Magazine article Russian Life

On the March: The Orthodox Church Revives Mass Pilgrimages

Magazine article Russian Life

On the March: The Orthodox Church Revives Mass Pilgrimages

Article excerpt

If statistics are to be believed, or even half believed, the Russian Orthodox Church has a problem. Almost eight out of ten Russian adults are now baptized Christians--the same number who, by their own admission, don't pray, fast or celebrate feasts. Russians may identify themselves as Orthodox in surveys, but are little interested in participating in the life of the Church. And yet there is an interesting dynamic that has all but passed unnoticed. Believers might not be keeping the Sabbath by stepping out to church--but they are on the march all the same.

Like the rest of Europe, Russia is witnessing a curious and marked rise in pilgrimage. The rise is most noticeable in mass walking pilgrimages, called krestnye khody, "processions of the cross." These pilgrimages may last hours, days, even months, and unite hundreds, sometimes thousands of believers in symbolic journeys often perceived as helping to rebuild Russia, or to cleanse the nation of Soviet sins. The reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Church Abroad, for example, was celebrated by a "spiritual-educational program 'Under the Star of the Mother of God,'" in which processions from eight distant corners of Russia (two of which began in Athos, Greece and Jerusalem) walked to Moscow, inscribing an eight-pointed star across the country. Some participants walked for more than a year.

One of the largest annual pilgrimages in Russia today is the Velikoretskoye procession of the cross. Participants cover some 150 kilometers in a grueling five-day circular walk, with one rest day at the riverbank shrine where they venerate the icon that has led the procession all the way from Kirov. The pilgrimage is promoted as an ancient tradition that commemorates the discovery, on the banks of the Velikaya River, of an icon of St. Nicholas.

According to legend, more than six hundred years ago the inhabitants of Khlynov (now Kirov, although the town is debating a return to its pre-revolutionary name of Vyatka) were anxious to move this wonder-working icon to the security of their regional capital. The icon had other ideas, but finally allowed itself to be moved when the people promised to bring it back to its "birthplace" in the village of Velikoretskoye once a year, for a day of celebrations. This feast, on June 6, is the high point of the pilgrimage, when pilgrims confess, receive communion and bathe in the river or holy spring which marks the spot where the icon was found. The icon is then escorted back to Kirov and reinstalled in the cathedral.

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This journey is not for the fainthearted. Pilgrims rise most days at 2 a.m., and struggle through marshes, fields and forests for up to 18 hours, before collapsing for a few hours of sleep on the floor of a village school or under an army tent. Locals like to tell the story of an American who joined the procession several years ago and--on encountering a particularly impenetrable bog--declared in frustration, "how can you have been walking this route for six hundred years and not Laid asphalt yet?" They laugh and shake their heads. "It has to be hard, otherwise it wouldn't be a procession of the cross."

Father Vladimir has been filming the pilgrimage for years. "One of the pilgrims asked me--why film this? There's just mud wherever we go, mud, mud, mud. And people walking, walking, walking. People watching it will wonder why on earth they should come here, when there is nothing but mud," he says, smiling beatifically. "But the mud is beneficial, it's healing, it cleanses the soul." It also bonds people: the going is so difficult in places that the procession thins almost to one or two, and pilgrims form human chains to help each other through thigh-high water and mud almost as deep, collectively heaving baby carriages and wheelchairs over swamps and fallen trees.

The weather, too, purifies the faithful. "St. Nicholas teaches pilgrims with rain, snow, hail, heat, cold at every procession of the cross," one local woman explains. …

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