One thing that is disappointing about the Church here is the lack of active monasteries. There are a lot of old, abandoned monasteries but no monks or nuns. A few monks work as missionaries with the archbishop but Katerina told me yesterday that there are only two who actually live in a monastery. She is sad about that and was very glad to hear that we have a lot of monasteries in America. I said we are not where we should be yet but we are getting there. Bishop Andoni said he thinks the reason Albania doesn’t have active monasteries is because the Church is not mature enough yet… they only came out of communism 20 years ago.
We did a lot today. We woke up and started our morning prayers at 8:00. We had quiet time and ate breakfast. We left around 9:15 on our day-long trek to the city of Durres. Our first stop was Holy Cross High School. It is a free, all-boys, church-run high school. The boys there learn Orthodox Faith, Byzantine music and iconography. They chanted some things for us – their Byzantine ephos is amazing! I find myself really appreciating the Albanian chanting everywhere we go. No, it’s not perfect. But it’s really good! It reminds me a bit of the Romanian Byzantine music I have listened to on Youtube a lot, which is why yesterday I was suddenly inspired to try to go to Romania while I’m in Europe for seven months!
Fr. Luke and the two professors who are with us all talked to the boys, and the director of the school talked to us. Gabriella Hoppe translated both yesterday and today. She is amazing! I’m really in awe of her, and of her whole family, in part merely because they are so bilingual! She can listen to Albanian in one ear and translate simultaneously into English – and vice versa. She has an accent when she speaks English but told me that she can think in English. She and Nathan talk in bilingual sentences sometimes :) She’s been studying English for 14 years and sometimes, coming back from extended stays in America finds herself forgetting some words in Albanian! Nathan told me he is fluent in everyday mainstream Albanian. He said it takes most Albanians awhile to figure out he’s not a native speaker, which is good. But he still feels that he has an accent. He also said that there are a number of obscure Albanian dialects out in the remote regions that even other Albanians have trouble understanding. But Nathan understands and can speak almost anything in mainstream Albanian.
After the visit to the high school and a little κέρασμα (treat) they had prepared for us, we went to the old Monastery of Shen Vlash in the village of Shen Vlash (St. Blaise). There are no monks there. There used to be monks a long time ago, long before Communism. Even immediately before Communism the monastery was abandoned. The church building was torn down by the communists, and was the first to be rebuilt by Archbishop Anastasios. One thing I noticed about a lot of churches is how magnificent they are but how much white space there is on the walls – ornate iconostasia but hardly any frescoes. There’s time, I guess. It’s frustrating from a perspective of progress: I see a lot of similarities to Greece here, especially in the ecclesiastical architecture. It is identical. Yet I see the lack of icons and I see the basic, basic level of faith of a lot of the people, the lack of involvement in the Church, and it saddens me. I want the churches to be full like they are in Greece (even there it is secular, but still there is my view of the ideal Greece that I hold up), and a lot of money in the Church, and everyone to be Orthodox, but sadly that is not the case. I also see how much work needs to be done in America. It reminds me of my desire and attempt to learn Albanian: so much to do. Where do we start?
The monastery has a little skete with one nun, and also the seminary, Bishop Nikolla’s residence, and the Children’s Home of Hope all on the same property. The seminary students do daily Vespers and Orthros in the school chapel, but on Sundays and big Feasts they do Liturgy in the main monastery church. Their dining room reminds me of a monastery: a big icon of the Hospitality of Abraham behind the head table; two long tables, segregated: men at one and women at the other; a prayer before and after meals; and a spiritual reading during the meal. The food was 100% fastworthy and absolutely delicious! It reminded me of a monastery and I really liked it! It would be nice to do that at HC/HC but I don’t know how it would go about happening or how the students would take to it :)
Before lunch Bishop Nikolla talked to us, and Fr. Luke, and the other professors addressed the Albanian students. Before the talk when people were chatting with each other, I introduced myself to three Albanian girls who are all 20 (nyezet) years old. They all spoke decent English and two of them said they understood some Spanish and Greek (one also said she hates Greek) but when I tried talking either language I had to say it again in English because they didn’t understand me.
I was happy that the two professors don’t speak Albanian (especially the one who spoke second) because – as tired as I was and as much as I struggled to stay awake – when I finally made myself pay attention I really liked his talk. He talked about how fathers (the Three Hierarchs, etc.) talk about almsgiving. We never say that we will give alms later. NOW is the time to give alms. We give from what we have. St. John Chrysostom says that when we adorn Christ in church we should not neglect Him in the poor. The three most important elements in the spiritual life are Scripture, Eucharist and almsgiving. I hope I summarized that ok and it makes sense – it was really powerful and made a big impact! After the talks we had a tour of the seminary and ate lunch (which I described above).
After lunch the Albanian students wanted to play volleyball with us. I had every intention of playing – I like playing volleyball even though I’m not very good – but while we walked down to the court I started talking to Bishop Asti in Greek. I like Bishop Andoni and I really like Bishop Nikolla – the little that I talked with him today – but my favorite bishop so far is Bishop Asti! No wonder: he told me that when he studied in Greece (which is why he’s fluent and I was able to talk to him for 40 minutes in Greek and really practice!) he visited all 20 monasteries on Mt. Athos but spent a lot of time at Simonopetra, and at Gregoriou. He knows Fr. Iakovos from Simonopetra :)
Bishop Asti is truly special, I believe. He radiates love and joy, always smiling, laughing often, and full of insight. If I did the math correctly he is 38 years old. He likes to play soccer. He is from an Orthodox background. He was baptized at the age of 18 in 1992. He was ordained deacon in 2003 and was archdeacon to His Beatitude for many years. He was ordained priest, I believe, in 2009 or 2010, and a bishop in Tirana by Archbishop Anastasios, Metropolitan John and two other bishops, on January 22, 2012, the Feast of St. Timothy the Apostle and St. Anastasios the Persian, who is the patron saint of His Beatitude. He also told me that there are eight bishops in Albania now, the most there have been in a long time.
I talked to Bishop Asti for 40 minutes in Greek and understood probably 97% of what he said. I made a lot mistakes speaking to him but he understood me and helped me out and corrected me. One word I had fun figuring out was the past tense plural/formal version of the verb “to be ordained” – χειροτονιθήκατε. It took me awhile to figure that out and His Grace helped me. It might be my new favorite Greek word.
His Grace also knows a limited amount of English but I think I only said a few words in English when I couldn’t think of the Greek word. I spoke with him for such a long time, not to actually talk to him per se, but just to be with him. He is the kind of person I just want to be around. I don’t care if he talks or not. But there were so many people that I felt if I didn’t ask him questions he would start talking to someone else.
After the volleyball game we went down to the cemetery to see Lynette Hoppe’s grave. Fr. Luke and Nathan told her inspiring story and then we did a Trisagion. Afterwards we went into the city of Durres and saw the new church of Sts. Asti and Paul. We venerated and took pictures and then went up to the roof of a very tall building where we sat and had coffee, etc., hung out and talked. I talked a little bit with a 20-something Albanian who speaks English, and with Bishop Asti’s sister who also speaks English. I also spoke with a gentleman who speaks Greek, and with Fr. Spiro who speaks both Greek and English. I told Fr. Spiro that St. Spyridon is both my father’s and my patron saint. Fr. Sprio said that St. Spyridon is the saint of my household. I told him about my recent birthday gift from my godsister in California (a piece of St. Spyridon’s slipper) but that I have never been to Kerkyra. I hope to go this summer. Fr. Spiro said he also has never been to Kerkyra. I tried to learn how to say “It’s nice to meet you” in Albanian and accidentally said a word for some kind of fruit. We all laughed. Oh well! :) I learned how to say sea (det), building (balat?), table, and chair (kariga?). I forgot most of them (evidenced by the ?s) but it was a step :)
We drove back to Durres. I was kind of jealous because I kept trying to sit as far front as I could but was always towards the middle of the van so I couldn’t talk to Bishop Asti who was in the front – oh well, I guess I talked with him enough on the volleyball court sideline. The more time the better, though! Once in the van today (I don’t remember when) I asked Nathan about why the village was named Shen Vlash (I have a special love for St. Blaise of Sebaste in Asia Minor (http://oca.org/FeastSaintsViewer.asp?SID=4&ID=1&FSID=100501) and when I realized it was his monastery I about went nuts). Nathan told me the village (500 families/2,000-3,000-ish people, four-ish square kilometers, right outside the city of Durres) is named Shen Vlash because of the monastery. I asked why the monastery is named Shen Vlash. He said that the most likely story is that there used to be a city named Sebaste also in Albania. There was another Blaise who was bishop there and was martyred on a hilltop outside Durres. The monastery was named after that St. Blaise of Sebaste, not the one from Asia Minor. However, the stone of martyrdom behind which the church was built was destroyed during communism and thrown in to a marsh, and it seems that we know little about this saint. The icon in the church now is of St. Blaise from Asia Minor. Nathan also said to ask Metropolitan John when we see him because he knows a lot about Shen Vlash.
Bishop Asti and the other Albanians who were with us got dropped off in Tirana and then we headed up to the Tabor Center where other missionaries were waiting to eat dinner with us.
I met Charles Linderman and his kids (his wife Maria wasn’t able to come tonight), Deacon Anastas, his wife Georgia and their two kids. Georgia knows Fr. Hector and has been to one of the Greek monasteries in PA but she couldn’t remember which one. I had a blast playing with her 3-year-old and with the Hoppes’ 2½-year-old: such typical boys but so cute and so fun! It was nice to play with them, especially since I won’t see the little boys around HC/HC for a very long time. :( Their 9 month-old daughter is absolutely adorable and very personable!
Dinner was a whole individual fish and potatoes with olive oil – delicious, as always! Pamela, who I met last night, shared her impressions of Albania after four years of being and working here. She said that the Church here is 2000 years old but it is still in its first generation. That was comforting to me, addressing my internal struggle I wrote about above, and also addressing what Nathan and Bishop Andoni have told me about monasticism here. Christianity, although 2000 years old here, is now in its first generation. So much has been done here since 1990, but even more remains to be done – a daunting task but one that is done with much prayer and patience.
After we finished dinner and all the missionaries left Fr. Luke chewed us out for not knowing any songs this afternoon at lunch. We had tried to think of something American so Matthew and I started singing the Star-Spangled Banner. Fr. Luke hid his face in his hands and I almost burst into laughter. No one seemed to join us (we also pitched it too high, which I tend to do because otherwise I pitch stuff too low, so I over-correct), which was really depressing and embarrassing. Fr. Luke told us tonight “no more Star-Spangled Banner!” We’re going to all learn Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and we’ve already half-learned Seek Ye First, Father I Adore You, O Pure Virgin, and Save O Lord Your People. Some of us learned harmony to the Troparion to St. Herman (Russian melody) and I hope we learn the Troparia of Pentecost and of St. Raphael of Brooklyn (Byzantine). Matthew is hoping for at least some of us to learn Blessed is the Man and Rejoice of Virgin Theotokos in Russian melodies so in case we need extra things to sing we have them ready. It’s kind of embarrasing when a roomful of Albanians go gung-ho on a a traditional song and then one or two Americans timidly and off-key sing a song that no one else knows :*|
Well, we will have a three hour bus ride tomorrow morning (leaving 7am!) to practice songs. Naten emire (good night)!