Call me, Smitten.
Granted, it’s late May not January when St. Petersburg, Russia must look more like a frozen scene from Dr. Zhivago. It’s May and green and we were blessed with intermittent sunshine yesterday. No small miracle since our guide said “We only get sixty days of sunshine per year”, which is one of the thoughtful reasons behind painting a number of the buildings yellow.
Green parks and gardens, flowering Lilacs, tulips and pansies spread a colorful welcome to all who ventured into this city, named for Peter the Great, not Saint Peter. We took a panoramic tour of the city by bus and foot, yesterday. As our bus crawled along the main thoroughfare, I saw familiar signs: Burger King, Subway and McDonalds. There were high end stores I avoid, like Gucci, as well. Seems like Communism and Capitalism have formed an awkward truce.
Today we visited the Hermitage Museum, along with about 2000 folks from all over the world. Our guide reminded us that we came at a really good time. It’s very crowded in June and July! As we inched our way up marble stairs and down lengthy corridors, we saw some of the most amazing works of art. The Hermitage possesses more than 3,000,000 pieces of art. My feet and aching knee felt like I saw most of the collection today.
At one point, our guide announced, ” ahead there’s a room full of Rubens.” One of the men in our group got excited, thinking lunch was just around the corner.
If I never saw anything except Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, it was worth the cost of the trip and the wear and tear on my knee. If you know the story, it’s weeping-powerful. If you don’t, it must still speak somehow, like great art does. Still our guide surprised me with her thoughts on the painting, “Rembrandt is all about the light. You don’t see the father’s eyes nor the son’s face. I think it’s like the father’s not really hugging the boy close. He’s saying something like you finally came home, but my life’s almost over. Why did you stay away so long?” Guilt not Grace.
It made me think about a game we used to play where you whisper something to someone and they pass it on to someone else. By the time it reaches the last person in the circle, the story’s unrecognizable from the original.
Yesterday, we visited the Cathedral of Peter and Paul. As our group squeezed into a small chapel off to one side, we watched six Russian men, wearing the long black robes of the Orthodox church, take their places on a riser and begin to sing unaccompanied. The music seemed to seep soul deep, rich in longing and pathos for which Russian composers are known. I looked over and saw our young guide, Dimitri, eyes closed, inhaling that which we learned was a prayer sung in Old Russian.
Two days in Saint Petersburg gave me a tiny peek into Russia, its history and some of life today. Travel nudges me to enlarge my world, to link the longings, the prayers of others with mine. It’s too easy to become them versus us, if I stay safe at home.
Truth is, even if we don’t know the story or we heard it whispered wrong along the way, we’re all prodigals. We hear a prayer sung in a language we no longer understand and find ourselves steeped in longing for what might have been.
To be back home with the Father, forgiven…whether in Saint Petersburg, Russia or a far off place called Gloucester, Massachusetts, where I live in a condo built on what used to be a pig farm.
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