Wednesday, February 8, 2012


19th century Ikon; Valamo Monastery in the background
As Mother travelled east with me in this Nordic country in 1937 she noticed an increasingly exotic flavour. She passed more and more churches with the characteristic Greek Orthodox cross on their steeple. A significant Greek Orthodox population lived in Karelia and contributed to its special character. Upon Finland’s independence in 1917, the Orthodox churches in Finland had become an autonomous entity directly under the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople and with a Orthodox Seminary and Patriarch in Karelia’s second largest city Sordavala (Sortavala), close to where most of the Greek Orthodox in Finland then lived.
The Seminary and headquarters of the Greek Orthodox church in Sordavala 
This made Karelia different. No wonder Mother’s acquaintances in the diplomatic community in Helsingfors (Helsinki) urged her to visit the famous Greek Orthodox monastery on the island of Valamo (Valaam) in Lake Ladoga. So Mother took the ferry from Sordavala to Valamo, where her vessel docked below the Monastery. Upon stepping ashore she entered a different world – a world of contemplation, community and communion with God.
Valamo in the late 1930s
About 150 monks lived on this distant island so as to be free from the distractions of the material world. Most lived in the large central monastery, while some chose to live as hermits in small cabins (sketes) scattered throughout the islands. They praised god not only in the Cathedral but also in their daily life, which was self-sufficient, simple and ascetic.
The Monks’ traditional winter bath at Epiphany
Photographer: Sergey Kompaniychenko
But no man is an island and the bell soon tolled for this special community. Two years after Mother’s visit the monks were no more on this celestial isle. History had repeated itself. Today the Karelian homeland is gone, its population is scattered and its identity is diluted. The relatively few Greek Orthodox adherents dispersed in today’s Finland are mostly descendants of those who fled from Karelia in 1941 and 1944.

Founded as the most northerly Greek Orthodox monastery around 1000, give or take a century, Valamo was ideally located for a community that wished to avoid the temptations of the world. However, located on the border between East and West, it was repeatedly visited by bloody conflicts. Here, both spiritual and temporal realms clashed. Swedish forces burnt the buildings and killed the monks in 1576 during one of the many wars with Russia. Valamo fell to Finland-Sweden in the Stolbova Peace Treaty of 1617. The Swedish kings, which the Constitution required to be Lutheran, let the monastery stand empty for over 100 years. Freedom of religion did not characterize the times; on the contrary. Many Orthodox believers fled to Russia fearing prosecution by the king’s Lutheran Church.

When this area reverted to Russia in 1721, the Orthodox Church initiated a major reconstruction programme, which laid the ground for the buildings that we see today. But during the Winter War the USSR bombed the monastery (which at the time was in Finland).
Havoc after Winter War
Finland evacuated about 150 monks to Heinävesi, where they founded New Valamo. After 1944 when Ladoga Karelia was ceded to the Soviet Union, Valamo monastery and other Greek Orthodox establishments in Finnish Karelia were again placed under the patriarch in Moscow. They eked out a meagre existence for a few years under an atheistic regime. Soon that regime closed the monastery and used the buildings for secular purposes, during which period they deteriorated. The monastery was not returned to the Orthodox Church until 1989. Would it be in bad shape? Would we see memories of the past haunting the present? We decided to find out and, following in Mother’s footsteps, we boarded the passenger ferry in Sordavala.

The sea journey takes about 2 hours and is pleasant when the sea is not rough. The fare was exorbitant but when we saw that most of the passengers were Finnish we understood that we were paying ‘tourist prices’ for the ferry, as we had for coffee at the empty new cafeteria by the small dock. Most Russian visitors took the overnight boat from St Petersburg to Valamo.

The ferry left the small pier in Sordavala and for about thirty minutes steered through a cluster of islands reminiscent of the Stockholm archipelago. Early June was exceptionally warm, so we basked on deck in the sun while the cries of the seagulls broke the silence and the ferry’s prow parted the waves and sprayed us with foam. Transposed to this distant country we felt transported back to those carefree summer vacations of early childhood. In this festive mood the few farms and cottages on the receding coastline took on a familiar look. Especially one large house on the waterfront inspired a strange feeling of déjà vu. Where had we seen this familiar house before?  The political borders on our map told us we were in Russia. But the borders of our mental maps told us we were at home. We searched our memories but in vain. This puzzle followed us unsolved for several days.
Leaving Sordavala, our ferry passed a hauntingly familiar house on the shore of Lake Ladoga
After a while we lost sight of the land behind us and the vast expanse of water that opened up ahead reminded us that we were on Europe’s largest lake. We relaxed until we saw in the distance the monastery’s spires and domes floating on the water. The ferry passed through a narrow straight guarded by a freshly painted chapel.
A chapel welcomes pilgrims to a sheltered cove on Valamo
We glided silently into the sheltered harbour where the ferry docked. We had reached a safe haven. On the hill-top, the monastery glowed in the noonday sun. The buildings were far from being run down. We gazed in surprised amazement as they glistened in the sunshine.

The harbour was a hive of activity. Construction workers were hard at work expanding the docks to receive more vessels and building new facilities to entertain more tourists. We descended the gangplank and were engulfed by stalls catering to tourists.
The harbor today with the Valamo Monastery on top of the hill
We squeezed our way through the crowds and past the vendors and ascended the hill to the monastery, only a few hundred meters away. Bulbs had sprouted in the lawns and flowers in bloom cast a cascade of colors.
On the hill to the Monastery a Madonna with child welcomed us amidst blossoming June flowers
At the top of the hill, we approached the entrance to the Monastery and passed through the Holy Gates into a large open square.
The Holy Gates – the entrance to the Monastery
We stood in the square in front of the breathtaking sight of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour. Pilgrims and tourists alike stood silent in awe of its beauty. The gold leaf on the crosses of the Cathedral and its turquoise roofs contrasted with the white buildings and the green leaves of the trees. Monks in long black habits hastened back and forth tending to the grounds and the buildings. The recent renovations gave the monastery a sparkling appearance. This was a far different sight than what had greeted Mother seventy years ago. The throngs of people diluted somewhat the feeling of a sacred place. Were there more tourists than pilgrims there? To get a glimpse of earlier monastic life click on the word "Video".
Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour in refurbished splendor
We entered the Cathedral, which was crowded with worshipers celebrating a holy day. Invisible behind a screen some monks chanted while others walked among the celebrants swinging holders of burning incense. Young and old attended the service. We were witnessing a timeless ceremony. The apparent confusion could not conceal a sense of deep emotion. The ceremony was the same today as 100 or 1000 years ago; the same in this renovated dome as in a hermit’s hut.

Restoration of the monastery had started in 2002 and made rapid progress. The grounds and the many buildings were in good condition. The costly renovation was largely funded by the State but we understood that the choir of the Monastery had also contributed funds raised by world-wide singing tours. State support for the Monastery reflected the Government’s promotion of the Orthodox Church as a symbol of Russian nationalism.
Monks singing in the Cathedral – above them the golden splendor of the dome
Photographers: Emil Ems (left) and Hieromonk Savvaty (right)
The sums spent restoring Valamo had led to impressive results. However, viewed over the centuries this latest reconstruction seemed to be only one swing in history’s pendulum between destruction and renewal that haunted the Monastery. What Caesar could give, he could also take away. A next generation to visit here might well find the buildings in disarray again. For us, the restored elegance of the Cathedral did not project a sense of “power and glory” but was a reminder of the impermanence of matter, of vanity. So like the monks, we contemplated the transitory nature of our existence and, taking the long view, tried to find meaning in the greater scheme of things:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

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