January 2006


Atheist at the Church

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

Originally uploaded by elmada.

The first time I ever felt like an atheist at the church was when I first visited the Indianapolis Speedway—home of the Indy 500, the Brickyard 400, and (maybe) the US Formula 1 Grand Prix.

I still remember the trip quite clearly: I was searching for any redeeming feature of Indianapolis and thought to myself, if 250,000 people can attend an auto race, surely I could visit the Speedway on a non-race day.

Suffice it to say, I was an Atheist at the Church: I had no clue what I was seeing, and not only did I have no clue, I never believed. I have but two significant memories of the Speedway: The first is a car from the Speedway’s museum—one that traveled 500 miles without stopping to refuel—basically it was a humongous gas tank on wheels with a motor. The second was when a kid, a true believer, boarded the bus to drive around the racetrack—and he knew all the race drivers names, for which team they drove, and other ancillary factoids that I really didn’t give a rat’s ass about—and still don’t.

There have been a other times when I have felt out of place (See: Corvette Museum, Heterosexual Nightclubs), but I haven’t had the same “Atheist at the Church” feeling until Kyiv, when Katya and I visited the Cave Monasteries.

We visited the Cave Monasteries after touring the Kyiv-Pechersky Cultural Preserve, which is where we saw two historic churches, a rebuilt church, and mico-miniature sculptures. We had a tour of the cultural preserve where one of the more interesting things I learned was that during the Soviet era, the grounds had been an anti-religion museum, and one of the facilities sported a sign that announced “Monks are the enemy of the working class.” Katya was so taken aback by the English translation of the sign that she asked what it said in the original Ukrainian, reporting back that the translation was the best possible.

Basically the Cave Monasteries, or Kiev Pechersk Lavra, have been around since 1051. We heard the stories about the earliest Monks while touring the Cultural Preserve, and once we had finished we descended down the hill and into the actual monastery—along the way seeing the warning sign (above).

The Monastery is home for the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and attracts a large number of true believers who purchase candles, light them, enter the caves, and then have a religious experience.


I, on the other hand, lit my candle, entered the cave and wondered what on earth would possess anybody to live in a cave sacrificing for God. I wasn’t certain how living your life in a cave, sleeping on rocks, and reading the Bible really benefited society (not that I would say doing so causes one to become the enemy of the working class, but still… I have wondered how the poor in Mexico benefit from the building of churches instead of health care).

I didn’t say anything as we walked through both sets of the caves—we were denied entrance to the true believers part of the cave (no surprise there), but did not stop us from witnessing several devout believers who were in tears as they kissed the tombs of different monks, as well as paintings, wide spots in the caves, and other religiously significant points.

As much as I could, I remained quiet and respectful as I toured the caves because it was clear to me that I could not in any way shape and/ form relate to the experience that the true believers were having—and I kept having flashbacks to the Indianapolis Speedway.

Which reminds me: Indianapolis does have but two redeeming features: The Children’s Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians & Western Art. However, I wouldn’t live in Indy for either one—36 hours ought to cover both and allow you a trip to Aesop’s Table, the best restaurant in the city, plus a sampling of decent nightlife in the city—which I am sure must exist somewhere. I’m just not sure where.

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