Arranger of Prayers
I visited Rila Monastery in an early winter snowfall. Our large bus had groaned and heaved its way up a one-lane mountain road and hugged the edges of steep drops into the Rilska River. No car tracks had marked the road in the layer of fresh snow. Rila was all brightness against wood and stone: crimson lines marked the church walls; intricate, painted flowers spiraled along railings; a bright flare of iconography—blue, green, red and gold—arched against the church walls. I tried to breathe quietly, move slowly, not startle a thing.
I had lived in Bulgaria five months and still felt lost teaching. My Bulgarian language skills were painful and halting—the cultural language skills, even more profoundly broken. I was looking for stillness. Rila had stillness—it settled over the body like a heavy, down coat. Lore and faith lay thick in the stories from Rila; the place is named after a mystical hermit who lived in a nearby cave, lived off the land, and whose dead body performed miracles—whose dead body supposedly still can. I was, and am, skeptical of miracles.
The church stood in the center of the monastery compound and I drifted towards it, my fingers growing numb in the snow and the wind growing colder. I expected it to be warmer inside the church. It was not. The old stones emanated their own chill. Behind the heavy, carved doors, the dark sanctuary whispered with lit candles and the glint of gold; my eyes took a moment to adjust. Mothers and their children venerated the icons by kissing the edges of the icon frames and left flowers and coins as gifts to the saints. Then, they lit candles, placing them in trays filled with sand and water. The sand held the candles upright. As the tapers burned low, the water caught the last hissing flame. The honey-singed smell dripped with a sizzle into the golden pans. The ones who lit the candles watched for a few moments or closed their eyes in prayer. There was a box at the foot of St. Mary’s icon; it was as if the box was hidden there, out of the way. Inside the box were thin stumps of wax, black and charred tapers, cracked in half.
Then I saw the Arranger of Prayers at her work.
The baba—an elderly woman, bent at the waist—checked the trays of burning prayers, licked her fingers and touched out the wicks of two sputtering flames. She placed the candles in the box with the other broken wicks. She walked the corners of the church, tapping the young, those who had their hands rebelliously stuffed into pockets, on their shoulders. It was disrespectful to put your hands in your pockets in church. She crossed and re-crossed herself in genuflections as she circled the room. She rearranged standing of each small flame, relighting prayers gone out and snuffing dwindled flames.
A tour guide in an ankle length skirt, hair covered with a scarf, said in English to a group of tourists, “As you know, the blood of Jesus fell on the grave of Adam, which was beneath Golgotha, which is how the original sin of the original man could be forgiven.” I had never heard this story before. It came from a tradition far outside of my own. My own tradition was tightly and firmly Protestant and lived out in a large immediate family. Stories of old bones with healing powers, places like Rila, did not exist in the stories my mother shaped for me. Any religious story not sprung straight from the Bible was suspect.
My clothes—the distinctly American jeans and winter hat—declared the centuries of Eastern religious practice I had not inherited. I tried to remember not to place my cold fingers in my pockets. I forgot.Why were we not all dressed in century’s old baba garb, that heavy and quiet black? No one else seemed as at home in the stillness and work of worship.
The Orthodox liturgy is based on this belief: that the earthly church is united with the eternal worship in the Throne Room of God. A church, a monastery, lit incense, a lit candle, bowing, veneration—each space and action is an intersection of the temporal and the eternal. Orthodox architecture reflects its liturgical theology. Each church is one space. A wall covered in icons stands in front of the altar. The altar is separate from the people, only visible when a door or gate is open. During the Eurcharist, the priest opens the doors and the truest communion of heaven and earth takes place. When people gather in the church space, they are joining in an eternal worship that is described in the book of Revelation, where all past, present, and future souls are praising God in one voice. Everything that is done is intended to embody an eternal action. The physical has met the invisible. Or perhaps the invisible has become physical.
I would like a place in this crossing of time, a place in eternal worship, a place in Bulgaria. The baba belongs to this crossing with her shuffled steps and practiced genuflections, a sign of constant prayer and attention.
But I could not find a home here. I was not even sure what home meant. Two weeks after that moment, my parents told me they signed the divorce papers after a three-year legal struggle. The relationship that once defined home was now, legally, over.
There was no gold in the Evangelical Free Church of Hershey. There were no gilded images of Christ and his disciples, no icons or candles, not even a stained glass window. In contrast the one room Orthodox churches and cathedrals, the EFree building was large and sprawling, a hangover from the first wave of mega churches. Worship, in the “Evangelical Free” denomination, is rooted in the patterns of life and not in eternal worship. My church, with its 1990’s architecture, reflected this philosophy. The church was not a one-room worship space but a multi-use facility, where each room reflected part of everyday life: a kitchen, large bathrooms, classrooms, gyms, play rooms, murals; and the sanctuary itself—more like a concert hall than the quiet of chapels or cathedrals. The whole of life was lived through that church building. Every aspect of life demanded us to recognize the presence of God.
One night, I slipped away from my family and wandered towards the sanctuary at the end of long dark hallways. The sanctuary was an enormous room—seating room for two thousand. A large cross hung over the deep choir loft. At the foot of the choir loft was the stage that held a full orchestra each Sunday morning. The stage had a hulking pulpit of pinkish wood from which Pastor Bob raised his hands to call us to stand and sing praises to God, and Pastor Dave lifted his suit shoulder pads high to his ears in earnest, gentle exhortations. The sanctuary was built straight into the steep hillside, the angular roof slanting to just a few feet off the ground, easy for elementary school rebels to sneak up in the dark, perhaps with their skateboards, and try to ride down without breaking their necks, or the more harrowing possibility of being caught. I never braved a forbidden climb on the roof but jealously eyed those who did.
In the dark, alone, there was no scheduled event or performance. There were no expectations for my behavior to be anything special, anything poised or appropriate in a dark sanctuary. I sat in a back pew to acclimate myself to the darkness. The solitude worked in me. Years before I learned about meditation, I experienced something like it in the suspended dark of such a huge space. I sang: “You shine/ brighter than the brightest star/ Your love/ purer than the purest heart.” Why sing and transgress this perfect quiet: to test, to inquire, to voice the interior energy? Nothing stirred; nothing broke. The quiet held. Emboldened, I ran to the center aisle and danced a spirited Irish jig towards the pulpit. Air rushed past my ears. I flew.
I nearly danced into him. The man was bent over, hands clasped, bowed towards the cross, silently pleading with God. He wore a dress shirt and khaki pants as if he had come to the empty sanctuary just after work. He did not move, though he must have heard me or sensed me. My solitude had been imaginary. My singing and dancing had been observed. Startled, I turned and sprinted back up the aisle and out the back door. I could transgress the dark sanctuary but I could not transgress his prayer. I understood what brought him there. It was easier to pray, trespassing in the dark.
One Sunday morning, uncertain of what I would find, I went to the church near my Dobrich apartment: Sveta Troitsa, or the Church of the Holy Trinity. The church was average, a one room affair. The roof had a single dome in the center. There was a little garden to the side of the building. The whole compound was locked in the evening. The church itself had one entrance: a double door that led over the front steps and into the atrium.
I slipped into the back of the room. I hoped no one noticed that I did not cross myself as I entered. I leaned against the back wall and focused on not putting my hands into my pockets. Chanting filled the room. A choir was in a balcony I couldn’t see above my head. The priest chanted sections of the liturgy; the choir and congregation responded in a sing-song call-and-response. The sound rolled around the high, empty ceiling. The priest walked out into congregation carrying a heavy, gold plated Bible. The people kept their faces turned towards him and the Scriptures.
People continued to enter the sanctuary through all of these processionals; maybe there was not a “late” to an Orthodox service. They entered the back door, crossed themselves, and lit their candles. Incense dominated the air, a purple and cinnamon smoke.After candle lighting, each visitor venerated the icons with a light kiss. People moved to each icon on their own time amidst the larger flow of the room.
Eventually, each worshiper stopped before the bearded elder who wore a long black robe and stood before an icon of the Virgin, near where I leaned into the shadows. He held a silver, pen-like object in his hand. He murmured to the worshipers who leaned towards him, then touched the silver pen to each of their foreheads in a cross shape. Each worshiper kissed his hand, left a few coins or a flower, and joined the chanting. Everyone stood and swayed back and forth over tired feet. Only the elderly were seated in this gathering.
Fifteen minutes later, a mother carried her young daughter in the service on her hip. The mother seemed out of place in clothes she might wear any other day, the kind of clothes a woman in her twenties wears to do errands. She lit a candle with her daughter, shifting her back and forth between her hips. The elder beckoned them over to him, smiling, and the mother prompted her daughter to give a flower to the man and he bent down to touch the girl’s forehead, then the mother’s. He offered the mother a chair, and as she sat, the young woman seemed to set down a heavy weight. Her shoulders seemed to settle away from her ears and she pulled her daughter towards her on her lap.
On another visit to different church in a different part of town, the elder did not let me pass quietly in the back of the room. He gestured to me insistently. I approached him, concerned I had done something inappropriate in the space and needed rebuking. Without smiling, without eye contact, he said the blessing and marked my head. He then reached out his hand. I knew from watching others that I was to kiss the ring finger on his hand. I did not want to and I did not know how. I kissed his finger, dismissed without a word, I left disoriented, flustered.
But on that first visit, watching from the shadows behind the candle trays, I felt blessed. I felt welcomed in the welcoming of another stranger. The liturgy leaned towards me and I was not alone.
Everything took more time in Bulgaria. The simplest chore would expand into all the hours of an afternoon. Early on, I would plan time as if it moved the way it used to, the way it did with cars and highways and parking lots and all-purpose stores like Walmart. In Bulgaria, I walked everywhere and went to different stores for every kind of item I needed. The first time I accurately measured the time it would take for errands, I bought vegetables and toilet paper and shampoo. I estimated an hour and fifteen minutes to walk to each of the three stores. I took my time and even wandered through a neighborhood I had never visited before. There were no unexpected language barriers or misdirections to slow my plans. I had never allocated time so accurately. So, laden with bags, I made one more stop at Sveta Troitsa.
The black iron fence had a gate that was kept open during the day. I walked through the gate and the church garden and through the church’s open door. My bags crinkled oddly in the quiet as I carried the outside world of toiletries at my side into the room. The floor smelled like it had been recently washed and a tank of water stood away from the wall as if it were in use; someone had been here recently to clean and prepare the room for Sunday worship. I moved a chair away from the wall and set it behind a pillar; no one would see me when they first entered the room. The light was dim against the dark, earthy tones of room. I watched the icons as if they were a foreign language film without subtitles.
The room was conscious of me and of the work outside. The room seemed to know that it was a workday and people were busy with tasks; the sanctuary seemed serious about its tasks too. It was not a room concerned with me but with the sleepy preparation for the Holy Sunday. The weekday practicality felt like an old friend seen while shopping, telling updates in short sentences, the bracing and brisk warmth that sends you back to work. Or perhaps I carried the work with me into prayer as I sat with toilet paper and shampoo at my feet. I nodded to the sanctuary in gratitude and made my way home.
The month before my parents separated, the impending break clear to us all, I attended a large collegiate conference. I had attended this conference before and loved it. The conference valued justice and how justice was part of God’s redemption in the world. We talked about our work and vocations and how all our jobs are meant for the good of the world. A central piece of this weekend was a large gathering in an enormous convention center ballroom. A talented band led the room in song. The singing turned into a raucous party. People stood at the front and danced wildly. I stayed with my row, closed my eyes, and let myself be alone in the vibration of my own breath and vocal chords.
The band returned to the chorus of one song. They sang the chorus again and again and again. An aching began in my chest, a rising knot of nausea in my center. The feeling made me want to claw my way out; it felt like a threat to my person, a harm I could not escape. The words were this:
Oh! Happy Day!
You washed my sins away!
Oh! Happy Day!
I’ll never be the same!
Forever I am changed!
I jolted out of prayer and watched my peers revel in the sound of happiness, watched how genuinely happy they seemed to be. Stop lying to me, I wanted to scream at them. Stop telling me my faith is for happiness. If it was for happiness, I had nothing left to hold onto. I spent my days staying one step ahead of this reality: if I stopped, if I listened, all I could hear was a cry, a weeping I knew must be mine, but could not bear, could not face, had to close my mouth to keep it silent, had to make no sound.
Anger was easy. Anger was kind to my soul. Anger opened a door to escape. I had a choice: could leave this repeating chorus and stop the reverberated words from pulsing through my chest to the beat of the heavy bass. I could run away and keep the falling apart to myself, hide the extent of it. There was something in me ashamed of the crying in me, ashamed that it could not stop. Anger built its own crescendo in my body: rapid pulse, flushed face, tense muscles. It hit me fast, like heat. I welcomed it.
I had been standing in the middle of the row. I felt caught. Instead of trying to pass by every person, I climbed on my chair and walked across the seats to the aisle and ran towards the door. I found a corner outside the convention and lay down. How dare they tell me to be happy? The cry lodged in the spot beneath my chest rang in my ears, wailing to the band’s drumbeat.
The small village beside Troyan Monastery was overflowing with people in the clear-skied Bulgarian summer heat. Cars filled the tiny fields where cows usually grazed. The bus could not reach the monastery, so the driver dropped us in the crowd and gave directions. The walk was slow; the crowds moved slowly up and down the street. Every moment was a reason to pause and look. The main street was lined with stall after stall. Tents were set up where people ate lunches of roasted chickens, spitted and cooked over open grills; Kamenitza beers were consumed as quickly and casually as chilled soda; stalls sold lokum and cotton candy bigger than our heads; a Romani man displayed a collection of pay-to-touch snakes. It was the festival of a saint, one I did not know, but all of Central Bulgaria flocked to this place to be part of the revelry.
The monastery yard was filled like the street. People took photos and herded their children around the building to see the decaying frescos. They waited in a long line to walk into the church, look at the ceiling, and walk out again. I waited too. We shuffled in the atrium and then into the sanctuary. Birds darted around the room. Sunlight came through the windows in the domed roof, lighting the ceiling charred black by centuries of candle soot and incense.
Allen, another American, and I left the crowds and the church. A construction fence indicated the border for visitors, but Allen disregarded the implied instructions to stay with the crowd. I followed him. Terraced graves stood on the slope to our right. The tombstones were marked with old Cyrillic letters. The path wound through construction tools, lumber, and sawdust. Part of the monastery had been gutted and partially rebuilt. In the almost completed section, a small door stood half open. It was short so that even I had to duck down to enter; Allen’s tall limbs seemed to fold into halves as he fitted himself through. Steps of new lumber curved sharply like Jacob’s ladder to heaven, creaking as we climbed. At the top was a tower with no windows, just an open view of the monastery to all side, and we had to crouch to stay hidden from the crowds below. Three bells were moored to the roof. Time seemed heavier in the tower, even with new sawdust clinging in the corners. It felt as if prayer was more attainable up here where no one could see you try.
When we climbed back down, my trespassing companion saw a candle on the ground and picked it up. “Nice,” he said. “I’m going to go light it.” But I knew Allen. I knew he did not believe in God, knew that, to him, lighting a candle did not mean prayer. A round of questions began to play in my mind, a kind of trial: could his lit candle be a prayer? Must one believe in anything for prayer to be meaningful, to have an impact?
But perhaps it was myself I placed on trial, questioning every gesture I made. I wanted a candle. I wanted to pray with the scent of burnt honey and purple cinnamon rising to heaven. Yet I felt like an imposter as best and a trespasser at worst. I was jealous of anyone who walked loose-limbed, breathing easy prayers towards heaven.
Two weeks after my mother moved out, my sister and I went on a spring break trip to Florida. It was my senior year and her sophomore year of college. We went with our college campus ministry group. Most of our friends worked heavy labor volunteer work that week. I babysat a local pastor’s two children and let my friend do most of the watching as I slept and slept under the weight of all that came undone.
These weeks were designed around learning together through Bible study and community service. They were designed to escalate emotional vulnerability and friendship and a sense of God’s presence among us. The week culminated in a long Thursday night worship service where people from our group shared stories from the week and what they had learned about God. Years before, my freshman year, I had cemented acquaintances into friendships through experiences God in a community. I made the kind of friends that stay through lifetimes, or at least, the lifetimes to be lived in my twenties.
I do not remember when I left the worship service and found an empty hallway, whether I left early in the night or as it lingered for several hours. I do remember the grey, synthetic fabric on the short couch. I remember the irritating burn of the fabric against my legs and arms and cheek. I lay on my side and faced the back of the couch, curled on myself, crying. I cried from the gut. The crying flushed my face and my body grew warm and snot pooled in my nostrils and I sniffed and sniffed, and cried. I could hear the worship music playing, the sound of my senior friends happy in their last moments of being together before graduation. I could hear their togetherness, the closeness of their voices. Instead, I curled in on myself and wept into the scratchy fabric of some unwanted couch. My world had ended. Friendships, though long lasting, hung by thin threads. And I was alone, without parents who loved each other, fearing that it might just be forever that the ties that birthed me would remain severed, endure broken. How was I going to live again?
Crying does not last forever. After I cleaned myself up, brushed the tears from my face, blew my nose, I gathered myself together and I went to find my sister. She, too, was in Florida and she too had found a corner of some hallway to cry. We hugged and said nothing; we had nothing to explain.
The Easter Holiday is the most significant religious event in the Orthodox Calendar. Many fast leading up to it. The fast, removing all meat and dairy, is a more severe form of the protestant Lent I had practiced in my faith before. I wanted to celebrate my first Easter in another culture by keeping Bulgarian traditions but also incorporating some of my own.
Three friends came to celebrate with me. We took naps on Saturday afternoon, ate a large dinner (ignoring the traditional fast), and waited for midnight to come. In the dark before midnight, we went to Sveta Troitsa. At night, the church was lit with garish fluorescent lights along the red lined walls and domed roof. Cars parked along the street in all directions. Most people came on foot, bundled in coats, children and grandchildren at their sides. I saw some of my students. One girl waved hello to me at a distance. One of the cleaning ladies from school was also there, and we smiled happily at each other.
Everyone was happy for the day, for the moment. Like the others, my friends and I bought slim candles. The room grew warm, smelling of bodies mixed with the old incense and candle wax. Our own heat started to melt the candles we held; the wicks became bendable and damp, curling over our palms. Some had brought their own candles in jars and avoided this problem. Sveta Troitsa was festive in a heavy golden chandelier light and with so many people waiting in pleasant anticipation.
The service was delayed and we shifted foot-to-foot. There had been fog in Plovdiv, another city, where the plane from Jerusalem was landing, which meant it was late reaching Varna. Each year, the flame from the Dome of the Rock church in Jerusalem is the source for fires in Orthodox services all over the world. The Patriarchs of different countries go to collect the fire on Easter and return home with the flame by private plane. We could not start the service until the Priest was on his way with the flame.
But, finally, the service began. When the priest arrived, he marched quickly through the crowd to the altar behind the icon wall. He carried a box, which protected the flame from going out. Important preparations always took place behind the front wall in the church. A poet who converted to Orthodoxy told me once how he used to be offended that the sacraments and the Scriptures and prayers and the Jerusalem Flame were hidden from the congregation behind the front gate. But then, someone explained to him as he then explained to me, that this is a way of telling the story of the resurrection. It’s about the death. What gives us life passes from us first. Jesus had to die and we couldn’t see him. Then we are given the resurrection, the returning. But there has to be a death for there to be a resurrection.
We were all waiting for resurrection.
As the service ended, the Priest opened the gates in the wall and left them open, bringing with him the Jerusalem Flame.
Easter was declared. We said our first “Alleluia” and the first call and response:
Xristos vos kresen! He called.
Noistina vos kresen! We answered.
Christ is Risen.
He is Risen Indeed.
The priest walked through the center of the room. People pushed towards him, lighting from the flame the candles they had been holding. We lit ours from other candles.
The folklore (more Bulgarian than Orthodox) says that if the Light of Jerusalem crosses your threshold, you will have health and peace for the coming year. As we slowly pushed our way with the inching crowd out the side door, I held my hand in front of my slim candle, the wax dripping down its slim wick onto my hands, burning for a few seconds before hardening and cooling.
The night was cool and breezy. Tfftffwoosh. My candle went out.
My friend leaned over with her candle and relit it.
We moved around the church to the front doors, to where the priest stood with the original flame and the cross.
Xristos voskresen! He called.
Noistina vos kresen! We answered.
Christ is Risen.
He is Risen Indeed.
My candle went out again. And again, it was relit by someone else’s candle.
We inched home with our lights, curled and flickering behind our hands. My candle went out six times before we reached my home. We stopped every few feet to regain a clear flame in someone’s candle. And before we crossed my threshold, we relit each snuffed flame.
I fell asleep after lighting a larger candle from the fire we brought with us.
Christ is Risen.
He is Risen indeed.
On a clear night, on the other side of the world, a friend’s father died.
Mark was an acquaintance from college dance classes. When his father died, our dance instructor drove him through the night to his home in New Jersey. I was too far by geography and friendship to make any gesture. Yet when I heard the news, I wanted to do something. I wanted to light a candle.
One time, a friend watched a baba buy and light a fistful of slim candles. She kissed them before she lit each of them, murmuring prayers. Each candle represented a prayer for the living and the dead. He said that a candle is like the incense in the old temple, before Christ, prayers rising to heaven. There was a special meaning in a candle lit for the soul of a dead loved one. In the Sunday services, each local church prays for the souls of the departed before communion is taken. I went to add Mark’s father to this litany.
The Arranger was sitting outside the church on the porch of the priest’s house, feet propped on a stool, in the rare sunlight of a warm early winter afternoon. Her hands —knobbed and blue veined that tended the light of prayers—rested in her lap. She, perhaps, waited for someone to come by, the priest maybe, an elder, a young mother and child, or me. She would say a few words, a reprimand, and a reminder of the saints, feeling no need to approach others but waiting for them to come to her. I, too, must acknowledge her presence first. I nodded my head. “Dobur Den,” I say. Good day. She nodded back.
Another woman attended the counter where she sold candles and small icons of Mary and Jesus; the icons were close replicas of famous icons in other churches. I could choose from four candle sizes, thin and short to long and thick. The woman glared at me when I stuttered in Bulgarian that I wanted a candle. I had interrupted her magazine reading. I managed to buy a medium sized candle for 50 stotinki. What did the sizes mean? Would the length of its burning impact the intensity of my prayer? Or merely represent it? I did not know whether I was praying for my friend’s comfort, or if I was praying for his father’s soul.
Maybe, I was just praying for me.
I wanted someone to arrange my prayers—snuff each wick burnt too long in my mind and relight prayers long gone out. Perhaps the physical gesture of lighting a candle could teach me how to pray.
“Lord, be with his father’s soul.”
I lit my candle by the fire of someone else’s prayer. I placed the thin rod of wax into the water and sand. Perhaps a lit candle would speak what I hoped instead of what my words could manage.
The Arranger shuffled through the church door and watched me out of the corners of her eyes, appearing to busy herself with other work. This foreigner must be kept in order and in line. She looked askance at how I did not cross myself as I exited the church.
It is this look askance that seems to resonate with me. Perhaps it was not her perspective of me that I experienced but my own view of myself through her eyes. It is I who looked askance at months behind and more months ahead of trying to pray, looked askance at faith thrown into shadow. It was I who was displeased with my prayers and my missed genuflections, however foreign they were to my cultural background. My own thin life was the length of a candlewick in comparison to the history of the Faith. My personal faith was relit repeatedly by another flame: blown out at the slightest wind but relit yet again against—as it sometimes felt—my conscious will. I needed a baba, a translator to me and for me, someone to take my gestures toward God, make weak words and gestures into more than I had the strength to offer.
I left my prayer in her hands, trusting she would know when it was finished.
Dana Ray works as a communications consultant, defining internal messaging for driven creators and founders within diverse industries such as fashion, dance, design, visual art, digital media, and activism. Dana was a Fulbright English Assistant in Dobrich, Bulgaria (2013-2014) and holds a Master’s in Literature and Writing from Bucknell University.
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