Unification Sermons and Talks

by Reverend Joy Pople

Finding God in Moscow

by Joy Pople

When we arrived in Moscow after the long ride from Latvia, our train family of teachers and students who had spent days or sometimes weeks together studying the teachings of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Alla invited me to accompany her and her daughter Olga to their apartment in a southern suburb of Moscow. We will take the Metro downtown, change to another line, and then transfer to a bus.

Alla is very proud of the Metro. Some stations have artifacts and sculptures of museum quality. The cars are quite noisy. It is still evening rush hour. Alla says that it used to be the tradition for young people to offer their seats to older people, but that is no longer common. Then suddenly one young girl gets up and points Alla to her seat. Alla tries to get me to take it but I defer to her as my elder.

Alla is concerned about what I will think of their apartment. I ask her if it is typical. Americans don't know much about ordinary Russians, and I would like to give them some idea of how Muscovites live. Yes, she assures me, her place will be fairly typical.

At the bus stop, we follow a path to her nine-storey building. A small elevator takes us up to the eighth floor. Alla unlocks the door. To the left is the bathroom and kitchen. Ahead is the bedroom that Alla and Olga share, and further back is the living room and the bedroom of Alla's married daughter and her family. Off that room is a small balcony. There is a crib for the little grandchild, and the four-year-old sleeps on the living room couch.

Outside glimmer the lights of the high-rise apartment buildings on the other side of a freeway. What used to be a stupendous view of Moscow to the north when they moved into this apartment some 25 years ago was blocked by the apartment buildings constructed fifteen years later. The air is warm and hazy.

Alla bustles around. She makes phone calls and goes to the neighbors for borrow some fresh bread. I wash some dishes and sort through the food leftover from our trip, slicing tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, salami, and hard-boiled eggs for supper. Alla's face brightens. "Oh, you have already made our supper!" She gets out hot dogs to cook and rummages around for tea cups. Finally, Alla sits down.

I tell Alla about my sister Louise's apartment building in Queens, New York. She, her husband, and their two children have a two-room apartment similar in size to theirs, minus the smaller bedroom. And do they have a balcony? No. Alla seems surprised. She asks what kind of place I live in. Our two-storey house sounds mighty spacious.

We take turns bathing. Alla is sleepy, but she wants to show me her treasured books. We go to the living room, with its piano and bookshelves filled with collected works of English masters, encyclopedias, art books, and novels in English and Russian. It's nearing midnight. I head for bed and soon fall asleep.

At 7:15 am Alla knocks on the door. It's time to get dressed. We drink tea and eat more bread, cheese, and salami before heading out for their school, which is located in the same housing development. Alla wears a tailored black-and-white dress. Olga has a white blouse and a short denim skirt they bought in Latvia for 400 rubles, a third of what it would cost in Moscow.

School is a five-minute walk. It has classes from first through twelfth forms. A large crowd is gathered at the entrance of the school. Parents and children are waiting, almost every child carrying gifts of flowers-large zinnias, roses or gladioli. Alla regrets that she did not have time to get flowers for Olga to give to her teacher. In front of the building, where students are assembled behind signs indicating their form, and section A or B. Proud parents stand by the youngest children. The little girls wear black dresses with white pinafores of various styles, and the little boys wear dark blue suits. The older children do not wear uniforms.

September first is commemorated as the Day of Knowledge. The principal congratulates the students on this special occasion. Finally, the youngest pupils enter the school, each one hand in hand with a student from a higher form. The young faces are a study of excitement, anxiety, and seriousness. The parents are dressed in their best, bursting with pride.

With the seventh form students, Alla tries some simple conversational English, with little response. Then she tells them to open their textbooks, and she asks them questions about a drawing of a beach scene. She asks students to read in turn from an essay about the Day of Knowledge. Afterwards Alla complains to me that these students are beginning their third year of English studies but have never learned to talk English. It's hard for them to understand the need, because to meet an English-speaking person is very rare. Alla herself had never met an American before this spring.

Alla tries to inspire the fifth-form students who are just beginning their English studies. She is handicapped by the lack of any classroom map to show them how many English-speaking countries there are.

We walk around the school. There are three floors of classrooms. We stop in the dining room where pancakes and raisin pastries are available; the cooks put some water on to serve us tea. As we wait, a boy comes in shyly bearing a bouquet of flowers as a gift for the cooks.

We stop to say goodbye to the principal. Alla asks for tomorrow morning off to be with her visitor. The principal graciously agrees and offers me a bouquet of gladioli.

We board a bus and head for the Metro. Sidewalk vendors display their wares at the exit downtown. My mental image of the Kremlin is that of the long red brick wall facing Red Square behind which mysterious meetings take place. I learn that the Kremlin is the site of the medieval fortress built on the highest hill of Moscow. The original wooden ramparts have been replaced by massive brick walls. Over the centuries, the Kremlin has been the center around which the Russian people rally to fight off foreign invaders.

We walk through a long series of immaculately-kept lawns and gardens, past the eternal flame memorializing an unknown soldier who died defending Moscow during the Great Patriotic War (1939-45), past memorials to the heroic cities that withstood the invasion of Hitler's armies, past a reconstructed battlement, past a monument to heroes of the revolution. Floral tributes lie on the granite slabs.

Entrance to the Kremlin itself is through a small gate and down a long cobblestone walkway to the Troitskaya Tower. On our right is the newest building, the enormous glass-and-marble Palace of Congresses. Built in 1961 to house Communist Party gatherings, it has many meeting areas, including a theater hall with 6,000 seats On the immaculate lawns we see a tsarist cannon and a massive iron bell, the largest ever cast.

Up the hill and to the left is the government office building. Behind a second-storey window is Lenin's old office. A guard blows a whistle sharply and holds up his hand. Pedestrians stop abruptly. From the entrance to the office building come three black limousines. Standing on the sidewalk, I smile and wave enthusiastically. "What are you doing?" Alla asks nervously. Probably only an idiotic American would wave at officials in the Kremlin.

"Do Americans really hate Russians?" I am often asked. No, we don't hate the Russian people; we don't know much about them. Our government has been afraid of the Soviet government and its repeated threats and attempts to destroy freedom-loving people. That answer seems sensible to the Russians.

There is distrust and despair in the hearts of many middle-aged Russians. I tell Alla that in these uncertain times the task of government officials is very difficult. I hope they pray to God for guidance.

I had no idea that the heart of the Kremlin consists of cathedrals. The core of Russia's faith was never obliterated. A quintet of gold-domed churches built between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries graces Cathedral Square, on the highest hill in Moscow. Under Marxism-Leninism they could not be used for religious services; for years at a time they were boarded up, to be opened on occasion to tourists as museums of Russian art. The highest form of Russian medieval art was religious art, in particular icons. Some of these icons have been restored to resemble their original glory. Russians can now see evidence of their glorious spiritual heritage.

For one whose exposure to religious art has been primarily Protestant or Catholic, to step into an Orthodox cathedral is to enter another realm. It reminds me of my sunrise pilgrimage to the huge statue of Buddha on the east coast of Korea near Kyungju. In its presence I began to understand something of the Buddhist ideal of the serenity that comes from renouncing worldly desires.

The overwhelming dimension of an Orthodox cathedral is vertical, drawing the eye up and up, past seven or more layers of religious images, to the cupola, which also is covered with painting. Inside the dome of the Cathedral of the Annunciation, which served as the tsar's private chapel, a huge, sad fresco of Jesus stares down at me. Here he is given his proper role as the center of faith, but his heart must grieve at the failure of his followers to carry out his example of sacrificial love.

This cathedral contains a famous array of icons depicting the complex hierarchy of religious figures in Orthodox tradition. The best artists from the Orthodox world, including the renowned iconographers Andrei Rublev and Theophanes the Greek, contributed to these panels. Like little children Alla and I exclaim to each other as we discover one marvelous art treasure after another.

The Cathedral of the Assumption has an austere, Romanesque exterior. In the ornate interior the tsars were crowned, ecumenical councils were held, and patriarchs were laid to rest in sepulchers.

In the Archangel Cathedral I stand for a long time looking at a painting of the Archangel Michael, considered the patron saint of Russian soldiers. He is portrayed as a young warrior in his prime, with wings rising from behind a coat of mail. Around his image are the faded scenes of what was supposedly his boyhood. The childhood of an angel? This compelling portrayal of a warrior angel fascinates me and causes me to ponder the special role of archangels in combating the forces of evil.

We walk down to the heavily-guarded museum displaying the crown jewels of the tsar and other magnificent treasures of jewelry, gold, and platinum. "Do you have anything like this in America?" Alla asks mischievously. She says the greatest masterpieces were sold off by Khrushchev and his successors to finance their luxurious private life.

Then we go back to Red Square to see the goose-stepping changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. St. Basil's cathedral, with its multitude of onion domes and gold decoration, keeps vigil over the far end of the square. We cross the huge plaza to the GUM, which resembles a suburban shopping mall in the United States, and then head for the Metro and home. Olga will be hungry for supper.

I want to get some food for Alla and her daughter before I leave. At the market where we exit the Metro, I buy cheese, salami, bread, and milk. I purchase some corn, potatoes, and cucumbers from a sidewalk vendor. There was far more food available last summer in the Central African Republic.

When she can, Alla takes Olga for weekend retreats to the country cottage which her husband and his brothers bought along the Volga River. They spend a good part of every summer in the country and grow fruits and vegetables in the garden there. This is the only way she finds peace, she explains.

The phone rings after 10:30 pm. It is Rosalia, the artist who became close friends with Alla during the seminars. Suddenly, as she was preparing for bed, Rosalia realized that ever since the first seminar she hadn't been going through her usual nightly panic about dying. With great excitement, she calls Alla to share the good news.

Olga, also, had been having trouble sleeping at night for the past two years, after watching a horror show on the television. At the first seminar this summer, they went out to pray at night, and Olga saw two streaks of light illuminating the sky, and she began to believe in the reality of God. Nobody else saw the lights, but Olga believed that the lights had special meaning for her and that they were a sign of God's presence. Now she is not afraid of the dark. She likes to pray and eagerly responds when I suggest that we pray together before going to bed.

On the way to the train station, we pass a bookstore. How can two book lovers resist the temptation to browse? There Alla sees a book on contemporary Russian Christian art. We are in a hurry. I look at a couple of pages and know I want to buy it. It is worth far more than the 300 ruble asking price. Published just last year, its images are testimony to the power of the spirit to penetrate decades of official atheism. Particularly fascinating to me are the modern interpretations of the classic icons.

Alla boards the coach with me and talks to the two young men and the young woman already in the compartment. This second-class coach is newer and cleaner than the third-class coach we shared two days ago. None of my compartment mates speaks English. Alla asks the young man on the lower level bunk to relinquish his space. We embrace in farewell.

The train ride to Riga is slow and seems lonely. I offer my compartment mates some fruit. They shake their heads. The whole ride they are absorbed reading pornographic tabloids. I write in my diary. When the girl sets out her meal, I offer her some cheese and she accepts it. She offers me dried fish, and I pull off a small piece and chew on it. I walk to the window and stare at the endless forest.

At the airport in Riga, the last group of Americans returning from the summer seminars slowly assembles. Some have been sightseeing in Riga. Two of them haven't eaten anything since last night, and they quickly finish the rest of my cheese, bread, salami and fruit. Now I know why I was given so much food.

On the plane, Louise and I share stories about our adventures in the capital. Both of us were astounded by the cathedrals in the Kremlin. Louise had deep experiences of communing with Jesus there. We pore over my book on Russian Christian art. Both of us feel we were led there to help understand the heart of Christianity in Russia.

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