16 September 2007

Holy Croutons, Batman!

(I wrote this on Friday. It's now Sunday. Happy Sunday, everyone!)

My host institute is having its biennial scientific conference. Besides a lot of free cake and a ten-minute talk in Russian on some research on Icelandic I did a few years ago (went ok... but explaining linguistic theory in Russian may be slightly beyond my skill level), this meant a tour around Taganrog for the visiting conference attendees and me. It was led by a woman whose position I haven't quite figured out, but who seems to be important and who has very big hair. Our Latin teacher, the very sweet Lydia Arkadievna, came along, possibly on assignment to act as my translator. I didn't actually need a translator, but Lydia Arkadievna needed English practice, which the assignment provided.

The tour somehow ended up being a Holy Places tour. See, there's this saint, Paul of Taganrog (Pavel Taganrogskii), an ordinary guy who lived in the first half of the 19th century and did a lot of nice stuff. He was canonized by the Orthodox church in 1996, and he's now interred – or at least some relic of him (a finger-bone, if I understood correctly) is interred – at Taganrog's Church of St. Nicholas. He's something of a celebrity here, so we went to that church, then to his former house, then to the cemetery from which they exhumed him to put him in the church.

Russian Orthodox faith is fairly mystical. By mystical, I mean that to most Orthodox, miracles, the supernatural, and the healing power of faith (usually distilled through various miraculous substances) are a much more significant part of their belief than to, say, the average American Christian (whoever that might be). Actually, as the last post shows, it's not an exclusively Orthodox thing, but religion gives added depth to the "secular" mysticism that pervades Russian culture. At any rate, here's a list of mysticism, amusing and bemusing from the American perspective, that I ran up against today:

1.Hearing about the miracle that occurred when the aforementioned Saint Paul was reinterred: when his body entered the church and they began ringing the bells, 300 seagulls (I restrained myself from asking who counted) appeared out of nowhere and took off from the roof of the church, and the sun did this sort of eclipse-thing that our guide couldn't accurately describe.
2.Drinking holy water (free of charge) from the church.
3.Being given holy bread (not free, but the driver – the same one who's going to find me my Russian husband – bought a package and gave us each a piece), which I am supposed to eat tomorrow morning before eating or drinking anything else, for spiritual and physical health.
4.Considering buying holy croutons (hence the title of the post) from the same stand that sold the holy bread. Yes, holy croutons. What they're for is unclear to me – maybe you're supposed to eat them with holy beer? (Croutons are eaten in Russia kind of like crackers or chips in the U.S.)
5.Observing the Holy Everything for sale at the saint's house: holy herbs, holy bread and water again, holy headscarves...
6.Standing in the cemetery around the grave of a holy fool and placing our hands on it while thinking about things we wanted. Lydia Arkadievna explained that a scientist from Petersburg had measured the positive energy around the grave and found it to be very high. (The only thing better than a miracle is a miracle with scientific backing.)
7.Being offered a cupful of holy dirt from the former grave of St. Paul in the chapel in the cemetery. I declined on the grounds that I don't have an icon to put it in front of.
8.Peeking at a book of prayers for sale in the chapel offering protection against spells. First sentence of the preface: "In this day and age, many people are concerned about protecting themselves against spell-casters and unclean spirits."
9. Being told that saints' bodies don't decompose. I once again showed admirable restraint and refrained from asking why, if the body wasn't decomposed, they only moved Pavel Taganrogskii's fingerbone to the church. (Or maybe it only stopped decomposing after he was canonized? ...Ok, I'm a terrible person.)

Unrelated: today I spotted a very funny bit of random grafitti on the wall of the Radio-Technical University here: LINUS TORVALDS Happy Bursday! I guess the Radio-Technical University is a good place for it, anyway... (MENTHOL FREAK YEAH near Gorky Park in Moscow still wins for sheer randomness, though.)


Vlad said...

:-))) Every mathematician and engineer should know him (Linus).

BTW, usually, TRTU is Taganrog University of Radio Engineering(!)
"Technical" - coming from German (in this case).

Paul said...

I'm always fascinated to hear about the Russians' attitudes towards saints -- they resemble so closely medieval attitudes. I think some time in Russia would be a huge advantage to a medievalist.

I've always wondered how medieval people bridged the gap in their mind between the parts of accounts of saints where they wrote about how the saint's body was found undecayed, and when they write about the bones being transferred to a shrine. If you ever get any insights on this issue, I'd love to hear them!