A visit with the dead

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During his travels in Eastern Europe, Subhuti visits the cave of the mummified saints in Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Monastery, Ukraine.

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“Entrance to the Cave…”

I have just walked down a steep hill, in bright sunlight. Stepping inside the entrance to the cave, my eyes can’t adjust so quickly to the dim light.

I’m following a line of pilgrims, mostly old women with their heads covered with scarves. I, on the other hand, am requested by an attendant to take off my hat, which I do.

When the women ahead of me pause to light a thin, wax candle, and bring it with them, I mistake this for religious devotion and skip the invitation.

But then, as we move into near-pitch darkness and go down steep stone steps into the cave-system itself, I get the message.

These personal candles aren’t just symbolic. They are needed. There’s almost no other lighting down here, so I blindly follow the candles of others along a narrow tunnel until we come to the first bodies.

Here, inside one of many side-chambers, there are dim red and yellow lights hanging in small gold chandeliers. The bodies lie covered with ornate cloth, inside glass coffins.

People stop to pray, crossing themselves, gently touching a coffin with their hands, sometimes bending down to kiss the glass.

There are 130 bodies buried in these caves, the mummified remains and relics of Eastern Orthodox saints.

I have no idea who they are, or what they did, because I declined an invitation to hire a tour guide for 50 euro, opting instead for the simple, cost-effective, do-it-yourself tour for one euro.

But you don’t need to know the history of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves, to feel the vibe of intense religious devotion down here.

It’s not my thing, but I am enjoying crossing myself, just like the old ladies, as we visit each saint in turn.

The corridors linking the chambers are long, dark and unbelievably narrow.

I’m thinking it would be impossible to visit such a place in the United Kingdom. Restrictions imposed by our well-intentioned Health and Safety Act would shut it down immediately: no safety exits, no lighting and no room to move in any direction except to follow the person in front.

This is definitely not a tour for people suffering from claustrophobia. Any kind of incident, such as a heart attack, would be difficult – not to mention a panic attack. But maybe the saints take care of that with their divine insurance policies.

The caves are more than 1000 years old. Early travelers told legends that they stretch as far as Moscow. But, in reality, when we emerge, we will find ourselves well short of the Russian capital – still in Kiev, still inside the monastery, as a matter of fact.

I continue following other people’s candles until finally we begin to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

We come out inside a small church which is divided in half. On one side, paintings showing the worldly story of Jesus being crucified. On the other side, paintings showing the blissful delights of life in heaven.

There is a locked gate separating the two sides and we, of course, find ourselves on the worldly side. You can’t get into heaven so easily, so people kneel and pray at the gate, clutching its gold-coloured bars, no doubt asking for a priority boarding pass.

The monastery was left vacant during the Soviet era and the bodies of the saints were left uncovered. But now, again, 100 monks live here, bearded and dressed in black robes, while the tour guides are mainly women, wearing long dresses and head scarves.

Some modern values are in evidence, however. For example, you can buy a cup of coffee from an automatic coin-operated machine, not far from the cave. But I opt instead for a bottle of mineral water and take a long drink before slowly climbing back up the hill to the monastery gate.

The main impression I’m left with is a reminder of my own mortality. At the age of 71, I can’t pretend I’m only halfway round the course.

But it’s the words of Gautam Buddha, rather than Jesus, that come to mind as I exit the gate and re-enter the modern city of Kiev:

You are as a yellow leaf

The messengers of death are at hand,

What will you take with you?”

SubhutiSubhuti is a regular contributor

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