She was a wisp of a woman, greatly advanced in years, wrapped in a plain gray coat, and with a simple scarf covering her head. She slipped into the building unnoticed, except by me.
I had never traveled internationally before and was spending my first full day in St. Petersburg, Russia. Since the conference at which I was to speak would not begin until the next day, my host graciously proposed a driving tour of the magnificent city. Along the way, we came to a Russian Orthodox Church, and our driver was instructed to stop so that I could see the beautiful icons therein.
As we entered, I was immediately captivated by the religious imagery all around me. I walked from icon to icon drinking in the stories each piece told – familiar stories given new life by an artist’s hand. In another part of the church, a wedding rehearsal was taking place; and, that too drew my attention as I considered the sacred covenant for which two young people were preparing.
At one point, the main door opened just enough to allow the old woman to enter. I’m not sure why I felt drawn to watch her, but I did. She crept along the wall purposefully, approaching a life-size icon of Jesus on the cross. Once there, this frail woman, who had grown up amidst state-enforced atheism, who had survived Stalin’s murderous reign, who had endured the terrible blockade of her city by the Germans during World War II, and who – no doubt – dealt every day with crushing poverty, knelt and humbly kissed the feet of her Christ. I was awestruck – and, honestly, a bit ashamed.
Since that day, I have visited many countries and seen many memorable sights. None has ever moved me more.