By Olga Loginova
Saint Elisei Lavra Abode is a solitary and miraculous place, hidden from the rest of the world by impenetrable woods and swamps. In the wintertime, pilgrims arrive there via a narrow wooden bridge, which is the only path between the big land, represented by the village Hnesichi in the Hrodna Region, and the old monastery.
When it gets warmer, the full-flowing Nioman covers the bridge, and boats serve as the only means of transportation between the two lands.
We went there at the end of December, 2009, when I was working on a documentary about hermits. The bridge was too narrow for our vehicle to cross, so we parked it near one of the cheerful little cottages sitting tightly on the river’s edge.
My cameraman, Pavel, unpacked the equipment and shot the B-roll of the mighty river sleeping under the ice, while two cats observed us with a mixture of curiosity and contempt and a white whisk of smoke rose from the Abode.
Monk Evsevij waited for us on a trail. Tall and thin, with shrewd eyes and a soft distant voice - talking to the press was a burden for him, but he tried hard not to show this. (His own story of becoming a monk was very intriguing, since according to the rumours he used to be a KGB agent in his previous life).
We were walking through the frozen forest in silence; I never knew how to talk to the monks. Before getting here I long envisioned the monastery, with its thick brick walls, carved wooden chapel with a bell tower and old bearded monks praying for the salvation of the world. Those were the shots I needed badly for the documentary.
The forest got thinner. I expected to see the old walls surrounding the abode any second, but in vain. We came to a clearing, and instead of the idyllic picture I had envisaged, we saw a small chapel, a medium sized building, and a few cabins, still under construction.
- We are recovering from the bad fire that burned down our premises two years ago. We survive on donations, and now it is especially challenging, but with God’s help we will be rebuilt soon.
The fire of 2007 was far from being the biggest challenge that the monastery had to deal with during its 8-century history.
In 1225, Rimunt, the son of Lithuanian Duke Traynat, abandoned his merry court life, took a new Christian name Elisey and started a solitary life in the impenetrable forests on the bank of the Nioman River (Neman River). Perhaps, when his father Trainat took his newly born son in his hands, he could not have imagined that Rimunt’s fame would come not from his military successes, but through his wonderful deeds as a meek monk.
Elisei founded a male monastery and welcomed newcomers, some of them of very noble descent. 25 years later Elisei was killed by a demon possessed pupil. Miraculously, the pupil got cured, and the diseased Elisei was proclaimed a miracle man.
The brotherhood of the monastery grew, and more and more pilgrims would come here looking for cure and spiritual guidance. In 1329 the well-educated monks wrote the famous Lavra Gospel, which is now the property of the Czartoryski (Chartaryisky) family, who reside in Polish Krakow. For centuries the Lavra has been the centre of the most miraculous holy place in our lands. When in 1506 the Tatars besieged the city of Navahrudak, and approached the monastery walls, they were met by a well-equipped army of many soldiers.
The Tatars retreated, and the illusory army dissolved into thin air. After that miracle, monk Elisei was canonised and proclaimed a Saint.
That miraculous victory would not save the monastery from further disasters. In 1530 the monastery was ruined, and the remains of the Saint disappeared. Some holy fathers believe that they were hidden in the ground by the pupils, but the place of the burial is unknown.
The monks from the Lavra, as well as thousands of pilgrims arriving there to find answers and harmony, believe that although hidden, the remains of Saint Elisei are still very powerful. Another legend says that as soon as the monastery is fully rebuilt, the remains will reveal themselves to the believers.
The first attempt to restore the Abode was made around 1913, when the chapel, the pilgrims’ commons and the residence building for the brothers received blessing from the Archbishop of Minsk and Turau (Turov). However, the church was again destroyed during WWI.
In 2000, the restoration started anew, and is still in progress. Monk Evsevij finished his story. We were sitting in the church, and the dim candle light was casting shadow on the faces of the Saints looking upon us from the icons. The bell was tolling for prayer and dinner. When we were leaving the Lavra, we met a flock of pilgrims, mostly women, who were hurrying to the Abode despite the cold weather and the late hour.