All Saints - Learning From Albania

This past two weeks I took 10 students to Albania to study the life and missiology of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, the greatest contemporary Orthodox missionary in the world. In some sense, it seems appropriate to speak about the life and work of Archbishop Anastasios today on All Saints Sunday. This is the Sunday when the Church honors and celebrates the lives of not only all the canonized and recognized saints of the Church, but also of all the other men and women whom the Church has not officially recognized, but who lived holy and Christ-centered lives. We are called to remember today all the unofficial saints who have set an example for us with their holy lives.

Just as we heard in today’s Epistle Reading from Hebrews, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith,” we are called to imitate this “great cloud of witnesses.” And this “cloud of witnesses” represents all who have lived exemplary lives in Christ. These are people who died to themselves and allowed Christ to radiate from them. As we heard Metropolitan Joan of Korca tell us during a pilgrimage we did with him: “The courage of a saint is to accept that they are a sinner. The saints became saints because they were humble enough to understand they could do nothing on their own, but it was Christ who did all things through them.”

Well, in some ways for us who traveled to Albania, we met a living part of this “cloud of witnesses.” Along with meeting Archbishop Anastasios and Metropolitan Joan, we met many men and women who have dedicated their lives to serving Christ and who are striving to follow Him and lead others to imitate His way of life. This is what the missionary life, and in fact the Christian life, is all about.

To help us meet such people, and to have an experience that could open up our eyes in a new way, our trip to Albania was created with the idea of having a special experience from three different perspectives. It was:

-          Part Class - studying the theological writings of Archbishop Anastasios and learning from the many ministries and co-workers in Albania. We witnessed the incredible resurrection of the Church in Albania

-          Part Spiritual Pilgrimage: we attended an all-night vigil at St John Vladimir Monastery, spent another night with Metropolitan Joan of Korca at St John the Forerunner Monastery in Voskopoja and then hiked 12 miles to St Peter and Paul Monastery in village of Vithkuq, and listened to many spiritual talks by various bishops and missionaries

-          Part Missions Trip – we interacted much with the Orthodox University students in Tirana, as well the high school youth from the Diocese of Tirana and the youth of Berat; we spent a day with the children in the Home of Hope in Durres; we had a Bible Study with the youth workers of the Archdiocese; we met with the parish leaders at St. Paul Church in Durres

I think all the students who went would say that it was an incredibly inspiring and educational experience! Our team was truly blessed in a fundamental and foundation way, and we pray that we were able to bless and encourage all the people we met in Albania.

On the last day that we were there, I asked our students to reflect on our experience, and to think of what the most important lessons they would be taking home with them. There were numerous lessons, including the blessing of meeting such dedicated servants of Christ, but one thing that struck everyone was how they were coming home with a new understanding of what it means to be a part of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

We say this phrase every week when we recite the Creed – “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” – and yet the students came to understand what this means in a new and profound way.

The Church of Albania – with its different language and different customs – is OUR Church. No matter how different the cultural context, we as Orthodox Christians are a part of a global family, which all represents the fullest of the Orthodox Faith.

We also must take care to never limit our understanding of “Church” to simply our own local setting. We are a part of God’s Church, the Body of Christ. This implies a universal understanding and vision. Thus, we all have a responsibility to the larger, global Church. Whenever we limit living out our faith in a local context, we deny the “catholic and apostolic” reality of the Church.

One of the words that Archbishop Anastasios offered to our group was to “Beware not only of the individual ego (which leads us into our self-centered ways), but also of the communal ego, which is just as dangerous as the individual ego. This communal ego can take many forms, such as putting our family above all else, or putting our nation or some other identity with another limited group above all else.”

Divine Love is always about loving the “other,” and this “other” includes all our brothers and sisters around the world – whether in Albania, Africa, Asia or in the farthest corners of the world. When we forget about our responsibility for the other, even the other in the farthest corners of the world, we are betraying our call to divine love.

In a sense, we heard this in today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus said to his disciples, "Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny him before my Father who is in heaven.  He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me." 

We can’t limit our deepest love even to our parents or children or immediate family. As Christians, we are called to a greater love – an agape love which places God above all else. And God clearly taught us that we have to offer a witness of His love to our brothers and sisters all around us, even to all around the world!

Thus, as we honor all the Saints on this Sunday, let us truly honor them by remembering and  imitating the divine love they had for all people everywhere.

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