From the Balkans, with Love
Reflections | Smoky Cafes, the Art of Wandering and Beeswax Candles for the Slavic Gods
It’s snowing in Belgrade. The cafe, dark and soft like a winter cave, draws the morning pilgrims to warm pastries and Turkish coffee that here they call Serbian and in Greece they call Greek. An old man sits at the table next to mine reading a crisp newspaper and silky clouds of smoke carry the voice of a woman signing gypsy ballads on the radio. The murmur of men’s voices like a lullaby resound between tables, between lives, this place a pause, a tightrope extended between what was and what will be, is not yet, the stillness between breaths.
The Russians are friends here and so everywhere is warm. Back in England I would write in a pile of hot water bottles because of the energy costs doubling but here, bartenders open the windows to free imprisoned heat. There is a sweet heaviness in my head from perhaps one-too-many nights of wine and apricot rakia, a type of Serbian brandy - and brandy is my favourite; and mornings are extended like a tangled thread unravelling, time stretched into a rhythm slow like a calm heart.
When night falls I seek out taverns shadowy and contained, where I can nestle my chair in a corner and be serenaded by a sadness that sounds happy characteristic of Balkan folk music. I’m often struck by the majority of songs being about loss of love. This is so often the case with folk songs, be it mariachi music from Mexico, Portuguese fado or the flamenco of my home turf in Spain. When I was younger I wrote a collection of writings based on my travels and called them The Illusion of Uniqueness. Always choosing to travel alone so I could fully experience my surroundings, I was repeatedly struck by how similar we are; what brings us together far exceeding what separates us. In Psalm 23, David wrote that God has “prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” If we all sat down in a smoky cafe, with apricot brandies and ballads about the agonies of the heart, we would end up breaking into song together.
One of my spiritual teachers once told me that an initiate cannot wander about as one uninitiated. But I find the wandering necessary; crucial, actually. I need to feel non-existence sometimes, that I am not needed and that I am not known. Here I can be invisible. I can hide behind basic vocabulary and my silence is acceptable. This is how I remember mortality. Memento mori. The thrill of walking through streets I don’t know with a phone that doesn’t work, unreachable, lost and found simultaneously. I know this to be among the invisible ingredients of self-transformation. On my twenty-first birthday a street poet in Granada gifted me a poem on his typewriter: Para encontrarse, hay que perderse - To find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
Sometimes I see streets I recognise; sometimes I don’t. And then I feel fear, I do. I am not without fear. I worry that I won’t find my way home before nightfall. I fear the man that walks behind me; the group of boys smoking on the street corner. Georgia O’Keeffe said, “I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” Courage was never without fear. It is the fuel that sustains a life of passion. I life of heart. It marks the difference between the dreamer who sleeps and the one who dreams awake. “Don’t go back to sleep,” wrote Rumi.
This is the Art of Wandering: the practice of leaving our comfort zone, if only for a short while, and willingly making ourselves vulnerable in a place not our own. This activates our animal body, our gut knowing, what Martin Shaw would call our dog-nose. It empties us and brings us back to center. In this way we can listen to the world with all the doors of our perception wide open; waking up the entirety of who we are to the great mystery. Being alone in a place not our own is like standing on top of a very high vantage point. And the drop down is perilous but it has to be taken because it leads to a river that will take us home; it is walking a tightrope over the deepest darkest cavern with a blindfold, and trusting we know the way is non-way. As Machado wrote, Walker, there is no path to follow, you make the path by walking.
Sometimes we need to be alone to hear the voice of the heart; to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention; to quiet the cognitive mind and rest down into our deeper mind, our spiritual center. Being alone in a place not our own spurs us out of complacency and pushes us to claim our own authentic, unique abilities and our creative power. In this way we open the door to numinous experiences that can fill our existential void and produce enhanced mental, physical, spiritual health and vitality within us; we step fully into who we came here to be, our truest self.
This is a moment in history in which we need to be wide awake and imagine ourselves into a time that doesn’t exist and may never exist, but could exist. We live in a world of paradox and it’s filled with mirrors; old debris rising up to be cleared. A time to untangle threads and weave new patterns; to look at our relationships and ask ourselves if they truly support who we are; and to gently, with softness and grace, clear away and run, as Hafez would say, from anything that doesn’t strengthen your precious budding wings.
Because when we free ourselves, we free more than ourselves.
Every time I come here, I make a pilgrimage to my favourite chapel. Built into a cliff face in the middle of the city, it has a sacred spring that is the site’s central altar dedicated to the female saint of the tenth-century known as Saint Petka.
The legends say that Petka was a girl from modern-day Istanbul who was drawn to the ascetic life. Her parents didn’t want her to become a nun, and so she ran way to Constantinople. She is said to have experienced visions of the Mother Mary and visitations from angels. After travelling to Jerusalem, she eventually settled in a nunnery near the river Jordan and died at the age of twenty-seven. She was later canonised a saint. Her name is reminiscent of the Slavic goddess Petka, also known as Pyatnitsa or Zhiva - each a name for the Mother Goddess of the Slavs. She was seen as the protector of women and was connected to spinning, an association that later merged into her cult within Orthodox Christianity. As is the case in the Christianisation process all over Europe, it could be that the earlier goddess was syncretised with the mortal Petka as a way of Christianising the old religion. We can find examples of Christian monks taking the image of older goddesses and transplanting them onto later saints all over Europe as a way of wiping out the old religions. Saint Brigit, the patroness of Ireland, for instance, was once Brigid, the goddess of pre-Christian Ireland associated with wisdom, fire and the coming of Spring.
Before it began to be Christianised in the eighth-century, the Balkan Peninsula had a rich pantheon of gods. Slavic peoples lived in small matriarchal clans and were polytheistic. Many of their myths, stories and folk practices survived Christianisation and are practiced to this day.
Petka’s chapel is no doubt a holy place. There is a particularly strong current that runs through the Earth, and it’s really no surprise that the spring is considered sacred. Holy wells appear all over mythology, folk tradition and pre-patriarchal wisdom teachings in Europe. They are known for their healing miracles and are usually associated to a female deity, such as Petka in this case. You can read more about women as custodians of wells on my piece on the Waters of Wisdom.
The majority of pilgrims I see at Petka’s chapel are women. They light beeswax candles for her, kiss the mosaic images of her feet, and anoint themselves with the waters from the well. I’m pulled back to the caves of prehistoric women anointing the walls with ochre, a symbol for the blood of the womb and the blood of the Earth; women of Bronze Age Crete offering libations of milk and honey in temples built, too, near holy springs; and now here, where three women wearing headscarves whisper to the well and then drink, with gestures ritualised and unimaginably old. There is a continuity in women’s religious practice that, though perhaps not yet accepted by mainstream academic scholarship, can be known experientially. The entire history of women’s mysteries is laid out before us when we pay attention, hidden in plain sight.
Though much has been lost, we can find the old gods in the icons of the new ones. We can see the Slavic goddess of spinning and protection in the image of Saint Petka and, through her, access a wisdom old as time.
I am both filled and emptied in these lands. The wanderer in me that longs for aloneness is reclothed behind the veils of smoke and song in these lands forgotten and misrepresented by the western world, as is the part of me that hears the voices of the old stories and needs to follow them, at all costs; that needs them to live. Scattering these parts of myself here brings them back together like ashes in water. Being alone, in a place not my own, draws out a fullness of presence that is simply not possible in the comfort zone. It quiets, at last, the noise of the mind and awakens an absolutely unmixed attention that Simone Weill would call prayer.
From the Balkans, with love,
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