Out of the Depths

World premiere concert in Moscow based on the Psalms of King David. Reception and dinner in the Pushkin Cafe. Vadim’s toast… and speculation about a meeting between the Pope and the Russian Patriarch

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Moscow

“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my prayer…” —King David, Psalm 130

World Premiere in Moscow

It was called “A Song of Ascents,” and the song did rise, inexorably, from a first, lonely, low note from a single cello to a crescendo of many violins on their highest string with the choir singing: “Give glory to God!”

Those opening low notes from a single cello seemed almost a risk by the composer — too lonely, too stark, too simple. The notes echoed almost eerily in the packed Moscow concert hall. Would they lead anywhere?

“I intended that,” Russian Orthodox Archishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the composer of the piece (photo at the end of the concert, left), told me later that evening. “A song of ascents has to begin low. Then you go up…”

Those first notes reflected the words of the psalm of King David: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee…”

Out of the depths, “de profundis” in Latin, the well-known first words of Psalm 130. King David prayed, as we often do, “from the depths” — from the depths of darkness and despair, from the depths of suffering.

We too often cry out from the depths of the emptiness which can sometimes cast a shadow over our human lives — an emptiness which seems to have threatened our present age with particular vehemence, as many modern men and women wonder whether they (we humans) are the types of beings who have even enough dignity to be worthy to be damned.

If we have no eternal destiny whatsoever, what are we? A brief flurry of dust, nothing more.

This is the peculiarity of our present cultural predicament. Our culture of scientific knowledge, with its unprecedented annihilation of the transcendent, has also annihilated even the hope of an ascent, for there is nowhere to ascend to. And here, within time, there is only endless flux, then silence.

The notes of Hilarion’s song, accompanied by a hundred splendid, powerful male and female Russian voices, began low, but then they rose, moving ever higher, then still higher, until they seemed to strain the capacity of the violins.

I worried that the strings would break.

The ascent seemed to stretch beyond this earth.

“I intended that as well,” Hilarion Alfeyev told me after the concert (shown here during the concert). “I wished to give the sensation of the ascent that stretches toward the eternal. It was a risk, but I took it.”

This approach, first strings, then horns and bells joining in, then voices, all rising higher and higher, yet always simple, even-paced, like a steady hiker ascending a mountain path, is the opposite of much modern composition, which is atonal and unevenly paced.

And in this sense, the composition I heard tonight is revolutionary.

In the second movement, the cellos, violas and violins echoed one another as if across valleys.

In the third movement, Hilarion reflected on the loneliness of exile, of being far from the Promised Land. It was a reflection on Psalm 137, By the waters of Babylon.

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hung up our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Psalm 137 is one of the best known of the Biblical psalms. It is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC. (This would mean it is not by King David. Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah, and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: “For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity.”)

The first lines of the poem are very well known, as they describe the sadness of the Israelites, asked to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.” They refuse to do this, leaving their harps hanging on trees.

In the Orthodox Church, and those Eastern Catholic Churches which use the Byzantine Rite, Psalm 137 (which is known by its Septuagint numbering as Psalm 136) is read at Matins on Friday mornings throughout the year (except during the week following Easter Sunday, when no psalms at all are read).

Psalm 137 has been set to music by many composers, including Palestrina, Rossi, Verdi and Partch, and now, in part, by Hilarion.

In a sense, the Russian Orthodox Church, like many other Christian communities, persecuted under communism during the 20th century, was “exiled” from its own country, and could no longer conduct its worship, no longer “sing the Lord’s song,” in its own homeland.

But now, with communism in the past, have the Orthodox remembered their song?

Or, during the time of exile, did they forget the song altogether?

This concert prompts these thoughts in my mind, and the choirs singing suggests to me that perhaps the song is beginning to be sung again…

(Photo: Russians entering the concert hall to attend the concert.)

The fourth movement was centered on a single word: “Alleluia,” and the choirs, men and women, sang this word of praise to one another, accompanied by many single-note ancient horns which have not been used in concerts for 200 years, Hilarion told me, and by drums.

Then came the fifth and final movement, in which the choirs sang “Come, let us give glory to the name of God!” The French horns come in to punctuate the phrases, and the hall shakes with the intensity of the sound.

Why give God glory?

Because we are men. And as men, capable of conceiving of the infinite, but not of grasping it, conscious of our universe, so that we not only know, but know that we know, yet nevertheless mortal, we have enormous dignity, contained in an earthen vessel which does not last.

So, becoming realistic, we embrace both our dignity, and our tragedy.

The dignity of a man is to give glory to God, that is, to act and be truthful and loving toward each of our neighbors so that they sense the meaning, the logos, of the universe at the source of our acting and being, which is truth and love, eternal.

So the glory that we give to God is to live as men — not as ants in a hive, not as demons in a cage, not as angels in a choir, but as men, men marred by sin, but mindful of Zion.

Let us rather cut off our right hand, than forget Zion.

The bell rings at the back of the orchestra, the voices rise to a crescendo, strings and bells, both choirs, highest and lowest notes — the bell insists, insists, rings out again and again. Crescendo. Silence. Applause.

A Mother’s Journey

Archbishop’s Hilarion new symphony was performed this evening as part of a “Country of Resurrection” Musical Festival held in the framework of an annual “Orthodox Russia” exhibition. This concert closed the exhibition.

But it was not the music alone which drew me to this concert hall this evening. It was also the chance to meet an extraordinary woman, Valeria Alfeyeva — the mother of Archbishop Hilarion. (His father passed away some years ago.)

“Is it so important to you to meet her?” he asked me. “I will let you sit next to her.”

And so I sat next to her.

I felt privileged, not because I was being seated in a VIP section among a number of wealthy benefactors of the Russian Orthodox Church, but because I had just discovered and started to read a book by Valeria called A Pilgrimage to Dzhvari: A Woman’s Journey of Spiritual Awakening.

The book is a loosely autobiographical account of a Russian woman’s “coming to faith” in the waning days of the Soviet Union, in about the year 1980, and particularly of her pilgrimage to two Orthodox monasteries in Georgia, the first called Dzhvari.

In this story, shortly after the death of her husband, the narrator, a journalist like Alfeyeva, and her teenage son, called Dmitri (“Mitya”) in the book, arrange an unusual visit to a famous monastery — unusual because women are traditionally forbidden entry.

But it was actually a journey this mother made with her 15-year-old son. It was the journey which sparked her own spiritual awakening — and Hilarion’s vocation as a monk, and now an archbishop, in the Orthodox Church.

The monks in the story urge Valeria to abandon her “intellectual” appreciation of Christianity for a more profoundly spiritual faith, while Mitya is encouraged in his desire to become a priest.

Six years later, Mitya becomes a monk.

The fascination of this work comes not only from the depiction of the monks’ human weaknesses and constant spiritual self-testing, but also from Alfeyeva’s thoughtful explanation of the Orthodox faith and her lyrical descriptions of the natural beauty of the Georgian countryside.

“Even at the age of two, I could tell he was special,” Valeria tells me about her son. “Listen carefully to this music tonight: it is all about the psalms, from the ‘de profundis’ to the sorrow by the rivers of Babylon.”

She tells me how, at the age of 22, she circumnavigated the USSR, traveling northward up the entire Pacific coast of the country, then turning west through the Arctic Ocean along the top of the country.

I realize that Alfeyev’s mother was willing to take risks, as he is. It explains something.

I urge others to read this moving story of her spiritual journey during the Soviet time.

About the concert

The concert was performed by the Tchaikovsky State Academic Large Symphony Orchestra, the Choir of the State Tretyakov Gallery and the St. Petersburg Russian Capella.

The program opened with pieces by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Sergei Rachmaninov.

The last piece performed was ‘A Song of Ascents” Symphony for choir and orchestra by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev.

Hilarion composed the symphony in Finland in 2008 on the texts of seven psalms, two of which are known as “A Song of Ascents,” hence the title of the symphony.

The symphony was composed for a mixed choir singing with the accompaniment of a large orchestra that includes the stringed, wood, brass, and percussion instruments, harp, and organ, but this concert was presented without the organ.

Moscow and Washington, Moscow and Rome

Ties between Christians “powerful factor” in Russia-U.S. relations – Patriarch

In July, just before US President Barack Obama visited Moscow (July 6-8), the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, during a July 3 press conference stated that relations between Christians in Russia and the United States are “a very powerful factor” in Russian-U.S. relations.

“I am deeply convinced that relations between religious leaders and communities of the two countries are a very powerful factor of relations between [the two] peoples,” Patriarch Kirill said at a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle.

“There is a belief that the basis is indeed being formed for better relations between our countries,” he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church has a long history of relations with the United States, the Patriarch said. He mentioned that Russian missionaries had brought Orthodoxy to the United States.

“The presence of the Russian Church on the American continent has seriously contributed to the relations of the Orthodox Church with other Christian denominations and religions of the United States,” Kirill said. “Even in the hardest of times, the times of the Cold War, the Christians of the United States and the Soviet Union maintained good relations, and this, of course, had what was, perhaps not a very powerful, but a concrete effect on the situation.”

The Russian Orthodox Church has always attached great significance to its relations with Christian and other religious communities in the United States, he said.

Today, before the concert this evening, Archbishop Hilarion spoke briefly with reporters after attending a speech in the Kremlin by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in which Medvedev denounced Stalin’s brutal persecution of believers in the mid-20th century.

Among the remarks he made, Hilarion said he thought a meeting between the Russian Orthodox Patriarch and Pope Benedict XVI may soon be possible.

(Photo, Hilarion with Archbishop Antonio Mennini, the Pope’s nuncio in Russia, just before the start of the concert.)

Here is a report on what Hilarion told the journalists:

Moscow, November 12, Interfax – Relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are improving and a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, may be on the cards, a Russian Orthodox bishop said.

“Today it can be said that we are moving to a moment when it becomes possible to prepare a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow,” Archbishop Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the Department for External Church Relations, told reporters in Moscow.

“There are no specific plans for the venue or timing of such a meeting but on both sides there is a desire to prepare it,” the Archbishop said.

Preparations for such a meeting must involve finding “a common platform on all remaining points of dispute,” the Archbishop said.

One such issue is relations between the Uniate community and Orthodox believers in Ukraine. In the early 1990s, “the fragile interdenominational balance was upset and a serious situation took shape that still exists,” Archbishop Hilarion said.

At the same time, conversion of Orthodox believers into Catholicism is less of a problem today than it was a decade ago, he said.

Benedict XVI is “a very reserved, traditional man who does not seek the expansion of the Catholic Church to traditionally Orthodox regions,” the Archbishop said.

When Benedict XVI, shortly after being elected Pope, met with Metropolitan Kirill (the present Russian Patriarch, then head of the DECR), a papal visit to Russia “was taken off the agenda as it then appeared to us to be impossible,” the bishop said.

After Metropolitan Kirill was elected Patriarch, “one can hope for further steps” in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue because the Patriarch “will continue the line on relations with Christians of other denominations that he pursued as part of his former activities,” Hilarion said.

Post-concert dinner, Vadim’s toast

After the concert, Dan Schmidt and I were invited to attend a small, post-concert dinner of about 19 people, including some of the important benefactors of the Russian Orthodox Church, in a private room in the popular, and expensive, Pushkin Cafe, not far from the Kremlin.

The menu was filled with wonderful Russian food, from cucumber salad to caviar, but a discussion of Russian food will better be left to Friar Tuck.

As for me, I was most interested in the toasts.

Archbishop Hilarion was gracious, thanking all his guests for all they had done to help him. And the guests were gracious, thanking the archbishop for allowing them to participate with him in bringing this new, yet classical, Russian musical composition to its premiere performance.

Then Vadim Yakunin gave a toast which deeply moved me.

“We have lost many things in Russia in the past 20 years,” he said. “But in spite of all we have lost, we have gained something which outweighs all that we have lost put together. We have gained the rebirth of our Holy Russian Orthodox Church. To our Church.”

And there in the Pushkin cafe, on November 12, 2009, following a concert drawn from the psalms of King Daid which speaks also of the exile in Babylon, we lifted our glasses.

By chance, today was also my birthday. And the guests sang “Happy Birthday” to me, in English, right there in the Pushkin cafe.

November 12, Feast of St. Josaphat, Patron Saint of Reunion Between East and West

Josaphat of Polotsk

(The following is drawn from an internet account of the life of St. Josaphat.)

His father was a municipal counselor, and his mother known for her piety. He was raised in the Orthodox Ruthenian Church which, on November 23, 1595, in the Union of Brest, united with the Church of Rome. Trained as a merchant’s apprentice at Vilna, he was offered partnership in the business, and marriage to his partner’s daughter; feeling the call to religious life, he declined both. He was a monk in the Ukrainian Order of Saint Basil (Basilians) in Vilna at age 20 in 1604, taking the name brother Josaphat. He was ordained a Byzantine rite priest in 1609.

Josaphat’s superior, Samuel, never accepted unity with Rome, and looked for a way to fight against Roman Catholicism and the Uniats, the name given those who brought about and accepted the union of the Churches. Learning of Samiel’s work, and fearing the physical and spiritual damage it could cause, Josaphat brought it to the attention of his superiors. The archbishop of Kiev removed Samuel from his post, replacing him with Josaphat.

He became a famous preacher and worked tirelessly to bring unity among the faithful, and bring strayed Christians back to the Church. He was named Bishop of Vitebsk. Most religious, fearing interference with the natively developed liturgy and customs, did not want union with Rome. Bishop Josaphat believed unity to be in the best interests of the Church, and by teaching, clerical reform, and personal example, Josaphat won the greater part of the Orthodox in Lithuania to the union. Never completely suitable to either side, Roman authorities sometimes raised objection to Josaphat’s Orthodox actions. He was named Archbishop of Polotsk, Lithuania, in 1617.

While Josaphat attended the Diet of Warsaw in 1620, a dissident group, supported by Cossacks, set up an anti-Uniat bishops for each Uniat one, spread the accusation that Josaphat had “gone Latin,” and that his followers would be forced to do the same, and placed a usurper on the archbishop’s chair. Despite warnings, John went to Vitebsk, a hotbed of trouble, to try to correct the misunderstandings, and settle disturbances. The army remained loyal to the king, who remained loyal to the Union, and so the army tried to protect Josaphat and his clergy.

Late in 1623 an anti-Uniat priest named Elias shouted insults at Josaphat from his own courtyard, and tried to force his way into the residence. When he was removed, a mob assembled and forced his release. Mob mentality took over, and they invaded the residence. Josaphat tried to insure the safety of his servants before fleeing himself, but did not get out in time, and was martyred by the mob. His death was a shock to both sides of the dispute, brought some sanity and a cooling off period to both sides of the conflict.
He was beatified on May 16, 1643, by Pope Urban VIII, and canonized in 1876 — the first Eastern saint canonized by Rome.

“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)

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