Dear fellow travellers
Across much of central and eastern Europe, it is the month of honey, apples and walnuts. From the valleys of the Carpathians to the Crimea, Orthodox Europe celebrates three great feasts that remind us of the harvest season. These feasts are called spas - but don't expect to be pampered with aromatherapy and massages. The three spas are homely, rural affairs, community festivals where folk tradition and religion intersect.
The second of the spas - the Apple Spas - is marked today over much of the region. It coincides, as every year, with the Feast of the Transfiguration - a milestone in the ecclesiastical calendar which in the Western Church is celebrated on 6 August, but in the Orthodox tradition on 19 August (or an adjacent Sunday). Old calendrical habits still hold sway in Orthodox Europe.
The Apple Spas is a day when great baskets of apples are taken to the morning celebration of the Divine Liturgy in village churches. At one level a celebration of the bounty of the Earth, the Apple Spas also invites the faithful to ponder the tussle between good and evil in the Garden of Eden. It is a feast that reminds us that a change in the seasons is not far hence. Summer is slipping into autumn. "From now on, it's worth keeping your gloves handy," says my Ukrainian friend, recalling an old Ukrainian proverb associated with the Apple Spas.
Last year, we issued a copy of our Letter from Europe that elicited a considerable response from our readers. Quite exceptionally, we think it worth a second outing. It is reprinted below. The piece is called Transfiguration.
I walk by dusk along the dirt road that sweeps through the fields of corn. I do not go as far as the hills, where each distant terrace jumps out in sharp relief. During the heat of the day, the high sun drains the landscape of energy. But, come evening, the dipping sun nurtures every cleft and ripple in the hills.
The bland contours of day are briefly transfigured into rich relief at the cusp of night. An hour later, darkness marches across the plains. It sews the shadows into a silken veil, gently draping that veil first over the fields of corn and a few minutes later over the hills. I cut along by the edge of the mere, past the spot where the mosquitoes play. Bats shudder and dance. I walk on through the orchard, picking up the path that leads back to the village. On the bank of the river men and women, who worked on the harvest by day, now talk into the night. I watch them from a distance, a little sad that their labours are the harbinger of autumn. There are raised voices in a debate about pay.
"They'll never be happy," says an elderly woman who stumbles along the path, ushering a goat before her. The lady has sad eyes and an evident limp. "See those bats," she says. "They are the happiest creatures on God's Earth. They even grin in their sleep."
The lone woman smiles a smile that comes from Heaven and shows me the small basket of apples she has just gathered. Seven perfect spheres, each a medley of green and gold. Seven wonders, seven sins.
"Take, take," the woman urges. So I take an apple and taste all the warmth of summer and the sadness of the orchard. All the temptations of history and all the transfigurations of the seasons are concentrated miraculously into this one fruit.
Last Sunday, the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Orthodox calendar, was the Apple Spas. Across much of Orthodox Europe, the spoils of the new harvest were offered up at church services. No matter that the combine harvesters are still hard at work in the fields. No matter that the apples still hang heavy in the orchards. Change is in the air. Soon the geese will be rolling south. No longer does the noonday sun bake the land as fiercely as a few weeks ago. Now there is a little dew in the mornings. Villagers no longer swim in the river which lazily swings past the cemetery. Instead, they stay at home and make apple jam.
The Apple Spas is the second of three Spas (or festivals). We gave thanks for the new season's honey earlier this month. Last weekend, the apples were drenched with grace as the village priest scattered holy water on the harvest offering. And now we are like squirrels, gathering the nuts which next week are showcased in the last of the trinity of Spas.
Yet of the three, it is the Apple Spas which most conspicuously marks the passage of the seasons. It stands centre stage in the three rituals. It is a reminder that winter is not so very far away. A few weeks hence, the first frosts will come, and then the snow. White drifts will mask those clefts and ripples in the hills. The mere will freeze, but not before the mosquitoes have mysteriously disappeared. The bats won't shudder and dance with midsummer delight. But still they will sleep with smiles on their faces. For the seasonal transfiguration of the earth is indeed a wondrous thing.
(editor, hidden europe magazine)