The Jordanville Monastery and Saints in Ancient Caves

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Earlier this month our priest was away from town, so we took a visit to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville.

I wish I could say that I did not take pictures because I was too overwhelmed by the beauty and living in the moment, however, in truth, I forgot my telephone. Still, it was for the best. Jordanville is otherworldly and should be experienced without the mediation of the lens on the first visit.

The liturgy had just started and people were spilling out past the doors and onto the stairs and grounds. The scene was overwhelming: the green grass and blue sky, this little darkened church full of monks chanting in Church Slavonic, people slowly ambling toward the door and drawing near, the crowd rotating in and out of the entryway, flowers and birds and trees and butterflies all around, darker habits and golden vestments deep within the church, faint smells of incense drifting toward the door, and of course a clear path to the Holy Doors of the iconostasis.

It was as though we were gathering to hear Christ himself speak on the lovely little green hill. Again, I am glad I didn’t have a distracting camera at the time, but here is a very tiny selection of the many beautiful photographs from the Holy Trinity website. (If the slideshow doesn’t work on your mobile, I urge you to visit in on a PC. So many people have no idea what the Russian Orthodox liturgy looks like. North Americans especially have weird impressions of “church” via post/protestant/neo-catholic experience.)

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This is a seminary monastery, and the campus also includes a bookstore, museum, and icon mounting studio. (You can explore and order books via the website.) Of course we went to check out the icon/book store (There is a sizable Russian language section, by the way.) There were so many icons, and very few of them were marked, but one stood out to me.

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It was modestly priced, as they are mounted prints, not original works. It turns out that my little icon is of Venerable John the Long-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves.

Saint John the Much-Suffering pursued asceticism at the Kiev Caves Lavra, accepting many sorrows for the sake of virginity.

The ascetic recalled that from the time of his youth he had suffered much, tormented by fleshly lust…he then went into the cave where the relics of Saint Anthony rested, and he fervently prayed to the holy Abba. After a day and a night the much-suffering John heard a voice: “John! It is necessary for you to become a recluse, in order to weaken the vexation by silence and seclusion, and the Lord shall help you by the prayers of His monastic saints.” The saint settled into the cave from that time, and only after thirty years did he conquer the fleshly passions.

…Sometimes the desire took hold of him to forsake his seclusion, but then he resolved on still greater effort. The holy warrior of Christ dug out a pit and with the onset of Great Lent he climbed into it, and he covered himself up to the shoulders with ground. He spent the whole of Lent in such a position…the enemy of salvation brought terror upon the ascetic, wishing to expel him from the cave: a fearsome serpent, breathing fire and sparks, tried to swallow the saint. For several days these evil doings continued.

On the night of the Resurrection of Christ the serpent seized the head of the monk in its jaws. Then Saint John cried out from the depths of his heart:

“O Lord my God and my Savior! Why have You forsaken me? Have mercy upon me, only Lover of Mankind; deliver me from my foul iniquity, so that I am not trapped in the snares of the Evil one. Deliver me from the mouth of my enemy: send down a flash of lightning and drive it away.”

Suddenly a bolt of lightning flashed, and the serpent vanished. A Divine light shone upon the ascetic, and a Voice was heard: “John! Here is help for you. Be attentive from now on, that nothing worse happen to you, and that you do not suffer in the age to come.”

The saint prostrated himself and said: “Lord! Why did You leave me for so long in torment?” “I tried you according to the power of your endurance,” was the answer. “I brought upon you temptation, so that you might be purified like gold. It is to the strong and powerful servants that a master assigns the heavy work, and the easy tasks to the infirm and to the weak. Therefore pray to the one buried here (Moses the Hungarian), he can help you in this struggle, for he did greater deeds than Joseph the Fair”

Here are other versions of the icon: (Source 1, 2)

The Near Caves of Kiev (also known as the Caves of St. Anthony) are a series of caves and tunnels that have been occupied by the particularly ascetic, and even anchorite, monks since the mid-1000’s. In addition to monk’s cells, the caves contain dozens of burial sites as well as an underground church.

Above are icons of the Saints Gregory, Iconographer; Alypius, Iconographer and Hieromonk; and Feofil, Fool for Christ. These are three of many sainted occupants of the Near Caves.

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Icon of the many Saints of the Near Caves, or Kiev Pechersk Lavra. Source

The thousand-year old site itself is arguably the center of Orthodox Christianity in that part of the world. For more information on this UNESCO World Heritage site (and the churches built above-ground) the Atlas Obscura entry is a good start. (The Holodomor Memorial is near to the caves as well, by the way). This travel blog has some wonderful photos too.

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Icon of the Mother of God of the Kiev Caves. Source

While writing this entry, I am reminded:
Recently, I have noticed two common dismissals of Christianity. They are two sides of the same smug coin.
The first goes like this: Religion in general, but Christianity especially, is something that people use as a tool to make their lives easier.
People who live without it are somehow stronger and experiencing life more honestly and clearly, even though it is more difficult. Backhanded, condescending comments imply that the Christian is shielded from the true miseries of life and tend to be along the line of: “It must be nice to have religion in your life, to have something that helps you understand the world.”

The other side, of course, is the claim that Christianity leaves a person limited, unable to fully feel and experience the goodness of life, the true things, the full spectrum of emotion, and true freedom. These comments are disguised as sage wisdom, because the person commenting positions themselves as being above that type of blind, foolish, limiting misery and is now free to experience real life. So: Christianity either makes you a daffy, happy, blind idiot or a miserable, shackled, joyless prune.

I almost never engage with these sorts of comments. It’s as though a freshman student burst into a graduate-level philosophy class and started trying to instruct the entire class and professor on whether or not it’s okay to push the fat man. The religious person is meant to feel cornered, because if they refuse to engage, it’s seen as “proof” that they know their beliefs won’t stand up to what is supposedly intellectual scrutiny. This is especially true on the internet, where people tend to act as if they’re entitled to the time and effort of complete strangers. Being Christian online apparently means you MUST tolerate hostility, help others to flex their rhetorical muscles and validate their own beliefs, and put up with bad-faith arguments (no pun intended). I hear so many “original” ideas against Christianity that make one or more of the following things obvious:

1. That the person has suffered spiritual abuse or worse and are lashing out, which I have a great deal of empathy for, but which doesn’t excuse the haranguing of others,

2. That the person is basing their arguments on an idea of, or experience with, North American protestantism (Look out for: “where in the Bible does it say…” etc, which is an immediate tell),

3. That the person thinks they are the first to come up with arguments or points that have already been covered ten times over by the Church Fathers hundreds of years ago. Of course they do not want book or article suggestions, because the discussion isn’t actually about them learning anything new. You, the Christian, are expected to have memorized all of these theological tomes and be able to recite them on the spot from memory.

This post isn’t “vague-blogging” about any one interaction in particular. It’s the culmination of too much time on social media as a Catholic and later Orthodox. When I hear these implications, that as Orthodox Christians we are weak, stupid, blind, or limited, I think of the the the daily lives of the monks and priest-monks at the monastery, and the visiting nuns, the young and the very old, and all the efforts and strivings of those people and of the visiting laypeople, and of my own experiences. I think of these Saints. We are all doing our best to make thoughtful and meaningful sacrifices. We are being challenged and making decisions- sometimes extraordinary decisions- and taking actions on those decisions, which can lead to revolutionary lives that are often at odds with modern social mores. We are not moving robotically and easily throughout the world, following blindly the demands of our faith or using it to wave things away and take less responsibility (and those who are doing this are doing Christianity wrong). I see so many vibrant Orthodox people who work very hard to do what they have come to believe in their hearts is right, and I see them renewing and revisiting these considerations again and again; thoughtfully, honestly. I think of what the Saints have chosen to do with their lives, and what they were able to feel and to know, and the joy that took in their choices and their work, and the type of freedom they were able to discover, beyond the shackles of hedonism and the lofty presumptions of self-centered modernity.

And so I avoid the very basic, predictable conversations, because I am busy and these discussions are dull and usually turn toxic. This message is less to the internet warriors out there and more to the Orthodox who are online and feel trapped in these types of conversations. I’ve been there, and if you feel like you’ve been boxed in by some sneaky, goalpost moving nonsense, I’m here to tell you that you’re probably right, and it’s okay to step away. Trying to “win” these conversations isn’t necessarily evangelism. Living your life, teaching by example, and praying for the salvation of their souls is always an option.


Re/Sources:
Holy Caves of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, Kiev, Ukraine.” Travel Photo Report, 24 June 2013.
Icon of the Mother of God of the Kiev Caves.” OCA, Orthodox Church in America.
Thuras, Dylan. “Kyiv Monastery of the Caves and Microminiature Museum.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 5 Mar. 2010.
Venerable John the Long-Suffering of the Kiev Near Caves.” OCA, Orthodox Church in America.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “The Jordanville Monastery and Saints in Ancient Caves.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 13 August 2018.

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