Church on Sunday: The Heartbeat of Sveti Naum, Macedonia
If Family Feud featured a “Most important Macedonians” category (and I’m SURE they would), Sveti Naum would be in the top 6 answers. He and his contemporary, the better-known Saint Klementi, founded the country’s first important literary school and translated Greek Orthodox texts into the slavic language. Sveti Naum may not be as famous as Macedonian Michael Stoyanov (oldest brother on TV’s Blossom) but he’s pretty close.
In 900, Sveti Naum built a monastery overlooking Lake Ohrid and the impossibly clear River Drin. The monastery became known as a treatment center for the mentally ill and a peaceful place for pilgrimages. It’s still quite peaceful, but now the monastic rooms for rent have turned into an upscale hotel, the river features waterside cafes, and peacocks roam the grounds. We were there to see a bit of history-and let’s face, it, peacocks. They’re pretty cool, for birds. Macedonians seem to think so too since they’re on the 10-denar note.
We wanted to see the real thing, so we made the pleasant 40 minute drive from the town of Ohrid. Sveti Naum can also be reached by boat, which might be more picturesque. When we parked by the car entrance, we met a dubious “parking attendant” and walked through a gauntlet of souvenir kiosks before reaching the outer grounds of the monastery. It was a disconcerting welcome to an ancient place of worship. Yet the sight of Sveti Naum makes it all worth it.
The main church is quite small. Additional chambers were added over centuries, making it feel like a tiny labyrinth. The abbot was concluding a service when I arrived. I didn’t know if I could walk in or not, so I stood by the entrance to peer at his white and gold robes, listen to his chanting, and inhale the incense fumes drifting out of the church.
Taking photos is forbidden. I was alone in the church for a short period of time but decided it was better to simply enjoy the experience than to furtively snap pictures. (Maybe I’m getting soft.) The faded, dark frescoes have a spiritual quality that would have been hard to capture anyway. Many of the saints depicted were now blind, as their eyes were scratched out by the faithful who believed that the plaster could be used in potions to improve eyesight.
Sveti Naum is buried here, and his remains are in an antechamber filled with icons. It’s said that if you press your ear to his coffin, you can hear the muffled sounds of his still-thumping heart. The only sound I could hear was the odd mewing of peacocks outside; but I didn’t have to hear a thing to know that Sveti Naum was the heartbeat of Macedonia.
Survey says, it’s a Macedonian experience I’m glad we didn’t miss.