Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wayward Advice to a Good Time

Isn't it always the way? There's bound to be a Jonathan Edwards in every Puritanical crowd...

Meeting people is a terrific part of a pilgrimage - everyday, new people to talk with, even with my scant command of Ukrainian. The priests were doing a bang-up job passing me from one to the next down the right bank of the river. As soon as I'd pass into the sandy village, some sentry alerted the priest who would invariably be waiting, smiling, with a small gift and a translator of some sort. A veritable feast, humble, but warm and from the heart. Bliss.

But it all began to frizzle apart when I entered Svetlovodsk. Stern Father Vasylie (every third priest in this country seems to have that name)was alerted as I came into this larger town - potholed asphalt roads, few signs, little in the way of obedience to traffic laws. He took me to a large outbuilding of a small church. The choir was practicing some new passage; I was given some borscht and black bread, soon after led to a garret bunkroom. A basin was brought for me to wash, and steaming buckets of water from the wood-burning stove as soon as they heated. While I washed, the stern priest set up a old Panasonic VCR camera in a small room below, lit by a single suspended light bulb.

An English teacher, Olga, was brought in from the next town. She first berated me that my black wool hat was inadequate head covering for a woman in an Orthodox church (contrary to other advice I'd been given). She fixed my headscarf so tightly around my head I'm sure my face was beet red. She explained that the priest would interview me on camera about politics and religion. Yikes. It didn't take long to realize that they weren't speaking Ukrainian. I'm not even sure it was Russian, but the ancient Russian language used in the church service, I think. Father Vasylie of Svetlovodsk grunted a lot as he spoke, glaring at me down his long angular nose. He clearly did not approve of me. The camera was pointed only on me; I sat under the light bulb. It was all so very dramatic and I had no idea why.

Olga told me that I was to look at the camera and repeat each question so that it was clear I understood it. Nothin' doin', do I look like a rookie? "America is the source of all evil"; "the devil has control of America and all of its inhabitants"; blah blah blah... I repeated none of these outlandish statements for the camera. I silently let him listen to himself with no clue what bee was in his bonnet except a hard life under communism that he hasn't let go of. I judged him to be on the far side of 70... how sad his life brought him to this. "It is written" he droned on grunting each sylable, "America will destroy itself in 2012." "The current president will be the last." "America is to be destroyed because of the evil it has caused in the world." Get over it, dude. He hasn't even seen the new Hollywood film.

He similarly bashed Catholicism as being evil and misguided. He urged me to convert to Russian Orthodox, the only true and pure religion, and because I've not done my duty to God by having children, pushed me to take vows and enter a women's monastery... yeah, sure, if it's God's will I assured him, thinking it's far more likely that America will self-destruct in 2012. (What happens to Canada?) When the interview was over, beady little Olga explained that the priest is obligated to try to convert anyone who isn't Russian Orthodox. Obviously, 'celebrate diversity' aren't words in his vocabulary. When St Andrew and the other fellas set out with the gift of tongues to spread the word to the various lands, I can't imagine they intended that everyone must conform to the same way of covering their heads, crossing themselves, lighting candles, kneeling, sitting, etc... Someone's missing the point, perhaps.

Needless to say, he wouldn't tell me the name of the next priest to seek out. He drove me across the Dniepro the next morning, stopped the car and pointed, gesturing 20 km, there'd be a church. Icky guy and poor sausage all at the same time. I was glad to be done with him, but very concerned that in a practical sense, I was now on the wrong bank of the river. The left bank is marshy and low, with broad unfordable tributaries. No good to a walker. The right bank has nice bluffs, villages, easier going... Why was I one left bank all of the sudden?

By mid-afternoon, I found the church after the standard inquisitive search. The candlelady wasn't interested in helping me. There'd be a service beginning in 3 hours and the priest would come then, she told me, not before. I sat down, a bit forelorned. The church was cold. I stared at the candlelady long enough for her to start asking around. Eventually a woman came over to sit with me. I gave her my letter of introduction, which prompted her to call an English-speaking friend to come and straighten things out. That's when the fun began.

"I was called to speak English with a woman who needed help." Irena later told me, "Expecting a proper Englishwoman, imagine my surprise when I arrived to discover an American alpinist! Jolly good." Half-way through the sung service, Irena and Natalia, the kind woman who took the initiative to help me, concluded that the priest would be tied up for another few hours, so it would be better to go home with Natalie to sleep in her spare room, and return to the right bank in the morning. We sat chatting away most of the evening. I raised a glass with Ivan, Natalia's husband, so he could have full bragging rights to drinking a beer with an American in his own livingroom. Cheers to that!

Since ths episode a week ago, I haven't been able to get back into full swing with the village priests... the priests I found when I got back to the right bank were visiting from other parts of the country. One spoke German; we could communicate directly without an Olga in the mix. They made some phone calls and told me the names of villages where they were told priests lived, but no such luck. The village ladies get things taken care of - one village produced a Seventh Day Adventist to take me in, another, a Baptist... they hear 'polomnitza' and find someone related to a church, any church. Ah well. Whatever works. Everyday, I meet people, we talk, we always laugh, and more miles are behind me. I'm at the big bend in the river now, heading south.


Anonymous said...

I'm following your blog from England, and am enthralled by your adventures, and heartened by the welcome you are receiving, mostly. As you say, every nation and every denomination and religion have their blinkered or bigoted members. I'm wondering if you were a man, would you be offered a bed so readily?
I'm also feeling very envious and wish I was walking with you.
Best wishes too from St Andrew's Church here in Soham, Cambridgeshire!

Anonymous said...

Your walk is starting to get increasingly more interesting, if not intense. I can't hardly wait to hear what is around the corner. Vera, Erie

Anonymous said...

Hi palomnytsia! Now, that's a blog with enough meat for a Hollywood movie! Your eventual book will be fascinating...the European pilgrimages will be like a walk in the park compared to this one.

You never cease to amaze me--your sense of humor will get you a "purple heart!" Your courage makes you the perfect person to be trailblazing this pilgrimage.
We are are still wondering...where do you find computer & internet? On pins & needles waiting to see what's next on your blog...Cheers from the language group! Nadja from Denver.

Sil said...

Ah .. Ann.. if you were a man you'd probably have no problems at all! Don't you remember some of the parish churches and monasteries in Italy on the Via Francigena that would not accommodate women pilgrims? The monastery in Santo Domingo do Silos in Spain also will not admit peregrinas. I often wonder what they would do if the Mother Mary herself arrived asking for a bed??
Keep safe and buen camino.