A Cold Swim in a Sacred Spring
A Weekend in the Russian Countryside
Veliky Novgorod, Russia
This past weekend my wife and I were invited to join her brother and his wife along with three of his co-workers and their wives at another co-worker's summer home in the nearby Valday District.
The Valday District is a beautiful area of forests and lakes. It is so wonderful that the locals have a saying that above is Heaven and down here is Valday meaning that this is the best place one can find next to Heaven. And, it certainly is a nice area.
We were promised a typical Russian country weekend with an added extra of a swim in a sacred pool in the area on our way home on Sunday.
Sacred Springs in Russia
I haven't yet been able to learn the history behind the tradition of sacred spring and don't know if it is unique to the Russian Orthodox Church or Orthodox Churches in general.
As a Roman Catholic I am familiar with holy water and its uses in the Roman Catholic Church. I have learned that Orthodox churches have holy water but it is used differently than in the Roman Church.
My First Encounter with a Sacred Spring in Ryazan, Russia
On my last visit to Russia in 2002 to visit my then fiancee, Bella, I was taken by Bella and one of her girlfriends to a sacred spring in the Ryazan area.
This was shortly after the collapse of communism and the repealing of the Soviet laws outlawing religious practices.
As I recall, the place we visited was in the woods a short distance from Ryazan. There was a small Russian Orthodox Church with a couple of wooden buildings behind it. One was a little chapel and the other a bathhouse where people soaked in water from the spring. That water was either warm or at least not frigid as people were sitting soaking in it.
Times for men and women alternated so I presumed people completely undressed to soak in the water. I declined the offer to join the men's group and neither Bella nor her friend showed any interest in joining the women when their time came.
A little way away from the bathhouse was a second outlet for the spring - a stream of water coming out of the side of a small hill. Here Bella and her girlfriend joined others in filling the plastic water bottles they brought with them. They then took the water home for drinking.
The Spring Experience This Time was Different
I was warned before the weekend started that the spring would be cold and that we would swim in it.
Cold was an understatement. The water at this spring was about one degree short of freezing. In fact, it may have been below freezing but was kept from turning to ice by the constant motion of the spring.
Like the spring in Ryazan, this one was located in the woods with a small church in front.
We parked in an area behind the church and followed a short path along a spring fed stream to the spring itself.
Having worn our swimsuits under our clothes, we shed our clothes and joined other visitors by the little pier on one side of the spring.
As you can see from the picture, the pool formed by the spring is rather small, however, it was very deep and appeared bottomless.
The first of our group to go in simply climbed down the ladder attached to the pier until he was chest level in the pool. He then clung to a rung on the ladder and pulled his whole body under water three times and quickly exited.
I observed some people simply going under water three times while others dove in and swam to the pier on the other side. My brother-in-law dove in and swam across and, feeling that that may be the quickest way to complete the ritual, did the same.
While I probably made it across the pool in a minute or less, it seemed like an eternity and I was certain that my legs would be numb before I reached the other side thereby making it impossible to climb out of the pool.
However, I made it across successfully.
Gathering Water from The Second Spring
Despite the frigid water, once out I quickly warmed up and felt very refreshed.
However, my feeling of having accomplished this task was quickly dashed when I was informed that custom required that one make the swim (or dunking) three times. That was too much and I declined.
Bella, of course had made it clear before we left Novgorod that she was not going to participate in this frigid ritual.
We then set out down the path to a second, slightly smaller, but bottomless like the first one, spring to gather water. I followed a little way behind to take pictures while Bella gathered water in the bottle she had with her.
As we made it back toward the cars our host's wife informed a couple of others and me that, since we had not completed the required three immersions in the water, we had to have water from the second spring poured on our heads.
She then proceeded to douse the other two and me three times each from her two or three liter bottle containing the frigid water from the spring.
Custom apparently applied only to Russians and foreign visitors but not expats as Bella did not receive a dousing!
Just as in Ryazan, on the way home we ended up drinking the water we had collected. It was very good water and I especially enjoyed it as it was one of the first cold drinks I had had since leaving the U.S. as Russians generally serve beverages at room temperature.