They say it is impossible to get Russians out into the streets; that no more than several hundred people would routinely come to opposition rallies.
|Picture of the Holy Belt of the Theotokos in its reliquary,|
treasured at the Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos
I am talking about the immense popularity of relics, wonder-making icons or other holy objects, commonly known in Russian as svyatyni – a phenomenon largely forgotten in the Christian West, but very much alive in the Christian East and really flourishing in today’s Russia.
A remarkable procession is currently taking place in Russia, something one would have a hard time imagining in any other modern country except perhaps some parts of Spain, Italy, Greece or Latin America. But the scale is unprecedented.
The Belt of the Virgin Mary, otherwise referred to as the Precious Sash, or Cincture, of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos – the holy treasure of the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, is travelling abroad for the first time. The Belt is travelling in style. It flies in a private jet, chartered by the tour’s organizer – the influential St. Andrew Foundation, and is accompanied by six Vatopedi monks. In St. Petersburg, it was welcomed by none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest city, Governor Alexander Misharin and the region’s bishop, Metropolitan Kirill, met the relic with the guard of honor before a procession of some 15,000 people took it to the cathedral.
|Worshippers stand in line to Yekaterinburg's Trinity Cathedral|
|Women welcoming the relic in Krasnoyarsk|
My answer is – it’s all of the above. Moreover, veneration of, or respect for, or even hunting for various sorts of svyatyni is a core element of Russian religiosity.
“Russia knew neither Reformation nor Counterreformation with their explanations, symbolic interpretations and the uprooting of medieval idol-worshiping,” famous Russian Christian scholar George Fedotov wrote in his 1946 classic The Russian Religious Mind. “The Russian peasant, even in the 19th century, lived as if in the Middle Ages. Many foreigners have written that this people is the most religious in Europe. But in essence, it is more about various degrees of maturity rather than about substantial peculiarities of spirit and culture. The same historical factors have preserved the religious perceptiveness of the Russian people in the era of rationalism, while not touching the many pagan customs, cults and even the pagan worldview both within the church and outside it.”
Indeed, what was the original reason for building the Amiens Cathedral – the greatest medieval structure in Europe? It was the head of St. John the Baptist – one of the thousands of relics that Crusaders plundered from the Christian East to move to the West. Today, not so many Roman Catholics come to Amiens for that. But, with the opening of the borders and globalization, the Orthodox Christians have begun to, and its Catholic custodians are happy to welcome the new pilgrims. Or come to the Notre Dame de Paris on the first Friday of the month, when Christ’s Crown of Thorns is taken out for veneration -- more than a half of the worshippers would be Orthodox, many of them – Russian.
|Pilgrims at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem|
For many people the hunt for the holy is, of course, magic. A desire for a quick solution to their problems. Or some solution. Or, maybe, the first time they would pray. Who knows? And if the svyatynya is on tour from abroad, if access to it is limited one way or the other – so the more popular it would be.
Eleven years ago, one of the first times a “touring holy” was in Moscow – it was the head of St. Panteleimon (Pantaleon) the Healer, also from Mount Athos, I spent eight hours waiting in line to be able to venerate it. If someone had told me a day before that I’d be able to wait so long in line, I’d laugh at the person’s face. But it was a very special line – it was easy to wait, easy to stand, people prayed all around you, and so did you. The line itself was a sort of liturgy too. Closer towards the end of the line, sellers appeared walking along the line offering paper icons and brochures. “You cannot pray to the icons – it is idolatry,” a teenage girl who I had remembered standing behind me for hours now, told her friend, as if reciting from some Protestant literature. I could not hold myself, turned back to her and said: “If that is how you believe, what have you been doing here for seven hours plus? Because the relics are in essence the same as an icon?” She was unsettled by the question at first.
And then her eyes glazed and she said dreamily: “And what if something happens?” She wanted a miracle too.