The local vicar of the Orthodox church had popped into the farm one Sunday with his wife to buy some flour. We got talking about mormons, as you do, and he was jokingly repenting for sinning on the Sabbath by drinking locally-brewed beer. I liked them a lot.
“Come and visit us at the church one day,” they said.
So we did.
When me Marju and the children arrived, Argo, the priest, was cutting the grass. “Cutting the grass is fun for the first five minutes and then so boring,” he told us as he uncurled his full 195cm height from the lawnmower to don his priestly robes and show us around the church. He and his lovely wife Marina sang a hymn for us, explaining that there is no instrumental ornamentation in Orthodox songs. Voices are considered enough. I have come to love the sound of the religious harmonies. Sing, sing on!
Together with the kids, we lit some candles at the icon-covered screen on the dais dividing the church from the nave. Everything has significance in Orthodoxy. You have to place your candle in front of the saint, bishop, nun or holy figure that you think will best serve your needs. Obviously I went for the Big J trump. But…he was on the dias.
“You’re supposed to cross yourself as you step down,” they smiled. “Not everyone is allowed up there.”
Whoops. I reasoned that it isn’t a big deal for a non-believer to follow the rituals out of respect. At least, I wasn’t struck down so I’ll take that as a good sign. You hold your thumb and forefingers together – three fingers that signify the father, son and the holy ghost – and press the other two against your palm – signifying earthly Jesus and heavenly Jesus. Then you make the internationally famous cross sign: touch your head for God in your thoughts, your stomach for God in your heart (artistic licence) and your two shoulders for God in all your actions and deeds.
The full bow that he demonstrated looked a lot like Muslim prayer to me but that didn’t go down too well with Argo when I mentioned it. He also thinks that Mormonism is a joke. I think that it’s just a descendent of Christianity and only slightly more ridiculous but I kept that to myself. I am interested in religion, even if I’m a heathen. I can understand the concept and to my mind there is obviously a role for it in humanity.
“I was saved when I was 17. Not from a fire or anything; I mean that’s when I realised I loved God.”
Now, conversations like this often make me uncomfortable but somehow when the talk is so matter-of-fact and injected with humour, it is still interesting. I found the discussion about whether the Virgin Mary was getting any less comfortable. Don’t ask me how we got onto that subject. I think it stemmed from a casual remark from Argo about Jesus having a half or step-brother and how Mary was a distant cousin of Joseph’s (common practice in those times). In the same conversation he mentioned how it was tradition if a man died for his brother to take and care for his wife. “But what if all the brothers die,” Argo asked? “It was a question raised in the Bible. When they all get to heaven, whose wife is she?!” Big J did a classic Alistair Campbell swerve, saying that earthly relationships don’t count in heaven. Well played.
“Will you come for some tea?” they offered. Yes we would.
On the way across the garden we stopped in for a look at their antique sauna. Almost everyone in Estonia has a sauna – they used to function as bathrooms. If you don’t have one in your house, you nip round to your neighbour’s for a weekly(ish) scrub-together. The church has two buildings alongside it that were originally built for the priest and his assistant. When the Soviets came, they gave half the priest’s house to the local teacher so the current occupants have been ousted to the assistant’s house, comprising two rooms and a kitchen.
“What are these?” I asked, smoothing the large squares of wood leaning against one wall.
“Oh. I sew.” he replied. “I make all the robes and things for the church. Those are very good for cutting out patterns.” Of course he sews.
Tea and biscuits were served. We chatted.
“Are you a spy?” he laughed as Marju told him about the desert marathon and my recent trip to Russia.
“Yes. And I’m watching you…”
“Ha! I only ask because I used to be head of Intelligence in the Estonian military. I was in charge of a Brigade of 5,000 men.”
“Now he only has me to boss around,” added Marina. “I have to do the work of 5,000!”
This man fascinated me.
It turned out that after Gorbachev’s glasnost policies the religious factions has been emboldened and started to demonstrate in pursuit of religious freedom. Set in their ways, the Russian authorities did not like this and started to apply pressure. Argo and Marina escaped to Sweden with their four girls, where Marina stayed for five years. Argo, however, returned after two years when he judged it to be safe enough. He joined the fledgling military volunteers and helped to build the training force.
It saw him and the family move to America for a couple of years when he was appointed as an assistant to the Estonian president in NATO. While working at NATO he had met an Estonian who had escaped to the States under the Soviet invasion and had seen active service in Vietnam, some so unspeakable that he has never mentioned it again. He did, however, manage to access and pinch some high-level papers about interrogation techniques. Still a devoted Estonian at heart, he was delighted to meet Argo and duly passed the highly confidential papers to him in order to build Estonia’s proud military.
“Do you know how the Germans got information out of parachutists they captured during the Second World War?
“They had a stately home. They fed the prisoners very well each night. They gave them cognac and cigars each evening. After a while, they just gloated the information out. The Germans didn’t even have to try.
“Of course, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of time. Then you just have to beat the man. Sometimes to death.”
We moved on to the subject of MDS training. “The fitness isn’t a problem,” he said. “It’s your feet that could break you. After that long, your skin will be so tender that you feet will be reduced to the lumps of meat that they actually are.”
He told me that I need to invest in military socks that wick moisture up the leg so it can dry and that I should stop every hour, take a ten minute break and change them. It’s the same advice that he would offer troops during training. “Those that followed it would make it and be ready to fight at the end. Those that thought they were hard and said ‘this is bullshit’ would be crying like babies at the end of the march and good for nothing.
“Get some like this,” he rolled up his trouser leg and pointed at his own pair. “I’ve been wearing these since 1994.”
“You should probably wash them.”
While we’re on the subject of churches, Poide church is also in the neighbourhood. It’s a church-cum-fortress and has been a site of worship since 1227. On the same day as the Soviet invasion (so I was told), lightening hit the steeple, burnt it off and fired an enormous crack down the side of the tower. You can still see it today.