
* Churches, churches, churches!

Saturday, May 18, 2013


Dear Readers,

Christ is Risen!

I hope you’ve been enjoying my previous posts on War and Peace, which were little more than attempts for me to do my paper. The final installment(s) will be up shortly. Today I finished my last exam (Church History) and just have this literature paper to turn in. Then I will be finished with my third year at Jordanville.

In less than an hour, I will be leaving Jordanville on a trip to Russia. I’m going to be singing in a concert commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Romanovs. It’s my first time to Russia (in fact, my first time in seven years going to a foreign country other than Canada) so it is, of course, very exciting. Hopefully I’ll have some kind of camera to document my trip, or you will have to put up with some poorly-executed sketches.

See you on the other side!

Pierre Bezukhov (Part II)

Pierre, once the illegitimate son of a rakish nobleman, is now the legitimized inheritor to a vast fortune, married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and occupying a high place in society. And yet he is unhappy, especially since his wife has compromised her virtue with another man, namely Dolokhov, one of his former drinking buddies. Dolokhov was in fact living at his house and even borrowed money from him.

The breaking point came at a dinner in honor of General Bagration, one of the heroes of the Battle of Austerlitz. That very morning, Pierre had received an anonymous letter making fun of him, saying that “he saw poorly through his spectacles and that his wife’s liaison with Dolokhov was a secret to no one but him.” At the dinner Dolokhov mocks him with a toast: “To the health of beautiful women, Petrusha, and of their lovers.” Pierre soon challenges him to a duel, and the next morning, the two meet at the Sokolniki woods with their seconds and begin the duel. As it is his first duel, Pierre’s second Nesvitsky has to show him how to hold the pistol and shoot it.

On the count of three, the two adversaries approach each other. Pierre fires first. Bang! In his childishness, he “smiled at his own impression and stood still.” When the smoke clears, Dolokhov still keeps going, but he was shot in the side, and soon collapses. He aims and fires, but misses due to Pierre’s ridiculous luck.

Coming to his senses, Pierre realizes that he could become a murderer, and runs through the snow yelling out “stupid…stupid! Death…lies…” Everything becomes topsy-turvy and meaningless to him. The society which mocked him for being a cuckold now mocks him for dueling, because of the apparently scanty evidence of infidelity. Hélène herself bitterly reproaches him, and Pierre, losing it, nearly kills her with a giant marble slab. They separate, and Pierre goes to Petersburg; Hélène retains control of much of Pierre’s fortune.

In St. Petersburg, Pierre gets introduced into Freemasonry, with his mentor being Osip Bazdeev, who is sort of like an Obi-Wan figure to him. Pierre is inducted in a secret ceremony (natch) and throws himself wholeheartedly into Masonic activity and beliefs. This starts an obsession with mysticism, esotericism and the like, which for Pierre helped him answer the aching questions that he had about the meaning of life. He even has the gumption to kick out Prince Vassily when he comes to ask Pierre to reunite with Hélène.

However, Pierre’s enthusiasm for Freemasonry does not pan out well. On the basis of his new creed he attempts to reform his estates in Southern Russia, but due to his lack of practicality and the wiliness of the chief steward his reforms don’t work out. Moreover, he realizes that his brother Masons aren’t as charitable and focused on brotherhood as he once thought, and that for many (such as Princess Drubetskoy’s son Boris) joining the Masons is basically just another way to step up the social ladder.

Yet the beliefs which Pierre adopted—which happen to be not too far from Christianity—make an impact on his friend Prince Andrei. After the Battle of Austerlitz, a wounded Prince Andrei returned as if from the grave to his family estate near Smolensk. There, he saw his wife die in childbirth, which throws him into a deep depression. Pierre says to him, “If there is a God and if there is a future life, then there is truth, there is virtue; and man’s highest happiness consists in striving to attain them. We must life, we must love, we must believe…that we do not live only on this scrap of earth…” Andrei is reminded by this of the time, when he fell on the field of battle, that he saw the infinite sky above. And he starts to live again.

Soon, Pierre introduces Andrei to a family friend, Natasha Rostov, a young girl of sixteen who is just entering society at the New Year’s Ball. They dance splendidly, and something awakens in both Andrei and Natasha. Pierre, having unhappily reunited with his wife, is sullen because (despite her stupidity) she gained a rather high reputation. From there, Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha’s lives will be irrevocably intertwined.

To be continued…