Emerging from Kropotkinskaya metro station last Friday, I met a scene which, even by Moscow standards, was chaotic. In front of the station they were plowing up everything again (didn't they do that last year when they put all the shops leading to the park out of business?), and everything in all directions was simply walled off.
My English lesson was at a place called Red October, which I usually reach by walking past the cathedral and over the pedestrian bridge. Even on frigid winter days, it is a wonderful walk. You can see the river, the Kremlin, the huge statue honoring Peter I, and in general just enjoy the wonders of Moscow as seen through a tourist's eyes. Sometimes, on special religious occasions, you have to walk on the street around the holy fixtures and rejoin the bridge near the water, but you could always go over this way.
But on this morning, only when I tried to cut across the road did I realize that it was some really momentous holy occasion. Bigger than big. Crowds were flowing from all directions. Eventually, I was informed that it was all about St, Nicholas. And his bones. Fine, but I still needed to get to the other side of the river. Not until it was too late did I find out that I should have walked up to the Kremlin and traversed the water there. Instead, I tramped off in the other direction, finally reached the river, turned right and kept going. No bridge. . I asked the police who were stationed everywhere what I should do to cross the river -- and I can speak enough Russian to get the point across - but they had no idea either. In fact, they truly wanted to help. They couldn't. Lesson canceled.
I do not understand why the government, knowing of this religious event of extreme magnitude,, chose exactly the same time to turn Krapotkinskaya into a disaster area, but why should I be surprised?. I should be used to such recklessness, indifference to the needs of the people, and, in short, such cynical stupidity, by now. Except, here, you can never avoid the nagging feeling that somehow it was all calculated, It didn't happen by chance.
But, after I had calmed down, my drained emotions were dominated by a different, rather more perplexing question. Why did the bones of St. Nicholas matter so much to so many -- even assuming that these bones (which apparently are scattered far and wide among many Russian churches) are authentic. This idea of holy relics is nothing new. Way back in the days of the crusades, Christian believers were willing to trudge immeasurable distances through all sorts of snares and calamities simply in order to give the last currency they had carried with them in exchange for a bone of this and a scrap of that..from John the Baptist or Mary, or Joseph, or even Jesus Himself. The fact was that their greedy hosts were selling them the bones of stray dogs. But as long as the Believers believed what they wanted and needed to believe, the sacrifice was worth it.
This leads to an eternal issue. If the faith of these people was powerful enough, what did it matter if they were, in reality, being fleeced and cheated at every step? Is the man who dies happy believing in the faithfulness of his wife diminished if his wife was really unfaithful? If his soul was pure, could the stain of impurity -- even if it was the 'real' situation -- lessen the joy of his life? Ignorance is Bliss. Indeed, if we investigated everyone thoroughly enough, we would always find grounds for disillusionment and disappointment. So, in this context, it doesn't matter whose bones are being kissed; the kiss is not given to the long-lost man, St. Nicholas, but to the ideal. And no great ideal can be compromised by the dirty deal pulled off by some local sheister.
Therefore, even though I wonder, in earnest, how people can believe some of the stuff they believe, I mock no man or woman who believes in earnest. I have seen faith make people better. I have seen vehemence of so-called, usually abrupt, conversion, turn normal people into monsters. The record of history, a record of blood -- and much of it wrapped up in the doings of The Church -- speaks for itself. Nevertheless, for all my academically acquired intellect, I have seen quiet people, usually in villages, whose spirits were fortified by humble, yet indomitable, faith. My quarrel has never been with such people.
My fury comes about when I see, unmistakably, what is happening in Russia today. Put directly, the government has made official state religion its tool. It promotes both patriotism and religious fervor in such a way as to make enemies of all open-minded people and those who search for the truth. In the Moscow of the moment, the most powerful church authority, Kirill, has the same rights and status -- even a car with blue lights, as if he were a Head of State -- as the President himself. Both are exceedingly rich men. Both the mayor of Moscow and the leading religious figure take their orders -- and preserve their liberty and affluence -- according to their level of obedience to Caesar. There is no question of that whatsoever, because we have seen other oligarchs fall when they flew too near the sun.
The religious kingpin is an entrepreneur. No more, no less. The President is Caesar. No more, no less. And they are in bed together. To promote the State, and to fool the people. Who, frankly, don't seem especially disturbed by it all. OK.
The people who come to kiss bones and worship God are a mystery to me in some ways, because for me religion has never worked. I have given it a number of tries. I always walk away. But the inexpressible impulse to Hope, to Love, to Believe...is a noble ideal. Such a pity that, in the face of all ignorance, prejudice, and capacity for the lowest cruelty, this basic human instinct which at times has risen so high in the human heart, so often becomes merely an exploitable tool of the Powerful, who are more interested in the destinations of their money than the last country of their souls.
A man said to me once: "Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there."
The Russian government is all about Religion; a poor man or woman who has come many miles to embrace an ideal, even if the bones came out of a rag-and-bone job on a side street somewhere, may -- or may not -- have some sense of Spirituality.
And I join each of them, each him, each her, -- those who Love -- in such Hope. And never laugh at them. Because, in the end, my road is their road. And our clothes are thin among the heavy winds, and our feet know the rocks, but we keep going because something indomitable in our own bones -- never mind the fossils of a 'saint' -- just tell us to.
===eric Richard Le Roy===