I went to church today. To tell you the truth, I’m not a big church goer. In fact, it was probably the first time I have ever done this of my own free will in all my life. Previous church visits have usually revolved around weddings, christenings and funerals that you just can’t get out of without appearing rude. As a child I would go to Mass to avoid being whacked across the palm of the hand by a nun with a stick at school on Monday morning. They used to sit in the church all day on Sundays with the class registers to check up on us, you know. The black mark on our souls that they said non-attendance would bring was never as dark as the red marks inflicted on children’s hands by their weapons of Mass destruction. But I do enjoy looking around churches in a touristy sort of way, as long as I don’t have to talk to anybody about what goes on there. I’m just the same with the ladies’ underwear department at Mark’s and Spencer’s.
My friend Nelly, who lives down the road from my house, told me that there would be a special service this morning, commencing at 9:30. The Eastern Orthodox church near the centre of our village, with its golden dome that seems to glimmer in the sun even when the sun isn’t shining, is a beautiful old building, though rarely used. I was delighted that an occasion had arisen which would enable me to go inside, so eagerly I arrived just before the time I was told it would start. I didn’t want to be the first there but I didn’t want to cut the timing of my arrival too fine and risk missing the beginning which would no doubt raise the eyes of the those gathered there.
Inside, the dear old church was even more beautiful than its exterior suggested. Constructed from stone and wood, it’s a relatively simple building with a high ceiling, cold white walls and no seats, as is traditional in churches in this part of the world, but it was finished with wonderful biblical carvings and religious icons, many of which adorned the enormous wooden screen that separated the more public part of the church from the area where only priests may go to conduct the ceremony. It is dedicated to Sveti Atanas (Saint Atanas), the saint adopted by our village. Today was Saint Atanas’ Day so consequently it was Malki Chiflik’s ‘village day’ (just about every village in Bulgaria has such a day to respect its chosen saint) and a time to celebrate his life and work and the life and work of the village.
The Church of Sveti Atanas in Malki Chiflik.
It turned out that I wasn’t the first there. Three other people had arrived before me, all dressed in clerical gowns. I wondered at first if clerical gowns were the dress code but I soon discovered that these men would all play an important part in the proceedings. The man in the red and gold cassock was obviously the Pop (priest). He was standing at the door as I entered. He smiled at me and said something that I didn’t understand, possibly because it was in Bulgarian but just as likely because it was in church jargon. I replied to the best of my ability and went inside where a man in an all-red cassock, who I assumed was the assistant Pop, was blessing the fixtures and fittings of the building, and the third man in an all-black cassock with matching quilted body warmer and woolly hat was half reading and half chanting words from an ancient prayer book. I expect the man in black was the Kleesar (verger). It was cold in the church and when he pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his runny nose a packet of cigarettes fell out onto the floor. I wondered if he had a drop of rakia hidden away in his robes too. I wondered if he wanted to be my friend.
I had hoped that I would blend in, but blending in is difficult when you’re the only person there who doesn’t speak fluent Bulgarian, who doesn’t chant and who isn’t wearing the ceremonial attire of Eastern Orthodoxy. I stood at the back in a poor attempt to be less conspicuous. After about quarter of an hour four ladies came in. I was so pleased to see them as their arrival reassured me that I had got the right day and it meant that suddenly I was only twenty percent of the congregation instead of all of it. They smiled at me as if to say ‘welcome to our community’ or maybe they were thinking ‘look at this foreigner, here on the wrong day and wearing the wrong cassock’. I smiled back and watched them light their candles and place them in the appropriate sandboxes designated individually for life and health and for those people who have died. Then they went and stood behind me, even though I had taken my place at what I had thought had been the back. For the next ten minutes I thought of nothing other than whether or not I might be offending people by standing in the wrong spot. It seemed that there were still traces of the guilt instilled in me during my Roman Catholic upbringing. When my mind switched back to its normal, rational place I noticed that my surroundings had become much quieter. This was because the four ladies had gone and I was once again one hundred percent of the congregation.
I thought I’d give it five minutes and then wander off like the four ladies had done but before I got around to leaving, another lady arrived. A quite elderly lady, bent almost double, no doubt from tilling the land all her life. She did all the candle lighting stuff too and all was going well until she went over to put a lit candle in the sandbox in front of the icon of Saint Atanas. His icon was right down at floor level and the baggy, oversized, terylene coat that she wore flapped about near the flames making my heart race and my head want to shout ‘You’re going to catch fire!’ But it looked like she had either attended services for Saint Atanas before, or caught fire before, as she ducked and dived around the hazard, seemingly oblivious to it.
To pass a few minutes I went to the very back of the church and bought three candles from the small, carved wooden kiosk manned by the man in black who up to then had concentrated all his energy on chanting, wiping his nose on his hankie, retrieving his cigs and keeping the wood burner stoked up … a man in black of many talents! I lit my purchases by stealing a bit of flame from the biggest of the already lit candles and lodged one upright in each of the designated sandboxes. I put one in Sveti Atanas’ sand to say thank you to him for letting me live happily in his village, one in the life and health box for the old lady with the big coat in the hope that she would be delivered from combustion, and the third one in the departed people’s sand for lovely Dolores O’Riordan who sadly passed just the other day.
I was delighted that the lady hadn’t burst into flames but even more delighted that when our respective bits of candle work were done she stayed in the church and stood slightly forward of me. From 10:15 onwards more people started to arrive, many of them bringing loaves of glazed Bulgarian bread baked in round tins and known as pogacha, which they placed on a table near the front. At this point it dawned on me that the 9:30 start might have been lost in translation and that the real kick off time was 10:30. I felt happier from this point onwards and even glowed a little when I considered how keen I must have appeared to my fellow villagers by turning up an hour early. The first hour had been very interesting though as the three clergymen warmed up the proceedings by practicing their chanted lines, swinging the censer to fill the church with the aromatic smoke from burning incense and throwing logs on the big wood burner at the other side of the floor from where I stood. Four plain clothes chanters arrived with music stands and ancient, moth-eaten books of prayers just before the proceedings began in earnest. I suppose you might describe them as backing chanters and, with their combined vocal range, they did an absolutely excellent job.
Exactly one hour after I had arrived, the church was full, the service was underway and my uncomfortable feeling of being the odd one out largely evaporated. I paid avid attention to every move of the three members of the clergy and the forty or fifty members of the congregation. Although the church was icy cold I got a warm feeling from being part of the life of the little village that I have grown to love in the year and a half and a bit since I moved here from Britain. I also got a bit of a glow from the fact that I recognised some of the words that the priest was chanting. When I used to attend the Church of the Sacred Bleeding Heart located somewhere in Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough fifty odd years ago, the whole shooting match was conducted in Latin and I hadn’t a clue what was going on. Despite my concerted efforts, my knowledge of the Bulgarian tongue can still only be described as ‘poor to rubbish’ but recognising just a few of the Pop’s words made me feel more like I was part of the flock and less of the bored bystander that I saw myself as back in the days when I was trying to be a Catholic kid. How different my life might have turned out had there been a Bulgarian speaking Orthodox church in Middlesbrough in the early 1960s, and how much less afraid I might have felt when asked if I was Protestant or Catholic during the time I was living with my family in the North of Ireland only a few years later.
Looking around I considered that there were probably more people in this church than there would be at a normal Mass these days in the church that I attended as a child. However, there were very few young people there; just a few kids taken along by parents or grandparents because there was no one else at home to look after them, I suspected. There didn’t seem to be any young worshippers at all, which was good in one respect because it placed me in the younger half of the congregation. However, it seemed strange and even sad, despite my own atheism, to think that the Eastern Orthodox Church had survived centuries of Ottoman rule and forty-five years of Communism, (both of which were regimes that tried to suppresses Christianity), but it didn’t look as though it was surviving Capitalism very well.
The service seemed to be drawing to a close when the Pop suddenly stopped chanting and said something to the village mayor, who was standing near to me. The chanting resumed as the mayor disappeared, returning a couple of minutes later with an Eastern Orthodox ceremonial red plastic bucket full of water. I could tell that this was a special day in the church calendar because the red plastic bucket was brand new and still had the price sticker on it. The bucket was placed on the table near the home-made bread and after a few minutes of intense chanting from the priest we had all the ingredients required for Holy Communion. My fellow congregation members lined up and as each came face to face with the Pop they were given a piece of the blessed bread and the Pop blessed them by splashing holy water from the bucket on their foreheads with the small bundle of chimshir (twigs from a box shrub) that he held in his hand. I stayed where I was as it would have been hypocritical of me to join in this part of the ceremony for the simple sake of appearing to fit in.
For the same reason I didn’t have any of the traditional Sveti Atanas Day fish soup that was served up outside of the church at the end of the service, though it did look and smell nice. The soup would have probably been even nicer with some of the bread, but what wasn’t used in the service was quickly bundled up and taken away by the people who had brought it. This reminded me of all the times I had taken nice wine to parties and hidden it down the back of the host’s settee in the hope that it wouldn’t be needed and I could take it back home with me when the partying was finished.
Shortly afterwards, in the village square, many of the congregation recongregated to watch a display of traditional Bulgarian dancing put on by Malki Chiflik’s very own team of dancers. There are hundreds of different dances and collectively they are known as Xoro which are unique to Bulgaria, accompanied by wonderful traditional Bulgarian music and much more difficult to do than they look. I know this because I have tried and failed … badly. The many good ladies and few good men of our village’s dancing group make it look easy though. They take it very seriously (most of the time) and they are very good and entertaining to watch.
There were probably more people in the square than had been in the church. A few of them were people I knew and a few more were people I recognised but didn’t know the names of, but loads more were complete strangers. However, quite a lot of them seemed to know who I was. It seemed as though I was introduced to the whole village in the space of twenty minutes, which would have been overwhelming even if I had a better grasp of the language. I can’t remember all the names but I can remember the smiles on the faces of these lovely people and the warm welcome they gave to me on such a cold January day.
Танцов клуб Чифликчии - Malki Chiflik Dance Group.