Every day for some thirty years an orthodox monk had lived and prayed in that cave carved into the cliffs at Old Orhei, Moldova. But the day we visited he was not at home. “I’ve no idea where he is, it’s only the second time this has ever happened”, my guide, Slava, explained sheepishly as, for the umpteenth time, he grappled with the iron ring on the sturdy oak door that barred our way into the cave monastery.
Some villagers trickling down from a church higher up the ridge provided a clue. Slava barked a question in Moldovan as they passed; a couple muttered back in unison, pointing back towards the church. We found the monk there; he had been meeting with local priests to discuss the intricacies of sacred life in this remote outpost of the orthodox faith where the holy men seemed to outnumber their congregation. Sporting traditional black robes and long grey beard, the monk was so bent over with age that I felt a pang of guilt at causing him to engage his creaking limbs in the name of tourism.
It took an age for him to shuffle back down to his monastery, laden with supplies from the church, and a monumental effort to heave open the door. Shafts of light shot over his F-shaped form into the tunnel beyond, illuminating steps that transport the faithful and unfaithful tourists alike down into a realm trapped in time, the last remnant of an ascetic life once shared by dozens of medieval monks who had resided in other caves there high above the River Raut at Old Orhei.
We followed the monk into a cave flickering with candlelight that picked out gold from picture frames on the walls and from incense burners sprouting from the floor. To the right was a small chapel, the focal point an ornate wooden shrine inset with brightly painted icons with golden haloes. To the left a small alcove was filled with a pallet bed and a handful of personal belongings – barely enough to fit into a small suitcase. There were two other doors. One led to the cells where the monk’s medieval predecessors had slept, hiding deep within the earth to escape the attentions of Tatar raiders. We went through the other door onto a ledge with sweeping views along the river valley, which was flanked by a cliff face pockmarked with entrances to former cave monasteries for as far as the eye could see.
A way of life that made sense in the Middle Ages, when discomfort was of little import compared to the horrors anticipated beyond the grave and when an aesthetic life was not necessarily much tougher than “normal life”, began to lose its shine as regular monasteries were built throughout Moldova where monks could still live holy lives but in far greater comfort.
As we passed back through the monastery, the monk was already deep in prayer, seeking union with the Almighty as he had done there underground each day for the past thirty years. Now he is the last of his kind in Old Orhei, a relic of a bygone age, and so I wondered whether another monk would take over when he passed away or whether instead the cave door would become permanently locked this time.