The summer after my freshman year of college, I toured the Golden Ring of Russia, a Soviet-era tourist route consisting of a series of medieval cities not far from Moscow. Specifically, my family and I traveled to Vladimir, Suzdal’, Kostroma, Ples, Yaroslavl’, Rostov, and Sergiev Posad: I know most readers of this post won’t be familiar with these cities, but it’s important to me that I name them as grateful acknowledgment of the way they changed me. When we first boarded the tour bus on a chilly, early morning in Moscow, I expected that the coming trip would bring history lessons, ancient architecture, and small-town museums. I looked forward to good food and peaceful scenes of Russian country life. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, in fact, I gained so much more than I anticipated: during my time in these cities, I connected with my faith in a way that I had previously tried and failed to do.
Growing up in the States, I sporadically attended whatever Orthodox church — Russian or Greek — was closest to us on the Easter and Christmas holidays. Sitting in the pews, my silk headscarf tied lightly around my head, not understanding much of the Church Slavonic service, I always felt out of place. The unfamiliar smell of incense filled me with such an awe, and I remember desperately wanting to connect with the God for whom such beautiful buildings like the churches I went to could be built. I wanted to connect with the same Jesus who was painstakingly painted in bright colors on the wall above me. Until Russia, that sense of belonging never clicked. I felt like I was faking a membership in my own religion, despite my baptism and the cross necklace I never took off.
In Suzdal’, we visited a small, wooden church with simply painted icons of Jesus, Mary, and numerous saints covering the walls. The lighting was warm and yellow, and a few bouquets of bright pink flowers lined the altar. This church hadn’t changed much over the years, and it remained the same type of building that Russian peasants would have frequented centuries ago. It felt right to be standing there in that small church, the summer breeze bringing a fresh smell through the open doors. Though I might not fully understand the services, I shared an experience with illiterate villagers of the past who could not read the Bible; the kind eyes looking down from icons on the walls connected anyone who saw them with God, language irrelevant. In that church I felt grounded, one with the beautiful Russian landscape surrounding us, the wood of the structure taken from nearby forests. I felt understood, seen, and comfortable. There was a sense of fullness brought on by the simplicity of the church, and in that fullness I felt connected to generations of those before me who came to worship, to love, to get married, to grieve. I was organically connected to God, and to the God of my ancestors, for the first time in my life.
The rest of the Golden Ring tour brought similar experiences, shifts of perspective, and feelings of fulfillment. We saw monasteries nestled in green, rolling fields near the crook of a sparkling river, a beautiful white church with nothing but a lone birch tree beside it, and domed cathedrals bedazzled with gold stars. I understood why someone born and raised in lands such as these would devote themselves to God: in summer, the landscape inspires joy and gratitude, while in winter, one prays for warmth and safety. Though we soon returned to the soaring metropolis of Moscow and from there flew back to Madison, the feelings I experienced in that little wooden church remain tucked away in my memory, ready to call upon when I need to feel grounded and loved. I never again have to doubt the validity of my faith, for what else could bring such elation, yet such peace?
To the fellows: is your religion connected to a country that’s not the United States? I also talked a lot about nature in this piece: is your faith connected in any way to the natural world?