Monday, November 01, 2010

The Arts and Hearts of Transylvania’s Unitarians: Sustainability & Spirit

           I grew up knowing almost nothing about Eastern Europe, but what I did know appeared in my mind’s eye as grim, dark, and dreary.. as if the sun never shone there. I imagined all of the people as sad and the land as cloudy and monotonous.
Imagine my delight to find some of the most beautiful landscapes, folk art, and people I have ever encountered. The Unitarians, our partners and our forebears, are first and foremost Hungarian. That is evident in their music, their eyes and souls, their language, and their handicrafts. Remarkably, because of their isolation and poverty, they have preserved many of the Hungarian traditions even better than has been done in their homeland.
It is no fairytale, even though one often feels as if they have entered a fairytale landscape of thatched roof cottages and ornately carved gingerbread woodwork and snow capped mountains and dark seemingly endless forests. The story of the Romanian people, and, for our purposes, the Hungarian minority in Transylvania is more a night mare, through centuries of invasions, wars, annexation and pillaging. As recently as the last (20th) century, our Unitarian brethren faced inquisition-like Romanian gendarmes, after Transylvania was taken from Hungary at the end of WWI, prejudice and deprivations, invasion by first German and then Russian troops during WWII, and near extermination of their culture under the brutal dictatorship and Communist regime of Ceausescu.  The winds from Chernobyl blew right across their villages. Severe rationing and totalitarian tactics kept every citizen in fear.  It has only been 21 years this December since the uprisings that led to the “end” of Communism, but those years have been far from joyful, especially for the Hungarians, proud and noble people who were once the oppressors and are now the oppressed. Even the oldest villagers living today cannot recall a time of complete peace and security. As you may already know, our own lay President took his own life two years ago this month, and just this summer, a Unitarian minister in another village committed suicide after taking the lives of his young children.

These villages have been called a laboratory for sustainable solutions; “the one place in Europe where the life that existed in the 13th century can still be found,” and “today’s ideal of an organic lifestyle — sustainable farming, local food, natural building methods, a close-knit community.”
The importance of maintaining their Hungarian national identity when they were for bidden to speak or write the language, their children’s names were changed to Romanian, and their Bibles were confiscated along with all other Hungarian books and used as toilet paper may be obvious. The designs carved into the wooden funeral posts, gates, and furnishings, and painted onto chairs, boxes, and pottery, hold many secret meanings and symbols. Hungarians were highly educated and cultured; at one time the University in Kolosvar (now Cluj) was considered  one of the best in Europe. The café society was demolished, but the pride and patriotism was maintained, not only through the church, but through the arts.
It is true that the best of sustainability is practiced here. Nothing is wasted, and Wendell Berry (who visited Transylvania in the 60s) would be delighted to see that ox- and horse-drawn wagons still do most of the farm work. The food could not be more local. One wonders daily when walking through the village whether the duck or goose squawking under one’s feet will be on the table that evening. Great care and effort goes into the preparation of and serving of meals. But economy alone does not make a sustainable world. We will never save the planet by focusing on material and environmental solutions. As I have often repeated: People are resources, too, and relationships are key to a sustainable world.

In his book, Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan asks a villager what the crowd symbol is here. The answer? “The home, the family seated around the humble table with food on it..” (133). One must provide food for his family, if nothing else, and protect their well-being, if possible.
In each small Hungarian or mostly Hungarian village (where Hungarians coexist with Romanians & Roma) the houses are similar, grouped close together along dusty, sometimes muddy roads, but with back yards that extend for long stretches and contain everything one family needs for subsistence: animals, vegetables, fruit trees, nuts, grapes and plums for wine, even, usually, a cow. The fields are worked communally and the forests are often owned by the church. The cows go up to the grazing lands by day, and each cow returns to her own gate in the evening. We call it the cow parade. It is one of many hundreds of rituals and symbolic as well as utilitarian acts that have provided some measure of security, sanity, and predictability to a people who have suffered almost unimaginably, for decades.
But one of the arguments I have advanced about sustainability as it is being touted in the West is that it will never take hold voluntarily unless people can be helped to understand that the simplest pleasures are virtually free and can be enjoyed more  readily when the acquisitive and extraneous lifestyle is eliminated. Flowers on the table, symmetry of design, fabric woven from locally grown hemp, long winter evenings spent doing handiwork, and perhaps most significantly, the art of hospitality, friendship, loyalty, and a simple faith in Universal Love, each of these is a reminder that we can still learn how to live, to preserve, to conserve and to live well. Sustainability  must include beauty.
What is beauty? Symmetry, Order, Comfort, Simplicity, Harmony, color, lack of chaos, lack of strife, freedom from want, joy, surprise, integrity, hope, the human spirit. These are the gifts of our Hungarian/Unitarian partners in Transylvania to the West and to the World. May we honor and respect this partnership.

QUOTES:  Balkan Ghosts, Robert D. Kaplan
“As always in the Balkans, bare survival provides precious little room for moral choices.”(89)
“… what Stalin had suggested: provide a means to keep the masses occupied, to give them something to do, while reducing them to a subsistence existence in which the human spirit ceased to exist.” (103)
“…traveling in Romania was often like inhabiting the pages of a Dostoevsky novel.” (113)
“Romanian history has been a long and continuing hustle – the making of one desperate deal over the head of another in order to stave off disaster.” (129)
Ceausescu’s destruction of Romania: “the wish fulfillment of a vindictive peasant.” (184)
Page 149-150 Hungarians in Transylvania