Madonna of Durres
I worked for a short time, years ago, in Albania. The shock of seeing a devastated country is still vivid. In Albanian the country is called Shqiperi (pronounced ‘shippery’), which means Land of the Eagle. But fifty years of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime shot that eagle well and truly out of the sky. A beautiful country was reduced to a bunker - or rather seven hundred thousand bunkers. They dot the countryside like mushrooms. The cost of building them was the gross national product for twenty-five years, yet they served no purpose whatever. The master-bunker must have been the mind of the dictator himself. The repression was total: I met a young man who served a prison sentence for humming an Italian tune. There were heavy prison sentences for owning an extra animal.... Towards the end, people were starving. Once the regime fell, international aid began to pour in. A woman told me that she saw a relief truck being hijacked by a crowd of men: they forced it to stop, then having wrenched the doors open they stood around eating the bread that it was carrying!
If Albania seems very far away, this is only because it was a closed country for so long: nothing could get in or out. But in fact it is only one hour’s flight from Rome. It was the ancient Illyricum, a division of the Roman Empire. I stayed in the port city of Durres, where most of the classical remains were bulldozed to make way for the works of a dictator’s ego. A few things remain, however: one is an amphitheatre - a Colosseum equal in size to the one in Rome. The difference is that it lies half buried and neglected. Over the parts that are not excavated there are tangles of houses from various centuries; but where some excavation has been roughly done, you can walk through the arches of the amphitheatre at the original ground level and imagine that you were walking in Illyricum.
Two of those deep arches were used as small Christian churches in Byzantine times. They are in ruins, of course, because the regime tolerated no religion; and now that the regime has fallen, the dominant religion, as before, is Islam. As I leaped over puddles of water (the country was still being scourged when I was there, but only with terrible weather) I saw fragments of painting, frescoes, on the saturated walls. As I looked carefully and my eyes became accustomed to the dark I saw a wide-open eye looking straight at me. It was a startling moment of recognition, like meeting your mother or your sister unexpectedly a thousand miles from home. If anything ever moved me deeply it was that partial face with its large eye, looking across a thousand years at us and our devastated world. It was the face of a tenth century fresco of Mary. For me it had to be a Madonna of Compassion (everyone’s mother, I suppose, is a madonna of compassion, and we don't know how to describe her objectively). The Madonna came to birth there “in midst of other woe than ours,” but she embraces with compassion all the yearning and sighing generations. Nor is hers an easy compassion from a safe place: she is the mother of sorrows, the mater dolorosa, and here on this damp wall her image is wasting; one day its last fragments will fall away, and few will notice or care. The ruined chapel is not protected in any way: there is no gate, no caretaker, no guide; it is totally vulnerable to vandalism, neglect and dampness. It is a spark of light that may be extinguished at any moment.
In a small cluttered room where someone had put piles of antiques found lying around (My God! Ancient Illyricum reduced to this!) a woman showed me glass funerary urns from the first and second centuries. Inside them were tiny glass phials, for holding the tears of the bereaved wife or mother. Then she showed me earthenware urns, for the ashes of the poor. Inside these were earthenware phials, much larger than the glass ones. “The poor have more tears, you see,” she said.
Compassion is not from a safe place; it does not protect itself behind steel bars and glass. “Thou silent form,” said Keats of the Grecian urn, “dost tease us out of thought / as doth eternity.” But those tears shed long ago, and the silent Madonna, tease us instead into thought and into time, into the particular, because they are mother images. We need to know more of God’s motherhood: otherwise we will find that we have put ourselves and our Faith behind steel bars and glass... and bunkers.
(from I Remember your Name in the Night, Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1997)