Prayer in Stasidia
This is not a day, only a moon shadow.
The night is deep, and the dawn is centuries away.
He who has seen shadows grow, knows the count of minutes.
He who sees the sunrise thinks little of a thousand years.
The first movement of the night symphony ended with the rhythmical wooden applause of a monastic semantron. “To-ta-lan-tos!” All monasteries are different, but they all sound the same way in the morning. Waking up was easy. The morning grooming and dressing in my black armor, consisting of a cassock and a rhason, took very little time. Looking at myself from top to bottom and noticing the gray Chinese sneakers peeking absurdly from under the black priestly cloth, I pulled down my cassock. The sneakers bashfully disappeared. Here, on Athos, you have to prefer practicality to style. If the sole of your shoes is too thin, you won’t walk very far in them; if it is too flat, you may not be able to stand on your feet. The upper part of the shoe must also meet certain requirements for density and breathability. Corns on the pilgrim’s feet can turn a pilgrimage into torture, and who knows if we will have another chance to visit the abode of the Mother of God. This makes shoes a very important part of a pilgrim’s wardrobe. Sneakers are perhaps the best choice, but apparently not for the Athonite monks who wear a variety of footgear, from leather and rubber boots to classic shoes and even galoshes. They seem to attach no importance to either clothes or shoes, although they did appreciate the socks that we presented as gifts in the monasteries that gave us shelter.
Gathering all together, we went to prayer. The church was not lit inside. The lonely stars of the vigil lamps were shining in the dark space of the huge St Andrew’s cathedral. We stood in the stasidia not far from the entrance while our eyes were getting used to the dark and beginning to distinguish the interior of the cathedral. After a few minutes, we managed to see that the rare worshippers (no more than 15 people) present at the service were attracted like butterflies to the light of the lamp near the left cantoris. At first, I followed everyone else and stood behind the readers’ backs. But soon Valera, who was standing right next to me, began to disturb my gracious solitude. Any human movement in this giant temple space was very evident and arrested attention. Passing through the center to the opposite side, I finally regained the lost feeling of silence. The acoustics of the cathedral are superb. I could perfectly hear the quiet reading and singing on the left, although the reader was at least 20 meters away from my stasidia. There were no people nearby. It felt like I could reach heaven with my fingertips!
I shifted in the stasidia, opening and closing the seat, producing a creak and a clatter of a wooden board in the dark void. I checked the seat next to mine and, discovering that it reclined inaudibly, moved over.
Stasidias are ingenious inventions helping facilitate the long monastic vigils. Russians sometimes call these remarkable constructions “forms”, as they help the worshipper maintain an upright, non-curved body position, leaving his spine unbent, and his nerve endings unpinched, which is very important during a long prayer. These stalls are designed as tall (about the height of an average person) wooden chairs with curved armrests, polished by hundreds of hands. The narrow (about 15 centimeters) ledge, projecting from the underside of a hinged seat, when it is turned up, gives the worshipper an opportunity to support his lower back against it when necessary. The monks call this position “sitting on the top floor”. Turning your seat down puts you on the so-called “lower floor”, where you can sit very comfortably and even put your feet on the designated footboards underneath. However, sitting on the “lower floor” is fraught with drowsiness and even falling asleep. A worshipper should not be distracted too much by his tired limbs, otherwise, instead of being “lifted up to the Lord”, his soul, “crushed” by the bodily sensations, will be eagerly anticipating the end of the service. I suppose, making worship proportional is a missionary task. Unfortunately, we often attach great importance to the outward ritual, and elongate our services with litanies and diaconal “glossolalia” without preparing the congregation. Solemnity is a good thing, but mercy is perhaps more important than sacrifice. But this is again a moot point. I hope that my colleagues will forgive me for bringing it up.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds