27 August 2008

To see light more clearly

Restoring Svyato-
Preobrazhenskii
Monastery: Entrance to
the underground passages
Church at top of vertical shaft
Totskii Poligon:
epicenter memorial

The memorial
Our guide, a worker at the site of the excavation and restoration of a monastery where monks lived underground, wanted us to see the work first-hand. With a candle and flashlight, we walked into the arched entrance. A few yards in, we were already plunged in profound darkness; the flickering light showed us the bricked walls of the passageway just ahead; as for the path back to the entrance, it was hidden in pitch darkness. Not a place for claustrophobics!

As we shuffled forward, I lost track of distances altogether, but eventually we came to a widening of the path--the location of a cell where a monk once lived with his Bible and prayer book. We saw two or three such cells. We found a branch path where excavation was just starting, and returned to the main passageway. Just when were were becoming overwhelmed by the depth of the darkness, we saw the vertical shaft leading up to another exit, located inside the church on the hill above the entrance.

When we had retraced our steps back out to that first entrance, we blinked at each other and asked why monks had wanted to spend much of their lives in deep underground chambers. Nikolai, who had brought us, said that there was an ascetic belief that in total darkness you could see light more clearly.

Almost any strict religious regime is capable of generating both saints and psychiatric distress, so I'm not quite ready to recommend underground Friends meetinghouses. But his words, and the subterranean passages we'd experienced that day outside Buzuluk, stayed in my mind. In fact, our remaining days in the Buzuluk area seemed more luminous and more intense after our experience of monastic restoration.

What happens when whole countries seem to lose the light? And when do we know it has happened? We've experienced many expressions of patriotism in the USA and in Russia, but one moment from our visit to Buzuluk oddly stands out. We were talking with a couple of people about Hitler and Stalin. One man asserted bluntly, "Nazi Germany was a Kindergarten compared to Russia. Next to Stalin, Hitler was just an amateur."

I wasn't inclined to challenge or join in the comparisons. But my thoughts went back to another visit we made just a day earlier. We were standing on hallowed ground, a place where light and darkness fought a literally elemental battle. We were visiting the simple and dignified bell tower that marked the place where, 500 meters overhead, an atomic bomb exploded on September 14, 1954, during a military exercise involving at least 45,000 people--not to mention countless unprepared civilians who rushed into the streets of Buzuluk and Sorochinsk and nearby towns to witness the huge mushroom cloud. One person told us that the area's rivers, creeks, and ponds all instantly evaporated, to return to the ground later as radioactive rain.

See also:
Buzuluk, first impressions
Return to Buzuluk
Memories of Buzuluk


St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the aim of the Christian life is to acquire the Holy Spirit of God. No wonder the monks of Buzuluk were willing to give up everything to see the Light more clearly; the underground companion that they sought was nothing less than this Spirit. When people see the world in this Light, they cannot see others as subjects for experimentation, whether ideological or military.

Ironically, St. Seraphim's city, Sarov, is now associated with nuclear weapons and is a sister city to Los Alamos.



Thanks to quakerquaker.org, I was delighted to see this post from the editorial director of one of my favorite publishers, Paternoster Press. He's praising the book that resulted from Reedwood co-pastor Carole Spencer's doctoral work, Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism.



For dessert, some pure Chicago. Here are the irrepressible Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials. (If you're impatient, the performance starts at 1:44.)

2 comments:

Jeremiah said...

Your account of the nuclear test is staggering. The bomb seems to have been two to three times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. A quick glance at map suggests that the Totskoe test site is maybe twenty or thirty miles from Buzuluk and Sorochinsk. No doubt other towns and villages are nearer, as were the prisoners and soldiers under military discipline and therefore with no choice in the matter.

I don't speak Russian, but the Wikipedia site you link to links in turn to an account of the test in English. It suggests that there have been serious effects on the health of people in Orenburg, over a hundred miles away.

Johan said...

Given the secrecy that surrounded the original event, the exhibit at the Buzuluk regional museum about that test must be very healing.

I don't know this for a fact, but some of the ill and injured on that day must have been taken to the nearest hospital--the same hospital that Nancy Babb, an American Quaker serving with the relief project, built in Totskoe. It remained in operation until the 1970's.