Today Anna and I joined our visiting friends from Eastern Washington on a trip to Christ the Savior Cathedral downtown. Often, when we host visitors, we try to resist the temptation to tell them everything we think we know about the people and places around them. From our own experience, we've learned that one of the greatest joys of travel involves coming into contact with a new culture, new ideas, and new traditions, and learning about those things first hand from the people who live there - that is what really creates a lasting impression and connection with any new place and people.
We've created a spiritual tourism guide for Moscow which embraces this concept based on the Field Observation Process (FOP) featuring first hand interaction with the places and traditions of Russia, all within the context of building new friendships with the people that live here. The first trip, Spiritual Tourism 101, involves two of Russia's most spiritual locations: Christ the Savior Cathedral and the underground metro system. (The first may be a pretty obvious spiritual center, but just try using the second during rush hour and see what kinds of spiritual realities emerge!)
Before emerging into Moscow's busy and beautiful downtown, we've already journeyed about 45 minutes through the dark underbelly of the city, practicing one of the key elements of the FOP, observation. It turns out, by nature, we're not very good observers. We tend to jump to our own conclusions, make hasty judgments, and focus on our own learned social norms rather than taking in what's going on around us. Riding the metro, we ask our spiritual tourists to do the following:
As you ride, make 20 observations each about how people speak/act/behave on the metro. Are they talking? Are they eating/drinking? Are they sleeping? Who sits? Who stands? How closely do they stand together? How do they prepare to get on or get off? What would you guess might be any unspoken norms about public transportation or public spaces here? As you ride, ask your teammates how you would phrase different questions to a Russian to learn more about social norms on public transportation. Come up with 3 questions to ask students later in the day to learn about this aspect of life in Russia.
At journey's end, our hope is that each tourist is more aware of their surrounding environment and approaches public spaces here in Russia as a learner rather than a skeptic. Learning to gather observations and ask insightful questions really seems an art (and a skill) that can foster depth and trust in any relationship, particularly cross culturally. And, as it turns out, the metro, a glimpse into the day to day life of Russians here provides the perfect jumping off point to dive into the depths of Russian spirituality and Orthodox traditions.
Arriving at the Cathedral, our spiritual tourists are asked to make observations about the outside of the Cathedral and also how others photograph the landmark. Venturing inside, here is the brief guide given to our tourists:
Once inside, take some time to just enjoy and admire what you find. After some time, take out your observation notes and make 15 observations about different things, rituals, or practices you observe around you. What are practices you’ve never observed before in your home church? What do you observe to be people’s general attitude at the church? What are questions you have about what you see? What do you want to know more about? As a team, quietly compare your observations, then once again outside the church, formulate some “spiritual tourism” questions you can ask Russian students about Orthodoxy and its traditions. Please be careful not to make assumptions about the reasoning behind what you see, instead, consider how you can ask about what you see and gain a fuller picture about faith and life here in Russia.
While exploring the interior of the Cathedral, Anna's first trip inside, we walked from place to place observing and formulating questions about what we saw around us. It was incredible to hear Anna respond to Orthodox traditions and practices, her observations were so interesting, different than mine (happily less prone to quick judgment and assumption as my "polished" eye,) and genuinely insightful. We paused for a while at this nativity icon. Anna wanted to name each figure and retell the story represented. We spent probably 20 minutes discussing the different people and elements, considering each's placement and why they were represented in this way. It was suddenly very easy for me to imagine oral faith stories passed generation to generation through pictures and histories when written word was not accessible to everyone. How remarkable to consider the pairs of eyes, the generations of eyes, just like ours, who have examined and shared this story before us today.
At the end of our journey, we were all full. Full of observations, questions, but also awe and a sense of shared experience and hope with a faith tradition that resonated on levels beyond culture and nationality. What a day. And what a start to many adventures to come.