A Journey, not an Education

Dear Reader,

These days I have done quite a bit of thinking about the qualities and meaning of the past. I have decided that any past is in itself worthless unless it is analysed and used as means to avoid mistakes in the present and the future. Thus, glancing behind to “halcyon” times is avoiding facing reality, which is a waste of time.

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Today I visited the Kremikovtsi Monastery, located just 15 km away from Sofia. It was built in the 14th century, and the oldest church on its premises dates from the 15th. It is currently not used for divine service but its delightful pastel murals have been painstakingly restored. Source: Click here.

One of the things that have prompted these musings are the recurring calls from many parts of the Bulgarian society for the return of religion, meaning Orthodox catechesis, as part of the curriculum in Bulgarian schools. This is supposed to reinstate values in the social tissue and fight the rampant materialism and consumerism eating at the souls of children and adults alike.

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The monastery can be reached by car which one can park a bit away and walk. Or, of course, one could cycle. Source: Click here.

Yet the past has unequivocally showed that the alliance between church and state has not contributed to a particular moral elevation of the population, but rather has created masses of traditional or even nominal believers who observe form but are oblivious of meaning.

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The monastery survives entirely out of private donations and has benches for picnics on the premises. It also engages in animal breeding and produces honey, sold in the candle shop. The shop also sold religious literature and icons, and had a library cupboard for pilgrims staying the night. Source: Click here.

This has caused the church, and I am speaking of the Orthodox Church only, to perhaps become remiss in its role as shepherd, and by tying the otherworldly Christian values to a certain historical period, has gone against the real role of the church, which is  to guide human souls to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

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The outside walls of the ancient church of St. George. A small restaurant for tourists was functioning as well, and Monday’s menu was bean soup and nettle stew.

I do realise how absurd this sounds to a totally secular mind, so to better explain my position I would have to resort to some Orthodox catechesis myself. I have read about this quite extensively over the past year, and my previous blog writings are not necessarily reflective of what I am about to write now. But one learns.

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Inside the ancient church. Source: Click here.

In line with this, I think catechesis is what most people find hard to swallow (including me), yet it is unavoidable as foundation for religious reasoning. Anything else would be an exercise in relativism and pluralism, which are in fact “god-less” as they question the supremacy or even the existence of God in the discussion. Talking of religion as a school subject and not being quite convinced of God’s standing above you and the consequences thereof, is an oxymoron.

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Archangel Michael inside the church.

The thing is that the Orthodox Church considers the earthly life of Jesus as the Son of God, and his Crucifixion and Resurrection, his Second Coming, the Judgment Day and the Kingdom of Heaven as historical events or events that are bound to actually take place in the future.

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Church murals.

The Church as a body of a mixed divine and human origin has thus been set up by Jesus himself and his 12 Apostles, whose task it was to bear witness of Christ’s essence, life, and teachings, thus convincing people to embrace the faith and the moral and behavioural code that are to save their souls. The end of saving their souls is to bring people back to Eden which they have left following the Original Sin. There is no certainty of the saving, the only road to which is a personal fight against passions, constant introspection, and pursuit of moral transformation indicative of repentance.

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More church murals.

The communion with fellow Christians in marriage and in society is a way for people to perfect humility, empathy and abnegation, which are qualities bringing them closer to the essence of the Crucifixion and thus to the essence of God. Thus, for the common laity not strong enough for the calls of priest- or monkhood,  marriage and taking part in the church sacraments and services are ways of tasting the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, before it has actually come.

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And even more church murals.

All sacraments are sacraments because the initiated receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit in proportion to their level of initiation. Thus, the prayers of priests, monks, and nuns who possess the gifts of the Holy Spirit in higher proportion than common baptised laymen, and the help of the saints they solicit, actually assist us in our earthly life without us knowing it.

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Close to the altar.

Jesus came to save humanity as a poor man and his apostles followed him voluntarily. His teaching is not a political one and does not have an earthly agenda, but is focused on the age to come. Because of this, the main purpose of the church is to preserve this Truth, which is the only road to salvation and eternal life. In all ages, teachings that have sought to alter this Truth for earthly purposes have been exposed as heresies.

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Fading murals on church facade.

The deeds of people professing and practicing their Orthodox faith serve as examples and inspiration to people who don’t but sense they perhaps should start to. People born in the Orthodox faith but not practicing it conscientiously are not chosen to be saved and do not stand better chances of being saved than people born in other faiths. In line with people possessing free will, everybody is free to acquaint themselves with the essence of the faith and modify their behaviour accordingly.

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The other church, used for divine service and built in 1907.

In line with all of this, I believe the Church shouldn’t compromise its otherworldly mission with politics and teaching religion in schools. I believe that those clergymen that actually wish it, want the state to somehow do their work as shepherds, because they perhaps don’t have enough strength and faith to do it themselves. The previous time religion was actually in schools, preceded the times of the mass murders of communism. Thus, religious curriculum does not result in ubiquitous love for mankind but does result in the church being discredited as a mere political tool of the national state. This results in drives for voluntary emancipation from the church which however does not make people any less religious, i.e. longing to relate. Thus, in the absence of God, they end up relating to false gods of all shapes and sizes.

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Monastery garden.

Thus, to prevent any detrimental  forms of relation, I do believe that pupils should discuss morals, values, and ethics in school. They do need moral guidance, but they also need to reach out to it themselves, as no virtuous life is possible without personal efforts at moral transformation. Alas, this involves actual work, and is not a product or a mantra that can be purchased and summoned only when needed, like a genie in a bottle.

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More of the monastery garden, and Bulgaria’s typical red geraniums.

As much as I recognise the otherworldly mission of the church, I do however believe that it should have social functions too. Rather than organised by the state, these social functions should be the result of the joint efforts of the laymen and the clergy within a parish. Their deeds and strength of faith are bound to plant seeds and bear fruit healthier than state coercion could ever yield.

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View to the Sofia plain from the monastery.

Religion is a personal matter and everybody shapes the world,

Boryana

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PS. More ancient Bulgarian churches here and here.

PPS. A greeting for you. The Cherubikon, Cherubic Hymn or Cherubim Chant, performed by Bulgaria’s incumbent Patriarch Neophyte. He is an excellent singer and his brother Dimitar has been conductor of the Alexander Nevsky choir for 40 years. This chant is sung at the Great Entrance during the Sunday liturgy. The “us” in the text are the singers, and the text itself tells of the way people should enter the church to worship. …Good luck explaining this in a school.

Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the Thrice-Holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, lay aside all worldly cares, that we may receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by the Angelic hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

And now in Church Bulgarian:

Иже херувими тайно образующе, и животворящей Троице трисвятую песнь припевающе, всякое нине житейское отложимъ попечение. Яко да Царя всехъ подимемъ ангельскими невидимо дориносима чинми. Алилуия, Алилуия, Алилуия.