Author
Andrey Sorokin
A word about Valaam, the Church and the people
Andrey Sorokin

The monks on Valaam are rejoicing today - the Church celebrates the Transfiguration Day. The feast was appointed in memory of the event when Christ ascended Mount Tabor with his disciples Peter, James and John, and there he "transformed", that is, he showed them a completely different image. The Gospel says: "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light." And along with this phenomenon, a cloud appeared out of nowhere on the mountain and a voice came out of it: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”. (Matthew 17:1–13)  For believers, this episode of Christ's life means a great deal. These words, about the "Beloved Son", can be seen in the frescoes of various Russian temples. And since in the popular belief the Transfiguration somehow became connected with the harvest festival, the people began to call the holiday "Apple Feast of the Saviour". But with all the apple excitement, they often forget about the real reason for the holiday. Many people, perhaps too many, think that apples are the most important thing on this day. But for the Church, it is the Transfiguration that is important.

The Valaam Monastery is actually called  "Saviour Transfiguration Monastery". And the main church in the central estate is also Saviour Transfiguration cathedral. All kinds of pilgrims and tourists always come to see this landmark, and the whole excursion life is mainly concentrated around it. But the monastery was once founded by hermits, on a “skete”-like principle. The monks lived in seclusion in their hermitages that are called sketes, and came together only on the days of important liturgies, on holidays and such. Then everyone would come to pray in the central temple.Today, this principle is partly preserved. Valaam monks live in their hermitages and rarely come into the pilgrims’ sight.

A friend of mine once complained on social media that she had just returned from an excursion to Valaam, and everything was wrong there. The group of tourists walked the entire route too quickly, the guide was illiterate, the food in the refectory was poor, and all that was expected from tourists was to spend as much money as possible in the monastery gift shop. They didn't even let her light a candle. Instead she was told to put it on the edge of a candle stand, so it would be lit later. Clearly, they will not deliver, but will resell the candles!  Not a single monk was around! "It’s not so much a monastery, but a money-making project!"

I know she's not the only one who thinks so. "Where is your glorified Valaam? Where is the miracle? The churchmen have deceived again!".

It is today, on the day of the Transfiguration of the Lord, that I would like to say a few words in defense of Valaam.

To many people who are far from church life, the Church seems to be a kind of ideal community under the leadership of God. And any deviations at all from their ideal image are immediately overblown with a mass of criticisms, hateful comments and posts on social media. However, we remember that the sleep of reason produces monsters. In discussions about the Church, many people's minds are asleep. It is important to remember that the Church is not painted cathedrals (although this is also!), but it is a gathering of people. A large community of very different people. Your familiar priest in a magnificent vestment, a crippled beggar on the porch, a hulky banner bearer on the square with a pro-life poster, a renowned film director dispersing demons from a television screen, an old lady beside a candle box in the church watching women in trousers, and a youtuber getting married on a funeral hearse, a priest in a gas mask at the altar and a disgraced deacon on a motorbike – all of them are the church. You see, the Church is made up of all of them. And it is made up of a lot of wonderful, kind, intelligent people too. And the poor, and the unfortunate, and the wretched. Both poor and rich. And smart, and fools. Why do we allow a lot of different things and a variety of freaks of all stripes in a civil, secular society, but we do not give the Church a right to diversity? The church is too large a gathering of people to draw conclusions about everyone from one narrow-minded tour guide who shepherds pilgrims to the gift shop. "Valaam – a money-making project"? Well, yes. To some extent. If money flew to Valaam in the form of clouds, or at least manna from heaven rained down, then everything would be different. Business projects are different - someone has photographing stars, someone has oil rigs, and someone has selling icons. However, there is no great desire to deceive pilgrims in the monastery. Icons are all blessed alike, but there are, of course, production costs. And there are intermediaries in sales, of course. After all, the monastery is not in heaven, it’s on earth.

The books of Dostoevsky and Leskov, and a bunch of oral legends, all that has turned Valaam into a fairy tale in many minds. People think, now I'm going to get there – and bang! – the Royal gates will open and God will come out and ask "What can I give you, child?". And then a stream of all goodness and holiness will pour over me, like a waterfall. And then – oops! – the food is poor and there are long queues for every little thing, the guide is constantly in your way saying you can't come here, you can't go there, everything is for money and they don't even give you candles! Maybe it's some other Valaam?

And here, of course, it is not necessary to lump everything together. Here we need to go back two paragraphs up, where I tried to explain what a Church is. Do you personally know at least one monk or a hermit, before you start picking up all the rubbish from the internet? In the Church they say – "by faith you shall be given." The main thing is not to look at the meal and the gift shop, but somewhere deeper, since you have come to the monastery for God.

And candles that are not allowed to be placed in the temple will not be resold at all. The monks will light them when it is necessary. If you understand this candle tradition, then you generally will not find any sacred meaning in a church candle. Initially, there was no sacred meaning to them at all. Candles were lit in the temple, so that it was more convenient to read church books. So why worry that it didn't work out? In the church, buying a candle is your contribution to the monastery, to the temple itself. In the Transfiguration Church there are special boxes for candles with the names of icons – put it to the name of the image that you most revere. This is your contribution. The monks will pray – don’t you worry about that. To God (if you believe in Him!) everything is visible. And He also sees our "health and funeral notes". You don’t even need to hand them over to a priest, the ministers will do everything themselves. Let's be honest, do you often listen for "your" name pronounced by the priest in the altar in prayer at the service? It doesn't matter at all whether you hear it or not. The main thing is that God hears. The monks have no intention at all to take money from you for the demand and not fulfill it. Again, it's a matter of faith. When we come to a monastery or a temple, everything is built on faith, whether you believe in this particular candle or not, this is how church life is arranged. What if she put your money in her pocket? And what if she gave you unconsecrated candles? What if she immediately threw your notes in the trash under the table? Well, you don't ask yourself such questions! Because the main thing for us is what we have done. Everything else is faith.

In general, it often happens that everyone goes to the monastery to see the sacred (well, Dostoevsky wrote that!), but they see a household and an excursion program, clearly on schedule, as in a pioneer camp. It needs to be understood, just understood. And don't mix one with the other. And even more so not to draw conclusions about the "business project", "violation of the ritual" and "hidden from the eyes of the monastery life." It is important to understand the life of the Church from the inside, to understand how everything works there, what relationships and relationships. And not to see only "faith put on the conveyor belt." If your faith is so easy to put on the conveyor belt, what kind of faith is it? This is just an excursion, the main thing is not to get confused in terms.