Orthodox America

   Pilgrimage to Russia

With the mind Russia cannot be grasped, nor can she be measured by any ordinary standards. Russia is different, to be believed in with unquestioning faith. - F.I. Tyutchev


PART I Saint Alexander of Svir, Blessed Seer of the Holy Trinity

"It befits us ... always to weep over our sins." - Saint Alexander of Svir

During the Dormition Fast of 1998, I had the incomparable privilege of making a first trip to Russia - not so much to modern, post-Soviet Russia, but to old "Holy Russia," which is still very much present in that vast and great land of saints and sacred places. I went as a pilgrim, yet not part of a true pilgrimage. I travelled with a group of Americans (mostly non-Orthodox, although there were four of us from the Russian Church Abroad) who had a particular interest in sacred art and architecture (viz., icons and churches).

We were to spend most of our time in St Petersburg and Moscow, with important visits to the main cities of the Golden Ring (Novgorod, Vladimir, Suzdal), but for me, personally, I wanted contact with the saints themselves and with the most important of the holy icons that had sanctified them and their blessed land. Since we would be coming first to St Petersburg, the home of Saint Xenia the Homeless Wanderer of Petersburg, I had prayed especially hard to her, asking her to open all the right doors for me and bring me safely to wherever God wanted me to go. I had supposed, in fact, that the first shrine I would visit would be that of Saint Xenia. It was, however, with a very different saint that my pilgrimage was to begin.

We had been in St Petersburg no more than twenty-four hours when I learned, from an article in a local English-language paper, that the incorrupt relics of the fifteenth-century monastic father, Saint Alexander of Svir, thought to have been destroyed in the Revolution, had been unexpectedly rediscovered and returned to the Russian Church. Not only that, but the relics had begun to stream myrrh!

More than twenty years ago I had read a life of Saint Alexander and remembered it only in its broad outline - how he had been born of pious parents near Novgorod, was a very slow learner as a child (like Saint Sergius of Radonezh and Saint John of Kronstadt), until a heavenly visitation healed him of his educational handicap; how from youth he wished to live a life hidden in Christ, fleeing the disturbance of the world; how he entered monastic life and eventually left for the wilderness, where others gathered around him to form a hermitage, and how his life was spent in such consistent ascetic labors that "he shone like a great lamp by the grace of the Holy Spirit which dwelt in him, and blossomed like a fragrant rose with spiritual fruits ... and the saint was seen as an angel dwelling in the flesh..." (The Northern Thebaid, p. 122)

According to the news account I was now reading in St Petersburg, this Saint's relics, having only just been recovered, were now temporarily resting in the parish church of St Sophia and her Three Daughters, Faith, Hope, and Charity, where countless streams of the faithful were coming for prayer and healing. I contacted a friend in our Church in St Petersburg, Olga Mitrenina, and one evening she arranged with others to drive me to the parish church.

With excitement we drove through the streets of St Petersburg to a suburb, finally locating the parish church. The building itself was not old, and not distinguished, nor had it been originally built as a temple, but had been turned over to church authorities quite recently. Many people were milling around outside; inside, the church was filled with quiet believers, elbow to elbow, the old and the young, including even some members of the military. As we entered a moleben was being served at the reliquary coffin on the right hand side of the iconostasis, and everyone in the nave was kneeling.

Without difficulty we made our way through the crowd of worshippers to the shrine. As was to happen everywhere in Russia, there were respectful whispers of "Batiushka, Batiushka," and hands extended for a blessing. A guardian monk (I was to learn that he was from the monastery of Saint Alexander of Svir) opened the glass lid of the Saint's coffin as I approached so that I could venerate the relics directly. With a shock I saw that the Saint was not only incorrupt, but his skin was not at all darkened by the passing of nearly five centuries; it was as white as someone living today. As I kissed the bare feet I could see the miraculous myrrh forming, like drops of rich honey, between the toes. Meanwhile, the monk took my prayer rope and placed it for a moment in the Saint's hands. Standing back from the coffin to pray, I realized suddenly that I was gazing upon a Saint to whom had been vouchsafed the ineffable, the almost unheard-of, the indescribable: a visitation from the Holy Trinity itself. As the author of his Life had recorded:

...Suddenly a great light appeared in the cabin where he stood. The Saint was astonished and thought to himself: "What does this mean?" And suddenly he saw three men coming to him in most bright garments and clothed in white, beautiful in purity, shining more than the sun and illuminated with unutterable heavenly glory, and each holding a staff in his hand. The Saint, seeing them, was all trembling; for fear and terror seized him. And coming to himself a little, he understood, and strove to bow down to the ground before them. But they, taking him by the hand, raised him up, saying, "Have hope, O blessed one, and do not fear ... for the Holy Spirit has been pleased to dwell in you because of the purity of your heart." ... And the Lord said to the Saint, "Beloved ... you see the One speaking to you in Three Persons..." And suddenly the Saint saw the Lord with spread wings going on the ground as if by feet, and then He became invisible. (The Northern Thebaid, p. 120)

With reluctance I slowly stepped away from the reliquary coffin, melting back into the huge crowd of the faithful, aware of a strange warmth and fervor in my heart, something completely unexpected and undeserved, and something I had experienced only twice before: when I was ordained to the priesthood in 1979, and at the relics of Saint John Maximovitch on the occasion of his glorification in 1994. The guardian monk approached me and, through my friend Olga Vladimirovna, who translated, he told me in detail the story of the finding of these relics, as well as some of the new miracles that had already been worked through the intercession of Saint Alexander.

On this memorable evening I was to discover that Holy Russia still exists and lives, underneath all the heavy overlay of the "official" Church (the Moscow Patriarchate) and the difficult questions that for many of us still remain unanswered in that regard; and I saw that Holy Russia lives today beyond, or rather above, the darkness of the twentieth-century godless Soviet persecutions. The bright sunrise of old Holy Russia was still rising, glorious and warm and illuminating all who wish to gaze upon her with the eyes of faith. And I was privileged to be here. This was but the beginning of my pilgrimage...

"Wherefore, brethren, let us fall down before Him often with tears and confess to Him our sins, and He will save us with eternal salvation." - Saint Alexander of Svir