Driving Around Europe Without A Map, Part 23 … AN ANGEL IN THE WILDERNESS


Bouncing through the Balkans on a balmy afternoon

How is it that relatively unimportant scenes from our past remain etched in our memory as deeply as those of great consequence?

Is it a unique scent that does the trick? A special sound or touch that triggers some hidden, genetically programmed response … like an echo from deep time about which we, who play no more than a nanosecond in its pageant of species, are clueless?

I, for one, am quite happy to leave it as a mystery, a blessed moment swirling in an eddy, left behind by the cleansing wash of time’s inexorable ebb.

I find most such moments stored in my personal memories vault outliers to my daily routines. One such moment occurred somewhere between Macedonia and Kosovo just before sunset.

After a day of bouncing over a mountainous, serpentine dirt road that cut through an unending forest, we happened upon a verdant, small valley in which sat a walled Orthodox monastery. It’s gold cross caught in the sun’s sinking rays like a beckoning muse.

“What an inviting surprise!” we all concluded at once, and I immediately drove down the old, rutted road that led to the monastery’s main gate. It stood open and unattended. We could see shovels, hoes, rakes and like laying scattered around its large garden … but not a soul in it. No one was at home.

We walked to the main entry. One of its high-arched, sturdy wooden doors was open. We cautiously walked in. There were no signs or identity or instruction anywhere to be seen … that is unless you count the larger-than-life-size saints and martyrs who stared down on us from frescos painted on tall arched walls painted a long time ago. Nothing. Where were we?

Watch your step young fellow!

Watch your step young fellow!

Where was everyone?

Candles lit the entry hall, and with those guys looking at us through the half-light with their big stoner eyes, well to tell the truth, the whole thing was getting kind of spooky! And though we had no idea where we were precisely, we were aware of the long history of bloodshed in the region, especially that spilled in sporadic violence between Christians and Muslims.

But we saw neither Christian nor Muslim, and there wasn’t any blood running or pooled anywhere. Where was everyone?

The entry hall t-boned into a similar hall with more radicalized saints and martyrs looking down on us. And then we heard something vague coming from the hall off to our right. Music!

I peeked around the corner. Several sconces further down the hall stood a nun, who, upon seeing me, waved for me to join her. “Oh! This is no monastery, it’s a convent … and we’re just in time for mass!” We shuffled down the empty hall as quickly, quietly and reverently as we could under the freakish gaze of those holy men looking down on us from above.

“Wow!” I whispered, “what great timing!”

The nun ushered us into a visitor’s pew, one of many that were all empty. We could see the convent’s permanent residents sitting in their cloistered section opposite us. The sanctuary was sparkling from the light of what seemed like hundreds flickering candles, the reflections of which mutated the sacred ikons into fiery gold.

A priest genuflected in front of the alter while both of his alter boys walked around it swinging buckets of burning incense that billowed smoke like an old-time steam locomotive hi-balling through Kansas.


A choir of angels come down from heaven to sing just for me!

A pungent fragrance permeated the room. It completely engulfed us like a San Francisco fog. It was so strong and thick that after only a few minutes I swear we started to hallucinate!

And what a beautiful hallucination it was. The quiet, spiritual tranquility of the sanctuary, the musty smell of the incense, the rituals of the priest and the plainchant of the nuns all combined to create an other-worldly feeling … and that was before the holy spirit visited us and one the nuns started to sing in pure, dulcet tones, the like of which I’d never heard before in my life!

I’d had the pleasure to hear some great operatic voices, from San Francisco to Frankfurt to Moscow, but I’d never heard anything quite as moving as that nun. We all may have inhaled more than our share of that perfumed smoke, but when she started her voice was so powerful and expressive that I vowed then and there that if heaven were filled with voices like hers, I would have changed my life then and there just to make sure I’d get there when I passed on.

That day she carried me and my companions to the top of a spiritual mountain on which we could hear faint echoes of eternity. It was an experience like none other, just a few fleeting minutes out of the millions that fill a life, but some of the few that travel with you on your journeys through life.

And perhaps if I’m lucky, really lucky, I’ll hear them again forever!


Coming next! Driving Around Europe Without A Map, Part 24 … MAD MIDGET MUSLIMS AND A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH ZEITGEIST



About Joe Illing

I hope you'll find my posts entertaining, occasionally edifying and worth whatever time you can spend with them ... Joe
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2 Responses to Driving Around Europe Without A Map, Part 23 … AN ANGEL IN THE WILDERNESS

  1. chedmiller says:

    Your prose becomes more poetic with each new instalment. Well done. A treat to read.



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