Valaam Monastery, Orthodox Tradition & Symbolism

Elsner, Reijo

I made a visit in June this year to the Valaam Monastery in Russia. The travel arrangements were such that I joined a group of eight Finns in the former Finnish town of Sortavala in Karelia. There we went on board a boat to the main island of the Monastery. This voyage lasts about half an hour.

We stayed two nights in the partly renovated monastery hotel that was first completed in 1850. My companions had close local relationships; they took some years ago the initiative to become Godparents of some of the children of the civil population in Valaam.

About Valaam

The legend tells us that the Valaam Monastery was established by two Greek missionaries, St. Sergiy and St. Herman, in the first half of the 10th century.

The Valaam is situated on lake Ladoga on a group of appr. 50 islands. Ladoga is the largest lake in Europe with a volume that could contain the waters of all the 60000 Finnish lakes.

The monastery was destroyed many times by fire or by raids of the Swedes. It grew to become one of the leading Russian monasteries in the 19th and 20th centuries and had over a thousand monks.

The Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the subsequent building of the Soviet Union made life very difficult for the monks in the whole of Russia. Valaam became part of Finland and monastic life, unlike in many other Russian monasteries, could continue until the 2nd World War. In 1944 the Russians were bombing Valaam and the surviving monks fled further into Finland. The New Valaam in Heinävesi was established with some 200 monks. Today of these survivors none are alive, but the New Valaam continues and has at present ten monks.

After the Soviet dissolution Valaam and many other monasteries in the former USSR have been activated and restauration of the buildings has started together with 'the one thing needful' - the Spiritual Life.

The Valaam Brotherhood has over 200 monks and novices, some of them stationed out in Moscow and St. Petersburg 'offices'. Our little group witnessed with awe services in the main church with most of the 150 monks taking part.

The services are held in Russian and old Slavonic. Valaam services are very long; the monastic rules are adopted from the Sarov Monastery and very strict.

In an Orthodox Church one stands through the service; seats are provided for the old and the sick. People come and go all the time, pay their respects to the icons, lit the candles and say their prayers.

We had in our little group some experts in the Russian language, but direct contact with the monks was next to non-existent, partly because they are for obvious reasons not interested in being distracted (just try to say the Prayer of Jesus continuously and you know why).

We also visited one of the renovated hermitages called the skete of St. Nicolas the Wonder-Worker. It now has ten hermits engaged in the inner work.

I wanted to find out how you get a contact with the existing startzy and the personal guidance. It is possible, but you have to be prepared in many ways.

First of all, you need to belong the an Orthodox Church. Second: you have to be able to speak, write and understand Russian. When these conditions are met you then write your 'life history' and hand it over to your confessor. The rest of the preparation is more or less standard Orthodox practice: you fast for three days (including food and impressions) and go to the confession.

You can find more information about the Valaam from the map; the links on the map take you to the official monastery web site.

The monastery has a matter to be solved with the civilians living on the main island. During the Soviet rule many of these people were sent to Valaam and they now feel that the island is just as much theirs as the Monastery's.

The Russian authorities have tried to help by building housing in the mainland in Sortavala. Many moved, but after a short time turned up again in Valaam; they had sold the flats and could continue their life 'at home'. There are over 400 civilians on the island, most of them without work and many of them taken to alcohol (that is not to say that there are also many decent families amongst them).

Orthodox Symbolism

The architecture of Orthodox churches is full of symbolism. The churches are often rectangular resembling a ship. With the guidance of the Master at the helm you get through the storms to a calm harbor.

Churches are often built in the form of a Cross to remind us that we are saved through faith in the Crucifixion, through our suffering.

Other shapes are also found, but not so frequently.

Most Orthodox churches are built East - West. Entrance is in the West. West is the darkness and we enter into the light of the East.

The onion roofs of Orthodox churches also have their meaning, although the shape itself is most likely just a practical way of dealing with the snow. One cupola signifies Christ; three cupolas symbolize the Holy Trinity; five cupolas represent Christ and the four Evangelists; seven cupolas symbolize the Seven Ecumenical Councils which formulated the basic dogmas of the Orthodox Church, as well as the general use in the Church of the sacred number seven; nine cupolas represent the nine ranks of Angels; and thirteen cupolas signify Christ and the twelve Apostles.

The Russian Orthodox Eastern Cross is composed of three horizontal slashes built on the frame. The topbar is directly above the bar to which Christs arms were affixed. The bottom bar is the smallest. The slant is a late alteration to the symbol.

The topbar represents the inscription INRI from the Latin, from the words Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum; Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.

The interior of the churches is rich in symbolism; there is something for all of our senses. Icons, candles and in short the whole atmosphere represent Paradise and the Kingdom of Heaven. The services and the Eucharist are included in this symbolic presentation. They all exist to prepare us and to give us an idea of what the Kingdom within us could be like when we are connected with it.

Let us take the icons as an example of this. They are said to be windows to the Kingdom of Heaven. If we are tuned to an icon it may speak to us - it may, so to say, become alive. What is it that this window opens to?

I visited many years ago the Orthodox museum in Kuopio, Finland, which has many icons on display. Without any particular purpose I went from one icon to another when something happened with one of them. It was the icon of the Staretz Macarius, who was one of the remarkable elders of the Optino Monastery.

Suddenly there was contact! He looked at me. I moved to another place in the fairly large room and his look followed. I do not understand it even today, but it was very real and the sense of 'being seen' was strong.

Was this self-suggestion or was the icon a window looking into - myself? One detail of the happening was that I had been studying a book about Macarius and found it 'very interesting indeed'.

Recent Past and the Present Startzy

There is no doubt that the tradition of spiritual guidance exists today even in Russia, but it is difficult to find it. The Valaam tradition, which came to Finland with the two monks during the 2nd World War died with them.

The longtime confessor and director father John died in the New Valaam in 1958. His letters have recently been translated into English.

Father Michael, another directori in the New Valaam, died in 1962. Father Michael was a recluse, who was badly needed in Russia in his capacity of guiding monks. In 1957, after invitation to do so, he went to Moscow taking with him all the priest-monks of the New Valaam. They settled in Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery near Pskov in Western Russia. He lived the rest of his life as a recluse and gave no more direction. However, as the article in the above link says, the tradition continues in this monastery...

That the tradition of spiritual directors is alive in Russia in our Millenium was confirmed by an Orthodox friend of mine in Helsinki. She is in contact with a Russian nun, who regularly takes lorryloads of clothes etc. to Russia. My friend said that she lives very simply, whenever she gets anything she gives it away immediately and she is always happy and prays continuously. She goes regularly to her director in the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius situated near Moscow in Sergiyev Posad (Zagorsky during the Soviet ruling).

It is interesting to think of what happened with the Orthodox tradition of the spiritual direction and how its weakening coincides with Gurdjieff, with a similar psychology in a new language, coming to the West. Like many others I am speculating what he meant by 'start in Russia, finish in Russia'.