Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vespers’ (properly called ‘All-Night Vigil’) is for a great many people their only contact with the evening office as celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was for me. So when I was told by a friend who lives here in Jerusalem, and who has Russian heritage as part of her background, that at 5.00pm on Saturday, Vespers takes place in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, I decided that I had to go. It was a decision I didn’t regret and a new experience that I will treasure.
The Russian Church officially arrived in 1844 and began to establish itself, under the auspices of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in a number of ways and places. Before I attended Vespers I had already been to two of their churches in the city, the Alexander Nevsky Church with its wonderful archaeology and yesterday to the Church of St Mary Magdalene where Princess Alice of Greece, mother of Prince Philip, is buried (I asked if one could visit the tomb but was firmly but politely told by a nun that it was family only – I decided I couldn’t blag my way into that one!)
The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity consecrated in 1872 stands in the Russian Compound which is on the edge of the ultra-orthodox (I mean Jewish in this instance) district of Mea Shearim and the bustling Jaffa Road. Around it are buildings, now abandoned or in other use, which testify to the size and importance of the Russian presence in Jerusalem.
The Cathedral is indescribably beautiful. Outside it is white and clean with distinctive towers and domes. Inside the walls and central dome are covered with frescos, everywhere there are icons, the central chandelier is massive and the iconostasis with its golden doors hints at the glories beyond. As I arrived there were a few people gathering and bang on time the liturgy began.
In a gallery above our heads a small choir of nuns responded to the deep tones of the deacons and priests, the singing was beautiful, the tunes of the chants, the constant repetition were absolutely transporting. More people arrived, at times a great many people. We stood there in the nave, moved to this side and that by an MC who cleared the way for two deacons with thuribles who, on a number of occasions, made sure that every part of the church and every person was censed. Every so often the doors in the iconostasis would be opened and all the lights put on, the bishop (it could have been the Archimandrite) would appear in a wonderful crown and cope and do something, more clergy would appear, there were processions, the book of the Gospels brought in and finally all the congregation anointed using what looked like a very high class paint brush.
To be perfectly honest I didn’t know what was going on – but it was wonderful. It was like glimpsing something of what the world was like and what heaven might be like. I was amazed at how everyone knew their part and played their part from a little boy dashing round extinguishing and relighting candles throughout the liturgy, nuns ordering the nave, deacons and priests each with a role, bishops and most of all the people making the sign of the cross, bowing, more times than I could comprehend.
It took two hours to get to a point where it seemed to have ended – but there may have been more! My feet ached, my back ached but it was something I will not forget. It made 30 minute Choral Evensong in choir dress seem pretty minimal but as Jesus said ‘in my Father’s house are many mansions’ (John 14.2) and this was certainly a splendid one.
I quoted T S Eliot as part of my reflection on being in that place of prayer on the Mount of Olives. I apologise for quoting him again, but from a different poem, ‘Choruses from The Rock’.
We thank Thee for the lights that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
О Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!
It describes for me something of that experience of Vespers. Did it matter that I didn’t know what was going on, moment to moment? For me, no. Something more important was happening, God was being glorified and we were worshipping. I don’t always have to understand.
God of the many roomed mansion,
for the breadth and beauty of your holy church,
we give you thanks and praise.