WASHINGTON -- Ten years ago, I was traveling with a group of international journalists up the Volga River to investigate the long-closed "Old Russia" of great monastery settlements that ruled Russia from the 10th century until communism. And we found ourselves starting out from Yaroslavl, about five hours east of Moscow.
It was a lovely city, and I was particularly enchanted by the exquisite cupolas of several Russian Orthodox churches rising above the river. "How beautiful," I thought. Then, before sailing, our guide showed us prints of the "Old Yaroslavl" in a museum.
"You should have seen the pre-Revolutionary Yaroslavl," Valery said sadly as he showed us the images lost in reality. "It looked like a fairy-tale city. There were 77 practicing Orthodox churches, six monasteries, two Roman Catholic churches, one Protestant church, four synagogues and three mosques."
At this, I was breathless, thinking of how rich in beauty this city must have been!
Indeed, this was one of the founts of the "Third Rome," the idea that, after Rome and Istanbul (Constantinople), Russia was the third great center of religious learning. Then came communism in 1917, Joseph Stalin in the 1930s -- and destruction.
"They couldn't destroy it all," Valerie explained. "So now we have 22 active Orthodox churches -- but none of the rest."
I bring up this experience now because Christmas is just days away, and I think the loss of places of worship profoundly affects the celebration of Christ's birth.
Think only of the loss of beauty. Imagine what Yaroslavl would be like with 77 Orthodox churches with their graceful onion domes rising above the river, along with monasteries, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, synagogues and mosques. People would sing out in joy at the very glimpse of such spiritual riches.
This also made me think more broadly. Even for people like Christopher Hitchens, renowned author and avowed atheist who died this week, never for a moment giving up his hearty denial of God's existence, the aesthetics of Christmas must, at some level, have moved him.
Thus I wonder, that even if you have the chutzpah to deny God -- and don't blame me, I do not -- how can you imagine a world without churches or synagogues? And how can you live intellectually in a world of ideas and principles, where so many references lead you eventually back to the Bible -- and not acknowledge religious thought?
The splendid architecture of churches, outlined across the early evening skies of Yaroslavl -- or San Francisco or Pusan -- tells us aesthetically that God is there, with us at least in form.
Think of how the hard-line, destructive Soviets tried after 1917 to destroy every vestige of religion in Soviet Russia. In Moscow, the great Church of Christ the Savior was demolished for a "people's" swimming pool. And this destruction of institutions representing the highest of human beings' dreams and faith was nothing new. When the Mongols came sweeping out of the east in the 12th century, they destroyed all the churches in "Christian Kiev," leaving only mountains of skulls and cutting off, until the post-1991 age, Kiev's budding relations with Western Europe.
The Soviets were endlessly creative when it came to humiliating their people and to humbling their churches. In town after town, churches were made into grain storage places and, sometimes, museums of atheism.
The destruction of churches has marked history for centuries. The Muslims destroyed the Christian churches in the Middle East; and the Christians fought back with the Crusades, with children wading into the Mediterranean for the "Children's Crusade." It was always more the physical symbols that the outsiders were trying to destroy or diminish, rather than the more difficult-to-absorb writings of the faith.
I kept wondering that day in Yaroslavl, when I saw that lovely city stripped of its most beautiful buildings, about how empty the world would be without churches. Indeed, the Soviets showed us the criminal emptiness that would be the next step.
The years from 1917 to 1991, when the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist, were years of destruction and emptiness -- and the churches came first. So it was in China after the Revolution; so it was in South Asia; so it has been throughout history. And among the first things the Russian regime undertook after 1991 was the gigantic job of rebuilding Christ the Savior in Moscow.
So I am obsessed this Christmas with the idea that, first, we should look hard at our churches -- at the outer structural forms of our faiths -- and wonder what kind of a world we would have without them. Then we should listen to what the prophets were trying to tell us about the core principles of our faiths.
Surely that would enrich us in our personal lives -- and might also greatly enrich us in our public and political lives.