19 September 2019

Apart from our promised Mercedes turning into a Toyota, we were pleased to set off from the Moscow Intercontinental Hotel into the Russian countryside, aided by Guideski Helen and Driverov Roman. We were headed for a walled monastery called The Holy Trinity Saint Sergius Lavra, about two car hours north of Moscow. 

This monastery is said to be the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church. I pulls in multitudes of pilgrims, herds of obedient Asians and nosey tourists like us from all over the world. The patriarch of the church visits there regularly and speaks to the devout from a balcony in the official residence – in much the way the Pope does in St. Peters. 

If you wanted a microcosm of Russian Orthodoxy, this is it. Within the walls are several ancient cathedrals, resident training for monks and priests (some female), lashings of gold carvings, frescos, paintings, mysterious echoing choirs, stunning gold onion domes and iconic priests and monks who take various visiting groups on explanation walks. There is even a spring gushing water said to possess healing powers after a monk, some centuries ago, got his sight back following a few splashes. The water is generously pumped to a decorative gazebo for anybody to use. I put some on my sore back and am awaiting results.

The magnetic attraction here is the earthly remains of the church’s number one saint, St Sergius. He was a 13th century monk who, as a child, was the school dunce until he was told by an old monk praying under a tree that a miracle awaited him at home. There he found that advanced literacy had been bestowed upon him and he could now read. He then became a holy academic and eventually, after a lot of wandering, founded the monastery. 

Legend has it that St Sergius could tell the future. He accurately predicted when he would die and began making is own coffin (a privilege reserved for the high priesthood) six months before he passed. After he was laid in it and buried, he was canonised, which meant that the priests had to dig him up again and take him out to be placed in a special glass topped coffin in one of the cathedrals. Instead of a very smelly, party decomposed corpse when they lifted the lid, the priests found his body to be perfect condition – proving to them that he was a saint. 

People queue up to kiss the glass top of the coffin which resides in a spectacular carved canopy of silver and gold. Other saints, whose glass topped coffins are placed around the cathedrals, also come in for a lot of kissing. There is a cloth provided to wipe away the saliva left behind by the kissers. There may be some health issues here.

St Sergius’s original wooden coffin went on display after he was taken out of it, but visitors began to cut off small pieces to take home as souvenirs that might bring them holy luck. This forced the priests to cover the wood with protective metal and put it into a glass case. Devotees kiss this as well. In fact, kissing holy relics is the going thing in Russia.

The monastery was closed after the 1917 revolution when religion was sidelined, but Stalin ordered its reopening and restoration in 1947. Stalin was both a cruel dictator and civil hero rolled into one. I don’t think Russians yet know how to categorise him. 

We spent the night in a weird Suzdal hotel in which guests are assigned a room in one of the many copies of ancient merchants’ houses that make up the estate. It gave the impression of a ghost tour, but an adventure nonetheless. Breakfast rewarded me with a rare family hotel toaster sighting. There were also hard-boiled eggs on offer, one of which I bit into to find the shell still attached. This was my first life experience of a totally white eggshell. Our guide, Helen, remarked if she got a brown egg (like our standard supermarket ones) she would think there was something wrong with it.

Hotel Toaster Review

Mother and son

On 19 September 2011, Mrs Toastopopolov gave birth to a son, Igor. Mother and son are still in perfect working order at the Hotel Nikolaevsky in Posad. They have grown lazy, however, because the available bread is so stale it is well on the way to being toast before entry. 

A devotee about to kiss a saint’s coffin, with cleaning cloth at the ready; and the crowd around the gazebo of miracle water. The monastery should challenge Lourdes for a heal-off.