Thursday, July 27, 2023

Moldova Pilgrimage, Part 2

Click here for Part 1.

On Friday, August 12th, we went to the nearby town of Căușeni, which, as best as I could tell, is pronounced "Cow-shen." As I was beginning to get some idea of how Romanian spellings translated into actual sounds, I asked Elena at one point if the "i" at the end was silent, and she said "No," it is pronounced..." and I still detected no "i" at the end, but apparently it is there very subtly, and I can't hear it. 

We had breakfast on the porch. One thing that was very enjoyable was just watching the family life at Elena's parents' home. None of her siblings still live at home with her parents, but her sister, Tatiana and her husband Veceslav live nearby in the village, but not too long before we came, they had a fire that destroyed much of their house, and so their four children were staying for the most part with their grandparents, while the house was being rebuilt. One of their children, Taisia, was then about two years old, and she was very excited that her cousin Fabi was there for a visit, and so kept shouting "Faaa-biii!" She sometimes did this even when Fabi was just a few feet away, and they were both looking at each other. I started imitating this, and told Fabi that if I got to serve her wedding, I would say at the end "You may now kiss Faaa-biii!"

First, we went to an open-air market, to pick up several things that we needed to get, and then we went to the Ss. Martha and Mary Convent, which is not an ancient convent, but was founded in the 1990's. There had been a campground on this site during the Soviet period, but one day someone cut down a tree, and found that there was a cross shape in the rings of the tree. Some wondered if there had once been a monastery there, but no record exists of there having been one, but some locals said that a hermit did live in that area. It was decided to build a convent there, and in a relatively short period of time a very large convent has flourished.

When we arrived, we first got coffee in their coffee shop, which was quite good, and then we went to their bookstore, because we had a long list of things we needed to get, especially for Fr. Gregory Solis and the Holy Cross parish in Corpus Christi -- which at the time was being served once a month by Fr. David Companik, but was soon to be having regular services after Fr. Gregory's ordination later in October of that year, and so they had many things that they desperately needed to get, in order to be able to do these services. We also wanted to get some things as gifts for various friends and family back home. We didn't have enough cash on us at the time, and so most of what we were going to buy was set aside for us, and we would come back later to pick it up. They didn't have the ability to charge anything on a credit card. 

It was interesting to see that they had books by Fr. Seraphim (Rose), which have been translated into Romanian, on sale. They also had a lot of books in Russian, and service books in Slavonic, because there is a sizable Russian community in Moldova. We bought a lot of silver crosses for our bookstore, because the prices were far lower than anything you can find in the United States.

We then went on to the main Church of the Convent.

The entrance of the main Church

This Icon of St. Stephen the Great is on the walls of the main Church. The inscription in Romanian reads: "Moldova was not my ancestors', was not mine, and is not yours, but belongs to our descendants and our descendants' descendants to the end of time."

A reliquary which has relics of many New Testament Saints, as well as a number of other later saints.

As we were venerating the icons and relics in the main Church, I asked Elena a number of questions about the Church, and the iconography. There was an older nun who was sitting in the Church, probably to make sure that visitors behaved themselves there, and she overheard these questions, and jumped in at a certain point, and so we began a conversation. When she found out that I was a visiting priest from America, she asked for, and received permission to take us on a tour of the Convent.

First we went to the lower Church, but on the way down I noticed frescos of many scenes from the Lord's passion that I do not recall seeing in other churches I have seen.

Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane

Pilate, washing his hands after condemning Christ.

We went by the residence of the Nuns, and I believe a building in which they also teach classes for area children. Then we went to a beautiful wooden chapel, which is normally kept locked, but we were getting the VIP treatment. Interestingly, most Churches in Moldova are built in the Russian style, but this one is in a Romanian style.

Those are antlers in the chandelier.

St. Stephen the Great is a figure you keeping bumping into in Moldova, and in Romania.

And we then went to a miraculous spring that they have there. Everyone but me went in for a dip.

While I was waiting outside of the spring, there was a Russian woman who lives in Transnistria, but who is a regular visitor there who came by and struck up a conversation. She was an English teacher, and so spoke English very well. She told me that there was a very large monastery in Transnistria that we should come and visit. I told her that I would like to do that someday. I think we also talked a bit about the Pochaev Lavra in Ukraine, which I would also like to see someday, when the war in Ukraine is over.

The nun who was giving us the tour had told us that we were invited to stay for a meal. We told her that we needed to leave soon to have dinner at one of Elena's uncle's homes, but she told us we could eat a little here, and then still have room for dinner there. She had pointed us to the spring, and left, but before we could leave, she reappeared, to make sure we didn't just leave. As I said before, hospitality is a very big deal for Moldovans, and so we couldn't say "no.". So we went back to the Trapeza. It was a very large dining hall, and we thought we would be eating with the nuns, but she took us to a side room for special guests, and then we were treated a multi course Lenten feast, complete with desert. The food was all fresh, locally grown food, and it was wonderful.

After we were stuffed to the gills, we then had to hurry to our planned dinner with one of Elena's many aunts and uncles, Fr. Chiril and Matushka Maria. Fr. Chiril is the priest in the nearby village of Opaci.

Fr. Chiril and me, in front of the village Church in Opaci.

When we arrived, Fr. Chiril invited us to walk to his parish Church, which is dedicated to the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. While we were entering, my older daughter called to do a video chat with us and our two granddaughters, the oldest of which was two at the time, but she was already very talkative. Since we previously had some trouble coordinating such calls with the time zone differences, and since I very much missed my grandbabies, I went ahead and video chatted with them, and showed them the Church as we entered. My older granddaughter said "I want to go to that Church!" I had to explain that it was a long way away from our home. I had to end the call, so I could venerate their icons. They have a miraculous Icon of the Mother of God in the parish.

The Miraculous Icon of the Mother of God in Opaci

After we were able to venerate the icons in the Church, we walked back to their home, and had a very nice dinner with Fr. Chiril, Matushka Maria, and one of their children, Nicu (John), although we didn't have the appetite we normally would have had. The food was wonderful, however, and after dinner, we were treated to what they called "vodka," but which was some sort of liquor made from cherries, which was also very good. My wife, who normally doesn't like alcohol in any form, liked it very much.

Poor Elena had to translate throughout the evening, and we had a lengthy discussion with Nicu, who is planning on becoming a priest like his father, about mixed marriages. Somehow we had begun to discuss "modernism," and for Nicu, the prime example of modernism was that some bishops allow Orthodox Christians to marry non-Orthodox Christians. I tried to explain why in the west, there are good reasons that this is allowed, though it is obviously not ideal. I pointed out that in Moldova, he would have to go out of his way to find a non-Orthodox woman to marry, but in the United States, it is usually the opposite. And so bishops in the west usually allow mixed marriages, as an act of economia, on the condition that the non-Orthodox spouse agrees to raise the children in the Church. Often, the non-Orthodox spouse eventually becomes Orthodox. But I explained that when this has not been allowed, the result was not that the Orthodox person moved on, and kept looking for an Orthodox mate, but that in most cases, they would end up getting married anyway, outside of the Church, without such a promise, and often this resulted in even the Orthodox spouse losing their connection with the Church. But there was something refreshing about people who live in a culture where the worst example of modernism that they encounter is bishops allowing mixed marriages.

Matushka Maria, Matuska Patricia, myself, Nicu, and Fr. Chiril

Matushka Patricia and Matushka Maria

We then said our good-byes and headed back to Sălcuța for another night. 

Saturday was the last day of the trip that would not fall during the Dormition Fast, and so we enjoyed our last non-lenten breakfast, which consisted of fresh food, with much more flavor than we were used to in the United States. I believe we decided to take it easy that day prior to Vespers, because some of us were not feeling well.

The Dormition Church in Sălcuța

Anytime there was a service in the village Church, the bells could be heard throughout Sălcuța. We drove to the Church, but most people walked, because most people don't own their own car. The simple life these people were living was so beautiful, and yet I knew that we were just across the border of the Odesa Oblast in Ukraine, and that there were many villages in Ukraine that were not very different from this one, aside from the language being spoken, and yet many of these villages have been destroyed, and their people have been scattered, and many of the people have also been killed. The evil of such wars, and what those who cause them to happen will have to answer for, became less theoretical and more concrete. I hope and pray that the war does not eventually come to Moldova, though I know that there are many people around the world, who live in gated communities, live in luxury, have never heard a shot fired in anger, and yet think of the people in places like this as mere pawns on a chess board, and would very much like to see this happen.

Sunday was the Feast of the Procession of the Cross, and so when we arrived at the Church. In their local practice, they serve Vespers on Saturday Evening, but they followed it by another service, and because I know almost no Romanian, I was not sure what it was. It may have been Small Compline. On the Holy Table was what looked like a bundle of wildflowers, formed into the shape of a big Cross, upon which was laid a decorated, wooden Cross. Outside, the temperature was warm, but not too warm. However, the Church had no air conditioning, and for what I assume are cultural reasons, the windows of the Church were kept closed (I know in some cultures have a cross breeze indoors is thought to be unhealthy). I think I only wore an epitrachelion during the service, and so it wasn't as hot as it would prove to be on Sunday morning during the Liturgy, when I would be fully vested.

The village Church has three priests: the rector is Fr. Nikolai, and the assistant priest is his younger brother, Fr. Sergei -- who is an English teacher, and so when in the altar, he was my primary means of communication. Their father, Fr. Gregory, is retired, but he still hears confessions at the Church. He is the one who baptized Elena when she was a baby. He was also one of the signers of the Moldovan Declaration of Independence and Constitution, if I remember correctly. During the Soviet period, he was sometimes harassed by the KGB, but the KGB only went so far, because I am told they feared his Matushka. After the service, when she met me and my wife, she thought my wife was my daughter -- this happens to me a lot. I explained that she was only a year and half younger, but we had not aged at the same rate.

Once, when I was still working for the State of Texas, my wife and I went out for dinner for our wedding anniversary, and when we had the picture developed, she ask me if I would like to put it in my office at work. I told her people would ask "Who is that young woman with that old man?" She framed it, I took it to work, and on the very first day, a co-worker asked if that was my daughter.

After the service, we headed back home, and then went to Elena's sister Tatiana's house for dinner. It was held outdoors, and that evening the flies were particularly aggressive. I was told that they were not normally like this, but recent rains had caused them to multiply. Flies are called "muska" in the local dialect, and Constantine and I often went "muska" hunting. My wife wished she had brought her electronic fly-swatter. On one occasion, Constantine, who had been a sniper in the Marine Corps, took a butter knife, and with perfect aim, swatted and killed a "muska" on the first try. I was quite impressed. The food, however, was one again wonderful, and the homemade wine flowed freely. But we had a Liturgy the next day, so before it got too late, we headed back home for the night.

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Moldova Pilgrimage, Part 1

Next month, it will have been a year since my wife and I traveled to Moldova and Romania. I have started to write about this experience countless times since then, but I think what has kept me from getting very far into it has been a fear of my words failing to do it justice. We have a Moldovan woman in our parish (Elena), and she and her husband (Constantine) invited us to take this trip. Not being ones to turn down an opportunity to travel to an Orthodox country, we took them up on it. But while I was expecting to have an enjoyable trip, and to see beautiful churches and monasteries, I really did not expect it to be as moving of an experience as it proved to be.

My experience of the Orthodox Church has primarily been in the context of the Russian tradition, but I have also had a lot of contact with both Greeks, Serbs, and Arabs, and so have some idea of the differences and particular customs found in those traditions. My knowledge of the Romanian speaking expressions of the Faith have been a lot more limited prior to this trip. The Romanian speaking people descend from Roman colonists that settled in the region in the days of the Roman Empire. What now comprises the contemporary nations of Romania and Moldova were once divided into three principalities: Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldova. What was once the principality of Moldova under St. Stephen the Great covers the contemporary nation of Moldova, part of Romania, and parts of Ukraine. So even though we visited Romania, the part of Romania we visited was the Moldovan part of Romania.

We flew out of Houston on the evening of Sunday, August 7th, but our trip nearly ended before it began. Elena was very far into her pregnancy, and we timed the trip as we did, because she wanted to take us there while she could still physically do it, but before she would be contending with a newborn. We flew via Turkish Airlines, and Elena had called beforehand to make sure that her pregnancy was not going to be a problem with flying, and was told by their customer service that it would not be, but as we were checking in for the flight, an agent asked her about how far along she was. When she answered, she was told that she needed a letter from her doctor saying that it was OK for her to travel. Getting such a letter on a Sunday night is not usually an easy thing to pull off. She told my wife and I to go ahead to the gate, and she argued with the agent further, and tried to provide something that she hoped would work, but finally, it became clear that she was not going to be able to fly, but she told the rest of us to go ahead with the flight, and she would rebook her flight once she had a doctor's note in hand. 

Constantine (who is a Cherokee from Oklahoma) speaks only a smattering of Romanian, but we were also travelling with their nine year old daughter Fabi, who does speak Romanian, and so for our first day, she was our translator.

We arrived in Istanbul (Constantinople) on Monday afternoon, and arrived in the capital of Moldova (Chișinău) that night.

Elena's travel problems threw a monkey wrench in some of our plans, but we spent most of the first day resting from the trip, but did go out to get breakfast, and then lunch, by going around on foot. Chișinău is a beautiful city, with many Churches, and so we could hear the church bells sounding the times for the various services during the day.

A pro-family painting on the wall of the restaurant we had lunch at

Moldova is a very poor country, but I saw no homeless people in their largest city. When I have traveled to Moscow, I encountered a lot of beggars on the streets. And for that matter, I encounter of lot of beggars on the streets of Houston too. But in this country, I kept running into people that I thought were approaching me to ask for money, and instead, they were asking for a blessing. In fact, later on in our trip we had to go back to the airport to get some paperwork for the rental car we were using (in order to take it across the border to Romania later), and while I was standing around waiting, a man approached me that I again thought was going to ask for money, and instead, he asked for a blessing and then gave me 75 Moldovan leu (which adds up to a bit less than four dollars) and asked me to pray for him.

What I came to understand was that the reason why there were no homeless people or beggars in Moldova, despite it being the poorest country I have ever visited, is because Moldovans are a deeply religious people, with a strong sense of honor, strong families, and a strong sense of hospitality. And when you live in a country like that, you don't have many people who fall through the cracks, and have no one to turn to for help except for random strangers on the street.

I believe Elena was able to join us on Tuesday night. We were staying in an apartment owned by family friends, and that evening, while we were waiting for Elena's return, we were invited over to a neighbor's apartment for "coffee," but Constantine informed us that this would mean a late evening that would involve a lot more than coffee. We also had an interesting time carrying on a conversation that Fabi translated for at first, but she lost interest, and then we were often using Google Translate to bridge the gaps from there. We also got our first taste of Moldovan hospitality. These people obviously live in a city, but I got the sense that they were not far removed from a more rural lifestyle and had that kind of warmth.

The interior of the Cathedral

On Wednesday morning we had breakfast in downtown Chișinău, and visited the main cathedral. We exchanged all of our American money for Moldovan, so we would have the cash we needed, and then later went to visit a seamstress to order some vestments (which were of a very high quality, and extremely inexpensive) for a soon to be ordained priest (Fr. Gregory Solis), and then we went to the first monastery of the trip, the Orheiul Vechi Cave Monastery.

This video shows much of the monastery and the surrounding area:

This monastery is built along the edge of a steep cliff, and on the sides of the cliff you can see many caves, in which monks and other local inhabitants lived at various times. We had to walk up a steep hill from where we parked, and before we got to the main part of the monastery, there is a bell tower, and then a door with stairs carved into the rock, which leads to a chapel that was carved out of one of these caves.

On the side of the chapel is a door, that opens to a ledge overlooking the valley below. I don't like heights, but my wife stepped out on it, and took lots of pictures and a short video. I got the heebie-jeebies just watching her do that from inside the chapel.

This was taken by Matushka from that ledge

This was as close as I was willing to come to the ledge

While we were there, we saw a couple of wedding parties who were taking pictures. I am not sure if any of them got married at the monastery, or if they just wanted to do pictures there.

At some point we drove past a checkpoint that would have taken us into the breakaway region of Transnistria, but we didn't cross into it.

Throughout the trip, Elena was trying to visit as many of her relatives as we could squeeze into our schedule. This was surprisingly one of the best aspects of the trip, because we got to see simple Moldovan people up close, and we found that they were living the kind of lives that most people in the history of the world have lived -- far closer to nature, less complicated, and more family and community oriented. And consequently, the people seemed a lot saner and happier than most of the people in the United States do these days, though we have all our luxuries, and they live a lot more like Americans did before World War II.

As it happens, this monastery was relatively near one of the sisters of Elena's father (Valentina), and so we had dinner with them, and spent the night there. Her aunt and uncle (Valentine) raise various farm animals. One of their cows had just given birth, and so her aunt made a cake from the cow's colostrum, which Elena said was one of her favorite treats when she was growing up. 

Again, we were given a lavish meal, home grown and homemade, and spent most of the evening in conversation, which Elena had to translate, and later her uncle showed me and Constantine his workshop, which reminded me very much of my own father's when I was a kid. He too grew up on a farm, and like Elena's uncle, he could make almost anything he needed (my parents' divorce when I was six, unfortunately, prevented most of that knowledge being passed on to me). That night we did not stay in a guest room. In Moldovan culture, your guests stay in the best rooms -- not the guest rooms.

Myself, Matushka, Elena's aunt Valentina, Fabi, and Elena with baby Hope on the way.

In the morning we had breakfast, and got to have some of that cake, before we headed out to the second monastery of the trip -- the Holy Trinity Monastery of Saharna.

This video shows much of the monastery in ways we could not have possibly filmed ourselves:

The history of the caves monastery in Saharna is unclear, but it is ancient. The monastic complex that we see today began to be built in 1776. It was closed by the Soviets in 1964, and the grounds were used as a psychiatric hospital. The monastery began to be restored in 1991. Unfortunately, most of the icons were too deteriorated to be salvaged, and so new frescos began to be painted at that time. The monastery is now known as a place that people are taken who need exorcism, or who need to be healed of mental or physical illnesses.

When we first arrived, Constantine and Fabi decided that they would hike up the peak to the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared to the founding monks, and where there is a footprint left in the stone from her. There is a similar footprint in the Pochaev Lavra in Ukraine, which is relatively close to Moldova. It looked awfully high up to me though.

When they came back down from the peak, we met some of the people who when they learned that we were from the United States, introduced us to Natalia, who had lived in the UK, and spoke English very well. She gave us a detailed tour of the monastery.

In the largest church, we found the reliquary of St. Macarie of Saharna, whom I previously knew nothing about, but he was a monk before Moldova came under Soviet control, and was a spiritual father to the nuns who at that time resided in this monastery. When the monastery was closed, he was persecuted by the Soviets, but after being released from prison he continued to live near the monastery, and to pray on its grounds. He reposed in 1969.

There is a miraculous spring there, where people go to bathe as a blessing and especially to pray for healing.

This is a video Matushka took of the outside of the bath house, where the spring flows down the mountain

This was a foot bridge to where the caves monastery is. We were assured that it was completely safe, despite appearances to the contrary.

This is one of the caves.

We then head back to the south, first to the Chișinău Airport, where I encountered the man who gave me 75 Moldovan leu, and then we headed to Elena's home village of Sălcuța.

As we arrived in her village, we ran into rush hour traffic. 

Among the children in the video, Elena recognized some as being her cousins.

This is Elena's mother (Tamara) and father (George) along with Matushka and myself

Elena, Constantine, Elena's niece Anna, her father, myself, and her mother.

The patio is literally shaded with grape vines. As we sat under those vines, I couldn't help but think of the Scripture "But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it" (Micah 4:4). Because it was August, and they had no air conditioning, we spent a lot of time out on that patio during the day, though it was a lot cooler there than it would be back home in Texas. Elena made the comment that the weather there begins to cool after the feast of St. Panteleimon (which is on August 9th on the civil calendar). What I found interesting about this comment was that it was a comment that could only come from someone raised in a culture that was deeply rooted in the life of the Church, and also closely attuned to the seasons.

That evening we had shashlik from a freshly slaughter pig, and various other fruits and vegetables -- mostly which they had grown themselves. We also had wine which Elena's father made from his own grapes -- and this wine is a deep purple that is almost black, and it is very good. The soil in Moldova is very rich. In this village, people own tracts of farmland outside the village, but every yard is a big garden, and as the trip continued I noticed that this was true everywhere I went, outside of the bigger cities. Elena's parents grow grapes on their tracts of land outside the village, and also raise chickens and ducks. That night, we slept in Elena's parents' room (the best room), with the windows open, and so long before dawn the sound of all the farm animals in the village woke us up a bit earlier than we were accustomed to...  though we began to get used to it, over time.

To be continued.

See Also: There are No Beggars in Moldova