Volunteering in the Ukraine

January 11, 1998

For weeks we have been talking with Miroslava and her doctor friend Ludmilla about going to visit the monastery at Pochaiv. Today is the day. The day is a grey one and it feels a bit colder than the +5C, on display from the clock tower at Center as we pass by on our way out of town.

The night had not passed well. Shauna was up and down much of the night with a cough and a bit of nausea. When morning rolled around she was feeling better, but was too tired to join us. Erin, too, chose to stay home, still recovering from her bout with "rumbly tummy." As a result, Katie, who hates to get up early for anything, refused to go without her sisters for company. Maureen reminded me of our trip to Spain and the day that the family had planned to visit the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostella. Then, as now, it was only Maureen and I who went, due to the girls being sick.

Carrying two bags of edibles (oranges, salami, potato salad {made at 5:30 this morning}, apples and wine), and two bags of equipment (cameras, film, tape recorder, batteries), we descend the dark stairwell to meet Miroslava (Mira) and Ludmilla (Luda). Upon seeing that only two of us are going, Miroslava rushes upstairs to make a phone call. Planning a trip such as this involves certain logistics, the most basic being the vehicle. Through her brother Vladim, Miroslava had arranged to hire a friend, Ruslan, to drive us in his car. This is a common phenomenon in this country where many individuals do not have cars. Ruslan was chosen because his minivan will accommodate our family of five plus three. The fee for the ride will be 20 hrivnia per person.

Upon her return, Miroslava explains that with our girls being absent, there is now room in the van for a friend who expressed interest in going last week. It is Natashya (Psych. Department). We pile into Ruslan's late model, but very muddy, yellow VW van, stowing our various bags in the back. We sit facing each other on two bench seats. I note immediately that the van passes our first critical test, it is warm, the windows foggy from our breath. Winding through the back streets of Lutsk, Luda guides us toward the highway which leads to Dubno. Luda is the expert, because for five years she worked as a doctor on an ambulance team for the city. Dubno is home for Vladim and Ruslan, who were up early to drive to from there to Lutsk to pick us up.

During the thirty-minute drive to Dubno, Ruslan passes the second critical test in that he is a careful and cautious driver. Just outside of town, we stop at a small café for tea. I notice that paying for the tea seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time, and that there is much changing of money. It turns out that many beggars and pilgrims to the monastery will ask for money, and a pocket full of small coins will be much needed. Finishing her tea, Maureen inquires of Miroslava as to the whereabouts of a toilet. Miroslava quietly whispers to Vladim who calls out to Ruslan who yells to the cashier. "There is no toilet here," is the response, shouted throughout the cafe. Not a problem, says Vladim, there is always the woods.

Ten minutes out of town, Ruslan pulls to the side of the road. Men to the left, women to the right he announces. Dressed in their fur coats and leather boots, Maureen, Miroslava, Luda and Natashya wander off into the trees, as do Ruslan and I, on the far side of the road. A few yards into the woods, Ruslan and I separate, each searching for "our own special tree." According to Maureen, the female delegation, led by Miroslava and Natashya make their way to a spot which somehow calls out "Stop here!" The foursome spreads out, a few feet apart, and pee in unison, all but anxious Maureen, whose idea it was to begin with. It must be something of a learned behavior. Singing, laughing, skipping and carrying a large pine bough, for no particular reason, they reappear moments later and we continue on our way.

We get driveby tours of Dubno and Kremenetz as we wind our way through foothills and river valleys. No longer are we surrounded by featureless apartment buildings. Individual homes dot the landscape of farms and trees. At the Oblast (state) border we are stopped by the local police doing a regular safety check. Upon recognizing Ruslan, they wave us on. At Kremenetz we pass through a city of churches, their steeples and domes visible at every turn, yet our friends can offer no explanation as to why such a small town should have so many churches per capita. Fifteen minutes out of Kremenetz, we get our first glimpse of the spires of the Pochaiv Lavra Monastery, rising above the distant hills.

With its roots in the 13th century, founded by a group of monks fleeing the Mongol invasion of Kiev, the Pochaiv Lavra is considered one of the two holiest shrines in Ukraine, and attracts pilgrimages from all over Eastern Europe. Closed during the Communist regime and turned into a museum of atheism, a mental hospital and dental clinic, the monastery is once again in operation, now under the Moscow Orthodox Church. The complex features four separate churches, a bell tower, a mental hospital and numerous other buildings, dominated by the Uspensky Cathedral. Our van slides into an icy parking space in the shadow of the Cathedral's twin towers.

Up an icy hill and around the corner we enter the monastery, passing a score of beggars and pilgrims. Even though it is a misty morning, the monasteries multiple golden domes shine above us, and a mosaic of Christ is faintly visible up a long flight of stairs to our right. A birch-lined walkway leads to the main Cathedral, where a man lying in a hospital bed waits, unable to ascend the last 20-30 steps. A woman stands beside him praying, as the answers to those prayers collect in her outstretched hat. The man's eyes dart back and forth, piercingly poignant the moment contact is made.

Ascending the stairs we look out across the city of Pochaiv. Far, far in the distance, through the hazy morning light, another monastery can be seen atop a hill, and two hundred feet below us we hear the clip clop of a horse and cart carrying its load to market. We turn and walk into the Cathedral.

The doorway teems with humanity. We are swept inside on this stream of tourists, worshippers, pilgrims, beggars and monks. The mass is in progress, some 2,000 people in attendance. There are no benches or chairs, so most stand, while here and there pockets of the faithful sit huddled against a wall or in a dark corner. We weave our way into the crowd, stopping near the center to look and listen. We are standing in the primary hall, separated from the side chambers by the six massive pillars which support the three cupolas. The interior of the Cathedral itself defies simple description. Ornate icons, bold frescoes and a thousand treasures cover every possible inch of space. They range from the simplest framed portrait of Mary to the broad biblical scenes spanning the entire domed ceiling, some 150 feet above us. There are no statues, prohibited by the Orthodox church. A thousand thin candles flicker all around, sending their prayers aloft. I find my senses overwhelmed making it difficult to remember much at all.

The liturgy is conducted by perhaps a dozen monks and their assistants. They come and go from a vast altar space, most of which is hidden behind a wall of frescoes and gold-leaf, a narrow doorway offering only glimpses of the service. The entire mass is chanted by one monk, his deep bass voice reverberating in the splendid acoustics of the Cathedral. Two choirs offer responsorial chants and song, one behind us, high up in a loft at the back of the primary hall, and one, hidden from view in the altar area. Although the people are quiet and attentive, focused on the liturgy unfolding before them, activity surrounds us.

To our left, a constant flow of pilgrims pause, cross themselves, say a prayer and kiss an icon of Mary. As I look about, I realize that this ritual is being repeated at the scores of icons spread throughout the church. Small lines have formed everywhere, each person selecting the icon most likely to be attentive to her or his prayers. The icons of Pochaiv are especially sought out by the sick and dying. After a few minutes, Miroslava motions us to follow, and we make our way toward the front of the Cathedral via the right side chamber. There is no aisle or path to follow, the crowd seeming only to part for a moment before closing behind us. As we approach the front, we pass a crèche, filled with children, sprawled quietly before a painted scene of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the Magi. Our destination is another icon of Mary. It stands to one side of the main altar, ten feet high and up a small platform. To our left, the service continues, but no one takes notice of us as we join the line of those offering their prayers to this holy icon. As we leave, I notice a pair of crutches leaning against the icon, left behind, no longer needed.

Listening to the majestic sounds of the liturgy, I notice Maureen and Miroslava disappear into the congregation. They are in search of one of the Cathedral's most revered icons, the footprint of Mary. It is believed that Mary momentarily appeared at Pochaiv, leaving behind a single footprint and an eternal spring. The footprint has been cast in gold and the water from the spring, has been piped into the Cathedral, forming a small shrine at the rear of the primary hall. The faithful kiss the footprint and receive a drink of the healing water, many asking to have their plastic Coke bottles filled with the precious liquid. Here at this holy place, two incidents reveal an interesting side of the Pochaiv Monastery.

As Maureen approaches a young seminarian takes Maureen by the hand and instructs her on the proper etiquette and technique for crossing herself. (Maureen had actually anticipated this, and with each approaching step she had been practicing the Orthodox crossing method, which is the opposite of the Catholic. She got the order right, but she flunked finger holding.) He gently shows her how to hold her first two fingers against her thumb, and the order in which to form the lines of the cross from head to chest, right shoulder to left. Seemingly simple, this single theological practice is at the core of a religious conflict between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Following Maureen, Miroslava, wanting to take home some holy water, but without a container, asks the stern-looking monk dispensing the water where she might buy some. As 20-30 people wait in line, and the liturgy echoes about us, the monk proceeds to question Miroslava about her faith. His questions are an attempt to discern whether she follows the practices of the Ukrainian Orthodox or Russian Orthodox church. These two sects compete for followers, although it is difficult for us to understand just how they differ.

It is apparent that the Shrine of the Holy Mother is used as a teaching tool. The church, in its revival since the Soviet collapse, is anxious to instruct the masses in its dogma. Since the footprint of Mary draws so many, it presents a perfect opportunity to teach the basics to a large number of people. Unfortunately the monk's attitude and manner has done more to alienate Miroslava than to draw her closer to his faith.

The mass continues, as we make our way out of the Cathedral, fighting our way upstream through the constant flow of people continuing to enter the building through its single open doorway. In the short time we have been inside, the city below us has disappeared into a fog that now seeps about us as we walk through the monastery grounds. Maureen stops to take photographs of the mist-enshrouded domes of the Cathedral, as the monastery's bell announces its presence. The rich, resonant tones of the bell, the largest in Europe, hold us captive, as they have done for the past two hundred years. Behind us, the parishioners pour forth from the Cathedral as the mass ends, and our guided tour of the Pochaiv Lavra begins.

Our guide, a young seminarian, begins at one of the monastery's smaller chapels. It was built in 1906, but with only the daylight to dimly illuminate the interior, it has the feeling of the medieval church it was modeled after. In the darkness it is barely possible to make out the two large icons presented as gifts of the Tzar, while above us hangs the Tzar's other gift, a circular candelabra, perhaps twenty-feet in diameter. It was brought to the church in sections by an man, now 99, who lives in the city. We exit the church through a portal above which are painted murals reminding us that we are leaving the protection of heaven's care and entering the temptations of hell. We walk past the bell tower and once again enter the Uspensky Cathedral.

Hundreds of people remain, some in tours, most in small groups. Here and there, pilgrims lie sleeping on benches or sitting on the floor and eating bread. They are surrounded by the parcels and water bottles they have brought with them on their pilgrimages. Pockets of parishioners gather near the numerous icons, waiting for their chance to offer a prayer and a kiss. Maureen and I straggle behind our tour group, eyes and mouths agape at the splendor of the Cathedral. We are approached by a young woman who speaks no English. She has seen Maureen's camera, and wants to have a picture taken. Miroslava, somewhat embarrassed for us and wanting to be protective, starts to intercede, but as Maureen and the woman talk, I explain to Miroslava how important such moments are to us. As it turns out, the woman does not want a picture of herself, but of the icon of Mary. An officious man explains that there is a fee for taking pictures of the icons, three hrivnia. Coins and bills are collected, the fee paid and the picture taken. The woman, so very appreciative, writes her address on a scrap of paper, and we promise to send her the photo.

Catching up with our tour group, we approach the Cathedral altar, and the most revered of the many icons. "The Mother of God" icon, a small, 16th century painting of Mary and the baby Jesus, hangs on satin ribbons from the high reaches of the Cathedral dome, a long line of the faithful serpentining towards it. It was thought to have miraculously saved the monastery from attack in 1675. Slouched in a chair below the icon, another stern monk sits, holding it to prevent swaying. Now and then he wipes off the proffered kisses or not so gently pushes away a lingering worshipper, including Maureen. Turning left, we follow the group down into yet another chamber of the Cathedral. In this arched hallway, we are surrounded on every side and above by fine murals depicting the twelve Stations of the Cross. On our left, a side chamber leads to the original home of Saint Ihov, the founder of the monastery. This simple cave is adorned with icons, lanterns, candles and other tributes to this holy man, whose remains lie in a silver coffin before us. Daily, a portion of the coffin is opened, revealing the Saint's hands to be kissed by visitors to the Cathedral. Today it remains closed, some of our group choosing instead to crawl into a hole in the wall leading to a small sub-cave used by Saint Ihov for meditation and prayer.

Our tour ends and we step out into bright sun and a brisk wind. As we stop to purchase a cassette of the liturgy, several small children approach, quickly crossing themselves and asking for money, then running off to give their rewards to a woman who waits beside an iron gate. At the van, Vladim produces a thermos of hot, sugared tea, some pastries and apples, and we warm ourselves before heading for home. Outside the van, two dogs stand guard, waiting for a scrap or two. Miroslava sends them scurrying when she throws out two apple cores, and after a quick sniff, one of the dogs lifts a leg over one apple letting us know his opinion of our offering. On our way through Kremenetz, Ruslan and Vladim point out a castle at the top of a distant hill, and we decide to make a brief detour. Directions from one or two locals send us up an icy, narrow back road that winds, precipitously close to the edge. We crest the hill and drive onto a grassy meadow at the top of this 300-foot high perch. We are parked in the center of the castle courtyard, an area equivalent in size a football field. Seven hundred-year-old, crumbling rock walls enclose three sides, their tops forming a jagged line against the clear sky. Miroslava tells us of the beautiful daughter locked in the dungeon by a jealous mother, her voice sometimes heard in the night wind. Luda shows us the foundations of a bridge which once reached from the castle to the next hill, and in the valley below a small church can be seen at the sight where the Lady of the castle survived a fall from the same bridge. In an icy wind we watch the sun set behind a distant hill, then turn for Dubno.

In Dubno, we stop at Vladim's house for dinner, arriving unannounced with bags of goodies in hand. We stay for an hour or so, eating, talking and watching home videos. Vladim's homemade vodka (somahone) is brought out for a round of toasts. Ruslan, our driver, declines. Back on the road, Miroslava, Luda and Natashya serenade us as we make the last leg to Lutsk, pausing only when we are once again stopped by the police just outside of town. Again we are passed on with no problem. At the hostel good-byes are said with promises of a future trip to Poland. We recount much of our day to the kids, and play for them some of the liturgy on tape. It has been a very good day, filled with rich experiences and memories. In our minds the bells of Pochaiv lull us to sleep.

Don Fitzmahan don@fitzmahan.lutsk.ua

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