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Zarvanytsya — a place where miracles are claimed to be almost a daily occurrence
Romko MALKO says he is neither a religious fanatic, nor is he a tourism promotion agent — but claims he witnessed miracles actually happening right in front of his eyes.
There are several places in the world where the Virgin Mary is believed to have revealed Herself to people. One of such places is Fatima, north-west of Lisbon in Portugal where on May 13, 1917, three young peasant children, Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto, saw a lady who identified herself as the Lady of the Rosary. Another such place is the French town of Lourdes, in southwest France at the foot of the Pyrenees, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared many times to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl, in 1858. These two places are widely known, with untold number of pilgrims swarming to the sites of the Virgin Mary’s appearances annually. Ukraine also boasts a place, Zarvanytsya, where The Blessed Mother of God made her appearance to a monk.
A Ukrainian village with a difference
The village of Zarvanytsya is situated in the Land of Podillya. There are a great many similar villages in Ukraine in which nothing seems to have changed in the past hundred years. People take the absence of change as something very natural. The political systems and rulers may change but life goes on basically unchanged.
Zarvanytsya is situated among the hills at the bank of a river with an unusual name — Strypa. It used to be a small village with a shrinking population until a few years ago, but then, within a short time, it became a sort of Ukrainian Mecca. It was not gold that was discovered there, and consequently no gold rush was reported. Neither was it a newly discovered oil deposit that caused the village to become widely known. No popular rock music festivals are held there. Things that are nothing short of miracles are reported to be taking place there. The cripples begin to walk; the deaf begin to hear, the dumb begin to talk, the blind regain the sight; the troubled in spirit find peace of the soul. Those who have not seen these miracles happen do not believe they can happen; those who have seen them become believers. But it is much easier to doubt than to believe.
Thousands of people come to the village of Zarvanytsya on pilgrimage. At night, the streams of pilgrims with candles in their hands turn into fiery rivers which merge into a confluence that becomes a sea of fire. It leaves an unforgettable impression. Pilgrims come in cars, on crutches, in wheel chairs from small and big towns and villages of Ukraine, and even from abroad. Busloads of tourists and pilgrims arrive with a timetable regularity.
If you happen to be travelling in a car across Podillya and if you see groups of people, young and old, wearing traditional Ukrainian dress, their eyes sparkling with spiritual joy, then, in all likelihood, you’ve met pilgrims on their way to Zarvanytsya. It is worth, really, to interrupt your journey and go to that village and see for yourself what happens there. Be prepared to have your scepticism badly shaken; also, you should be warned that you may want badly to come back again.
Appearance of the Virgin Mary
There are several legends that describe the event, each in its own way, that made Zarvanytsya a pilgrimage village. One of the legends — or stories, if you want, goes like this: When the city of Kyiv was captured by the Mongols about seven hundred years ago, it was raised to the ground, its churches burned, and one of the monks, fleeing from the ruined city, made his way to a distant village which happened to be Zarvanytsya. Exhausted, he collapsed at the edge of the forest, and when he came to, he saw Mother of God with Child in an aureole. When the vision disappeared, a spring with water that had miraculous qualities opened in the ground at the place where the Virgin appeared. The water’s healing properties were so powerful, that the sick who washed in it became healthy. As the stories about the miraculous spring spread, the ailing and the crippled began to come to Zarvanytsya from places near and far hoping to be healed. Princes and beggars came to ask the Virgin Mary to intercede for them so that their sins be absolved. The persecuted and the oppressed sought protection of the Blessed Virgin; the doubting hoped to have their faith strengthened. Over the years, stories of miracles happening in the village were becoming better known but it was only in the past few years, after Ukraine’s independence, that pilgrimage on a truly grand scale began.
Until not so long ago, there was only one old church which had an icon of the Virgin Mary which reportedly had miraculous qualities. Nobody knew where that icon in a gold frame had come from. A Roman pope, after he had learnt of the miracles that the icon had worked, was said to have sent two gold crowns to decorate the icon with. After the Bolsheviks seized power, their atheistic regime declared that there was no God and the icon disappeared — for good, people thought. But several years ago the icon was rediscovered — in a loft of a house where an old woman had lived. She must have kept it there, saving it from the atheistic vandalism and hoping for better times.
Podillya was traditionally the land of the Greco-Catholic faith. The Soviet regime forced the Greco-Catholic church to go underground, but even the all-seeing KGB failed to prevent small groups of pilgrims from coming to the life-giving spring where Greco-Catholic priests said mass and held religious services at night. Quite a few people were sent to prison for these acts of defiance. The local authorities did their worst to stop pilgrims from coming; the spring was regularly filled with earth, but each time the water found another way to come back to the surface and give its heeling power to those who sought it.
Pilgrims in a once sleepy backwater
Once a quiet backwater, Zarvanytsya, has turned into a bustling place with a new, large, recently built church, a new wooden church, several monasteries, a great many chapels, a tall bell tower, hotels and several youth centres that are being currently built. Pilgrims keep coming all the year round, with crowds swelling to multitudes on feast days; festivals are held; young people come to stay in youth camps; prayers and singing never cease to be heard. People believe that if you confess your sins when in Zarvanytsya, all of them will be remitted.
Over the weekends, the numbers of pilgrims increase considerably. Hundreds come from the city of Ternopil alone, about 60 kilometres (40 miles) away, walking all the way. Some pilgrims walk all the way from Lviv or even from the Carpathians. Once I met in Zarvanytsya an eighty-year old woman who had walked 120 kilometres (80 miles) from her village. Her feet were sore, but there was joy in her eyes.
On Saturday, after a solemn evening liturgy, thousands of people light candles and walk, singing religious hymns, to the miracle-working spring. The rivulets of dots of light merge into a river of light that flows in the darkness, rising and falling, slowly moving through the darkness. The forests echo with religious singing. The river of light enters the valley below the hill, and the only other sound, besides the distant singing, is the whisper of giant linden trees. This river of light is the most stunning sight I have ever seen.
The pilgrims move upwards through the forested slope up the hill on which the spring is situated. A narrow meandering path leading to it symbolises The Road to the Calvary. The river of light slows down at the chapels on the way — people stop, kneel, pray, then climb back to their feet and walk on.
There is a cave with an effigy of the dead Christ in it by the path, with candles always burning in it; you can always find several people there, deep in prayer. There is a big hole in the ground nearby. It was there that the first church in Zarvanytsya was built — the church is said to have been swallowed by the earth at the time of the Mongol invasion. All the people who were crowded in it, seeking divine protection and hoping they would not be captured by the infidels, went underground with the church, thus escaping the capture. On every Easter, the tolling of bells and choirs singing are reported to be heard, coming from the hole.
Close by stands a big cross with the crucified Christ on it. The cross and the body of the Christ are riddled with bullets. The cross was removed several times by the formerly atheistic authorities but every time it was restored to its place. It must have been used as a target in practice shooting but even the bullets failed to kill the Christ.
On major pilgrimage days, thousands of people come to Zarvanytsya; they say that sometimes up to half a million people congregate there. Tents are pitched; older people spend the night in the big church; many people stay in the open. But few actually sleep. People pray, sing by the fire; wander in the forest, or sit on the ground, silently watching the stars. It does you a lot of good to devote some time to listening to your heart and to talking to your soul. There are never any drunks to be seen, any swearing or rows to be heard.
The greatest influx of pilgrims falls on late June- early July. Most of the pilgrims who come to Zarvanytsya at this time of the year wear traditional Ukrainian dress. Looking at this great mass of people in Ukrainian attire I had a feeling that I was taken back in time, to the seventeenth century, when this country experienced a great upsurge of national awareness. What a great display of colours it was! Ornaments, fancy patterns, embroideries of fantastic inventiveness — the Ukrainian soul was revealed in all of its depth and breadth. Every Ukrainian village, every Ukrainian land has its own patterns of embroidery and ornamentation, its own colour schemes on shirts, skirts and other garments. I saw people from the Dnister River area, wearing shirts with embroidery covering the entire sleeves, with black colour dominant; I saw people from Halychyna, wearing multi-coloured dresses; I saw people from Kosmach in bright red dresses; people from Bukovyna with flowery patterns on their dress; I saw people from the Lands of Poltava, Volyn, and from many other regions of Ukraine, and I could tell where they were from even without hearing their accents — just by looking at their dress. Not a single museum of the world boasts such a vast collection of dresses, shirts and skirts embroidered and decorated in so many different patterns, in so many ways, in so many colour schemes. And all of these dresses looked as though they were recently made rather than pulled out from the trunks stuffed with mothballs — the colours were so vibrant and fresh. Every shirt, every skirt was a work of art. I was overjoyed to see that centuries of oppression, of attempts to destroy traditional Ukrainian culture had failed. It was the first miracle revealed to me in Zarvanytsya.
Scepticism and miracles
How many of us are sceptically minded believers in science! We — most of us anyway — do not believe in miracles. We believe in science but we realize that science cannot explain certain things. And then we make a little concession and accept a possibility of the existence if not of a god than of a supreme being of some sort, a divine force that is responsible for the creation of this Universe. But even if we admit that “there may be some Supreme Power out there after all,” we still are given to doubt, we want to see the proof for ourselves, “to touch in order to believe.” We remain to be doubting Thomases. Maybe it is the way it should be in our pragmatic world but the moment you find yourself in Zarvanytsya, you realize that things are radically different there and what holds true in the rest of the world does not apply in Zarvanytsya. Miracles do happen and science seems to be powerless to provide explanations.
I have seen some of the miracles myself. I saw a woman who had spent ten years in a wheelchair, get up and walk slowly away on her own, without help, after attending a religious service and washing in the water of the miraculous spring.
I saw a blind man who, after washing his eyes in the healing water, told me what colour my shirt was.
I saw a veteran soldier who had walked to the spring on crutches, and walked away without them after washing in the healing water.
I saw a girl who was born blind, become sighted and behold her mother for the first time in her life.
I saw a young man of twenty, devoid of the ability to speak, acquire the gift of speech after washing in the healing water, and say, “Thank you, God, for this miracle!”
Miraculous cases of healing apart, there is another miraculous thing that happens in Zarvanytsya — just being there fills you with wonderful tranquillity and peace. You stop thinking of the problems and worries that you face in the world outside Zarvanytsya. Whenever I feel that life has been treating me badly, that the only way out is to quit it for good, I take a pilgrimage to Zarvanytsya. And I feel as though I have been born anew.
I know that some of the readers who have read my story will think that I am either a religious fanatic or have been commissioned to write a story to promote tourism to Zarvanytsya. And they will be absolutely wrong. I’m neither a fanatic, nor a tourism promoter.
Zarvanytsya is not the only place in the world where such incredible things happen. You, certainly, may doubt the veracity of my words but give me the benefit of the doubt — go to Zarvanytsya and see for yourself. It does not matter of which faith you are. It does not matter if you are an atheist. What matters is to have love in your heart.
My motivation in writing this story was very simple — I just wanted to share with you the impressions of what I was privileged to witness.
Photos by Ivan Yasny