On pilgrimage in holy Russia IV: Vespers at Optina Pustyn

The Elder Iliy censing the monks at Vespers

After venerating the relics of the Optina Elders, Dima gives us a choice. We can either go and collect water from another holy spring or we can go to Vespers. For me it’s no contest, I want to hear Vespers sung by the monks, and besides the sun is still fierce, the mosquitoes very active. Most of my fellow pilgrims choose the spring option, so I wonder back towards the cathedral where Vespers is due to start at 5.00pm.

Dima tells me that there is one Elder in the monastery, Starets Iliy (Elijah). I have seen a picture of him in a book where he was officiating at the funeral of the three new martyrs for the faith. As I move through the grounds I see a short wizened monk beset by people seeking advice from him. It’s the Elder.

About 15 minutes before the service is due to start a deep bass bell sounds slowly and rhythmically from the bell tower. As it speeds up, all the other bells gradually join in until the air is full  of the sound. It’s exciting and stirring to be in the midst of all these bells.

Inside the cathedral, the monks stand in the nave in two rows facing each other, separated from the congregation by a low wooden barrier. As befits the Easter season, they are dressed in red and gold vestments . Easter hymns are sung and the Easter greeting – Khristos voskresye! (Christ is risen!) – is shouted by the monks many, many times, with the congregation responding Vo istinu voskresye! (He is risen indeed!). At intervals the monks, in pairs, take it in turn to cense the church and congregation shouting the Easter greeting over and over again.

The Elder Iliy stands closest to the congregation, with his back to us facing the iconostasis. He looks old and frail and when he reads his voice is thin, but he has a great presence. At one point during the service one of the monks drops his censor and charcoal spills onto the red carpet. With amazing speed and agility the Elder rushes over to him and helps him pick up the charcoal.

The singing is wonderfully powerful, some of the best Orthodox chant I have heard. In addition to the two rows of monks in the nave there are two choirs, one in each side aisle.  At several points in the service one of the monks conducts the congregation in hymns.

As in the cathedral in Tula and at Shamordino there is an icon of the last Tsar and his family which seems to be popular judging by the number of candles in front of it.

I notice in the congregation a couple of people taking photographs, one an orthodox nun with a digital SLR. Emboldened by photographing the monastery grounds, I manage to take 3-4 pictures before I am challenged by a monastery official about whether I have a permit. At which point I judge that it might be better to leave the service.

I am sure that my fellow pilgrims are intrigued as to why I am there, but now at Optina they are chattier realising that I speak Russian. I discover that the pilgrims are not all from one church, but from several in Tula. The common link is our organiser, Dima, who is a history teacher and most people are the parents of children he teaches. On the bus home, we are all feeling tired but more relaxed. Dima hands out phials of blessed oil from the icon lamp over St Amvrosy’s tomb and tell us that one of the gifts pilgrims receive is the ability to give comfort and consolation to those around them.

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