Bulgaria Trip: Day Five

Rila monastery

Image via Wikipedia

Last night we spoke with a man who had lived through communism and its fall in 1989 (the year the Berlin Wall came down).  He was part of what they call “the free church” here- made up of mostly independent, bible believing churches.  He explained of the period between 1994 and 1997 when there was a communist uprising again and “the free church” was made illegal- and his church had their building shut down by the police and were kicked out.  He joked about how they used to meet in the park for church and when cops would ask them what they were doing, they’d just say, “We’re having a picnic!”

From the beginning of the day today we took a trip far outside of Sofia to “Rila Monastery“- about a 123 Km. drive by car.  Our friend Ralph who we came with has a good friend that has a good amount of money and is very generous, and we were driving his car that he lent us, a Mercedes Benz!  We definitely got to travel there in luxury!

When we arrived at Rila Monastery, it was a sight to see.  It is a “holy spot” in the midst of the Eastern Orthodoxy of the Balkans.  People gathered in this temple area and made the sign of the cross, lighting candles, and bowing down in prayer to very historical paintings of saints, and even those of Jesus dressed in fine linens.  They sold bottles of Holy Water to drink for 1 Bulgarian dollar (I believe pronounced “Lev”?)  They sold mini icons one could hang on their wall or put on their refrigerator.

After eating a fair amount of yogurt, cheese and bread, we took off for a hike into the mountains.  Our destination was a cave where saint John of Rila once lived.  Me, Anthony and Lily (a local Bulgarian) took the harder route up a trail in the woods and got lost, so we backtracked to the easier trail on the road, and got stuck in the rain a bit.  We finally made it to the cave.

The cave has many myths surrounding it.  When you are crawling through the exit you have to squeeze between two stones, and it is said that if you have too much sin in your life that you will be crushed and killed on your way out.  There are many little icons with candles around them along the way, and people leave little notes for the saint, wishing for their cancers to be healed, for finding their long awaited boyfriend/girlfriend/etc. and more.  Something in my heart broke as I saw many people bowing in awe in these many spots, with a bit of desperation in their demeanor.

Later in our hike, Anthony, Lily and I got into a series of great discussions.  First we talked with Lily about her views on the orthodox religion.  She said that she didn’t really believe in all the icons or the “holy places”, but did believe that Jesus is God’s Son.  I encouraged her as much as I could to examine the scriptures for herself.  We also chatted about waiting to marry one person and being celibate for that person- an ideal that Anthony, Lily and I all held to.  We shared experiences and mistakes we had made, and before long it was time to part ways and go back to Sofia.

It’s my 30th Birthday today, so the Gattis and my lovely wife Sarah took me out for a meal, complete with a mini cheesecake decorated with a “3” and a “0” candle.  We ended our evening on a stroll through the city night life, and grabbed ice cream.  We ran into a young gypsy man who asked us for money and I gave him a bit and just held his shoulder and repeated the name “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…”  I don’t know if he understood but he did smile.

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