Entering a Bulgarian Orthodox Church

24.07.2012 § 2 Comments

When travelling in Bulgaria, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a city or town without a church as a significant landmark. The Orthodox church was a haven for Bulgarian language and culture during the almost 500 years of Ottoman dominion and its buildings tend to be the source of much local pride. Many churches feature prominently on walking tours and tourist information sites and you’ll likely find yourself entering church after church during your stay.


An icon depicting St. John the Baptist

Bulgarian Orthodox churches vary widely in origins, age, and overall layout, although there are a few constants. According to canon, Bulgarian churches are oriented East-West, with the entrance on the west side of the church, and the altar on the east. Pilgrims may be led through a small entryway, into the main nave of the church. The church may or may not have a dome, and if it does, it is round, ringed by high windows, and often painted with scenes from the Gospel on the inside. There are many icons (painted images of saints) in the church, and some may be endowed with supposed healing powers. There are no rows of seats in the main nave: most patrons are expected to stand during the service, with only a few high-armed seats available alongside the walls for wealthy patrons or special guests.

The altar, restricted to priests, is behind a high wooden wall of icons, called an иконостас (iconostasis). The iconostasis has a main door and two side doors, and its icons are arranged in a specific order: the main gates depict the Anunciation to the Virgin Mary, flanked by Jesus on the right and the Virgin Mary on the left. John the Baptist is depicted to the right of Jesus, while the patron saint of the church is depicted to the left of the Virgin Mary. The left (north) side door depicts the Archangel Michael while the right (south) door depicts archdeacon Stephen.

Church Etiquette

Before you enter a church, ensure that you are appropriately dressed: many churches will turn away visitors in flip-flops, skirts or shorts that are too short or tops that bare the shoulders or cleavage.

Upon entering the main nave of the church, Orthodox Christians are expected to lower their heads in reverence and form the sign of the crucifix: putting your thumb, index and middle finger together and tucking your ring and little finger against your palm, touch your forehead, heart (or womb), right, then left shoulder, in that order. The explanation for this is simple:

The three fingers symbolize the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). The two fingers against your palm affirm the belief in Jesus Christ, both a mortal and a god. The cross begins at our foreheads (the sky), asking for clarity for our minds and illumination of our thoughts, touches our hearts (the earth), to grace our feelings, and links our shoulders, symbolizing the all-encompassing nature of the Holy Spirit and imbuing our bodies with strength.

As you look around, you will inevitably notice at least one candle holder on a stand at eye level with space for several concentric circles of tall, skinny yellow beeswax candles. These candles, known in Orthodoxy as “bloodless sacrifices”, are lit by visitors as an offering to the temple, and are often the only source of income for the church. You can make a suggested donation in exchange for candles at a small stall somewhere near the entrance, with prices ranging from 0.20 Leva to 2 or 5 Leva. Aim to get at least two.

A candle holder for good health with a memorial chest behind it.

Light one candle from any of the ones already burning in the holder and place it upright in an empty slot. These candles are lit with wishes for health, happiness and good fortune for one’s friends and family. You may buy one candle per family member, or per family branch, and offer them all in this manner.

Save at least one candle. Somewhere below and beside the high, round holders, there is a low, rectangular box, containing rows of candle slots or filled with sand. Traditionally, it holds candles in memory of the deceased. During most of the year, you may light a single candle here to honour and commemorate anyone dear to you who has died.

There are three periods in the ecclesiastical calendar when you should only light candles for the living. These are connected to the holiest of Orthodox feasts: the first week of Lent, the eight days leading up to Easter, and from December 20 to January 7.

Stay in the church as long as you wish, but as you leave, face the altar and make the sign of the crucifix again. Avoid leaving the church with your back to the altar.

This is a very cursory, rough exposition of some of the traditions that Bulgarians abide by in an Orthodox church. In my experience, I have found that observing the ritual to the letter or picking the right denomination of Christianity isn’t nearly as valuable as taking a moment to find spirituality, or just serenity or peace, in a church. I am by no means religious, but following a few of these rituals in a church, with its high ceilings, muted decorations and hushed silence always has a calming effect on me and lifts my thoughts into the realm of the spiritual. Whatever your views on the institution of Christianity, I’m sure you’ll find that Bulgarian Orthodox churches are at the very least fascinating architectural monuments and quite unique in the world.

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