Wednesday, August 25, 2010
2010 Travel Notes #14: Return to Rila
This post is perhaps the hardest one that I will write in this series. Describing the Monastery of St. John of Rila—“the Jerusalem of Bulgaria”—is in itself, not a problem. The difficulty lies in the fact that I have been here before, and more importantly, that prior visit turned out to be a life-changing experience for me. Anything I write now will, of necessity, be set in the context of my initial impression.
On June 6, 2003, I walked into the monastery church as a traveler who was simply visiting Bulgaria’s most noted national monument. Even today, Bulgaria is hardly on the beaten-path of mainstream tourism. Any traveler who purposely finds their way to this country will almost invariably make the trek out to Rila. And so, I arrived as a tourist without an agenda or any expectations. If I was “searching” for anything, I certainly had no consciousness of it. When I walked out of the church, my life was headed in a different direction, though it would be some time before I could begin to comprehend what had happened.
In retrospect, I have sometimes wondered if I have put too much emphasis on my experience here—if I have somehow constructed a “back story” to fit the new realities of my life. I do not think I have, thought I am careful to avoid embellishing the story in its retelling. But when you get right down to it, Rila Monastery in June of 2003 marked a distinct division in my life. In my mind, the demarcation is clear--there is everything that happened beforehand, and now all that has transpired since.
I am hesitant to relate the events of 2003, for in so doing I might edge too closely to that dreaded, cliché-ridden Journey to Orthodoxy conversion story. At one time, these stories were something of a cottage industry in Orthodox circles. I have been blogging for nearly five years now. Back in the foolishness and immaturity of my first year or so, perhaps I posted one myself. Now that I know better, I am too embarrassed to search back and check. From time to time, I have certainly alluded to my first exposure to Orthodoxy, but it has always been in a tangential manner, never head-on.
Conversion stories are tricky to pull off. First, they are, by definition, intensely personal things. For Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, the retelling of their particular “journey” (to use a much over-used word) often comes off sounding terribly self-absorbed. When we resort to recounting our particular beliefs, or our thoughts, or our feelings, or our angst or our individual experiences in the context of our coming to the Faith, this can appear, despite our best efforts, as just more Protestant self-centeredness. In Orthodoxy, the spotlight is never on us as individuals. There’s never any of this “just me and Jesus” business to it. We are there, to be sure, but with the Trinity, and the Theotokos, and the cherubim and the seraphim, and the angels, the saints and martyrs and the whole host of heaven, and my brothers and sisters in Christ. It can be crowded at times. All I am saying is that for ex-Protestants who have become Orthodox, there is a much greater need to start praying, rather than to keep on talking about how you found the Faith.
Some fall to the temptation to present your particular, specific experience as a template for others to emulate. It seldom works that way in real life. The human heart is a profound mystery. Who is to say what will change one and leave the other heart unmoved? And so, my experience at Rila Monastery should not be seen as any “Path to Orthodoxy,” but simply as the way I stumbled into the Faith.
Also, conversions can be messy things, particularly when it involves severing ties with a strong tradition that may very well include long-standing connections with family and friends. In my case, the messiness was compounded, as I left a tightly-knit family and restorationist group that firmly believed that it was The church. In the construction of these conversion stories, we are tempted to cast ourselves in the most noble light possible. Certainly our motives were pure and right. Those we left were selfish and petty. We heap praise on those searching souls like ourselves who had the wisdom and insight to find our way to the Apostolic Faith. Those we leave behind are invariably small-minded and narrow. If the path we have chosen is the one of enlightenment, surely the path we left was that of darkness. And so it goes. One is hard-pressed to tell a conversion story without resorting to self-justification. And to the listener, this need to continually retell one’s conversion story may leave the impression that there is still unfinished business, as they say, with the former church.
For these and other good reasons, I have held back from writing at length about any of this. But my experience at Rila was not nearly the whole story, only the spark. Seven years have passed now—perhaps enough time to put events in their proper perspective. My friend and I were traveling on the cheap that year, with frequent-flyer miles, rather than cash, burning a hole in our pockets. Under these circumstances, Bulgaria fit us to a tee. We flew to Istanbul, where we boarded the creaky old Balkan Express for a night train ride to Sofia. I had done my research, and allocated a few days in Sofia, two days in Veliko Turnovo and environs, and a day-trip to Rila. Under the wheel of our rental car, I piloted us safely out of the city centre. Before long, we were well into the countryside. The pot-holed highways and the presence of horse-drawn wagons soon opened our eyes to the realities of Bulgarian driving. We passed the ruins of collective farms and industrial plants, as farmers harvested their hay by hand and vendors sold fresh cherries and other produce along the roadside. But this bucolic scenery soon gave way to the dramatic, for the monastery lies nestled deep in a mountain valley.
When one suddenly comes upon the complex, it is as if your have approached a fortress, rather than a monastery. Frankly, it seems strange to say this now, but we had never been to a monastic institution, and had no expectations, so the sheer walls of the enclosure, rising four stories, did not surprise us, particularly. What we did realize, however, was that our journey out here had been a wise use of our time.
Once inside, the walls, we knew the church was going to be like nothing we had ever experienced before. The portico that wrapped around three sides was completely covered in frescoes—every inch of every wall and in the domed ceilings as well. Even as unused as we were to this sort of thing, we could easily determine that the entire biblical story was laid out for us to see—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Archangel Michael, Lazarus and the Rich Man, the fiery chariot of Elias, the Last Judgment with the Pharisees being pulled down to Hell by the demons, etc. I became dizzy looking up at the domed ceilings and trying to determine the scenes depicted.
And then we stepped inside the church. This, I was really unprepared for. I was no neophyte when it came to European churches—or so I thought. Having been to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Winchester Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, Yorkshire Cathedral, St. Giles Kirk, Notre Dame, St. Chappelle, St. Denis, Mont St. Michel, St. Trophime in Arles, and Grossmunster, I was prepared to approach the subject at hand in the manner of a thoughtful, informed traveler. I would walk around the interior of the church, have a long look at the artwork—chin in hand—and then move on, remembering enough of the quaint peculiarities to discuss it at the café later on, or should someone actually inquire back home.
My friend and I were also coming at Rila from different religious angles. He was (is) a disgruntled Anglican, at that time in absentia, in protest of the standard Episcopalian absurdities. He is now grudgingly at home in the ACNA. While he espoused the High Church Anglican line, I have come to realize that his sensibilities are all Low Church evangelical. Without being too critical of my friend, I think he would be content if the Episcopal Church would just go back to the days without women priests (and this would take care of the openly gay ones, as well, for you are not going to have the latter in a church that forbids the former), use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, with all the men appropriately suited-up, the homilies kept short, and not made to otherwise intrude into one’s life. I, on the other hand, was an elder in the Church of Christ, a restorationist group that had, we taught, “restored the New Testament Church” in the early years of the 19th-century. As a practical matter, this consisted of running the Faith through the wringer of Lockeian scientific rationalism until every bit of joy and beauty had been wrung out of it (as I have since come to understand.) Our church buildings were utilitarian by design, intentionally sterile and clinical, devoid of any crosses or Christian art, though we seemed inordinately fond of red carpeting and dark paneling. So, while I had naturally appreciated the beauty of the artwork and architecture within western European churches, I was conditioned to look askance at it, seeing it as totally unnecessarily to the “simple Gospel” we believed we had restored. And those were the presuppositions we each held as we stepped inside.
But to get to the point: as I walked into the church at Rila—for the first time in my life—I was overcome with the realization that I was in a place that was…holy. This was not based on the beauty of the church—for there was that, to be sure. Unlike the Cathedral of Aleksandar Nevsky with its iconography darkened by the soot of decades of candles, the frescoes inside Rila were vivid and alive. From eye-level, up the walls, into the 5 domes, the iconography enveloped you in the story of God’s love and redemption of mankind. The golden iconostasis was simply incredible. And the flickering of candles—everywhere—illumined both the icons and the iconostasis. Admittedly, this was something I had never experienced before, but I was hardly swept away by this Eastern exoticism. No, there was more to it than that. Considering my background, I had never considered that a place, or things, could be sanctified or holy. As one of our former preachers has since observed, “I was a poor fit for the Church of Christ.” Even so, I never really questioned our utilitarian stance. We might have sentimental attachment to a particular church building, but that was all it was. What mattered was the Word, and we encountered that Word between leather-bound covers. Only.
That a place could be made holy by the prayers of the Faithful was a foreign concept to me. And now I see that I (we) had never come to grips with the full implications of the Incarnation—of God becoming flesh. With us, the Christian faith was very much an intellectual construct, something we deduce from Scripture, and then verify and re-verify by proof texting. This in no way discounts the sincere faith and piety of many within my former church; I am just stating how--for us--it was never experiential. And as hard as we tried--and believe me, we tried very, very hard—at the end of it, we had just put on another show. The sermon might have been thought-provoking, and the singing uplifting and we might have hunkered-down and really thought about the Cross as the Communion tray was being passed around, but in the end, nothing happened. Maybe deep down I already sensed that, but the realization of it did not begin for me until this day in Rila. I advanced into the church a half step at a time. There was no way I could approach it in the normal tourist manner. I would take a step and stop. I never knew that holiness could be something you could actually feel.
I did not know exactly what to make of all this. But I did know this one thing--that God was in this place. This was, as they say, the real deal. Now, to my old Church of Christ friends who might be reading this (and there are a few, I suspect), they will shake their heads and say that I just got carried away with emotion. I did get carried away, but not by emotion. Authenticity is not validated by the mere claiming of it. What had happened to me was that I had stumbled into the Church that simply “is” what my old church strove so mightily to become.
While standing there, I remembered something I had seen from the day before at the Cathedral of Aleksandar Nevsky. I was not accustomed to people coming into a church simply for the purpose of praying. Sure, we prayed in church, but we only went to the building for services, never just to pray. And so, I was standing near the back of the sanctuary, watching people come in from the street. I noticed that they would buy candles and then go light them in front of the icon stands (I do not think I even knew enough at that point to know that they were icon stands.) But anyway, I watched a young man in his early twenties approach an icon stand near the front of the sanctuary. I remember how he looked--he had a dark complexion as most Bulgarians, somewhat lanky (one saw few obese people in 2003 Bulgaria), wearing jeans, tennis shoes, etc.—in short a typical young person. I watched him as he crossed himself in slow, sweeping motions and then touched the floor. Three times. And then he bent down and kissed the glass covering the icon, and lingered there just a moment. Witnessing that, at that moment, revealed something about the true nature of reverence, and of worship—something I have never learned in 25 years of being “in church.” When he left, I walked over to the icon stand and saw that it was of the Virgin Mary. And the next day in Rila, I remembered his devotion. As I said, I was not sure what to do with all this—the clouds did not suddenly part and everything became crystal clear. But, as I turned to leave, I now knew the reality of the Church was far more than I had ever contemplated, and that there were places sanctified and made holy by the prayers of the Faithful, and that there was a way in which worship and reverence could truly, authentically take place.
My friend and I walked out of the church, each affected, though in different ways. My friend was impressed by the sheer beauty of the church and its natural surroundings, but it went no further than that. I, on the other hand, had been deeply moved. Our travels would resume their natural course, and once home, I returned to my normal routine of home, work and church. But Rila was always in the back of my consciousness, and other dominoes would soon fall.
There were some of my thoughts as I made my way to Rila again, seven years later. Coming from Plovdiv, I charted another “shortcut” through the Pirin Mountains. Here, I experienced the worse roads Bulgaria has to offer, I must say, and I probably averaged little better than 25 miles per hour. But there was plenty to hold your interest. The road followed a narrow-gauge railroad, and I had the pleasure of seeing the two-car train pass me in a mountain valley. Surprisingly, many of the isolated villages I passed through were Muslim, and many of these peasants were out selling honey and fruit along the roadside. But after a while I tired of this, anxious to get to Rila, and the main Sofia-Thessaloniki highway was a welcome sight.
I mentally prepared myself not to be disappointed, for the return visit could never compare with the first. But I should not have been worried, Rila never fails to impress. The only disappointment was outside the monastery itself. Outside the north wall of the monastery, there is a clutch of outdoor cafes, a small store and a shop or two. Back in 2003, my friend and I visited with a young iconographer in his outdoor shop at the end of one of these establishments. That particular building is now gone, being replaced with the concrete framing of what appears to be a 3-story apartment taking its place. The church was much as I remembered. The frescoes on the porticos fascinated me every bit as much as before, and I spent an inordinate amount of time gazing at each one again. The nave was actually larger than I remembered, a bit more than the “little monastery church” of my recollection. In the small south chapel, I had also missed the grave of “Good King Boris,” Ferdinand’s son and Eleanora’s stepson. He helped the Church protect Bulgarian Jews during World War II, and died under mysterious circumstances at the hands of the Nazis. His remains were largely hidden during the Communist years. I find it appropriate that he is buried at Rila. His Wikipedia entry styles him “Boris III, the Unifier.” I like that.
But the one thing I earlier missed was that which was most special to me this time--the casket containing the relics of St. John of Rila himself, the saint whose name I was to take two years later upon being received into the Holy Orthodox Church. Taking advantage of a break in the line, I went up and prayed over his relics. I do not expect to ever return, so I lingered there, realizing how blessed I was to be doing that very thing, in that place. Afterwards, I lit five candles and offered up prayers for all. While standing there, I noticed a young father with three very young children, one in a stroller. One by one, he would lift them up and let each light a candle. He would then hold them to the icon so they could cross themselves and kiss it. Somehow, while managing these children, he also managed to cross himself and venerate the icon. That family at prayer is the last image I take with me from Bulgaria. There is hope for a people like this. And there can be hope for people like me, as well.
(Three more posts remaining in this series)