Occasional thoughts on my spiritual journey
I hesitate to relate the following story, as it is entirely subjective. The particulars are true to me, but that is as far as it goes. With that caveat, I will proceed.
My friend, Bill and I traveled to Bulgaria in 2003. We were both frequent-flyer-mile rich and cash poor. I suggested Bulgaria, half in jest at first, as an inexpensive destination. Yet, the more we thought about it, the more excited we became about going there.
Of course, it was in Bulgaria that I first came into contact with the Orthodox Christian faith. The most noted tourist destination in Sofia is the Alexander Nevski Cathedral--an immense pile capped with dome upon dome. I thought the interior to be dark and cavernous, illumined here and there by candles. As my eyes became more accustomed to the dim light, I began to appreciate more what surrounded me. The walls and domes were covered in murals depicting biblical scenes. I grew dizzy as I following the biblical story to the depiction of Heaven on the domes.
I began to observe the worshippers. They would come in, cross themselves, take a few candles and then make their way around to the various icon stands. There they would light their candles, cross themselves, bow, kiss the icon and then move on to the next one. I particularly watched one young man before an icon of the Virgin Mary and Child. He slowly crossed himself in wide, sweeping motions, then bowed and touched the ground. He did this 3 times. He then stood silently for a while, obviously in prayer. He then kissed the icon and moved on to another.
As I was taking all this in, I realized that this flew in the face of everything I ever thought I knew about the Christian faith. My logical, rational, intellectualizing, Protestant/Restorationist faith told me that all this was mere superstitious nonsense; idol worshipping of the worst sort; formalistic and ritualistic and not at all heart-felt. I knew with certainty the derision these actions would elicit back home. But my heart told me something different. I had caught a glimpse of something rarely seen in American public or religious life--genuine reverence and humility.
But the moment passed. We moved on and strolled over to the City Park, where we enjoyed a Zagorka and watched the old men play chess.
Two days later, we found ourselves at the Rila Monastery, wedged in a narrow mountain valley in southwestern Bulgaria. The monastery is Bulgaria's Mount Vernon, Lincoln Monument, Gettysburg and Mount Rushmore rolled all into one. Here, more than anywhere else, the Bulgarian monks and patriots preserved their faith and culture through 500 long, long years of Turkish oppression.
The Rila Church is a colorful, though modest-sized chapel, located within the walls of the fortress-like monastery compound. I suppose I was a somewhat jaded traveler. I was familiar with St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral, Yorkminster, St. Gile's Kirk, Notre Dame, St. Denis, Mount St. Michel, St. Trophime and even Zwingli's Grossmunster. I took them all in stride--appreciative, but not really affected; my iconoclastic ideals remaining firmly entrenched.
But nothing prepared me for this small chapel in rural Bulgaria. Every inch of the interior seemed covered in murals and icons--with the entire redemptive story of God's dealings with mankind laid out before me. Innumerable candles (as I then realized represented prayer) flickered everywhere. And before the altar was an incredible golden iconostasis. I could not "tag" this church as I had the cathedrals of western Europe. In fact, I could only take a half step at a time. I was overcome with awe, and a sense that here was something very, very authentic; here was something very, very special; indeed here was something holy. I had never felt this before, and certainly not in any church.
Bill and I walked out of the church and continued our travels, much as before. I doubt I fully realized it then, but I walked out of there a different man. In time, this holy place would work its change on me.