Sunday, 17 January 2010
Kyiv Pechersk Lavra has many charms, some of them hidden
Crossing the bridge on the way from the airport, the golden domes of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (Cave Monastery) are the first postcard image Kyiv has to offer its visitors. Of course, the monastery has been there way before the first planes touched ground. In the thick woods of 11th century Kyiv, a few monks dug out caves for prayer and reclusion in what later became a male monastery, or Lavra. Throughout centuries, it has accumulated enough stories of miracle and pain to become known as the second Jerusalem among the Orthodox Christians.To get in touch with a holier part of this city during the holiday season, Lavra is an ideal place.The tour guides will take you through bewildering caves where over a hundred relics have survived centuries without special treatment. They will also tell you of the Soviet-era atrocities, pointing to a great brick lump – all that’s left from the original Dormition Cathedral bombed during the World War II. There are also museums with secular and religious displays to explore.The Lavra, however, is more than a collection of religious artifacts.The holy complex consists of two parts: the Upper and the Lower Lavra. The Upper grounds – home to the magnificent bell tower and millennium-old churches – belong to the state, so there is a fee to get in. This is where tourists outnumber churchgoers.The Lower Lavra, however, belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and dwells in its own world, much of it off limits to tourists.Only some 150 monks live in the Lavra cells, compared to 7,000 four centuries ago. They wake up at 5 a.m. for the first service in the caves and the churches. In between prayers, they go to work inside the monastery as any other layman.The clerical community provides for itself running a candle factory, jewelery shop, printing house, bakery, hotel and a pilgrimage agency. Among other ventures, there is also a seminary and an ecclesiastical academy.The state helps maintain church facades and interiors to make up for the Soviet attempts to secularize them. Authorities also gave 3,000 hectares of agricultural land outside Kyiv for monks to develop and grow their own food. Private donations help to cover the rest.One of the most popular festive traditions of shopping sweeps even the clergy. In a small shop on the territory of the Far Caves, mostly bearded men in long black gowns try to squeeze to the front for a better view of icons, golden lampions, sparkling crosses and holy books. Well-mannered and calm, they run through lists of what they need for their parishes, their eyes filled with childlike joy. Meanwhile, young nuns wrapped up in black make the sales in sophisticated and inconspicuous manner, that one can barely tell they are sales clerks.Although anyone can shop, not everything is for sale. Certain elements of church attire (for example, some hats that higher Orthodox Church clerks wear), as well as some decorations, can only be bought with a special written permission from the relevant clerical authority.Although this comparison would be frowned upon by the church people themselves – at the very least – the shop is not unlike the mysterious and exciting store where the wizards in Harry Potter bought their broomsticks and magical attire.Downstairs from the shop, there is a refectory where monks gather for lunch when the church bell rings sharply at noon. In a spacious hall with a dome-like ceiling painted with religious scenes, they stand up for prayer before and after a meal. They only get half an hour to eat a soup, stewed cabbage and a few helpings of potatoes while one of the monks is reading an excerpt from the Bible. As a sign of modesty, they use only spoons. Knives and forks become available on holidays and weekends.During Christmas fasting, they abstain from meat, milk and eggs, occasionally allowing themselves some fish on weekends. Bread comes from the Lavra’s own bakery, where Father Tit – striking a close resemblance with Santa Claus – conjures buns for rituals and meals.The refectory, the dome factory (where church domes are made) and bakery are closed for public. But there is the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary – popular for weddings and baptisms – which you can visit to see rituals in action. Right behind it, there is a small cemetery with a few headstones, missing dates and names.Monks say that burials were prohibited here during Soviet days because the Lower Lavra was also a part of the museum complex. Despite its transfer to the church, the ban still seems to be in place. So when monks die, they are buried on the territory of the old cemetery, but their names and years of life can only be tracked through church records as the grave stones remain empty.A wooden tunnel connecting the Far Caves and the Near Caves is best for winter walks. If you step outside into the garden area, you may spot pigeons and blue tits that will eat from your hands if you happen to have sunflower seeds or bread crumbs with you. This kind of trust is hard to find in Kyiv outside the Lavra.Next to the Near Caves, Archbishop Pavel resides in a small one-storey house overlooking the Dnipro. He’s been in charge of the monastery for 15 years, and nothing happens in this place without his blessing. He seems to have handpicked the people who sell candles, clean altars and pray in the caves.Blessing a parishioner on the porch of his humble abode, the archbishop says: “There is no return, only to the earth, you know that?” A woman in her 60s nods, eagerly accepting the honor with deep veneration.Novice Nina selling candles in the Near Caves said she was also personally invited by the archbishop during her long years of praying in the Lavra. She started attending services after the Chornobyl nuclear explosion in 1986. For one year, she worked in the cafeteria right next to the reactor preparing meals for the liquidators. She said that praying in the Lavra helped her overcome Chornobyl-related diseases afterwards.Nun Feodosia is a rare exception in the Lavra’s male monastery. She has been allowed to live in to teach old-style embroidery for church attire. Born in France, she became a nun in Jerusalem.Despite the Soviet ban on religion, she came to Ukraine to connect with her mother’s roots. Her mother had been taken to the German camps from Eastern Ukraine during World War II. Feodosia has a laptop and internet in her room to connect to the world outside the monastery.The Lavra does not run out of miraculous stories and characters. It breathes peace and history despite the destructive patches of history it went through, despite wars and ever-changing leaders. If not for spiritual reasons, go there to slow down the pace of life while trotting the cobble stones, feeding the birds and enjoying the church bells performance every evening at 5 p.m.