Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Pechersky Ascension Monastery

Until summer 2016, I think I'd never been inside an Orthodox church. There were tons of beautiful churches in Ukraine, but it always made me nervous to think of going into them. Plus, there was always the added step of finding a headscarf / long skirt, so I just avoided them.

Last summer, it finally happened in Russia. During a weekend in Kazan, we went on a whirlwind tour of mosques + cathedrals, each stop requiring a new headscarf / long skirt. Before that, though, we warmed up to the idea with an afternoon excursion to Nizhny Novgorod's Pechersky Ascension Monastery. This was perhaps the first time I'd ever been in an Orthodox church... and you know what?, it actually went fine.

What makes me the most nervous about these churches are the Orthodox priests.

Seriously, how could you not be intimidated by these guys? They're a terrifying combo of badass + thug.

(Watch this video and this video.)

Once I taught pronunciation to a Catholic priest from Mexico. He would show up for our lessons in jeans and a fleece vest, drove a Jeep Cherokee, drank beer, and was really down to earth. Perhaps I put too much stock in internet memes, but Orthodox priests really, really intimidate me. I could never imagine one showing up for an English lesson in a Patagonia vest. Instead, this is what I see in my head when thinking of them (this meme was floating around during EuroMaidan)-

Anyways, we saw plenty of priests that day- one even spoke to me!- and none of them got into rap battles or drove off in a black BMW. I was almost disappointed ;)

Before going to the monastery, we had a lecture titled "Some Aspects of the Russian Orthodox Church."

The lecturer got so carried away by his first topic- church building design- that he spent the entire time talking about only that, and then rushed through the other topics in the last five minutes. As a result, there's only one thing I remember from the whole lecture...

Below is a cross from a church in Poltava, Ukraine. I took a picture of it in 2013 because I wanted to ask someone why the bottom of the cross was tilted. It took a few years, but I finally have the answer. According to the lecturer, the foot rest is tilted to represent the thieves crucified next to Jesus. The sinner on the right repented and was heaven-bound, the sinner on the left... not so much, so the foot rest points up to show heaven and down to indicate hell.

After the lecture, a bus took us toward the Volga River, where the monastery sits on a hillside above the river. Pretty, isn't it?

A few Russian volunteers had tagged along with the group. They knew the drill and pulled their headscarves out of their purses while we stood outside the gates, which set off a slight panic amongst the other females (minus the Malyasian girls, who already wore headscarves). Should we have all brought scarves to cover our heads? But the lecturer said not to worry, that everyone would be okay here as they were.

Inside, we first walked through a small museum on the monastery campus.

While the others continued exploring the museum, the girl at the front desk (in long skirt and headscarf, of course!) invited us to take a photo in this fancy room. The other two women in this picture are the summer program coordinator and my friend from Slovakia. Afterwards, everyone crowded together into the room because we were asked to sign the monastery's guest book.

Next, we went to the actual church itself. I was happy to see that the sacred and ancient tradition of ремонт (remodeling and repair) is still going strong.

lots of tiles stacked here during ремонт

The church was gorgeous, both inside and out. The landscaping outside even had a garden of flowers grown to look like a peacock's tail.

As the students in front of me walked through the door, I became really nervous about following them. Surely there would be at least one Orthodox priest inside. Would he mysteriously know that I thought this song was funny and banish me? And then, I saw the interior-

Whoa! Every surface was covered in color and designs. Standing there with a 360 view, it was almost overwhelming.

Suddenly, there he was- a big tough bearded priest dressed in black, pointing at me! Идите суда, he said, so I reluctantly (and super intimidated!!) went over to where he stood. He opened the gates to this tiny room and sent me inside.

For some reason, I thought there would be stairs to my left. Wrong. Totally not a staircase. Just a few inches away was a lifesize Jesus, covered in blood and wearing a crown of thorns and a miserable expression. I came back out. Instead of looking serious and grave, the priest smiled. (They can actually smile!)

On the less morbid side, these two ADORABLE babushkas then came inside the church and began to pray. One lit candles while the other bowed and spoke in prayer.

After surviving the encounter with the priest (who was actually pretty nice) and spying on the babushki, it was time to go. Since we were already near the Volga river, we would get back on the bus and drive over to Nizhny Novgorod's cable car ride before calling it a day.

Have you ever been inside an Orthodox church? What's your take on Orthodox priests?


  1. I total relate to you on this whole post! I rarely go into churches because I am afraid of getting yelled at for not having a headscarf. I did hear that if you aren't Orthodox you don't need to wear one, but I wouldn't trust that. Most of the time I've gone in the winter so I could just wear my winter hat because you just need your hair covered.

    I am SO scared of the priests. I had one tell me I needed to wrap a skirt around my waist and ever since then I've been even more terrified. They all remind me of Rasputin which probably adds to their creepiness.

    I can't believe you had never been to one even after living in Ukraine! That's interesting about the slanting on the cross. I knew it was a footrest but I never knew why it slanted. I thought it was just to make it look fancy.

    1. Oh, the Rasputin look- how did I miss that?! ;) By the way, do you hear this song, like, every 5 minutes?

    2. Oh my gosh! THAT SONG!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHA

  2. I've been maybe three times to an Orthodox church in Bulgaria and this is the first I've heard of headscarves and long skirts! I'm making a note to ask my Bulgarian teacher, though it was she who advised us to go to church at midnight last Easter and never mentioned such a thing. I was a little scared of that visit as we were only foreigners, new to the country and language and had only a vague idea what was and should be going on. It was worth it though!

    1. Happy Lunar New Year, Thảo! :) :) Did you do something special to celebrate it?

      I'm glad you're bravely exploring all aspects of Bulgaria!

    2. Thank you. I spent the day at a fascinating Bulgarian festival in actual fact!