‘ OPTICAL ILLUSIONS’
Considering whether to add another sub -title ‘TAKING THE ‘SPECS’ OUT OF TEN THOUSAND EYES……’ but hear Tom
‘ Mother keep it simple !’
The reference to spectacles was because we brought ten thousand pairs with us. When word got round that I was going back into Albania, since the communist regime had collapsed, and planned to take glasses with me, knowing that this was an urgent need in a country that had not produced any glass for decades, people began, kindly,. to flood my school with hundreds of pairs of spectacles’
As a prison visitor,- in a top security prison in Portsmouth, One of the Warders told me that there were a high percentage of Opticians in the jail and the ‘Lions ‘, a charity organisation, supplied them with spectacles to repair and sort . A phone call set the process in motion. Eventually we had bags of beautifully sorted , and enveloped, specs ready to be divided into the number of people in the group.
I had been invited to join a group from Brother Andrew,s ‘ Open Doors Community ‘ who felt called to evangelise in Albania. I readily accepted the invitation to join <Operation Friendship’. They planned to distribute paper- back New Testaments in Albanian, and cards on which they had printed the prayer ‘Our Father’. When we met up at the airport in Zurich awaiting our flight to Tirana, capitol of Albania and now sporting an airport. I distributed the bags of spectacles. I also gave some of the dozens of packets of vegetable seeds I had brought, to the group. Since we were told to sow the Word, it seemed a practical start in a country suffering from drought and malnutrition but where there must be plenty of ‘good soil,’
However, the concept was totally misunderstood on the plane when my Albanian neighbour, who had unashamedly pinched my allotted window seat, enquired in broken English, made fluent by several, large tots of whisky,” Why you come to my country ? What you bring ? ” Thinking it might be wise, and remembering my son, Tom’s, advice, ‘don’t get all pious Mother’, I chose a horticultural approach . Carefully dissecting a French bean on my lunch plate , I pointed to the seeds, saying slowly ‘many, many if you want ? He thought I was pregnant, and asked ‘when?’ I deemed it prudent to refrain from asking if he would like some seeds.
Never the less, when I gave him a card (above) with the Our Father , in his language on it, he kindly read it aloud for me and then pocketed it. This prompted another Albanian , across the aisle, to ask for one.
Tirana. Tuesday 12th May 1992
Back in Hotel Tirana sitting in grand, but dowdy, marbled Reception awaiting one of Mother Teresa’s sisters to collect us to visit their convent. As soon as the communist regime collapsed, Mother Teresa, herself an Albanian, though nobody in the Land were told when she was awarded the Nobel prize, had sent sisters in to care for the poor and rebuild the church
E.arlier that morning we had found an Optician ‘s very near the Hotel and were so pleased to hand over our many bags of spectacles. We had to bang on the door several times before a blond lady in a grubby white coat reluctantly let us in. The shop was bare. Empty shelves, not a spectacle in sight. Another white coated man joined us looking very suspicious and unfriendly. The look of amazement and shock on their faces was dramatic when I offered them ten thousand pairs of glasses. Passing my camera to one of the group to record their delight as I, all smiles, heaped all our bags onto the counter, in order to record the moment for the ‘Lion’s’ back in Chichester, who had done all the work getting them sorted, by the inmates of Kingston Jail. It was good to have a record. Or so I thought!
Sister Anna Maria took us to her convent to meet the jolly bunch of sisters, mostly doctors, nurses and teachers, belonging to Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. There were long queues of people waiting for food and medicine. I regretted not saving some of the spectacles to give them. (I was to regret it much more as time went by.) We then were taken by Sister to a nearby village where the church was being rebuilt and precious objects, buried for forty years of persecution under the Atheistic regime, were being unearthed. We saw a large bell dug up and joined in the jubilatio0n,
UNEARTHING THE BELL!
The earth looked parched and no crops had been sown in the last year due to the change back to private landowning, nobody certain what would be their share of the land. Consequentley, no harvest this year.
Taken into decrepit old school, children swarming round us begging for gum; taught them a jolly ‘Halley, Halley Lu i ya’ which they picked up quickly and sang with gusto.
From Kruje to Durres
Every morning began with a wonderful prayer meeting. We sought wisdom and discernment for the day ahead. I thought of my own faithful charismatic prayer group, back home at the Catholic Bible School in Chichester, who were covering us each day in prayer, and gave thanks for them. Travelling through the breathtakingly beautiful mountains and fjords, now there were more cars and carts on the bumpy roads. Our bus broke down regularly and pedlars soon surrounded us selling us cherries and apples, and dozens of begging children always appeared like magic
I bought an Ikon of St Michael in an hotel in Durres and several handwoven kelims, local rugs, which were very cheap and beautifully designed with Albanian motifs and earthy dyes. They now cover two chairs in my living room on Iona in the Hebrides.
One of the group, Colin , went to visit a young muslim man to whom he had given a Bible on a previous visit, and found that several of his fellow soldiers had become believers and held a weekly prayer meeting in his home. Full of joy we left the coach and went for coffee, leaving all belongings on the bus, but on returning , found several bags had been stolen. After two hours of interrogation in the police station, we consoled ourselves with delicious ice creams on the verandah of an hotel. Within minutes we were surrounded by begging children to whom we handed out copious bags of sweets, courtesy Marks and Spencers. I started singing; (Tom “you would, Mother !”) the jolly alleluia chorus, to which everyone, including all the children and waiters joined in. What a happy occasion!
Until I discovered my rucksack, from under my seat, was gone! It contained ; my Bible, camera, water bottle, clock, slippers, sweets, Tee shirt and Albanian dictionary.
Some little Oliver Twist had managed to get his arm through the iron railing of the verandah, and under my seat, while we were merrily praising the Lord ! ( Tom’s merry laughter is deafening !)
Could only hope the New Jerusalem, leather bound Bible would fall into welcome hands. Losing the camera would prove to be a great disadvantage when we returned to visit the Optician’s in Tirana.
Travelling with a lively group of deeply committed Christians, on this second visit, was a rich and joyful blessing. I teased Kevin, a cheerful young man who reminded me of Tom, for always having his nose in his bible (which was, sadly, not what reminded me of Tom ) and he simply said, ” It is my food and drink “.
No light or water in hotel at present.
Very excited to be returning to Korce where I had been so blessed to see all the Ikons and beautiful artefacts, and been given a precious book on Albanian Ikons by the Curator, and where it had become dangerously apparent to him, and our Guide, that I was a Christian.
I practically fell up the steps in my eagerness to reach the entrance and feast on the treasures within and perhaps meet the Curator again, in freeer circumstances. But, to my sadness and horror, the place had been ransacked. The Ikons had been taken off the walls, the display cabinets containing the sacred vestments and chalices, were empty, the alcoves were bare. No sign of the Curator.
But our Guide, Gaza, a different one from my dear Illyria, informed me that his friend was a brother of the Curator, whom I discovered was named Feodore, and would come to talk to me.
He took us outside, up a rusty fire escape without a rail, into a vast area stacked with hundreds of Ikons and precious paintings, from floor to ceiling. They had been hidden and awaited restoration. We were the first eyes to see them. but, after forty years of atheistic rule, where no religious art was allowed, no Ikon painters were alive to paint or to restore them. They had no pigments or gold leaf or lacquer, which I promised to bring for them. He begged me to come to live in Albania and teach them again the sacred art.
Could imagine Tom’s “Oh no you don’t, Mother!”
He explained why the Museum was so bereft ; many of the churches were reclaiming the land on which their destroyed churches has stood and had claimed back their Ikons and Sacred objects and vestments, some had got into the hands of rich Greek families, (Korce is on the Greek border,) and looting of priceless ancient treasures was rampant throughout the land. Corruption was rife.
Gazi’s friend invited us to his home at four o’clock. , Before that we visited a hospital visiting several windowless wards with beds cramped close together and very little medicine or equipment, patients wore coats and scarves. We prayed with them and gave bibles and booklets. I went over to an old lady wearing a black woolen coat and peasant flowered headscarf, her skin was like yellow parchment and she looked frightened. She shook her head vigorously when I joined my hands in prayer to ask if she would like me to pray with her. Fortunately we had been taught that a nod meant ‘No’ and a shake of the head meant ‘Yes’ in Albanian, so I took her bony little hands in mine and asked the Holy Spirit to pray through me. Not knowing any Albanian, nor she any English, I prayed in the lovely gift of Tongues. After a few moments her face lit up and she responded in her own language to whatever I was praying. Not having a clue what was transpiring, nor needing to , I just continued praying in the Holy Spirit for a few more minutes until feeling a pat on my cheek and a radiant faced old lady smiling up at me. What a joy. Maybe , when we meet in heaven, she will tell me what the Lord was saying. This was not the first or last time the precious gift of Tongues has proved invaluable in my ministry in different countries around the world when I have not known how to pray. Like St Paul, (Romans 8 ;26-27 ) I encourage Christians to find someone to help them to tap into this inherent gift, which so often lies dormant through ignorance.
Gazi, our Guide, took us to visit the Albanian family of the Curator of the Museum, whom I had met and been given the book of Albanian Ikons. The black – clad , silver haired, old Grandmother showed us the precious Ikons she had buried during the communist regime . Gazi explained to us, with tears on his face, that, after forty years of not being able to express their faith outwardly, their hearts had grown cold and that now, they were only, very slowly, rekindling it.
At our morning prayer we felt we were being told that today we must be ‘Barnabus’s’ to those we visited. So to encourage them to know that they had never been forsaken, I told them of my visit to an Albanian Greek Orthodox church in Chicago, just after my first visit to Albania in 1986, where the statue of Jesus’s mother , Mary, had been, inexplicabley, weeping from one eye , for several weeks . They told me that nobody could understand why she was weeping. After describing my experiences, and the horror and suffering in Albania, it became clear that they needed to pray much more deeply for their persecuted families in the land. I remembered the line in the prophecy before my visit, ‘DRY MY MOTHER’S TEARS IN THAT PLACE’ Amazingly to me, the family, we were now visiting in Korce, knew very well to which Greek Orthodox Church I was referring, as the architect was a member of their family, now living in Chicago! !
This was so overwhelming for all of us, that, Koco the husband, broke down and wept , finding it too difficult to believe that God could forgive them for denying him, to save their skins, for over twenty five years. A deeply embedded ‘surviver’s guilt.’ We decided to pray , the entire family, holding hands in a circle, for the grace to accept Our Father’s love and total forgiveness, as even St Peter had to do, after denying Christ three times, and to fan their faith back into a flame.
With typical Albanian warm and spontaneous hospitality, we were served freshly baked cake and home made (very strong) cherry brandy, using their precious supply of wood to cook it. Winters are very cold and the only fuel is from the trees which are being destroyed in order to cook, heat and warm water. Although everything is still very difficult , as nothing is organised efficiently yet under the new political system, but they were optimistic that it would be. What a difference these glimpses of hope were from my last visit in 1986 ! To be able to visit homes, schools and hospitals as we did today would have been unthinkable. Even less, to be welcomed into schools and begged for bibles and prayers as well as gum and pens!
Different feelings during the night when men kept rattling our hotel door trying to get in.We were terrified and in fear of our lives. Belief that all Western women are immoral and easy targets comes from the magazines and newspapers now flooding Albania.
Further prayers for protection next day as we made the long and perilous journey up three thousand five hundred feet through the mountains to visit the small town of Permet, then on to Gjirokaster, where we spoke to people in the street and met Dashnor Frasari, leader of the New Democratic Party who invited us into his bureau. What a joy to see , above the map of Albania, a picture of Jesus, and to be invited to pray with him and his team.
Gjirocaster was the birthplace of the cruel dictator, Enver Hoxha.We went to his monument, now destroyed, for a time of prayer . Many locals joined us and taught us to say ‘zoti u becofty’ which means ‘God bless you’ As we walked through the hilly, cobbled streets we blessed everybody we passed .(So glad my cynical son,Tom, couldn’t see me !) Kevin was on fire. Such a hunger for God was everywhere, people pleading for a crucifix or Rosary beads or bible, and begging for prayer, wherever we went. It was both humbling and wonderful for me to be included in such a deeply experienced group of Evangelists.
Sitting on the sixth floor balcony of our base in Samande amidst diving and swooping swallows, flashing their white bellies with such gay abandonment and joy, and peppering my view of the island of Corfu across the Adriatic Sea. Breeze blowing through palm trees and Hibiscus hedges. What a very beautiful country Albania is!
Overjoyed and surprised to see the Ampitheatre at Butrint full of children singing ‘When the spirit of the Lord…’ led by Danielle and two other YWAM (YOUTH WITH A MISSION ) volunteers.We gladly joined in the chorus. What a difference from 1986. All the ancient Busts had gone, there was disarray and disorder. Many of the antiquities had been pilfered and sold in Greece, but here were the children praising the Father God who they had not been allowed to know or love all their lives. We rejoiced.
We enjoyed great fellowship on the bus journeys, the prayers, prophecies and songs from hearts full of love and joy. What a difference from my first visit midst people who did not have faith, or, if they did , would be persecuted if they expressed it. We stopped at one, shabby cafe, on the shore full of Greek Orthodox men and joined in a gusty rendering of ‘Kyrie Eleison’. Afterwards we put our feet into the troubled waters that surround the Lake Butrint where clashes between Albanians and Greeks are frequent.
Later we were taken to a hospital where the doctor’s were struggling to cope with very few resources, and eager for us to pray for the patients and promise to send medical help when we returned home.
In Berat were invited to join a family prayer group, whose prayers of gratitude to God for bringing Albania out of darkness, were so moving and heartfelt. They did not possess a single Bible, and the mother of the young man leading the group, told me that even if we gave them one, they couldn’t read it because they did not have, or had any chance of getting, any spectacles. We arranged for her and her son to join us next day, on our bus, on the long drive back to Tirana where we could get spectacles from the Optician to whom we had donated ten thousand pairs. It would be a happy thing to do on our last day in Albania – or so I thought! But, as my beloved son, Tom , frequently reminds me, ‘You are not often wrong, Mother, but you are wrong again’.
LAST DAY IN ALBANIA
My first priority was to get to the Optician’s with my new friends and get them sorted out with spectacles. The shop was closed and the bare dusty shelves were as empty as before. We rang the bell and hammered on the door for a long time before the surly blond assistant let us in. She did not return my warm greeting and when I explained the situation and asked for spectacles for my friends from Korce, she denied that she had ever seen me before nor that I had given her any spectacles. I was speechless, angry and mortified. Since my camera recording of the joyful reception of ten thousand, carefully graded pairs of spectacles to the same person, had been stolen. I had no proof. My Albanian mother simply shrugged her shoulders, and said ‘This is Albania’ With total resignation to the prevailing climate of corruption. How I wished they had been given to Mother Teresa’s convent !
A last visit , before we left the land, had been arranged for us to visit a Ballet School. Seeing poor emaciated dancers in worn out ballet shoes and leotards did nothing to lift my spirits after the disappointment at the Opticians, but in my morning journal it seemed the Lord was telling me ‘the best is yet to come’ I could only hope the Good Lord would get a move on. Our flight out was only a couple of hours away.
I had to call back at the convent to pick up an address from Sr Anna Maria, for someone in Paray le Monial, France, where I would be making a Retreat later. Gazi , our guide, was meeting me there to give me my Insurance form for my stolen belongings. I was escorted by young women from the convent, Irene. We passed the newly built , Pyramid shaped, Caritas headquarters and couldn’t resist a peep inside, but the Head of Caritas, a catholic charity, from Rome was outside and after being introduced as the Director of the only Catholic Bible School in the UK, he insisted that I should meet the new Arch-Bishop of Albania and within minutes I was being driven by him to the Bishop’s residence, a small house in the suburbs. Conscious that I should be at the Airport in less than an hour, I joined a handsome young Canadian Priest, also waiting to see Bishop Ivan Diaz. His name was Fr Gary Walsh whom Mother Teresa sent to claim back land for the rebuilding of a church in Korce. He had been working with Mother in Calcutta. When he learned that I had come in with a Christian group bringing medicine, Bibles and clothes (didn’t mention spectacles) he asked me to return and gave me list of what to bring ; bandages, medicines, vitamins, socks and men’s underwear and bibles.
I promised that I would and to his utter delight, invited him to join us on my next pilgrimage to Israel. As he went in to meet His Eminence, I had no idea that this holy young man would become my most dear and precious friend for the rest of my life.
The next delight was meeting Bishop Ivan Diaz. Within moments we had established that we both were Charismatics and both been Baptised in the Holy Spirit in 1975. We knelt and prayed together for Albania. What a joy !
I now realised that ‘The best is yet to come’ at the sad start of this last day in Albania, was being fulfilled.
I was to return the following year with Fr Gary’s requests, and materials for a team wanting to learn how to write Ikons, plus an experienced , prayerful Ikon specialist, Alban, who would stay several months in Albania and teach and mentor them in this ancient form of prayer.
In this short, time Fr Gary had learned the Albanian language, made daily visits to the new civic powers, reclaimed the church land, enlisted local workmen to build a small house and laid foundations for a church as well as gaining the confidence of, still very frightened Christians, to be welcomed back into warm arms of the post Vatican 2, Catholic Church. One of whom was an accomplished Opera singer who trained the newly gathered choir to a very high standard. The vibrancy and deep faith was, as it must have been, in the early church of the first centuries.
ONE OF THE EIGHT THOUSAND BUNKERS FROM EARLIER DAYS !