Insights in Sofia

We had walked half the city to ultimately arrive at one of Sofia’s most prominent buildings; a grand orthodox church. Upon witnessing the mighty structure, my respiration stifled slightly. Its tremendous golden roof caught our attention at once. The surroundings consisted of a newly asphalted large parking lot, so we needed to criss cross through an abundance of cars before finally reaching the entrance.

Shortly after entering, we sat down on a wooden bench and sighed. For some time, we witnessed the ongoing rituals until I got drawn into some sort of reverie. Of a sudden and without being fully aware of it, the following phrase escaped my mouth;

“I’m feeling nostalgia for times in which I never lived.”

The comment awoke a curious look in my girlfriend’s eyes. She instantly nodded in an understanding way, confirming the recognizability of my remark. Somehow or another, it made sense. I desperately wanted to be, even for just a day, living in the times that this church reflects.

Untraceably, this thought surfaced somewhere in my consciousness, coming from the unknown depths of my psyche. Precisely at the moment when the main priest went around the hall to spread around incense smoke, I felt an abundance of unexplainable melancholy, hence the need to inform my girlfriend. I suspect it was the scent which triggered it. 

Either way, it was just a matter of time before such melancholy would strike me, as lately I find myself drawn more and more towards ancient places. In particular old churches and cathedrals, regardless of the religious stream they might embody. Whenever the door is ajar, I aim to slip inside and enjoy its tranquility and order. For me as being not officially religious, such places are beginning to fulfill a more transcending role against modern difficulties. It’s most certain that the value of old churches is not restricted to merely tourists or the religious. 

Imposing environments like these feel growingly like a safe haven, a sanctuary as it were. A place with a low pace. The origin of this feeling seemed disguised and hidden deeply in an ancestral past. It presented itself in a fierce longing for the centuries far before I was introduced to this world. As if I were accidentally born in the wrong times. 

From the wooden bench, we observe the authentic, magnificent columns and impressively decorated ceilings. We witness the simplicity of a priest taking his time to light candles for the remembered and the forgotten, while the low soothing voices of a male chorus echo gently throughout the hall. Visitors, on the other hand, remain silent. Distracting gadgets are seen only sporadically. Every visitor, tourist or local, appears to be well aware of the unspoken commandment in such places and respect them. 

Altogether, the patient and attentive atmosphere infatuated a strong desire for an unknown but desirable past. One beyond the recordings of my memories. It all reminds me of a life I would probably never live. Anyway, it would be sheer impossible during my brief but already stressful and competitive existence. Surely it’s something I (and maybe others) lack of nowadays. 

The serene ambience of these places exposes painfully precise what we have been neglecting in modern societies. Retreats in this form have become a rarity, but are ironically needed more than ever. Over the years, spirituality, calmness and moralism became increasingly replaced by overconsumption and demoralisation. 

Simultaneously, the warmth and inclusiveness that might have existed in the centuries prior to ours, had vanished over the years. Caught up in the obsession of economic development, we have left behind a valuable past and have forgotten some of its advantages along the way. We have simply thrown away the baby with the bathwater. Luckily, some old churches and cathedrals have withstood the test of time, to show us it wasn’t always like this. In the weakly lit halls of ancient churches, the neverending fixation on work and consumption is outweighed by human kindness and patience.

In this sense, priests and clerics fulfil an essential role. They demonstrate to us the necessary attitude when it comes to downshifting from a fast and chaotic towards calm and orderly mindset. For instance, taking the time to light two-hundred candles in remembrance of the dead, is a lengthy ritual. Nonetheless it is likely to be one out of few daily tasks to be fulfilled by this holy man. The devotion given to merely one task simply doesn’t merge with the contemporary lifestyle anymore. In contrast to these disciplined priests, our daily tasks have multiplied endlessly, but the devotion (or possibility) to finish them has weakened.

Today, numerous social contacts are expected to be maintained, next to functioning flexibly and eagerly at work. Essential life aspects have been transferred to the online world. But this is a world without clear limits and borders. And most of all, an unstoppable world that constrains time and pushes it far beyond the limits of our mental and physical abilities. Eventually, this unframed way of living is often halted by what we call a burn out. Likewise, spirituality and devotion have lessened, as they became subject to the hastiness of our time consuming society. 

It might, from this perspective, be pleasant to daydream of the times we have missed out on. Even if the picture is not quite accurate in our fantasies. Old buildings like a cathedral appeared the ideal practising grounds to do so. To deprive yourself from technological gadgets and step into a hall of calmness, dreamily depicting the lives of people before highly developed technology. When spirituality was more apparent. Times when sorrows were diminished by prayers and philosophy instead of prescribing pills. When the world’s population was far under a billion, while borders and bureaucracy were absent for the most part. Things were yet a little more undetermined. 

Amidst the chaotic and unorderly world of today, old and dusty churches can make you feel serene, and offer solace. Yet, castles or other ancient places might provoke similar mental refreshment. I hope that these sanctuaries of existential guidance will withhold far into our doubtful future. For everyone. Not as a beacon of religious divide, but as a modest hideaway from our evermore accelerating society.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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