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Story – Despre Smerenie, About Humility. And Pride

Romania through the prism of a  video. On last April 7, Dan Teodorescu released online  his song Despre Smerenie (About Humility): the video soon went viral and triggered a national-scale debate, both online and offline, to the point that people’s responses provide clues as to the range of mentalities coexisting in today’s Romanian society.

The Song, the Singer and the Friends

Azi-noapte am avut un vis (Last night I had a dream)/ Catedrala Mântuirii Neamului Românesc era gata (the cathedral had been finished)/ Iar eu… m-am dus la catedrală, de dimineaţă, să-l caut pe Dumnezeu“(And so I went to the cathedral in the morning, to seek God…).

Singer, songwriter and Taxi band leader Teodorescu uses the pretext of a dream to suggest the idea that God is more likely to dwell in intimate spaces rather than in extra-large Cathedrals.  Reference is made to the construction of the People’s Salvation Cathedral in Bucharest. The former engineer and teacher is not new to this kind of controversial performances. Taxi band leader for more than sixteen years, Teodorescu is perceived as an engagé artist, active in raising social awareness in a range of issues permeating different aspects of contemporary Romania; he belongs to the civil society currently engaged in promoting critical thought in a country still in search of its post-communism identity. No doubt responses to his work have always been varied. Nuanced criticisms – dismissing him alternatively as naive, pretentious, over sophisticated, politically correct or simply boring, have always been coexisting with stern appreciation and enduring support. The general impression is that he is aware of playing a kind of Jiminy Cricket’s role in a society where mass consumerism models, corruption and nationalistic pride conjure up to keep the leverage of power.

Dan Teodorescu, Taxi band leader. In 2014 they celebrated 15 years of activity
Dan Teodorescu, Taxi band leader. In 2014 they celebrated 15 years of activity

This time his song  Despre Smerenie touches a very delicate point in individual and collective consciences:  the impalpable sense of christian humility. Like he often does to better convey his messages, he has  invited some famous “friends” – 34 celebs – to repeat after him the refrain “Dumnezeu preferă lemnul si spaţiile mici” (God prefers wood and small places).

This chorus of sort is composed by a gallery of Romanian opinion leaders such as writers, actors, cooks, singers, journalists, intellectuals, each belonging to different background and generations:

Dan Bittman, Cornel Ilie, Monica Anghel, Virgil Ianțu, Andi Vasluianu, Dorina Chiriac, Ștefan Bănică, Robin Proca, Andi Moisescu, Dani Oțil, Paula Chirilă, Horia Moculescu, Toni Grecu, Irina-Margareta Nistor, Dan Byron, Teo Trandafir, Oreste Teodorescu, Pavel Bartoș, Ada Milea, Călin Goia, Mircea Cărtărescu, Horia Vîrlan, Guess Who, Laura Lavric, Andreea Esca, Răzvan Simion, Alexandru Andrieș, Emilia Popescu, Grigore Leșe, Mircea Baniciu, Alexandra Ungureanu, Oana Pellea, Victor Rebengiuc.


Thirty-four  Friends … Minus One

In fact, the reception of the video did prove controversial to a point that one among such “friends” decided to step back from the project. Soon after the video was released and the unexpected wave of harsh criticism broke through, folk singer and performer Grigore Leşe announced his retreating  claiming that he had been somewhat fooled into it, not having been clearly told that the song aimed at criticizing the construction of Catedrala Mântuirii Neamului Românes. On his side, Taxi band published a comment on their Facebook page affirming that Leşe had had the opportunity to watch the video and know the lyrics in advance.

Folk singer Grigore Leşe
Folk singer Grigore Leşe

As a result, Teodorescu decided to withdraw the video in respect of Grigore Leşe’s choice to pull back from the project. Still the band informed on their Facebook page that they would continue to believe in the project Despre Smerenie and that they would return with the new version of the video soon after Easter, with a variant where Mr Leşe would not appear.

Teodorescu also declared that he regretted that he was not able to properly convey such a simple message. He strongly believes in God and his text was meant to be a parable, the lyrics underlining his spiritual approach. For him  God is to be found in a wooden church because he thinks God prefers simplicity and modesty – which does not mean that God can only be found in wooden churches… Teodorescu clarified that he had never intended to promote any petition against the construction of the Cathedral, but just chose to quote from the holy scriptures, his final message  only being that opulence and haughtiness have no connection with faith; had he wanted to launch a manifesto against the Cathedral – he observed – he would have taken action much sooner than now, before the construction commenced at all, and in a totally different form.

Pride (and Concrete) for a Cathedral

The controversial reference goes to the Catedrala Mântuirii Neamului Românes (Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral). Currently under construction in Bucharest – 60% completed so far – it is located on the arsenal hill next to Palatul Poporului (Parliament’s Palace aka People’s Palace) and will be the patriarchal cathedral of the Romanian Orthodox Church, as well as the tallest orthodox christian church – about 125 meters high – in the world.

The plan of the cathedral complex includes a cathedral building, a soup kitchen with capacity for 1,000, two hotels and parking for about 500 cars. Designed to seat approximately 6,000 worshipers, it is greater than tenfold the current patriarchal cathedral. To build the complex will be used 100,000 m³ of concrete, 45,000 tons of rigid armature and about 25,000 tons of flexible armature, ten times more than a ten-storey block. The complex is also designed to withstand earthquakes of 8.5 on the Richter scale.

Bucharest, People's Salvation Cathedral rendering. It will be ten meters higher than People's Palace close by
Bucharest, People’s Salvation Cathedral rendering. It will be ten meters higher than People’s Palace close by

The Cathedral is built with money from donations and with financial support from the state budget. The total investment amounts to almost EUR 100 million, with EUR 45 million spent so far, which is more than half of the total costs. Official sources say that “an additional EUR 45 million would still be needed for the church. The project has been meeting a wide consensus among the Orthodox faithful who represent 86.45% of the Romanian population, according to the latest census (2011).

While a real debate about pros and cons of such an impactful work has never gone public, over the last years many voices from the civil society – among them a number of NGOs –  have been heard criticizing  the project, claiming that public money should be invested in more strategic public sectors such as hospitals, schools and social housing.

In fact, the idea to build a national cathedral dates back to more than a hundred twenty years ago, at the time of Carol I. A catholic himself, he  proposed it as a symbol of national unity and pride.  Yet the project had to be shelved due to lack of consensus on design, location and funding. Further attempts at implementing the idea followed in time but always ineffectually, due to historical events such as the 29′ crisis, WWII and – not least – the advent of the communist regime. It was finally, on 29 November 2007, that Patriarch Daniel of Romania could lay the foundation stone and give his blessing, consecrating the site at Arsenal Hill.

Dragumiresti, Judetul Vaslui, Wooden Church
Dragumiresti, Judetul Vaslui, Wooden Church

Wave of Responses

Father Vasile Bănescu, spokesman for the Romanian Patriarchy, expressed the official position of the Orthodox Church regarding the song and the video: even though not perceived as utterly anti-christian, they convey a message overtly against the Cathedral. Nor were more official words needed to comment on such a poor song with so little knowledge behind about the National Orthodox Cathedral project – expressing as it does only the artists’ preference for a certain kind of ecclesiastical architecture. Rather, the spokesman regretted that the National Cathedral project was still little known and a  lack of dialogue was part of the problem. The Patriarchy hopes that the personalities involved in this song and video are mature enough to accept a dialogue: while differences may arise,  the symbolic meaning of the edifice should be better understood. In fact, the suggestion is that the Cathedral is not meant to convey any message of humility – a virtue that is built over time inside each one’s heart – rather to bear witness to the dignity and identity of the Romanian Orthodox.

Bucharest, October 2011, a Pilgrimage to the building site of Catedralei Mantuirii Neamului that will be dedicated to Sfântul Apostle Andrei (Saint Andrew), the apostle who first introduced Christianity in Romania
Bucharest, October 2011, a Pilgrimage to the building site of Catedralei Mantuirii Neamului that will be dedicated to Sfântul Apostle Andrei (Saint Andrew), the apostle who first introduced Christianity in Romania

Alongside the official position of the BOR (Biserica Ortodoxa Romana), an unexpected wave of different responses flooded the net: from harmless ironic parody of the song, like Despre sminţenie by comedian Valeriu Andriuţă, to more militant videos – one even showing a book by Mircea Cantarescu (a “friend” writer in the chorus) being burned.

The unprecedented harsh reception of Teodorescu’s song made journalist Cristian Tudor Popescu – a usually lucid analyst of the contemporary Romanian society – express his opinion. Firstly, CTP found the song pathetic and not funny at all. He believes that the authors should have researched more on the subject before insisting so much on such a quite naive refrain. By expressing their preference for wooden churches as opposed to stone buildings, Teodorescu and his friends fail to consider a historical fact:  over the past centuries catholic Austro Hungarian rulers used to forbid  Romanian Orthodox to build stone churches, making them opt for smaller wooden ones. On the other hand, Popescu expresses his deep worry at the violent and disproportionate reactions of so many “faithful”, which reached alarming points of radicalization: “where are we heading to? Towards a Theocracy or a country led according to religious criteria?  Do we have some ayatollahs without turbans around here?” he cannot help wondering.

Journalist Cristian Tudor Popescu
Journalist Cristian Tudor Popescu

Mircea Badea in his tv program on Antena3 In Gura Presei (In the Mouth of the Press) ends up criticizing Teodorescu posing as God’s spokesman communicating what God prefers, as well as the hypocrisy of many of the “friends” who while promote humility and modesty lead very opposite life styles. Another well known tv commentator Dragos Patraru on TVR1 Starea Natiei choses to dismiss video and song as a basically unnecessary exercise in pretentiousness and lack of commonsense.

On the other side, supporters of Teodorescu’s song can be found also in somewhat alternative Orthodox environments. Father Savatie Bastovoi, a Moldovan Orthodox monk, poet and theologian did like the videoclip: “the fact that all these people, whom I knew were searching for God, finally found him in a small place, can only make me happy.” He also goes as far as suggesting that the great emphasis put on the importance of building a monumental Orthodox Cathedral paves the way to the actual realization of the Mosque project, following the first steps taken on last July with the Turkish government.

In more general terms, Teodorescu’s supporters – mostly among NGOs activists and progressive environments – seem to appreciate his courage and claim that his is perhaps the most serious public debate about the Salvation Cathedral yet:  high time people expressed their views freely.

Among the “friends” is folk singer Laura Lavric who declared to DC News: ” I answered Dan Teodorescu’s invitation with pleasure and I did not expect criticisms would reach such a controversial point. God can be found wherever you seek, both in a small church and in a large church. Those who comment and say that this song is an affront against the Church and against God, should think about the thefts of thousands euros that were made: that is the real sin before God. I do not think Dan Teodorescu brought any offense with his song. He did as he felt. I repeat, I would have never imagined that we could get this far! I do not think it is a mistake to express one’s deepest feelings. As a believer, I think God  can be found anywhere. But if it is a large church, I do not believe God wants opulence. It is not a manifesto against the People’s Salvation Cathedral. I repeat: I never imagined it could all  get this far. And know what, are we talking about churches? God can be found also in a corner of your very home.”

Folk singer Laura Lavric
Folk singer Laura Lavric

“The message contained in this song is simple commonsense, I cannot believe that it triggered such harsh reactions”, declares Teo Trandafir, a well known show woman. Again, “commonsense” is the keyword everybody  use when commenting on this song but behind it a whole range of different attitudes and mentalities seem to coexist – at time, even conflict -, in today’s Romanian society.

Welcome Side Effects

Meantime, from the Patriarchy, a week ago Father Vasile Bănescu made a surprising announcement: “In the last few days, as a response to Despre Smerenie video, online donations to build the Cathedral have skyrocketed to 15 thousand Lei per day.”

Bucharest, building site of the People's Salvation Cathedral, close to People's Palace, built by Ceausescu in the Eighties.
Bucharest, building site of the People’s Salvation Cathedral, close to People’s Palace, built by Ceausescu in the Eighties.




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