• Rila Monastery, Bulgaria – Part Two

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    September 15th, 2010adminBulgaria, Religion, Touristy Stuff

    The staggeringly picturesque Rila Monastery, nestled in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria.

    Bulgaria is a land of secluded monasteries, amidst trees and atop mountains. There was a freshness to the country — a desire for pure, untainted air and water, where monastic monks worship in peace. Perhaps the best example of this is Rila Monastery, the country’s most famous monastery, in the gorgeous Rila Mountains  (2-3 hours from Sofia). Only one bus goes from Sofia metro terminal to the Rila Monastery daily, despite its popularity, which is probably a reflection on Bulgarian tourist infrastructure more than anything else.

    Passing through a mountain village on the way to the monastery.

    I went with two hostel friends. We missed the bus, which immediately pissed me off and made me think I had to spend an extra day in Sofia. However, the Brit knew some Czech — and, in a garbled Czech-Bulgarian conversation, convinced another bus driver to take us to Rila. In fact, he caught up with our missed bus and, as a result, we made it to Rila in one piece.

    Imagine living in this monastery. Imagine worshiping here. It seems that it would be easier to believe in God here than in Sofia.

    When I entered the monastery, I was immediately struck by its beauty — architectural and natural. There was a lot of brown. And white. And then, on the walls, ceilings and monastery interior, every inch of space was covered in biblical  imagery — heaven, hell, saints, Jesus, Mary, even God, with a paternal beard and knowing eyes.

    Well, I think it was God, anyway.

    And, then, you look up. It’s just mountains. And sky. One would think that this is where God lives, or Adam and Eve lives, or some holy entity, assuming one believed in any the Judeo-Christian figures at all.

    A group of nuns entered the monastery courtyard. Their somber, religious faces changed instantaneously. Their eyes grew big. They exclaimed things, quietly but with visible excitement, in their native language (I couldn’t decipher what it was).

    Orthodoxy kitsch abounded, as well. Booths sold fake iconography, all of which looked very Byzantine or Bulgarian Orthodox or gilded or special …but in an obviously fake and touristy way. The booths were popular, probably because they were cheap, too. And middle-aged European tourists, many of them Bulgarians from other towns, peered at the wares and made purchase decisions.

    The great thing about beautiful holy sites is that you don't have to follow the religion to recognize the beauty. You can just understand the appeal, from a purely human perspective. Maybe that helps us gain insight into others' faiths.

    We weren’t allowed to photograph inside the monastery. But I’ll just say that the place was covered with frescoes from the famed 19th century Bulgarian artist, Zahari Zograf. It smelled of the burning candles. I was totally overwhelmed by the barrage of images, of smells and colors and saints, all intermingling in that dense space.

    The monastery was originally founded by the hermit, St. Ivan of Rila, originally a herder who became a priest at 25 years old. Interestingly, St. Ivan was a contemporary of Boris I, the tsar who officially made Bulgaria a Christian land. So, St. Ivan was on the “first wave,” one could say, of both Christianity and hermeticism in Bulgaria. Even revered as a saint in his own time (9th century), St. Ivan was known to have a special connection with animals — wild animals approached him and birds flew into his hand. Wishing to fully immerse himself in religious devotion, he left his monastic life for the mountains. There, in the Rila Mountains, he lived in total isolation (I think, in a cave, for 15 years or something). After his death, he became the patron saint of Bulgaria. The monastery was built in the location of his hermetic dwelling in the 10th century.

    The only surviving original tower (left) of the monastery.

    As I mentioned, I went to the the monastery with two hostel buddies — Lena, from Hamburg, and some British guy, who now lives in Australia (but lived in Prague beforehand). We shared a beautiful picnic, surrounded by greenery and mountains and water. We talked about the American book, “Three Cups of Tea,” which I have never read. But it really fascinated the British guy — a story of a man who, stranded in the Pakistani mountains after a botched rock-climbing adventure, finds life-saving hospitality and graciousness from village locals. As a result, he goes back to the USA, raises money, and then builds a school in that very same Pakistani town. He continues to follow suit in other towns across Pakistan. “I can’t find that book in Britain or Australia,” he complained. “But it’s very popular in the US, right?”

    Is this St. Ivan? God? I don't know...

    Mary, baby Jesus and a million other things...

    Before you enter the monastery, you pass through a doorway that is absolutely surrounded by grotesque images of hell. Yes, out of everything: HELL. They really drive home the idea of damnation with that design decision.

    The bus back was also amusing. I sat next to a jovial, fat French woman who kept on laughing and talking about how much she loved Turkey (she came via Turkey to Bulgaria), and how the Turks were so gracious, and she grew very excited when she found out I was from San Francisco. She called to a woman, sitting in the front, “The girl is from San Francisco!” in French and they all smiled at me with some excited sense of approval. The two were dropped off at a mountain-top hotel.

    Private residential quarters.

    I saw a few more secluded monasteries and churches in my time in Bulgaria. In Plovdiv, on a hilltop by the daily produce market, I found an old monastery of some sort: medieval-looking stone floor and a stern, black-bearded (priest? what do they call them in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, anyway?), watering his plants and tending to his candles and other items. I don’t know why I tried. But, out of curiosity, I smiled at him. And he just looked at me, dead seriously for a second, and then turned away. Oh well. I just wanted to see how (and if!) he would interact with me. So, I passed by his plants, walked out the door, and genuinely felt admiration for his church’s architectural past, even if the greater interiors of its believers remain as mysterious as ever.

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