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