Pilgrimage to Aladja Monastery
Varna, Bulgaria by: Dr Vidagdha Bennett.
In 1928, just north of Varna, in a vast and hilly tract of forest, a most remarkable discovery was made. There, in a steep rock face that rises parallel to the Black Sea coastline, a series of interconnecting caves and indentations had been scalloped out of the white limestone.
The topmost tier, some forty metres above the ground, held a small, enclosed chapel, its walls and ceiling covered with frescoes of great vibrancy and intensity. The middle tier contained what had clearly been monks? cells, while traces of a common kitchen and even a burial crypt were on the lowest level.
It was speculated that a small order of Christian monks belonging to the hesychastic tradition, had sought refuge here during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria in the 13th and 14th centuries, although the caves themselves were thought to have been sculpted as early as the 4th century BC.
Travelling by tour bus from Varna to the Kempinski Hotel at Golden Sands in late December 2006, I had noticed a modest sign on the main highway which read ?Aladja Monastery ? 1 km.? It pointed to a road that appeared to wind uphill into the forest and I determined to go there at the first opportunity.
Two days later, a solitary stroll led my feet back along the road where I had noticed the little sign. I followed the detour and soon approached the environs of Aladja Monastery. After you pass through the gate, you enter a serene garden with gentle pathways and patches of lawn. The day I went, there was a light mantle of snow on the ground, its virgin surface unmarked by any footprints. All was wrapped in sublime peace?not even birds sang in that utter quiet. I was the only visitor and I felt grateful to shed the guise of a tourist and become a simple pilgrim. I recalled Sri Chinmoy?s beautiful song:
?I am a peace-collecting pilgrim-soul; To love the heart of the unknown, my only goal.?
Somehow it quickened my anticipation as to what awaited me. Ahead, glowing white and dazzling in the afternoon sun, rose the broad cliff face. The Lonely Planet Guide book refers to this entire rock monastery as ?bizarre?, but I felt blissfully at home. The hesychastic ideals of inner stillness, silence and asceticism are founded upon Christ?s words: ?Go into your closet and pray.? Eastern Orthodox Christianity interprets this to mean that one must withdraw from the world and ignore the physical senses in order to achieve a state of constant inner prayer. I felt instinctively that the monks who lived here found true happiness and fulfilment in their rock monastery.
Indeed, it is as if the spirits of those mediaeval monks have never left. As I walked, they seemed to show me little things here and there?the natural fountain where they filled their pitchers, a long overhang, narrow steps cut into the stone, a niche for a candle, a recess for a copy of the Philokalia.
A locked door has been affixed to the opening of the chapel, but through the bars I could see the remains of frescoes, now crumbling and eroded. The word ?aladja? [sometimes spelt ?aladzha?] means ?multicoloured? in Turkish, so these painstaking creations by the monks must have been bursting with colour at one time. Unlike other areas of the monastery, the nave of the chapel had been polished by the monks to a marble-like finish, and faint stains of charcoal indicated where votives had once been burnt.
Outside the chapel, on the sun-drenched balcony, a long rock bench showed where the monks had sat in deep contemplation, looking out. What struck me was that I could see where each one had sat, as clearly as if he were still there. At intervals, the stone was slightly rounded and smoothed, worn by years of usage.
I sat down, drawn to one particular spot, and gazed out over the tops of the trees. The vast panorama of the Black Sea, the blue sky and the faint haze of the horizon was spread before me. The purest silence reigned. I could envision the monks going about their simple routines in this rock sanctuary. Most of all, I could imagine them sitting here, high above the hustle and bustle of the world.
They were truly masters of the air. Their simplicity was their wealth. Their silence, the source of deepest communion with the Divine. Their devotion, a consuming fire. They played with the centuries and did not count the years. And, as I sat there, I knew that what Yeats said in his poem ?Lapis Lazuli? must have applied to them:
?Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.?
Article by: Dr. Vidagdha Bennett
Dr Vidagdha Bennett is a member of Sri Chinmoy Centre. She studies meditation under the guidance of Sri Chinmoy