No Church in the Wild – The Peak of Laç

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 22, 2019 11:15

No Church in the Wild – The Peak of Laç

By Christopher Tushaj

Kisha of Laçit was one of the most cherished of sites within Albania. But after the Communist struggle, all that was left was an old abandoned hillside with a rock showing signs of a once holy site. With all of their might, the Communists intended to destroy this holy place for the Albanians, totally demolishing in 1971. My understanding of point of articulation for this site’s sanctity doesn’t lie necessarily within the church, or the description connecting it to its Catholic narrative of holy saints. I believe there is a much deeper, simpler and recognizable truth about the mysticism surrounding this location-the mountain land itself.

There is a long-standing tradition that dates back even before the origins of this church’s original construction in the late 1200’s. Albanians all over have held other sites at mountaintops such as Tomorr, Gjallicë, Rumia and Pashtrik as places for annual spiritual pilgrimages, walks through changes in time and space towards mountain peaks everywhere. A well-known Albanian ethnologist Mark Tirta connects the cult of the mountain with the cult of the Sun. “There existed among Albanians the cult of mountains or mountaintops which were worshiped; people worshiped it in the morning when the Sun rose” (Tirta 2006: 412). Nevertheless, these ancient practices are still preserved today. And it was evident in my own journey. Believers of the Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic religions all make a similar pilgrimage, almost as if uninterrupted from the footsteps of their Pagan ancestors thousands of years earlier, to pay homage to these familiar sacred sites in the lands of the Zanas (these mountain fairies truly host a stunning and magnificent landscape). These ancient beliefs are so embedded in the roots of the Albanian culture that it was a friend of mine (Muslim) who persisted to visit one of these sacred places. This was the site of the newly reconstructed Church of Laç in northwestern Albania.

I was assured that my religion wasn’t relevant-thousands of others stories in deed could confirm the expected healing powers that this blessed site has. In 1981, a group of soldiers from Drojë dropped an order to go to the hill ‘Saint Anthony in Laç’ to demolish the remainder of the church’s foundations. The building was first collapsed in the infamous year of 1967, when the communist regime openly opposed the church and even Saint Anthony in Mejdani Square. But in the end, this silent dual with the weapon of prayer was won for the faithful. It seems that this mysterious spirit was so strong that it even contended against an entire dictatorship. The local soldiers were given orders to blow up the walls, and with them, to forever erase the memory of the chapel and of Saint Anthony. After demolishing a part of the wall, 32 platoon soldiers were left paralyzed from the waist down. Emergency services came rushed them to the hospital where they were treated for their injuries. Some soldiers became well again after many rounds of medication. Some of the soldiers were taken to Austria for 6 months, while others at the Military Hospital in Tirana. It was a completely inexplicable phenomenon how so many so many soldiers could end up in this situation. This story became big news around Albania.  This no longer dealt with some effort to simply eradicate these ruins (among many other miracles in popular memory). The government wanted every trace of any vibrant, tangible evidence of a miracle to disappear, and any news of this prohibited and forbidden. The phenomenon today remains inexplicable. The government did its utmost to justify the event, once even claiming it was food poisoning, but this diagnosis was never scientifically proven. The story remained to this day, cloaked in mystery.

Hope, inspiration, spiritual healing, miracles, deep insights, a change of perspective, a new thought, a reminded truth, a feeling of fulfillment and gratitude: at least one of these was something I was hoping to gain to help wash away the previous weeks of compiling stress of the unknown and bouts of existential depression (I’d say common especially to Westerners seeking sanctuary in a retreat destination like Albania). I’m not sure how soldiers that were paralyzed is considered a miracle. Maybe it is the old sense of no-mercy justice seems to penetrate through all systems seeking to tame the so-called wild man. Many questions filled my head as my friend and I hopped into the car on our mini journey to enlightenment. Is this all that it’s jacked up to be? My skepticism of other’s reports of the above mentioned miracles and cures was strong. Although I do like the idea that justice was served especially for such figures who still don’t know what this word means, it wasn’t the thirteenth of June (the usual day for the massive pilgrimage to this area). But I figured, ‘Hey, what the hell, might as well give it a shot! It gave me a good reason to move temporarily from the same three Bllok-blocks I’ve seen over and over again throughout my daily-double do-si-do through the former Great’s esteemed construction known as ‘basic geometric-shape’.

Even the drive was a relief from the constructed anarchy of ninety-degree angles everywhere that simultaneously are calling out for a dime and a reason. I felt every curve of the road as we ventured out towards the nature, the only chaotic system with a raw sense of checks and balances that is clear in its purpose. Luckily for me, my Albania retains that realness, and më knaq synin dhe shpirtin on a journey into the rawness of these rugged mountains. It reminds me of a return to my origins, a guide to a belief and in essence a truth about myself. It shapes and forms an identity that allows for definition and purpose within the finite. The city behind me slowly disappeared, and the effects of the pilgrimage already begin. I could feel a liberation from the daunting repetitive responsibilities of the man and the city while slowly ascending into the sky.

One who travels this way cannot forget of the church’s strong presence in the region. Everywhere you go, people salute with a ‘ju ndimoftë’. There are also plenty of young kids trying me’t hi n’gjynah by running after you with all their power in their little legs up the hill to sell small bundles of candles for a Lek. One kid didn’t need to struggle so much. He stopped my car in order to take out from underneath a large plastic water bottle that was dragging. I bought a couple of candles from him and continued on my path.
As we got up to the top of the mountain, I could see how the scenery changed from drastically, not only from the sight at the top, but also in terms of the vegetation. Big pine trees draped the sides of the road and the mountain path that goes directly up to the church. The grandeur of the panoramic view, an image of a lonely shepherd in the distance tending to his flock, the scattered stones everywhere. The elements of the scenery of what I know to be the ‘real Albania’ started to become more evident.

At the top of mountain, we were greeted with a flamboyant Christian cross, in typical Laçjan style, this hanging off a mountain side instead of someone’s neck. The rock walls of the church seemed ‘traditional-esque’, but also remnant of something industrial than aesthetic. I looked around to see  people were posing selfies with saints, cheap chinese produced trinkets being sold as if it were hand-crafted ornaments, ‘blessed’ holy water, lines of candles all uniform and un-unique in character lit the outer walls of the church grounds. My judgments were in full force. This didn’t seem to be a place where miracles could happen. But I trucked along despite, in search of my happiness and enlightenment. I followed the line of people down underneath the side of the hill where the cave where some saint apparently had visited. You could tell because there was a hole where his head made an imprint into the rock surface, others looking for the same inspiration from a cranium that has touched that very spot hundreds of years ago. I put my head in there, said a prayer, and to my surprise, I began to feel very different. My head began to cool down in temperature. This was a great relief, because I was already blowing steam in between my ears from taking this journey all the way up to this mountain to see apparent devout believers and their seriousness towards this situation. I retreated from the cave backwards in the typical saintly reverence one is expected to employ when experiencing such a life-changing experience.

I lit the entire stack of candles against the winds attempts to blow them out like a birthday cake. Oh, God, when will people realize they are actually praying and paying respects to the remnants of their former paganism rebranded and resold by newer institutions? Maybe the winds wanted this realization to come true for the men of her earth. Perhaps I’ll go on National Earth day next time I travel up to the sacred hill known in the past as a platform for my ancestors to pray to our ancient sun deity. Either way, I said many prayers for my loved ones and my self, directing my thought-energy toward the flickering flames of the. And in all honesty, and without sarcasm, it was a beautiful experience, and I’d suggest everyone to go, to take a lunch with you and stopping off the side of the road right before the last little hill before reaching the top of the mountain. Have a picnic in the mini pine tree forest, feel the energy of raw nature and food inspire you with truth and reason. I’m sure the power of the force fields of this sacred mountain will be an inspiration for you to travel to the other sites around our Albania. May you see the sanctity of the land itself instead of focusing on the idols away, from the gold sitting right at your feet. No church in the wild? Our wilderness itself is divine.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 22, 2019 11:15