On pilgrimage in holy Russia I: Shamordino Convent

I am sitting on a bus early on Sunday morning in late May with a party of Russians of all ages, the only  English speaker on board. Full of anticipation and excitement, I am off on a pilgrimage to one of Russian Orthodoxy’s holiest monasteries at Optina Pustyn, in the Kaluga region, about 200 miles south of Moscow.

Our leader is Dmitry Borisovich (Dima), a thin, balding, intense man in his early thirties. He phoned last night to tell me that the group would be meeting at 7.00am ‘by the three bayonets’. I looked blankly at my hosts as I relay this instruction to them. It turns out that ‘the three bayonets’ are a soaring modern steel sculpture with an eternal flame in central Tula, a monument to those who died in the Great Patriotic War (what the Russians call World War II).

As we move out of Tula and into the Kaluga region, the countryside changes from gently rolling hills and woods to a more hilly, heavily forested terrain. Our first stop after three hours is the Shamordino convent. Founded with the blessing of the Elder Amvrosy of Optina Pustyn in 1884., at its height in the 1890s it had over 500 nuns. It was closed in 1918 and the buildings allowed to become derelict. Built in red brick with very distinctive black cupolas, it features the kokoshnik (peasant head-dress) design everywhere. Over the past few years it has been restored and 100 nuns are living here now.

It’s really hot as we get off the bus and I’m looking forward to getting some fresh air, and taking some photographs. Dima stops me and tells me not to wear a hat in the grounds of the convent and not to take photographs. I’m really disappointed about not using my camera.

Dima leads us into the main church of the convent which, unusually for an Orthodox church, is very bare with plain white walls, wooden floor, half-built iconostasis and few icons on show. The choir consists of three nuns standing round a large, wooden service book stand, as the priest and deacon officiate. Their voices are calm and quiet as they sing the old znamenny chant, rather than the more modern chant (dating from the late eighteenth century) that we think of as typically Russian Orthodox.

As is the custom our party splits into men standing on the right of the church and women on the left, joining the rest of the nuns who are already standing or sitting on low wooden benches. At the end of the service, the priest invites us up to the front to kiss the cross and I am only allowed to do this after Dima checks that it is OK with the priest.

The nuns form a crocodile and, two by two, with the leading and trailing pairs of nuns carrying black lanterns on poles, they process out of the church followed by the priest and deacon. And as they leave, they sing the Easter verse, their pace in time with the rhythm of the chant:

Christ is risen from the dead,

Conquering death through death.

And to those in their tombs

Has he given life.

 It’s a very moving and uplifting sight.