This past Sunday, Heavenly Rest hosted a concert that featured pianist Leslie Spotz, who blew away the audience with her rendition of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Many of you are probably familiar with the orchestral version of Pictures, a programmatic suite that depicts Mussorgsky’s stroll through a museum that housed a collection of engravings by his late friend Victor Hartmann. The most famous movement of the piece is “The Great Gate of Kiev,” which has been adapted for orchestras, concert bands, and 1970s jam bands (I’m not even kidding). The majestic and thrilling music is meant to depict Hartmann’s drawing of a memorial gate that commemorated Czar Alexander II’s narrow escape from an assassination attempt. When one hears Mussorgsky’s music, one assumes that the gate must be absolutely spectacular, one of the jewels of the Russian Empire. But in spite of the exciting musical depiction, plans to build the actual gate were abandoned; there is no Great Gate of Kiev in real life. The structure survives only in Victor Hartmann’s design and Modest Mussorgsky’s music.
As a music fan and a history nerd, I found this revelation incredibly disappointing. Gone were all of my fantasies about visiting Kiev, stopping by the Great Gate, and running into someone who was also whistling the tune from the final movement of Pictures at an Exhibition, thus finding a transatlantic pen pal. There is no Great Gate to visit; it is a figment of some long-dead artist’s imagination. Or is it? For everyone who has ever played or heard the final movement of Mussorgsky’s most famous work, the Great Gate of Kiev is very real indeed. Anyone who has participated in a performance of Pictures has experienced the Great Gate of Kiev in a profoundly real way. While there is no physical structure, the genius of a Russian composer and the devotion of musicians and music lovers through the years means that the Great Gate of Kiev is something completely tangible and timeless, something we have the privilege of experiencing whenever we hear the music performed.
There are times in our lives of faith when we are plagued by doubt. There are times that we are uncertain about the presence of God in our lives. It would be easy to think of these moments of doubt as proof that God is not there or that God does not want to have a relationship with us. Yet, the Great Gate of Kiev demonstrates that we can have a profoundly real experience of something even when we doubt that it is there. Churchill Gibson, the chaplain at Virginia Theological Seminary for a number of years, was fond of saying, “Pray without ceasing, and when you can’t pray, say your prayers.” I think this is the perfect illustration of how we are called to nurture our relationship with God. God wants us to experience a relationship with God even in the midst of our doubts. In response, we are called to trust that this experience is real.