Monk on Fire: The Rila Monastery


So, beyond the sense of entitlement religion offers religious leaders around the world, it also works to validate concerns over whether or not it even has a place in our community. After all, we are currently witnessing what entitlement offers groups like ISIS when left unchecked and free to grow.

My visit to the Rila Monastery in Southwest Bulgaria is indicative of something along the same vein.

But first, the pleasant and rewarding intro:

Headed to the Rila Monastery, you’ll go through this neat little stucco’d  town where basically nobody lives. It’s so underpopulated that even the people that own houses here mostly live somewhere else and visit during the holidays or with family. The year-round population mostly works in agriculture, with some in the service of the nearby Rila Monastery.

You’re actually more likely to get into a road delay because of sparring cows than you are from vehicle traffic.

This time of year is really great to visit most Southeastern Bulgarian monasteries, in my opinion, because the mountains are right at the cusp of changing color, and that’s where many, if not most of the monasteries are nestled.

Of Bulgaria’s nearly 100 monastic centers dotted around the country, the Rila Monastery is the largest and most heavily visited. In 2009, nearly a million visitors came to see this location. It’s definitely an interesting sight. And this being among the earlier of my Bulgarian monasteries, I am finding that they seem to have this common thread of all feeling totally rebuilt and slightly unauthentic.

Every monastery that I’ve visited so far has burned to the ground at least once and then been rebuilt many years later. So each time this happens, the construction, while attempted in the preceding style, was still influenced by more recent architectural techniques – and beholden to adhering to updated standards of safety and fire regulations.

Not that that prevented fires, since the diocese can’t seem to keep from burning down their religious monuments with such frequency that one might wonder if blazing monasteries might translate to hearty financial benefit to the church. I am not sure I will get anyone to confirm this longstanding conspiracy theory, but when considering the three facts that, 1) there are plenty of monasteries in neighboring countries that don’t have such a “heated” history of fires, to use a pun, 2) that the number one biggest real estate company in the entire country, the company that owns more hectares per capita of low-wage employees in the entirety of Eastern and Southern Europe, is the Eastern Orthodox Church of Bulgaria, and 3) that this very same church has seen drastic decreases in their membership – and their membership fees, as they might be called, there are definitely some questions of exceedingly coincidental benefactors of disaster restructuring monies to be accounted for.

Each time a monastery burns, Tsars, Presidents and wealthy families are expected to shoulder the burden of paying for reconstruction and restoration of the religious relics. These entities take on the responsibility as something of an achievement or a charitable honor to be a contributing part of the “rebirth” of a historical, national monument. But is it really a charitable action or simply a contribution to a medieval  scam that’s simply worked so well that it’s continued for centuries.

In any case, it is still a visual spectacle to visit. And located in the mountains, it’s also a pretty leisurely way to escape the heat. So in the summer, this place really packs in the crowds. It’s difficult to find parking even now, during the off-peak season, so I can imagine that it’s a better bet to take a tour bus from the city if you’re really interested in making this trip. For reasons that will become apparent shortly, however, I actually have to strongly suggest that you do not visit this particular monastery. More on that soon.

Bulgaria has an interesting history with its religious ties throughout the ages. Bulgaria has always been seen as a European “outsider” by other countries in the continent – which stands true even today. Up until the 7th century, the population was mostly pagan, adhering mostly to Slavic and Thracian traditions.
The Rila Monastery has been something of a refuge for revolutionaries throughout the ages as well. And outside of its 2002 visit with Pope John Paul II, it’s housed such names as Vassil Levski, Gotse Delchev, and Peyo Yavorov.
The asshole:
A free PDF available at BulgariaTravel.org states that Rila Monastery is the largest monastery in Bulgaria. It was built in the tenth century and has kept and preserved the Christian values for over a millennium.

I would definitely agree, given the fact that the 10th century was actually the period of Christianity when Pre-scholastic theology found the church in utter disarray, that it’s kept not only the values, but also the self-aggrandized entitlement of Christianity since it was built. If that century defined the religion in this region, with the fall of the Carolingian Empire and the all-out feudal separation of the Roman and Eastern Orthodoxy from the Church of England, then I can see how it also defined how they recruit their monastic heads – like the one we see here who is literally throwing a tantrum and screaming at my producer in the middle of his own place of worship.

The conundrum in the 10th century, by the way, came about because of petty squabbles over issues like whether or not leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist. Conflict was said to have arisen out of theological disputes of the remotest and most minute differences in interpretative disputes on everything from scripture to original sin, purgatory, and the nature of Hell. In fact, this period was so tumultuous, that it came to be known as the Great Schism, and in 1054 culminated in the Bishop of Rome calling for his own personal jurisdiction over determining the final word to the most controversial questions at the time.

On its masthead website, BulgarianDoicese.org, the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox church states that it wishes to teach by both word and deed, to inspire all to lead a life of Orthodox Christian belief, worship, and service to others. Well, if this is how they teach in deeds, they might want to revamp their stance on what they claim is “service to others.”

Look at this guy go. He really has nothing better to do than to cause a huge stink over getting filmed in a place where he probably ends up in more tourist photos than anyone most people know.

Rila Monastery is located inside of Rila Monastery Nature Park – a national park which, though endowed by the orthodox church, was designated as public lands. Being a professor of journalism with more than two decades of filming under my belt, I made sure to find that out before filming.

Why is that important? Because that makes this public land. And in Bulgaria, anyone standing on public land has no expectation to privacy. By profession or volunteerism, monks who find themselves here are in public domain. So, no, I actually don’t require your permission to film.

The monk ran off to complain to the police officers directing traffic about the incident, claiming in his combative argument with my producer that he would have them order me to erase my footage. As we exited the monastery and walked past the police, they nodded and smiled at me, giving me a hand gesture that assured me not to worry about the monk’s conversation.

As this man, who looks as old as my father, was having a hissy fit about me filming him in an open and public space, a crowd had started to form behind me. I found it quite ironic that most of them were taking pictures and filming this ridiculous charade.

Let’s forget for a moment that this man just walked up, assaulted me and tried to take my camera. He then continued on a tirade that literally lasted enough time for me to describe the last 1,000 years of Orthodox conflict. And here he is perfectly exemplifying the plight. One member of the crowd actually had to approached him and remind him that, while I probably should have asked his permission, this was, after all, a church, and that he should calm down and act like a responsible adult.

Thanks, Mr. Monk. I’m sure the YouTube views that you receive will make your hostility totally worth it.

You can see the outtake of this interaction, with subtitles, on my YouTube channel.

Bulgarian Retro Commie Showroom


Yep. You read that title right. On the way to Rila, in Southwestern Bulgaria, there’s a coffee-fueled passion for collecting communist era relics.

A visit to this place feels a lot like being cast into a whitewashed, concrete room with grayscale machines and being interrogated by the KGB – but with pleasant people offering coffee. It is either the perfect scene for a horror movie, or the burial place of Lenin’s TV double.

And before you say it, guys, yes. I know that the big picture I referenced here was actually not Stalin. Mixing a-roll and b-roll can be problematic sometimes. But thanks to those brainiacs out there for picking up on that and being fastidious, helpful viewers and pointing it out!

To find this place, just head toward Rila. It’s on the main road.

Rozhen Monastery


This weekend, my new producer and I went out to visit some really cool places throughout Southwestern Bulgaria. It was a trip back in time to the 1700s when our first stop brought us to the Rozhen orthodox monastery in Blagoevgrad Province. This place was packed into the history books with the Spanish Inquisition.

The Rozhen monastery is the biggest in the Southwest of Bulgaria, and is known formally as the Monastery of the Nativity if the Mother of God. This orthodox encampment is one of the few in the region, and is well preserved. You can reach it by car, as my gracious hosts have offered to me, or by footpath from the town through the sand pyramids – a highly recommended jaunt that should only take an hour or so. This is the trail that the original monastics used, so it’s something of a pilgrimage that can be made in the same footsteps as used in the time of its inception.

Everything from the art on the walls to the listless grape vines splayed along the second story buttresses, drinking up the sun. From before even stepping foot into the grounds of the compound, the centuries-old, riveted, iron-plate door swallowed all sense of recency and equipped the eyes to take in something from long ago.

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The paintings alone, finished in 1732 by local monks, are enough to lock you into a gaze of intentional curiosity. Like the paintings of the period, it’s not the masterful work that absorbs you. It’s the context of the themes themselves. They show depictions of the most important moments in the orthodoxy’s history. And they’re displayed right atop benches and walkways that people inconveniently rub away without any regard to preservation of the artwork. Perhaps this is more the fault of the keepers than the visitors for not protecting with more attention.

Nevertheless, it was a very cool experience to have been a part of. And what’s more, I was also given the rare privilege of shooting inside the monastery itself, with other opportunities to film around the grounds.

Here are a few of the images I took while I was there.

 

After walking the grounds, we also visited the grave of Yane Sandanski, the revolutionary after whom the neighboring town of Sandanski was named. Yane (or Jane) Ivanov Sandanski was an interesting chap. He is widely recognized as the revolutionary leader who lead an anti-Ottoman uprising and assisted in estoppel of the Turkish campaign of forced Islamic conversion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

His grave site lies behind this stoic edifice, and is certainly presaged by locals to be the tomb of a hero.

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After leaving the Rozhen temple, I headed into Melnic, the least populated city in Bulgaria. More about that next time…