The Little Paths to Christ
Serge G. Mihaly Jr
During a trip several years ago with my brother Luke, niece Stasia, nephew Nick and a few Orthodox friends, I had the great fortune to visit an orphanage in a town called Medzilaborce, Slovakia. It was a land of rolling hills, pristine forests, the legendary Carpathian Mountains and quiet little villages with streets that often ran on both sides of a small trickling brook. In Slovak cities a 100th the size of our own Bridgeport, we visited Bishops and cantors, toured large ornate Orthodox churches and a Carpatho-Rusyn Orthodox seminary that featured some of the most beautiful icons I have ever seen. It was very satisfying to see our faith so firmly anchored and practiced here.
Even more wonderful was the warmth of the people we met, who welcomed us for a few brief days. I will never forget the cherubic little faces of dozens of parentless gypsy children, forgotten and cast aside, alone and cared for by the grace of the Orthodox Church. You could see twinkles of happiness in each child’s eye as we played with and shared a few small gifts we had brought to them. Little ones barely able to walk watched over by girls no more than 12 or 13, were mesmerized with toys so primitive by our wealthy American standards. Soccer balls, badminton nets, crayons, yo-yos and dolls were just some of what made them over joyously happy, yet despite this it was the time we spent talking to and getting to know them that was the most valuable and moving. Over the few short days we spent together we developed a deep bond with these children, a bond I will and can never forget.
Everything was valued here in this strange new land from simple friendships to humble foods, which greeted us every morning, and at every home we would visit. No matter where we went full plates of homemade bread, cheese, horseradish, homemade pickles and other fresh cut vegetables were laid before us. Every day conversations had to be translated from Slovak to English and then back again, but it was the universal language of love and friendship that would matter the most.
After settling in our rooms, visiting with the children and attending dinner we began to plan our adventures outside the town. My brother had local priests to visit, but not before celebrating liturgy in the local church filled with babushka clad women, stout men, wiry teens and young adults. All passionately sang our beautiful Orthodox hymns beneath icons clothed in pungently sweet and smoky incense.
The next day after finding a van we finally set out. As each day passed, a friend of one of the local priests accompanied us. He served as our driver and guide as we traveled over busy highways and bumpy back roads. We found relatives in villages described in stories told to us as children. We watched strange little cars scampering to work and small trucks transporting food and other goods from Slovak factories and farms. Sometimes we drove for hours stopping only to photograph the ruins of hilltop castles, Orthodox roadside shrines or the site of a bubbling natural spring. We visited many churches one of which was the home to a distant cousin of my Aunt Kathy’s, the World War II Marine hero Michael Strank; one of the brave men who helped place the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. He and his fellow marines have been immortalized in that American icon of military history known throughout the free world.
While our entire visit lasted only about a week, we would spend much of our time traveling. On this trip, however, I will long remember one excursion far away from the cities. Tucked away amidst the mountain villages were numerous tiny ancient churches, many built anywhere from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Often no more than the size of a small barn, there was one church that particularly stood out. It was a rugged structure hidden in the small hillside in which it was built, its exterior roughly clad with 8’ to 12’ crudely cut boards, colored almost black by centuries of harsh winters and bright sun. Hand hewn by Carpathian woodsmen, its architecture was both simple and beautiful. Large wooden planks, fitted with old steel locks, most likely fashioned by the local blacksmith, were used to build a pair of heavy wooden church doors.
At first we walked around the outside of the church carefully inspecting every nook and cranny of the amazing structure. As we did we immediately noticed its large wooden cupola, decorated with hand cut wrinkled shingles that stood below a tall wooden triple bar cross. After a few minutes with gaping jaws, we were eager to view the inside of the church. We gathered together as the village elder, an older man in baggy pants, suspenders and close-cropped hair, opened the front doors. As we walked inside, he quickly began lighting candles. Soon their flickering light would gently expose dozens of beautifully and primitively painted cherubic-faced Rusyn icons, which, I would later learn from my brother, were uniquely characteristic of the Carpathian culture. As I quietly sat in one of the pews in awe, I noticed high above and around me, even more icons all centuries old and priceless. In the front of the church the images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St. Michael and St. Stephan adorned a hand cut wooden iconostas.
There was something very different here, something that evoked a peculiar emotion inside me, something raw and mysterious, something I couldn’t quite capture with words, yet I could feel immediately. As I look back now it was not very different than what I felt as a child when my mother and I visited my Great Aunt Teta’s home. She was a woman who barely spoke English, but was proud of America, who had immigrated to the US from ‘the old country’, who worked two jobs to help pay for her son’s Medical school tuition, whose home smelled like moth balls, decorated with strange antique furniture filled with warm blankets.
After a few minutes we found ourselves sitting silently, studying the old beams, the icons and the flickering candles. This was a crown jewel of Carpatho-Rusyn Orthodox faith and one as valuable as any glistening cathedral we had ever seen. It was remarkable. I could not help but compare this ancient little church to those of the more populated cities. There the churches were much newer, larger and much more ornate, most had comfortable pews, towering and brilliant icon screens and glistening gold crosses, yet they could not surpass the simple majesty of this one little church. It would be the small, humbler churches scattered throughout the Carpathian villages, especially this one, that, to me, revealed the true nature of our ancestor’s faith. With Christ-like humility and unquenchable strength these were the pillars of our ancestors Orthodoxy, pillars that our forefathers and mothers struggled to bring and build here in America with their sweat and blood so many years ago. It is this church, and many like them, that reminded me of so many of our own.
I am home now, but I would like to travel to Slovakia again visiting those orphans, seeing even more churches and walking deeper into the great Carpathian forests. I enjoyed my time there and will always remember the sincere and faithful people, and the sincere and innocent children who greeted us with open and loving arms. Most of all, I will remember those ancient little churches. If I learned anything on this trip it was that our Orthodox faith has not changed and thankfully so. It is the same faith that nurtured and strengthened our ancestors and it is the same faith that nurtures and steadies us. It is indeed a constant, the only true constant in an often tumultuous and troubled world and will always be for me the greatest of gifts from God.