Lest we forget, there are many souls alive today who lived during the Communist oppression of Christianity, and Orthodox was the principle victim, but in so suffering showed the indestructibility of the Church, and the pernicious quality of the Gospel even in persecution!
I was born in communist Bulgaria in the late sixties of twentieth century, and this is the story of my journey to Orthodoxy. My hometown is in the country’s west and it was a stronhold of the comminist party. My hometown had a church buld in 18th century. It wasn’t demolished, but only old ladies would go to church without anybody giving them a hard time. My parents, however, were students in another part of the country which was about 500 km away and was close to my mother’s hometown. From what I know my mom and her mathernal grandparents believed in Christ, especially her grandmother. She was one of these old ladies that were regular in the church. When my mom was expecting me she dragged my atheist father to all Holy week services. Their university town wasn’t a communist stronghold and they did so undisturbed. She was praying for a healty baby.
I was born in the communist town, however, and in January of 1969 my mom travelled with me to her grandparents to show me to them. It was a cold winter and I was only a few months old. My great-grandparents had a plan to baptize me. This wasn’t encouraged by the regime and they had to do it quietly. The winter, however, was very cold and the church was poor and unheated. My grandparents didn’t have money to heat it and the priest told them that he could baptize me at home. So on a cold January day of 1969 I was baptized in the Orthodox faith “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” My mom’s aunt became my godmother.
I was about 3 years old when my parents graduated and we ended up living in my hometown, the communist stronghold. My family wasn’t going to church. Later I learned that my mom was afraid to do so, because of the regime. We had one old lady relative, however, that was a church regular. Thanks to her from an early age I knew there was this thing called church. I loved when we visited her, and she was very happy to let me play with her little pocelain figures of angels.
She was saying that I was an angel, but at the time I didn’t know what she meant. When I grew up we didn’t celebrate Christmas and I didn’t even know when the Christmas date was until my early twenties. We celebrated Easter (Pascha), however. We did that by coloring eggs and baking some special bread. Sometimes on the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos my parent would take us to a near by monastery, but we wouldn’t go to to the church. We would go to the nice forest and lawns around the monastery, so we the kids could play. Many people were doing just that. Yet, by my early teens I learned from my grandmother and other people in the family that there was God and that His name was Jesus Christ.
He was on earth 2000 years ago and was crucified for us. Then He was resurrected on the third day. I knew that he had 12 apostles. I have heard the expressions Holy Trinity, God the Father and Holy Spirit, but didn’t know what to make out of it. I even knew there was St. Nicholas, whose day would be celebrated as a name day of my grandfather. I knew there were angels from our church going relative (the old lady). I even knew that the main angel was called Michael. I didn’t quite believe all of this, but didn’t quite deny the existence of God. I decided that would solve this issue when I grew up. I knew I was “given a name” and I knew that was done by the church. I had no idea what baptism was all about. In my early teens I came across a Bible in my aunt’s home, but the print was so small that even my young eyes had a hard time reading it. In my hometown some people at the age of my parents and older, sometimes teachers would pass to the youngsters some “folk’s wisdoms” of the sort
“before seeing the straw in your friends eye try to see the rod in your own eye”.
That was a way of saying
“see your own mistakes first before judging others”.
As all youngsters I took this as folk’s wisdom passed down from generation to generation. Many years later I figured out that this sort of wisdom was coming from the Gospel. So, communist didn’t wipe out completely that Christian mindset of regular Bulgarians that took centuries to build. People would find a way to pass down the Christian values to the young people even if they were afraid to talk about church or God. During the communism there were rumors that the communist party agents go to church and take the names of the visitors. Then these people and their families would lose their jobs or would go to jail. So, most people simply wouldn’t go to church, wouldn’t talk about God and would say they were atheist. Only grandmothers at least 60 years of age (in most cases older) would go to church undisturbed, but labeled “weird” by the society. The real weird thing about this town was the town fair. It has been celebrated on the day of the Holy Spirit for as long as I remember.
Everybody would call it The Holy Spirit day, but no one would talk about church or God. During these times my mom was still a believer and when the communism ended she told me the following story. She reminded me that my little brother was very ill in the winter of 1979. His lungs were filled with water. Doctors performed a surgery on him without any anesthesia, because they told her he could not survive the anesthesia. Then they told her that he had a 5 % chance to survive the night and let her stay with him in the ICU. That night she fell on her knees and prayed to the Mother of God the whole night. Like a mother to Mother. In the morning her hair was gray, and my brother was alive.
I will fast forward to 1988. I was already a student in the country’s capital, Sofia. I lived in downtown very close to the country’s biggest cathedral St. Alexander Nevski. On Easter of 1988 my roommate and I decided to go to the cathedral and see what Easter was all about. We decided to be brave and not to fear the communist. That was before the end of the regime. When we got to the cathedral there were red ropes there and the security wouldn’t let us in. The people they let in were arriving with expensive cars (with a driver!) and were dressed in very expensive outfits. They seemed to have some sort of passes! We didn’t give up. We walked a bit down the street and reached the Russian church St. Nicholas. It was full of people. We couldn’t get in.
We walked about a kilometer to another church in downtown. It is a big church called St Sedmochislenitsi (Holy seven saints). It was full of people too, but we were able to enter. It was so packed that I was a afraid someone would burn my hair with a candle. We stayed a bit, didn’t hear the service very well and went home. On the way back the streets were full of people carrying candles and greeting us with “Christ is risen”. So in the late communist times, in Sofia church was not forbidden anymore. We found this out on that Easter night, but I continued my Physics education with no interest in church.
In the fall of the next year, 1989 the communist regime was over and Church became popular. It was fashionable to get babtized in a church, getting married or just go to lit a candle. People started doing these things, but were not going to the services except for Easter. My little brother also got baptized during this time. I started going to church sometimes to lit a candle, but nothing more. I even would go to the church in my hometown to lit a candle and pray to the Mother of God for success in my studies, but I was afraid of Christ Himself. I would never pray to Him. In the same time a lot of Westerners came to Bulgaria to preach about Jesus. They were from all sort of denominations. Somewhere in 1992 a friend took me to the show of one such Western charismatic pastor, Ulf Ekman. She was present at one of his previous shows and was excited about him. I was already in grad school and was struggling to learn English. I thought that it was a good chance to practice my English understanding.
When he started talking I could barely understand him, but often I had the feeling that something was not right and his talk was against the Ten Commendments. When I was going out of the building I had a question in my mind. Which is the true faith in the True God? I was hoping that I was young enough to wait and find out until I got older. At this moment something strange happened. I could not tell if it was my thoughts or a disembodied voice in my head seeming to come from someone that is much taller than me, probably 3 or 4 meters tall and standing behand me and to the right. The voice was saying
“You are an Orthodox Christian”.
My first thought was
“right, I was given a name in the church”.
Then I thought “an angel” and then “I hope I don’t go crazy”. In the next moment I had a picture in my mind. Something like Google maps today. It was showing the way from my home, across the street to a park with a church in the middle. Until this point I wasn’t paying attention to the building in the park. Then it turned out that one of my roommates also “was given a name” as a baby and we decided to go to the church and ask the priest what that meant.
He smiled and said
He showed us the church, showed us the icons, told us about the Holy Trinity and told us to come to church more often. But we didn’t quite listen and went back only to babtize our other two roommates and they did it because everybody was getting baptized. We also went there one Easter, but stayed outside, beacause church was full of people and that was it.
It was also 1992 when I was applying to grad school and the committee was delaying the decision. I told my father that it was happening because he is an atheist. My father got babtized out of love for me.
Fast forwarding to the winter of 1997. At this time the country was so poor that I didn’t have much to eat. I would survive on bread, potatos and canned vegitables from my parent’s garden. I didn’t see meat or cheese in weeks. So I decided that I could try to observe the Great lent and did it for a first time that year. I started observing the food lent ever since, but didn’t go to church.
I will move to 1999. I already had my PhD degree in Physics and was working at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. I was making very little money and decided to apply for a post doctoral position in the US. I heard that people go to the Russian church in Sofia, pray at the grave of Archbishop Seraphim (now St. Seraphim of Sofia) and leave him notes. I went there and prayed to get a scholarship, but I didn’t start going to church. One day in May of 1999 I was so desparate from poverty that I decided to go to that St. Sedmochislentsi church, lit a candle and pray to Christ for help. I finally got the confidence to pray to Christ.
There was a small farmers market in from of the church and saw some peaches there. First peaches of the year and they were expenive. I looked at them and though how much I wanted a peach. At this moment an elderly woman approached me. She said that her granson was ill and wanted peaches, so could I give her money. I decided to buy peaches instead with all my money. I gave her most of them and kept a few for myself. Then I was left with no money, lifted my eyes to the roof of the church and said
“Lord Jesus Christ, I have no money for a candle, please forgive me for not going to the church”.
In that moment a strange though crossed my mind again. It was something like
“whoever has done it to my smallest brothers has done it to me”.
I though that this should be from the Bible and I should read it. I wanted to give my peaches to the grandmother, but she was gone. Than I had a second thought, something about measures, but I though it was too much and I went home.
I don’t remember what I ate the next few days, but in a couple of weeks I won a US scholarship in Science and Engineering and in September of 1999 I moved to the US. I didn’t get to the Bible. I wasn’t going to church. I finished my postdoc and got a job.
In 2004 I was working in Porland, Oregon, when I lost my job. I was fired. I couldn’t find a job for over an year. During Easter time of 2005 I found a Greek church “to light a candle”, but I was late and the church was closing and I never tried again until next year. In early 2006 I still didn’t have a job and I was getting desperate. I was very depressed. A close relative from Bulgaria promissed me to go to Archbishop Sraphim’s grave in Sofia to leave a note for me and told me to go to church. I told her that the church I knew was Greek. She replied that Greeks are Orthodox and asked me to go in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I was so depressed that I decided to go to church. It was the Great lent again. That was the first Divine Liturgy I ever attended and it changed my life. When I went to the church the whole world looked to me gray and unhappy. In the church I found out that they have booklets with the English translation of the Liturgy and half of the service was in English anyway. I went early and was very mooved when the chior started singing. Later I learned that this was the Doxology. I found out that I sort of knew when they were saying Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
I thought I understand Greek since we are neighbours and may be we have borrowed words from them. Later I realized that was probably not the case and certain words were getting to my mind probabably in a divine way. I followed every word of the liturgy using the booklet and every word and prayer was touching me. I was moved by the Creed. During the part when people were on their knees I found my self crying and begging God not to reject me, but to accept me as one of His subjects. I said that I was a little person and a big sinner, but please accept me. I was moved when the Lord’s prayer was recited. When people started going for the Holy Communion I was a bit surprised, because in my mind communion and confession were only for Roman catholics! Yet I wanted so much to be one of these people going for a communion, but something stopped me. I felt that just being baptized was not enough. In that moment I had that eisembodied voice or strange thought in my mind again. This time the message was
“You are due for a long confession”.
And I agreed immediately. I decided that I would repent and go for confession. When I was going out of the church the whole world seemed bright and shiny. Even the air looked sparkling. And a strange though crossed my mind again. It was that angels in heaven rejoce when a sinner repents. I felt happy. Depression was gone. Shortly after I received a phone call from a hiring manager in California and eventually a month later a got the job. I had to move to San Jose. I became depressed again because I would loose my Oregonian friends, but decided to move. Before the move I kept going to church in Oregon and the priest told us a story that happened to him in the Greek cathedral in San Francisco. I thought that it was a good thing that there was an Orthodox place in San Francisco bay area.
When I moved, I found it on the internet and started driving almost every Sunday from San Jose to San Francisco to attend church. I didn’t approach the priests, but I was following the service and paying great attention to the sermons. My relative from Bulgaria sent me a New Testament in contemporary Bulgarian and a book about confessions. I started reading the Gospels slowly and in the same time I became obsessed with feng shui. Eventually I ended up reading more feng shui and less Gospel, skipping church. I passed on an opportunity to marry an old friend, because he wanted me to forget my family, eventually the job and make him the center of my world.
A year later I was still depressed because of the loss of my Oregonian friends. Then my relative in Bulgaria convinced me to start writing confessions and send them and to her by email. She would print them without reading them and take them to the priest in their local church. He would pray for me. At the same time I found out that feng shui says that the cross is the worse symbol of all. According to them it brings extremely bad luck. One should remove all crosses from home, make sure that even furniture pattern doesn’t have crosses and make sure they don’t have a view of a church with a cross on top.
That was a warning message. Thanks to my relative I started reading the Gospels and the book about confessions. I started thinking about my life, the sins I could remember and writing them down. Sometimes I would cry a lot for my sins and write. I sent many files to my relative and she gave them to the priest in Bulgaria. He was praying for me. I kept going to the Greek cathedral and listening to the service. This crying and writing lasted for about a year and in the summer of 2008 I went to Bulgaria for my fortieth birthday. I had one confession face to face with the same priest and he allowed me to take the Holy communion. In this way almost forty years after I was babtized I had my first communion. After the communion, however, I didn’t feel better right away. I was feeling rather anxious.
In the late fall of 2008 I lost my job again. It was the economic downturn. I decided to pray to St. Nicholas for help finding another job. I decided to search for a church in San Jose to lit a candle for St. Nicholas’ day, Dec. 6. I found a Greek one. As I was driving to the church I prayed to St. Nicholas like this.
“St. Nicholas, I want to get confession and communion more often, not just when I go to Bulgaria. Please, help me find a priest that would listen to my confessions and give me a communion”.
When I went to the church, I was late and the liturgy was over. I was able to light a candle before a St. Nicholas icon in the church nartex, but as I was venerating the icon I felt weak. I felt that my low blood pressure was getting even lower and I was going to faint. I looked for the coffee hour Greeks usually have after the service. As I had my first sip of coffee I saw an old smiling priest in front of me. He had a broad smile on his face. He introduced himself as Fr. John, the main priest of that church and asked who I was. I told him. He invited me to come to the liturgies and told me how to find him for confession. I eventually did so in the beginning of the following year and I am still going to that church. St. Nicholas was quick to answer my prayer. Miracles kept pouring in the next few months when I was like new to Orthodoxy.
For Christmas of 2008 I went to Bulgaria. I talked to the priest who heard my first confession and he blessed me to go to Fr. John in the US. For the Christmas day I was in my hometown and one of the priest in our church agreed to hear my confession early in the morning, before the service. I went there with my whole family. In the morning I felt very jet lagged and I was coming down with the flu. The priest, however, allowed me to have a communion. During the service I wasn’t feeling well. It was all like a dream. When the communion time came I went to the very end of the line. I didn’t want to give the flu to anyone. I didn’t know that the priests consume the communion at the end. I was waiting and praying to the Lord like this.
“Lord Jesus Christ, you healed that woman from the Gospel who just touched your robe. I am not going to touch your clothing, but Your precious body and Your precious blood through the Holy communion. Please, heal me from the flu for the sake of my family. I don’t want to spoil their holiday. I know I don’t have that woman’s faith, but please give me more faith, so it is enough for healing me. I know most of the faith has to come from you, please help.”
I kept waiting and praying. When I took the communion, I made one step and felt healthy.
The flu and the jet lagg were gone. I felt very happy, like in my childhood. I wanted to shout out in front of the whole church
“Happy Birthday Lord Jesus Christ, after all you were 100 % man like all of us”.
But I held it to myself and only smiled broadly. I had the feeling that the Lord was laughing in heavens. That was the happiest Christmas in my life. Before going back to the US I went to the tomb of Archbishop Seraphim and left him a note to help me find a job. In March of 2009 I was still unemployed and in my desperation decided to google the miracles of the Russian Bishop. I meant Archbishop Seraphim. All of a sudden I came to a web page about St. John Maximovich. I found out that his relics were in San Francisco and people were leaving him notes, just like they did in the Russian church in Sofia. I drove myself to San Francisco quickly and when I approched the relics I felt like a little sinner in the presence of holiness. I stayed by the candle stand near the relics and prayed to St. John saying
“Grandapa John (Bulgarian for bishop), please help me find a job to pay my bills”.
I was thinking of a particular company and a group, but I didn’t ask for it. That was on a Saturday. On Monday I got a call from a hiring manager in that same group. I got the job. St. John Maximovich was a quick helper! Miracles didn’t stop there. On Easter that same year I went to the Greek church. I was very sad that I didn’t know the Resurrection hymn in Greek. When midnight came all of a sudden I was singing with all the Greeks and was able to hear the words and comprehend them like they were in my own language. I thought that this is what “speaking in tongues” means. May be all these miracles happened to me to strengthen my faith when I was a novice Orthdox. I should mention that the relative who influenced me is my sister-in-law. She is very humble woman and with her humility she managed to influence my whole family, so we all can go to church together.
I kept going to church, to confession and communion for the years that followed. But I know that I am a bit like St. Thomas. I believe, because I have seen. God is merciful and loves us all. He was very patient with me, waiting to find Him and giving me all sorts of signs along the way. He helped me many times and didn’t give up on me. When I finally found Him, He showered me with miracles. I feel very blessed. Sometimes I think all strange thoughs coming to my head when I was on the journey were coming from the guardian angel that is given to everybody during the babtizm. Sometimes I think that my great-grandmother may be praying for me in heaven.
After all she may have deserved it since she was going to church when the church was oppressed and she babtized me when the regime could give her a hard time for doing this. May be the prayers of my mom helped. She only started going to church in the past 10 years, but she says she always prays to God and His Mother for her kids. I am finally happy that I have found the true faith in the true God. Glory to God for all things!
“the pernicious quality of the Gospel”?!
Fr. John says
It certainly was to the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Empire, and pretty much any earthly kingdom or power that tries to stamp it out.
I forgot an important detail from communist Bulgaria. I only lived during the rule of the last communist leader. He had a daughter who proclaimed all churches and monasteries part of Bulgarian cultural heritage. The state would give them money to maintain the buildings and show them to tourists. Religion was not encouraged. Just the cultural heritage part. I even visited Rila monastery in 1987, but as a tourist.
FR. RADU FROM CLUJ, ROMANIA says
hi Evghenia, i loved to read your story, becuse i am from another ex-comunist country, Romania, and we have also a dificult christian life in that regim!
Thank you Fr. Radu. Actually in Bulgaria during the communism I knew a few things about God from the elderly in the family. I was warned, however, that these talks should stay home. I was told not to discuss it with friends, strangers or friends of my parents. It twas between me and people who told me. But my understanding of God was very limited and vague.
FR. RADU FROM CLUJ, ROMANIA says
in Romania was litle bit diferent, the lat you to go to church, but they infiltrete in cleargy securist agents or conrupt cleary to divulgate the secret of confesion. They didint want to make martyrs, they want to pervert, which is more evil.
Today in Croatia, religion is mostly equated to a certain ideology, especialy after the yugoslavian war, but this ideological process started in the communist era. Being Catholic is usualy seen as being a croatian nationalist, being Orthodox as being a serbian nationalist, such an equation is the result of some relations between churches and political afiliations, and that is what disturbs me.
My family was mostly secular in the communist era, but after the war, as some members of my big family were involved in certain political playings, my family became a pious catholic family over the night. So, I would like to convert to Orthodoxy because of some theological, philosophical and personal reasons, but I am not even allowed to say that, since I would be disintegrated from my family emediately. For them, Orthodox are the “bad guys who killed innocent croatian babyes…” as my dear mother would said. Both sides made horrible things in the war, better to say, the whole war mas terrible and unjustifible as every war is! But what have I to do with the past, I have my own life!
Unfortunately, the greatest barrier for conversion for me is my family, and I do not know what to do about that!
If I have ofended someone here, it was not my intention, since this is not how I think about Orthodox Serbs, quite the contrary….. Nisam imao loše namjere:-)
Fr. John says
MisterStranger, there is a hard history there, but we can be free of it. Write me personally at frjohn (at) journeytoorthodoxy (dot) com and let’s talk.
I have to add one more detail. On that first Easter in the Greek Church I undestood most of the Resurrection hymn, but not all. I was struggling with the words “upon those in the tombs”, but at the time I didn’t comprehend that well even in Slavonic. So I understood exactly the part I undestand in Slavonic, not more. Bu the first part of the Hymn I was able to chant and that made me very happy since my expectation was very low.
FR. RADU FROM CLUJ, ROMANIA says
misterstranger can you go in other country, like greek, romania or other?
Sarah Hodgins says
Evgenia, I really enjoyed your story! I am very new to this Eastern European Church…I grew up Protestant in Canada, and after trying many, many different Protestant Churches I finally gave up and became atheist. But just recently, I became Roman Catholic, which was a HUGE JUMP from Protestantism for me, but it helps me to understand this very foreign but fascinating Orthodox Church. I found your story about the ex-Communist places and your grandmother very interesting, and all of the miracles you experienced! What a wonderful grandmother you had to teach you about God at her own risk. to Isn’t God amazing?!
Fr. John says
Sarah, though it is sad you still see Orthodoxy as ‘foreign’, we are still working to see that change.
Sarah Hodgins says
It is sad…I guess Canada is more Western Europeanish
Sarah, to be honest what I remember is that I was sitting on the floor with my grandmother and coloring Easter eggs. Other family told me she was speaking of what we celebrate. She must have done it so gently that I didn’t notice, but at the end of communism I knew what Easter is all about. During communism everybody colored eggs for Easter. Dies were sold in the stores. It was not a secret. Just very few would dare go to church. Mostly elderly people. My mom did it when she was expecting me. Nobody did anything bad to her. May be because she was expecting. But I was babtized in secret.
Sarah Hodgins says
I know that some of those Easter Eggs can be extremely ornately decorated! In a town near me, which is a mostly Ukrainian area, they have a giant Pysanka in their park. I’m surprised that the Communists didn’t try to prevent this custom of decorating eggs. I will need to learn more about why Easter Eggs are decorated in Eastern Europe. Thank God for your wonderful family for keeping the old customs!