Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tourism of the Holy

Me in front of the church that sits in the center of the monastery.
I've been letting this idea rattle around in my head since the evening Bill and Lisa Clark drove me up to the Rila Monastery, 40k outside of Blagoevgrad. A half hour after I got off the bus, we got in the car and drove up a winding road, marked every few k with stands of homemade honey, jams, and preserves. Though we were pretty far from any clear location or town, there were people everywhere. They were picnicing by the river and up on the hills. There were many cars. A restaurant we passed had a full parking lot and no seats at the tables. There was a campground.

All of these people were going to see the Monastery and the Holy Rila Forest.

It's a famous place. St. John of Rila was a holy man who lived by himself in a cave for seven years. If you know what winter is like in those mountains, up near the tree line, that was no small feat. So a monastery grew up near his cave and once housed over a hundred monks and novices. Now, four monks hold down the fort while hundreds of people, Bulgarian and otherwise, come to "see" the place.

Stands selling popular fried dough
I've never been exactly comfortable with visiting churches and other locations just to "see" them. But in Bulgaria, where every church is Orthodox, I can't help but be an outsider. I don't know what the icons mean. I don't know the liturgy or what to do and I would be an imposter if I tried. I feel like Charles in "Brideshead Revisited" who visits the chapel in the house and imitates Sebastians handmotions and then is scolded. "You aren't Catholic" he chides. Well, I'm not Orthodox. So I just try to stand as politely as possible and look up at the smoke darkened ceiling where birds fly in the rafters and be as un-touristy and intrusive as possible.

It seems kind of rude no matter how I look at it. People worship here. And I'm just looking at the cool architecture and restored liturgical art.

Then we drove up the mountain a bit more to the cave where St. John lived. We missed the sign that asked us to be quiet and respectful as we walked through the woods--as did the group of teenagers that were walking behind us. A small chapel was at the foot of the path. We climbed up through the cave and Bill told us about the legend that you couldn't get through the back entrance unless you were Holy. But everyone gets through these days, it seems. When we walked back down, we passed a conservative Orthodox family sitting on a stone wall outside of the chapel, quietly chanting/singing prayers.

I again felt like an intruder.

But not quite as badly as I did when we visited a small monastery in another mountain range later that week. The monks drove us in a jeep at break neck speeds up to their farm. They let us see their small, cluttered, well loved church, with thick plaster and stone walls that kept it cool on the hottest of days. They sang a song honoring St. John of Rila that day and I didn't know quite what to do. Because I wanted to pray but I didn't know how to pray with them.

I don't know what to make of this, how churches and temples and mosques become places to see and just to see. They are beautiful places and worth seeing and yet... I feel insulted when I see a sign in Bulgarian and in English stating that it will cost me 5leve if I take a picture in the sanctuary of the church in Elena. Or that there is a stand selling small icons by the front door. Or that some churches I have to pay to go into at all. Or archeological museum in Sofia that used to be a church building, but is now white washed inside to give the appropriate museum feel. Part of me says, "Well church spaces are beautiful and really amazing public spaces." Part of me says, "Why shouldn't all people have access to seeing these spaces and this beauty?"

And the other part of me says, "How dare you." You meaning me. "How dare I?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. For me, when I visit a "holy place" I leave dissatisfied because what I really want to see is not a painting of Jesus' face, or the representation of mysticism. I want to feel something; I want an intimate experience with the 'holy' but this doesn't happen when I go visit beautiful churches. So, I usually leave feeling emptier than when I entered because the beauty reminds me that there is something beautiful out there to grasp and that for some reason I don't have it yet.

Anyway, I love your thoughtful posts because I think of these things too! I think your struggle is tied up with your sincerity which is a great thing. You feel this way because you care so much and because you are very honest with yourself! This is a wonderful quality and often rare, if you don't mind me saying so. So keep going forward Truth always leads home!