When I first visited Vetka in 2001, the focus for the Orthodox congregation was a small wooden church on one of the roads out of town. It was badly in need of repair. The priest told me that work had started on a new construction in the middle of town, but that the project had come to a halt when the source of funds dried up. Each time that I returned, the half-built shell and surrounding building site felt like a metaphor for all of the infrastructural problems that beset the people of this country. And then, out of the blue, I arrived in town after an absence of 12 months to find the church complete, its golden domes glinting in the sunshine. It was to be consecrated during my visit by the head of the Orthodox Church in Belarus, none other than the Metropolitan Filaret of All Belarus himself, and when I went to see the Chief Executive of Vetka Executive Committee, Viktor Burakov, to update him on developments with our joint sustainability programmes, I was humbled to receive an invitation to attend.
The day of the ceremony dawned bright, with a cloudless blue sky. We made our way to the church and were greeted by a mass of local people. As we were led through, our eyes fell upon two trails of wild fl owers, freshly picked, that lay along the sides of the path from the entrance gates, up the steps and into the church itself, leading all the way to the iconostasis. The riot of colour and the heady aroma presented a glorious living display. Inside, people were crammed shoulder to shoulder, and together we waited over an hour for the filaret’s entourage to arrive.Then, without any warning other than a series of urgent whispers that reached us in a wave from the gates, the invisible choir in the gallery above burst into life with a soaring, a cappella Divine Liturgy that sent a tingle all the way up my spine and made my heart want to burst with joy.
There was a huge surge as the procession came into view, with priests in ascending order of seniority and bedecked in astonishingly ornate robes to match their status, all of them with huge spade beards, extravagantly swinging incense holders as if their lives depended upon it, responding to the liturgy with chants of their own. Constantly and urgently, people all around me were muttering, bowing their heads, eyes to the ground and crossing themselves incessantly, almost obsessively. It was impossible not to be caught up and swept away by the tide of mysticism and ancient, holy ritual that was washing over us all. Then the filaret himself appeared, head high, exuding sacred power and influence, his gaze slowly passing over every corner of the congregation. Wherever his gaze rested, if only for an instant, people crossed themselves even more frantically than they had before (if that were possible), while His Holiness periodically responded with the slightest of inclinations of his head.
The entire process of consecration took almost two hours. At one point, the filaret blessed each of the walls with holy water flung from the bristles of an enormous brush, like something a decorator would use. At least twice, he changed his robes. To do so, he stood in the middle of the congregation, on a slight dais, while junior priests solemnly and reverently removed each layer of robe for him and replaced it with another. Once, he reached inside and produced a magnificent comb with a flourish, before proceeding to preen his flowing beard, deliberately, slowly and with more than a slight air of superiority.
When it was all over, we accompanied him to the local restaurant, where the tables were creaking under the weight of food and vodka. The priests came too. At various points throughout the meal, they broke into spontaneous, soaring a cappella harmonies, delivered ever louder and with more gusto as each empty vodka bottle was replaced by another full one. The celebration lasted long into the afternoon, until the filaret decided it was time to go. In an instant he was out of his seat and, after blessing all those assembled before him, he swept out of the room like a ship in full sail, his entourage trailing behind. An extraordinary day.