I was raised in a Catholic family but I started to disagree with Catholic tenets in Middle school when father Ignacio mentioned in Religion class something about "professional pardoners," people who the Catholic church used to send during the late Middle Ages to collect alms in exchange for salvation from eternal damnation (after confession and subsequent absolution, that is).
How about the poor? and what was the point of the confession/penance combo if people were expected to pay cash for indulgences (partial remissions of temporal punishment) for sins which had already been forgiven?
I was 13, indignant and confused.
During the same year, father Ignacio also explained that the conception of Jesus was a miracle which involved no human father, no sexual intercourse, no male seed in any form, and which was made possible by the Holy Spirit--a concept that contradicted my idea of Jesus as a regular man with an extraordinary heart. And as if that weren't enough, father Ignacio also explained that natural birth was considered so abhorrent that the Catholic Church had decreed the immaculate conception of Mary.
Natural birth abhorrent?
Many more discoveries and points of contention took place throughout high school and by the time I was accepted into undergraduate school, I was no longer a Catholic.
It would be fair to say that I have walked a bumpy spiritual path in the last thirty years; it became dangerously narrow at some intersections, had scary cliffs, long stretches of nothing but rolling pastures, gentle hills and dull plateaus, and periods of curiosity, accompanied by pangs of thirst and hunger for the many flavors of religion.
Yet, churches remain sacred places for me, corners of infinite peace, vast spaces inhabited by silence and sorrow and hope and tears, of which I can never get enough. Moscow has plenty of them (more than 300 hundred), which is pitiful compared to the over 1000 churches that existed before 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power and the revolution's ideology of state atheism ordered the destruction of places of worship and/or their reconditioning for political purposes. The Russians had to wait more than seventy years to exercise their right to freedom of religion which came under Gorbachev's glasnots policy to abandon the persecution of religious groups. The result is the revival of Russian spirituality and religious fervor which can be seen in brand new as well as in recently renovated Churches, one more spectacular than the next.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is like no other Christian church I have ever visited. The Russian Orthodox who come here are hard core. They remove their shoes before entering the church, women cover their heads with scarves, they kiss the relics and light candles at every icon (there are dozens of them), the cathedral is awash with the murmured prayers and the tears of those who come looking for a miracle, an answer, for absolution.
King Alexander authorized its construction in the 1800s when Napoleon Bonaparte withdrew his troops from Russia.Its walls were initially inlaid with precious stones and displayed over 1,000 square meters of exotic marble. The dome, which was covered by a hefty coat of gold, made this the tallest Orthodox Cathedral in the world. Then in the 1920s Stalin decided to convert the cathedral into a monument to socialism he named The Palace of the Soviets (an unsightly complex of buttresses and futuristic architecture). When the communist party ran out of money, it was decided that the 20 tons of gold covering the dome could be put to some good use and the cathedral was dismantled. As it turned out, the marble was used in the construction of metro stations, the gold for political purposes, and the Palace of the Soviets was never finished. The cathedral was turned into the world's largest open air swimming pool. A swimming pool.
It was mercifully rebuilt in the 1990s and a foot bridge over Moscow River was added in 2004.
And outside it all, I saw a bride in stilettos running toward the Cathedral with two miniskirted bridesmaids. Where else could I see that?