Pilgrimage in Romania 20 July - 2 August 2006

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Pilgrimage in Romania
20 July - 2 August, 2006

I had been invited to make a second private pilgrimage to Romania, and I departed from Ottawa for Bucharest on 20 July, 2006. First, the family that had invited me took me to the Antim Monastery near the Patriarchate, in Bucharest. There, I met the Igumen (Abbot) Mihail, Archdeacon Gamaliel, and then Bishop Ciprian, who is the Chair of the Department of External Affairs of the Patriarchate. Patriarch Teoktist was away in Constanta, but they showed me the 300-year-old Temple, whose frescoes are now mostly cleaned. At the rear is a portrait of the founder, Saint Anthimus the Georgian, and also a portrait of Patriarch Justinian, who renewed the monastery. It is the custom in many countries to portray the founders at the entrance, usually on the west wall. Relics of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, and of Saint Parasceva of Athens are in the midst of the church.

The next place we visited was the Pasarea Monastery, an idiorhythmic women’s community about an hour east of Bucharest, where there are about 160 nuns. We met the Igumena (Abbess) Lucia (a widow, and former physician from Hamburg), and the Prioress Filoftea (who is related to some Canadians I know). Then we left for Cernica Monastery, which includes a seminary. Here, we met first the Econom (treasurer-administrator), Father Jerome (who is also related to some Canadians), and then we met Archimandrite Macarie, who is the Abbot. In Romania, it is usual that the one who is the abbot/abbess (igumen/igumenia) be called starets/staritsa. This word means “elder”, but in some other countries, it means a “spiritual elder”. The term in Romania is used for the position of responsibility rather than for a spiritual gift. We were shown the Temple, which has the relics of Saint Callinic and of Saint Gheorghe (he was newly-canonised), both of them of Cernica. Then we were shown around various parts of the cœnobitic monastery, which was founded in the 14th century. The monks here number around 60. We were told how cleverly Patriarch Justinian had kept the monastery open in some manner during oppressive communist times.

From Bucharest, Bishop Ciprian took me to the Crasna Monastery in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. This monastery (which also has a seminary) is a cœnobitic community, from which have come 6 bishops so far. It is built in a forest which covers many hills, and access to the monastery is difficult. A river must first be crossed by a foot-bridge, or forded by vehicles. At this monastery, we met the Igumen (Abbot) Nicodim, the founder and builder, and the Hierodeacon Nectarie, a monk of this monastery who is currently a student at the Institut Saint-Serge in Paris. He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood the next day. This monastery has a 300-year history (including its falling into ruin). Archimandrite Nicodim arrived here in 1969. From nothing, and in extremely difficult terrain, he built a community which gives good evidence of the Christian way of life.

After this, we departed from Bucharest towards the west. Here, in the southern arm of the Carpathians, in Wallachia, are some monasteries associated with royal foundations. In these hills various Romanian kings lived, and here they took refuge on the many occasions of invasion from the Turks, as well as from the Magyars and Austrians. We first came to the Bistrita Dormition Monastery, an historic community established in 1490, where the founders (Barbu Craiovescu and his father) are buried. In this monastery are the relics of Saint Gregory of Decapolis, brought there from Constantinople in 1497. About 200 years later, Saint Constantine Brancoveanu the King-Martyr would also contribute to its foundation. The community there numbers about 90 female monastics, and there are 2 complete monastic cycles of services offered to the Lord daily : one in the main Temple, and the other in the chapel. They also have a small historic Temple from 1520, which has original frescoes from the time of its founder, Saint Nicodim the Wallachian. Nearby, there is a cave (now named for Saint Gregory of Decapolis) which was home to hermits even before the foundation of the main monastery.

Then we drove up a difficult road (the incline is steep) to the Arnota Monastery of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, which is led by Staritsa Ambrosia. This was once a male community, founded by Prince Matei Basarab around 1630 ; but since 2000, it has been a female monastery. The central Temple, although small, is in classic Greco-Constantinopolitan style, with the Brancoveanu exo-narthex (a columned sort of open-air porch that extends beyond the main west door) which is characteristic of many Romanian Temples. There is a new monastic church also being built.

We then drove to the Monastery of Saints Constantine and Helen at Hurezi, where we met Staritsa Pavelina (aged 71, and abbess for 26 years), Father Nikodim, and others. Archbishop Nicolae in Chicago has a connexion with this monastery, and he visits regularly. The next day (after Akathist, Hours and Divine Liturgy), we had a tour of the royal quarters and the rest of the monastery, which is a UNESCO site. It is a large territory, and it has 3 existing dependent sketes, at the 4 foundation cardinal points. It was founded by the Martyr-King Constantine Brancoveanu about 312 years ago. The fourth of the sketes is exterior to the present walls, and it is now used as the village church.

We then left Wallachia (Vlachia) and we drove more or less continuously over some difficult terrain for about 8 hours, through Transylvania. After 2300 hrs, we arrived in the Moldavian area of Neamt, at the Petru Voda Monastery of the Holy Archangels. There, we met Starets Iustin (Justin) (Pârvu), who is “the picture of kindness” and Christian hospitality, just as are the many monks and nuns there. This monastic community particularly concerns itself with the new-martyrs of Romania, largely because Starets Iustin is a Confessor who survived 17 years of imprisonment underground in a salt mine. I was asked to go to pray for a dying schema-nun, so we went to the nearby Monastery of Saint Panteleimon, a community of about 70 women, headed by Staritsa Iustina. The nuns took me to visit their orphanage, which accommodates 25 children at present. Then we visited their hospice for older persons, some of whom are nuns who, in illness, had to leave their communities for one reason or another, and had no place to go. In both cases I was asked to bless the buildings. Then we went to the foundation being laid for a hospital which would accommodate the very ill, not only of the community, but also of the neighbourhood. The enormity of the work being done here is almost incomprehensible in its magnitude. That Saint Panteleimon is the holy patron of the monastery is truly appropriate. I am continually impressed with the clearly Christian character of the monastics, and of the people who are associated with them.

We later arrived at the Putna Dormition Monastery with its abbot, Starets Melchisedec. This monastery would be the “hub” from which I would be driven forth on other visits over the following several days. It is in the cemetery of this monastery that Archbishop Victorin is buried. It was the Feast of Saint Panteleimon (27 July).

Next, I was taken by horse-and-wagon from the Putna Dormition Monastery to visit the nearby Monastery of the Annunciation. This new monastery already has 40 monks. They have rebuilt the original Temple, which dates, like both the monastery and town (Putna), from the 14th century. Like Putna, it also was founded by Saint King Stephen the Great and his family. Its first monk was a converted Tatar, the monk Athanasius. In this Temple is a wonder-working icon of the Theotokos, one which had been damaged by the Soviets. Nowadays, the icon gives myrrh, and it also drives out the demons from those possessed. In the monastery’s Temple are relics of the first abbots : Saints Sila, Paisie, and Natan. These relics, which Abbot Nectarie opened for us, are aromatic.

At the Putna Monastery of the Dormition (where I was again taken), there are relics of Saint King Stephen the Great and of Saint Ghenadie in the nave, as well as other relics in the Altar. The main icon of the Theotokos is also wonder-working. It rests in a special shrine that stands in front of the north side of the iconostasis, almost directly in front of the icon of the Theotokos on that iconostasis. This positioning of an important icon, usually of the Mother of God, is very frequent in Romanian Temples. After a few days here, the Igumen, Father Pavlos, Deacon Hrisostom (the driver), and Novice Adrian accompanied me on a drive to some nearby and some more distant monasteries. First, we drove the 80 km to the centre of the city of Suçeava, where the Monastery of Saint John is situated, to venerate the relics of the Martyr John the New. There are several parishes in Canada named for him, usually named “Saint John of Suchava”. In this monastery is one of the famous “painted Temples” (meaning that they are frescoed both on the inside and on the outside). Suçeava is the former capital of Saint King Stephen the Great, and there are therefore many other quite old Temples in this city, precisely because it was the capital.

Then we drove south to the Slatina Transfiguration Monastery in which are relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian. In this historic monastery there had lived the famous Elder Cleopa (Ilie) (†1998), and also our own Canadian Archimandrite Martinian (Ivanoviçi) (†1994), where they also served as abbots. Nowadays, it is a community of women, led by the Abbess Eveline, who has been a monk for 58 years, and the abbess for 46 years.

Next, we went to the Probota Monastery, in existence since before 1398. It has the first Temple in Romania painted on the interior and exterior, in the mid-16th century. It is now a UNESCO protected site, and it has been restored and conserved in part by Japanese money.

On the way back to the monastery in Putna, we visited the Dragomirna Monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. This monastery, founded in the early 17th century, is one of the 3 monasteries that were not closed during the Hungarian invasion period. In the cemetery outside the walls, there is a very small Temple (dating from 1602) which predates the monastery itself. Saint Paisi (Velichkovsky) was at this monastery before he went to Neamt.

From the monastery in Putna, I was driven in a Soviet-period Russian military truck up the side of a nearby mountain. This “up the side” indicates an extraordinarily sharp incline up which the machine slowly laboured. There, we visited the partly-completed small Temple which will be the heart of a hermitage, very near the top of the mountain. Two monks live there at present, and they are building the Temple and the cells. Then we walked for a couple of kilometres through the woods, to the brow of a cliff which looks north to Ukrainian Bukovina, which we could see clearly. The descent of the mountain was intimidating, since it felt as if we were almost at 90 degrees and looking straight down.

Later, we departed for the village of Salash, in order to serve the Divine Liturgy for the Prophet Elias, Old Calendar. This is a Ukrainian-speaking village, high in the Carpathians, about 2 hours from Putna. About 20 km of this road is of gravel, often deeply rutted by streams that cross the road during heavy rains. Moving up a mountain on such a road requires a large and heavy four-wheel-drive vehicle. Once we arrived at the top of the climb, we entered lush valleys and hills covered with grain and with sheep. This was not quite the top of the mountains, but it was close to it. Archimandrite Melchisedec said that some people walk all the way to Putna (64 km) for the Divine Liturgy on some ordinary Sundays throughout the year, as well as for great feasts. Such is their simple, sincere devotion.

After the return to the Putna Dormition Monastery, it was time to make the trip back to Bucharest by car for an overnight preparation and sleep, in order to depart on 2 August for home in Canada. This voyage included the usual European pause en route.

God is merciful in His organisation of our pilgrimages, in His preparing the way for us, and in His renewing our hearts as we all touch the lives of one another in Christ’s love.