Before a tragic fire last February, the Treskavec Monastery was one of two ancient Monasteries in the Republic of Macedonia where pilgrims could spend the night in true historic fashion.
The church there is called "Uspenie Bagorodichena" which means The Assumption of the Mother of God. It is interesting to me how in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary is called the Mother of God. In the west she is always called Virgin, but in the East, she is Theotokos or God Bearer.
My cousin Dr Valentina Veleska took some time off from her Orthodontic practice, hired a taxi to take me and her assistants to this remote mountain destination for a visit. I could see the mountains from Valentina's home, so it was a treat to actually go there and see what she had been telling me about.
As we climbed the newly paved road, literally two weeks old, to the Thirteenth Century Church, the surrounding mountains seemed very familiar to me from Southern California. Before the road was paved, pilgrims would walk a five hour hike to the mountain top, near a peak called the Golden Apple. The entire valley spreads beneath the breath taking view, and I hope to actually walk it the next time I come to visit. I think the action of walking up these pristine rugged hills would be an excellent preparation for entering the quiet meditative sanctuary of the Church.
We were greeted by the caretaker of the monastery, the husband of my cousin's assistant, who took us on a private tour of the grounds. While the guest quarters were demolished, the Church was untouched. As I entered the ancient structure, under the figure of Mary and greens adorning the door, I felt like I was at the portal of time, and my typical experience in Slavic countries awaited me.
I find the Slavs in general and the Macedonians in particular, to be hidden treasures. When you can penetrate the exterior, gems await. As we went through the bent entrance, an ornate medieval Orthodox church filled with symbolic fresco's awaited. I joked with Katia, my cousins assistant, "I feel like I am Indiana Jones," as I entered this ancient cradle of Christianity, untouched by the ravages of time and revolution, waiting for centuries, it seemed to be waiting to be discovered by me.
What touched me most, was how universal the symbolism is in regards to Christian art. Inside the first Cupola, the Evangelist Gospel representatives adorned the corners of the structure. I of course sought out the Bull for Luke. In a hidden chamber next to the entrance, I was treated to a fresco of the four Gospel author's as well as local saints and rulers. I recognized so many of the stories I learned as a child and have seen depicted in art all over the world. How is it that these images have repeated themselves since the dawn of the Christian era over several continents, with consistent themes? For me, this has deep meaning and significance, that the messages are universal, and meant to invite us into knowledge and grace if we would only look.
The silence enveloped us like velvet, as it was damp and cold that day, our breath could be seen where the beams of light penetrated through the windows. The fresco's dated from the 13th through the 16th century. This is significant because the Turkish invasions and occupations of the Balkans started in the middle of the 14th century. The monasteries were the cradle of Slavic culture, maintaining letters, poetry, art, music but most importantly hope. My cousin told me this location was chosen mainly because it would provide a safe haven from the Ottoman invaders. But miracles are also associated with this location. An apparition of Mary is recorded, and miracles associated with the main Icon in the Sanctuary.
The Macedonians are hospitable in every aspect of their lives. Every house, shop or office I have visited, dark thick coffee is immediately offered, conversation follows before any sort of business can occur. When visiting the local police station to register as a guest, the clerk pulled out a mini gas heater and made coffee right on her desk, with cups and sugar ready for anyone who came to the office.
I have been teased by my friends and family that I am not a real Macedonian since I do not drink coffee, but "chai" is enthusiastically offered as a substitute for my delicate California tree hugging palate. In the case of the Treskavec Monastery, I think I got a better deal, for a local herbal tea was served to cater to my caffeine revulsion, and it was more delicious and meaningful than coffee. I was told that it was harvested locally and the English translation was "soul of the mother tea." I tasted a strong Thyme flavor, the herbs were brought to me, and I was right. What is so interesting is Thyme has an affinity for the Thymus Gland which sits next to the heart, the herb is associated with the heart and with courage. The fact that the Church nestle in the center of Macedonia is dedicated to Mary, and the tea was the "soul of the mother," related to the heart, was not lost on me.
The courage of the people of Macedonia, the resilience in the face of incredible oppression, violence and odds continues to reveal itself to me at every corner in which I turn. After so much suffering and injustice, the people still remain kind, generous, and always wanting to extend hospitality in each and every situation. This speaks to the character of the culture, in our age of terror, that the response to tragedy and oppression is hospitality and the preservation of culture. The Monastery is a testament to this soul of the people. It has burned three times, and yet the Church remains, the people are gathering together to raise funds to rebuild. In the skeleton of the retreat rooms, the Church stands, services are offered on a regular basis, and the care taker makes sure to give visitors the "soul of the Mother tea."
I did not want to leave. I also hope the building is renovated soon, as I would love to stay there for an extended period of time to sit in the presence of these ancient icons of hope and endurance. The locals have had concerts, and international funding has been set up, where you can help restore this kernel of the soul of the Macedonian People, the courageous soul that bears the Christ within.
For donations to the restoration effort, go to the Komerciajalna banka AD Skopje, you can also follow the progress on the Treskavec Monastery by going to http://treskavec.blogspot.com/ where the above information is also located. We were told that it could take two to five years for the restoration. With your help, this could happen sooner!