Impressions of Father George about Suzdal and Russia

Dear faithful,

Greetings in Christ.

I recall visiting this Church outside Suzdal with the cemetery. The construction was not quite finished to the Metropolitan's dismay, for it was his intention that Vladyka Gregory should consecrate this Church.

The chuch is somewhat small, and if I remember correctly, it is in an isolated area, with trees on one side a hundred feet off in the background, and on the near side, a large expanse of gently rolling fields. To our left I seem to recall a frozen river, with traces of children's sleighs on the steeper hill side.

It was very cold that day.

I'll take this opportunity to relate some more of our trip.

The day that Vladyka took us to this particular church was the day that he showed us a substantial part of Suzdal from the car. I don't remember everything he said, but I do remember that all the time we drove, he spoke almost continuously about the history of Suzdal, the famous people of antiquity who had lived there, and which churches their lives circled around.

Here is one edifying account, as much as I am able to remember.

The Father of Tsar Ivan the Terrible had married one woman who was barren. After some time, he decided to divorce her, although the Church forbade it. But out of human pride, he disobeyed, and put his wife in a convent. He then proceeded to write letters to all the Patriarchates of the East, asking for their permission to remarry. No one consented, and in fact, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, warned him that if he were to disobey, the offspring of this illegal marriage would make Russia flow with rivers of blood. That offspring was Ivan the Terrible.

Anyhow, the woman whom he forced to adibe in the convent was a hot tempered person, and she did not receive this with any submission whatsoever. When she was made a nun by the Patriarch himself, she was screaming in the Church that she did not want to become a nun. An abbess answered in her place affirmatively at each of the vows, and they had to physically restrain her to make her stand through the service. Each time the Patriarch asked her one of the questions, which are the vows, and the nun answered in her place, she would cry out loudly that she did not accept that vow. It was a great scene.

Afterwards, they wisked her away to our Suzdal, and there, she was imprisoned in one of the convents. Her life in this convent was not very difficult, as all the people reverenced her, and she commanded respect from them, as the former wife of the Tsar. In fact, she continued to live as the Tsar's wife, with *all* due respect from her subjects.When the Tsar learned this, he sent her to another convent, where the abbess was stricter, where she was treated like a simple nun. From that time, she gradually began to accept with humility her monastic state. In time, she fully dedicated herself to the monastic life, doing all the lowly work any nun might do in the convent, and ultimately, she became a true glorified Saint. Her love for her fellow man was exemplary, and she became a light for the whole city. Unfortunately I've forgotten her name. Perhaps someone from Russia can help me.

Let me return to that particular day now.

As we drove about the changing landscape of Suzdal, now hilly, now flat, we came to a large expanse some distance from the center of the town, overlooking most of the churches. It was a magnificent view of so many churches, glistening in the fresh snow, most of which actually belonged to our Church. As it was towards afternoon, the sunlight being cast gave the panorama a brilliant luminescence. The image here was timeless, practically unchanged for centuries. Living in Suzdal, its easy to think that you're living in pre-revolutionary Russia, and in fact, the whole country is Orthodox. Of course, once you head out to Vladimir, the closest large city, well, you're coming back to America...

As we continued on, we came across that type of Church found only in Russia, which is contructed entirely from wood, without any nails, but with wooden pegs instead. Even the fence around the temple had special interlocking joints to secure it from post to post. I had seen so many of these churches in picture books, that to see one right in front of me was like a childhood dream come true. It was like a story book picture. Having participated in the construction of our small Cathedral at the monastery, and knowing all the steps involved in the construction, my appreciation was magnified, especially considering the fact that when they built this church, they did *not* have power tools. :)

Now that I mentioned wood, I recall the careful style in which many of the residential homes in Suzdal were constucted. You may recall earlier this year when some arsonists attempted to destroy another building Vladyka Metropolitan built, it was mentioned that only the trim wood was burnt off. I didn't quite understand what this special trim wood was, since I had never seen it. But driving throughout Suzdal, one sees this ornate trim wood on almost every house, around each window. On some of the more fancy houses, it is hanging from the rise of the roof. It is made from a thick piece of wood to endure the cold, and is scroll work cut through in all sorts of flowerly patterns. I suppose this might be some indication of what Suzdal is like in summer time. Hopefully I'll be able to confirm that.

Then Vladyka took us out of Suzdal, about a ten minute drive to a very small villiage, where he had just taken possession of a small Church dedicated to Saint George. I felt very at home here. :) But the events which transpired there are more important.

This church was long and narrow, about 50ft long by 20 ft wide. It had a nave section, with a tall coupola on top. It also had a narthex. The structure was built from brick, with intricate designs on the outside, as you might see on Mount Athos.

The problem was that the narthex had no roof at all. The windows were completely smashed out of it. Cracks were visible everywhere, just waiting for summer to appear to be filled with weeds and such. Since the narthex was in such a condition, the only part of the church that was viable for services was the nave, which by now was about 20 x 20, with a small sanctuary attached. The door was a large steel door, green, I seem to recall, on the side of the nave.

Vladyka Metropolitan turned to us and said, "This is the condition that we obtain the churches in."

When we brought to mind how beautiful the other churches we had seen that day were, it gave us a clue as to how much work the Metropolitan has actually exercised in building up the Church in Suzdal, not to mention in all of Russia. And with his monetary means being so limited, its amazing what he has actually accomplished.

I think that Vladyka Metropolitan loves Suzdal very much. He has become an integral part of its history, to which he has devoted a considerable amount of study. I would venture to speculate that he sees himself as the inheritor of the glorious history of Suzdal, and takes care to preserve that which he has received from his forefathers. This would shed light on why he has endeavored to save so many churches, and build several himself in the Suzdal style. Not only this, but he continuously strives to preserve the Faith of his fathers, our beloved Orthodoxy, in these churches. He has been the driving force behind a spiritual resurrection in Russia, which has manifested itself in the churches he has built, and the thousands of souls who are spiritually fed in them.

There was one phenomenon that occurred so often during our travels throughout Russia, that I cannot pass it by in silence.

On our way out to see this church of Saint George, we passed two women, dressed in their fur coats, walking arm in arm. I don't know where they were going, or exactly where they had come from. We drove on our way out to the Church, and then returned again. On our way back, we passed them again. A simple occurence? Certainly, expect that the tempature outside was extremely cold, and here are two middle aged women out walking in the middle of this freezing landscape, walking a distance that took us 15 minutes by car, approxmiately 30 miles.

This didn't happen once, but many times we would pass people trugging along out in the middle of nowhere, with only a fur coat, their Russian shapka (fox hat), and some good boots. If we were not completely scrunched into the car we had, I know Vladyka would have picked them up.

Life in Russia is not like life in America in many ways. For us to live in Russia today, would feel like living on Mount Athos in many ways, 500 years ago, to us. Most people do not have cars, and do not want one. They don't have all the expensive stuff we have access to here; I wonder if they really care about it.

Mother Mariam once told me that in Greece on the islands, the people are not in the race to acquire things. They are content to live in small homes, with their neighbors, and at the end of the day, to sit down and talk with those they love.

This is a big part of Russian society today.

Is this something particular to Greece and Russia, or is this something which the Greeks transmitted to Russia through Orthodoxy? I think the latter is more likely, as this characteristic is found in every Orthodox country I have ever seen.

Well, let me go on to describe yet another Church, which I hope I have not already mentioned.

On the opposite side of Suzdal, about a 5 minute drive from the Metropolitan's residence, we found the modern section of Suzdal, where they had "authentic" apartment buildings. They were unlike the skyscraper type in Moscow, in that they were only two stories high, as regulated by the Suzdal city council. They were all identical, in every way, gray in color, and somewhat melancholic.

As we drove, Vladyka Metropolitan explained that the believers in this area had asked Vladyka to build them a church, because walking to Suzdal for the older ladies was too far. So, he obliged their request.

About ten people asked for the temple, but when it was built, Vladyka found that he had made it too small, because 50 people decided to come. So the church was packed the following day when Vladyka Gregory served the Divine Liturgy there.

It was a small white church, with a silver coupola on top. It was completely frescoed. Many people had a hand in painting it, including most of the monks. Vladyka happened to own this piece of property, and so it is here that he hopes to be buried. If he were buried on public lands, the MP might do some vile crime against his body, either desecration or vandalism.

Sadly, this church had already been vandalized by the enemies of our Church. It had spray paint on the outside of the temple, if you can imagine. The church had suffered a martyrdom, if you consider it carefully.

In the Gospel our Lord says that we don't light a candle, and then put it under a basket. We put it on the lampstand, in order that those who behold it will have light to guide them. This is what a bishop is: he is set before not only the Church, but the entire world, as the shining example of the life in Christ. As he reflects the light of Christ, his deeds are manifest to all.

If they have persecuted Me, they will persecute you also, our Saviour said.

Thus, the bishop must be ready to accept that not everyone in his diocese will love him, and some will even actively persecute him. Such is the case of Vladyka Valentine. Our prayers should not cease for him, as his prayers for us do not.

With love in Christ,

George, hieromonk


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