The connection was fuzzy. Which was not surprising because Archbishop Sylvester was talking to me from a cave. I did not know why Archbishop Sylvester wanted to talk to me so I asked him what was on his mind and in his heart. He began with “I don’t know what to do”. Then he repeated it.
I visited the Monastery of the Caves of Kyiv last August. They were first inhabited by Saint Anthony of Kyiv in 1051, and they are one of the great ancestral centres of Slavic Orthodoxy. Pechersk Lavra is the name of the area on the fertile hill that separates Kyiv from the Dnieper river. It includes a cathedral, churches, a seminary, catacombs and a particular practice of permanent prayer. The faithful believe that psalms and liturgy have been continuously recited in those caves for almost a thousand years. Over that millennium, the tunnels were extended into a subterranean cosmos of prayer and study. More than 200 monks live underground.
Even a year ago I would not have hesitated in calling it the sacred and secret heart of Russian Orthodoxy, bearing witness to the continuity of its tradition in the form of an ascetic monasticism. It would move overground at Easter to declare the majesty of its solemn judgement. Crucifixion is the state of the world until redemption. The church upholds the kingship of Christ in a fallen world. Great darkness, great light. When I visited, it still had the intensity of Good Friday in the dying light of summer, a place of incense and candles, icons and the glass-topped graves of blanketed martyrs. The communion of the saints is palpable in its catacombs. The monks move silently around its tunnels like black-robed ghosts.
Caves are holy places in the Bible. They are places of sanctuary, where you can escape the wrath of God; and places of burial, where you can rest with Him. The original matriarchs and patriarchs are buried in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. The prophet Isaiah, beloved of Orthodoxy, writes, in the same chapter as his vision of swords into ploughshares and lions lying down with lambs, about the merciless judgement of God for those who have abandoned the path of righteousness and justice.
“And people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendour of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the Earth.” (Isaiah 2:19).
And the Earth in Kyiv is certainly being shaken.
Caves are a respite from conquest and subjugation, the princes and principalities, within which the true Kingdom can be preserved and protected. They are a place of waiting for the endlessly postponed day when the prophecy of Isaiah will be redeemed, and we will not know war. The Monastery of the Caves is a place of preparation for the Kingdom of God, and it gives witness to the folly of declaring it on Earth too quickly.
Plato also had his caves, within which he believed we could apprehend the perfect form of things. Russian Orthodoxy is infused with Platonic dualism – the Prince of Peace and the Power of Princes are both engraved upon its heart. The long cold nights of Muscovy haunt its soul, but the frozen heart of Russia was melted by the Ukrainian sun. The monastery in the caves spoke to the lamb of innocence who died for our sins. A place of respite from this world and an intimation of the next.
If Moscow is the third Rome, after the original and Constantinople, then for Slavic Orthodoxy the Monastery of the Caves of Kyiv is Jerusalem. Kyiv itself was resurrected by the monastery after the Tatar conquest in the late medieval period. It housed the first printing press in the city in the 1600s. It published the first credo of the Orthodox faith, its first liturgy and guide to Old Church Slavonic. The Kyiv Theological Academy and Seminary, of which Bishop Sylvester is rector, was the first Slavic seminary for the training of priests in the Orthodox world. Kyiv gave refuge to western Ukrainians escaping the demands of Polish Catholic proselytisers. Occupied by Protestant Swedes as well as Catholic Poles, it was not impervious to the educational and institutional renewals of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Through the printing press and the academy, Orthodoxy renewed its intellectual life and the formation of priests, which was imitated in Muscovy. The monastery in the caves shaped the meaning of Slavic Orthodoxy. Built in opposition to the Jesuits, the Kyiv Academy adopted many of their practices. The monastic caves are a central reason why Kiev is not only a great Slavic city but a great European one too.
The Soviets desecrated the site, turning its cathedral into a museum of “cults” but it was venerated by the faithful and was returned to the church in 1989 at the end of perestroika. When I spoke to people in Kyiv they told me that informal networks maintained the practice of continuous prayer throughout the Soviet period. After Ukrainian independence in 1991, the state retained property ownership but allowed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to use the Pechersk Lavra for free. But that was before the formation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019, loyal to the patriarchate of Constantinople rather than Moscow. That was before Russia became alien to Ukraine. That was before the war.
Archbishop Sylvester looked like he was talking to me through a mist. He had a strangely familiar look on his face, one of shocked confusion. I had seen this look in the photographs of countless Jewish community leaders between 1905 and 1939. It was a look that said things are going badly wrong, and quickly. But it was hard for me to square that with the emaciated iconic Jesus that hung around his neck. Sitting next to him was a thin, bearded priest who served as his translator. He looked like the icon on the Archbishop’s crucifix. Candles sat in golden hanging baskets above their heads. It looked like eternity, but looks can deceive.
He started to list things. He told me that he was loyal to Ukraine, that he had family in the army, that he had condemned the invasion, hosted refugees and fed the hungry. He said that the Ukrainian government had told him that they could not protect the monks any longer from the righteous anger of the mob, who wanted to tear them limb from limb. He said that they were accused of being Russian spies and of singing songs to Russia, in Russian, in the heart of Kyiv, during a war. Videos of treachery in the crypt were going around social media. He told me that the Ukrainian government had given them five days to evacuate the monastery or they couldn’t protect their safety.
And I said, “Now you know what it’s like to be a Jew. You live in a place for hundreds of years. It’s sacred. It’s home. And then they tell you, you have to leave otherwise you’ll be killed, but it’s a false choice. You’ll be killed anyway.”
I thought of all the accounts I read of Jewish community leaders telling the tsarist police, the Commissar, the Stepan Bandera militia, the Einsatzgruppen, that the Jewish community supported the country, fought for the country, paid its taxes, doctors, hospitals, schools and science. It didn’t make any difference. The synagogues were closed and then the people were slaughtered. I said:
“Where was the Church at Babi Yar?”
And he said, “Please forgive.”
I said that all he could do is pray. The Ukrainian government considered them a nest of spies and Vladimir Putin’s puppets. That they were not only Jews but Catholics in the Reformation. Their land would be stolen and their faith made illegal in the new Ukraine. Their traditional faith now made them agents of a foreign power and that power was broken. There would be no help from outside. There was no refuge from the judgement of God, even in the caves that gave them sanctuary.
I asked if he was prepared to die and he said yes.
“Reading the psalms and on your knees with nothing but beads in your hands?”
He said yes.
“Asserting that Christ is King, and not Putin, Kiril [the patriarch in Moscow] or [Volodymyr] Zelensky?”
And he said “Yes. In these caves, Christ is King.”
And I said, “Bless you Archbishop.”
And while he was speaking I was looking at myself from above. How could I be having this conversation? How could it be true that Russian Orthodox Christians are the new Jews? Enemies of the state. An alien nation in their ancestral home. Captive in the place where they could look out to see the birth of their religion with the baptism of the Kyivan Rus in 982. And why should I care?
And I thought that it was maybe because I too am guided by the anger of the dead and the longings of those unborn.
I said to the Archbishop, “Don’t forget, Christ is King.”
And he smiled and said “he truly is”.
[Read also: Is the future of Christianity African?]