Strolling through Moscow in the spring and summer of 1997, you couldn’t lose sight of the sacred if you wanted to. The municipal government was working doggedly to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Savior – at 103 meters, the tallest Orthodox church in the world. With a bone-white exterior and domes of blinding gold, it looks like Paris’ Sacre-coeur basilica might have looked had its design been entrusted to Mr. T. Even under scaffolding, the thing had a way of jamming itself into the eye like a thumb.
Tomorrow, Orthodox believers worldwide celebrate Easter. Only thanks to Rod Dreher do I know this. Keeping up with the Catholic liturgical calendar – not to mention doctrine and discipline – is chore enough, and leaves no room in my mind’s tiny attic for the Orthodox versions. But for a few months almost two decades ago, I did live in a milieu overhung with Orthodoxy’s trappings and submerged in its style. If the experience didn’t make a Christian of me, it did prime my soul for the sacramental life that I was later to enter.
Six years after the Soviet Union had dissolved, Russian society was in free-fall. The mob was in charge, the kids were on heroin, and the girls were hot to trot for green cards or money. And those people, at least, were enjoying themselves. The average Muscovite, it seemed, spent his or her days fretting over inflation and gazing numbly into the middle distance through milky eyes (though milk was not the most popular beverage by a long shot). The place looked like the scene of a special zombie apocalypse that infected victims with ennui instead of blood lust.
Anyone yearning to flee the grimness had a short menu of destinations to choose from. There were the gaudy playgrounds of Russia’s spanking-new entrepreneurial class – places like GUM, the department store, with its famous glass roof, now fully privatized; and Night Flight, the bar, which had made the Western press for charging $100 for a shot of vodka. For me, a humble student at Moscow State Linguistic University and an intern at Hewlett-Packard, those places offered nothing but a sense of relative deprivation.
That left the city’s monumental and historical side. Here, Orthodox Christianity enjoyed a monopoly which the communists had never really succeeded in co-opting. Red Square, scene of so many awesome military galas, was in normal times dominated by St. Basil’s Cathedral, with a second cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, stuck on the side like a donut in the trunk. It was accessible through a turreted gate named in honor of the Resurrection. (Whose Resurrection? Not Maksim Gorkii’s.) The dead Soviet cultural elite, along with Anastas Mikoyan and Nikita Khrushchev, moldered in a cemetery just outside the walls of Novodevichii Convent, where Peter the Great had confined his ambitious half-sister, Sofiya.
But it’s likely none of these observations would have found a receptive context had it not been for my first taste of the Divine Liturgy, which I arrived at, fittingly enough, through an act of God. After flying in from JFK on a Sunday, under the darkest, surliest-looking sky I have ever seen in daytime, I headed straight to Red Square. While I was struggling to read the inscription that marked Lobnoe Mesto – the Skull Spot, where death sentences had once been announced – that sky opened up like a spigot. With literally no idea what I was getting myself into, I ducked into Kazan Cathedral.
I walked through the doors straight into a black cloud of incense. No sooner had my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting than they were dazzled by flickering candles reflected in gold-leaf iconostases. As the choir, chanting in Slavonic, was giving my ears a brisk workout, the entire congregation flopped face-first onto the floor.
No need for air-raid drills, gang, I was on the point of saying. Cold War’s over – you lost! But then a growling face on the far wall, behind the altar, caught my attention. It turned out to be Jesus, as captured on the Holy Mandylion. If the beard weren’t enough to establish his identity, he was flanked by the Greek letters X and P, picked out in Christmas lights – an aesthetic call that seems a lot more logical in print than it looked at the time. This flooding of my senses overrode any reverence or regard for propriety, and I went wandering, benumbed, through the chapel, inhaling the myrrh and staring into the icons, unconcerned that I was making a total tourist of myself.
Coming to – no other expression does the experience justice – I noticed a young woman standing by the door. With silver-blonde hair and bee-stung lips, tricked out in chic leggings, boots and a leather jacket, she looked to be out of God’s own league. Yet there she was. Standing primly with folded hands, her head covered by a scarf, almond eyes fixed on the wall with a look of perfect meekness, she made as near a match for Mary Magdalen as I expect to encounter this side of the grave.
It occurs to me that my dazzled, uncomprehending immersion into Orthodoxy must mirror the experience of the illiterate muzhik of bygone days. Even now that I am eight years on the far side of my own Catholic baptism and fairly surrounded by intellectuals, my appreciation for Christianity remains that of a peasant – earthy, practical, impatient of hair-splitting and Utopian prophesying.
I like Christianity because its roots go too deep to admit of an easy digging-up. Even when it represents itself with showy buildings and makes no effective move to meet the physical needs of the people, it offers a hint of transcendence, a glimmering hope of a world without end. In both the literal and the figurative senses, it provides shelter on rainy days, and a rough sense of parity with people who would normally blast you with pepper spray. Beyond this, all is commentary. (Fortunately, there are careers to be made in commentary.)
It might be quite a while, though, before I follow Rod Dreher’s lead in swimming the Moskva-reka. It’s very nice of the Orthodox Churches to blast believers into imbecility with bells and smells, to say nothing of sounds and neon. But not giving them pews to slump onto? That’s downright un-Christian.