They stand gazing reverently at the glass casket heads bowed and covered. They have come from far, with family and friends, on this pilgrimage to Sergiyev Posad, Russia. They arrive to pay homage to the reposing figure of Saint Sergius, who in the 1300s left his wealthy family to live as a hermit in the forest. His simple wooden church is now one of the largest Russian monasteries, Trinity Lavra, and the heart of the country’s orthodox religion. I scrutinize the faces of the faithful as they file silently around the interior of the cathedral. Some look sorrowful, others weary, but each has a determined spark in their eye, a purposeful mien. The low chanting voices of the monks, the smoky incense, and the swish of shuffling feet fills the space. I shamble forward in line and get the briefest glimpse at a muffled and bedecked body before everyone shifts onward. Curiosity is an unwanted emotion here where the devoted suffer spiritual and physical hardships for a moment alone with their saint to beseech his favor.
The weighted atmosphere suffocates me, and I struggle my way outside where I take deep breaths to shake off the oppressive fragrance. In the courtyard sits a well and from this the crowds also gather strength. Believers opine that the spring water has healing powers and many desire to drink it, touch it, or bottle it for home. Old women grasp the water as it bubbles from the fountain and bring it greedily to their lips. Parents bedew their crying babies with its sprinkles. Watching these pilgrims I brood on the idea of their expedition.
“I have never been on a pilgrimage. I have never wanted to go on one.”
No sanctified martyr has inspired me to pay obeisance. No spiritual urge has urged me to trek to a holy shrine. Yet, what is a pilgrimage but a reverential journey to a place where we seek solace for our soul? I reflect back to all the times I have desired to see the curve of a mountain because of the work of an artist. I revisit my younger yearning to tread the Paris of the Lost Generation: haunting the Latin Quarter in hopes of encountering literary ghosts who bloomed there; patronizing cafes where painters germinated ideas, and succumbing to the charms of musical Montparnasse. I wanted the very pavement to incite my starved poetic fancies. What were these if not pilgrimages of a sort?
Trinity Lavra is a working seminary where theology students and elder monks drift noiselessly about the chapels and cloisters in somber black robes.
“In flowing garb and black veiled caps they present a fearsome sight, wafting to and fro.”
A young seminarian explains to me that students enrolled here spend five years studying before deciding their future and I realize that in an educational sense the scholars are also on a pilgrimage: a spiritual one that leads them through their religious hierarchy and prepares them for a life of sacred service. Even the taciturn patriarchs appear to be on a mental pilgrimage here, though their steps only take them from altar to dining hall. Nineteenth century aristocrat Elizabeth von Arnim once wrote that she had a fondness for pilgrimage. “The pilgrims,” she noted, “leaving all their cares at home…took only their sins with them, and…set out with that sole burden.” My travel life has been one long pilgrimage, by her definition: carrying my weaknesses with me wherever I go, learning new facets of my nature, and casting aside this knowledge so that I may continue to walk freely.
I see the joy on the faces of those who have entered here to commune with their saint, I observe their liberation after imbibing from the fount and in a small way I comprehend what they feel. This recluse may not be a Mecca for me, yet I find sanctuary within its timeless frescoes, its aura of hope, and even its wordless monks.
“Peace is a word often used but rarely understood on a personal level.”
At Trinity Lavra, momentary peace, that brief respite from the millstones of the world, is both offered and taken. I can hear the call go out with the ringing of the church bells….
“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving….Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.” —Rumi
Founded by Sergius of Radonezh, Russia’s most venerated saint, Trinity Lavra continues to attract thousands of devotees as the nerve center of the Russian Orthodox Church. Throughout its history, rulers such as Empress Elizabeth have made the grueling seventy kilometer (113 miles) journey from Moscow to the shrine on foot to proclaim their faith.
Have you ever been on a pilgrimage of any kind? What inspired you? Is there a destination you would like to make a pilgrimage to in the future?