Our wonderful local Mennonite men’s choir? Close, if you mean the ache and beauty of the sound, but no, definitely not. It’s the monks of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and the Moscow Theological Schools, singing hymns of the Russian Orthodox Church. I’m listening, as I write, to the CD; we were given it as a bonus when we paid a tiny fee to photograph inside the churches at Sergiev Posad, the place considered the heart of Russian Orthodoxy.
Last month, H. and I took a tour to Russia — to two cities specifically, Moscow and St. Petersburg, with a day in Novgorod between them — and, as tours tend to be, ours was packed with “sights” and “experiences,” was a great time, and had wonderful guides and travelling companions. But when it comes to putting something down about it here, it’s like I’m struck dumb. I wish I could just play you the recording.
For me, such travel – and this destination in particular, perhaps – exists at two levels. One is an itinerary of stops catalogued in the mind and their own haphazard way by the photographs we bring back (at least the way we take pictures), stops in which Curiosity meets Famous Sights, adjusts previous understanding of them and gathers new information in addition, but is always aware of “the tourist gaze” which is essentially superficial and preliminary. I could recite my way through these days, yes, I could show you the pictures. We went here, and here, and here! Our wonderful tour!
On the other level is the inability to say anything that makes good sense of it, because it hits me under the skin, in some zone of perception and emotion that has me longing to return (of the two, I would most love to return to Moscow) but above all, to comprehend. It burrows around in the accumulation of what I saw, heard, touched, and the bits I know of Soviet history and the history of “my people” the Mennonites and everything else I am and feel. It burrows and wonders.
I see “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman,” 78 feet tall in stainless steel, created in 1937 for the Soviet pavilion at the world’s fair in Paris, and it grips me with its idealism, its values of work, equality, youth. I’m stunned by it, actually. Moved. Forget for a moment what else the hammer and sickle means, just see the passion and vigor. — Forget? Can anyone possibly forget the cost of that idealism? It grips, and it hurts.
I step into a church in Novgorod, as we step into a good number of churches, but there is a service in progress today and the wafting incense shocks my nostrils, and then I hear it, the singing, and for a moment I think I’m hearing (Mennonite) Home, not the church singing of now, but the way it used to be. Somewhere, hidden from view, a choir, perhaps only five to eight singers, we’re told, but excellent voices, excellent harmonies. And the priest who calls to them and to whom they answer, with his rich full bass, who crescendos and ends with the sense of a shout (as the woman in our group who works as a practice accompanist at the New York Met described it). Something joyful you’d imagine echoing over the steppes.
Well, I wanted to let you know we were in Russia and enjoyed it (the tour was with Tourmagination and led by Len and Mary Friesen), and these two fragments, these two bits of the tour as report, will have to do. It’s the somewhat inarticulate version, I’m afraid. I’m glad for the music as I write, which reminds me if you can’t make sense of suffering and glory, music/art/worship may hold it together.
As for the other version, we’re glad to do it too, for whoever comes over to look at our photos while we exclaim through our itinerary!