A few Saints Await

The little city hermit has started to take heart! So many prayers about him from all four corners of the world could not possibly go unheard! They have not been answered  in the way that he would have hoped — yet!– but this is a matter of least importance. Still in the dark, then, about a number of serious professional and family matters, the little city hermit is about to embark on a long pilgrimage across Greece and Romania, where a few Saints and spiritual elders await him for an “emergency treatment”:

St John the Forerunner in the Chalkidiki monastery of his spiritual father;

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St John the Evangelist and St Amphilochios in Patmos!

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And an elusive Romanian father Ioann, literally hiding in a North Romania hamlet, who has been praying about him for a long time, and a spiritual sister has made all necessary arrangements for them to meet at long last!

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Glory to God for all things! Even if no answers are to be disclosed in all these meetings, still so many blessings are under way!

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How Romanians React to Foreigners

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Suzana Monastery Retreat  II, or An Anthropological ‘Field Trip’ Insights,  and Communism Jokes 😃

Doamne Ajuta! I am obviously not the only pilgrim at Suzana Monastery, but I am the only pilgrim who is NOT Romanian. I am immediately spotted and ‘targeted’ , especially by a group of Romanian students who belong to an Orthodox youth organization and do volunteer work at the monastery in the summer. They are here to help with the housekeeping, farming and agriculture. And with chanting.

How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (1)

Mistake Bucharest for Budapest.

Never ask a Romanian if he lives in Budapest. That’s the capital sin, the perfect way to end a potentially interesting conversation. Yes, Budapest is a capital city, and there’s a big chance you’ll nail it with this guess — but only if you’re speaking to a Hungarian! We’re so tired of hearing, “Good evening, Budapest!” every time an international act has a concert in Bucharest. Metallica did it, Lenny Kravitz did it. And many others. But they had bodyguards. You, on the other hand, will be alone in front of an outburst of anger.

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The Romanian hospitality, warmth, enthusiasm and curiosity about anything Greek, or foreign for that matter, AND Orthodox CANNOT be exaggerated! This group of students at Suzana Monastery instantly become my ready interpreters and eager translators, my willing tutors for Romanian chanting and they are so full of questions about my job, my studies, my travels, my pilgrimages, my adopted country UK, my home country Greece and its Saints, especially St. Paisios, about everything, to the point of collapse!

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I may be on a pilgrimage in Romanian monasteries, but St Paisios’ the Athonite, my patron Saint‘s, presence is strongly felt all over Romania. Plenty of icons of his and books with his services and spiritual counsels in all monasteries and churches I have been so far! Esp. on the 12th of July the faithful all over in Romania were holding Vigils and praying Akathists and Supplication canons, asking for his prayers. Wherever I go, the moment Romanians realise that I am Greek and my home town is near Souroti, they start asking for my telephone number and email, so that I can make arrangements and help them go and venerate his tomb. 

How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (2)

Ask us about vampires.

In 1897, the Irish writer Bram Stoker published a Gothic novel entitled Dracula. His story made Transylvania more famous than any tourism promotion campaign ever could. By using some historical facts, he linked Vlad Tepes, the Voivode of Wallachia, to his main character, Count Dracula, the vampire. Unfortunately, that means foolish tourists now come to Transylvania expecting to see garlic hanging by doors or people walking around with wooden stakes in their pockets. Transylvania is a peaceful, hilly area with many traditional houses and fortified churches. The real threat back then wasn’t exsanguination, but impalement — the Voivode Vlad’s favorite method of execution. And that isn’t fiction.

Their energy is indomitable, even when our conversation lasts for hours while standing after very long services outside the church at dusk until midnight and …! Their effusion is so contagious and there is no end to the exchange of telephone numbers, emails and addresses for the planning of future pilgrimages in Romania and Greece and exchange of Saints! These ‘buzzing bees’ with bright eyes and brighter smiles are to follow me everywhere from now on (when they are not busy with their obediences) yet their ‘buzzying’ mysteriously does not interfere with the silence that invades me. It surely has to do with their kindness, love and purity in Christ.

 

 

If you have never experienced the intensity of Romanians’ love and hospitality, you may think I exaggerate. To give you just another example, while waiting for the bus to Bucharest from Thessaloniki, I sat at a nearby café and took out my Byzantine chanting textbook to practice! Yes, one has to be very careful with these diatonic genus and Greek:  A    Β     Γ   Δ     Ε Ζ     Η, Greek:       Πα Βου Γα Δι Κε Ζω Νη, English:     Pa Vou Ga Di Ke Zo Ni, [Re Mi   Fa Sol La Si   Do], [D   E     F   G   A   B   C ]

Can you imagine a Romanian in love with you, if that is their normal ??!!

Suddenly a Romanian interrupts me and ‘blurts’ out how excited she is for meeting me, and that she is returning back to Bucharest together with 4 Romanian musicologists, who were on a Byzantine chanting conference in Thasos, and pretty soon I am surrounded by 4 (even) more effusive, enthusiastic Romanians, reciting to me Homer in ancient Greek, hugging me and chanting Ti Ipermaho / Τῆ Ὺπερμάχῳ/ To Thee the Champion Leader, in Greek again with stunning voices right in the middle of the street (!) with tears in their eyes. What a people! Can you imagine a Romanian in love with you, if that is their normal ??!!

How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (3)

Leave food on your plate.

Mark my words: If invited to a Romanian’s home for lunch or dinner, fast for a day or two before the visit. We are known for being a welcoming nation, and one of our favorite ways of showing it is through food. Here are a few appetizers so you don’t starve before the first course is ready. Some eggplant salad, salted roe, homemade smoked bacon with onions, and stuffed boiled eggs with mayo. Come on, try them all! Do you like the smell of our meatball soup? Here comes the clay pot full of sarmale, next to a steaming polenta and a jar of cream. You have to taste this! It’s our traditional course. You’ve finished everything? Don’t worry, there’s plenty more! The pork roast seasoned with garlic is almost ready.

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Doamne Ajuta! Nothing best encapsulates the warmth of the Romanian heart, the warmth of their love, politeness, gentleness and hospitality, other than this greeting of theirs, ready to be offered at any time of the day, and on any occasion. So, rather than wishing someone ‘Good Morning’, or a ‘Safe Journey’, lay people and priests bless each other continuously, “Doamne Ajuta”, for surely where He is present, the journey or the job is bound to be blessed too. Such fresh and pure, innocent, child-like faith, feels refreshingly ‘simple’ compared to the Russian anguish, sinfulness and repentance.

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Such warmth and hospitality, even when very poor, even when they want to share with you, their ‘raw’ cottage cheese, natural sour cream and bizarre non-homogenized boiled water-milk concoction straight from the monastery’s cows (!), their mamaliga, their beans puree and their boiled cabbage. (Can you imagine, again the Romanians’ soaring child-like enthusiasm when steaks or ice-cream show up in a surprise at our monastic (!) dinner?) Here, at a monastery, we have to boil water at the wood stove so that we can have hot water to wash the dishes. No hot bath to be sure. We have to sleep under kilimia, rough peasants’ rugs, becoming prey to very hungry fleas. And still, the poorer you are, the eager to share, and especially the more hospitable especially when it comes to basic human needs, such as sleep, company, food.

How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (4)

Confuse Romanians with Gypsies.

The official name of the Gypsy ethnic group is Romani, and even though Wikipedia states they are “not to be confused with Romanians, an unrelated ethnic group and nation,” misplaced associations are still often made. There are Gypsies all over the world — one million in the United States, 800,000 in Brazil, and many others in Europe, including Romania. They originated in India and left sometime between the sixth and eleventh centuries. Confusing Romanians with Romanis only makes you sound ignorant.

 

All Romanians I have encountered so far, be it at the UK, be it in Romania or in Greece, anywhere, are true cosmopolitans, intelligentsia and artists, men and women of culture and refinement, often very poor but with a wealth of education, so eager to contribute to the whole world community of Arts and Sciences, so enthusiastic to learn and to connect, curious yet so courteous, well-mannered and pious (in the good sense of the world).

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Sometimes this poverty of theirs may surface in a certain ‘ugliness’, dirtiness, slovenliness, chaos, and carelessness in their kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms and common areas. We have to surround ourselves with beauty—that is a Christian virtue., but not one that I have encountered in Romania, with the exception of their churches and monasteries. Yet one feels so privileged, honoured and blessed to just be with them! Romanian homes are often less than orderly and clean according to a western European standard, their appearance follows a pretty weird and slovenly fashion (if one may call such an ‘invention’ fashion), completely lacking any finesse and style, but just a look at their bright smiles and sparkling eyes and a companionship with their fascinating personalities ‘compensates’ immensely. Who cares about clothes and looks, when in company of such kind and refined people, refined in all tastes that truly matter, refined in spirit and soul and heart, in the company ultimately of true aristocrats? Besides, none of us would have been any the better, after such an aggressive Communist regime and persecution, followed by a ruthless dictatorship, just in recent times.

How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (5)

Tell us a breeze can’t make you sick.

We Romanians are so convinced that a cool breeze or draft of air can make you sick that we even have an expression for it: Te trage curentul. (“You’ll be pulled by the draft.”) Take the bus on a hot summer day, and you’ll probably see the windows open on only one side of the vehicle, or not at all. Craving a breath of fresh air, you move your hand in the direction of the window. But even before you touch the handle, you’ll hear a panicked voice say, “Are you trying to get us all sick?” To anyone else, this doesn’t make sense, but the logic behind this Romanian belief goes like this: The current of cool air will make your ears hurt and your nose run. Don’t even try to argue about this. You’ll only make yourself hotter.

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Romanians laugh a lot , especially at the face of danger, and can always appreciate a good joke. Like when I peppered sugar on my steak! Yet, I am not the only one in trouble with a foreign language. The residing priest told us that while at the States, he was invited at Arizona monasteries, and he made a homily there how Jesus was carried by a monkey (!), not donkey 😃

“Humor was a way of rebellion and survival at the same time; an escape of the mind and soul, a way of coping with all those absurd and restrictions imposed by a communist regime who did not care about its own people. Humor was a way of standing up or fighting back, a form of active resistance against a criminal regime; at that time the political jokes served as a catalyst of the constant state of discontent Romanians felt towards the things they did not agree or even hated… towards what was happening with our country. ”

Like:

Have you noticed that at every petrol station there is now a doctor and a policeman on duty? The doctor gives the first aid to those who faint when they see the price, and the policeman interrogates the ones who fill up about where they got the money from. 

A patient is hospitalized at the Insane Asylum. ‘Why are you here?’, another patient asks. ‘I wanted to cross the Romanian boarder’, says the first. ‘But for something like this they do not send you to an asylum!’, replies the other. ‘Yes, but I wanted to escape to Soviet Union!’

A citizen said the chief of the Communist Party is an idiot. For saying this, the citizen was sentenced to spend 25 years and 3 months in prison. Everybody was wondering why 25 years and 3 months. In the end, they old find out the answer: 3 months for insulting a citizen of the Socialist Republic of Romania; 25 years for revealing a state secret.  

 

For those who lived in Romanian during communism time, this system is very different from anything you could read in the some idealistic books. Some of the quotes show extremely well how people really felt about such an oppressing system:

Is communism a science? No, if it were a science, they would have   tested it on animals first.

An old gypsy man on his dying bad. Instead of sending after the priest, he asks for the local chief of communist party. ‘I would like to join the Party’, says the dying man. ‘Why would you do this?’, asks the communist. ‘You lived your whole life free as the wind and now you want to join the Party?’. ‘Well, you see, if somebody has to die, I would be much happier if that guy were a communist’, answers back the dying man. 

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Last but not least, Romanians are not just ‘special’, but unique! (in their own opinion of course) Stereotypes, ethnophyleticism, ethnic superiority/ inferiority complexes and xenophobia deeply vex my spirit.Sadly, even here, in a monastery, I have to ‘defend’ English people and ‘their’ Orthodoxy from some Romanians. I do not know how good an ‘ambassador’ I am, but I am trying my best. And all of Romanians I have encountered think that St Philothei, the Righteous Martyr of Athens (sic!) is Romanian! Not that Greeks are any better. We consider St Efraim the Syrian (sic!) to be Greek! Of course!

How to ‘annoy’ a Romanian (6)

Refuse homemade beverages.

Romania has one of the oldest winemaking traditions in the world. The country once had so many vineyards it’s believed Dionysus, the god of wine, was born in southeast Romania in a region then called Thracia. As proud successors of the Thracians, Romanians practice winemaking as a popular hobby, so you’ll probably be offered some garage-made wine. Or tuica, a strong fruity beverage. Even if you have reason for concern, do not ask about hygienic conditions or quality control. We take great pride in everything made with our own hands, so turning it down would be a serious insult. Take a sip, two, three, and worry not. We all drink homemade alcohol, and no one has died of it. So far.

Go here for Part I

Go here for Part III

To Be Continued …

Sources for the jokes: How to piss off a Romanian   and Romanian Communist jokes

Draganescu Sistine Chapel

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The Romanian Orthodox Church is considering a Romanian monk persecuted by the communists and known as the “saint of Transylvania” for sainthood. … Boca, who became a monk in 1940, was harassed by the Securitate secret police, detained and did forced labor on the Black Sea Canal, a notorious labor camp where tens of thousands of political prisoners worked in the 1950s. In 1959, he was banned from leading worship and the Prislop monastery, where he is now buried, was converted into a retirement home. He was forced to retire from the church in 1968 and spent 15 years painting religious images and icons in the small church of Draganescu in southern Romania. The church’s interiors are now considered among the most beautiful in the country. Elder Arsenie Boca reposed in the Lord in early 1989, a month before Romania’s anti-communist revolt, aged 79. Though he is not yet canonized, Elder Arsenie’s grave, located in Prislop Monastery, is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims every year, where many miracles occur. One miracle which everyone can see is that the flowers over his grave never die or wither , neither in the hot summer or the frigid winter.

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For his amazing life, the  documentary “Fr. Arsenie Boca – Man of God” is a MUST.  “His colleagues at the Theological Academy of Sibiu named him ‘The Saint’, he is considered a founding father of the Romanian Philokalia by father Dumitru Staniloaie, who thought of him as an unparalleled phenomenon of Romanian monasticism.

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Sought after and followed by thousands of believers eager to quench their spiritual thirst from his inexhaustible spring of serenity; legendary for his prophesying and healing gifts, painter of souls and painter of churches, man of culture, philosopher of sciences and religion, father Arsenie Boca was, just like Saint Basil as depicted by him in his essential work The Path of the Kingdom.

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A disciple calmly walking across the stormy seas, an unmoving pillar against the troubled waves, a man among people, providing guidance and strength with otherworldly serenity, unflinching in the belief that God alone is ruler of our world. An unequaled personality, a magnet for thousands of people in all walks of life, and also a target for suspicion for the authorities of his day, who failed to understand the source of his exceptional power to gather people around him.” 

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As one person interviewed in this documentary says: “Fr. Arsenie made Christ transparent to us.” He still does. His presence in the midst of us after his passing is a reminder of the proximity of Heaven. This film is an opportunity to (re)discover it for ourselves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptbTap5NHqw

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The Sistine Chapel of the Romanians: the Draganescu Church

Father Arsenie Boca lived in Draganescu for 20 years and in 1968 he began painting the parish church, a work that took him more than 15 years. As he wasn’t allowed to celebrate service, some of the priests who visited the church over the years claim that Arsenie Boca has actually painted the sermons he delivered at Sambata de Sus.

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Rainbow colors reverberating in frescoes, light flowing from Christ’s Resurrection, Heaven trickling down through the painting brush, that’s the way the murals painted by Orthodoxy beacon Arsenie Boca at the “St. Nicholas” Church of the Draganescu town – Giurgiu County can be translated and rendered into metaphor. …

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Prophetic Artist in Shackles

His frescoes are diaphanous, and the images are accompanied by metaphors referring to people’s weaknesses and sins, by aphorisms, quotations from the Holy Scripture, sometimes by teachings of the Father and biblical scenes: the Resurrection, a picture of hell, the Group of the Righteous. The paintings are said to have a visionary, prophetic content, as it is known that Father Arsenie Boca had the gift of spiritual far-sight: one of the scenes, two tall buildings engulfed in flames, is said to allude to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, not to mention those where items like a cell phone, a space shuttle, satellite dishes, all unusual things in that period, appear.

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For his paintings, the art documentary “Picturi ale pr. Arsenie Boca pe biserica din Drăgănescu” at https://vimeo.com/82791105 is a MUST. Also, go to http://www.themidlandhostel.com/the-sistine-chapel-of-the-romanians-the-draganescu-church/ and http://www.agerpres.ro/engleza-destinatie-romania/2014/11/22/destination-romania-the-draganescu-church-swathed-in-father-arsenie-boca-s-prophetic-paintings-18-04-37 and watch a short art film “Father Arsenie Boca, one of Romania greatest Saint”  at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r6ZX8M8vwY

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Morning prayer by Arsenie Boca
Lord Jesus Christ, help me let go of myself today, as I can create great problems from small and insignificant issues, and this way, caring for myself, I will lose You.

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Lord Jesus Christ, help me so that the prayer of Your Holy name will wander (work) through my mind more than lightning on the sky, so that I stay clear of even the shadow of bad thoughts as, look, I am sinning every minute.
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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, because we stumble as we are walking in the dark. Our temptations are closing the eyes of our mind, forgetfulness has become like a wall amongst us, turning our hearts to stone and all together have made the prison cell in which we keep You crippled, starving and naked, wasting our days.
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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us and set fire to this prison cell, light up the love in our hearts, burn the thorns of our temptations and make our souls bright.

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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, come and live within us, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prays through us with unspoken sighs, when word and mind don’t have the power.

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Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, because we don’t realise how imperfect we are and how close You are to our souls; and how distant we become through our sins. Shine Your light over us, so that we see light through Your eyes and live eternally through Your life. Our light and joy, praise be to You!

Amen!

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Memento Mori

There’s something about abandonment that resonates strangely with the human spirit; and the sight of human buildings reclaimed by nature has a twofold effect. Firstly, it hints at hidden histories, at stories and perhaps lives lost – but more powerful still, is the underlying message that reminds us how all things must one day return to the earth. How interesting it is then, to contemplate the decline of our monuments to religion: more than mere function, these structures carry the weight of our beliefs, our dreams, our hope and our faith.

From time to time in my travels, I’ve come across the derelict remains of churches; some of them boarded and fenced off in city centres, others left to rot in fields or forests. I felt it was about time I shared a few of these locations … and so here are five of the most memorable religious ruins that I’ve had the opportunity to explore.

THREE ABANDONED CHURCHES AND A CELLAR FULL OF SKULLS

Derelict Church and Bell Tower, Bulgaria

I came across this first site one year ago – on Boxing Day, to be precise – nestled amongst bushes and tumbled stone walls, in the middle of a remote Balkan village.

The village was much like many others in the area; half a dozen houses clustered around a potholed road, and half of those properties most likely uninhabited. Over the past couple of decades Bulgaria has seen radical depopulation in its more rural settlements, as young people typically move to the cities – or now, increasingly to other EU nations – in search of work. As a result, many of Bulgaria’s more remote villages have begun to look a little starved of life and vitality.

From the road it didn’t look like much more than a collapsed barn; the creepers and brambles already taking a hold on the old stones, pulling them down in a deadly stranglehold. It was a war memorial in the graveyard that caught my eye, however – a peculiar, kneeling figure, sat atop the Bulgarian crest and brandishing a WWI-era rifle. The face seemed somehow twisted at first, but the more I looked the more I read a profound pathos etched into that stone mask.

I walked through the graveyard to the derelict building behind, a structure I’d barely given a second look until then. Here though, approaching from the main entrance I was greeted by the faded yet familiar symbols of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; and stepping through an arched double doorway, for just a moment I was able to imagine the building whole.

At a guess, I’d say the church had been built sometime in the early 19th century. It wasn’t until 1878 that Bulgaria finally achieved independence from Ottoman rule, before which these people were strictly forbidden from building churches that rose taller than the invaders’ mosques. As a result, Bulgarian Orthodox churches built before that were typically dug deep into the ground, to form semi-subterranean spaces of worship that wouldn’t offend their Muslim overlords.

This building, approached by a series of three stone steps descending into a shallow, one-storey church, seemed to fit the mould perfectly.

The site also featured a bell tower, built in a more ornate style and topped with a proud cross, which would certainly have been raised post-liberation – such an unashamed statement of christianity would never have met with Ottoman approval. In fact, during those years even bells themselves were banned from churches; the subjugated Christians would rather have made do with wooden clappers, that drew less attention to their heathen practices.

It was sad to see the church, along with its more recently acquired bell tower, in such a squalid state of disrepair; the roof had long since been stripped, leaving nothing of value and only old, moss-covered stones to hint at what had once been here. Such is the nature of depopulation, however. With only a handful of elderly residents left, there was barely a congregation to be found in the village – let alone the work force required to keep the church and tower well maintained.

The sun was setting by the time I left the main body of the church. I glanced up at the stone tower as I crossed the graveyard, and at that moment I caught the reflection of sun beams glinting dully on the brass body of a bell. Immediately, I knew I wanted to climb the tower.

The bell tower wasn’t tall, perhaps little over four floors high by average building standards. What made the climb difficult however, was the state of the wooden staircase within. Some steps were missing altogether, others splintered, grown over with moss, while just a few seemed to promise the illusion of stability.

I spread my weight across as many steps as I could at any given time, taking the climb at a painfully slow rate. The structure creaked and groaned in protest, as I crawled up the rotten corkscrew.

At last, however, I made it to the top. Coming round one final corner of the warped and weathered staircase I met a square of blue above – where day’s last light was spilling in through windows in the stone to illuminate the bell ringer’s platform.

Pulling myself up and onto the larger beams that formed a floor for the tower’s topmost chamber, I caught my breath and looked out at the view – the sleepy hamlet, the lake beyond, the mountains disappearing into mist. In all the years this church and tower had suffered the onslaught of the elements, wood and stone giving way to the inevitable pull of natural decay, the view itself had likely never changed. Now that I was here, I couldn’t resist but ring the bell. It tolled a deep and dissonant sound that echoed out across the landscape … but by now there was no one left to hear it ring.

Christ the Savior Cathedral, Kosovo

In November last year I took a trip to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. One of the sites I explored that week was an unfinished cathedral, located in a park just off George Bush Boulevard.

The building – titled the “Christ the Saviour Cathedral” – is a perfect example of the Orthodox form with its tower and dome, its simple cross placed up top. Here however, in the largely Islamic capital of Kosovo, the unfinished building stands out in sharp contrast against its surroundings.

Nowadays this building (and what it stands for) is caught at the heart of a heated political debate.

Construction began on the cathedral back in 1995, when it was intended as a place of worship for Pristina’s Serbian Orthodox population. Things would soon change however, with the outbreak of the Kosovo War in February 1998. The construction project was stalled as war ravaged the country, Albanians pitted against Serbs in a battle for independence. The following years would see attempted ethnic cleansing, bombing raids and eventual UN intervention … and by the time the Republic of Kosovo had been established as an independent nation in July 1990, the unfinished Serbian cathedral in its capital had become an uncomfortable reminder of their past oppression.

Built on the grounds of Pristina University, the Christ the Saviour Cathedral remains a brickwork shell to this day. It isn’t guarded, and the construction team never got as far as giving the building doors which might be locked to keep out trespassers; and so I sauntered in freely, to explore the vast brickwork arches and domes of a cathedral that never was.

While some Kosovo Albanians have called for the complete demolition of the building – branding it a symbol of the regime of Slobodan Milošević – there are others here who like it just the way it is. Speaking to an Albanian Muslim friend just a few days later, I was told that there are some in Pristina (and particularly amongst the younger population) who consider this ghostly shell a kind of trophy;

“Every time I look at this ruin, it reminds me of our victory against the Serbs,” my friend told me over burek and macchiatos.

Inside the cathedral I caught the scent of something foul, and turning a corner, I found that the altar space had recently been used as a public toilet. Whether this too carried a political message – or was simply the work of someone who’d been caught short in the park – I’d never know.

Abandoned Orthodox Church, Romania

Perhaps the most beautiful building featured on my list, this Romanian Orthodox church was also the most severely dilapidated.

The church lies on the edge of a tiny village, surrounded by open fields and roughly an hour’s drive from Bucharest. I never would have found the remote location on my own, but rather I made the trip with my Romanian friend Ovidiu, and co-conspirator Nate (the man from Yomadic).

Ducking beneath a lintel of jagged, severed bricks, we stepped into the church through a breach in one wall; a breach created after one large section of the building had torn away altogether, to crumble into the long grass.

Immediately I was struck by the simplistic beauty of the place. Frescoed walls and pillars in warm shades of orange, delicate arches and the most exquisite murals painted in blue, gold and red.

Unlike the building above, which I had witnessed being pulled aggressively apart by power tools and bulldozers, the ugly work of human hands and gas-fuelled vehicles of destruction, the atmosphere in this place was altogether different. Here there was a sense of balance, a serenity about the decay, as green growth sprouted out of old bricks … and vines reached in through windows to steal the minerals back from the very walls themselves.

The death of this church was a beautiful thing, a painless passing wrapped within the loving arms of mother nature.

Though the space inside was small, we spent a good long while exploring it – most of that time poring over faded frescos, admiring the painstaking detail in every scene. At one point we even climbed up onto the walls themselves … moving slowly, ever cautious not to dislodge the stones. From the broken end of the nave we looked down on the altar from above, our view level with the bell tower that somehow, against all odds, stood tall and square above the ruin even now.

Outside the church, where the graveyard bordered onto a small village square in which children chased chickens and three old women in shawls had sat on a wooden bench and watched us pass, there stood a gatehouse.

Like the church, this building too had clearly seen better days – but for now at least, it managed to maintain some structural integrity. I decided to climb it.

Stood beneath the stone archway, I ran my hand through the space where once a staircase would have been – wet chips of rotten wood now hanging in heavy cobwebs, while the chewed-off ends of steps still jutted out of slots in the wall at regular intervals. There was a square hatch above, leading to the tower room with its balcony – but 10 feet up without a ladder, I wasn’t going to get there on my own.

Using Ovidiu as a human climbing frame, I managed to get a hold on the ledge above … before pulling myself up and over the lip, rolling into a square grey chamber adjacent to the central tower.

The space inside the upper portion of the gatehouse had, apparently, long since been taken over by the pigeons. Moving through the mounds of muck and feathers, I crossed to where a wooden hatch opened onto the central tower. Above me, sunlight streamed in through a wide rent in the tin roof.

The main tower of the building had lost its floor – where once the boards had been, now only a couple of wooden planks extended from one end to the next, a delicate balancing act above a 10-foot drop.

I put my best foot forward, placing it on the wooden beam with the hope of crossing, and making it out onto the balcony beyond. It wasn’t to be, however; the moment I put weight on the wood I felt it shift beneath me, the surface crumbling to a grit with the texture and consistency of coffee grounds. I took one last look at that door opening out onto the balcony, then looked down again to the powdery mess my foot had made of the walkway.

Nope, I thought, not worth it.

Before we left, the churchyard had one more surprise in store for us.

Beneath a nearby tree there sat a heavy stone sarcophagus, its lid carved with ornate script and a sculpted wreath. At each corner, the tomb was supported on stones fashioned into the shape of feet.

I was just admiring the letters carved into the tomb, when I spotted a square hole opening up in the earth beside the sarcophagus. It was deep – too deep to make out the bottom – and suspecting I might be stood above some kind of buried crypt, I began looking around for the entrance.

We found it, sure enough; a series of slab-like steps that descended beneath the graveyard, into a deep, dark chamber filled with stones and rubble. The space wasn’t large, and felt all the more cramped for the piles of broken things which had been cast down from the opening above. There were cracked tombstones, pieces of pillar, even shards of splintered wood; presumably from coffins.

And after that we bid the church farewell. In one sense it was tragic to see such art left out to rot, and I wondered why no effort had been made to preserve it; the more time I spent in and around that building however, the more I experienced an inexplicable feeling that everything was exactly as it should be … and from then on I was simply grateful for the opportunity to admire the church before it had been swallowed back into the earth altogether.

Monastery Crypt, Bulgaria

My last location was not abandoned; neither was it a church, strictly speaking, but rather a picturesque little monastery nestled beneath a cliff in the mountains of Bulgaria.

While the monastery itself was undoubtedly beautiful – not to mention unique, at least in terms of structure and geography – my main reason for visiting the place was a small, half-buried chamber that would usually not be seen by visitors.

Stepping around the corner of a chapel, we followed the graveyard path that wound around and down; a flight of stones steps descending to the cellar door. We tried the handle and though the door was stubborn to open – the wood swollen from moisture – it had been left unlocked, as expected.

Inside the dim chamber beyond, a number of wooden boxes had been stacked in clumsy piles, a muddle of mismatched chests and caskets. “костилница,” read lettering on the wall: “Ossuary.”

Many of the boxes were labelled with names, presumably corresponding to the one-time owners of the bones that lay inside. I wondered where these bones were headed – or if these wooden boxes were indeed the final resting place of monks, martyrs, or whoever else this may have been in life.

Not all these holy bones were hidden though, and on a recessed shelf at the back corner of the crypt were arranged a series of human skulls. Following the same tradition I saw on my recent visit to a Czech ossuary, these bones had been boiled clean … but after that, the monks here had painted names and dates across each skull in delicate brushstrokes.

The effect was strangely beautiful; a repurposing of death, skulls used in place of headstones. These bones had served as vessels of information in life, why not allow them to continue to speak beyond that point?

It did trouble me a little to see the bones left open to the air … the skulls on the shelf showed signs of disintegration, while the stacked boxes were beginning to collapse under the weight of those piled above. Perhaps, though, such desire for preservation is itself an unnatural urge – maybe it’s healthier to accept the passing of time, and to embrace the inevitable decay that comes with it. These skulls seemed to serve the purpose of memento mori in every sense: both a reminder that all things must end, and also an admission that such processes can yet be beautiful.

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