Catacombs

On a short trip to Kiev, we found our way to the Lavra, a monastery close to the river. White walls and cobblestone streets, a cathedral rebuilt brick by brick after being destroyed by Soviet partisans. The remains of the old wall had been sealed in place, a memento, a relic. Of course, relics were everywhere in this stifling place, where the poor, old and needy gathered along the steep stones

We aimed for the catacombs, where the natural coolness of the caves kept the remains of dead monks preserved in a state of mummification. We soon found ourselves in a long sloping corridor, wood-lined and narrow, set up with stalls packed next to one another, selling devotional material. I experienced a vague memory of a recurring dream, a feeling of crowds pushing at me in some over-run, end-of-world space. The logic of the dream stayed with me as we made our way down the corridor, pausing to allow monks and nuns to push past us, refusing the offer of purchases from the stalls selling icons, pamphlets, devotional tracts, candles, and postcards of local saints. The room seemed so absurd and cramped, defying logic with its gradient and over-crowding, and it came as a relief to walk through to the other end into another chapel, where an old nun sold yellow candles from a desk.

We stepped further down a narrow corridor, which grew darker as we stepped onwards, until soon the only light came from the yellow candles lit in small recesses in the wall. Worshippers gathered inside the catacombs, some of them pausing in vestibules to offer their prayers, some prostrating themselves in front of the glass coffins which lay along the walls, displaying the wrapped remains of the dead monks. At one point, unable to navigate the gloom, I found myself face-to-face with a monk of about my age, with a long wispy beard and shoulder length hair. For a moment, we were frozen in opposition, until pushing past one another, each regarding the other as some mysterious alternate version.

Outside, we laughed off the whole experience, but the atmosphere of cultish oppression remained as we clambered back up the hill towards the road, feeling we understood a little bit more about religion, and agreeing that it was better not to be afflicted by faith.

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