Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Orthodoxy Ten Years On

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

       This month marks the tenth anniversary of my first exposure to the Orthodox faith.  A decade seems to be an appropriate milestone, I think, to reflect and take stock of any decision that has so altered the course of one’s life and relationships.  In the very early days of this blog, I felt a compulsion to talk about it all--and did do so to a limited degree.  Fortunately, this typical convert impulse usually fades with time.  In time, most who stick with Orthodoxy grow out of this need to incessantly talk about what they came out of and how--or at least that is the case with me and our mission parish.     Just shut up about yourself already and go to Vespers.  Beyond that, conversion stories often fall into a disappointing pattern, characterized by narcissism, banality, triumphalism, self-justification, etc.   And they are seldom as convincing or quite as applicable to everyone else as the writer imagines them to be.
       Now for the proverbial “That said,” as I attempt to tip-toe around the very thing I just argued should not be done.  I intend no Journey to Orthodoxy © story, for mine is a messy tale that would only serve as a cautionary note for anyone considering a similar decision.  I do propose, however, to revisit my initial exposure to Orthodoxy--the thing that attracted me to the Faith in the first place--those first impressions retained from a few days visit to Bulgaria in 2003.  And to the best of my ability, I also intend to place my spiritual perception--or lack thereof--in context.  What was it in my own background that rendered me so receptive to what was laid-out before me, while my traveling companion remained unaffected?  And so, if a conversion story is to be told, it should not be of my becoming Orthodoxy, but rather my joining myself to a distinctive Protestant sect at age twenty-three, which indeed set the stage for my receptivity to the older faith some twenty-five years later.
I do not pretend to have attained a high degree of self-awareness.  No doubt I present as false a face to the world as most anyone else.   But to see our own selves as God does is the very task set before us.  The natural inclination is for one to somewhat mentally rewrite the narrative of their life to better fit their contemporary circumstances.  And so, in this particular matter, I wonder if I had constructed a back story to justify my present situation.  Perhaps there is a little of that around the edges, but I think the truth of the basic narrative holds.  This is not just a subjective call on my part, for I actually took notes at the time.  Reviewing my 2003 journal for the first time in years, I found that my notes did indeed confirm my remembrance.  The main difference is that I previously focused on one particular experience, instead of a series of impressions spread out over three or four days.  I find that I am now better equipped to make sense of it all, but the back story is little changed.  My hope is that these observations have some value beyond the narcissistic replaying of this particular clip of my life. 
 

                                                                           THE WAY I WAS THEN

        Stories of American tourists venturing into eastern Europe and discovering Orthodoxy are a dime a dozen.  In that sense, my experience is typical.  But many of these narratives involve some sort of religious quest or “journey,” or at least a heightened attentiveness to spiritual matters.  Such was not the case with me.  I was disinclined to leave my church, and certainly was not in search of any Eastern religious exotica.   I went to Bulgaria with the only the most superficial notion of Orthodoxy, and certainly without any thought that it might appeal to me. 
I was raised nothing much at all:  my mother was the most nominal of nominal Baptists, and my father was a lapsed member of the Church of Christ.  We did not say Grace over our meals and we did not discuss religion in any manner at all, other than the gratuitous berating of religious hypocrites, who were always conveniently close at hand (a sister-in-law and a son-in-law provided endless examples.) 
My mother was not religious on any level, and had no faith heritage to pass down to the next generation.  Southerners will realize how thin a purely superficial Southern Baptist background can be.  I remember a family dinner when I was introducing my somewhat sheltered Church of Christ fiance to my family.  The table was spread with vegetables from our garden and beef from our pastures.  My father—sensitive to my wife’s background—asked my mother, “L*****, don’t you think someone needs to give thanks?”  My mother shot back, “Why?  We raised every bit of it ourselves.”  That was my mother—if she thought it, she said it, and thought it needed saying.  My mother did have a Bible.  It was safely preserved in the box it came in, behind the right headboard of her bed.  As a young child, I remember going in there when she was away from the house.  I would carefully remove the Bible from its box and look at each of the pictures.  If my mother was ever baptized, it was never mentioned.
A Church of Christ preacher baptized my teen aged father in the Lampasas River.  This was his mother's family faith, a seemingly odd fit for such a joyous, happy woman.  My granddad--a true gentleman--loved to argue religion, but studiously avoided accompanying his wife and children to the Campbellite gatherings.  
 I remember accompanying my parents to church a few times in my very early youth.  My dad would sit in the pew with his head down, his hands clasped with his index fingers forming a V.  He clearly would rather have been in the pasture.  But it was my father who was--and remains--my great example of how one should treat others.
I cannot ever remember a time when I did not believe.  Doubt has never been my problem (I have plenty of others.)  I have always believed in God, absolutely.  And after a certain age, I never tried to convince myself that I was somehow okay without faith. 
My dad had an office downtown, and many days I would hang out there and run errands until the first one of my parents went home.   The LDS church had a storefront outreach on the courthouse square.  I would walk slowly by and look at their exhibits in the window, but I never got up enough courage to go inside.  I picked up a free Book of Mormon at the Hemisfair in 1968.  I read it through as a thirteen year-old, but laid it down,  decidedly unconvinced.  A clunky adventure yarn does not a faith make.  I knew it was bunk, just as a few years later I instinctively knew that the Young Life craze of my high school peers was not the real deal either, or at least not for me. 
When I was maybe twelve or thirteen, I remember telling my dad that I wanted to be a member of a church.  He and I would talk on our way out to the farm to check on the cattle.  This was our everyday routine, after he came home from work.  He generally wanted to talk about cattle and I wanted to talk about anything but.  But we did have good conversations that would have been impossible if my mother or brother were included.  I remember that he told me that I could be any religion I wanted, except Catholic.  (Anti-papism was drilled-in early in the South, even in moderate souls such as my dad.)  He may have made some vague commitment to seeing that I was able to attend church, but I do not remember it.   But lest I be too critical of my dad, this simply would not have been anything he would have known how to do, exactly. 
My parents did send me to church with my much older sister and her husband, who were apparently trying to save me from being a heathen.  We went to their Baptist church.  My remembrances are of gluing cotton balls on the outline of a lamb in Vacation Bible School and later being taught against cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Christ (really) in Sunday School.  A well-meaning but sanctimonious old biddy scared me away from there when I was about thirteen or fourteen.  Years later--while off in college--I received a letter from my mother, regretting the fact that they had never taken me to church (it was the 70s and my hair was approaching shoulder-length.)   To my mother, church was something I should have been "taken to."  The idea that it would have any relevance beyond the hour or so in the pew was a foreign concept to her.  But I will say that my mother mellowed considerably in her last years of illness, and it is those memories I retain.  
And so, partially to appease her and partially to ease my own conscience, I tried out the University Baptist Church down Guadalupe Avenue.  Once was enough.  They had posters up advertising an upcoming service featuring Willie Nelson as speaker, depicted Jesus-like, in a white gown.  I did not know anything much at all, but I knew that a church that had Willie Nelson delivering a sermon was not one to be taken seriously.  (I actually like Willie Nelson, but in context.)  After graduation, I returned to my hometown, and my sister’s husband promptly insisted I visit their Baptist church, as they were having a special series on the “End Times” and prophecy.  I did so, and all those bad memories came flooding back.  At that point in my life, I had no idea what I would become, but I knew beyond a doubt that I would never, ever be a Southern Baptist.
At about that same time, a distant cousin on my mother’s side stopped by my house and invited me to attend a “gospel meeting” at her Church of Christ.  Her grandmother later called to do the same thing.  All I knew about the Church of Christ were the gentle jibes I heard at home (my great-grandmother had a way of saying THE Church.  And then there were my feuding great-aunts in central Texas.   The youngest son of one became a Baptist boy-preacher at age fifteen, shocking the other sister’s staunchly Church of Christ family.  The two stopped speaking.)  But I went to the “gospel meeting” anyway.  The straight-forward, logical preaching appealed to me, I thought offering a stark contrast to the emotionalism of the Baptist service.  I was clearly interested, but was embarrassed to pursue it in my small town.  A Church of Christ in the nearby city ran a telephone ministry, where people could dial in and listen to any number of short discourses on various subjects.  And so, I studied through this method, and eventually garnered enough courage to call the preacher and request baptism.  I was twenty-three.
In looking back now, I have to admit that there was some part of me that was attracted to the Church of Christ simply because it was the church of my father’s family (at least his maternal side.)  In fact, through this line I became the 7th generation in his family to be so.  This is just one of a series of conscious decisions on my part to self-identify with the sane side of my family.  I know my dad was pleased when he found out what I had done.
For many people, the Churches of Christ are just another entrée in the broad smorgasbord of American evangelical Protestantism.  Those readers who hail from Texas or Tennessee know differently, however.  Like the Mormons, they are Restorationists and retain a unique self-perception.  Churches of Christ believe in a pristine First-Century-New-Testament-Christianity that quickly apostatized after the death of the Apostle John.  They neither identify with the Reformation nor believe they are connected with that movement in any way.  The Reformers were moving in the right direction, mind you, but according to Churches of Christ did not go nearly far enough. 
Their particular history began in early 19th century frontier America during the religious ferment of the Second Great Awakening.  Alexander Campbell (and others) urged a return to New Testament simplicity, arguing that a sincere student of the Bible could know what God required by reading the “blueprint” of Scripture.  One simply had to free their minds of all preconceived religious prejudices and look at the Scriptures objectively and rationally.  Campbell believed he had done that very thing, and  he and his followers concluded that they were the first to ever really and truly do that, hence the “restored” church.  Other religionists who looked at Scripture and arrived at different conclusions were dismissed as insincere, still holding to the “traditions of men.”  These early Restorers were eager to debate this point with others, though their self-serving and circular reasoning was a bit like arguing with Calvinists about predestination.



These "New Testament Christians" proudly claim to be neither Protestant nor Catholic, but simply “the church.”  In fact, they are perhaps the most Protestant of any group, taking sola scriptura to all new levels.  A few beliefs and practices set the Church of Christ apart from their religious neighbors, to-wit:
1.        There is one body and denominationalism is a sin.  The “restored” Church of Christ is that one church.  They often use the phrase, the “Lord’s church,” meaning them alone.   (I never used it.) 
2.      The Lord’s Supper is to be taken every Sunday, though only as a memorial.
3.      Baptism is to be of believers, by immersion, and for the remission of sins.
4.      Each congregation is completely autonomous, ruled by a plurality of elders.
5.      Musical instruments in worship are forbidden (though this is changing.)
6.    Worship consists of five items:  Preaching, Praying, Singing, taking the Lord's Supper and Giving.
7.     A hermeneutic based on CENI (command, example and necessary inference.)  There are other differences, to be sure, but these were the main points.
Churches of Christ hold to a radical bibliolatry.  Scripture is very much a blueprint by which to reconstruct the church whenever necessary.  Old-timers compared Scripture to the game of baseball.  If the sport died out, and centuries later a baseball manual was discovered, then the game could be “restored.”  They posited that Scripture should be viewed in the same manner.  In Orthodoxy, whenever one sees the phrase “the word” in Scripture, it is Jesus Christ that comes to mind.  In the Church of Christ, the default position is the words on the page of the Bible itself.  A minority believed that the Holy Spirit has no role beyond the words of Scripture themselves.
 

I was attracted to the vision of the church's founders—one body, no denominationalism.  I did not comprehend that, while admirable, they were starting from the wrong place.  I also believed strongly in their position on baptism for the remission of sins.  I never really bought into many other aspects of the Church of Christ, however.  (After becoming Orthodox, I had a chance to visit with a former preacher of ours.  As he put it, I was “never a good fit.”)  For example, I always rejected that the Church of Christ constituted the entirety of the Kingdom.   (In fairness, that extreme position has sluffed-away, outside of a hard-core group of what I call the knot-headed congregations.  Most members of the Church of Christ freely admit that there could be others outside their number among the elect.  During my time in the church, the consensus seemed to be that some Baptists would make the cut.  I never heard anyone expand this thinking to include Methodists, however.)  In all my years in the Church of Christ, as Sunday School teacher, deacon and finally elder, I watched my language closely and never “talked the talk.”  I thought the vision was worth fighting for.  Attitudes were slow to change, but I thought it a fight worth making.  I was in it for the long haul. 
Two areas, however, continued  to frustrate me.  These days I can truly call myself a historian—I have the degree, I teach the classes, etc.  But historical research has always been my passion.  I studied our particular religious history in great detail.  Where I now have a wall of Orthodox books, I once had a wall of Church of Christ volumes.  I still have the complete works of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and Walter Scott (the evangelist, not the Scottish novelist.)  I knew our history inside and out.  I wrote my master’s thesis on the “Stoneite” wing of the Church of Christ in Texas, 1824-1865.   But outside of an occasional professor at our Texas, Tennessee or Alabama colleges, there was absolutely no interest in our history—or really anyone else’s for that matter.  I gave talks on the subject from time to time, and my congregation was polite, but uninterested.  The attitude bordered on active disinterest.  The reason is not hard to fathom.  The Bible is the “blueprint” and the Church of Christ is the “restored” church built on that plan.  This rendered history and the normal historical forces to be irrelevant, as at any time an individual could open their Bible and “restore” the church, regardless of their historical perspective (provided of course, they concluded as Campbell and his successors.)  I always knew this to be inane.  Writing these words makes this belief sound almost childish, but that was indeed the attitude.  History was unnecessary to the church.   I always knew better.
Churches of Christ imagines a 1st-Century church much along their own lines:  small autonomous congregations, each ruled by a plurality of elders, under the guidance of Scripture.  They hold that soon after 100 AD, the church started to apostatize in a big way--bishops, sacramental view of the Supper, infant baptism, etc.  Churches of Christ do not hold that the church began to go astray with the decrees of Constantine.  Rather, they believe that the rot had set long before, the Byzantine emperor's actions only confirmed what was already in place.   This is a pleasant enough story, but no more based in reality or real history than the fantasy of the Nephites and Lamanites created by their contemporary Restorationists.
Intellectualism is not always what it is cracked up to be, and I certainly do not consider myself to be an intellectual.  That said, I did tire of checking my brain at the foyer on Sunday.  Normal religious terminology was frowned upon if it was not found in Scripture.  I never heard the words “theology” (other than in derision) or “Trinity” used.  We were unaware of the Nicene Creed (other than we were against all creeds.)  We had no notion of how and when the New Testament came together, not realizing the tremendous gap in time and space between the death of the last apostle and the leather-bound King James Bible.  The worst aspect about this and other things is that there was no curiosity to learn—again, one of those “history things.”  A young preacher, fresh out of our most knot-headed preacher college in Tennessee, once taught the Young Adult Sunday School class that whenever wine was mentioned in the Bible, it was clearly unfermented since Jesus would not drink alcohol, and that if we ever took a drink it would be like the frog continually jumping half the distance to the wall.  Just as the frog would never actually get there, we would never truly be completely sober again. 
Even though I had great reservations on some issues, and resisted their cramped, narrow world view,  I was loyal to the Church of Christ, still believing in the vision.  I thought all the denominations were flawed, and believed our shortcomings were less egregious than others.  I never remotely considered Catholicism.  In short, I had decided that the Church of Christ was the best possible take on things. 
One thing I learned from my historical research was that what the Church of Christ was preaching and teaching in the late 2oth-century actually took shape in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.  This church bore scant resemblance to the church of the 1830s, 40s, and 50s.  And it was to that earlier church that I felt most attached.  
American Churches of Christ peaked at about 1.2 million in 1980.  That overall number has roughly held, with well over 25% in Texas alone.  Most of the rest can be found in Tennessee, Oklahoma and northern Alabama.  There are more members abroad (Nigeria, Ghana, India, etc.) than there are in this country, primarily due to the very successful World Bible School.  Congregations differ wildly.  Many large urban churches are only culturally Church of Christ.  Many young adherents are hard-pressed to explain why they do the things the way they do, other than that is just what Church of Christ people do.  In recent years, some preachers discovered Grace, and many Church of Christ sermons can be easily interchanged with those of any Evangelical whatever church (case in point:  while accompany my wife to a Church of Christ in Chattanooga, we were subjected to a clown riding a bicycle down the aisle to the stage where a skit ensued, advertising their upcoming VBS.)    Other--usually rural--congregations still hold to the “old paths” (of the 1920s.)  The local congregation here is actually doing quite well, after getting rid of me and a few other trouble-makers.   
       But back to the point I have been trying to make:  In 2003, I was an active leader in the Churches of Christ, hoping for constructive change and growth, but determined to work within the system, so to speak.  One other development affected my thinking quite a bit, contributing to a growing sense of disquietude.  This was the attacks of September 11, 2001.  To some degree, I was swept up in the tide of emotionalism much like everyone else.  But what gnawed at me was the understanding that--as reprehensible as it was--the attackers of that day truly believed in something.  I began to question what it was we truly believed in.  And then I looked at my church.  We had never been tested.   Despite success in some parts of the world, we could never quite shake our Southernness, our rural roots, and yes, our unacknowledged but all too obvious Protestantism.  Our congregation supported a mission in western Ukraine.  They tried to replicate exactly the way we did things here—the order of worship, Sunday School, Bible camp, etc.  Even from the other side of the globe, it seemed unnatural to me.  Global issues were forcing their way into our smug, comfortable lives.  Simply put, the cramped world-view of the Church of Christ seemed peculiarly ill-equipped to confront them.
My favorite aunt is a Jehovah’s Witness.  Her children have said that whoever had knocked on their door that day would have gotten her, whether they were the JWs, the Mormons, or the Hari Khrisnas.  I was certainly not in that extreme condition, but perhaps I was primed for something.  I do know that if I had remained in the states, I would have never made any move away from the Church of Christ.    On the other hand, I wonder if I would have been attracted to Orthodoxy if I had not been a member of the Churches of Christ.  That, in 3,600 words or so, is the best way I can describe my spiritual state on June 9, 2003.

 
                                                             WHAT I SAW:     SOFIA 
In June 2000, in a Paris metro station stairwell, my wife made a Scarlett O'Hara-ish pronouncement.  If it did not actually contain the preface of "As God is my witness," it certainly carried that much force.  She declared to the world that she "would never go overseas again."  And she hasn't.  I stewed for three years before launching off by myself, or with friends.   My buddy Bill and I opted for Bulgaria--cheap, a bit gritty, and exotic enough to provide ample stories for our friends at the coffee shop.   I knew Bulgaria to be traditionally Orthodox, but my understanding went no further than that.  As always, I researched extensively before our departure.  We would base ourselves  in Sofia and Veliko Turnovo, with excursions out into the countryside.  Five hundred years of severe Ottoman domination precluded development of the castles and palaces that dot other parts of Europe.  What Bulgaria does have, however, is monasteries--destroyed and re-built time and again over the centuries.  Unless you are going to the Black Sea beaches, monastery hopping is what one does in Bulgaria.  And so, that was our plan. 
,

The Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral, the great landmark of Sofia, was completed in 1912, a gift from the Russian people.    We walked up the front steps of the church, past the beggar woman, and into the cavernous interior.  At first glance, the church appeared dark and gloomy, empty and lit by candles here and there.  As Bill and I positioned ourselves besides one of the enormous columns, I gradually began to realize these initial impressions were misleading.  Our eyes eventually adjusted to the dim lighting.  Almost magically, images began to appear on all the walls, columns and ceilings--indeed, the whole panoply of Heaven and Earth was laid out before me.  Nor was the church empty.  The size of the sanctuary was such that it would take several hundreds of people to make a noticeable crowd.  The church sits in the middle of a traffic circle in the very heart of the city, the noises of which sometimes break the silence inside. 
A steady stream of people entered and exited the sanctuary, as Bill and I stood by our column and observed.  I had never seen anything quite like this before.  I did not know that there were actually places that people went to pray.  A church was strictly utilitarian in my thinking--nothing special about it otherwise.  These Sofians, either going to work or to market, first stopped at a kiosk where they apparently purchased candles.  They would then light them and place in scattered candle stands, and later cross themselves and kiss one of the framed icons.  They might stop at several, or perhaps just one, and then they were on their way again.  If this was worship, it was different than any I had ever witnessed. 
I then began to notice one young man, twenty-something and dressed in jeans, standing almost at attention before a framed icon wreathed with flowers, located near the altar.  He was thin, not from working out and eating right as would be the case with Americans, but probably rather from not having enough to eat.  After he had stood there some time, the young man started crossing himself--slow, deliberate sweeps with his hand and then touching the floor.  He did this three times, stood a moment longer, bent down and kissed the icon and then walked off.  I eased up towards the front of the church and observed that he had been before an icon of the Virgin Mary.  I have contemplated this image for ten years.  Instinctively, I realized that I had witnessed something completely new--real, observable reverence. 
This was not a concept that found much practical traction in Churches of Christ--a nice-enough concept, to be sure, but with little relevance to actual worship.  Our demeanor, whether before church, between Sunday School and church, or after the service, could be characterized by chattiness, boisterousness, with perhaps a bit of Southern hoo-rawing.  This attitude characterized most every Church of Christ of my experience.  Our songs were usually either sickly-sweet sentimental--Love Lifted Me" or I'm in the Gloryland Way, or Farther Along, or Give Me the Bible, etc., or praise-worship silly--Days of Elijah (In fairness, there were a few that were of noble sentiment and theologically sound--Up from the Grave He Arose comes to mind.)  During the prayer before the Lord's Supper, we were supposed to be somber and think intently on the Cross, but if everyone else was like me then their mind was wandering 15 seconds after the prayer ended.  The preacher would often tell a few jokes or humorous anecdotes as the congregation settled-in to the twenty minutes of sermonizing.  But never in all this did I ever experience real reverence.  I just didn't.  I had a lot yet to learn and unlearn, but the Bulgarian youth that morning opened my eyes to a new understanding of what worship was all about.


                                                    WHAT I SAW:       RILA

 
Iconostasis at Rila Monastery
 
This part of my story has been told twice before, here and here.  So I may run through it a little quicker than I would otherwise.  As mentioned earlier, I  have tended to highlight my experiece here in Rila, whereas my impressions were actually formed over several days.   That said, what happened to me at Rila was pivotal.  In my own mind at least, I have divided my life at this point; what went before and what has come afterwards. 
Briefly put, Rila is the top attraction in the country, known as the "Jerusalem of Bulgaria."  The church itself is a jewel, nestled within a three-storied walled compound--half fortress--deep within the Rila Mountains.  We arrived at an opportune time, apparently between waves of pilgrims and tourists.  The compound was relatively quiet and empty, unlike the later two times I visited.  Before we entered the church, Bill and I inspected the exonarthex (porch to us at the time), unlike anything either of us had ever seen before.  Every inch--the walls and ceilings--were covered in bright, vivid iconography.  My favorite scenes were the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Archangel Michael, the Last Judgment (with Pharisees being pulled into the abyss) and a strange scene depicting black demons dancing in the air.   But in time, we ventured inside where new wonders awaited us. 
I was unprepared for what greeted me there.  Unlike the dark, sooty walls of Aleksandr Nevsky, Rila is awash in color.  I grew dizzy trying to follow the iconography upward, as it seemed to soar to heaven itself.  The immense, intricately carved iconostasis is--in a word--breathtaking, perhaps the best representation of the renown Bulgarian woodworking art.   Candles flickered everywhere.   My tourist-mode fell to the wayside, as I simply stood there barely within the sanctuary of the church.  I took a half-step forward and stopped again, as my senses were overwhelmed by what I was experiencing.  I was not simply moved by beauty, for I have seen many beautiful things, including churches.  I moved forward slowly, again by half-steps, a bit confused by the feelings I was experiencing.  A very good word--awesome--has been ruined in the popular American usage.  And yet, that was exactly my reaction--awe.  
I began to realize that I was standing in a truly Holy place.  Founded by St. John of Rila, the monastery has always been at the heart of the Bulgarian people, destroyed time and again by the Turks, only to be promptly rebuilt.  The floors of the church had quite literally been washed in the blood of the martyrs.  I was standing where prayers of the faithful had been offered up for over a thousand years.  I was in the presence of simple Holiness.   The idea of any "holy place" was anathema to my  church.  This particular intellectual construct of ours, however, was based upon something in which we had no experience.  This was the real thing. 
After some time, Bill and I stepped back onto the exo-narthex.  He commented favorably about the beauty of the quaint iconography, but was otherwise unaffected.  As I walked down the steps, I instinctively knew that--for myself at least--something else had happened, though I did not yet know what. 
 
                              WHAT I SAW:     PLAKOVO 
Outside of Rila, we visited all the other monasteries from our base at the Hotel Gurko in Veliko Turnovo, the historic capital of the second Bulgarian Empire.  A great number lie within driving distance, but we had time for four:  Dragalevtsi, Kilifarevo, Plakovo and Troyan.  Of this number, it was Plakovo, perhaps the least outwardly impressive, that provided the most memorable experience.  Bill considered our time at Plakovo was his most memorable experience in Bulgaria.  

Church of St. Prophet Iliya (Elijah), Plakovo Monastery

Plakovo is a bit hard to find and seemingly forgotten, out in the countryside at the end of a poorly-marked back road.  They probably receive few visitors.  The setting, however, is idyllic.  A small church sits in a meadow, with a two-storied ell-shaped building to the southwest.  The west end of this latter structure is anchored by an impressive bell-tower.  Plakovo, like Rila, was a touchstone in the long history of resistance against Ottoman oppression.  In later research, I learned that there is a secret tunnel into the woods, both out of the church and the kitchen.  The monastery's long history has been one of destruction and rebuilding.  A framed picture hanging on the porch of the building revealed that the church had once been surrounded by a two-storied walled compound, of which the present structure was merely the southwest corner.  The loss is not to be blamed on the Turks, however, but on a 1949 fire.
There were two monks in residence (if there were others, we did not see them.)  One was a lanky, younger man, thirtyish, his long hair gathered into a loose ponytail.  The other was an older man, heavily-bearded, and short, stocky and shirtless.  (The fact that he was so dressed has since caused me to conclude that he may have been simply a caretaker rather than a monastic.  But perhaps his dress had more to do with the specific work they were doing at the time.)  The two men were in the meadow between the church and other building, gathering freshly-cut hay onto large bedsheets, and then pulling it into the barn.  We had become accustomed to such sights in Bulgaria.  During Communism, individual farms gave way to massive collectivized operations.  There were only 900 farms in the entire country under Communism.  The rusting ruins of these endeavours--and the deserted towns that supported them--dot the countryside.  Meanwhile, agriculture had to begin anew, and from scratch.  All across the country, we witnessed small plots being farmed and harvested in the age old methods, without benefit of machinery.  The older man put on his shirt and greeted us, while the young monk continued with the gathering of the hay.
My friend Bill is an ever-vigilant student of languages and had picked up a Bulgarian-English dictionary in Sofia.  He tried a few words with the man, but without much success.   Bill could, however, speak Serbo-Croatian and he claimed that there was considerable overlap between that language and Bulgarian.  So, to the limited extent that we were able to make ourselves understood to one another, it was through Bill's knowledge of Croatian.  The man obviously surmised that we were there to see the church, and so he motioned for us to follow him.  
There was no outside iconography, other than one of St. Prophet Elijah over the doorway.  The church was much smaller than the ones we had visited heretofore, and the interior was modest as well.  Anything containing Bulgarian woodworking is impressive, and the iconostasis did not disappoint in this regard, though much less imposing than Rila and what we would later see at Troyan.  Lovely carved "standing-chairs" (my terminology) lined the walls.  Christ Pantocrator was in the dome, of course, but the rest of the walls were whitewashed.  A number of icon stands dotted the small sanctuary and framed icons hung on the walls.  One in particular drew my attention.  In all my subsequent Orthodox travels, I have only seen this in Bulgaria.  The image is similar to the  Christ Not Made by Hands icon.  The difference is that Christ's eyes are closed, and somewhat eerily, the icon has all the appearances of an actual photograph.  I wish I knew more about it, but like I say, I have seen it in no other country.  I left a few levas in the collection box, and we returned outside.
The man motioned for us to follow him to either his quarters, or the kitchen, in the south ell of the building.  As the Bulgarian was talking to us, Bill pretended to understand what he meant, but it become clear that he was offering us what hospitality he could.  We sat down at a table on the covered porch outside one of the rooms.  Soon our friend emerged with cups of coffee and cigarettes.  I do not remember if we smoked or not, though neither of us was averse to doing so (I have always held to the pleasant fiction that any smoking done overseas does not count, and generally that was my first purchase upon arriving anywhere.)  The coffee turned out to strong, but absolutely cold.  We smiled and thanked him profusely.  He went back into the room and came back with several framed pictures and newspaper clippings to share with us.  They all depicted the monastery in better days, before the Nazis, before the Communists, before the fire.     Although I cannot guess the occasion, one picture showed a large number (several dozen at least) of monks lined-up in front of the west wall of the then-complete compound, beneath the bell tower.  We both found it to be interesting.
But for the most part, Bill and I sat in the cool of the porch, sipped our cold coffee and returned smiles with our host.  Looking back now, the man did have hay on the ground that needed to be moved into the barn.  The more important thing to him, however, was to show hospitality to his guests.  I think we left another contribution on the table, thanked our host and started back towards the rental car.  Simple and genuine hospitality leaves a lasting impression.          
 
                                         WHAT I SAW:       TROYAN
Two options presented themselves to us as we contemplated our return to Sofia.  We could just return west down the highway we drove in on, or we could drive south, taking a twisting pass through the mountains which eventually intersected with a highway in the Valley of the Roses.  You do not have to know much about me to guess which route we took.  There are two passes through the mountain, the Troyan Pass and the Shipka Pass.  This time we chose the former (I drove the Shipka Pass on a later trip.)  The town of Troyan is also the site of the the third largest monastery in Bulgaria after Rila and Bachkovo.  Troyan Monastery is a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists.  The area outside of the large compound is primarily devoted to supplying food, souvenirs and trinkets to the visitors.  Once you wade past that, however, Troyan is a gem.  The church and the monastic buildings are built in the Bulgarian Renaissance style.  The outside of the church contains iconography and frescoes, though not to the degree of Rila Monastery.  And the church contains a miraculous icon, that of "the Three-Handed Holy Virgin."
Bill and I walked up the cobblestoned courtyard from the car park to the church.  Up ahead, we could see an old Bulgarian peasant woman making her way towards the church.  Her slow steps seemed painful, and she was bent with age.  The old grandmother may have been walking since early morning to make it there by that time.  The thought crossed my mind of the tumultuous times her life had witnessed.  We soon drew even with her and passed on towards the church.  Bill and I spent some time on the exo-narthex, observing the iconography, and then entered into what we discovered to be a fairly crowded sanctuary.  The iconostasis was impressive, even after having seen that of Rila, as were the icons.  We looked around a bit and generally started working our way to the back of the church.  I then noticed that the old peasant lady had finally made it into the church.  She was talking quietly to a youngish priest, who was bent down, holding her hands.  The old woman was looking up at him and I could not help but notice that she positively beamed with delight.   Stripped of the noisome pilgrims and tourists, there was at its heart a real community of Christians here, where the pastoral needs of the faithful were truly addressed.  The comparison is unfair, I know, but I never remembered anyone ever beaming with delight at any of our preachers, or our elders for that matter (and I can say this, for I was one.)  In short, I saw evidence of a type of relationship that existed on a plane heretofore unknown to me.


                                                          CONCLUSION

I returned home to my life and routine.  And while I did not forget these experiences, I was not yet launched off onto any new path.  The trigger for that would come in a couple of months.  And when it did, I had the context of my experience in Bulgarian Orthodoxy, characterized by reverence, holiness, hospitality and community.
Recently, I stumbled across an online survey for ex-members of the Churches of Christ.  The pollsters were analyzing the reasons why this fellowship is failing to keep their own.  (And in fairness, I have no doubt that there is a similar survey somewhere that addresses the former Orthodox.)  Just for kicks, I took the survey.  I remember one question in particular.  The pollster asked what would induce me to return to the Churches of Christ.  The question took me aback, and I realized that I was probably coming from a much different perspective than the average disgruntled ex-CoCer.  I concluded then that the poll was pointless and the pollsters did not grasp the real problem.  They were searching for ways to tweak or reform the church, to make it less objectionable to the dissatisfied.  But they did not consider that the basic premise itself was misguided.  For the Church of Christ did not do sola scriptura wrong.  If anything, they carried it to at least one of its logical conclusions.  I do not recall exactly how I answered the question, but I believe I said something about the Pearl of Great Price. 
 
 

 

6 comments:

Kirk said...

John, I was just thinking of you this morning, and I opened my Reader to find this post. I haven't read it yet, but I will, and I look forward to it.

Hope you and yours are doing well.

Mimi said...

What a fascinating read, thank you!

Anna said...

Lovely, thank you.

elizabeth said...

As always a very good read; thanks and many years; I will be 10 years christmated this year; 10 years since I began...

always love reading your writing.

Blessings on your summer.

Steve said...

John, this is awesome. I never had the "old country" experiences you had even though we ended up converting for basically the same reasons in the end, but I know exactly what you are talking about when you tell about trying to "keep the faith of the 19th century" in the CofC and work within the system. It is hard to walk away from something you invested so much in and yet, in that investment, you see it is bankrupt. My wife and I have gone to a couple of funerals at our old church of Christ and it has just confirmed there is no going back no matter how sincere and loving the folks are. Thanks for the spiritual travelogue.

Ian Climacus said...

God grant you many, many more years! Congratulations.

And thank you for sharing in word [I've said it before...you write wonderfully] and picture -- it was a joy to read and shows me how unique each of our journey's is.