The priest withdrew to the chancel, attended by acolytes
and followed by worshippers – straggling throu the rough stone arch,
a hundred in all maybe: the old ones wearing black,
but also young urban families with anxious mothers in head-scarves
and youngsters with quilted jackets; plus a smattering of well-dressed
middle-aged women the communists would’ve labeled class enemies.
The low square nave slowly assumed a flickering stillness,
every painted inch absorbing the veneration
of a second wave of solitary iconophiles,
nondescript figures who moved and paused, and moved and paused,
mouthing prayers and crossing themselves continually.
The distant intonation of a homily
did not engage these private devotees, nor
the punk in street clothes with a fist of candles, lighting
them at random stations. This ancient heart of Russia
still beating fervently for all its long submersion.
Discreetly photographing faith’s timeless pageant, my eye
is drawn to a queue for a silver icon with blackened images.
The faithful mount a dais, triple-cross themselves,
kiss its covering glass – for a moment illuminated
in the bright reflexion – triple-cross again,
and descend once more into obscurity.
I join the shuffling queue, uncertain of how to behave.
Before it, touching my head to the glass I am visited
by a sudden rush of physical energy, as if
‘Our Lady, mother of victories’ had thrown a pan of heated
water at my face, drenching my head and shoulders
in a shocking baptism – delivered without preamble
or explanation. For me to decode its significance.
A mystical Russia now opens before me, where glory and savagery
coexist – this silent inner knowledge stretching
from here back to infinity, linking believer
and unbeliever in a majestic brutal bedrock
reality, unglossed by transient politics
or sentimental western ideas of normality.
Just then, the service ended and all the bells broke loose
as these indistinct individuals emerged to freezing sunlight,
honoured in the street by this majestic clangour,
and momentarily lightened from the oppressive city,
before melting back into their anonymous lives.
And I – left standing – uncertain if my life had changed
dramatically … or subtly … or not at all.
So, in all encounters, exists the option of change:
but how to recognise or unwrap these hidden gifts?
How to decode its meaning or reorientate our compass?
Experiences such as this show meaning itself to be plastic.
The challenge: to trust the unknown process moulding us into
an unfamiliar shape, during its amorphous phase.
The mystery of magic is the mystery of faith –
the way the fog of doubt dissolves when least expected
(like a crystal rainbow falling across the page) *
and we emerge to find an unfamiliar sunlight
with all the bells of heaven ringing in our ears –
and yet our human state’s unchanged, absolving us
from nothing that before was deeply troubling us –
but still we know, somehow, we’re indefinably different:
suddenly oppression’s lifted, and we have resources
to meet the challenges head on. Tho the final battle
may yet involve a descent from this very brightness into
the womby dark to tackle what we hoped to’ve escaped,
but was itself the gift that had come to change us for good.
St Nicholas of the Weavers,
(Dec 2008) – 11/09/2009
*I had to include this line because it actually happened as I wrote!