Believe it or not, there is a place that miraculously bridges the gap between Christianity and Islam, pious believers and tattoo enthusiasts, barely accessible mountains and year-round pilgrimages. Ostrog Monastery mystically preserves the life story of St. Basil, whose altruistic and monastic life endowed Balkan people with architectural wonders, recurrent religious miracles and popular beliefs and customs that have been avidly sustained for more than three hundred years.
St. Basil’s Life
“Great oaks out of little acorns grow,” they say. A poor peasant family could not even imagine the glory and reverence that their loving boy would earn. Stojan Jovanović was born in a secluded village in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1610. Born and raised in an Orthodox family, Stojan led a religious lifestyle from early childhood. A humble and obedient child who regularly attended church services and was a role model for the youth in the village never attended parties or participated in merrymaking and dancing. Being afraid of Turkish blood tax, Stojan’s parents sent their son to a monastery.
As the time passed by, Stojan adapted to asceticism and decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the worship of God. He became a monk and was named Basil (Vasilije). Monk Basil had been spending time in several monasteries in Serbia and Bosnia when he was appointed the Metropolitan Bishop of Herzegovina in 1638. In addition to indefatigable work on the construction of a monastery that would become a natural and architectural masterpiece, St. Basil also worked on the cultural rebirth of people in Montenegro, believing that virtues, faith, morality and knowledge are essential for the preservation of cultural and national heritage.
The word ‘Ostrog’ was derived from an old Serbian word meaning ‘sharp’ which perfectly depicts the shape of Montenegrin relief and mountain cliffs surrounding the monastery. Ostrog today represents a complex of two monasteries that are several kilometers apart from each other. One monastery is located at the base of the mountain and is devoted to the Holy Trinity, while the other monastery is extraordinarily situated among the rocks and consists of two cave churches. The first cave church is dedicated to the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and preserves the undecayed and flexible body of the St. Basil until today. With a height of only 280 centimeters and a small entrance that only kids can enter without bending, it reminds people that spiritual peace and heavenly glory do not require earthly riches and properties. The second cave church is dedicated to the Holy Cross. This second architectural wonder has a width of 2.5 meters and a depth and height of about 4 meters. The feeble light coming from only 3 small windows along with frescoes painted on the rough and uneven rock surface beget awe and indelible mystical impressions. Considering primitive equipment and more-than-poor transportation, the construction of the cave monastery at the height of 900 meters above sea level in 17th century was a miracle itself, the act of resistance to Turkish invasion as well as the root of perpetual efforts of Balkan people to demonstrate respect and obedience to their saint.
The generations of Balkan people have always worshiped and assiduously preserved the memory of the man of God who came to help, educate and save the people. Besides the reputation that remained unchanged for almost four hundred years, the miracles and mercy of St. Basil never left the monastery either. The saint passed away on the 12th of May, 1671. It was said that at the moment of the death of St. Basil, his monastic room shone brightly with unearthly light and vines started to grow out of the rock near the place where the saint’s body was laid. Hundreds of years later, the vine still bears fruit.
Numerous apparitions of St. Basil have been reported by visitors and the clergy of the monastery. Firstly, the abbot of the monastery had a dream in which St. Basil appeared and told the abbot to open the tomb where the saint was buried. The abbot reluctantly fulfilled the task and surprisingly found the undecayed body of the saint smelling of basil. Afterwards, numerous visitors experienced miraculous healings and spiritual transformations beside the body of St. Basil in Ostrog. One of the most remarkable miracles was reported by a woman who visited the monastery in 1913. The woman placed a baby basket on the wall near the monastery. However, the baby was crying and moving, so the basket fell off the wall into the ravine. The mother later said that the basket was found crushed into pieces while the baby remained unharmed.
Subsequently, during World War II, in February 1942, Ostrog was miraculously spared from any damage by a German grenade that hit the monastery. Although the examination indicated that the grenade had been functional, there was no explosion and the grenade just fell apart.
Customs and beliefs
National and religious diversity of the Balkans converge into the cult of St. Basil. There are a plethora of widespread customs related to visiting Ostrog that sometimes even deviate from Christian doctrine. For instance, the pilgrimage to Ostrog should not be planned or, at least, it should be kept a secret because otherwise the plans might be spoiled. Bringing a gift to the monastery is also recommendable. The most common gifts include oil, sugar, flour, coffee, etc. All visitors are, in return, usually gifted with a bottle of consecrated water, oil and a small icon. However, taking a stone or anything else (besides the complimentary memorabilia) from the monastery is considered to bring bad luck.
Besides the tangible gifts, the act of anointing is performed daily on each visitor in order to ensure spiritual and physical wellbeing. Additionally, all visitors are allowed to spend a night in a monastic residence or under the open sky during summer pilgrimages. In that sense, many Balkan people make a pilgrimage in spring, before the 12th of May, and walk for days or weeks from different cities and even from neighboring countries to reach the monastery. The pilgrims who want to show the utmost humility and awe of St. Basil even walk barefoot for kilometers, from the first monastery at the base of the mountain to the cave monastery where the body of the saint lies. A common dress code in Ostrog includes wearing long sleeves and pants/skirts, while women should cover their heads with a scarf as a sign of modesty. The visitors to the monastery who experience miracles and feel the blessing of St. Basil often choose him as a patron saint of their family and for generations celebrate the 12th of May as an important family holiday.
The collective worship is not only notable around St. Basil’s Day. Any time the name of the saint is mentioned, many people in Montenegro, regardless of their religion, add “Slava mu I milost” meaning “Glory and mercy to him.” Some people even take this respect a step further by standing up if they were sitting when the name of the saint was mentioned. For people of Montenegro, Ostrog is the crucial sanctuary and the place where the most binding decisions and promises are made. For that reason, the heavenly nook evidenced many engagements, baptisms, political or military vows. Many people of Montenegro swear by this monastery. A deal that is sealed by “Ostroga mi” would, thus, never be failed by the Montenegrin side. The veneration of the Orthodox saint is omnipresent among Balkan people and thus occasionally misinterpreted. For instance, Ostrog tattoos irrevocably illustrate a personal perspective on worship, yet they are quite contrary to Orthodox teachings.
The miniature cave monastery preserving the body of a saint for centuries miraculously defies decay and reason and ethereally unifies divergent religions, rocks and refined architecture, inaccessible steep mountains and tireless pilgrims. Montenegro is considered a country between the sky and sea. Ostrog is, in that regard, the place in Montenegro where heaven and earth merge.