Church for the Unholy – My Five Faves

It’s bigger on the inside. An unassuming cliff is home to an ancient monastery in Moldova.

I am a heathen. I haven’t done the church thing since the days when my mom would haul my brother and I off to Sunday school so she could get a reprieve from lego wars and tinker toy battles. I’m not opposed to church going – I mean, who doesn’t love a good sing along while sitting on excruciatingly painful benches and choking on old lady perfume?  It’s just not my thing.

Which makes me a bit of a hypocrite –  I have wandered to the edges of the planet for a good church.  I have climbed sheer cliffs barefoot, felt my way through pitch black tunnels, crossed croc infested waters, climbed precarious bell towers and flirted with monks all for some good church.  I’ve even endured a road trip with my father – that’s how dedicated to church exploring I am.

Tucked into a cliff somewhere in Moldova, an ancient monastery. These were used as bunks.

Here are my five favourites:

1.  Flirting with Monks at Noul Neamt, Transnistria Moldova

Getting here, you have to pass through a quasi Russian border. It seems like a real border – complete with cranky looking, gun-toting Russians who look like they’ve just been spit out of 1982 – but this breakaway territory only pretends to be Russia. Tread lightly though, the Russian military will nail you for anything, from jay walking to lingering too long.

This monastery has an impressive story. Buildings, books and bodies, all hundreds of years old. A monk with a sparkle in his eye will pour you one more glass of his homemade wine. The bell tower, the tallest in Moldova, is sure to make your heart race while you climb. And the public bathroom that will scar you for life. Avoid it at all cost.  Check out the full story on my trip back to the USSR.

Let the monk get you tipsy only after you’ve climbed the bell tower to take in the view.

2.  Kissing A Dead Woman at Metropolitan Cathedral, Iasi Romania

Anytime I’m travelling and the locals are lined up, I get in line too, just to see what’s going on. I’ve scored some of the best desserts this way. So when I was wandering through Iasi Romania and found a giant line up of old ladies in their kerchiefs outside the Metropolitan Cathedral, I had to see what all the fuss was about.  Had I known I was about to kiss a woman who’d been dead a thousand years, I might have scurried right on by.

I’d been hearing people in the streets all very excited about these things called ‘relics’. Turns out, a ‘relic’ is the polite way of saying “bit of dead body’.  Body of a saint to be exact.  The churches in Eastern Europe have a slightly morbid swap system. Like baseball cards, but instead, ancient, dead fingertips and such. Churches have a glass case at the front, each highlighting their revered collection of bits. There was a fevered excitement about this particular church’s relics, I was told I must see them, so I queued up.

Lovely Camelia taught me all the important steps in kissing a saint.
Lovely Camelia taught me all the important steps in kissing a saint.

Eventually I made it to the star of the show – Saint Parascheva, the patron saint of embroidery. No need for bits, most of her body was right there, enclosed in a glass casket, with an opening for her hands folded at her waist, and covered only by a thin piece of cloth.

Parascheva died about 1000 years ago, and I was expected to kiss her carcass – smooch the thin piece of cloth that swarmed with the germs of thousands of kisses before mine. Well, when in Romania… I puckered up. If you’re going for a little girl on girl action, why not with a long dead saint?

3.  Singing Swahili in the Usambara Mountains, Tanzania

If you have a chance to go to a teeny church atop a mountain in Africa, I cannot insist enough that you do it – no matter how much your twenty-something guide kicks at the dirt and ask you four times if you really feel it’s necessary.  I ended up in Mtae partway through a 60km trek through the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania. The dusty village with few perks beyond the gobsmacking scenery had a quaint little white church overlooking the mountaintop cemetery. It just happened to be Sunday morning and the music was spilling out, gathering up the congregation. Despite my scruffy, travel-worn dishevelment, I had to join in.

Rustic, without electricity or other perks, this church was the heart of the community.
Rustic, without electricity or other perks, this church was the heart of the community.

We were smushed in, women on one side, men on the other. Breastfeeding mammas and little ones all across the back, ready for quick exit. Participation is mandatory – a songbook was thrust at me, pages opened to the song at hand. I was a guest, and expected to sing. Terribly. In Swahili. Even when they giggle at you.  It was hot in there and smelled funny. The wooden plank bench was far from cushy. The whole congregation took turns staring at me. But it was simply the best church service I had ever attended.  Check out a video here, shot by one of the guys in our group. Listening to their music still gives me goosebumps.

4.  Dangling From a Cliff in Northern Ethiopia

Some churches have a certain dress code. No jeans, cover up your hair, generally look presentable. For Abuna Yemata Gah in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, there are two requirements – diapers and bare feet. Well, the diapers are a simple suggestion, getting there is pee-your-pants scary.

Centuries ago, Ethiopians played hide-and-go-seek with their churches. Buried them, tucked them away in mountains and valleys, and in the Tigray Region, hid them in cliffs, far away from any good sense.  I feel the same about churches as I do about boys – the more ridiculous, the more I can’t be helped. This one had me smitten.

Abuna Yemata Gah – the views outside the church are almost as breathtaking as inside.

Like my choice in boys, it’s difficult to get to, and leaves my heart racing in fearful panic.  Hours of dusty driving along rocky roads interrupted by sheep and kamikaze drivers is the easy part. Climbing barefoot, hundreds of metres up a sheer cliff with nothing to hold on to but your wits is the part that gets a little worrisome. Volunteers lead the way, placing your hands and feet in little holes carved from the sandstone cliff, and catch you when you fall. They make it look easy of course, but even they become quiet and cautious as they creep along the edge towards the entrance.  Once inside though, it’s completely worth it. I was too frightened to get any decent shots, but this video makes my palms sweat.

5.  Digging the Churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia

Ok, well this isn’t just one church, it’s 11, each one of them spectacular.  In the 12th century in Ethiopia, it wasn’t easy to be Christian. Wars and other troubles made it difficult for people to worship – so King Lalibela hatched a plan. He’d have a series of churches built, each designed with a different style, but all tucked into the landscape, out of sight. His clever plan – carve the churches from the rocky ground below.  The result will steal your breath away.  They’re so impressive, I had to dedicate a whole story to them (and a bit of homemade wine and dancing with a cute musician…)

St. George's Cathedral is the crown jewel of the Lalibela churches.
St. George’s Cathedral is the crown jewel of the Lalibela churches.

Whether it’s the vibrant paintings, bodies buried beneath the alter, the roar of a community bursting into song, the spooky silence within, or simply the challenge of getting there, a church always ends up on my travel itinerary.  And much to my delight, this heathen hasn’t been struck down by lightning in the process… yet.

3 Responses

  1. Christine
    | Reply

    Hey, I have the same photo of the priest in Lalibela. Dude hasn’t moved 😉

  2. Michelle Holmes
    | Reply

    Hi Christine – the only move he made was a gesture towards the donation box before I was allowed to snap the photo. I guess he’s comfy!

  3. The artwork in Ethiopia’s churches and monasteries is incredible – so many stories within each piece – you could spend a lifetime trying to figure it all out! Gondar was a favourite so were the monasteries on Lake Tana

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