A First Visit to Albania

by Sophia Jilderda

Friends and colleagues usually frown when they say, "Albania is surely not the country that most people would choose for a vacation?" Parents become anxious. "Isn't it a rather dangerous place?" Naturally I went anyway!

In Albania, formerly the Mount Athos of atheism, we were the guests of the seminary Shen Vlash. In this newly built complex, with its view out over the harbor town of Durres and the Adriatic Sea, future priests and theologians (women as well as men in the latter category) study during the academic year. In the summer months it is used for conferences and youth camps. Syndesmos, the Orthodox youth movement that now has its headquarters in Poland, organized such an event for about 50 young people from Albania and other West and East European countries. The purpose was to give us the chance to get to know each other, exchange views, to study, and also to make pilgrimages and visit places of interest.

Through the years, Shen Vlash has kept its name as a holy place. Although the church there had been destroyed in the Communist era, brave people continued to come there to pray in secret. Even now they come from far and wide to this place, which is known for its miracles and healings. On the hill a church has been rebuilt and a monastery is being constructed, literally and figuratively; now there are two novices, who are responsible for the daily prayers. A medical station has also been set up.

In the course of seven years, an active and lively church has grown up under the inspirational leadership of His Eminence Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana, Durres and All-Albania. This is a most surprising fact, when you consider that not only the church but also its complete infrastructure had been systematically demolished in the course of several decades of severe repression. In those days there was hardly even a whisper of an organized underground church, although at one time 25 percent of the Albanian population was Orthodox.

Archbishop Anastasios told us that he and his staff had to sit at first in a hotel room in Tirana because the church had absolutely nowhere to do its work. He was sent by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to help build up the already autocephalous Church of Albania.

The Church has documents dating back to its apostolic beginnings. Durres, located on the famous ancient east-west route between Constantinople and Rome, had always sent its bishops to the ecumenical councils.

In the 18th century, the itinerant preacher, St. Kosmas Aitolos, traveled round these regions on his mission to establish churches and schools. Father Ephrem, abbot of the monastery of Ardenica (thank God not destroyed, only in a badly neglected state) told us about St. Kosmas while guiding us round the place where he suffered a martyr's death and was buried. The church consecrated to him had been completely inundated by mud when a nearby river flooded the surrounding land. It is thanks to this that the church was saved and preserved intact, literally underground! Last year the Church organized a youth camp whose participants uncovered the building. No words can describe the power that emanates from the place where the relics of St. Kosmas used to lie (lost in the Communist time) and where frescos of him are once again visible.

Completely in the spirit of St. Kosmas, one can see in Albania that the work of rebuilding the church goes hand in hand with a whole range of social/diaconal projects: schools, polyclinics, orphanages, the supply of fresh running water and much more. This forms an essential part of the work and is of course provided for all sections of the population.

As the archbishop said, "The only way to live peaceably in this area is for the religious communities to take the initiative in accepting the existing pluralism. At the same time there must be a sincere respect for each other's freedom of conscience and the rights of all minority groups. What is necessary is not only religious tolerance but something more positive: conscious mutual respect, understanding and solidarity between people; creative cooperation on common philanthropic projects; radical efforts towards social harmony; and sincere practical charity. 'He who loves God cannot help but love his neighbor as himself,' taught St. Maximus the Confessor."

Traveling in Albania entails a certain amount of discomfort, from bad roads to hotel rooms with hand towels but without water. On the other hand Albania has deep-seated and untold spiritual wealth. It is the country of Mother Theresa, and only now do I understand why. It is in this country that she learnt unreserved love for the least of the least in the community. There are many more like her there. Meeting some of them confronted me, in a merciless way, with my own western assertiveness and egocentric tendencies that are especially propagated in our culture and are hardly ever subjected to correction, but which, in the end, do not match the message of the Gospels.

We traveled back to Italy by boat and from the deck we could see the city of Bari with a full moon shining directly above it -- Bari, home of the relics of St. Nicholas. As a former protestant, there are few saints that have been with me throughout my life, but St. Nicholas has, and in no small way. My birthplace, Appingedam, has him as its Patron Saint, and my own family is full of Nicks. The Roman Catholics of Bari take no notice of the fact that officially St. Nicholas has been removed from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. The saint is shown all honor and respect -- and in a corner of the crypt an alcove has been cut out to make a mini-chapel for Orthodox services. This is at least one of the blessings of the sixties!

Finally, on the feast-day of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, 12th July (29th June) I found myself in Rome, the place where both saints were martyred and buried. Together with the small Russian immigrant community at San Nicola, I joined in the celebration of the feast of the Patron Saint of this city, a service completely in Church Slavonic. It sounded just almost like "home." But for me, Rome is first of all the city of my friends of the Communita di Sant Egidio, a group devoted to prayer, community and service to the poor. In the past they assisted in the preparation of a new constitution for Albania, including a new article on the Right of Religious Freedom. God be praised!

Sophia Jilderda represented the Orthodox Peace Fellowship at the Syndesmos conference in July. She is a social worker active with homeless young people and a member of St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam. The translation is by Deacon John Sewter.