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The Beautiful Architecture of Optina Pustyn, Spiritual Retreat of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

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This article is from a series by the invaluable William Brumfield, (Wikipedia), Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.

Brumfield is the world’s leading historian of Russian architecture.  He makes frequent trips to Russia, often to her remote regions, and records the most unusual examples of surviving architecture with detailed, professional photography.  

<figcaption>A cornerstone of Russian culture and spiritual heritage</figcaption>
A cornerstone of Russian culture and spiritual heritage

His most recent book is a real treasure, Architecture At The End Of The Earth, Photographing The Russian North (2015). (Amazon).  This truly beautiful book was made possible by the support of a US philanthropist, and its true cost is 3 times its retail price, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here is our 2015 review of it.

Bravo to RBTH for making Brumfield’s work possible, and providing such a great platform for his beautiful photography.  We recommend visiting the RBTH page, which has a slide show for each article with many more pictures than we can fit in here.

Don’t believe in miracles?  Well, we can assure you, Brumfield’s work is undoubtedly just that.  You can find a complete list of his articles on RI here.


Located in the Kaluga Region just south of Moscow, Optina Pustyn is among the most venerated and beloved of Russian monasteries. Part of the appeal is its favored natural setting in a majestic pine forest overlooking the small Zhizdra River.

Popular legend says that the name derives from Opta, a brigand who renounced his mayhem, accepted the monastic name of Makary and formed a forest hermitage in the late 14th century. “Pustyn” is related to the word for “wilderness” and is often used for small monastic communities in forests.

In the 15th century, the retreat accepted both men and women who lived in separate areas, but were led by a common spiritual father. This practice was banned by the Russian Orthodox Church Council of 1503, and the Optina community was reconstituted for men only as the Holy Presentation Optina Pustyn Monastery. Tenuously surviving in the 16th and 17th centuries, the monastery was destitute by the early 18th century and briefly closed in the mid 1720s.

For centuries the monastery consisted of log structures. Work began in 1750 on a new main church dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin, yet the monastery continued on the brink of destitution, exacerbated in 1764 by Catherine the Great’s secularization of monastery holdings.

By the end of the 18th century, however, the monastery and its attractive location gained the attention of a church hierarch, Platon, the Metropolitan of Moscow and Kaluga. His support led to a revival, including the construction in 1802-1806 of a large bell tower and flanking cloisters.

Throughout the 19th century there followed other churches, chapels and monastery buildings, including a large refectory with imposing murals and ceiling paintings that have survived.

Of special significance was the monastery’s hermitage, or skete (retreat), devoted to a more strict form of spiritual observance. Dedicated to John the Baptist, the skete at Optina Pustyn was established in 1821 at its own compound a short distance to the east of the main monastery walls.

The center of the skete remains the Church of the Nativity John the Baptist, built in 1822. Surfaced with red plank siding, the attractive wooden structure is accented with a white neoclassical portico.

Other buildings at the skete include small residences and a library housed in a graceful structure that served as a museum during the late Soviet period.          

During the 19th century the hermitage became widely known for its sages who achieved the designation starets, or “elder”. Although the concept of starchestvo was brought to the monastery by the church hierarchy in the 1820s, the starets designation came primarily through popular respect for certain monks who led an ascetic existence at the hermitage and in whom charisma merged with deep spiritual wisdom. The church venerates all 14 monks known as “starets” at Optina Pustyn.

The Optina Pustyn Monastery attracted all levels of society, including Russia’s intellectual and artistic elite. Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the brothers Ivan and Konstantin Aksakov, Konstantin Leontiev – these are but a few of the major artists and thinkers who visited Optina Pustyn. But the monastery is best known for its encounters with Fedor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy – encounters that in each case involved a severe personal crisis.

The events leading to Dostoevsky’s visit occurred during a particularly stressful time in his life. In Spring 1878, he had begun work on The Brothers Karamazov – his final, triumphant masterpiece. In mid-May, however, his beloved younger son, Alyosha, suddenly became ill and died from a seizure at the age of two years and nine months.

Seeing her husband’s unfading anguish, Anna Grigorevna Dostoevskaya turned to their friend, Vladimir Solovyov, himself a profound writer and mystic philosopher. She noted that Dostoevsky had long thought of going to Optina Pustyn, and the essential moment had come. Solovyov agreed to take Dostoevsky with him to the monastery in late June.

Dostoevsky hoped to arrive on June 24, which was the feastday of the Nativity of John the Baptist as well as the 40th day since the death of Alyosha. (The Orthodox church places special emphasis on remembering the deceased at that point.) They arrived, however, on the 25th, and Dostoevsky requested a memorial service (panikhida) for his son on the 26th.

Dostoevsky remained at Optina Pustyn through the 27th, and during that time he sought consolation from the venerable starets Amvrosii (Ambrose), known for his compassion and penetrating intelligence. Dostoevsky subsequently conveyed these qualities in the figure of Father Zosima, the starets who appears in The Brothers Karamazov.

Father Zosima’s consolation of the woman who had lost her son (in the chapter “The Believing Women”) likely derived from Dostoevky’s encounters with starets Amvrosii – in particular, their private conversation at his modest cottage near the entrance to the skete. Anna Dostoevskaya noted that her husband returned from Optina Pustyn a different person, at peace and no longer crushed by grief. He resumed his work on The Brothers Karamazov with a new spiritual strength.

Leo Tolstoy’s encounters with Optina Pustyn were more frequent, but ultimately without spiritual resolution. After visits in 1877 and 1881, he returned for a meeting with starets Amvrosii in 1890, the year before Amvrosii’s death. The meeting was evidently tense and difficult for the elderly monk, who was wearied by Tolstoy’s pride.

By this point Tolstoy had publicly broken with the Orthodox Church and had attacked basic tenets of Christian dogma. Nonetheless, he returned to Optina Pustyn in 1896 at the urging of his sister Maria, who in 1891 had entered the nearby Shamordino Convent. During that visit he met with starets Joseph, whose calm generosity of spirit brought a temporary measure of peace to his existence.

But Tolstoy’s turbulent spiritual quest would not be eased. His final existential crisis led him to flee his home in the early hours of October 28th, 1910. Accompanied by his physician, Dushan Makovitsky, Tolstoy arrived at Optina Pustyn toward the end of the day.

During the difficult trip he asked frequently about the elders at Optina Pustyn. Despite his refusal to reconcile with the church, his anguish apparently led him to seek the wisdom and solace that they might provide.

After spending the night at the monastery, Tolstoy approached the hermitage on the morning of the 29th. At this critical moment he was beset with doubt and the fear that he would not be received. Instead, he made his way to his sister Maria at the Shamordina Convent and even mused about staying nearby for a period of time.

But the arrival of his daughter Alexandra (Sasha) on the 30th again roused him to flight. Together with Makovitsky, they made their way on the 31st to Astapovo Station, where Tolstoy died a week later.

In a final turn of the tragedy, Tolstoy’s retreat from the hermitage quickly became known at Optina Pustyn, which received the news with dismay. Starets Varsonofy journeyed to Astapovo but was not allowed in the presence of Tolstoy despite repeated requests. Tolstoy’s closest associates had no interest in such a meeting.

In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Optina Pustyn was closed in January 1918. Dispersal, executions and exile ensued. During the Soviet period, most of the religious artwork was lost or destroyed. In 1931, the skete became a rest home, and the monastery housed various enterprises.

The darkest page in the monastery’s history occurred in the fall of 1939, when some 5,000 captured Polish officers were sequestered there in what was called concentration camp Kozelsk-1. Walled monasteries were frequently used as prisons during this period. In 1940 this group was sent to Katyn and shot in a mass execution.

Following a brief period as a military hospital, the monastery was used in 1944-1945 as an NKVD “filtration camp” for Soviet officers repatriated from German camps. In later years the territory served as an agricultural school.  

The Presentation Optina Pustyn Monastery was finally returned to the Orthodox Church in 1987 and services resumed in 1988. In 1990 the John the Baptist Skete was also returned to the monastery.

Thus began a process of restoration whose results are so impressively visible today. Like the Solovetsky Monastery in the Russian North, which also witnessed tragic events during the Soviet era, Optina Pustyn has experienced a revival that each year attracts thousands of pilgrims and visitors.

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Travel agents experiencing increase in bookings since Covid-19 restrictions eased

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Travel agents are experiencing an increase in inquires and bookings since the government announced the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions on Friday.

Pat Dawson, CEO of the Irish Travel Agents Association, says there has been a “phenomenal” turn around in bookings, and travel agents are busy getting back to inquiries.

“We are looking at a healthy summer season, it’s the first time I’ve been positive in two years.”

He advised people to book their holidays early to avoid disappointment. “The longer you leave it, the dearer it will get. Mid-term break in February and Easter are almost full.”

Mr Dawson believes there is a pent-up demand. “There are some people who have money they haven’t spent, a big chunk of that will be spent on foreign holidays.”

John Spollen, director of Cassidy Travel in Dublin, says he has seen an increase in bookings over the weekend.

Popular destinations include Spain and Portugal, which have been Irish favourites for many years now, says Mr Spollen. There are also some bookings for the US, Jersey, Madeira and the Greek islands.

Peak travel

People should avoid peak travel times from mid June to the end of August and consider booking mid-week, early or late flights to get the best value, according to Mr Spollen.

“In May, September and October, the weather will be similar to summer weather.”

Mr Spollen added people should take out travel insurance and ensure their passport and driver’s licence are in date.

Michael Doorley of Shandon Travel in Cork said they have seen a huge increase in inquiries.

“We are not back to 2019 levels yet… the EU is a big destination. We have had a lot of inquires about mobile home holiday parks. Italy would be the most popular destination for this type of holiday, but Croatia is becoming almost as popular.”

There are also bookings for America coming in, as well as some couples celebrating their honeymoons belatedly, according to Mr Doorley.

It is important that people understand the restrictions in the country they are travelling to, he added, and they should check the Department of Foreign Affairs website regularly.

Aoife O’Donoghue is just one of the many Irish people who have not been on a holiday abroad in two years, and she is excited to be going to Barcelona at the end of March.

“A friend is moving over there in February, so myself and two other girls are going to visit her. It’s actually all our birthdays that weekend too,” she says.

The friends used to live together in Galway, and Ms O’Donoghue says it’s fantastic to have something to look forward to again.

The last time she went abroad was to Switzerland in January 2020. “Just as we were coming back there was news of the big Covid outbreak in Italy, so felt lucky to have gotten a holiday in before it all kicked off.”

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Property group clashes with council over Dundrum residential development

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The owners of Dundrum Town Centre have clashed with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council over demands for more large apartments as they advance fast-track plans for a major residential development in the south Dublin village.

Property group Hammerson and insurer Allianz, which operate the new shopping complex in the area, have been in talks with An Bord Pleanála to build up to 889 apartments on the site of the old Dundrum shopping centre.

Their company, Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership, has told the council it should scrap new requirements for “a minimum of three-plus bedroom units” in large apartment blocks that are included among proposed amendments to its draft county development plan.

In a submission last week to the council, the company said the new guidelines were in conflict with official rules that said there should be no minimum requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms.

According to the company, the justification for the guidelines was based on fast-track strategic housing development permissions in the council area and “evidence” from certain boroughs in London.

“[Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership] submit that the logic underpinning the policy is flawed and is not a basis for imposing prescriptive unit mix ratios on a countywide basis,” it said.

“The draft development plan needs to be amended to remove the very prescriptive requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms and to allow applicants to make the case for a particular unit mix based on the particular attributes of local areas where a different mix might be appropriate.”

The company also told the council that proposed amendments to the development plan presented “contradictory or ambiguous objectives” in relation to proposals for a community, cultural and civic centre in the area.

Such objections were included among 106 submissions on the draft plan in a public consultation which closed last week. Numerous other developers and the Irish Home Builders Association lobby group also opposed the measures, some saying they would delay or prevent the delivery of new homes.

Asked about the submissions, the council said the response to any issues raised would be set out in a report by its chief executive to elected members which would be published. “It will be a decision of the elected members to adopt the plan and it is anticipated that this will take place in early March 2022. The plan will then come into effect six weeks later,” the council said.

Cost increase

In its submission, the Irish Home Builders Association said its members were concerned that the introduction of “further onerous standards” would increase the cost of delivering new homes and their price.

“This at a time when construction costs are already under huge inflationary pressure and affordability is a major issues for most home buyers,” said James Benson, director of the association.

“A key concern of the home-building sector in respect of the new plan is a lack of consistency with national planning guidelines/standards, which may be considered to be contrary to recent Government policy which sought to bring a greater extent of standardisation to national planning standards.”

The submission added: “The key concerns relate to the locational restriction and unit mix requirements for [build-to-rent] schemes, other standards for apartment developments which are more onerous/restrictive than the Government’s… guidelines, and the requirement for early delivery of childcare facilities in residential developments, all of which have the potential to impact adversely on the viability and affordability of housing in the county.”

Another builder, Park Developments, said in a submission the draft sought “more onerous policies, objectives and standards” that would have a direct effect on housing supply. “We are already seeing the impact of the chronic shortage in the supply of housing on the affordability of rental accommodation and homeownership.”

Castlethorn Construction said the blanket imposition of three-bedroom requirements “can only serve to militate against development of apartments” in the council area. It said the cost of delivering three-bed apartments was “very significant”, adding that demand was “not evident by reference to market sentiment, estate agents’ advice” and national policy imperatives.

Developer Hines, which has major interests in the Cherrywood strategic development zone, said in its submission that the logic underpinning requirements for more three-bedroom units was flawed.

“While making the case that recent development has been weighted towards one- and two-bed units, it fails to recognise that three-bed semi-detached and detached houses remain the predominant typology within [Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown] and that the [strategic housing development] permissions provide a much-needed mix of housing types within the county to redress this balance within the county.”


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Laicisation of Catholic priest in Tipperary causes disappointment and anger in parish

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Standing in the family’s hardware store on Main Street in Carrick-on-Suir, Fiona Hearn remembers how Fr Richard Geoghegan gave her son First Holy Communion 15 years ago.

Today, Geoghegan is no longer a priest, following the Vatican’s decision to issue a laicisation order, with the history of the story up to that point a subject of disagreement.

The former parish priest at Ballyneale and past curate at St Nicholas Parish in Carrick-On-Suir announced on Twitter last week that he had been officially “dismissed by Rome” on January 7th.

“My Bishop was happy to dispense me. I’m a good man. And he talks about the shortage of vocations,” said Geoghegan, who entered the seminary in 1987 aged just 19, and he was ordained six years later.

The Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Phonsie Cullinan, whose diocese extends over both the borders of Tipperary and Cork, has rejected Geoghegan’s charges.

Fr Richard Geoghegan
Fr Richard Geoghegan

Geoghegan had petitioned Pope Francis for laicisation last March and it was granted on December 15th, said the bishop: “I wish to acknowledge and thank Richard for his pastoral ministry over the years and wish him well for the future.”

Geoghegan came under fire from conservative Catholics following an appearance on hotelier Francis Brennan’s RTÉ show Grand Tour of Vietnam in 2017, wherein he performed in drag as singer Shirley Bassey, wearing a blonde wig and lipstick.

The TV appearance might not have done him any favours, Hearn accepts. “He is only human at the end of the day. He is well loved here in town. We’d love to have him back. I’d have nothing but deep respect for him,” she says.

“He is a real people’s person. Some older priests could be aloof. You couldn’t meet a nicer, more down to earth man. I think he has been pretty hard done by the Pope and the bishop.”

Hearn is not alone in her feelings, with many members of the tight-knit Catholic churchgoing community in Carrick-On-Suir and surrounding districts still shocked and disappointed by the turn of events.

Despite the bishop’s declaration that Geoghegan had himself applied to be laicised, the Association of Catholic Priests’ Tim Hazelwood describes his treatment as “inappropriate, unreasonable and unacceptable”.

In 2020, Hazelwood accompanied Geoghegan to a meeting with Bishop Cullinan, and his secretary.

“It was obvious from the meeting that he wanted Richard to apply for laicisation,” Hazelwood says. “That’s when Richard said he would have liked to be a curate…Richard found it difficult being on his own in a parish. He needed support,” Hazelwood adds.

“Obviously, the bishop had made up his mind,” says Hazelwood, “I was shocked, really because the majority of bishops would be supportive, but what I was hearing was really a put down.”

Geoghegan declined to comment when contacted.

Former parishioner, John Nolan said, “The Church is crying out for priests and is leaving a good man go. He was friends with everyone, an absolute gentleman. Anyone having a wedding here would look for him. I think it is all down to Bishop Phonsie. ”

Describing him as “a fantastic priest”, Carrick-on-Suir butcher Morris Whelan says was a great man. “He knew everyone by name. You’d meet him once and he knew your name forever. He was involved in the parish in every part of it.”

Local Sinn Féin councillor David Dunne remembers Geoghegan’s kindnesses during his mother’s illness.

“Everyone recognised him for the programme he did with Francis Brennan…It was fairly flamboyant and wasn’t in keeping with the Church, but it was typical of Fr Richard,” said Cllr Dunne, “He was always friendly, outgoing and is well-regarded. It is a major loss.”

Describing the former priest’s ability to engage, Luke Foran says: “One of my favourite memories of him is my brother’s Communion where he had all the kids gathered around and Richard’s phone rang, and who was on the phone only ‘Jesus’.

“You should have seen the kids’ faces drop. It was brilliant and he enthralled and captivated the whole place. He was ahead of his time. Richard humanised the priesthood and was a breath of fresh air,” he said.

Besides the memories, there is anger, too. Ashling Ní Fháthaigh said: “When he was saying mass the church was a lot fuller with a younger congregation. (He) was liked by so many and was punished for that.”

Believing that the church’s hierarchy has questions to answers, Margaret Croke says: “A church without compassion and understanding who can so readily dismiss a person who was so dedicated for so many years to its flock and to God really needs to change.”

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