Kazan Cathedral

Even from the Metro station, The Kazan Cathedral looms with intimidation, its broad stone colonnades and commanding dome demanding absolute reverence on this gloomy Sunday morning.  Poking my head my from beneath my makeshift purple scarf, I widen my eyes in awe as we near the cathedral.  Its interior is equally belittling: broad walls covered from head to toe in elaborate paintings over which icons dwell.  It makes one dauntingly aware of his or her mere mortality.  The atmosphere is very dim: Only the faint raspy light streaming in from outside and votive candles placed near the first set of icons offer light to the vast building.  A scene of beautiful chaos is in process as we hesitantly creep into the building: A robed man chanting melodiously from what resembles a bird’s nest.  Patrons steadily pace around the church paying reverence to their respective icons, with some kissing the corners of portraits and most obligatorily crossing before each.  Yet, there’s something fiery and very alive in their eyes that suggest that this is more than a mere ritualistic dance.  Some gaze into the icons as though pleading with them for help as nuns stream behind them, vigorously scrubbing to remove the slightest trace of lips. 

It is a parade of veils and headscarves as the women patrons model everything from modest cotton to elaborate silk, an ironic twist of a practice meant to instill humility turned into a showcase one’s status—or lack thereof.  Hastened in the handbook about the importance of wearing a headscarf to wear in conservative monastery and cathedrals, I wondered about the significance and meaning behind the act.  Why were women obligated to cover their heads?  A little research on the web revealed one possible answer.  According to I Corinthians 11:5, “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.”  The verse above, however, states, “Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered, dishonoureth his head”  The covered women and uncovered men alike stand side by side on the inlaid wooden floors as the service begins—only the very old and ill are allowed the comfort of seats.  The mass seems like an odd performance. 

As the indeterminable streams of Russian echoes from the balcony and altar, the each member takes turn bowing and crossing—each member with her own personal flair.  The old woman to my left seems to take tremendous pride in bowing as deeply as possible, a metaphor for her deep-flowing piety.  The man to my immediate front performs his crosses with the controlled precision and accuracy of a military soldier.  My personal favorite is a pony-tailed gentleman in the very front.  His every cross is elaborate, theatrical and screams, “HEY GOD, LOOK AT ME!”  Forehead.  Chest.  Right.  Left.  Unlike the Catholic: Forehead.  Chest.  Left.  Right.  This difference in sequence can be explained by a difference in translation.  The left side or shoulder represents the spirit.  The right side or shoulder represents holiness.  In Latin, the holy spirit is translated as “Spiritus Sancti” and thus cross from left  to right.  In Greek, the same phrase is τοῦ Ἁγίου Πνεύματος”, which places holy before spirit, thus crossing from right to left. 

Defiantly breaking the rolling sea of bowing and crossing, women with uncovered heads and  men with covered heads stroll about, snapping pictures of this, ogling at this, and tossing hushed whispers amongst themselves.  Darn tourists, I snarled, before being transfixed once again by the strange spectacle of worship. 

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