In this sixteenth video on “Theological English”, Jonathan Dunne looks at the progression from the A of creation to the I of the Fall to the O of repentance/realization, which was the subject of the second video. Having already seen how this progression AIO can be found between words such as “what”, “why” and “who/how”, he examines to what extent this progression can be found inside words. When we draw a line through the selfish demands of the ego (I) and form a cross (†), which is also a plus-sign (+), A+O, we get the name of God in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible: Alpha and Omega. This in turn gives “and” (A ’N’ O) and its reverse “DNA”. When we use the Greek letter omega (“w”), we get “man” (A ’N’ W). So the idea expressed by Christ of denying the self, taking up our cross and following him is at the heart of language and in our very genes.
There are three major monasteries in Bulgaria: Rila in the south-west (a World Heritage site), Bachkovo in the foothills of the Rhodope Mountains to the south, and Troyan in the Balkan Mountains in central Bulgaria.
But aside from these three major sites, there are many monasteries dotted about Bulgaria, in particular around the capital, Sofia, and many of these are inactive or abandoned. The monasteries around Sofia make up what is known as ‘the Little Holy Mountain’, a reference to the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos in Greece, famous for its monasticism.
You can be in Sofia and not realize that there is a different experience awaiting you only twenty minutes by car from the capital. Unfortunately, many people don’t get this opportunity to travel further afield or don’t know about these places. When you leave Sofia, you enter a different world, one of beautiful nature and one of great spirituality. We do not realize that nature has its own language and it takes time to begin to decipher it.
The Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova and I visited 140 monasteries from our home in Sofia during the period 2006-2012. The fruit of this pilgrimage was a series of ten essays by Tsvetanka contained in a book published in Bulgarian as Bulgarian Frescoes: Feast of the Root (Omophor, 2013), accompanied by more than a hundred of my photographs. These essays cover different feasts, from the Nativity of Christ to his Resurrection and Ascension. We have made a small selection of the best images to give people an idea of the riches hidden away in monasteries in Bulgaria that are often abandoned and can be difficult to get to.
The best example is Seslavtsi, a district of Sofia 12 km north-east of the capital. The frescoes here are breathtaking. They were painted by a famous iconographer, Pimen of Zograph, a monk from the Bulgarian monastery of Zograph on Mount Athos who was called by St George in a dream to return to his homeland and to build and paint churches, which he did at the start of the seventeenth century, four hundred years ago. The church containing these frescoes was used for target practice during Communism and is next to a uranium mine. The quality of the frescoes is so good that attempts have been made to cut them out of the wall and take them. The frescoes have not been restored, which gives them a lifelike quality. Once frescoes are restored, they lose something of their spontaneity and acquire a sheen.
Other monasteries containing high-quality frescoes in the environs of Sofia are Alino, a village on the south side of Mount Vitosha, the mountain that overlooks Sofia from the south; Eleshnitsa, a village 25 km north-east of Sofia; and Iliyantsi, a district of Sofia in the north.
Further afield, we find the church of Berende, a village 50 km north-west of Sofia in the direction of Serbia, overlooking a disused railway and with wonderful autumnal colours. Not far away from Berende is the village of Malo Malovo, a very difficult monastery to find. Our first attempt was unsuccessful. We were with our year-old baby and unexpectedly came across some young lads hanging out in the mountain. We caught the glint of metal, beat a hasty retreat and returned a week later, this time without our child, successfully locating the monastery, which was hidden away behind an elevation, perhaps deliberately if one considers that a lot of these monasteries were built during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria in the fourteenth-nineteenth centuries, when churches were not supposed to exceed the height of a man on horseback and so had to be dug into the ground.
To the north-east of Sofia, still in west Bulgaria, we find Strupets and Karlukovo. To the west of Sofia lies Bilintsi, on the road to Tran, which has a very attractive gorge. Here, we came across a monk who had taken it upon himself to paint over the old frescoes and who kindly offered us tea in the hovel he was living in (which had a large hole in the ground). Fortunately, his work of ‘restoration’ was incomplete and we were able to photograph some of the original frescoes.
South of Sofia, near the motorway to Greece, is Boboshevo, another excellent monastery for frescoes. And then in central Bulgaria, we have Arbanasi, a hill with old churches next to the medieval capital Veliko Tarnovo. One of these churches is the Church of the Nativity, an example of a building that is sunk into the ground, with sumptuous frescoes inside. A little to the north of Veliko Tarnovo, overlooking the river Yantra, with Holy Trinity Monastery on the other side, is Preobrazhenie (Transfiguration) Monastery, which has a wonderful Wheel of Life fresco on the outside.
These are only some of the monasteries we visited, but they are the ones with the most important images. Our aim in presenting these images is to show the high quality, the naivety (we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven), the deep spirituality of Bulgarian frescoes. In the West, our attention is drawn to the likes of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, considered a high example of religious art. Some of these monasteries – Seslavtsi, in particular – can quite rightly be included in the same canon of European religious art.
English and French editions of the book Bulgarian Frescoes: Feast of the Root are forthcoming. For more information, visit the book’s dedicated website.
(In the slideshow above, captions are by Tsvetanka Elenkova, photographs and translation are by Jonathan Dunne.)
In the previous article, we looked at the progression of human life – which is also the progression of the Greek alphabet – from A to I to O. A represents the letter of Creation, when AM created AN, a countable noun, a separate being, one that can have free will – that is to say, A MAN – whose name was ADAM. I is the letter of the Fall, of the era we live in, in which we are subject to our selfish impulses and seem to view one another as a source of profit instead of someone we should serve. I am reminded of two monks who tried to have an argument. One said, ‘Let’s quarrel.’ The other replied, ‘OK then.’ The first took hold of an object and declared, ‘This object is mine. I am going to take it.’ The other rejoined, ‘Please do,’ and that was the end of the argument. When we cede our will to another’s, there is no cause for a quarrel. O is the letter of repentance – we count down from the ego, I, to God, O, or to put it another way we open our spiritual eyes (our spiritual Is) and see that we ourselves are limited, the world is not going to fill us (or it is only going to do so temporarily) and the source of true life is God. This change of vision can be the result of a spiritual experience. In my case, it was, but this was after I had got down on my knees and called to God (if he truly existed) for assistance. I had realized my limits, but God did not invade my privacy, he waited for me to call him. I do think we have to take the first step. This happened when I was thirty-three and, without my knowing, it was Maundy Thursday when I called, and Easter Sunday when God answered.
All the examples I gave in the previous article of the progression AIO were between words: for example, AM-I’M-OM (NO ONE) or AMEN-MINE-NEMO/OMEN. I would like now to look at examples of this progression inside words, but I would like first to sound a note of warning. In all my study of word connections, which has occupied the last sixteen years, this is where my knowledge is most limited. I only see ‘through a glass, darkly’. I perceive that this progression exists inside words in the English language, but it is much wider than I am able to comprehend, and I think there is more to it. I shall try simply to make my case, and the reader will come to their own conclusions.
First of all, we must consider the alternatives. Inside words, the I of AIO may be written in the form of the corresponding semi-vowels j and y, or as lower-case l (which to all intents and purposes is identical to capital I):
I: j, y, l
Secondly, we have already seen the close resemblance between the capital letters O, D and G (the word GOD can thus be said to comprise three circles). We have also replaced the O of AIO with the corresponding Greek letter W (which is how lower-case omega is written in Greek), so we could expect to find the letter O written using these other letters:
O: d, g, w
Starting with AIO, then, we see the progression AIO in words like AID and DAY. The former reminds me of Orthodox prayers to the Virgin Mary, in which we ask her to ‘come to our aid’. The latter reminds me of the creation of the Day in the first chapter of Genesis, when God said, ‘Let there be light’ (Gen 1:3-5). It was as if he laid down the progression AIO right at the very beginning.
But there is a very curious example, which is IAO, an early Greek form of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH. This early Greek form of the name Yahweh clearly contains the progression AIO.
If we repeat one of the letters, we find it in GLAD. This reminds me of the first verse of Psalm 122, ‘I was glad when they said unto me’, set so wonderfully to music by Sir Hubert Parry. Again if we repeat a letter, we will find the progression in LADY and, with the Greek way of writing omega, in MAID, two common appellations for the Virgin Mary.
It is in OAK, that most majestic of trees, if we take a step in the alphabet (k-l), and might also be found in trees like ELM and WILLOW (in the first, the Greek letter W has been rotated to produce E and M; all three letters closely resemble the number 3) without the presence of A.
We can find it in the name of key figures in the Old Testament such as King DAVID (addition of v), who wrote the psalms, and in the name of contemporary saints such as PAISIOS (addition of p and s), perhaps the most beloved contemporary Greek saint, who has been compared to St Anthony of Egypt (it is in ANTHONY as well, but we will get to that in a moment).
If I replace O with W (AIW), then the most obvious example is the name of God in Exodus 3:14, I AM. This name contains the progression from A to I to O (W), and so do the key words that are connected to it: LAW and WAY, the law being that of the Old Testament and ‘way’ referring to Christ, the law in person, who said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6).
The name ‘I am’ is found in ‘lamb’ (John the Baptist famously called Christ the Lamb of God, and this is confirmed by language), but it is also found in words like ‘lame’ (what we are without God), ‘male’ (the creation of Adam) and ‘mammal’ (the creation of animals). The LAMB took upon himself the BLAME for our sins and acted like a BALM. He opened his PALM (phonetic pair b-p) in an act of self-giving, and I think this is why the crowds outside Jerusalem laid palms on the road when he came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. PALM is in PSALM (addition of s), during the reciting of which we place ourselves in God’s hands.
Do you begin to see how AIO (AIW) is present everywhere? It is in another Sanskrit word, MAYA (derived from the Sanskrit word MA, meaning ‘create’), which is defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the power by which the universe becomes manifest’. It is in words that relate to other religions: DALAI LAMA, the Tibetan spiritual leader, or how about the Easter Island statues, which are known as MOAI and are erected on platforms called AHU (here we must take a step in the alphabet, h-i, and swap one back vowel for another, o-u)? It is also in Greek mythology – for example, the god APOLLO (addition of p) – and in Eastern practices such as YOGA and AIKIDO. What I have found is that it is much more prevalent than we might think, but I cannot say exactly why this is.
Let us now draw a line through the I and make a cross: †. The cross is best represented in the alphabet by the letter ‘t’ (also by ‘f’, ‘r’ and ‘x’):
†: t, f, r, x
If we delete the ego in the progression AIO, which is what we are called to do when we turn to God in repentance – Sophrony’s ‘love to the point of self-hatred’ – we now have A†O. This progression is clearly found in the word TAO, ‘the absolute being or principle underlying the universe; ultimate reality’ according to the SOED. It is also found in PLATO (addition of p), the most famous ancient philosopher, and also, I might say, in ARISTOTLE. These two thinkers are well known for their philosophical systems, and most modern philosophy is based on what they wrote. So again it seems to me that certain key names or words contain this progression.
Let us now keep the cross and substitute O with W: A†W. Now it becomes really interesting because these three symbols are clearly present in ATOM, once thought to be the ultimate particle of matter (oh, and MATTER clearly contains the same progression). ATOM is connected to ATONE (again the same progression, here we have applied the phonetic pair m-n with the addition of final e), so the atonement brought about by Christ’s voluntary sacrifice on the Cross was obviously meant to affect our very being. It is language that confirms this.
We find the same progression with the cross, A†W, in WAIT, which is connected to FAITH by the phonetic pair f-v/w, addition of h. There is a lesson here, and it seems to me to be saying we must wait and have faith, even when we are suffering, even when the odds appear to be stacked against us, even when we can scarcely breathe or cannot see the wood for the trees. Wait, have faith.
We have one more step to make. Having introduced the cross in place of the letter I, we must now complete the paradox and replace the cross with a plus-sign: A+O (the meaning of Christ’s injunction to lose our life for his sake in order to find it). A plus-sign is best represented in the alphabet by the letter ‘n’ (think of rock ’n’ roll) and we have seen that this letter is closely associated with ‘h’:
+: n, h
A+O represents the three ways of escaping the ego and spells Alpha and Omega. Indeed it is contained in the middle conjunction – AND (A ’N’ O) – the reverse of which is DNA, so as with ATOM this progression seems to form part of our make-up. Replacing O with W, we find it in AMINO ACID, the building block of protein. Just as these compounds were discovered by placing samples under microscopes, so we can place language under the microscope and unveil its make-up, its message to us.
I will give just a few more examples. How about the Hebrew name of God ADONAI? Or the only righteous man found on earth before the Flood, NOAH? They contain the same progression, A+O. It is also in HALO, an indication that someone has followed this blessed path of repentance (isn’t it also in PATH?). It is in SAINT – without the O, but with the plus-sign and the cross following the I in quick succession, as if the word SAINT was mapping out the path for us to follow.
It is in the names of two places intimately connected with Orthodoxy: ATHOS in Greece, the spiritual heartland of Orthodoxy, and IONA in Scotland, from where the Irish monk AIDAN set out to evangelize Northumbria under King OSWALD. All these names clearly contain the progression AIO.
And now we come to the last connection. We have taken the progression AIO, replaced the O with the Greek letter W – AIW – deleted the I and formed a cross – A†O (A†W) – and finally turned the cross into a plus-sign: A+O (A+W).
If we replace the plus-sign in this final progression with the corresponding letter in the alphabet, ‘n’ – A ’N’ W – what word do we get? To whom is this message in language addressed? For whom was the world created? Who is it that was made in the image and likeness of God? Who is it that is endowed with reason, so that he might observe the destruction wrought by the Fall, wrought by his own selfish impulses, his wish to accommodate himself? Who is it that is called – by Christ! – to restore his own image by the grace of God and to become a god by adoption (isn’t AIO in that word as well)?
It is MAN, the fruit of this progression, who contains the progression in himself.
Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com