There’s a Heaven Above You

Dear Reader,

I’ve had a great day on Saturday- my family traveled to the north-western town of Vratsa, accent on the first A, to attend the baptism ceremony of the four-month-old daughter of my husband’s cousin.

And the best part of it all – I got home the same day, as I hate to spend the night all crammed up in the homes of others. 🙂

So I’ve seen relatives, attended a moving ritual, partook in a restaurant feast and generally spent the day in a dress and 8-cm open-toe slingback pumps (sans platforms, of course! :)), so – a real holiday. 

Just look at the cute dress I bought for the baby! :)
Just look at the cute dress I bought for the baby! 🙂 I have forgotten how small a four-month-old is – like a doll.

In Orthodox Christianity, Baptism is one of the three sacraments of Christian initiation. Once baptised, a person is eligible to enter the Kingdom of God through their earthly deeds. This is what the title, taken from the refrain of this Guns’ song, alludes to.  

I know I am rather eclectic in my intertwining of subjects and references, but I believe many roads lead to Rome, remember? So why not find something worthwhile in a Guns’ song? 🙂 By the way, this Rome idiom is rather oxymoronic  in a Christian Orthodox context, but anyway.

Dress, cap and cardigan beautifully packed. We included an envelope of money too, that has become the tradition these days.
Dress, cap and cardigan beautifully packaged. An envelope of money went into that box too, this has become the tradition these days.

And if you care for a short lecture – in the Orthodox church of today, the three sacraments of Christian initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion, are all performed in infancy, just like in the church of the early centuries. 

The confirmation, meaning a special anointment symbolising the Gift of the Spirit, is performed at the baptism ceremony itself, and the first communion – about a week after it. The early-century practice of Baptism by a threefold immersion in water is also observed. All these practices have been abandoned or modified by the western Christendom, this is why I find they are worth a specific mention.

The dress of my Princess is worth a specific mention too. I think it suits her complexion and figure to perfection.
The dress of my Princess is worth a specific mention too. I think it suits her complexion and figure to perfection. Although it was actually a bit wide for her, but she’s a ballerina – tall and slender! 🙂
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This is the anointment set with two bottles of oil, a tissue and scissors for cutting some of the baby’s hair in a ritual bearing the same meaning as the cutting of the hair of monks. The parents usually preserve the hair in a special padded box, like a diamond ring. 🙂
The this is the immersion vessel. The baby, surprisingly, did not cry at all. Usually they all do. :)
And this is the immersion vessel. The baby, surprisingly, did not cry at all. Usually they all do. 🙂

The Church, where the ceremony was held, was built in the 1860s and had very ancient-looking doors. 

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The Church had several entrances like this one. Usually only one is open, and all are open only at the beautiful midnight Easter vigil.
How about these lock and key, hah? Just like out of a fairy tale.
How about these lock and key, hah? Just like out of a fairy tale…
Church interior.
A view to the church iconostasis and the pulpit.

And since we are on the topic of Orthodox worship – let me tell you something of the Orthodox icons.

The holy icons, beautifully painted and gilded as they are, are not some latent idolatry, but are rather a symbol of the Kingdom of God and a window into the Beyond.

The acts of veneration that the Orthodox perform in front of the icons like kissing, bowing and kneeling, are not directed towards the icon itself, as an object, but towards the subject depicted.

Therefore, the worship of icons cannot exist outside the essence of Orthodox worship and as such, icons are like painted theology.  

The Orthodox believe they have the right to paint icons because the incarnation of Jesus has made this art possible.

One of the icons at home - the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus. The classical icon is painted on a piece of solid wood, and though it goes beyond the material, is a work of art in itself. It becomes a holy icon after it has been sanctified by a priest.
One of the icons at home – the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus. The classical icon is painted on a piece of solid wood, and though it goes beyond the material, is a work of art in itself. It becomes a holy icon after it has been sanctified by a priest. Author of this icon and the two pictured further down, is Jivko Donkov (Живко Донков).

Some of the things that differentiate holy icons from secular art are:

  • Icons are two-dimensional, unlike sculptures, which are used for worship by other Christian denominations and are three-dimensional. Icons do not have depth.
  • Icons use reverse perspective. Under the rules of linear perspective used in secular art, objects are drawn smaller as their distance from the observer increases, whereas in icon painting, objects in the distance are larger, thus depicting something that is superior to nature.
  • The icons do not have an outside source of light and, therefore, do not treat light and shade the way secular drawings and paintings do. The saints depicted on the icons are drawn as if the light spots emanate from within them, from within the icon itself. 
Archangel Michael, another beloved icon of mine. In Orthodox Christianity, Michael is also called a Taxiarch, or архистратиг, a Greek term denoting Michael's leading of the God's armies against the forces of Satan.
Archangel Michael, another beloved icon of mine. In Orthodox Christianity, Michael is also called a Taxiarch, or архистратиг, a Greek term denoting Michael’s leading of the God’s armies against the forces of Satan. I hope Archangel Michael spreads his wings from time to time to protect and guide me, and I  know he surely supports my culinary endeavors, as his image looks most becoming to the lavender walls of my kitchen. 🙂 You know, in the Desperate Housewives show, the cheeky character of Eva Longoria, whom I generally did not like, was facing the risk of having her art possessions confiscated because of tax evasion charges against her husband. An officer was about to take a painting of a madonna, she vehemently opposed and the officer said she hardly knew what the painting was about. To which, Longoria’s character replied: “I know it matches the drapes!” 🙂 So, I know this is silly and beside the point and irreverent, but one does have to consider that too, when hanging art, holy icons included. 🙂
  • In icon painting, no Biblical event is ever depicted as happening in a room, even if the Holy Scripture says it did. There are no roofs or ceilings, which symbolises the fact that the Gospel Truths have already been revealed (are out in the open, so to say.)
  • The human figures appearing on the holy icons are depicted unrealistically, through elongated shapes highlighting the God’s grace that has descended upon them. 
  • Many of the saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus himself are required to be depicted with certain facial features as well as hair, eye and garment colour, so as to be uniform and recognisable.  
This is knyaz Boyan Enravota, a 9th-century Bulgarian martyr of the Christian faith, who is celebrated on my birthday. I keep him at the office, to have the golden hope of heaven gleam on me during work hours.
This is knyaz Boyan Enravota, a 9th-century Bulgarian martyr of the Christian faith, who is celebrated on my birthday. I keep him at the office, to have the golden hope of heaven gleam on me during work hours. I like his eyes and cheekbones, and his melancholic expression too. He is depicted so handsome but looks like someone who has fasted a bit too much. 🙂

There, no more talk of icons now. Look at the beautiful Balkans, dominating the Vratsa townscape. 🙂 

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This is the central square. It literally ends in the mountains, like a dead-end street. How cool is that?
Same square, different view. This is the monument of poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev. He was shot in the mountains near Vratsa, so this probably is his most important monument in the entire country. There is a commemorative ceremony attended by the President and all Bulgaria's political and military elite in front of this monument on June 2 every year. A one-minute siren sounds at 13.00 PM throughout Bulgaria, totally freezing the country, each June 2 in Botev's memory too.
Same square, different view. This is the monument of poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev. He was shot in the mountains near Vratsa, so this probably is his most important monument in the entire country. There is a commemorative ceremony attended by the President and all of Bulgaria’s political and military elite in front of this monument on June 2 every year. A one-minute siren sounds at 13.00 PM throughout Bulgaria, totally freezing the country, each June 2 in Botev’s memory too.
The monument up-front.
The monument up-front.
Look how beautiful the elementary school is.
Look how beautiful the elementary school is.
This 17th-century tower was used for living and defense purposes.
This 17th-century tower was used for living and defense purposes.
There are two such home-and-defense towers surviving in Vratsa, and the one seen in the distance is the second one.
There are two such home-and-defense towers surviving in Vratsa, and the one seen in the distance is the second one.
This tag contains the name of the company, based in Budapest, Hungary, which manufactured these metal shutters, probably some time in the early 20th century.
This tag contains the name of the company, based in Budapest, Hungary, which manufactured these metal shutters, probably some time in the early 20th century.
The metal shutters belong to a door, not used now, of a building that is currently a restaurant on Vratsa's main street.
The metal shutters belong to a door, not used now, of a building that is currently a restaurant on Vratsa’s main street.

Time to jump in the car and get back to Sofia now. I’ll share with you details on the classic restaurant menu some other time. 🙂

For good night, a soothing and elevating Bulgarian Orthodox chant called Тебе Поем (Tebe Poem, or We Sing to You), composed by priest Alexander Lashkov, currently serving in a church in a western Sofia neighborhood.

The words are contained in the Scripture and many composers have written music to them, including Sergey Rachmaninov. This chant is part of the Holy Liturgy and is really very intimate and powerful when heard live.

Look at the beautiful mirror, linen and lace that I found in the Vratsa museum.
Beautiful and romantic mirror, linen and lace that I found in the Vratsa museum.

The words roughly translate as: “We sing to You, we praise You, we thank you, Lord, and we pray to you, our God.”

In this composition in particular, I especially like the three-fold singing with emotional gradation of the words “and we pray to you, our God”, starting at about 1:33 minutes into the song. The emotion is very restrained though, as this is religious singing and not an Italian canzonetta. 🙂 

Maybe Orthodox chant is not your thing, dear Reader, but this is only 3 minutes long, please listen to it as it is so beautiful. 

So very, very beautiful.

(references used for the more academic parts of this post – The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware and this.)