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  • » 07/04/2017, 18.31

    RUSSIA

    People queue up for kilometres to see the relics of Saint Nicholas, a long wait and sudden joy

    Vladimir Rozanskij

    Believer can wait up 8-9 hours to kiss the relics of the saint of Bari. On 12 July, it will move to St Petersburg. Waiting and pilgrimage are in the soul of Russian culture.

    Moscow (AsiaNews) – The long queue of pilgrims continues in the Russian capital forming an endless procession to honour the most beloved relics (left rib) of the saint: Nicholas of Bari, known in Russia as Nikolaos of Myra (Lycia).

    On 12 July, the relics will move to the "northern capital" of St Petersburg. Until then, devotees from Moscow and all Russia will continue to line up in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where the relics are presently on display.

    Huge crowds are expected at the St Alexander Nevsky Lavra (monastery) who, before reaching the saint’s relics to kiss, will walk through the famous cemetery in front of the monastery, final resting place of people like Dostoyevsky and Mussorgsky.

    All the trains in Moscow’s underground (about twenty lines, second after Paris) carry ads telling passengers to get off at Frunzenskaya station to go to the cathedral, several kilometres from the sacred place, to join the silent and impressive queue of devotees who walk for up to 8-9 hours to meet the saint.

    In recent years, such crowds have formed on similar occasions, like the pilgrimage to Russia of the Belt of Our Lady in 2011 (from Greece) and the display of the relics of Saint Andrew Apostle (donated by Amalfi to Patras in Greece, and then brought to Russia in 2003).

    To find a similar situation, we must go back to December 1989 when the body of the famous dissident Andrei Sakharov was laid in state in the Moscow’s Palace of Youth.

    That funeral was the first public mass post-communist manifestation and the ten-hour wait in 20 below temperatures showed the great desire of the Russian people to turn a final page after a century of madness and oppression.

    The long wait is part of the very nature of Russians: the huge distances of the land, often in a frozen and hostile weather, force people into show endless patience before reaching their desired destination, whether it is a geographical location, an historic achievement (Russia was one of the last countries to abolish serfdom in 1861 and admit religious tolerance in 1905), or a spiritual dimension.

    The famous Starets (elder) Saint Seraphim of Sarov lived in the Diveevo forest, more than 600 kilometres from Moscow. All Russia came to him for spiritual counsel and guidance, and even today many pilgrims visit his restored monastery in his memory.

    Many spiritual fathers, much sought after following the end of the atheist regime, retreat to far and inaccessible places (the Caucasus mountains, the Siberian steppes or the Central Asian tundra).

    Since the Middle Ages, Russians have been among the most zealous pilgrims to the far-off Holy Land, and the mystical dream of every strannik, the "wandering" believer typical of Russian spirituality, is to reach the extreme of the Chalkidiki peninsula, the hermits of the Holy Mountain, on Mount Athos, which today again welcomes hundreds of novices from Russia. President Putin visited the place a dozen times, every time he could.

    According to some Muscovite pilgrims, the queue is far from immovable and passive. It moves at a regular rhythm, accompanied by heartfelt prayers and by the solace of priests setting the tone of the litanies.

    In the Byzantine world, particularly in Russia, there is no tradition of street orchestras (musical instruments are deemed the devil’s tool; hence they are banned), nor are songs improvised. The community prayer is always liturgical and litaneutical with choral invocations and responses to the priest and the deacon; otherwise, only silence and meditation are allowed.

    The queue moves with sufficient promptness because the act of devotion lasts at best a second, the time to kiss the relic and make the sign of the cross (in Latin "adoration" means the lips coming into contact with the body of the venerated person).

    The long wait ends in the "sudden joy", which is the name of one of the most beloved Marian icons, akin to the Latin Annunciation: Mary receives the illumination and proclamation of grace from the archangel, and expresses in an instant the sense of human happiness, which resides in contact with the divine.

    At the special place where the pilgrims to Saint Nicholas write down their stories, one of the first posts is by Alena Romanenko, who expressed all her joy because "after making the sign of the cross and kissed the relic, the priest let me do it a second time, and no one pushed me away . . . I think everything depends on what everyone has in his or her heart, and the saint will bring it out of us!"

    In Russia as elsewhere, naive and deep faith is the soul that makes the mass a people, and makes the individual a person.

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