Saturday, 31 March 2012

While at prayer in the Cathedral i was approached by a solicitous young priest, who went to the trouble of arranging for me to check in to the nearby guest house/seminary, costing only about 5 euros for a very comfortable room. In the morning the Cathedral was brimming with people for the 9 o’clock Eucharist, after which it was a short hop to the 18th century Holy Trinity Church, to pay my respects to the Holy Icon of Our Lady of Zarvanytsia. Having spent a few moments in prayer there for the intentions of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in showery conditions i made my way to a cafe in Zolotniki, where a policeman was satisfied with my photocopied passport, and i got a free tea. I then walked for a few more hours before catching a bus to Ternopil at around 6pm, and then the first train to Lviv. Friday the 8th of ApriI, memorial of Blessed August Czartoryski, was a useful one, sandwiched between sleeps of so-so sufficiency in the train stations of Lviv and, again, Ternopil, respectively. After catching the tail-end of a service in the beautiful Church of St Andrew in central Lviv, i collected a 20-day visa from the Russian consulate, to start on the 9th of May, and on the way to the Miles Jesu house caught sight of a Ukrainian edition of Robert Louis Stephenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ in a shop window, which i commandeered for the boys’ library at Bortniki.  An additional morale boost came from two packages, containing dried apricots, cashew nuts and other goodies, which had been sent to the house from home. I also got another reasonably successful film developed, but decided against retrieval of the winter police uniform for the time being.

   On Saturday the 9th of April i set off from Ternopil in some pretty awful sleety weather, the stiffest test yet of my new poncho, with its little German flag on the side. In fact the cape coped admirably well, but the sudden sodden state of my walking boots, which i’d bought from a charity shop, was enough to curb my sense of jubilation. At a place called Zbarazh there was a sign to a castle, so i asked if i could leave my rucksack in the care of some young people in a shop while i nipped off to investigate. On route i got talking to a friendly middle-aged gentleman, who insisted a) that i needed at least half an hour to visit the castle, and b) that i should come back to his nearby house afterwards, for a coffee. In fact one should allow at least an hour in order to do the castle justice. The seat, like other stately dwellings in the region, of Polish aristocracy, it was built in an Italianate ‘palazzo’ style in the 17th century (rebuilt in the 18th century), but also boasts a very deep moat and impressive dungeon to give it an authentic ‘knights in shining armour’ feel. In the mid 17th century it took centre stage when besieged as part of the uprising led by Zaporozhian Cossack Bogdan Khmelnitsky. Of especial interest is its excellent museum, housing among other things a collection of mediaeval and early modern Icons and devotional statues, traditional clothing, a mediaeval armoury including swords and 13th century chain mail, and a room full of impressively sculpted wooden figurines, mostly Cossack soldiers. At 5pm i met up with the fellow i’d spoken to earlier and came to his house, where i was introduced to his wife and, they both being physics teachers, a former student of theirs, who was visiting from his home in the Crimea. I was plied with delicious hot food as well as coffee, over which our conversation ranged from Zarvanytsia and football to the Crimea’s semi-autonomous status, which i realised i needed to brush up on.

   Their son soon arrived home so, gauging that they didn’t really have room in the house to put me up, i decided to say my farewells and make tracks, in spite of some very dark grey clouds which started discharging their watery payload shortly afterwards. I made do with a bus shelter in Sinyava to spend the night in, which was OK if a bit on the cold side, then walked to the village of Vyshhorodok, which notably gave the year of its foundation in the late 10th century. With the refrain “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” in my head, i scaled a hill to the Church, where a well-attended Sunday service was about to start. Then a middle-aged chap asked if there was anything i’d like, to which i replied ‘maybe a cup of tea’, thinking this would be after the liturgy, but since it went on for over two hours, a short time later i was spirited away to the church hall for a great cuppa in mid-service! He outlined the history of the village Church, how it had been boarded up and neglected in soviet times, but things appear to have begun changing in about the year 1988, when Kievan Rus’ – and therefore Russia – marked one thousand years of Christianity, dated from the baptism of St. Vladimir the Great in the year 988AD.*

*A celebrated legend has it that, in the years 986-87, Grand Prince Vladimir, who inherited the paganism of his father Sviatoslav (though his grandmother St Olga was Christian), embarked on a wide-ranging consultation, in order to discern which of the available religions he should adopt. Islam was at a clear disadvantage for its proscriptive stance on alcohol; "Drinking is the joy of the Rus', we can't go without it" he exclaimed. He gave a hearing to Jewish representatives but felt their loss of Jerusalem pointed to their being out of divine favour. When the field was narrowed to a choice between Roman Catholicism and the Byzantine Church, his envoys were apparently underwhelmed by the gloomy Churches of Germany, but in contrast were enthralled by the spectacle of Christian worship in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they reported, “nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.” Mind you, with the Greeks on their southern frontier, and the importance of the Dnieper river as a trade route linking the Baltic and Black Seas, it’s probably fair also to say that an alignment with Byzantium made sound political and economic sense.

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