Ukrainian Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem how still we see Thee lie,
Above Thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.

                                                - a familiar Christmas carol.

All the driver had to do was open the doors. Enter five thousand grandmothers, Russian-speaking and locally called babushkas, with their babushka trolleys, boxes and bags and grandchildren – three to a seat with barely room to exhale. The last Saturday evening bus to Pochayiv was vacuum packed.

It would have been alright except my foot got jammed in the rear door every time it opened to take on board yet another babushka, just when one might have guessed the bus was full. The foot-jamming and the likelihood of the bus tipping over each time we negotiated a bend to the left were of concern. All of the weightier individuals, it seemed, had chosen to sit on that side and the bus was about as level as a seesaw with nobody on it. I’d rather not say which side I sat on.

I kept trying to picture the map in my mind, hoping to see unfaltering bends to the right. Looking at the map in actuality was unfeasible on account of needing some arm movement, impossible in that space.

The countryside was unusually hilly and it was just as it was getting dark that my foot got jammed for the last time. When the doors opened there began a babushka flood of great proportions – with babushka trolleys, boxes and bags and grandchildren – spilling out of the bus onto the road shoulder. I guess we’d arrived.

It is said the Holy Dormition Pochayiv Lavra, the second largest monastery in Ukraine, was founded by several runaway monks during the thirteenth century Mongol invasion. Legend says Theotokos, which is the Greek title meaning God-bearer that refers to Mary, mother of God, appeared to the monks in a column of fire, that she left her footprint in the rock she stood upon which has since been revered for its curative powers. Pochayiv itself is a small West Ukrainian town of 8,000 people.

Noble lady Anna Hojska is said to have donated her lands to the monastery in the sixteenth century, from when the current buildings date. She also gave a sacred icon of Theotokos which is believed to work miracles, and cured her brother’s blindness.

But I was slightly disoriented from the bus ride – where was the monastery?

In true medieval fashion, it was a matter of tilting my head upwards – you know, to see the church in all its glory. Perched on a hill in the twilight like a fantastic city of gold, the monastery looked its best. 

The last colours were draining from the sky as I followed a line of lamps along the pathway to the western gate. Behind me a sea of babushkas overburdened with their goods and offspring’s offspring followed like the tide of an ancient sea coming in. They like to sleep over at the monastery hotel to attend the 5:30 a.m. Sunday mass.

Sense would have led me directly to the hotel since I too needed a place to sleep, but the atmosphere of the place beckoned: the mosaics, the huge bell tower, the worshippers coming and going, with women wearing headscarves as they do upon entering a church or monastery in the Orthodox tradition, the gardens and rows of crops on the lower hillside, the black-robed long-bearded monks sitting under trees chatting to attractive, younger headscarf wearing women, the golden domes, the smell of incense, the light of the candles and most of all the twilight. I was drawn not to the hotel but, ultimately, to an empty bench beside the bishop’s house where there was time to imbibe the whole mesmerising scene.

A little too much time… Ten o’clock passed and I forced myself towards the hotel. People sat there in the long hallway with all their belongings on babushka trolleys, waiting for a bed to be found. Some were taking shelter on the floor of the hallway.

The smallest and possibly oldest babushka, covered in black, was the one to see, one of the pilgrims seemed to say. “Follow her,” I was sure she must’ve said, in Russian.

I did tail the smallest babushka for a while, up the hallway and back again, in one room, pausing at the doorway of another. I followed her, about two feet behind and I heard her saying to others, over and over, ‘Nyet, nyet, nyet!’ She was trying to sound authoritative and final but in her face was kindness and I knew she took no pleasure from the shortage of beds. I guessed if I’d really pressed the issue she would’ve eventually found somewhere for me.

But there were all the babushkas and babushka trolleys and boxes and bags and grandchildren. The idea of taking a bed from an old woman was not very appealing; and it was like a sauna inside in any case. Better to be outside – how long could a Ukrainian night possibly last? It was warm and delightfully summery.

So I left the smallest babushka and gave up on my one-dollar-dormitory-bed-food-included dream. I returned instead to the viewing bench beside the Bishop’s house.

With practicalities left in the hotel hallway my mind wandered as stars appeared, the buildings floodlight and fine. I couldn’t help but think the whole experience was slightly Joseph coming to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. The bus that evening was surely the equivalent of a small grey donkey and like Joseph I had been effectively turned away by the innkeeper. Admittedly there weren’t any barns to sleep in, there were no nasty Roman soldiers about and most importantly, I did not have with me the responsibility of a heavily pregnant mother of God.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light,
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.

Tired and hungry: these took turns as the hours passed. It was the pull of the latter that took me out through the eastern gate and down into the little dark town. I splurged on a four dollar three course meal in a café that was empty apart from a couple of old Ukrainian men polishing off a bottle of vodka. Outside local kids loitered and it seemed as though they hoped to find some alcohol of their own.

As I wandered back up through the narrow streets, dogs howling, towards the golden domes of the monastery, the image was once more medieval, of a troubled, evil little town versus a peaceful quiet church.

Perhaps as punishment for my random thoughts when I reached it the gate was closed. There remained a gap underneath through which I could have scrambled but it seemed a bit undignified. As I considered what to do a car drove up to the gate, a black Mercedes. It was perhaps the Bishop himself. All it took then was a word or two in English to the gateman who had appeared to let the Mercedes pass, and I was in.

Hours passed. I could tell that from the bell at the top of the bell tower that periodically rang. I must’ve dosed a bit but mostly I continued to absorb the atmosphere and admire the stars – through the night until the dawn.

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This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Ukrainian Bethlehem

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