The Solovetsky Archipelago is less than 200 miles from the North Circle. To the North-East of the main Solovetsky island, silent and beaten by rabid winds, is Anzer – the isle of the Solovets hermits. Here, on a small peninsula, merely a few metres narrow and completely open to the sea is the small Cell of St Kirill of the New Lake. The storms have wiped all trees from this strip of land – nothing survives here, except small tundra bushes, mushrooms and wild berries. And one hermit, who is not even a monk, because he does not think himself worthy to wear the monastic habit.
I don’t know why I am beginning this series of posts from my current pilgrimage to Russia with this small Cell, almost entirely unknown even to the experienced Russian pilgrims. This has been a difficult year for me, consumed with finishing the repairs to our church, buying the monastery house and six weeks of leading pilgrimages to the Isles of Scotland. Slowly but visibly, as the summer lost its strength, so did I – forgive me for disappearing for a while, but this is the only way to keep going.
We met Anatoly, the hermit fisherman, at the end of a long day hiking on Anzer. It took close to twelve hours to cross the isle and pray in some of its sketes and hermit cells. There is nothing here, at the Cell – no golden domes, no beautiful lakes, no trees to shelter and soothe. Bare earth, bare sea, bare sky – the skeleton of God’s creation, the naked bones against which all else seem un-necesary details.
In fact, the Solovetsly Archipelago is very much like the Celtic Isles. They share the same rough nakedness of nature that almost forces one to see one’s own spiritual ‘skeleton’. The bones of one’s spiritual life become perfectly visible in these places, as do the un-necesary details.
Anatoly lives here alone. He welcomes us with hardly any words and lets us go and pray in the small wooden chapel of the Cell. By the time we get back to his hut, there is tea and cloud-berry jam on the table, but he does not stay with us as we eat. When we leave, he brings us gifts: fresh fish for Mother Nikona, our guide from the Monastery, and wild mushrooms for the rest of us. There is love in Anatoly’s heart, and there is also deep silence. I understand his fight to balance the two. I know that they feed one from the other: love feeds silence, and silence feeds love, because they both spring from the same source: a human heart’s longing for Christ.
Survival in these places is carried on a thin edge between Life and Death. All things – material and spiritual – are clearly divided between those which have real substance (those which are vital, alive, life-giving) and those which exist only to hide our compromises. There can be no grey area if one is to survive – physically and spiritually – in such a place. There can be no compromise, no game to play with one’s conscience. Life is Life, and Death is Death. There is nothing in between. This becomes painfully obvious here – if there seems to be something in between, it is only a delusion, a temptation, a void.
Survival in these places is carried on a thin edge between Life and Death, but my heart craves to stay put on this thin edge because here all things are simple. Here, all things are crystal clear. Here, Christ is as close to me as the skin of my own heart.