Monday, 30 September 2019

Ways up the mountain : The Balkan National Park

My training incumbent who was especially interested in other faiths, notably Sikhism and HInduism, was fond of saying “There are many roads up the mountain” which he used as an analogy for seeking God. This has been on my mind recently for as you know Frances and I have been staying at the foot of the Balkan mountains in Bulgaria. Our hotel was the last building in the town and the footpaths up to the peaks started at the front door. The Central Balkan National Park is one of the largest and most valuable of the protected areas in Europe and is part of the United Nations List looked after by UNESCO and the World Wildlife Fund. There are centuries old forests of beech, spruce, fir, hornbeam and oak and the park includes ten species found nowhere else in the world. There are high mountain meadows, vertical rock faces, precipices, deep canyons, waterfalls and peaks and reports of wolves and bears. It does not begin at the hotel front door but 500 metres or so up - it is well worth reaching.

The many paths up the mountain are marked like this - painted on rocks or the trunks of trees there are green and blue trails leading to high altitude mountain refuges. Like my training incumbent’s paths to God, some of the signs seem clearer than others, easier to see and distinguish. Of course occasionally the paths run together so you have both signs on the same boulder, at other times they diverge and over time the blues and greens have faded a little and it is difficult to tell one from another. It becomes quite easy to take a wrong turning or perhaps drift from the path altogether.

What I particularly noticed on this trip was the incentive to climb! Even though it was quite hot, mostly between twenty-seven and thirty degrees and my energy levels were lower and my weight higher than when we had last taken a break of this sort, the way up, the reward of reaching a point was still a driver. It was easy to say “We’ll just look round the next corner.” We eventually acquired a map but before that we set off to reach what thought might be a refreshing mountain lake - we pressed on through woodland looking round corners ever upward following the stream until we recognized that we had missed it completely. We had strayed too high! 

Coming down is much less easy - the signs are designed to point the way upwards and on the way down they are so easily missed or ignored - only once did we manage to come down the right path and end up where we had started and often we were off the beaten track altogether.

You realise by now that this is an allegory of our journey of faith, there are various signs, more or less easily understood, convergence often with other faiths, as we explore truth, love, or peace; the perils of missing the way, that the signs naturally point upwards, the troubles of coming down. On our last ascent around 1200 metres up we came across a viewpoint looking over the valley, and there we found a set of metal tables and chairs, a playframe including a little slide, a running spring all of which had been in place for a long time and there also a tiny chapel beautifully built with tiny stained glass windows, a bell and just tall enough to step inside.
A resting place for the weary, a refreshment for the young, and inside  the chapel a wall of icons where the candles had been lit. There was no other way to be here other than on foot - someone had come up the mountain early in the morning before us, probably at dawn, and had prepared this sacred space for the travellers to rest and pray on the way to the summit.


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