For Whom The Bells Toll on Christmas in Bulgaria
The story of Maria Zabova, bell ringer at Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, is a real epiphany, an inspiring tale of faith, commitment, strength and... higher mathematics. Milena Hristova finds out why the elderly woman is closer to God on Christmas than any of us.
Sunday morning. The cathedral is cold and dark. It smells of incense. Maria Zabova starts to climb the narrow, winding ladder up to the bell tower. Two hundred and twenty stairs later, she is standing up upon the platform. The cold wind blows through the open arches. A last look at her watch. She stretches out her hands, grabs the ropes and pulls them with all her might. The dance of the bells begins.
"I believe my power is a gift from God. It is unusual for a woman at my age to have so much energy," says Maria Zabova, who has been bell ringer at Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, the biggest temple on the Balkans, for 27 years.
She is 81 years old and has been working as a teacher in mathematics all her life. A graduate of the French college Saint Joseph in the town of Plovdiv, she later studied higher mathematics and physics at Sofia University "Saint Kliment Ohridski". Contrary to widespread beliefs, she claims that higher mathematics, physics and the faith in God are completely compatible.
"Bell ringing is a demanding job, it is nothing short of a science," Maria Zabova says with a sharp look in her eyes and pulls once again the several ropes that she holds in each hand, one of her feet pressing a wooden pedal.
The belfry is open on all sides and left to the mercy of the unsparing winds, which clash against the elderly woman's fragile body and play havoc with her hair. She looks like a captain, who is steering the ship along the road of righteousness. During big religious holidays Maria Zabova performs the ritual three times a day, while on special occasions, such as the first visit to Bulgaria of the exiled former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg, the bells chime joyfully for more than three hours.
"The bells gave me great spiritual strength, which I feel to this very day – I enjoy excellent health, have achieved what I have wanted in life and am blessed with a wonderful family – my ten children, grandchildren and grand-grand children are all around me."
It is with nothing but love and respect that everybody in the cathedral treats her, calling her "Mrs Maria". Still she is loath to be observed or noticed except as the cloaked, humble but determined God's servant that she conjures up when seen next to the bells.
"I would have been happier if I was not paid for what I am doing here. I don't want to be noticed, so that I can be recognized by God," Zabova admits.
True, the process of bell ringing has traditionally been associated with the act of self-imposed isolation and awe, but Zabova redefines it as something more open and oxygenated – it is not rare that she lets into the belfry desperate people looking for healing. And God answers their prayers, Zabova says.
The cathedral was built to commemorate Bulgaria's liberation from Ottoman rule, while the twelve bells were cast in Tula, a large city near the Russian capital Moscow, on May 26, 1911, the date of Maria's birthday.
"I feel deeply moved by this coincidence," says Maria, her eyes glinting beneath her silvery hair.
Maria Zabova joined the choir of Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in 1950 while she was a freshman at the university only to find that her close affinity to the church has stirred up a hornet's nest. The communist era was a period of great persecution for the religious people in Bulgaria, turbulent times when religion officially did not exist and the entry into churches was banned.
"I faced unthinkable obstacles. I constantly lived with the fear that I will be punished or deported. The true communist is a Christian. Bulgaria was not ruled by communists, but by greedy and not that ethical members of the regime's nomenclature."
In a bid to keep a low profile, Zabova moved to the choir at the Saint George church and later to the Holy Seven Saints church. Asked why it was so important for her to sing in a church choir that she even risked being expelled from the university, she answers: "I could not do without the church." She came back to Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in 1975 and has never left it ever since.
"I was always persecuted for my firm faith, but I never gave it up," she says. Even though she keeps her serenity, her look sharpens when she remembers how the regime prevented her from landing a dream job at UNESCO because of her bourgeois origin and her faith in God. The political establishment made sure that the plot went off without a hitch and had no qualms about reminding her once and again about the threat of deportation.
Оf course all of this prompts the question how she found the strength to weather the turmoils, keep her faith and continue tacitly, like a true saint, to defend it.
"God showed me the way that I had to take and it was quite unexpected, even for me, that I fell in love with the bells. Our love keeps going strong for more than twenty seven years, with no delays and excuses."
Zabova believes that now, more than twenty years after the collapse of the communist regime, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but says that the years of dictatorship have exacted their toll.
"I have been recently struck by an epiphany of my own – I am convinced that Bulgarians will again turn to God one day, but this will be a very tough and long process. Three generations have been left crippled by the ban to enter churches."
Maria often reminisces about the past – but also looks ahead to the future.
"Sometimes I fall into despair when I think about today's young Bulgarians. They have so many opportunities to develop and make something big in their lives, but they don't seem to care. That's why I am really pleased to see young people coming into the church."
She is convinced that the difficulties only cemented her faith.
"I had a very rich and diverse life, despite the incredible obstacles that I faced. I always felt God next to me and he never failed me. I will never let him down either."
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