Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Davydovo Day 2: Davydovo

Today we had such an interesting day! It isn't finished yet as I write this (we still have to go to Rostov to catch the train to Moscow, then right away in Moscow catch the overnight train to St. Petersburg), but we are done with our excursion in the village.  I packed and got ready to go and want to write now - before I forget what we saw today.

The Director of the Davydovo parish school brought us to the two separate spaces that they are using for the school. There is a place for the kindergarten, as well as a separate place for the school that covers grades 1-4. Everything is very well kept, quite beautiful, and very humble. I would say that this is my impression of the whole village (at least every part of this village that I have seen that is connected with the parish: everything is done well, it is done humbly, and it is beautiful in its simplicity). The school exists to allow the kids to get a start in educational life in an environment that establishes modesty, respect for elders, and other similar important Christian virtues, as well as living around the Orthodox calendar of feasts and fasts. The work here is very impressive - they do everything by donations. No one in the village has money to speak of - certainly nothing left after taking care of their families, which are often of 3 children or more. But they all work hard for the Church and for God's glory and somehow it always works out. If you would like to help here please let me know. They need funds and also folks to come and provide labor. What a beautiful place this is to visit - you wouldn't be sorry you visited!

After visiting the school we had the privilege of visiting the local iconographer, who is Fr. Vladimir's son. His work is very impressive. He was trained first as an artist and then an iconographer. We will try to use him for our parish icon orders when we can. If you'd like to learn more about him and how to order from him please let me know. He and his wife (who is the Director of the School) kindly hosted us for lunch after our tour of his icon painting studio. The lunch was really marvelous! Incredible soup and a neat sort of egg thing. Everything fresh from the garden or the farm. Fresh Kvass, fresh eggs, even meat from their own animals. Fresh honey from the Urals (their family member lives there and keeps bees). Incredible - what a treat!

After lunch we were off to the parish church again, principally so I could get the pictures below for this article. :) We saw the picture of what the church looked like when they got it back after the fall of the Soviet Union. From what they received in 1999 when Fr. Vladimir first came to the village to what they have now - all the work they have done - can only be called a miracle. There is no other word for it. Especially because they really don't have any money to speak of as I mentioned above. But when something is needed they have always manage to have someone donate at the most opportune time - and then it is done. There is still a lot of work to do - perhaps they are half way there. Something that will be helpful is that in the summer church they have decided to more or less leave the frescoes as they are - in the mostly (but not completely) destroyed state they received them in. Structural repairs will be made there and a new iconostasis will be constructed - but the frescoes will remain as they are as a memorial to all those who suffered and died during the Communist era and as a reminder to future generations that they can never let such destruction happen again.

After the church we were off to view the new dormitory the parish has constructed and the camp grounds for the camp our parish has been supporting for those with special needs here. All is again very clean, well maintained, and humble. The parish recently purchased a huge plot of land across the creek to the west from the church. There they built a dormitory for those who would like to try out living in the village before they make a permanent commitment by selling an apartment in one of the cities to move to the village. In Fr. Vladimir's experience this sort of trial period is very important. It gives people time to let the romance wear off and to understand what the reality is here. It is not that this reality is bad - but this reality is not the reality of the city. For some people that is exactly what they are looking for. In other cases this is not at all what they expected. By allowing those - especially those families with special needs children - to have a trial period in the village the community has avoided difficulties and at the same time confirmed people in their decisions. The community is growing (albeit slowly).

The plan is to build another dormitory sort of building where those with special needs can live out their lives when their parent(s) have died. This is of course the biggest concern of any parent with a special needs child. That is, what will happen to the child after the parent(s) has left this life for the next? Davydovo aims to provide a Christian answer to that question, and I think we need to continue to help them in this regard. If you would like to help please talk to me - donations are welcome, but we need to think of a more comprehensive way in which we, living in the economically prosperous west, can help our brothers and sisters in Christ serve others in need in the economically depressed Russian countryside. Leaving the children to the state's care is not practical - for they will have no real life except to be chemically subdued and warehoused until they die. We owe our special needs folks a lot more than that (the Lord has given us an opportunity and a Christian obligation to help them after all), and Fr. Vladimir and his community are on the cutting edge here - ahead of even us "highly advanced" folks in the west. We can learn from this effort - but first we need to help make it successful. Pictures of the new dormitory and the camp are below.

All for now. Off to Rostov to catch the train. The next report will be from St. Petersburg if all goes well. Please pray for our safe travels!

Fr. Gregory

Monday, May 30, 2016

Davydovo Day 1: Rostov

Last night Peter Longan and I took the train from Moscow to Rostov where we were met by our friend Fr. Vladimir Klimzo. Fr. Vladimir and his family are hosting us for this portion of our visit. It was already pretty late so we had a light bite to eat and talked for some time. We decided to get up pretty early and visit Rostov. That seemed like such an innocent proposition. Innocent in that it seemed simple, perhaps sort of short, certainly a light day. Wrong on every account!

We started at the Boris & Gleb monastery. You'll find a few pictures below of our visit. More will be available on our photo album (of the whole trip too - what we are posting here is just a taste of all there is). An amazing place. Incredible architecture (as the pictures show), but the spiritual impact of this place is at least as powerful as its architectural impact. St. Irenarch of Rostov lived and struggled here. And his relics are here as well. I had the great honor of being able to visit his cell (which was incredibly small - people in those days were shorter, but St. Irenarch was a real ascetic in every sense of that word, and his little cell was part of his struggle) and pray there for our parish, our Michigan Deanery, and our Diocese, as well as for our country. We need God's blessing on our sincere efforts if we are to have any success in any of these venues and entreating the saints for their prayers before the throne of God, especially in the very place that they were spiritually transfigured, is very important in this regard. This would be a theme for the day.

As you can see from the pictures there are many churches in this monastery, but only one is working at the moment. There should be a few more in the near future. In the one that is working St. Irenarch's relics are present and available for the faithful to venerate. But Peter and I had a truly great blessing on this day when the Abbot blessed for the very chains that St. Irenarch wore during his ascetic struggles to be brought out for us to put on in turn as we venerated his relics. This was such an interesting experience - it is sort of difficult to put it into words. One has the distinct feeling when wearing these chains that the Saint is very far from dead, but that he lives fully now that he has left his body - that he lives fully in Christ.

It is not uncommon for the ascetic fathers and mothers to add struggles to the every day struggles we all face by living in difficult climates (for instance, St. Mary of Egypt), wearing clothes that are not comfortable (St. John the Baptist wore a shirt made of camel hair), or even something like chains (St. Herman of Alaska also did this - and it is not all that unusual among the monastic fathers).  This is not to say that we are being asked to emulate them exactly in this way, but we are called to struggle - each and every one of us. It is just that for most of us the everyday struggles and temptations are more than enough to deal with. But for some an additional struggle, usually involving physical struggle, is undertaken with a blessing. Such a thing can never be done out of self will, for that would lead only to spiritual deception in the end.

Something very interesting and unexpected we learned at this monastery: five of the Hieromonks from the monastery were called into service as naval chaplains in the Russian-Japanese war. There is a lovely memorial for these fathers there (three died in service, two lived and returned to the monastery). Below are a few pictures.

They are also working on an interactive museum as part of the memorial for the brothers who died in this war. A few pictures of this are below.

Note please the white flag with the blue cross. This flag was used by the Russian fleet until the Communist Revolution. This flag is called the prayer flag and when a ship put up this flag it meant that it was on a 30 minute break for prayers. Yes - the whole ship got time for prayer and it was such a common occurrence that there was actually a flag to communicate this to the rest of the fleet!

After the Sts. Boris & Gleb monastery, we were off to the Rostov Kremlin. Some pictures of that excursion are below. The pictures do not tell the whole story. The churches are more beautiful and interesting than even the pictures show. The architecture and its deep meaning were so interesting, as were the frescoes (both the technical details of how they were painted, as well as the composition of the work). It is also very interesting to see how the entire composition of the Kremlin with its churches, bishop's residence, Tsar's residence, and other aspects are combined to make a whole. The walls are just so thick! One can really understand how this was an impenetrable fortress.

Some of the churches in the Kremlin have occasional services, but some do not. Essentially this is a museum and is managed as such.

From the Kremlin we were off to the St. Jacob monastery to venerate the relics of St. Dimitry of Rostov - one of the very important fathers of the Russian Church. He wrote the complete version of the lives of the saints, but because of when he lived (during the times of the troubles of the Nikonian reforms and Peter the Great's reforms) his revelation as a saint was very important for the Russian Orthodox Church. The Old Believers were claiming that after Nikon's reforms God's Grace had left the Orthodox Church, and the whole society was in shock after Peter's reforms (for instance, the new rule that men must shave their beards if they held certain positions was a complete change from centuries of Russian practice). St. Dimitry's glorification restored a sense of normalcy and stability to Church life, which was very needed. His relics were found to be incorrupt when a restoration of the church were he was buried was undertaken. But as many of our readers are aware, this is not enough to trigger a glorification in an of itself. But it was enough to "force" the Holy Synod, who was now under the control of a civilian appointed by the monarch (a very uncannonical situation) to establish a commission to further study the issue of St. Dimitry's glorification. When they began to collect testimonials to the saint's intercessions before God and the consistent answer to prayers requested of the Saint before the throne of God on behalf of the faithful it became clear that there was no way NOT to glorify St. Dimitry. But because the glorification of saints in the Russian Church at this time had become such a rarity, a special huge church was built just for the glorification and to house his relics. Every this huge church was not nearly large enough to hold all those who came from all over Russia for the saint's glorification. But we had the privilege of visiting this church, generating the relics of St. Dimitry (which were opened for us very graciously by our hosts - the reliquary in which his relics lie has a class cover that can be opened), and reading the prayer for the Saint right then and there. It was an amazing experience. Again I asked for the intercession of this favorite of God (just as I had earlier in the day at the relics of St. Irenarch) for his prayers to the Lord for our parish, our Michigan Deanery, our Diocese, and our country - for the spread of Orthodox Christianity and the strengthening of the faithful in their efforts to truly and sincerely follow Christ.

From here we were off to the St. Avramiy monastery to venerate the relics of this very interesting saint. First we had a nice lunch and a very interesting discussion with the Abbess - an educated professional woman who had maintained her strong faith during the Soviet period when someone in her position could have lost everything for keeping her faith. St. Avramiy was originally a pagan (Rostov had been a center of pagan worship before Christianity came to Russia). He was baptized on Valaam, and returned to Rostov to preach Christ. He destroyed the idols there and brought many to the True Faith. The struggle with paganism continued, but he had dealt it a strong blow. We again had the opportunity to venerate the relics of this Saint that were opened for us by the Abbess herself. Again I prayed as I had all throughout this amazing and blessed day - a day I expect I will remember for the rest of my life - for our parish, our Michigan Deanery, our Diocese, and our country.

But we weren't done. In fact we weren't every close to done! We virtually flew home to Davydovo to make it in time for a moleben in the newly-opened summer church. For years this community has been worshiping in one small part of the huge church they inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union. This year, in time for Pascha, they were able to restore the greater part of the church and serve the feast of feasts in the summer church. This will be the summer church since heating it in the winter is simply impractical - the ceilings are about 100 feet from the floor and the church is huge. Heating the place would bankrupt this community. But in the summer it is perfect! Even a little on the cool side. It is nowhere near finished, but it is usable, and they use it! A few pictures of the moleben are below. A full photo spread of the church will be in tomorrow's offering here.

Tomorrow we will concentrate our efforts on Davydovo itself. We'll visit their day school, the camp for special needs children, their local iconographer, and the church again to get some more details about what has been done there. This is a very exciting time for this community and we are happy to be even a small part of it. I ask your prayers for continued safe travels!

Fr. Gregory

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Not in Moscow Exactly

Today I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit the two parishes in the outskirts of Moscow (Подмосковия) where Fr. Sergei Kiselev is Rector, in addition to his work as Rector of Sviblovo and his work with the Orthodox School. This was a very interesting visit and I really learned a lot.

We served Liturgy in Fryasino. Although officially a suburb of Moscow this is a rather large city in and of itself - a bit larger than Ann Arbor. What makes this such an interesting situation is that this is a purely Soviet city. It did not exist before the Revolution. And what this means is that when the Soviet Union fell there was no church here. And the city council was completely full of those who felt that the fall of the Soviet Union was a temporary thing and therefore had zero intention of letting a church be built in their town. They could control only so much though, and there were two people very interested in seeing a church be built there: the Mayor and the doctor who was Director of the local regional medical center. That doctor was Jewish (at least at that time - more on that below). 

The Director of the medical center saw that his patients needed the Church to aid in their healing or their peaceful departure from this life, and thus he allotted space in his hospital for a chapel to be built. The chapel is still there and is named after the Great Martyr and Healer Panteliemon. On Great Feasts and Great Lenten Sundays early Liturgy is served there. But that clearly was not enough for a city of about 250,000. And thus, something had to be done. Since the city council was not budging the doctor dedicated a portion of the land the hospital owned (this was completely within his competency as Director of the hospital) for a church in honor of the Nativity of our Lord. 

But the city council put up every road block they could. Still, Fr. Sergei, the mayor, and the doctor persisted in their work. And the Lord provided the path. Within two years every member of the city council had been voted out of office and those who were more favorably inclined to the project were elected. The church was built and we served Liturgy there today. We taught the parishioners to say "Indeed He is Risen!" and I am rather confident that this was the only parish in Moscow where the Paschal greeting was given in English at the end of the Liturgy this morning! And oh yes - the Director of the Hospital became an Orthodox Christian and died not too long afterwards. The church was not done yet so the funeral had to be held in a secular building. According to witnesses of the event many of his secular colleagues, having arrived at the Orthodox service with quite a bit of discomfort and skepticism, were crossing themselves by the end, and many of them came to give the last kiss to the departed founder of this beautiful temple built in honor of the incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation.

Below please find a few pictures of the church interior. Note please that the the icons you see are mosaics - not frescoes. The plan is to complete the entire interior of the church in mosaics over time. And of course I met someone there who had visited Detroit! The brother of the young assistant priest there has quite good English and he has visited the US and Detroit. The more you travel the more you see what a small world we live in - and how important it is to reach out beyond our local "zone". We think people are going to be so different - and we are always wrong. Of course there are differences: different cultures, different languages, different politics. But in the end there is so much more that connects us - especially those of us who share the Orthodox Faith - than there is that divides us. And there were so many people at the Divine Liturgy this morning that they were standing in the courtyard. Usually there are two chalices from which the faithful partake of Holy Communion on Sundays - one at the usual place and one outside on the front steps. Today we used just one, though, and I estimate about 150 people partook of Holy Communion. The Deacon at this parish works for the Publishing Committee of the Patriarchate. A very interesting, nice young man. He and his wife are expecting their first child. He wants to name the baby Herman in honor of the Elightener of America. His wife likes Paul. Those of you that know me and how I think about these things can probably guess who I supported in this pleasant disagreement. :)

Zdekovo is a village in the outskirts of Moscow where there is a rather large Orthodox temple named in honor of St. Nicholas. This church has existed since the 17th Century, although it fell into disrepair at some time and was restored in the 19th Century. Then the Soviets destroyed the interior and used it for a warehouse. But they didn't rip off the roof, and so it could be restored again and used for the Divine Services. Fr. Sergei started working on this space in the 1990s and although it is not yet complete, Divine Services are held here every Saturday, Sunday, and feast day. This is also the location of the Sviblovo school's summer and winter camps, and there is a small working farm here too. The kids enjoy a rest and some fun when they are at camp, but they work on the farm too, and that is quite a big deal for city children. :) Goats and cows have to be milked, weeds have to be pulled from the gardener, and eventually potatoes and other vegetables and fruits have to be harvested. There are larger plans taking shape for this space too. There is a cemetery on the large piece of land the parish owns there, and they would like to clean that up a bit and make some of the area immediately surrounding the church a cemetery as well. There are a few folks buried there now and it is really quite beautiful. One of the priests that served there once the church was restored to working order, Priest George, is buried there. So too is Fr. Sergei and Matushka Larissa's son Gleb. It is a beautiful and prayerful place. This visit confirmed for me even more that we have the right idea of opening our cemetery as soon as possible at St. Vladimir's. What better place for an Orthodox Christian to be buried than near the church were the Divine Services are held and the departed are commemorated? This is a purely rhetorical question of course - there simply could not be a better place to be buried than near the church.

After visiting Zdekovo we returned to Sviblovo to meet Peter Longan, who will accompany me to Davydovo to visit Fr. Vladimir Klimzo and his camp for children and young adults with special needs. The next report on Blogtushka should be from Davydovo!

Fr. Gregory

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Uglich - Part II

Today we began the day early, meeting Bishop Theodore on the main public square of Uglich (which is a short walk from the front of the main cathedral here) at 8:00 a.m. He arrived in a helicopter with the relics of St. Dimitry. The helicopter had carried the bishop and the relics throughout the city to allow for the blessing of the city with the relics. We processed with the relics into the cathedral, and then hurried to meet Metropolitan Panteliemon of Yaroslavl, who was the senior bishop at the Liturgy this day. 

There were four bishops in total who served the Liturgy, about 100 priests, and about a dozen deacons. The faithful partook of Holy Communion from a dozen or so chalices. Three choirs sang the Liturgy really remarkably beautifully.

Following the Liturgy there was a moleben and a procession with all the clergy, the relics of St. Dimitry, and a huge icon of the Saint. Several stops were made on the procession at various churches not far from the main cathedral. Thus the city was blessed by the relics of St. Dimitry from land as well as the air, and in fact the relics of the Saint also blessed the city from the Volga that day as well. There was much media coverage, and we had the opportunity to talk to the local television reporters about our project in Ann Arbor. I also had the opportunity to meet all four of the bishops who served the Liturgy and ask their prayers for our project. The television interview and the meeting of the bishops all took place with Fr. Sergei Kiselev's help. Fr. Sergei is a big proponent of our project and has been incredibly helpful and welcoming when I have visited. I am very thankful for his support and his friendship. 

After the triumphant Divine Services there was a banquet, a symposium sponsored by the new seminary founded in this new diocese, and a concert in honor of St. Dimitry by the local music school at which the children's choir from Sviblovo took part. We had the opportunity to visit the city bazaar, and otherwise participate in this feast of the city of Uglich. 

After a long and very beautiful day we arrived back in Moscow at about 9:00 p.m. Tomorrow, God willing, we will serve Liturgy at the parish in Frazeno where Fr. Sergei is also the Rector. I ask your prayers for continued safe travels.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Uglich - Unexpected

Today we arrived in Uglich For the 425th anniversary of the martyric death of St. Dimitry the Tsarevich. I had the great pleasure of meeting the newly-consecrated Bishop Theodore of Uglich. This is a new diocese - one of the many new dioceses in Russia created in the last few years. The dioceses are being broken into smaller pieces to make the bishops more accessible to the people and to better spread the faith. Meting Bishop Theodore here one has great hope that this plan will be fruitful. Especially if he is indicative of the new cadre of young bishops being appointed to fill the episcopal vacancies of these newly-created dioceses.

After the Vigil, which was sung truly beautifully by three choirs (two special visiting choirs and one of the local choirs), we joined Bishop Theodore and several of the senior clerics from Uglich for dinner as we traveled on a boat on the Volga. Clearly something (probably several things) got crossed off the bucket list today. Below please find pictures I took from the boat on which we dined, as well as a few videos I took at the table of one of the visiting choirs singing during dinner.

I would like to say here that the clergy of Uglich were incredibly welcoming to us. Many of the fathers knew Fr. Sergei Kiselev (we are here with the choir from his school in Sviblovo), since his son Gleb was living in one of the monasteries here before he tragically and suddenly passed away. We have asked the prayers of everyone in our parish for Gleb in the past and I would like to do so again here now - please remember him in your prayers at home and in church.

I can say that the beginning of this visit was very spiritually invigorating. And I am looking forward to tomorrow's festivities. Now I am off to read the prayers before Holy Communion in preparation for serving the patronal feast of this city. But before I close I would like to say that internet connectivity here has not been as good as I hoped it might be. I don't mean in Uglich - I mean in Russia. Who knows why. It does not matter. Except - if you are not hearing back from me in a timely manner this is likely because I am having trouble receiving emails. Much more so than I thought I would. And even when I can receive emails I cannot access the Internet. This is not a complaint. But I want you to know that I am not ignoring you. :)