If you come to Kyiv, you want to be sure to visit the saints. Saint Sophia, Saint Michael, perhaps Saint Anthony, if he’s finished with his makeover. These are three of the major Orthodox cathedrals in the city, dating back to just after the turn of the millenium (the prior one, that is). And then there is Pechersk-Lavra Monastery, which despite the saintless name has no dearth of saints on site. In fact, when you enter these cathedrals, you see richly painted walls, full of Biblical episodes, to be sure, but also populated by more saints on its walls than could be named by a kid fresh out of Catechism. There is a definite reverence for these Godly folks, one which those of us in the Protestant church have mostly lost.
When you enter the gift stores, you will find numerous ways to carry the saints around with you. Hanging on windshields and sitting on office desks all across Ukraine, I see these saints keeping watch day after day. They lived a life committed to their faith and have been rewarded with being on duty forevermore. But I don’t think they mind – because that’s the kind of people they were.
I have had the opportunity to visit these sites in Kyiv a few times: with fellow Fellows in October, with my parents in January, and with my friend Patti last month. My cousin’s daughter Abi is on a plane headed here right now, and I will most likely show these to her as well.
The Pechersk-Lavra Monastery (above) starts on the top of a hill and then trickles down toward the Dnipro River with its churches, museums, and caves. The name means ‘Monastery of the Caves’. Back in 1051, St. Antony and a follower dug out a series of catacombs, where they and other monks lived out their days. Over 100 of their mummified bodies are preserved in niches off the narrow passageways. The first time I visited with Ryan, the EL Fellow in Armenia, we did not purchase candles at the entrance since we thought they were prayer candles. Once we got down into the black dug-out corridors, we understood that we should have bought some. Fortunately, other people were passing through, so we only needed to feel our way out part of the time. It is pretty hard to imagine living out one’s life down there.
St. Sophia’s Cathedral is the oldest church in Kyiv, and a Unesco World Heritage site. The interior is covered with original frescoes dating back to 1017-31. I was not able to take pictures inside, so these of the exterior and bell tower (above) will have to do.
St. Michael’s may be my favorite. It can’t compete with the size and caves of Pechersk-Lavra, or the historical authenticity of St. Sophia. (The original St. Michael’s, built in 1108, was torn down by the Soviets in 1937. This phoenix is a copy of the original and was built in 2001.) But perhaps I like it because it is somewhat simpler – smaller on the inside, and still very much a place of worship. I also truly enjoy the colorful walls, both outside and in.
I wonder what these saints would say about the structures that bear their names along with representations of them and so many others. Perhaps they would be pleased at being so honored and remembered…but I wonder if they would also tell us to take a look at the living saints, worshiping quietly all around us.