Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Helsinki gods

So after the previous day of finding peace in the woods and lakes of Saimaa, I set myself up for a day of tourism in the city. Deciding that I'd not seen enough of Helsinki and I should get my butt moving before all of my opportunities slipped away to see what my beautiful city had to offer, I hit up what I always hit up whenever I go to a new city - the cathedrals.

In Helsinki there are three major cathedrals or churches that are always recommended. The White Church (located at Senaatintori, otherwise known as Senate Square), the Russian Orthodox Church (known for its decadence and onion tops), and the Rock Church (which happens to be a block from where I live...known for its burnished copper dome).

So I set myself a plan to hit all three. Why not be ambitious, right?

I woke up early, refreshed from the extreme amount of nature I'd just been in, ready to do more peace-seeking. I made myself a croissant with jam, and off I went!

...into the absolute raining freezing cold. Oye, Helsinki, you've really got to get some better weather.

But I braved through it anyway, because by jove I was going to get to these cathedrals, damnit! Even if it took me the whole day!

But it didn't, because I know my way around town now...and I got lazy from the cold, so I took the tram there.

First stop? The White Church.

It actually took me a long time to figure out this was a church. I thought it was a government building for the longest time. Guess the name, Senate Square, threw me off, plus the fact that it just doesn't look, well...religious. It looks parliamentary. Maybe it's the pillars or the fact that it is just so white...something about it just doesn't scream religious.

There are indeed crosses at the top though, and they are in gold, so eventually I made the connection. Plus people in my friend group kept saying "the White Church" and there aren't many buildings in town that fit that description so, well, the connection was made.

Hong Kong P has whispered to me she wonders how they keep it so white. It's unnaturally white. Especially in a city that gets so much annual rainfall. There is no exception this year - in September we got more rain this year than we have in over 150 years. Yeah, that kind of rainfall.

Anyway, I made my way up the steep steps and took a look at one of Helsinki's most famous churches. It's very modern - only built in the early 1900s. Not particularly historical. Seemed very...functional, for lack of a better word.

The inside did nothing to calm my feelings about its lack of religiosity. My immediate reaction? That it was sterile. Really, really...sterile.

Beautiful, nonetheless, in its simplicity and minimalism, maybe...but...well, completely lack of anything but the feeling of extreme clean.

Maybe I'm too much of a sucker for the ways of old and extremely decadent, but it felt sort of...lacking. Where was the praise? I understand that there is beauty in being elemental, on focusing on what is only important...but somehow it felt like the glory wasn't there.

At the same time it felt very Finnish. Like this was a very Finnish response to religion. Why bother getting all fancy when you could just go to the root of the function? Well, fair enough. It does what it needs to do, it's gorgeous and clean, and it expresses everything that it should. There's Jesus. And no one needs to talk. It was silent in this church, pure and simple. Even when the bells rang for service (I was there around 11:30am on Sunday, after all, it was the simple tolling of a large bell and that was it. No ceremonial anything, just function.

And so I left, because it wasn't where I was supposed to be.

And went to the Russian Orthodox Church a few blocks away. A much more ostentatious but familiar affair.

I will say the Russians do always like to go in the complete opposite direction than the Finns - if it has a surface, it will be decorated to the nines. Sometimes overembellished...overly ornate. But I kind of love them for it. They do love showing the riches.

And this church was no exception. It was a lot smaller than the White Church, but much more sumptuous. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take pictures inside, and service was just about to start (I got shooed out about 20 minutes after entering...one of their religious men was already starting to talk to people who were sitting down).

What struck me as the oddest thing about this church, and maybe it shouldn't have, because this is definitely not the first Russian orthodox church I've been in (not by far), is that they never have places for people to really sit. The pew structure is not one that they've adopted. They have steps always leading up to the front, the entire thing has little altars around the walls where various icons and items of value are set up so people can light candles and kiss them...but there are very few places to sit and listen to service. Invariably, because of the way the buildings are built, there are pillars cutting through the building (which do tend to be on the smaller side, in comparison to their Catholic or other counterparts), and it is around these pillars that they build benches. But other than that, and perhaps some fold out seats along the very back wall, there is no seating. I've always wondered about that. Perhaps their services are quite small and their worshipers come in on their own time. One of these days I'm sure I'll find out.

Anyway, this church was gorgeous on the inside, as I figured it would be. Small, smoky, and completely filled with detail. Gilded frames, thin beeswax candles, jeweled items everywhere...every surface that could be covered was, and everything was important. Even the floor was tiled in a pattern, which is standard as far as I've seen in other Russian orthodox churches. Bejeweled, gilded...a cache. An collection of art and religious pieces.

After I was shooed out I started walking back to the center of town to catch a tram back to my neighborhood to get to the Rock Church. By then it was drizzling again and the temperature was really starting to drop. I decided to walk though, having had my mind set to peace with the last religious experience, and by the time I reached Stockmann, I had reached the conclusion that I was hungry and it was time to go home and contemplate.

And so my day of Helsinki gods had come to an end. I'll seek out the Rock Church (ever so close, and I hear it's glorious during the holiday season because they fill the copper dome ceiling with stars and hold concerts there...something I intend to witness myself) some other day.

Thanks once again, Helsinki. I've seen yet another side of you. And I still want to see more.

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