The experience of the Paschal Liturgy at the Donskoy Monastery cathedral left an impression that I just couldn’t shake. I was still quite prejudiced against Christianity in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular—I had studied Russian history and “knew” that the Church had been an agent of violence and oppression, etc. If American-style Evangelicalism was too superstitious and unenlightened for someone of my intelligence, then Russian Orthodoxy was positively backwater.
But I also knew that I had encountered God that night at the cathedral. I knew that I had been in the presence of God. And the people around me had actually behaved as though they were in God’s presence. I wanted to be among them.
So I located another church a little closer to my dorm—Holy Trinity on Shabalovka. This is a temple that seems to have been taken over by the Bolsheviks, converted into something else, and only recently returned to the Church. I could see the scars in the walls and dome where walls and floors had been removed. The floor, walls and ceiling were chipped and cracked. I was pretty clueless about the cycle of services in traditional Christianity, but saw that they had a Saturday evening service and thought that would be worth visiting.
The service, which was called “All-Night Vigil,” lasted about 90 minutes and I began to attend regularly. I later learned that this is a combination of Vespers and Matins in preparation for Liturgy on Sunday morning, but at the time had no idea it was different from any other Orthodox Christian service. My favorite part was singing “Khristos Voskrese” (Christ is Risen) and being anointed with oil at the end.
And in the middle of the service (I’m still not sure whether this was at the Matins Gospel or O Gladsome Light), nuns would come through and extinguish every candle in the temple. I could buy a candle for a ruble, and then the priest would emerge from the altar with a single lit candle; we’d all light ours from his. And the candles on stands scattered throughout the nave would be re-lit from ours. Sunset at this time of year brought beams of light from the western windows shining on the altar and royal doors; altogether this moment was very powerful.
I started doing more of my tourism at religious sites, observing the pilgrims and mimicking their movements and behavior. I learned to cross myself Russian-style (you finish with a sweeping bow), and began making the sign of the Cross when I passed temples on the street. I visited the monastic complexes of New Jerusalem and Sergiev Posad, the medieval churches at Vladimir and Suzdal, and the brand-new Christ the Savior cathedral on the banks of the Moscow River.
Liudmila Stepanovna, the professor who had taken me to Pasternak’s grave at Peredelkino, lent me a Russian-language pamphlet titled “So you’ve entered a temple,” which was a great introduction to the architecture, services, and experiences that a person encounters in an Orthodox Christian temple. I still wasn’t interested in believing the things that Christians believe. But I’d become very interested in their worship...