Mending the Silence: the Sanctuary of Treskavec
Up in the mountains of Macedonia stands a crumbling monastery, inhabited by a solitary priest. Phoenix Troll travelled to meet him.
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The night before my visit to the Monastery of Treskavec, I had pitched my tent near the fortress towers of Marko, just under the giant Meccano cross beside the Macedonian city of Prilep. It was a tumultuous night – rain and fierce winds lambasted my tent like some small raft at sea and above which I could hear the sheep dogs baying. Inside my makeshift shelter, I thought of wolves and relished the fear of being surrounded by them. At close intervals, a flash of lighting, like a giant match struck against the night sky, would alert me to my own shadow. It was the perfect prelude to what was to come.
I was 10km away from my goal. Dedicated to St. Bogorodica, it sits at the foot of the Zlatovrv summit and was built in the 12th century. It’s not the most distinguished monastery in Macedonia, nor is it the most spectacular, although it does possess a large collection of Byzantine frescoes which date from the 1400s and are in dire need of renovation. The Pelagonia valley, the Babuna mountains, Pelister and Kajcmakcalan can be seen in the horizon, and at night, the city lights of Prilep, Bitola an Krusevo draws them closer into view.
I awoke at daybreak and mapped the trail by sight from the summit near the cross. Just as the rains had cleared the air, my mind had loosened itself from its habitual moorings. The morning was crisp and serene. As I walked down the hill towards the trail, I noticed it was well-marked and meandered gently, cutting across the ridge that lead to the mount. It was not a particularly arduous walk, but long enough to feel gratitude when I reached a sort of open-air sanctuary, complete with picnic tables, chairs and even complimentary tea and coffee. I rested here for a short while, taking in the tranquillity, before the last steep leg of the journey.
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Treskavec Monastery jutted abruptly out of the rock. A pole marking the distances to various cities – Moscow (1,983km), Berlin (1,376km), Stockholm (1,989km) seemed to pitch it in a near-perfect state of solitude. The world seemed remote and, in the wake of that solitude, almost inconsequential. Fronting the monastery was a lawn and a well-proportioned vegetable patch. A tall, handsome, bearded priest in a black robe was raking the grass he had just finished mowing. He looked up to greet me with black, vivacious eyes, and introduced himself as Father Kalist. He explained that since he was the only person there, he had to attend to innumerable chores every day. He asked me to make myself at home inside.
The Monastery itself was clean and well kept, even though many of the rooms were dilapidated. The frescoes were crumpling and the stucco paint in the dining room was flaking away. There were broken clay pots and tiles lying on the floor, which I conjectured could have been priceless. The Church of the Assumption of the Holy Mother was, unlike many of the Orthodox sites of worship I had already visited, an unassuming building, baring some of its Roman-Christian foundations, and filled with the fragrance of candle wax and incense. Back in the courtyard, the only other guardians included a tribe of cats and an inert, slobbering Saint Bernard who seemed to hardly register my presence.
[singlepic id=158 w=320 h=410 float=left]This crepuscular space seemed to exist only for itself, like an object not meant for display but which guards its unkempt mystery with quiet obstinacy. I felt I was infringing on something private, as when one enters a bedroom and sees, displayed on the unmade bed, the discarded garments of the night. I was afraid to make any noise, take too resolute a footstep, lest I impinge on the sanctity of that space. I though of Father Kalist’s vigorous house keeping, equipped with just some obsolete tools and his hands. The energy he put into it seemed to conform to the sanctity, as if what he was mending was the silence itself, a solitary vessel of silence, foundering in time, and which would sooner or later be turned into yet another stale vestige; one of the many antiseptic, public places of visit. It was only days later, when I visited the sated, tourist-infested banks of Lake Ohrid, that the recollection of this interior sanctum really pierced me all the way. I wondered with sadness at how long it would take for Treskavec to fall in turn, for modernisation to catch up with it and reclaim it for the present.
In the monastery’s cavernous kitchen I met a fellow pilgrim, a young doctor who made the trek there every Sunday. He came to visit Father Kalist principally, whom he considered a mentor and for whom he had a deep respect. Irrespective of whatever religious compulsion existed behind this weekly pilgrimage, I could not help but marvel at this seemingly anachronistic form of tutelage.
City folk had their own variety of tutelary interaction – they had their counsellors, their psychoanalysts, their football coaches, perhaps even their friends and family. But in the case of the doctor, there seemed to be something beautifully gratuitous about it – as gratuitous as the way in which I was welcomed without much ado into the monastery walls. There was no screening process to gauge the suitability of the potential guest, no monetary exchange, no secret handshake.
He conversed with ease in English and admitted to a weakness for Italian pop music – singling out Adriano Celentano as his favourite. He told me about the dispute over the country’s name, ‘Macedonia,’ how Greece insists on it being referred to at the United Nations as FYROM – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – to distinguish it from the Greek province of Macedonia. We were both waiting for Father Kalist, hoping to lunch with him. We were mesmerized by the priest. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The doctor told me I could spend the night in one of the monastery cells and help myself to whatever food I could find there. If I wanted to, I could leave a contribution in the church. After a quick lunch of nuts and dry fruit, he guided me on a short hike up Mount Zlato and the surrounding hilltops.
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Early the next morning I packed my bags, paid a visit to the church and lit a candle. I made a contribution, but as I did, I realized how little that gesture resulted from a sense of obligation, a need to pay one’s dues or reward my host for the provision of good service and hospitality. The lack of calculation on behalf of my host was a gift which I received and thanked for in silence by way of an absence of calculation on my part. That day, inside my cluttered, condition-bound existence, I lit a free-floating candle of joy and remembrance.