One might think that fire, the great destroyer of medieval Lviv, would have been feared above all else. One fatal spark could lead to the entire city being reduced to smoldering ruins. Fire performed its destructive work without prejudice. Whether it was houses of worship or the houses of merchants, flames consumed the city on multiple occasions. The majority of these fires were the product of accident or conflict. A rare exception to this rule was the burning of a monastic complex in Lviv during the year 1464, only four years after it was first erected. When several monks at the monastery succumbed to plague, the citizens of Lviv burned the wooden monastery and adjoining chapel of the Bernadine order in an effort to combat the spread of this loathsome disease. Yet a different type of fire also turned out to be a great sustainer of the Bernadine Monastery, specifically the fires of faith. Like so many other religious complexes in Lviv, the monastery was resurrected in new and improved form, as much by the power of belief, as by the works of man. It would eventually grow to be the Bernadine Monastery and later transformed into the Church of St. Andrew, which still stands today. It is here that a spiritual fire burns in the heart of Lviv.
Miles From Normal – The Path To Asceticism
Monasteries bring to mind devotion, austerity and asceticism. These very qualities helped the Bernadine order to thrive in Lviv. Such traits were bolstered by a fiery faith that burned brightly throughout the centuries. No member of the order better symbolized this passion better than John of Dukla, a man who made the monastery his home and would eventually be venerated inside the walls of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Andrew (today the Greek Catholic Church of St. Andrew). John of Dukla was born in 1414 in what is now southeastern Poland, on the edge of the Carpathians Mountains. His family was middle class family and said to be religious. It is always difficult to imagine a saint as a normal person, often due to the exalted status given to them retroactively, but John of Dukla was anything but normal from the start. He spent part of his youth as a hermit in the thick, mountainous forest near his home, pursuing a hermetic existence during his youth. At the age of sixteen he joined the Order of Friars Minors (Franciscans – also known in the region as Bernadines), first moving to the monastery in Krosno, Poland before attending theological school in Krakow.
In 1440 he moved to Lviv, where he would spend most of his life. John was noted for his ability to settle schismatic disputes between those of widely varying beliefs. This helped him attain several positions as an officer within the order. When he did venture further afield to preach outside of the region, his trilingual abilities (he spoke Polish, Ukrainian and German) served him well in preaching the gospel. John was a man who practiced what he preached, to the point that he broke with one branch of the Franciscans, to join an incipient group known as the Observants. They practiced an extremely austere lifestyle, living in poverty while honoring their beliefs with an unyielding fervor. In this environment John thrived, he became a highly respected leader in the movement. Near the end of his life, John lost his eyesight, but this did not hinder his intellectual abilities. He learned his sermons by heart, presenting them to followers. In 1484 he died at the Bernadine Monastery in Lviv.
The Afterlife – A Path To Sainthood
The spirit of John of Dukla’s life burned even brighter after his death, becoming synonymous with the Bernadine Monastery and what would eventually become the Roman Catholic Church of St. Andrew. His career as confessor and preacher took on an even greater significance. The first miracle attributed to John of Dukla post-mortem, occurred when freshwater springs were struck on the site of his burial. Later miracles were of such notoriety that a series of tempera paintings known as the Hundred Miracles of St. John of Dukla (he was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1733) were painted in the Church of St. Andrew. These can still be seen today and display healings that took place after appeals through prayer were offered to St. John. For example, a story is portrayed of a man who was thought to have drowned, but began breathing again. To the “enlightened” western mind the idea of such miracles seems dubious at best, superstitious at worst. Such healings must have been the product of coincidence. Conversely, they may also exemplify the miraculous power of belief endemic to the human experience. Belief in a higher power will forever be a commonality to John of Dukla and his followers past, present and future.
For a man who lived a life of asceticism it is hard to imagine what John of Dukla would make of the Bernadine Monastery’s transformation into the Church of St. Andrew and his resulting veneration within these walls? He would likely find it foreign, both figuratively and literally. The building’s mannerist architectural style comes from the Italian and Dutch Renaissance, the interior is filled with rich baroque decoration, evocative of Mitteleuropa. The cathedral is filled with lavish works of art, the very opposite of austere. The main altar is known as the St. John of Dukla altar. This is where portrayals of his many miracles take center stage. Within the cathedral walls John of Dukla has become Saint John of Dukla, raised to the status of immortality.
Perhaps the greatest miracle involving St. John of Dukla has been his transition from an ascetic life to a long and glorious afterlife. He started out as a hermit seeking contemplation and solitude deep in the Carpathian woods. He then graduated to a life of devout monasticism within the walls of a wooden monastery in Lviv. In death he was raised to the level of reverential sainthood. Though the passion and preaching of St. John of Dukla has long since passed into history, the ideal he represented lives on. Today, he is more than a man, more than a monk, more than a saint. He is the fire of faith burning bright in those who feel the power of belief.