I should have been writing this for the feast of the Holy Trinity Sunday last week, but now that we're in the ordinary time of the church year again, one extraordinary memory of my childhood reminds me of the great feast that we have just celebrated...
The year was 1989, the chestnut trees were in full blossom, the tour bus was a loud ugly Hungarian-made oddity, the roads were ranging from aspahlted to gravel but most of them bumpy as heck anyway, toilets had no toilet paper and there were no borders. It was the Soviet Union. The country that is no more. Only a year ago, in 1988 Moskow commemorated 1000 years of Christianity in Russia and many have for the first time read something positive about God. The famous icon of the Old Testament Trinity was restored. Church-going was not common, and I for my part had little understanding of it since my family were all atheists, parents and grandmother and cousins alike.
It was May 11th, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, I was 10 years old and in a middle of a bus excursion through Lithuania, led by an allegedly gay chemist with a sense for hidden gems and historical places. He must have been 50-ish and worked in the same institute with my mom. The man's energy could only be envied. There was no time for shopping, no time for idle talk, this was all business, we had to climb every hill, crawl into every cave, hear a story of every strange house, explore nooks and crannies of the land and, well, go into every church. For me, Lithuanian churches were a revelation. Coming from a religiously tolerant yet lukewarm (and Soviet!) Latvia where churches were for the babushkas, the uneducated and much feared ever-sober Baptists, I was literally shocked by what I saw. Young and old, simple and sophisticated, country and city, modest and immodest - all flocked into churches. Especially that day, for the feast, the sight was incredible, unlike anything I've seen or anything I could have believed. What was there I had to know about a God that did not exist?..
Did you know that the first Divine Mercy image was painted in Lithuania in 1934? St Faustina lived there during that time, and the original painting is in Vilnius in the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy http://www.gailestingumas.lt/lt/gailestingojo-jezaus-paveikslas/. This is one of the many places I would like to visit and re-visit in Lithuania. I want to see the shrine of our Lady of Šiluva, a place of pilgrimage since the 17th century especially popular during the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady on September 8th. Once, in early September 1979, the Soviet authorities have closed off all the roads leading to Šiluva due to an alleged pig epidemic... The Hill of Crosses was leveled three times by the Soviet authorities, crosses burned, yet the stubborn Lithuanians would bring new and start it from scratch, only to be taken down again. The rumour had it the authorities even planned to build a dam on the nearby river to flood the area. The regime gave up under Gorbatchov, but the freedom of religion was actually not re-established until 1990. Yet there is one more place I want to see above all, yet I know neither name nor location, just a few phrases in my diary.
The bus stopped by a fenced church. Of national importance, we were told. Since it was a feast, people flocked to Mass and we could take a peak but had to leave to look at some caves. It was a reasonable thing to do, not do disrupt. I think there were some steps leading up to a white church. It was packed. There was holy water and a crusifix on my right, and people would come in and kiss the crusifix, kneel, and then tried to make their way inside. A family of four came in, a young mother, a young father, and two children. They all knelt, in a manner that made me think it was a most natural thing for them to do, reverently yet comfortably. I thought I had to kneel too, together with them, I wanted to so much, yet I had no idea how. As the singing began I knew I had to stay. My mother came for me. I don't think anyone else really went in, and if they did, they had left by then. We had to go to the caves. No, no, how can I leave doesn't she know I have to be here? We will come back, they will have a procession after the Mass and we will come back for the procession. Oh, we will be back.
I wish I could remember anything about the caves, as the story was interesting, and might also have helped in locating the church, but I don't. The problem was, I had to be somewhere else. I wanted this church to be my home. I wanted to kneel with them. Why, how would I do this and what would I do afterwards, I had no idea. But even if there is no God I will believe in Him, I thought. Somewhow, it felt as if I had no choice but to believe.
Once we were back, they were selling crusifixes and images in the fenced churchyard, and I wanted to buy one, it cost 5 roubles. Or a smaller one, for 3. No, I didn't ask for one. Somehow, it could hardly be appropriate. I commented on the crusifixes though, and my mother mused, yes, but what would we do with one? Indeed... The procession was amazing. Singing, embroidered cloth, vestments, priests, monks and nuns, images, choir, and people coming out from the church, joining them, singing. Now our whole group was present, and I could watch, watch, watch, wanting to cross that invisible line that separated me and the people I longed to call my own. Even if there was no God I will believe in Him. I was not baptised in childhood. I want to be what they are. How will I ever? I have to walk with them. Catholic. Of course, I had no idea how to become a Catholic.
A year later, Lithuania proclaimed independence from the Soviet Union, and every morning as the sun rose over it the churches in Riga rang their bells for the neighbour country. I thought it was so beautiful that we prayed for them. In May 1990 we went to Kiev Pechersk Lavra, and as we were crossing the street to enter the monastery, a woman asked my mom whether she was a believer. No, she replied. And she? the woman asked, looking at me. On no, she is too young yet, my mother said. Once again, I knew better than to say what I most longed to say, but I looked well into the eyes of this woman when we said good-bye.