Saturday, 31 March 2012

After a splendid sleep on their sofa bed, before getting away early next morning i put a message in a little card depicting a statue of Our Lady of Fatima which, interestingly, i don’t think my host was too keen on. Not having fully twigged up to that point, i deduced that in fact they must be Orthodox Christians, who generally frown on the idea of three dimensional representations of the Saints. Bright sunshine and the lie of the land were ideal for good progress to Pidhaitsi, from where i had to try to find a special short cut for pilgrims, covering the last 10km or so across fields and through a forest to Zarvanytsia. While checking my directions i was noticed by a middle-aged woman, who kindly escorted me past another ruin of a Polish manor house, to the beginning of the inconspicuous palmers’ pathway. Accompanied only by sundry butterflies and a half-identified falcon or two i arrived at the new Church complex of Zarvanytsia in the early evening, praying first in a small chapel, then in the impressive Cathedral of the Mother of God.

  In the year of Our Lord 1240AD the Icon of Our Lady of Zarvanytsia is said to have appeared miraculously to a fugitive monk, making his escape from Kiev in the wake of the Mongol invasion led by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis. The following description, of an Assyrian offensive, from the Book of Isaiah, written in the 8th century BC, seems eerily to forecast the devastating impact of the Mongols on the peoples of central and eastern Europe;

"He hoists a signal for a distant nation,
He whistles it up from the ends of the earth;
And look they come, swiftly, promptly.

None of them faint or weary,
None sleeping or drowsy,
None of them with belt loose,
None with sandal-straps broken.

Their arrows are sharpened,
Their bows all bent,
The hoofs of their horses are like flint,
Their chariot-wheels like tornadoes. 

Their roar is the roar of a lioness,
Like young lions they roar.
They growl and seize their prey,
They bear it off, and no one can snatch it back. 

Growling against it, that day,
Like the growling of the sea.
Only look at the country: darkness and distress,
And the light flickers out in shadows.”
[Isaiah 5:26-30]

   One might even bring to one’s mind’s eye a different monk (or, at a pinch, the same one) in that terrible year, sitting in the candle-lit scriptorium of an as yet un-preyed upon monastery, poring stony-faced over this passage of Isaiah, just as its prophetic words were being fulfilled in his own day. We learn of our monk that he stopped on his long journey to drink water from a spring in a secluded valley. After saying a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, the story goes that he fell into a deep sleep, in which Our Lady appeared to him in a dream. On regaining consciousness he found the Icon, next to the spring, and was moved to stay there and begin construction of a chapel to house it. Such dreams of course are a frequent motif of Marian apparitions, but there is nonetheless an echo here of the story of Our Lady of Walsingham (see footnote, page 2). I, meanwhile, was put in mind particularly of Walsingham – and heartened – when i discovered that the day after my arrival in Zarvanytsia, the 7th of April, would be the Orthodox (and therefore Ukrainian Greek-Catholic) Annunciation, the festival whose remembrance of course is so intrinsic to the spirituality of England’s national shrine.    

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