OSTROG: AT THE SHRINE OF ST. VASILI
ST. VASILI came from the Herzegovina a century ago. Legend hath it that the spot where now stands the little monastery was shown the saint by a miracle. But all the written records of his life and doings were destroyed by the Turks and his remains nearly captured.
The sun is still behind the rocky wall as I stand with Stefan below amongst the crowded booths and hesitate. Yet it makes such a fair picture in the bright light of the coming sun. The beech-forest between us and the little building above mercifully covers as with a mantle the horrible sights on the winding path that climbs to the upper monastery - sights which make the pilgrimage very real and extremely unpleasant. Stefan has no such qualms, and he urges me to start before the way becomes crowded and ere the sun tops the ridge.
We plunge into the wood, and our pilgrimage begins. At intervals of ten yards beggars form a spalier of squalor, disease, and filth. Hideous deformities are paraded to the best advantage, blind men turn up their sightless eyeballs to the leafy roof, mothers hold out poor tortured children, and the dumb rend the heart with horrible sounds no more resembling the human voice than the grunting of swine. The air is filled with their cries for alms, hands set on arms at im-
possible angles are stretched forth, and before each is spread a mat for the offerings of the charitable.
"In the name of God and St. Vasili, pity me," says a gentle voice, and I look nervously yet compelled by the musical tones. I see the sweet face of a twelve-year-old maiden gazing at me piteously. In wonder that such a fair face should figure in that awful collection of humanity my eyes wander over her form, and then I understand.
Behind me strides a great turbaned Bosnian, handsome and jovial. His hands are full of gifts for the saint.
"Give me, of thy pity, a kreutzer," clamours a beggar.
"Wait, friend, till I return," he answers in hearty tones. "Seest thou not that I am laden to my utmost limit?"
"It is better to give to the helpless and maimed," whines another. "Give me, and I will pray that the holy Vasili shall return thy alms one hundred-fold."
Before us goes a Montenegrin woman, who gives her little daughter a small coin to deposit on each of the mats. Half shuddering, yet with curious glances, the child drops the money and hurries after her mother.
We pass a Turk who displays his legs, which end abruptly below the knee. He has bared the stumps to view, and the doctor's knife - or is it the Montenegrin handjar? - has not made a pretty sight. For many decades he has sat there during the pilgrimage, for he lost his feet on these very slopes when the Montenegrins raised the siege in 1863. Now he begs from his former enemies. A little farther lie two Montenegrin veterans, and each is minus a leg lost on Turkish battlefields. Blind men, who are the troubadours of the land, groan forth their dirge-like songs, breaking off suddenly when they hear that the footsteps have passed on, to commence when the next pilgrims approach. Many are
swindlers, and these good Stefan shows me that I may not be led to spend my sympathy or my alms on unworthy objects.
"This man can speak as well as thou or I," he says, and facetiously asks a ragged individual who is emitting excruciating noises if he fears not divine retribution. The man darts an angry glance at us and ceases for a moment, only to begin again as he catches sight of new-comers.
"Thou art resting thy back, Jovo," says Stefan to another sturdy wretch with his feet in a sack. " Next week he will be carrying loads in Podgorica," he adds to me.
At length we have passed the last beggar, and before us stands the monastery. We have approached it from the side, and the hill falls away steeply from its base. The monks have utilized the less steep slope, and have built two or three terraces, where vegetables are growing. Then comes a bed of tree-tops, and far below are the tents of the booths. Built into the living rock, and reached by flights of steps, are the primitive abodes of the monks, the walls whitewashed and with large crosses painted roughly on the smoke-blacked rocks. Above the monastery the precipice juts outwards, completely overhanging it, and then rises sheer many hundred feet. It is a unique spectacle, and the rock would seem to be hanging by a thread ready to crush the tiny buildings with the first breath of air.
Pilgrims arrive in a steady stream. Here we see a group of men and women prostrating themselves on the ground and kissing the lowest stone step before they proceed. Close to us a richly dressed woman of Mostar is taking off a pair of modem high-heeled boots and her white stockings, entering the sacred precincts barefooted. So each shows his fervour in his own particular way, and to-day I cannot see
AT THE SHRINE OF ST. VASILI.
a single pilgrim who has not come a journey of many days on foot, fasting the while and with much prayer.
To Father Ristifor we wend our way, up several stone flights of stairs, through a door where we must bend nearly double, and are ushered into the presence of the hermit. For the first moment he has forgotten me, this extraordinary octogenarian, and the next he has impulsively enfolded me in his arms and is kissing me. Then he presses raki upon me, has ordered coffee, and all the time he pats my arm, my shoulder, or my back in his joy.
"Ah, it is right that honour should be shown thee, my son," he says as I protest; for he has learnt that I am a guest of the bishop, and from Stefan how the Gospodar (prince) received me in Cetinje - an invariable open-sesame to loyal Montenegrin hearts. "Thou that hast journeyed from such a far land to us. Ah, but it does my heart good to see thee, an Englishman, and one of the true friends of our country." He is alluding to England's help once given twenty years ago. Other visitors come in, mostly women from the Herzegovina. They kiss his hand thrice and then lay in his lap gifts of clothing, richly embroidered handkerchiefs, or packets of food. In a trice the little room is crowded, and the old man sits and beams on us, not knowing whom next to embrace. Burly men fill the doorway and the narrow passage beyond, while through the tiny open window set in a frame of white can be seen the green mountains and woods - all feeling of distance lost - hanging like a picture on the whitewashed wall.
Just below this most perfect of miniature landscapes sits the hermit, his benevolent face smiling out of the snowy tangled beard and his hair falling like a mantle of fleece on his shoulders. Thus we leave him amongst the group of
gaily dressed pilgrims and edge our way towards the shrine.
In a chamber, dimly lit by a little window hewn out of the rock, St. Vasili lies in a wooden coffin and covered in his robes. As my eyes grow accustomed to the half-light I see that the walls and arched ceiling are covered with crude paintings. A tall priest with luminous dark eyes and raven locks reaching far below his shoulders receives me. His long flowing black robes and high conical hat lend him a ghostly appearance in the gloom. Crouched in an indistinguishable heap kneels an Albanian woman at the foot of the coffin. Now a woman comes in and kneels before the priest to confess. He covers her head with his pertrament (broad stole), and she commences her confession. The priest reads a prayer from a book the while in a loud voice, so that even if we would we cannot hear her sins. As we again emerge we squeeze ourselves against the wall as two Bosnians half carry, half lead, a wretched youth scarce able to walk. Poor wretch! they bump his head violently upon the low lintel of the door, but still he smiles. His faith is great, and what is a little pain like that compared to the tortures of his many days' journey hither, supported on either side on the back of a pony, over paths of stone and rocks?
At the top of the monastery is a spring of water, and thither we ascend, Stefan relating the story of a wicked woman who once journeyed to St. Vasili hoping to make all good by a large gift of money which it is customary to place in a plate upon the breast of the saint. The gift - it was paper money - flew to the ground, and again she put it in the plate; but scarcely had she turned to go when it lay once more on the floor, though not a breath of air stirred the quiet of the shrine. Then the attendant priest took the money and
gave it back to her, saying that the saint took not the gifts of evil people.
The terrace is full of thirsty men and women, some drinking, others
pouring water over their hands. On the parapet we rest our arms and gaze
at the view. Above us we cannot see, for the rock juts out beyond; but
before us and below is stretched a panorama of peaceful beauty. The threadlike
river Zeta in the valley, the lofty ridge opposite, on which nestles the
lower monastery, form an incomparable landscape which must have ofttimes
filled the soul of St. Vasili with that contentment which cometh only to
those who are willing to give up the pleasures of the world for the service
of God in the midst of His most perfect handiwork.
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