The Cloud of Transfiguration
Pilgrims young and old journey to a remote Moldavian mountaintop to celebrate the Transfiguration of Christ.
text and photographs by 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.
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Tags: Pilgrimage/pilgrims Romanian Greek Catholic Romanian Orthodox Church