Light of a Monastic Life Still Shines Underground in Ukraine

Light a single candle. Breathe the cold, damp air. Perhaps say a prayer. Begin your descent into monastic history. Founded in 1057, the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra cave labyrinth is merely a small part of a compound of gold-domed churches, iconoclastic art, and one of the oldest monasteries in Eastern Europe.

Both a spiritual center and a sacred place for pilgrims traveling from all over the world, ancient monks carved the caves at Pechersk Lavra under a hillside that is now the city of Kiev. Kyivan princes supported the monastery by donating money and land as well as building a six meter high stone wall to fortify the underground cave monastery. The stone wall was later replaced by one made of wood when the Tatars invaded the region and tore down the original fortification. The monks, largely arising from the educated and upper classes, soon became the most recognized religious and cultural center in the Kyivan Rus.

The cave complex is comprised of Far and Near Caves established and excavated by the abbots, Venerable Anthony and the Venerable Varlaam respectively. During the abbotship of the Venerable Theodosius, in 1060-1062 a wooden monastery was built over the Far Caves. By the middle of the 1070s, the Dormition Cathedral was built and the monastery moved “upstairs” leaving the caves as a place of seclusion for ascetics and becoming a burial place for the brothers.

The burial rite used by these Ukrainian monks has long been a source of spiritual controversy and folk tale. During the occupation of Ukraine by Germany in World War II, bodies of the saintly monks were exhumed to be thrown in the Dnipro River. Yet, when the German soldiers began loading glass coffins on the awaiting trucks, the vehicles refused to start, forcing Nazi soldiers to abandon their plan. The unique air composition and humidity preserved many bodies in their glass coffins through the centuries as well and today, travelers can see the relics of 123 saints in the bowels of Kyiv’s underground.