The enchanting words: “At the campsite”
June 7-8. When I was getting ready for my first procession, I was really worried. My friend, a seasoned pilgrim, explained: you see, everyone keeps walking and walking, and then they fall to the ground from exhaustion… That’s the moment I dreaded. But it turned out that my friend forgot one essential word: camping. They don’t just drop half-dead, they crush at the campsite!
The campsites are spaced two hours apart. It gives enough time to rest and have a snack, but also, what’s very important, to strike a conversation. Having idle conversations while walking isn’t blessed, since the procession of the cross is a service to God, as we say, praying with feet, and who talks during prayer? But talking while camping is another story. Let’s meet a few people at the campsite.
Alexey, 45, is an engineer who works for “Roskosmos.” A Moscovite. He’s got some fancy camping gear. He is a seasoned pilgrim who has visited Greece, Mount Athos, and the Holy Land many times. It is his third Velikoretsky Procession.
“The Orthodox spirit is manifested here. You look at the people’s faces and you feel pride for our country in that so many Russian people, driven by the desire to spend time in prayer, have stepped out of their comfort zone. My heart is overcome with joy; no other place can make you feel this way. You are happy after you have walked and it took some pains. As they say, if you can’t work using your brain, at least serve God with your feet. Anyone who walked here once will later live from one procession to the next. It is akin to Mount Athos: you are drawn to this holy place and, if you come once, you will return! Grace fills the heart of man and you understand how everything else fades into insignificance… I met a group from Germany here: they are the middle-aged people who came to Russia specifically for this procession. They are Russians from Hannover who have resided there for thirty years; they had to drive here to take part in the procession because of COVID-19 restrictions. One of them, a woman, is here for the tenth time! She said no money could buy the emotions she experienced here and it is of great value.
Inga is a musician from Ryazan.
“When I came here for the first time, it was so hard I thought I’d die. I hated myself so much! I realized I simply couldn’t keep up anymore. Really, my body refused to go any further and it was as if my spirit dragged it to the end. I was reading the akathist with the prayers and they are the only reason I was still walking. Ever since I have experienced such an extreme level of physical infirmity, I took to training every weekend, so I am now doing either fifteen kilometers of walking or skis in winter. It’s gotten better. This year’s my ninth procession.
Andrey, 55, is a construction worker from St. Petersburg. He is here for the third time.
“I first heard about the Velikoretsky Procession from an acquaintance who was originally from this area. She told me that it’s not for everyone, and gave an example of a title-holding sportsman who couldn’t finish it. I decided to give it a try just to test myself. By that time, I had already visited Mount Athos, the Pskov-Caves Monastery, and other Russian monasteries. I resolved to add it as another building block of my spiritual buildup. A few years passed, though, until I finally realized it’s time for me to come here. I didn’t do anything to prepare myself for it: I just took a train and came. Interestingly, there were some obstacles on my way but they suddenly dissolved on their own. All negative points became positives. I don’t think I changed spiritually after my first time here, as trifle things and new impressions distracted me. The second time I went was a lot more fruitful spiritually, as I wasn’t simply walking but followed a certain prayer rule.
Irina, a horse-riding instructor. Resides in the Moscow Region. It is her tenth procession (a milestone, so to speak).
“St. Nicholas unites everyone here in our expectation that he will help us in our lives. If you ask him, he will answer provided it is God’s will. It’s a point of support. But the procession on its own is simply a form. If someone woke us up in the middle of the night to take someone to the hospital, it would also be, in a way, a cross procession. You get up and leave, even if you didn’t have to walk but you drove a car and had no backpack, but you were still committed to do it, taking pains and losing some sleep. If we try to live in the name of the Lord in our daily lives, it means we keep on walking with the cross. When you are here, it is done differently, because you pray while walking. It is one of the essential moments in the procession because it’s something practically impossible to implement in our regular life: to pray continually for five days from dawn (beginning at 2 am!) till night. It is the general mood of this procession. Once you take a seat on the train on your way here, everyone else around you is already praying, and you can’t but begin praying as well. The conciliar prayer is what I come here for. That’s where you realize that prayer is the breath of life and the most important thing. It is the ultimate thing a man should be doing and it gives him everything. We are in search of success in life, be it in our family or for our children, but without prayer, none of it will ever come true. When we are here, we feel closer to God and we also get a chance to know who we really are. When I am walking here, I often think of King David and it seems I understand him well or rather his condition when he prayed unceasingly, staying outdoors from morning till night. So, for me, the Velikoretsky Procession is about a prayer, above everything else!
Here are three friends are from Kirov. Valery is a state employee. Vitaly is an entrepreneur, and Andrey is a freelancer and a traveler.
“Every year brings something new. Every year there is different weather, frame of mind, and experiences. But speaking of impressions… We’ll figure them out after we return home. I think if you keep asking people in the procession, they’ll say: No, we won’t come again. For all kinds of reasons like blisters, fatigue, physical discomfort, and so on. But six months later, these same people can’t wait to begin the procession again.”
“I was getting ready to come here for seven years (the is Valery speaking) and today I am walking for the fifth time. It has changed a lot of things spiritually. First of all, it gives you a chance to be yourself. Secondly, those interesting people you meet while walking, when it seems they tell you very important things about yourself but in reality, they speak between themselves. It is also about the physical challenges we must endure in our lives. But what’s more important is the mission of this procession. They vowed to bring the icon back six hundred years ago. They did it six hundred years ago, and we stick to their word! I wish that everyone would always deliver on all their promises. Then we’d probably live a different life. The fact that there is such a tradition, to keep a promise given so many hundred years ago, it is quite invigorating to know.”
“I became stronger (it’s Andrey, smiling) and found humility. When I walked here for the first year, I was ready to hit someone and curse. This time around, I just walk.”
“All of us here come with a particular goal and the reason for walking (it’s Vitaly). I am here for the first time. Although, if you are from Kirov, you could not but know about the procession. Actually, there are even non-church-going folks among those who walk here.”
Alexander, a retiree, formerly an entrepreneur. Resides in Kirov, has walked in the procession for many years.
“The locals treat the Velikoretsky Procession differently, like anywhere else. The non-believers talk disparagingly about it, saying that we’ve got nothing else to do, so here we are, walking again. There is negativity; however, the local authorities and the governor view the procession favorably. The roads are cordoned off to keep terrorists from running us over. Yes, there are godless people everywhere. So what, let them laugh at us. To each their own. We will just keep on walking. I have already forgotten how many times I walked. I only missed last year’s—such is life, there wasn’t a blessing to go. But this year I am walking with my ten-year-old grandson, Dimka, he is with me for his summer break. His father died in an accident, so I am both father and grandpa for him. He’s doing well, except that he can’t get enough sleep; it hit him the hardest.
Svetlana, a doctor from Moscow. She caught my eye earlier while on the road: a pretty, well-cared-for woman with pearl earrings walking leisurely, graciously, and… in bare feet.
“I managed to get blisters after the first day, so I took off my shoes,” “Svetlana replies to my question about her bare feet. “It was as if I have instantly grown wings! Grass washes the weariness of a long walk away. The tactile perception from walking on grass, especially if it’s wet, is extremely pleasant.”
“Is it healthy?”
“Sure. We as humans can have mind-body awareness. If we feel it as a good thing, then we feel well physically.
Ekaterina, a member of the “Peresvet” volunteer organization in Kirov, a biologist, worked in the medical field, currently teaches at Vyatka University. Participating for the sixth time as part of the procession’s medical support team.
“For some reason, the people think that “Peresvet” is paid to be here. But we, like the rest of the participants, strive to work for the glory of God. Except that we get worn out by adding way too many kilometers every day rushing to respond to all those calls of “Doctor!” when someone doesn’t feel well. By the way, we buy all the medicine using our own money. This year, our team has gotten smaller; if there were over seventy medical and emergency specialists during the previous processions, this year there are only twenty-five of us. Luckily, we aren’t as busy as before; I mean, more young people are walking today and we’ve got fewer seniors, because the hierarchy appealed to them to stay home and pray for everyone who came to take part. The majority followed the advice, so we don’t have to continually assist them. But the children still get lost, as it is unavoidable under these circumstances. Luckily, we always find them quickly.”
Vladimir, a retiree from Moscow. A former driver. Took part in numerous processions.
“Once I went to a church store; they were showing a documentary called “A Great Beginning on the Velikaya River” and I felt like I had to be there. So, I asked: when is it? Well, people are leaving today! was the answer. Obviously, I had to postpone it for a year. It gave me time to get ready and find out what to pack, what kinds of socks or a sleeping bag to use, etc. Many people are asking me these days what makes me come here every year. Some speak of the procession: What’s in it, are you hooked? Did it lure you in? Personally, I don’t like it when they talk about it as some kind of addiction. It’s true; I am drawn to be here. Because it is a blessing lasting all year long.”
Rev. Fr. Nicholai Olefirenko. Serves as a rector of the Church of St. Athanasius the Recluse of the Kiev Caves in the Crimean village of Izobilnoye near Alushta.
“Last year I met a priest from Krasnodar and he invited me to come here, but this year St. Nicholas, in a twinkling of an eye, delivered me here. I didn’t know till the last moment whether I was going or not. I had a difficult case of COVID-19, suffered from post-COVID syndrome and struggled to breathe. I was taking five pills per day for my heart condition. It’s gotten a lot better now. For the first two days, all I was doing was taking my pills but then I lost them… Maybe it was by accident… I have only positive things to say about the procession in terms of prayer and spiritual life, or communication-wise. It’s physically challenging, no doubt, but I see that I breathe better and feel stronger in general. The best medicine is the scarcity of food and sleep coupled with strenuous physical activity. Of course, if only you combine it with intense prayer. Prayer is the conversation of your soul with God. We pray at home, too, but here it’s different. The prayer is ever-present as you walk—you feel the need for prayer, living out the words by Apostle Paul: pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Especially amid fathers, brothers, and sisters, you experience powerful spiritual support. Everyone is here to receive something from St. Nicholas. Certainly, we know he gives what we need and what we ask for, but, above all, he gives us what is necessary for our salvation. It is also an opportunity to interact and meet new acquaintances. As we struggle physically together, we feel closer to one another and the urgency to rely on others. Just as the Lord says: For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in because ye belong to Christ, he shall not lose his reward (Mark 9:41). So, you keep sharing, be it water, a teabag, or a strip of plaster. Besides, you do it in good faith. You feel someone needs you just as you need them and they are your brothers and sisters, —in spirit, and by blood, of course. I will certainly share these stories with my parishioners. They called me more than once voicing their support and worrying if I am okay. I think, God willing, the number of the Crimeans will grow in the next year’s procession. This summer, I plan on joining another, the St. Irenarch cross procession, this time along with my family. I learned about it from people here and got interested, so they promised to give me the contact numbers of its organizers sometime later. However, as soon as we arrived at the Velikoretsky village, they pointed at someone: Look, here is the head of a pilgrim center in Borisoglebsk we were telling you about. Another small miracle by St. Nicholas!”
Tamara, a lady well advanced in years, a villager from the Samara Region. She’s come for the first time, all by herself.
“I lost my backpack three times already and three times St. Nicholas had it returned to me! My valuables were there, practically everything: my boots, glasses, and a prayer book.”
“But how did you spend the nights? You don’t have a tent, a sleeping bag, or a pad?”
“Well, you know, I had my backpack returned to me—it worked as a pillow on my first night. The next night, a kind family let me sleep in their tent. On the third night, I knocked at the door of a first house I saw and they let me in. I read the Psalter and I pray; that’s why people help me!”
Could it be that owing to babushka Tamara the Lord vouchsafed not to have a single drop of rain on the heads of His empty-headed pilgrims?
Archimandrite Job (Muraviev) is from Vyatka Diocese; he is in charge of the Velikoretsky Procession.
“If you prayerfully walk the course of the cross procession, you will get a pretty good idea about the spiritual state of your soul. And it isn’t really necessary to elbow your way towards the icon, as it’s not that relevant how far from it you are walking.”
“What do you think: Is this year’s procession a more joyous occasion, after last year’s ban on pilgrims walking here?”
“Of course! We were tested, so that we would treasure this holy procession.”
“Fr. Job, do you walk at the front of the procession?”
“Nope. St. Nicholas does.”
June 8. Kirov. The Velikoretsky Cross Procession has the following official motto on its social media pages: “You are going to Velikoretskoye, but you must come to Christ.” Such simple words but so significant! Truly so! We are all very different. And we walk towards Christ.