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Notes From Moscow by S. E.

June 1 (May 20, Russian style), 1877.

This diversity in the matter of dates is unpleasantly perplexing at times. With every sensation of interest and pleasure I set myself about the task of describing, I must at once begin to reckon. Twelve days' difference! Yes, I have already grasped that fact, but then in which direction must the deduction begin?—backward or forward? Such is the question that instantly arises, and if we are at the fag end of one month and the beginning of another, the amount of reckoning involved seems somewhat inadequate to the occasion. The Russian clergy, it is said—those, at any rate, of the lowest class, designated as "white priests," many of them peasants by birth and marvellously illiterate—have ever been averse to any change being made in the calendar, in order that their seasons of fasting and feasting may not be disturbed.

Apropos of priests and priesthood. Whilst quietly at work yesterday morning my attention was suddenly called off, first by a hurried exclamation, and then the inharmonious—ah, how utterly discordant!—ding-donging of church-bells. "Listen!" fell upon my ear: "one of the secular priests belonging to St. Gregory's church died two days ago, and is to be buried this morning. They are still saying masses over his body, the church is packed, and it is a sight such as you may possibly not have an opportunity of again witnessing." In half an hour we were within the church-walls. The place was already thronged, and the air close almost to suffocation. Never can one forget that peculiar heat, the sort of indescribable vapor, that arose, and the perspiration that streamed down the faces of all present, each of whom, from the oldest to the youngest, carried a lighted candle. After many vigorous efforts, and occasional collisions with the flaring tapers, the wax or tallow dropping at intervals upon our cloaks, we found ourselves at last in the centre of the edifice, immediately behind a dozen or more officiating priests clad in magnificent robes, before whom lay their late confrère reposing in his coffin, and dressed, according to custom, in his ecclesiastical robes. Tall lighted candles draped with crape surrounded him, and the solemn chant had been going on around him ever since life had become extinct. The dead in Russia are never left alone or in the dark. Relays of singing priests take the places of those who are weary, and friends keep watch in an adjoining room. The Russian temperament inclines to the strongest manifestation of the inmost feelings, and the method here of mourning for the dead is exceptionally demonstrative. The corpse of the old priest lay surrounded by what was of bright colors or purest white, the coffin being of the last-mentioned hue. Black was utterly proscribed. The face and hands were half buried in a lacy texture, whilst on the brow was placed a label, "fillet-fashion," on which was written "The Thrice Holy," or Trisagion—"O Holy God! O Holy Mighty! O Holy Immortal! have mercy upon us!"

Chant after chant ascended for the repose of his soul. The deacon's deep bass voice rose ever and anon in leading fashion, the other voices following suit. There was of course no instrumental music. This Russian singing is curiously unique—of a character wholly different from any heard elsewhere. It is weird in the extreme, and, if the expression be permissible, gypsy-like. The deacons' voices are of wonderful capability, the popular belief being that they are specially chosen on account of this peculiar power. At last there came a pause. Not only the priests' and deacons' voices, but those of the chanting men and boys—alike unsurpliced and uncassocked, lacking, therefore, much of the attraction offered by a service in the Western Catholic Church—had all at once ceased to be heard. All were now pressing forward to kiss the dead priest—his fellow-priests first, and then, duly in order, all his relations and friends. "The last kiss" it is termed—a practice, it would seem, derived from the heathen custom, of which we find such frequent mention. None, if possible, omit the performance of this duty, all seeking to obtain the blessing or benefit, supposed to be thereby conferred. Some, however, are obliged to content themselves with merely kissing the corners of the coffin.

Many of the numerous stichera, as they are termed—poetically-worded prose effusions—made use of in the course of the service are curiously quaint. I quote two or three, of which I have since procured a translation: "Come, my brethren, let us give our last kiss, our last farewell, to our deceased brother. He hath now forsaken his kindred and approacheth the grave, no longer mindful of vanity or the cares of the world. Where are now his kindred and friends? Behold, we are now separated! Approach! embrace him who lately was one of yourselves."—"Where now is the graceful form? Where is youth? Where is the brightness of the eye? where the beauty of the complexion? Closed are the eyes, the feet bound, the hands at rest: extinct is the sense of hearing, and the tongue locked up in silence."

The words succeeding these are supposed to emanate from the lips of the dead, lying mute before the eyes of all present: "Brethren, friends, kinsmen and acquaintance, view me here lying speechless, breathless, and lament. But yesterday we conversed together. Come near, all who are bound to me by affection, and with a last embrace pronounce the last farewell. No longer shall I sojourn among you, no longer bear part in your discourse. Pray earnestly that I be received into the Light of life."

The absolution having been pronounced by the priest, a paper is placed in the dead man's hand—"The Prayer, Hope and Confession of a faithful Christian soul." This is accompanied by another prayer containing the written words of absolution. This custom has given rise to the belief in the minds of many foreigners that such missives are presented in the light of passports to a better world; but the idea seems to be as erroneous as it is absurd. Moreover, I believe that, strictly speaking, the custom is one of national origin, and that the Church has had nothing to do with its adoption.

All the lighted tapers having been taken away by one of the attendants, the coffin with its gilded ornaments was removed slowly from its resting-place, and placed upon an enormous open bier or hearse, extensively mounted and heavily ornamented with white watered silk, purple and gilt draperies, a gilt crown surmounting all. The base of the ponderous vehicle was alone permitted to boast a fringe of deep black cloth—as if, however, for the sole purpose of hiding the wheels. The six horses, three abreast, were also enveloped in black cloth drapery touching the ground on either side. Right and left of the coffin itself, and mounted therefore considerably aloft, stood two yellow stoicharioned (or robed) deacons, wearing the epimanikia and orarion—the former being a portion of the priestly dress used for covering the arms, and signifying the thongs with which the hands of Christ were bound; the latter a stole worn over the left shoulder. The head of each deacon was adorned with long waving hair, and each carried a censer in his hand. They faced each other, keeping watch together over the dead. A procession of priests, duly robed, began to move, preceded by censer-bearers and singing men and boys.

The point whence the procession started—Mala Greuzin, situated at the extreme east end of Moscow—lay several miles away from the cemetery for which they were all en route; and this veritably ancient Asiatic city had to be traversed at an angle in this solemn fashion, seventy or eighty carriages following. From the beginning to the end of the prescribed route Muscovites lined the road on either side, and it is fair to add that I never beheld more respect shown even to royalty itself. All was quietness, the general expression of sympathy and respect being permitted to find vent only in excessive gesticulation and genuflection. Not a head remained covered, not a single person by whom the procession passed permitted it to do so without crossing himself several times from forehead to chest and from shoulder to shoulder.

At the first church which the procession reached, the bells of which had begun to toll—clash rather—long before it came in sight, the entire party halted. A bell was rung by one of those in advance, and then all waited. The priests and their various acolytes clustered reverently by the hearse, the followers and spectators standing at a respectful distance, but nevertheless taking part in the service. After first incensing the hearse, themselves and all around, further prayers were said and chanted: then a signal was given and all moved on again, only, however, to again pause on the route, for at every church we passed—and we must have encountered at least thirty or forty, if not more, seeing that such sacred edifices rise upon one's view in Moscow at wellnigh every three or four minutes' space—the ceremony was repeated. No sooner had one set of bells ceased to sound in our ears than another took its place, and again all halted, and then again all marched onward. Every window as the cortége passed along was thrown open, and figures bent forward ever and anon, enacting their wonted part in the pageant. And the pageant, be it remembered, was, after all, only one of frequent occurrence.

Only the week before I had had the privilege of watching this identical old priest baptize the child of one of the most ancient nobles here, the ceremony being performed not in a church, but at the nobleman's house. One godfather and one godmother are all that are required, the latter of whom holds the infant. On the godmother also a large share of duty devolves, there being certain gifts which she is bound by national custom to offer for acceptance on the occasion. Often, therefore, the duty of selecting a female sponsor becomes a somewhat invidious one. A handsome dress to the mother, no matter in what rank of life; a delicate lace cap to the main object of the occasion; a lace chemise for the same highly-honored small individual; and an elaborate silk pocket handkerchief to the officiating priest,—these, when of the best quality, and they are invariably so, mount up somewhat as regards price, seeing that everything is marvellously dear here in the matter of dress. The godfather, standing immediately in front of the large font brought specially for the purpose from the adjacent church, and at the right hand of his fellow-sponsor, simply presents a small golden cross, to be worn, it is supposed, ever afterward. Immediately behind the font, and facing the entire audience—for a large circle of friends had been invited to witness the ceremony—was placed the "holy picture" of the household, without which in Russia no homestead, whether belonging to rich or poor, is considered complete, and before which a lighted oil lamp ever stands burning—a "picture of God," as the Russian children are taught from their earliest years to call it. Before this the priests bowed on entering.

The mode of baptism was immersion, after several exorcisms had been read and the priest had thrice blown in the infant's face, signing him, also thrice, on the forehead and breast. Three tall lighted candles were affixed to the font, and others were held by the god-parents, except when they marched round the font in procession three times during "the chrism," when the candles were laid down. The chrism consists in anointing the infant's forehead, breast, shoulders and middle of the back with holy oil, after which comes the service, when the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, breast, hands and feet are again anointed, but this time with the holy unction prepared once a year, on Monday in Holy Week, within the walls of the Kremlin, and consecrated by the metropolitan in the cathedral of the Annunciation on Holy Thursday. Then comes the concluding act, when the priest cuts off a small portion of the child's hair in four different places on the crown of the head, encloses it in a morsel of wax and throws it into the font, as a sort of first-fruits of that which has been consecrated.