Quick, hurry and get changed. Abbot Theodosius is going to Black River Monastery, and you are to go with him!"
It was Tuesday, January 25, 1994. The message was brought to me as I helped wash the dishes after lunch in the monastery kitchen. "You will need to wear plenty of warm clothes because it is very cold up there in the mountains."
As an Australian Orthodox visitor to Serbia, I was glad of the opportunity to visit another monastery. Obediently I left the dishes and went to rug myself as best I could against the bitter cold of the Serbian winter. Black River Monastery (Manastir Crna Reka) was hidden high in the inhospitable and rugged mountains of northwest Kosovo near the borders with Montenegro and Albania, and the monks there were often isolated by heavy snowstorms which confined them to their monastery.
The journey took three hours. After passing through Kosovo Mitrovitsa we began the gradual climb back into the mountain range. The road hugged the River Ibar to the village of Ribarichi. It is hard to imagine that not fifteen years ago Archimandrite Artemije, having left his teaching position with the Theological College in Prizren, had been ferried across this very river on a barge with all his belongings and books packed onto the back of a little donkey which he led up a shepherd's trail to the half-ruined hermitage of the Black River Monastery. There he began living the cenobitic monastic life after the patristic principles taught him by his spiritual father, the Blessed Archimandrite Justin Popovich (Ý1979). God blessed his spiritual struggles and a brotherhood gradually formed from those men God sent to him.
Called from his lonely but by now overcrowded monastery in 1991 to be the bishop of Rashka-Prizren, Vladika Artemije is currently leading a monastic renewal in this corner of Serbia, staffing four monasteries in his diocese with the monks he trained at Black River. And still young Serbian Orthodox men are coming to place themselves under his spiritual direction to the amazement, consternation and even envy of those within and without the Church. (Some young Australian Orthodox have placed themselves under his spiritual guidance. They are currently involved in a successful ministry of spiritual renewal and outreach to Orthodox youth in Australia.) We crossed that same river now on a modern bridge that replaced the ferry only eight years ago. The rough dirt road climbed steeply up a narrow valley beside the rushing water of the small but lively Black River. We soon reached the snowline. Our Combi-van could go no further, the track was covered with a layer of thick, slick ice. The cold was piercing as we began the slow and careful walk up the mountain, avoiding the ice and making sure we walked in the footsteps of the one before us. The Black River was too busy tumbling through the rough black rocks and boulders for the winter temperatures to interrupt it. An icy breeze blew in our faces. Breath condensed and matted our beards.
We trudged on. The valley narrowed dramatically, with the road falling on the right in a sheer drop to the river beneath. We climbed higher, and then the monastery came into view. On the few places level and wide enough, were two modern but modest buildings containing a winter chapel, cells for the monks, storerooms, workshops, trapeza and kitchen. And there, on the right side of the valley, reached by a covered footbridge that spanned the gorge beneath, was the ancient cave monastery, Manastir Crna Reka. Built in the thirteenth century, the monastery has been home to monks and hermits almost continuously for nearly seven hundred years. The grey skies, glowering clouds and our late afternoon arrival just before dusk impressed upon me its isolation.
We were warmly greeted by the Abbot, Father Nicolai, who at once led us across the footbridge into the ancient building fitted snug against the sheer cliff face. I felt awe at the podvig and spiritual struggles of those generations of holy monks who had lived, prayed and suffered in this ancient place. We were led along a corridor, up some steps and in through a doorway. Before us was the entrance to the cave church of the Holy Archangel Saint Michael, built in the fifteenth century.
Father Nicolai began to tell the group the history of the monastery and the church and the spiritual exploits of the holy monks of past ages. The sound of running water caught our ears. Behind us a small stream issued from the hidden depths of the great mountain that covered us. This stream had supplied the needs of those early monks and is now considered to be a source of grace, healing and blessing to pilgrims in these last days, who drink of it. A little concrete channel had been built into the floor in an attempt to control its flow. Moisture dripped from the ceiling and walls, our breath misted in front of us. The cold was chilling, it was no warmer inside the cave monastery than it was outside.
We entered the little church which was only three meters wide and six meters long, its walls covered with faded fifteenth-century frescoes of holy saints. Carpets and rugs had been laid on the floor of living rock, but the perpetual dampness of the cave made them squelch beneath our feet. Monks and visitors venerated the holy icon of St. Michael. Near the right wall of the church, I noticed a large kivot (reliquary). I suddenly realized that we were in the presence of the relics of one of God's saints, though who I did not know. In turn, we venerated the holy remains. As I prostrated on the wet floor, water oozing from the carpet into my gloves, I noticed beneath the reliquary a small bed. I was intrigued. I rose, kissed the reliquary and the holy cross that lay upon it and venerated the icon of this unknown saint, a venerable white-haired schema-monk. I asked for his prayers and blessing, thanking God for the holiness of His saints and the faithfulness of those many generations of Black River monks.
As Father Nicolai continued his talk, I stood quietly with my own thoughts and prayers, my heart aflame with the holiness of this isolated hermitage and in awe of those who had lived in such harsh conditions out of love for God and for the salvation of their souls.
My meditations were interrupted when I heard Father Theodosius call my name. What was happening! I caught the Serbian word for "headache", the name "Sveti Petar" and from gestures I understood that I was to lie down on that small bed beneath the reliquary, and try to sleep! The holy one, Sveti Petar-Saint Peter, would help me. And help I needed. For over six years I had suffered from severe tension headaches and racking migraines that kept me bedridden and in severe pain for up to three days at a time. Medication helped sometimes but I often needed to recuperate from the after-effects of the drugs prescribed.
It all happened so quickly. Before I knew it, I was being helped to lie down on that narrow bed raised only a few centimeters above the wet floor and covered with blankets against the cold. Directly above me about 40 centimeters was the base of the kivot and the fringe of the velvet cloth which covered it. The monks and visitors soon left. I was alone with the holy saint, the vigil lamp burning brightly in the damp and frigid atmosphere.
My mind was in a turmoil. I tried to pray, to calm myself. I didn't feel a bit sleepy. I felt hope-Oh how I wanted to get rid of those headaches. I felt fear-what if nothing happened, what if I wasn't worthy enough to receive a healing? "Lord," I prayed, "I do not know what is happening. I pray through the intercession of your holy saint that I may be healed of the headaches which cause me so much pain and distress. I accept whatever you want for me. If it is your will for me not to be healed at this time, and to live with the pain, I accept that. May your will be done, not mine." I tried to concentrate my thoughts and pray. I tried to relax. Outside a bell rang for Vespers. I did not know how long I lay there, but eventually I dozed off, praying for God's mercy. Even though the temperature was well below freezing, I did not feel cold but warm and protected. How long I slept I do not know. As I dozed I could hear things happening in my head, as if taut wires were being moved and loosened. Finding the right words to explain is difficult. But I do know that something happened inside my head.
I was awakened sometime later by one of the monks. At first I did not feel any different. I venerated the holy relics and left the church, returning over the footbridge to the trapeza where the monks and our party were being served coffee. One of the monks who spoke some English told me the name of the saint whose help I had sought-Saint Peter of Korisha. In the following months I was to learn as much as I could about this wonderworker. Soon we said our goodbyes, received Abbot Nicolai's blessing and began the cold and slippery walk down the mountain in the dark towards our vehicle. I noticed during the long drive home that an incipient headache that had developed on the journey to Black River had completely gone. I gave thanks to God and Saint Peter.
During the following week I experienced the full blessings of Saint Peter. Think of a pot of boiling water covered by a heavy lid that prevents the steam and bubbling water from escaping. That is how my head felt. I know that I was experiencing enormous headaches, but it felt as if my head was somehow enveloped by "something" which prevented any pain from being felt. Only once did this series of major headaches succeed in beginning to manifest the usual physical symptoms, and when I called on the name of Saint Peter, it immediately vanished. I was filled with wonder, joy and thankfulness, and I still thank God and Saint Peter for this mercy granted to me, a sinner and unworthy one.
Since that day I have had no migraine headache. The tension headaches have continued, but as I daily pray to Saint Peter they have been diminishing in frequency and force. I no longer need to take any medication. For the first time in years my head feels clear and pain-free, my mind and thinking free of the fog of pain and constant tension. An icon of Saint Peter now hangs above my bed and each night I pray to him to continue the healing mercies he began when I slept beneath his holy relics.
In my search to know more about my spiritual benefactor, I was told that Saint Peter is a miracleworker who helps those who pray to him and come to his shrine, especially if they rest beneath his relics as I did. He is particularly helpful to those suffering problems of the head, migraines, headaches, epilepsy, etc. Glory be to God for all things, Who in these last days manifests His wonderworking healing mercies through the relics and intercession of his glorified ones, the holy Orthodox saints. Holy Saint Peter of Korisha, pray for us, and all who call on you in faith. Amen.
St. Sava Monastery, Australia
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