Monday, August 18, 2008

My Bad Orthodoxy

So, in my last post, I mentioned that I needed to make a phone call to Hungary about a project. Well, I did, and they said that they would respond to an e-mail that I sent. To make a long story short, we wrote a project for something these donors don't plan on supporting. I feel absolutely awful because I was the one who insisted I knew what I was talking about and put us all on the wrong track. We're still writing e-mails to these donors - hoping that, for some reason, they'll change their minds and make some kind of exception for our project. Meh. In short, they are looking for desegregation projects, and we wrote a project for a segregated school in our community. Super. Duper. I feel like an idiot. We wrote a damn good project, though. Hopefully there is a future for it with some re-working.
Other than that dim spot, I've been doing pretty well. Last Wednesday, I sat in on a meeting with some representives from a PHARE program who will be coordinating a project with a local school. It turns out that two of them are close, former colleagues of our foundation. One I'd met before, the other I'd only heard about. At first, I felt a little awkward in the meeting. I didn't know how to contribute (this is the way I feel in most meetings I sit in on), and I wasn't sure how to be of any use. I'm used to playing the role of wallflower, but I hate that about myself. It turns out that I was able to make a few comments and provide some insight to the discussion. So, I was proud of myself.
After the meeting, I went to coffee with one of the representatives while the other went to the municipality to prepare for a meeting with community members. In this time, I mentioned about my future goals for learning French. One of the guys informed me that he has a friend who lives in the French-speaking part of Belgium. Who knows? Maybe there's an opportunity there.
Pretty soon, a bunch of us crammed on a bench and had coffee. There was a lot of catching up to be done between some of my colleagues and these two project representatives. I was just sitting there - smooshed between the two reps and enjoying listening to the discussion about old times before I even came to Bulgaria.
After the presentation at the municipality, Yanko, the two reps, and I went to eat. I was just enjoying being around such enlightened people. It probably sounds a little elitest, but I feel like I have more in common now with people who have traveled the world a bit (even lived abroad for extended periods of time) than with someone who hasn't spent time doing these things. This isn't to say that I can't relate with someone who hasn't. It's just easier for me to jump into a conversation with a new acquaintance if they have. Otherwise I'm fighting to find something to say... especially with Bulgarians.
We spent all day with these representatives, and later that evening I went out with some high school friends of mine. One of them has a pair of twin cousins that live in the San Francisco area. They come to Bulgaria every summer, and I had never really taken the time to talk to them. This year, they came to baseball a few times with another friend of theirs to play with the kids, and I've really appreciated them. They bring up the level of skill and maturity on the field. We went out to a cafe with them for one of their last evenings here, and it was fascinating talking to them about world politics, what Bulgarians think about Americans, what Americans think about Bulgarians and Eastern Europe, and anything else we could think of to talk about. These are the times when you think, "Why didn't I take the opportunity to get to know this person earlier?"
This last session of baseball was a lot of crazy fun. Only Reneta came with me from the Roma mahala, but we ran into the soccer team on our way in. They were all excited to learn how to play baseball. Plus, there were a lot of kids who have played with us in the past. In the end, I didn't have enough gloves for everyone. It was a bit of chaos, but we had a lot of fun. One by two by three, the kids dwindled away, and we were able to get a good game going. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you have the most fun.
This Friday, some of my colleagues, a few people from the Roma mahala, and I went to a place called Krustova Gora. There's a monastery there, and we wanted to take an excursion to see it and see the celebration for "Bogoroditsa," or "The Mother of God." August 15th is the name day for Maria, or Mary, and many gather from all over Buglaria to visit such religious places. The area of the monastery was pretty isolated, and it was beautiful.
As mentioned in the article that I've provided a link to, there is a lot of religous symbolism associated with the region. There are twelve small churches (Does the word "paraclese" exist in English? I feel like I've heard it before, but I can't find it.) which are named after the twelve apostles. There is also a larger church in the name of the Mother of God. At the top of a hill, after all the little chapels, there is a golden cross which is said to mark the place where a piece of Christ's cross is buried. People gather to pray in front of that cross and leave or wipe clothing on it as the cross is said to have a spiritual power that can cure ailments.
In addition, there are several rocks scattered on the ground in the area. It is said that these are in the shape of the cross, but really, if you are looking hard enough, one can see cross shapes etched into the rock. Honestly, this takes faith, but I did see a few rocks that had a pretty clear representation of a cross (or an "X") in them.
Besides this, it is said that there are healing waters in the region. Also, one can go into the church and pick up some holy water - whether you decide to put it in a Coke bottle or a specialty bottle you buy from the church is up to you. We went into the church, and I lit a candle in the Orthodox tradition.
In the evening, we found a tree where it is said that only "good" people (meaning without sin - or maybe very little) can pass through. Basically, it took climbing up on a branch and then hanging onto another branch while you fell to the ground again on the other side. That tree is no joke. A woman told us that several people have broken limbs trying to pass through this tree. I believe it. As to whether it means these people were "sinful" or not, I'm not sure.
There were only a couple shops on the grounds - church-approved, of course. People lined up to buy icons, snacks, and coffee. Of course, there are religious reasons as to why others cannot buy/sell on the holy place, but it also works out to make a wonderful monopoly on any possible competition. After all, religion is a business. The place looked well taken care of.
That night, we camped out on the ground near the church. At midnight, the priests came out and sang a variety of prayers. Honestly, it's a beautiful sound. Sometimes it sounds so mysterious and ominous. Other times, it's tiring on the ears. I would love to find a CD with some of these prayers on them. Apparently, the service went on until 2:00 a.m., but I fell asleep again around one o'clock.
The ground wasn't too bad, and I have an awesome sleeping bag, but I woke up several times throughout the night. Always, someone in the group was awake next to me and someone else was snoring. I probably slept the best out of the group, but I was still exhausted the next morning. We came back early the next day. I ate, I showered, I slept. It was glorious.
You know partly why it was so fascinating? I went with a mixed group of Muslims and Christians. (And a few people who possibly aren't sure whether they're one or the other.) The Muslims, however, were acting more like Christians in the traditional sense than I was. In any case, they believed in the power of the place. I felt no differently, and I'm not one to believe in the sacredness of places, icons, and other material items.
I got into a very brief discussion about my faith because a Muslim woman was telling some others that they should not "cross themselves" when they go into the church. She turned to me and told me that I could, since I'm a Christian. I informed her that it wasn't in my tradition to make the sign of the cross. "Oh, are you an atheist?" "No. I'm a Christian. I just don't do that." Later, it was suggested that I go and buy some icons. I refused. "Aren't you a Christian?" "Yeah, I just don't buy icons."
So, I would make a horrible Orthodox Christian. I didn't bring any rocks with crosses back. I didn't stop to touch any sacred objects. I didn't bring back any of the healing waters. I fell asleep during the litergy. (sigh) I'm inviting the evils of the world to befall me. I stopped only to light a candle in the church and climb up in the tree - just for the "daredevil" spirit in me. Such traditions and rites are just not in my blood.
A friend and I got into a discussion about the difference between the business my church engages in and the most-influential church in this part of the world. To him, it's all the same as "indulgences" that were passed out many years ago. I disagreed. I see a difference between buying icons and paying tithe. Maybe I'm wrong.
What it boils down to is that I'm not that great of a Christian according to any religion. I wish I loved God more than I do. I wish I listened to Him more and spent more time with Him. I wish I spent more time thinking about Him than I do thinking about the foolish things that bump around in my head. Wishing doesn't do it. I'm not sure what does. I wonder how disappointed in me He is. Picking up some rocks, filling up a bottle with water, or touching some icons may make others feel better, but it isn't going to improve my relationship with Him. He complained about this many times in the Old Testament. God wants a change in spirit. It's not about what He does for me. He spoils me every single day in which He gives me life. The question is, what can I do for Him? And am I willing to take that chance and do it? I think I suck in this regard.
Yesterday was a fairly lazy day. I didn't do much except cook some food for a couple guests. A couple of the English-speaking high schoolers that I get together with went to a workshop for training on AIDS/HIV with the Peace Corps this last week. They came back inspired. They loved the training and had a great time. Plus, they said that a bunch of people there knew me and absolutely everyone had a good opinion of me. Of course, that gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Now they're looking to work with other young people and pass along the knowledge. This morning, they met with my boss. He loved their spirit and their ideas. We then went to one of the schools to ask for the use of a room for a meeting with young people. The director, of course, gave it to them without a thought. She's very positive and is always willing to work to help students. She especially loves me. Just about every time I see her, she says, "I just know that, one day, you're going to be the American Ambassador to Bulgaria." Hopefully, the meeting with the young people will go well, and their activities can grow and become even more ambitious. Long have I wanted to do something of the same, but I must have been discouraged too easily. Plus, a workshop with hands-on training like this helps - where the young people are inspired to take matters into their own hands. It's never too late.
I wanted to share another interesting custom with you. Whenever a person has a snack or anything, it's expected that this person will share with those around them. It makes it easy if you have chips, pretzels, or pieces of candy, etc. It's a little bit harder with other goodies. I've had half-eaten/half-sucked ice cream bars shoved in my face, "Take a bite," they insist. "Um, no thank you." It's interesting 'cause it's not such a custom with us to share such things. I mean, usually we do, but we don't feel obligated to if we don't want to. Sometimes I feel rude that I'm not shoving my ice cream bars in others' faces.

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