One day after a long day of walking in the rain, at about 6pm, I was heading to my hostel when a melodious many voiced chant reached my ears. I was beside a large and beautiful cathedral and I thought “Oh well, that will be a nice way to finish my day.”
The main door to the cathedral was closed. As I walked around in the direction of the singing, I saw a small side door with a sign “Entrance to Church”. I covered my head with my scarf (routine in Russian Orthodox Churches – men uncover theirs), heaved open the heavy doors (many doors in Russia are weighty life-threatening gym workouts – I have decided that is to keep the snow out when needed), and entered.
To my surprise, I had not entered the main church hall. I was in a small side temple. Men and women stood in the open floor area listening devoutly to the hummed prayers upfront and at regular intervals, presumably on cue, bowed and crossed themselves. I found myself a space near the door and made myself as inconspicuous as possible.
This was my first experience of a Russian church in action. There were no seats – I was used to that now – and the front alter as usual was divided from the godly space behind it by a towering wall of glittering golden icons of saints, patriarchs and angels. I had not noticed before the doors in the left and right panels and the double doors in the middle. The left and right doors appeared to be used by the attendants, the double doors later worshipped at by one of the celebrants.
Slightly in front of the iconostasis (wall), and on the same level as the rest of us, was a lectern holding seemingly the most important icon for that temple. Around it in a semi circle with their backs to the surrounding congregation were seven men in long black robes, crosses and other medalions on long chains hanging from their necks, and many with long hair and beards, chanting.
The men seemed slightly amused by, and gave each other sly glances on hearing, the voice that lead the chants – a woman!?! It was clear that this was unusual and that they found it slightly uncomfortable. The woman too seemed to alternate between a tuneful higher pitch and a lower more self-reflective one. On consideration, I did not see the woman – I accept that I may be making assumptions!
I enjoyed the atmosphere, some peaceful contemplation and watching the singing men shift their weight from leg to leg in a casual and sometimes slightly bored-looking manner.
A young, drunk and possibly homeless woman weaved among the congregation occasionally accosting some poor devotee and adding further distraction. I could not work out if she wanted money or a customer but was pleased to be able to whisper “I don’t understand” when she attempted conversation with me. Later, a woman could be heard with her outside telling her how to behave. This did stop her talking when she came back in, but her wobble had set in.
The ceremonies ended with a combination of the men kissing the icon, blessing some water, and then the main man using what appeared to be like a thin paint brush to mark a cross on each of the other men’s foreheads after dipping it in the water. Each crossed man then kissed the main man’s hand or ring. After this, a bevy of wanna-be black robed men were crossed and then those that wanted to from the congregation went up to be blessed. Each person also kissed the icon on passing. A robed man walked about the temple among us swinging a bawble of wafting incense. This all happened slowly, peacefully, solemnly but also with a definite hint of merriment and celebration!
I wished that I understood more about who was who and what was what but regardless I felt privileged to be able to share in this obviously very sacred ceremony at the end of a busy day.
Since then, I have often noticed people popping into churches about the same time on the way home from work and occasionally I take a moment to join them. The church was largely outlawed for most of the Soviet years. But, you just never know what is going on behind closed doors.