My Friend, the Albanian Atheist

An Albanian mountain scene

The first day I met Denis, he told us that he was an atheist. I’d just arrived in Albania with my friends, and Denis was going to help us explore his country. I immediately began to wonder what being an atheist meant in his life.

“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking, “where is Albania anyway?” This small country is snuggled next to the Adriatic Sea north of Greece. Torn apart by battling empires through the centuries, it has had a tumultuous history, but nothing can destroy its dramatic mountain beauty, fertile farmland, and beautiful sweeping beaches.

Albania is a mystery for many of us because it was totally isolated for almost half a century following WWII. It was ruled by the paranoid dictator Hoxha who quarreled with everyone (including other Communist leaders) and outlawed religion. While tearing down churches and mosques and persecuting religious leaders, Hoxha declared Albania to be “the first atheistic country in the world.”

Denis was born a few years after the dictator died and the Communist system collapsed. He grew up in a country trying to find its place in a new open world. For him and his family, religion wasn’t relevant. “I believe,” he told me, “in the physical, material world that’s around us.” For him, that is enough.

Is it enough? It isn’t for me. I remember my years of wrestling with the God-idea. I wanted to know that there was Something More, something larger than one traditional religion, but that includes the religious traditions. Slowly I began to sense a Presence, a Spirit that is a mystery larger than my human understanding can take in. I believe in a Creator God, A Spirit of Love who brings healing in the world. Whether I have a name for that God or not, I am pulled to follow the path of love and contribute as I can to wholeness and healing. Awake to that Spirit, I have awakened more fully to joy in the beauty and miracles of the world.

My friend Denis is passionately interested in learning about and exploring the world, too, both within his country and beyond. He treasures his friendships, and responds warmly to the people around him and their needs. He loves the beauty of the Mediterranean world and wants to share it with others. He dreams of making opportunities for others to be creative, perhaps through art, music, or the world around them. He wants to have a family someday, and he’ll be a good Dad.

Denis lives in hope for the future of Albania, a “gifted country,” he says, and filled with potential, although hope has sometimes been in short supply. “Having hope is most important,” he said. “It is the last thing to die.” Sometimes Albanians emigrate in search of a better life in another country, but Denis believes “a stone is happier in its own ground.” He is determined to remain and participate in Albania’s recovery. His hope brings hope for others.

Reflecting on Denis’ path and my own, I thought of this poem by the 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky):

Every child
Has known God.
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don'ts,
Not the God who ever does
Anything weird,
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying;
"Come dance with me."

I call upon a divine Spirit that is greater than I. Denis doesn’t. But I believe we are both part of God’s grand dance. We love and want to make the world around us better. We embrace possibilities to grow, and we hold hope for the future.

I believe the Spirit strengthens my desire to be a loving presence, to contribute to the world’s healing. It takes me beyond my own strength and uses me in ways I may not know. I am grateful to belong to a spiritual community that helps me “walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone,” as Quaker founder George Fox wrote. That of God is everywhere, in everyone. May we be awake to see it and respond to it.

Mosques and churches in Albania have revived and exist together peacefully.

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with others!

12 thoughts on “My Friend, the Albanian Atheist”

  1. Nancy, this is beautiful not only a wonderful tribute to Albania and Denis but opening up a meaningful thinking about your presence of God.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you read this and understand how I was exploring a sense of God’s presence.

  2. Your gracious, wealthy embrace of all paths to kindness, generosity and goodness is an inspiring celebration of our diverse creeds. Thank you for your reflection.

    1. Dear Anne,
      Thank you so much for writing. I’m so glad you see it as a celebration of the diversity within our paths. Yes!

  3. I’ve been reflecting on atheism also lately, thinking of those who believe that only theists can live a morally straight life, and thinking of atheists I know well who have strong moral values and give kindness and acceptance priority. How fortunate to get to know Denis.

    1. Dear Kay,
      I’m so glad that you’ve also been thinking about how important it is to give the kindness of the heart such a value. God is love, after all! I’m glad this writing spoke to you.

  4. It is nice to read about openness and acceptance in a world that is becoming more divisive and exclusive. Our lives would be awfully boring if we all thought and felt the same way! I agree with George Fox when he says, “That of God is everywhere, in everyone.” Thanks, Nancy.

    1. Dear Laurie,
      Thank you for writing! I’m glad this writing spoke to you. Yes, I found encouragement for myself in learning that Albania is a place of acceptance of many spiritual paths. I found a news article that discussed the visit of Pope Francis to Albania a couple years ago: He called it the “most tolerant country in the world.”

    1. Yes, I love this poem, too. It’s includes us all in the love of God — in God’s hope that we dance together. There’s an old Hasidic saying that when we get to Heaven, God’s first question will be “Did you enjoy my world?” Nancy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *