The miraculous icon in Bigorski

In the Holy icons of Christ our Saviour, of the Mother of God and all the Saints, the Church obtained the most beautiful adornment, thus constantly enlightening and filling itself with grace through them. The merciful God provided that in these icon-painted presentations, we should actually see the graceful and enlighten images of the Saints, and through them, through those images – the visual image of our incarnated Lord, and God Himself. Before this Divine image the flames of passion and all the vanities of the world are subdued, it strongly distinguishes itself as something beyond this world, which comes from its heavenly space, but acts and affects us here. A person can hardly believe his eyes, when they testify for this victorious, irresistible beauty, which emanates from the Holy icons.

The all-merciful Divine Providence, which accords everything for our salvation, took care that the Holy Synodia of Bigorski should be honoured with a magnificent and miraculous icon of the great and renown Prophet John, The Forerunner and Baptist of our Lord. It’s with this icon that the history of the Monastery begins.

The Holy Tradition conveys that in the time when Basil II (976-1025) was the ruler of the great Romeic Empire, and these wonderful mystical slopes were part of the Samuel kingdom (976 – 1014), here in these mountains, blessed by the invisible touch of the Divine hand, lived a very noble and virtuous monk called John. He was from the Debar area by origin. This most reverend Father was filled with every virtue, wise and smart, and constantly watched over the purity and humbleness of his heart, having in mind the words of our Lord: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”(Mathew 5, 8). He felt especially great love for “the greatest among those born of women” – St. John the Baptist.

Monk John and the appearance of the icon with the image of the Forerunner. Part of the frescoes in the Great Reception room.

Once in the forest, by the spring which was near his hermitage, John noticed a powerful and amazing light between the trees, which rose like a fiery pillar towards the sky. When he approached, right above the water spring, he saw an icon with the glorious image of the honorable Forerunner floating in the air and all glowing with unusual light. Thrilled, but also overcome by fear, John fell on his knees and gave tribute to God and His Baptist. Then with great piety and respect he took the icon and immediately took care to build a suitable temporary home for it.  Thus the Christ-loving John made a small chapel, where he placed the icon and there with a humble heart he prayed every day and expressed gratitude to the Baptist of our Lord for the gift he had him blessed. It is believed that this icon came to these territories from the East, because that was probably where it originated from.

The donor John of Debar, the Archbishop of Ohrid. An icon from the frontal part of the catholicon.

Because of the Islamic aggression and the destruction of the monasteries, churches and the holy places of the Christian East, many icons started moving to safer places, whether carried by angels of God, or by people. Thus this holy icon of Christ’s Forerunner also moved here in a miraculous way.

Later the merciful God, Who glorifies those who glorify Him on Earth, wanted to make the righteous monk John a shepherd of His spiritual flock. Namely, the Romeic emperor Basil II, having learned about the especially virtuous life of the humble ascetic, in 1018 he proclaimed him the Archbishop of the renowned Ohrid Archbishopric, so that he could guide wisely the people of Christ. The ascetic monk had to humble himself before the will of God and accepted the high position, but he never forgot about his quiet and beloved place of repentance. Filled with great love and gratitude towards the Forerunner of Christ, in 1020 he built a church there in his honour, and placed in it the holy and miraculous icon. Many monks came there to dwell on the grace of repentance of the Baptist and soon a huge monastic brotherhood gathered around that church. Thus, our blessed father John of Debar became the first founder of the Holy Bigorski Monastery.

The founder John, as an Archbishop of Ohrid, blesses the first fraternity and the building of the monastery. A fragment of the fresco-painting in the Great Reception Room.

Through centuries of the existence of this Synodia, the Athonite monastic spirit, which endowed this place with grace from the moment of its foundation, gave birth to many spiritual leaders, Elders and anonymous Saints, who resembled our Saviour Christ in their ascetic life. Therefore the entire history of the monastery, its life, the monks, the frescoes and icons, everything that had been and is created, all its past and present, whispers about an unceasing yearning for God. This eternal longing for God, this inextinguishable Divine love, made this place to simply emanate grace, so that everyone who laid foot on these consecrated stony yards, experienced the presence of God. That’s why this monastery, from its beginning till now constantly attracts the faithful, and has become the most beloved Divine home not just for all the Orthodox faithful in this area, but also for the Heterodox.

The present look of the Monastery

During its existence the Monastery went through many ordeals. The worst period was in the centuries of Ottoman occupation, when it was destroyed and burned for several times. Especially great desolation happened during the rule of the infamous Ottoman Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) when it was burned to the ground. However St. John the Baptist didn’t allow for his holy icon to be destroyed. Thus on two occasions when the Monastery went through desolation, the icon simply disappeared in an unusual way and moved by itself to some other place, so that it would not get into the hand of the infidels, and when there was no more danger, it reappeared again. The first time the icon moved to a monastery between Struga and Debar, where to this day there is a church named “St. John the Baptist – Bigorski”. The second time this holy image of the Forerunner found its temporary home in village Slatino, Debarca. There too is a church with the name “St. John the Baptist – Bigorski”. The great revival of the Bigorski Synodia started in the time of Abbot Hilarion (1743-1781/2), when the monastic life flourished here.

The desolation of the Monastery by the Ottoman Turks in the time of Selim I. Fragment of the fresco-painting in the Great Reception Room.

The location of the Monastery was such that it was situated in the most dangerous bandit area of Western Macedonia. In those years many dangers lurked, and only through the miracles of St. John, it was spared and managed to survive.

In 1814 a great miracle happened: A very violent man raised against the Holy Synodia and he intended to destroy the Monastery and turn it into an Islamic boarding house. This person was the Debar Turk Yusuf-bey. But on 8th September Yusuf-Bey was wounded and on 21th he died. When he was being buried, there were such terrible heavy hail and thunders, that 20 more of his people died from them. The rest of them got frightened and run away. So, with the care and intercession of St. John the Baptist, the Monastery was saved from a disaster.

In the middle of the XIX century St. John helped some Turkish Bey from Albania, who was with a sick child. He had a dream and St. John appeared to him, asking him to come to the Monastery and wash his child with the healing water – agiasma. The Bey obeyed and went with his child to the Monastery where he did what was advised to him. And a miracle! The child was completely healed! There on the icon the Bey recognized his benefactor, St. John the Baptist, and out of gratitude he gave this sanctuary a property with olive trees near Elbasan. The monastery supplied itself with oil for a long time, thanks to this property. But in the thirties of the XX century, the priest Athanasius (Father Tashko), who was a host of the Monastery at that time, sold these fields.

Some other time, Albanian bandits robbed the monastery wagon with mules that carried food for the Monastery. After this crime the gang leader got seriously ill. Fearing the punishment for this sin and considering the illness a Divine warning, he released the mules and the people, and even donated a huge amount of oil for the Monastery. Since then he never dared to attack or molest anybody from the Monastery, nor touch the monastic property. The Monastery was highly respected by the Heterodox, since the monastery gates were opened day and night for all the people who constantly came, no matter the faith or nationality. They all found support and comfort in the home of the Forerunner.

The Monastery Refectory in the sixties of the XX century, after the dying of monastic life.

But the atheistic period of communism brought negligence and decay. A few decades later, without the grace of divine services and of the monastic life, the sanctuary was left to the horrible destiny of quiet and gradual desolation, reduced to a simple museum of lifeless objects. Years had to pass before the conditions were created for its resurrection.

A moment of the tonsure of the reviver of monastic life in Bigorski, Archimandrite Parthenius.

So finally, by God’s will and with the blessing of the monk-loving Metropolitan Timothy, the ruling bishop of Debar-Kichevo Diocese, monastic life was revived in July 1995, when Fr. Parthenius, having returned from Mount Athos, was assigned as Abbot of the new Bigorski Synodia.   

The new Abbot, Archimandrite Parthenius, found the Monastery spiritually desolated, empty and left to decay and from his very beginning had to face many difficulties and temptations in his effort to spiritually revive this sanctuary.

The young Abbot

However, having in mind that for a monk the true Divine love can be found in the pain for salvation of his soul and of the entire world, he decided to serve others, in spite of all the great temptations. Being aware that the spiritual revival of every monastery begins with, above all, the revival of the liturgical life, Abbot Parthenius introduced the full circle of regular services on daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis, according to the Typikon of the Holy Orthodox Church, which includes vespers, compline, matins, hours, Liturgy and the other divine services. Certainly, the most precious and especial Divine gift and blessing for our Holy Synodia is the revival of the Orthodox Spiritual Eldership, which is a crown of the spiritual fit. The spiritual guidance of the Elder, through the Holy Mysteries – Confession, Repentance, Communion, is the core of spiritual life, which produces the Divine Paschal grace that transforms the souls of people. All that attracted a large number of faithful, who together with the revived cenobitic monasticism, became an integral part of the spiritual rebirth which covered our entire country. Thus the Monastery, even today, calls upon all of its offspring as if a caring mother, and similarly to the Arc of Noah opens its gates to accept and save the faithful from the spiritual flood. Everyone who comes here is being invited to become a part of this spiritual surroundings, where the head – Christ governs, and where the Saints descend to be in unity with the faithful in the Divine service.

The Bigorski Synodia today.