1 December 2012
People say that God is love. In Russia, this love is tangible... and truly moving.
I am not talking about the expression of benevolence of the Creator for its creatures – I don’t claim to have been the witness of it, Moscow not favouring me with a miracle. No, I am talking about the love of the faithful which can be so distinctly felt in churches.
I had already been really surprised upon entering the cathedral of Saint Basil, the well-known church of the Red Square bestowed with an unlikely collection of coloured onion domes. Coming from Europe, one assumes that cathedrals are necessarily imposing – and that the size of its inner volume is proportional to the feeling of elevation and to the intensity of the spiritual experience the believer goes through, struck by the paradoxical certitude of his own end and his aspiration to eternity.
In Saint Basil, on the contrary, one gradually discovers a fussy inside architecture, made of a juxtaposition of chapels – on two floors, what’s more. No sublime viewpoint nor any spectacular vault, but a succession of corners and nooks embellished with coloured frescoes – and then the iconostasis [a wall of icons and paintings] and its sumptuousness of gold shining in the darkness. I know nothing of Russian architecture and have only visited a small number of churches in Moscow (mainly the ones on the Red Square and in the Kremlin) but the impression I got from them is that closeness is preferred to openness – in a way, intimacy rather than monumentality.
Elsewhere, in a small, less-touristy church which name I have forgotten, I sat down in a corner to observe people. I let time slip away in that half light of church candles and in the whisper of visitors... and I saw believers honour the icons. I was in theory aware of this specificity of the orthodox religion, which is about venerating holy images as objects of divine essence. But I did not really expect to see what I did: this deep devotion pervading people’s behaviour. No gesture was devoid of meaning, nor were there any repetitive nor forced movements (as is however the case in Buddhist temples in China), but a very tactile connection with pious representations. Yes, there was love, tangible in that way of touching the icon and laying a kiss on it. Even more profound: there was tenderness – this gentle endearment which expresses itself towards what is really close and dear to us. And this was not just the behaviour of old ladies crystallised in respectability – I also saw strong guys in tracksuits stop in respect to drop a kiss on the hand of a golden-enameled Virgin Mary.
Even more astonishing is that scene I surprised in the Tretiakov Gallery – a big museum in Moscow bestowed with a pretty collection of Russian religious art. I was strolling along the artworks when I entered a room where a group of people was gathered around a Virgin Mary with the Child. There must have been about a dozen people standing, men and women of all ages, piously(!) listening to the words of a white-haired gentleman, apparently launched into a pictorial explanation of the aforementioned painting, but whose enthusiasm was inversely proportional to the sound of his voice. He suddenly stayed quiet, and I could feel that everyone was engaging in private prayer. A song then rose from the group, like a collective offering to this Madonna marked by a golden brown gentleness. Voices of men and women chanted in harmony, broke apart to better respond to one another, died down for a moment of respiration to better rise up again in an expression of numb faith.
What stunned me was not only that a choir would go to a museum to sing in a front of an icon. What overwhelmed me was that this song was only a whisper. It was an offering which intensity has only humility for equal, which authenticity is measured by the selflessness and the lack of staging. Those dozen united voices did not unfold, they combined to be contained in the closeness of a controlled vibration, both intense and minimalist. This hum, this murmur, this whisper, this rustle say much about the internalisation of a shared spiritual emotion. Faith thus revealed has in itself something deeply touching, in that humbleness and kindness. No need for cries, one’s heart’s truth is only what matters.
Author of the initial text in French and of the photos attached: Hélène Marlaud
The translation is mine.
When people around me are even more humble than I am, I double up on my desire to support them. At the same time, I don’t want to intrude too much. In the present case, I was not really allowed to publish my translation – the copyright is after all held by the author of the lines initially written in French. But I'm taking my chances, after pondering on what I should do for weeks, because I think it's worth sharing to a broader audience. The text moved me enough to take the time to translate it, although the translation is a pale copy of the beautifully-crafted words in French. Maybe my translation will move or interest you nonetheless.