Day 1, Monday, May 14th.
I arrived at Bush Intercontinental Airport at about 8:00 a.m. Two of my parishioners went with me -- Steve Pennings, and George Nahlous. Fr. Lubomir Kupec happened to be on the same flight, however, I was beginning to think he had missed it, because we were just about to board before we saw him. He had been delayed because he is an iconographer, and had been commissioned to paint four large icons to be given as gifts by the Metropolitan over the course of his visit, and getting these icons on the plane without being damaged took some negotiations. Fortunately, Fr. Lubomir has a parishioner who works for Continental Airlines who was able to help him make that happen.
When we arrived at JFK airport, we had some difficulty figuring out which Terminal Aeroflot flew out of. We were given two bum steers by people who worked for the Airport, before we finally got to the right one (Yankees...). We were helping Fr. Lubomir lug his icons around... which made the whole thing far more interesting. Finally, we got to the right place, and began to see clergy that I knew and clergy that I didn't know, but came to know over the course of the trip. The flight to Russia was probably one of the stranger flights Aeroflot has ever seen. Most of the flight consisted of ROCOR clergy and laity, and so throughout the course of the flight there were people going up and down the rows, catching up with old friends.
Day 2, Tuesday, May 15th
At some point during that flight, we ran into Tuesday. We were flying close to the Arctic circle, and flying against the Earth's rotation, and so night was very brief. It was only completely dark for a short time. When we landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, the passengers spontaneously began to sing the Paschal Troparion (in Slavonic), "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life".
You can see photos of the flight and the arrival by clicking here.
You can view a Youtube video of a Russia Today story on the arrival here:
Going through Russian customs, we began to encounter some of the differences between how things are handled in Russia vs. America. The line was very disorganized and long... although they made special arrangements to get us through, which made things go a lot quicker than they probably would have otherwise.
We boarded various buses, and headed to the place which most of us stayed at, which was a hotel owned and operated by the Moscow Patriarchate, called the Universityets Gostinitsa (if I remember correctly) which is so named because it is near to Moscow State University... a building which is known as one Stalin's seven sisters, because all seven buildings were built during his tenure, and they all look very similar... a sort of Stalinesque Gothic.
At the hotel, again more of the experience of Russian lines. I was told though, that compared to how things were 20 years ago, things ran much more efficiently than they used to (God bless America, land that I love...).
By the time we finally got into our rooms, we were all fairly tired. But before the banks closed, I went and changed most of my money into Rubles. I had thought I would encounter more Russians who spoke English than I did, but fortunately most of the people who traveled with us were bilingual, and at the bank one of them (Vladimir Krassovsky, who is the Choir director of the San Francisco Cathedral) happened to be there, and came to my rescue when I hit a snag with the teller. Also there, I got to meet Elizabeth Ledkovsky in person (whom I already knew somewhat via e-mail), the grand daughter of Boris Ledkovsky, and daughter of Alexander Ledkovsky, both of whom are well known composers of Church music. Both of them were part of the Synodal Choir that would participate in the services to come.
Russian TV is quite interesting. There is an Orthodox Channel that runs 24 hours a day. Other news shows spoke a great deal about our delegation and the upcoming reconciliation of the Russian Church. Also, there were many shows I saw throughout my trip that talked about the martyrs under the Communists, and the general havoc the Communists wrought upon Russia. I must say though that it was very disconcerting to hear Michael Jordan and Samurai Jack speaking Russian -- but hearing Kenneth Copeland in Russian was probably the biggest hoot.
Day 3, Wednesday, May 16th.
There was nothing officially planned for most of the pilgrims in the morning, but it was the Apodosis of Pascha, several of us wanted to go to Church, and so I got the Fr. Wally tour of Moscow from Fr. Vladimir Boikov (an exceptionally fun priest whom I got to know in December of 2000 when I traveled to Australia for a youth conference), along with Protodeacon Leonid Mickle of St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Washington D.C., and Protodeacon Nicholas Triantafillidis of the San Francisco Cathedral.
Driving through Moscow in a car is a very harrowing experience. Our Russian driver, fearlessly weaved in and out of traffic, at a high rate of speed whenever possible, and to my surprise managed to get us to where we were going without killing us all.
First, we went to the Danilov Monastery, where our bishops and official delegates were attending the liturgy. Fr. Vladimir had the start time wrong by 1 hour, and so we unfortunately only caught the final parts of the liturgy. While there I was able to venerate the relics of St. Daniel of Moscow.
You can see me standing in the altar at the Danilov monastery
Click here for more photos of the day. Fr. Vladimir Boikov is the very Chinese looking priest. He is part Chinese, part Mongolian, and part Russian, though he sounds like the Crocodile Hunter when he speaks. He has often traveled to China to minister to the Chinese Orthodox there.
We then went to St. Catherine's, which is the OCA's representation Church. They have a beautiful Church, as well as a shop that sells vestments of a very high quality, but at a very reasonable price. The rector, Archimandrite Zacchaeus (Wood), was very hospitable, and insisted on us having tea with him before we left... which was a good thing, since we hadn't had breakfast, and it was time for lunch.
Click to enlarge picture
From left to right, Protodeacon Leonid Mickle, Fr. Vladimir Boikov, Archimandrite Zacchaeus (Wood), me, and Protodeacon Nicholas Triantafillidis.
We then went by a Church in Moscow, I can't remember the name, but it was the one that Peter the Great was baptized in. The original iconography had been destroyed by the communists, but new beautiful iconography now adorns the Church. As in every Church I saw, even though no service was going on, there was a steady flow of people who were lighting candles and praying.
After a few more stops around town, we rejoined the official tour at the Donskoy Monastery. They held a moleben before the relics of the Hieromartyr Patriarch Tikhon, who was killed by the Communists. We then were able to venerate his relics. I noticed that the priest in front of me took off his cross to touch it to the relics of the Saint, and so I started doing that myself whenever the opportunity presented itself. (Click here for a picture of those relics, taken during the moleben)
After that we were given a tour of the cemetery, in which many famous Russians are buried. Here again the signs of Communist desecration are still visible -- most of the tombstones had their crosses broken off.
We ended the day with Vigil at the Stretensky Monastery. Our Synodal Choir participated in the service. While there, I was able to venerate the relics of the Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky) (click here to see a photo of someone venerating St. Hilarion's relics), whose essay Christianity or the Church had a big impact on me as I was studying Orthodoxy prior to my conversion. The service was very beautiful, though the Church was a bit small for the number of people there (Click here to see me in the altar, where most of the clergy were standing and click here to see George Nahlous standing on the stairs to the choir loft). The abbot of the monastery, Fr. Tikhon (Shevkunov) is a very impressive man whom I first heard speak at the All-Diaspora clergy conference in Nyack, New York, in December 2003. There was a reception after the service, which included many toasts to those who had made all of this happen. It was a very happy evening.
To be continued