The following interview is with my friend, Nina, whom I’ve known for several years through an Orthodox online community, Monachos. Nina has taught me much about the Orthodox faith, including the lives of the saints and the wonder of her own testimony being raised under communism. Nina’s love for God and the encouragement she offers to others are continually inspiring; I’m blessed to call her a friend.
The icon above depicts St. Euphrosyne (pronounced you-FROZE-uh-nee) of Moscow, Nina's patron saint.
1) Where were you born and in what church were you raised?
I was born in Albania before communism collapsed, therefore religion was still banned. My family was Christian Orthodox.
2) What was your relationship like with God when you were a child? i.e, your ideas of Him, your experience of Him, what you were taught about communicating with Him?
When I was a child I did not know things about God. We were taught by communist propaganda that God did not exist. However my family (especially my grandparents) were exercising their right to religion secretly and often I would be present during such moments. These are very blessed moments in my life because this is how God called me; He showed compassion and called me through the example of the adults in my family when they were caring for their spiritual needs.
Things I learned about Orthodoxy (not directly about God) I can classify in two groups:
a) Incidental. b) Purposeful
In the first group belong stories when I was present by chance where there were talks, or events about Orthodoxy such as the case of my grandmother talking to her cousins and trying to figure out the saint's feastday and who was celebrating on that particular day -since they had to rely on memory because there were no religious calendars.
In the second group I would include moments like the time when my grandfather gave me my first cross (which was made clandestinely by my uncle) and told me to hide it underneath my clothes at all times, or when grandmothers told me fairytale or chanted hymns which were from the Bible and the Church and I had no idea what these were and I was taught not to repeat them, or say them outside the house (for fear of persecution).
3) Was there ever a time in your life that you didn’t believe in God? If so, what or who convinced you otherwise?
Yes there was. When I started to read at three years old, I started also being brainwashed with the communist propaganda that there is no God. So that were my belief for some years as a child. However often at night before going to sleep I would ponder about metaphysical issues.
I could not comprehend that from being and existing I would vanish into non-existence after death... And I would start crying silently and go to sleep. I believe these were seeds planted in my soul by God given the circumstances we lived, therefore this was another way of Him calling me to believe in Him. However it is not easy when you do not even know that there is a God, or that the word God even exists since many things were censured at that time. Therefore He decided that at some point it was good for me to learn and encounter Him.
One day, when I was visiting with my maternal grandparents, I was in their front yard talking to my friends and discussing about the creation of the world. I told them all about the Big Bang theory and also added (as it was taught and written in the text books) that the theory that God created the world it is not true since there is no God.
While I was so passionately talking to my friends and "teaching" them, my grandfather who must have heard my speech asked me to go and talk to him. My friends left and my grandfather talked with me for a while. I resisted a lot. However after some logical explanation which my grandfather told me, God entered my heart and has never left since! Thank God and may He bless the soul of my grandfather for being His tool for my soul's salvation.
4) I know through our friendship that you are very knowledgeable about Orthodoxy and the saints in particular. Who is your patron saint?
My patron Saint is Saint Euphrosyne. There are several of them and I feel connected to all of them and ask for their intercessions always.
5) When did you come to live in the United States?
More than a decade ago.
6) Could you describe some of the differences in worshipping in Albania and the United States?
There are no essential differences. Differences are only behavioral, or cultural. Ah and the language is different. Also in Tirana I attended the Cathedral and the Archbishop was leading the Liturgy and there were priests, monks, deacons. In my present parish we have one priest (for about 500 families) and recently a deacon was assigned to our parish also. Thank God because our priests work non-stop and it is a very demanding job.
7) What do you love most about the Church? about Divine Liturgy in particular?
The Church is my Home. I can not really pinpoint what I like most about it... Divine Liturgy is also beautiful and each moment is so meaningful and expresses our entire Faith, and God's love for humanity. The Liturgy here is the Divine Liturgy that happens in Heaven where angels sing praises to our God.
8) Being recently married, could you describe some elements from the Orthodox wedding ceremony for readers who may be completely unfamiliar?
As the priest who crowned us said to the guests (the majority of whom were not Orthodox Christians) in the church: "What do we do in a wedding? We celebrate the couple, we dance, we eat, we drink. All these happen also during the Orthodox wedding ceremony."
There is the blessing of the rings and the betrothal before the couple is crowned. And after the couple is crowned the common cup (symbolizing the common life the couple will share) with wine is given by the priest and afterward the dance of Isaiah around the altar takes place, during which the hymn: "Isaiah dances..." is chanted and the couple and the sponsor all connected to the priest and the Gospel leading the way circle the altar three times.
9) What resources would you suggest to someone interested in learning about the ancient faith?
It depends on the preferences of different people. For me personally, hagiography (lives of saints) was very crucial when learning about Orthodoxy since it gave me plenty of examples to admire and motivated me. Lives of Saints are Orthodoxy in practice. Also attending Divine Liturgy and other Services of the Church is a very profitable way to learn more. I would also recommend books, and online material and talking to Orthodox priests and believers.
10) How do you share the treasures of the Orthodox faith with people you meet in day-to-day life?
I try to keep in mind the saying from a Church Father who said: "Daily preach the Gospel, if necessary use words." However it is very difficult for me, the sinner that I am, to be able to preach the Gospel through my actions.