A Small Church in Suzdal’ – Maya Reinfeldt

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? 

7 thoughts on “A Small Church in Suzdal’ – Maya Reinfeldt”

  1. Hi Maya,

    I loved reading the post so much. You are a beautiful writer! I love how you describe sitting in church covering your hair and trying to understand church in another language. I also love the spiritual meaning that you get out of imagining the people of your faith who visited the church in the countryside before you. That is such a cool idea that I haven’t thought about before. Because we all get so much meaning out of the people in our congregations who pray alongside us, but what about all the generations who came to this same place before us?

    To answer your question, being a Jew in the US is kind of weird, because we have connections to multiple countries since we are a diaspora people. So most of us feel closest to Israel, because that is the land of the Torah and our history and it also is the land where our people have gone to be safe from persecution and genocide and ethnic cleansing and everything that happened in the 20th century. But also, most of us have parents, grandparents, or great grandparents that came from other diaspora countries in Eastern Europe or North Africa or the Middle East. So there is a weird push and pull between those two places. Like for a while at the beginning of college, I wanted to quit Hebrew and learn Russian to connect with that part of my family and I thought my grandma would be excited about it. But my family was actually pretty against it, and they thought it was much better to learn Hebrew or Yiddish and not connect to Russia because our people was not really safe or wanted there.

    1. Hi Azariah, thanks for your thoughtful response! The connections you bring up both to Israel and to other diaspora countries are very interesting. I think it’s important to remember that though a country, like Russia for me, can be hold positive religious connotations for some, other faiths can have much more negative associations with that country due to a history of persecution. And that brings up an interesting point – how does one connect to a culture that was both the culture in which one’s ancestors lived and grew, but also the culture that oppressed them? Does it bring too much pain, or is it worth the connection to the past?

  2. Hi Maya,

    Thanks for the great post. When I was reading, I was able to feel like I was somehow there too. I don’t have an answer based on religion per se, but I’ve become increasingly obsessed with some of the National Parks that I’m hoping to visit this summer. I had many travel plans for 2020 before the pandemic happened, and I’m going a bit stir-crazy. I think this post is the push that I needed to start booking new ones.

    1. Hi Ben, that’s so exciting! I hope you’re able to take that trip and connect with our National Parks in a meaningful way. I’ve visited Yellowstone, and of course strongly recommend it – it’s an awe-inspiring place.

  3. Maya,

    I echo Azariah and Ben’s comments, this blog post is beautifully written and I really enjoyed reading it. Catholicism is not necessarily connected to a place outside of the U.S. modernly apart from Vatican City (where the Pope resides). But I guess in general Catholicism did not originate in the U.S., however I do not feel a longing for another place or lack of connection practicing here. In terms of nature Catholicism is not inherently linked to nature, but my church has a Marian Shrine (a shrine to the Virgin Mary) I love to frequent and Holy Hill in Wisconsin is both a beautiful church and hiking location. I have always loved when I could partake in my religious services in a place that connects with nature. I feel God’s presence strongly when I am in nature and can be in awe of the beauty he has created.

  4. Hi Maya <3
    I actually got a little emotional reading your post because I really resonate with your experience. As I have gotten older, I have become more involved with learning about my faith and Punjabi culture and how the two are extremely intertwined. The basis of Sikh is unity among people and all living beings. The overlap of Sikhi and Punjabi culture is seen through the many Punjab farmers protesting in the Farmer Protests. Guru Nanak Dev Ji was a farmer. So the land of Punjab, its dirt, its five rivers, has an unspoken importance in how Sikhs reside in their environment. Punjab is the home of Sikhi, which is bittersweet because Punjab (and East India) was split during Partition (which is the same day as India's Independence). My grandfather was a refugee from what's now called Pakistan. Millions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims (and everyone in between) lost their homes that day in Punjab. Religion became something that was used and continues to divide people. The trauma is very much present but instead of it being something that weighs me down, when I think about Punjab and the religious sites (Gurdwaras, Mandirs, and Masjids), I feel the presence of my ancestors and how I am their dream come true. I'm a good human, an educated woman, and a proud Sikh. It's hard to feel that kind of connection and appreciation to the land in the United States, where my ancestors did not reside, but I feel it through my family and friends. And maybe that's a way we should try to think about God. I'm not sure if this is written in Sikh scripture (I feel like it is) but remembering and valuing the people that love you, seeing their light, is a way to remember the light that resides within you. Hopefully, I answered your question somewhere, haha I think I got a little carried away. Loved your blogpost!

  5. Great post, Maya! I hadn’t read your post before I wrote mine, but we both touched on the appeal and beauty of Russian Orthodox services. I loved your use of imagery, I almost felt like I was back in Russia and able to smell the incense. I am glad that being there was an impactful experience for you and has helped you find grounding and connection!

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