Thought for the Month – November 2017

“Not much to see!”

Thoughts for November from Barbara Finney

In September I was on holiday in Montenegro with a group of friends from Leigh. One day two of us went off on a Monastery Tour – a trip about which our rep had been dismissive as involving a long coach ride and not much to see! So we booked with another local agency.

At 8am Margaret and I climbed aboard a coach for an hour’s drive down the coast with marvellous views over the Adriatic Sea and assorted coves and small islands. At Bar we turned inland to cross Lake Skadar (partly in Montenegro and partly in Albania) and were thrilled to travel alongside Montenegro’s only railway – single track from Bar to Belgrade. After another forty minutes through rugged countryside our guide Alexander suddenly said, “There’s the monastery!” We peered out of the window and eventually spotted a tiny white oblong 900 metres above sea level in the far distance – Ostrog Monastery.

After a coffee stop we downsized to a minibus and later, as the zigzags increased in intensity, to two minibus taxis to convey us to the Upper (and original) Monastery, a wondrous feat of 17th century engineering as first two caves and then a platform for a whole set of buildings had been hollowed out of the cliff face. Only God knows how a bunch of monks achieved that! It was Bishop Basil of Herzegovina who had the vision to construct this monastery and he dedicated the upper church to the Holy Cross, as a tiny piece of Jesus’ cross had been gifted to the church. It is a marvel of construction with the two cave chapels in one of which lie the remains of St Basil the miracle worker and the splinter of the cross. Both chapels and the main places for prayer are decorated with fascinating frescoes and mosaics. This is now and has been for centuries the most holy orthodox shrine in the Balkans. Worshippers from all over that area of the former Yugoslavia and Russia come here on pilgrimage and Margaret and I were immensely moved by the fervour and devotion of those pilgrims, including those who had travelled with us. Although many treasures have been looted, there was a profound atmosphere of the richness of orthodoxy. Some 20 monks still live and work in the Lower Monastery.

After that experience we travelled another 50 miles to the capital city Podgorica to view the new (dedicated four years ago) Serbian orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ and the Church of the Holy Saviour with its brightly painted frescoes and a mosaic floor featuring Noah’s Ark and animals. Thence to the former capital Cetinje to another monastery to see the mummified arm of John the Baptist and another fragment of the cross. However cynical Margaret and I may have been about the relics, for our orthodox co-travellers these represented tangible expressions of faith and we were privileged to share in their worship.

I end with part of a prayer to St. Basil,

With prayer and tears you have warmed the cold cliffs of Ostrog. Please warm our hearts with God’s spirit so we can be saved.”