Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Moscow, 14.10.92: Purgatorial Pilgrims and Contemporary Saints

3 A.M. Something that struck me at the Danilov monastery: how the Russians we’ve met recount stories of the founders of the monasteries as if they’re contemporaneous. Don’t know quite how to put the point, except that the guides spoke of St. Sergius and St. Danil in a living way. These weren’t just hagiographical tales of historical accounts: they were stories of one simple person who still lives on for those who live in and come to the monastery.

Much fruit for thought here. Inter alia, I think of how resurrection means at least in part that one who lived in a memorable holy way is remembered in a living way, as a living and continuously effective presence. At Danilov monastery, they told us the monks all gather to pray before the tomb of St. Danil for two hours daily. Very early Christian.

But also I think of how the life of one committed person can change history forever. If we went back beyond the gloss of centuries of hagiography and piety, what would we find? A person, one who dared live with courageous faith. In a sense, oddly, that’s what Russian Orthodoxy seems to recognize—even in its most lavish accounts of miracles by the saint, there’s nonetheless almost a colloquial, endearingly familiar, way in which the faithful speak of the monastic founders as if they’re beloved contemporaries.

This makes me wonder about how Christianity may grow via saints in the future. We assume the age that welcomed a Sergius or a Danil was somehow a simpler age, one in which it was easier to be a saint, to be acclaimed by the simple faithful. And in one sense it was.

But maybe it actually was no less complex and challenging than our time. Saints for every age: this seems to be a promise of Christianity, and if monasticism is now integral to the life of the church as a school of saints, then one may also say, new founders of monasteries for every age.

Where Russian Orthodoxy seems to have the advantage over Catholicism is in its relative lack of organization. By the fact that it encourages a kind of do-it-yourself spirituality and liturgy, it also encourages non-standardized forms of monastic life—or at least, seems to have done so up to the revolution. In this respect the Russian church is like the pre-Whitby Celtic church—organized far more around the monastery than the bishop, or that is to say, conjoining monastic life to church office. And I imagine in the Irish church, the saints, the monastic founders and hermits, were also long spoken of with the same familiarity and ease as in Russian Orthodoxy.

There’s a great hopefulness in all this, for a church able continually to revitalize itself, even for me as one who can live (as Rilke says) more for the coming God and the future with which the present is now pregnant, than for the past or present. One of the things I wanted to see spiritually in Russia is how to live more decisively that way.

What I lack is clear direction: live for the future how? As a theologian, college teacher of theology? If so, at Belmont Abbey College? If not, where? Or live as a monk, writer, hermit? How, where? This Russian trip is a pilgrimage of sorts in which I’m praying, praying, to see more clearly and have the courage to act. I invoke my contemporary great saint, Oscar Romero, and pray he’ll protect and guide me in a special way here, and I also entrust myself to the patroness of Belmont Abbey, Mary Help of Christians. Pray for me: I am a miserable sinner, much in need of mercy and tender consolation.

4 A.M. Terrible stomach upset. Can’t sleep. Can’t even begin to rest . . . .

10 A.M. Did not go on tour. Hope I can rest, but, Lord—alone, in Russia, full of fear and dread?

Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet: “Being an artist means not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree.”

4 P.M. Have rested some today, till noon, then the adventure of ordering a meal in the restaurant. Because I stayed her alone, the meals not provided. The waiter mercifully spoke a little English, and I managed to get borscht, chicken tabac (fried in the abominable grease everything here is fried in), and a few dabs of red and green cole slaw with raw sliced onion.

The food is so horrible I stay perpetually nauseous. Practically everything is fried heavily and inexpertly in tired grease, and I’m not sure if it’s animal or vegetable. The salads (i.e., cole slaw and occasionally tomatoes) are dressed with an oil that is absolutely revolting—may be walnut, but tastes like some ring-worm medicine we used as children smelled when it was applied, a medicinal tea made from green black walnuts boiled.

Smell is the word. Often when I get onto elevators, I almost gag with it. Even at the opera the nicely dressed woman next to me was intolerable: months and months of stale sweat mixed with the smell of fried food, onion and garlic, and heavy tobacco smoke. I dread the Aeroflot flight to Tashkent tomorrow—six hours!—for that reason alone.

The whole hotel reeks, and nothing is clean. I see flies on all the food.

What else today? Walked up the street after lunch. Amazing variety of faces in Russia: broad blond-red Slavic ones, narrow dark ones, I suppose from Georgia, an Asian-Slav look that Chuck’s friend Peter has. And one sees out and out Asians, and a few black folks.

Just before I finished lunch, the hostess seated a young Russian across from me who looked, in fact, a lot like Peter. His English was poor, and I could tell he didn’t understand me. I asked about leaving a tip, and he launched into a monologue re: how everywhere—U.S., Russia—all is theater. Or that’s what I understood. He told me he was a veteran of the Afghan war.

Other than that, I feel truly awful. Have been thinking how traveling with a small group of people is the parable of life’s journey people like Chaucer and Katherine Anne Porter have made of it. One feels the misery of others, one suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous daily intercourse with others as imperfect as oneself, and yet one must cling to the group because all outside is threatening, in that one does not speak the language of the land.

Jean M. proves impossible to bear. Everyone else I can tolerate, even enjoy, but she attacks me at every turn, and irritates the life out of me. I don’t even want to write about it, am so upset with her from something she said last night.

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