September proved sunny and unusually warm in Moscow this year. Hieromonk Roman (Krassovsky) of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, aptly named it “Paschal weather.” He is one of 34 delegates of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia accompanying the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God to Russia. Meanwhile, Protopriest George Zelenin, Rector of Archangel Michael Church in Paterson, NJ, a suburb of New York City, noted that in Christ the Savior Cathedral, it seemed that time itself flowed differently. Despite the many hours of guarding the holy icon, the singing of akathists, standing in line for hours, neither the clergymen nor the laity sense any fatigue, coming from early morning until late at night to venerate this long-awaited icon. We spoke to Fr George today, one of the first clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to attend the miracle-working icon during its stay at the Cathedral.
– Fr George, you were among the first clergymen to guard the icon in Christ the Savior Cathedral…
– And I felt the same trembling in the presence of this icon as I did twelve years ago, when, as a seminarian, I had my first opportunity to accompany the icon from Jordanville to New York City. Then the icon was resting on my lap, and there was a strange, palpable sense that you are embracing the Mother of God Herself, and Her Divine Child, and that all of Russian history itself at this moment was on your knees. A special feeling arose from this moment of solitude, for it was this very icon that was in the residence of Tsar Feodor Ioannovich, Tsarina Irina herself sewed the riza for it; one remembered Prince Dimitry Pozharsky, who had the icon with his soldiers during the Time of Troubles, this icon, which was used to bless the Russian forces to expel those who caused trouble in the Russian land; one remembered Field Marshall AV Suvorov, who revered the icon, the sole general in all of history who never lost a single battle.
General Kutuzov prayed before this icon when he led the troops in 1812. In that era the icon miraculously healed St Seraphim of Sarov. And when all these recollections live within you, you feel a part of the history of your Fatherland. This is a source of trembling and an entirely distinct attitude towards this holy icon.
An amazing thing was happening in Moscow. A wonderful program was organized for our delegation, which included many excursions and visits to the holy sites in the Moscow region and nearby dioceses. At first, I know, priests wanted to go to one place, then another. But an unpredictable thing occurred. As soon as we started attending the icon while the people venerated it, our priests started preferring to stay with it, and not go on these excursions.
– Fr George, is there any difference in the way the icon is greeted in Russia and the way it is greeted in the churches of the Russian Church Abroad?
– The visits of the icon in the diaspora and in her native land are incomparable. Here one has the full sense of what it is to live in an Orthodox country, when thousands and thousands of people of God come to pray before the icon.
Without a doubt, for us in the diaspora the icon is indispensible, because—and I am convinced of this—if it weren’t for this miracle-working icon of the Mother of God, the Church Abroad could not have preserved its unity. This is the very spiritual center around which the fragments of the Russian diaspora gathered. The icon “of the Sign” is of the “Orant” type, which in Greek means “She who blesses,” but for us she became the “Hodigitria.” This is very symbolic.
But outside the borders of our homeland, there aren’t that many of us, and every visit of the icon for us is like a family celebration. A great, but a quiet, joy. Here in Russia, you witness an entirely different kind of celebration: you see that the image of the Mother of God not only protects one’s family, but a nation. And you see the people of this nation: you see fifteen hundred people coming to the icon in an hour, and hear the sorrows they bring with them and what they pray for. And this is also a source of special awe.
Personally for me, the days of the arrival of the miraculous icon to Russia were filled with great joy. For a long time I had searched for a friend from my youth, the artist Sergei Simakov. We had not seen each other for twenty years. Remarkably, when I came as part of the delegation accompanying the Kursk-Root Icon, we visited a museum in Yaroslavl’ oblast, where I was given his address and telephone number.
I went to see him—he was no longer Sergei Simakov but Hegumen Rafail—to the church of Archangel Michael in Bora, near Uglich, in a dense forest without paved roads. This is a virgin land, where one could film a nineteenth-century period movie without changing a thing. We had a remarkable meeting: within a minute, the twenty elapsed years melted away… I learned that during this time, this batushka, and his matushka Elena (later tonsured Anna) endured many sorrows. Fr Rafail, when he was still Fr Sergei, lost his matushka. The films “Anna and Rafail” and “The Rib. A Portrait of the Wife of an Artist Against the Backdrop of an Epoch” were about them, and in my opinion, they show what love means in the life of an Orthodox Christian.
Fr Rafail serves in a remarkable place, a remarkable church, which is maintained by his labors and his prayers. He lives three kilometers away, in the town of Zagainovo, where he ministers to 25 people, who survive as they can, tending cows and sheep.
This is the long-awaited, wondrous meeting that our Hodigitria arranged for me during her visit.
– Fr George, the delegation accompanying the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God is fairly large. It includes bishops of the Church Abroad, headed by Metropolitan Hilarion, and also clergymen and laymen…
– When the delegation was being selected, our hierarchy took a wise approach. The main contingent was of clergymen who did not participate in the celebrations of the reunification of the Church Abroad with the Church in the Fatherland. This gives a larger number of clergymen the opportunity to visit Russia and grasp what contemporary ecclesiastical Russia is like. And we think of those few who had left us. I spoke to many members of the delegation, clergymen and laity, and all of them hope that those who left us—alas!—would feel at least a bit of what is in the real sense the Church of Christ. And that is first and foremost the people of God who believe in Christ. And this Church is alive and will exist until the end of times. In order to sense this, one must see and have contact with the people of God who live in faith in the Savior, whatever external circumstances they endure. And every one of those who left can now come into contact with this grace. All they need is to want to. This is our call to them: see and behold.
– Do you see the possibility of a time when the icon can return to its native land, to Kursk-Root Hermitage or the city of Kursk?
– That is not even open for discussion, for the Kursk-Root Icon to return forever to Russia. This would mean leaving the Russian people who live throughout the world orphaned. But the visit of the icon of the Mother of God to the homeland on a yearly basis, during the annual procession of the cross, could become a good tradition, borne out of the now-unified Church. Today nothing prevents us from letting that tradition be reborn, so that the procession accompanies not a copy but the miracle-working icon itself. This will be a symbol of a new age.
Today, the home of the icon is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign in New York, though it travels throughout all of the dioceses, the entire world. We hope that from now on, September becomes a month when the holy icon will visit the Kursk lands, where it was discovered in the year 1295.