My first time attending a service at a Russian Orthodox Church was full of surprises and discoveries.
I flew from Sochi to Moscow and met my friend at Moscow’s VDNKh metro station (airports of Moscow are quite smoothly connected to the metro system), eager to go explore more of the country. After a quick snack at a street cart, soon we were running around bus stop signs trying to find where the bus to the town of Sergiev Posad departed from. Sergiyev Posad, 60km from Moscow, was going to be my first religious city in Russia, my first step on the outskirts of Moscow, my first insight into a little Russian town and also, as I discovered, my first time witnessing a full fledged service at an Orthodox Church.
The bus was very comfortable (probably because I was exhausted and slept through most of it) and within an hour my friend was nudging me to wake up as we pulled into the bus stand of Sergiev Posad. From there, one could see spiraling colorful domes and an enormous structure some distance away. This was one of those simple towns: an important temple, one central street and little houses around the vicinity. Being so close to Moscow, the place was quite busy (in relative terms, if I’m allowed to say that.)
Russian Orthodox Church
“There is no settlement without a just man, there is no town without a saint” – thus goes a Russian wisdom.
This monastery is considered to be among the most important and most active religious centers in Russia. You can tell, as you approach it, that the place is religious. The young men in shiny leather jackets and young women with high heels that I had seen just an hour ago in Moscow were replaced by old priests with long beards and babushkas carrying holy water. The place was full of devotees, women wearing head scarves and men with bare heads, who were lighting candles or chanting prayers.
Orthodox church service
While I was busy taking pictures and feeling thrilled for being inside an Orthodox Church complex, the bell was rung and people started rushing into the central Cathedral. We joined the crowds, about hundred people trying to get in through the narrow door that let in only two or three people at a time, so you can imagine the struggle to get in. Inside it was hot, crowded, and stuffy but I was overwhelmed by the grandiose structure, ambient lighting, murals (saints) on the walls and a large company of priests dressed in black. I was quite puzzled seeing the display of so many icons, symbols and hundreds of paintings of Saints. Isn’t that exactly what the Abrahamic religions object to in Eastern religions? Anyway, my attention was quickly diverted to something unusual I heard: Singing.
The singing wasn’t the commonly heard choir music (what I call ‘Christian music’ for the sake of simplicity) but it was composed of distinctly male voices. Services in an orthodox church are not conducted by a single priest, but by a group of them. They believe that human voice is the most perfect form of music, hence instead of using musical instruments, groups of priests (maybe some altar boys and the choir too) sing the prayers while others accompany them in a harmony. The result is a fine blend of different voices, overlapping tones and varied pitches that somehow still create a wonderful effect. As an Indian Classical musician, I was extremely fascinated by this style, almost never seen in Indian music (except chanting in Hindu/Buddhist temples).
The tempo of singing increased gradually and everyone but me seemed to understand what was going on. You could sense the music reaching climax as the as the length of the verses shortened, variations in singing increased and finally one voice carried the prayer till the end while voices around him faded slowly. It was truly a magical spectacle as hundreds of devotees inside the cathedral bowed town and started moving towards the altar with candles or crosses in their hands and curious eyes now noticing me. I made my way out of the monastery, emerging from a thick cloud of humidity, smoke and incense to the dry and chilly weather outside with the sights and sounds of the place imprinted on my mind.
The bells were ringing, birds were flying, sun was setting and the sky was displaying a brilliant pattern of colors almost as if someone had applauded to the presentation in the monastery inside. Soon I found my friend (I was almost worried that
he I was lost) in that crowd and then we were thinking about one of the three basic needs of humans; satisfied promptly as seen below.
Sergiev Posad, called Zagorks by the Soviets, is about 60km away from Moscow and very easily accessible by public transit. It is one of the most important Golden Ring cities (a number of cities north-east of Moscow that have historical and religious significance).
Bus: Buses depart to Sergiev Posad from VDNKh station on Moscow Metro at about 30-minute frequency. Alternatively, certain buses departing from Moscow’s Yaroslavl Vokzal and going to Pereslavl-Zalessky and beyond stop at Sergiev Posad.
Train: Frequent suburban trains depart from Yaroslavsky terminal and take about an hour to reach.
The monastery: The monastery is a 15-minute walk from the bus and train station. Simply keep walking along the straight road going north (it goes downhill and then climbs) keeping the monastery domes in sight all the time. It’s hard to get lost. Admission is free, and the place is open between 10:00 to 18:00.