The humidity is visible inside the church on Ceahlau as Metropolitan Daniil concelebrates the Divine Liturgy. (photo: George Martin)
Worshippers gather for liturgy outside the church. (photo: George Martin)
Lumber for the construction of the monastery is carried up the mountain. (photo: George Martin)
Pilgrims navigate the mountain paths. (photo: George Martin)
The peaks of Ceahlau. (photo: George Martin)
My goal last August was to celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration with the monks of the Monastery of the Transfiguration atop Ceahlau Mountain in Moldavia, an ancient region of Romania. For centuries, Ceahlau (pronounced CHOK-law), the highest mountain in Moldavia, has been the abode of Orthodox hermits; spiritual authors refer to the mount as the Romanian Mount Athos, an ancient center of Byzantine spirituality and culture in Greece.
In this celebration of Christ Transfiguration, Metropolitan Daniil Ciobotea of Moldavia, along with hundreds of pilgrims and me, would join the seven monks living in a simple monastery, or skete, at the top of this holy summit.
A five-hour climb to Ceahlau from our base at the Durau Monastery awaited me; since this is far more climbing than I usually do, I happily accepted the offer of an early morning car ride partway up the mountain. Most pilgrims make the trip entirely on foot, some ascending the previous day to spend the night on the mountain.
We rose before sunrise and embarked on a two-hour ride from a crude, one-lane road to an unpaved path carved out of the steep mountainside. Our car was part of a small convoy of pilgrim-bearing vehicles. A few drivers parked along the way to allow the more hardy to complete the journey on foot or perhaps they knew the road would turn more precarious.
It was foggy and raining when our car finally reached the end of the path. Ceahlau was wrapped in a cloud. From here we continued on foot; it was only a 90-minute climb from this point, enabling us to reach the monastery simple church for the Divine Liturgy. Even this abbreviated ascent, however, was more than my arthritic body could take in stride. Soon I lagged behind; eventually I lost my group in the fog.
Other pilgrims passed me on the steep, muddy path and more groups followed. Some of them carried lumber. Last year, pilgrims carried bricks up the mountain for the construction of a monastery; apparently, this was the year for wood. The procedure, however, was not new to Ceahlau; a church had been constructed in 1992 from materials carried up the mountain with the assistance of a helicopter.
Ceahlau is not only a refuge for hermits but also a popular site for hiking and camping. I discovered too late that the last group I followed was actually heading for a campsite on another part of the mountain. When the group disappeared into the fog, I found myself alone and unable to see ten feet in any direction. Needless to say, I did not know in which direction the skete might be. A light rain began to fall. This was not what I usually thought of as a mountaintop experience.
It occurred to me that Peter might have suggested building three tents atop the Mount of Transfiguration simply to get Jesus, Moses and Elijah out of the rain. But no Matthew states that it had been a bright cloud that overshadowed them, presumably a much drier one than the one under which I found myself. I stood and prayed and waited.
As if in answer, a solitary hiker appeared out of the fog.
Monastery? I inquired hopefully.
Manastirea, he replied in Romanian, and pointed in a different direction than the one I had taken. I thanked him and set off. Eventually I heard the tolling of a church bell, a sonic signpost to the skete. The Divine Liturgy was under way.
A small wooden church appeared out of the fog, surrounded by worshippers; far more pilgrims had climbed Ceahlau than could fit inside the small building. I joined a group gathered by a sanctuary door that was open for ventilation. Sweat trickled down the face of one priest as I shivered in the damp chill outside.
Rows of worshippers stood huddled together against the wind. Some were quite elderly; others consisted of families who had brought their young children up the mountain to worship. They stood during the long liturgy; during the Eucharistic Prayer they knelt or prostrated themselves on the wet ground. A half-century of Communist rule had not dampened their fervor nor could the weather that day on Ceahlau.
In the sanctuary, before the Eucharistic Prayer, Metropolitan Daniil ordained a deacon as a priest, enabling him to participate fully in the celebration of the Eucharist. Then, before Communion, the Metropolitan left the sanctuary to ordain a man to the diaconate. Other deacons led him into the sanctuary so he could assist in Communion.
The Romanian Orthodox Church is experiencing a burst of vocations and new life since the cloud of Communism dissipated. It would have been impossible to build a church atop Ceahlau before the change in government 10 years ago. The Durau Monastery, for example, had much of its property confiscated during the Communist era. In an attempt to strangle monastic life there, villas were built adjacent to the monastery and a hunting lodge was under construction. After the demise of Communism, the villas were turned over to the monastery; today they house guests. The hunting lodge was turned into the St. Daniil Sihastry Ecumenical Center and is used for theological dialogue and youth programs.
After the Divine Liturgy, lunch was served outdoors. It is Romanian Orthodox practice for everyone, not just those receiving Communion, to fast from midnight before the Divine Liturgy. Everyone was hungry and seating was done in shifts until everyone had eaten. The lunch, carried up the mountain by the nuns from Durau, was a simple but satisfying meal of vegetable soup, olives, peppers, eggplant and bread.
Although the Transfiguration is a time of celebration for the Orthodox Church, it falls within the two-week fast that precedes the feast of the Virgin Mary Dormition on August 15.
Staying at Romanian Orthodox monasteries during this time taught me a new definition of the term fast food namely, what may be eaten by the Orthodox each year during the four periods of fasting. The eating of anything from a backboned creature is forbidden, so there were no meat, fish or dairy products at our lunch.
Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church permits alcohol during fasts. Along with wine, there is usually a bottle of tuicla, a potent, homemade plum brandy, on the monastery tables. The nuns will often set out the tuicla not only at lunch and dinner but also at breakfast, getting one day off to a memorable (if wobbly) start. They also served an equally potent scinduc, made from the roots of a plant that grows only on Ceahlau. The nuns dig the roots; the monks of Ceahlua then ferment and distill the scinduc. I welcomed its warming effect during my meal, and joined heartily in the toasts.
With Metropolitan Daniil at the next table sat Father Justinian, the staretz, or abbot, of Ceahlau. Father Justinian is 26 years old; he came to Ceahlau four years ago. He and the monks live in single cells dug out of the mountainside and roofed with sod. Stacked nearby are the bricks and boards that will be used to build their monastery. The monks lead a simple life, gathering in the church daily for liturgy, vespers and midnight prayers.
One of the pilgrims at the table passed around photographs taken during last year celebration. The photos showed a clear, sunny day that captured the spectacular vista often enjoyed by the monks. The pilgrim expressed his regrets that I would not get any sunny photos during my visit.
Illya Labunka, a religious educational administrator living in Lviv, relates that, decades of intensive atheist propaganda have created a spiritual catastrophe in Ukraine. People have already become disillusioned with the various Ukrainian churches. They are looking for spiritual fulfillment, but often in the wrong places.
Although about 80 percent of the nation population call themselves Catholic or Orthodox, less than 15 percent actually practice their faith. Foreign religious groups have moved into Ukraine and have capitalized on the spiritual crisis.
I was not disappointed, however, with my experience on Ceahlau. Although the sun was hidden, the fog could not obscure the important elements of the day: the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the ordination of men to the priesthood and the diaconate all revealed the blossoming of faith after the fall of Communism.
And then, like Peter, James and John, I had to make my way down the mountain. My group moved more slowly lest I get lost again. I found it just as challenging for muscles acclimated to the flatness of Florida to descend a mountain as it was to ascend it.
It had been a long day when we completed our descent and finally arrived back at Durau, yet it was a good day. The Lord had been present in his transfigured and risen glory in the clouds of Ceahlau.
George Martin is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.