FIVE HUNDRED and thirty years ago, says St. Nikolai Velimirovic, “Tsar Lazar chose the heavenly Kingdom. He stood with Christ and His honorable Cross, and lost both his [earthly] kingdom and his head. The world thought that Lazar had suffered a catastrophic defeat and that the Serbian nation was broken forever. However, the event preserved an invisible radiance that was never shrouded in fog. ‘All was holy and honorable and acceptable to our gracious God. “
To this day in the land of Kosovo, there are men and women who have chosen to follow in the footsteps of their ancestral king, and by “choosing the kingdom of the highest ideals,” they are gaining heavenly crowns through their sufferings. It was to this land, and to this people, that we were blessed to make a pilgrimage during the summer of 1996.
From my youth, all that I had ever heard about Serbia was the American media’s horrific description of the atrocities of the war in Bosnia. Besides this, I knew it was an Orthodox country, and regarded the iconography as some of the best in the world. In utmost eagerness I had anticipated this journey, hardly even daring to believe that I would actually be going.
Never in my life had I been to a traditional Orthodox country and walked on holy ground where monastics had labored for hundreds of years. I had no idea of the profound effect that this land and those whom we would meet would have upon my soul. Most of the people still live in villages and till the land in Serbia. Nowhere did you see a fast-mart gas station, suburban mall, or fast-food restaurant. It was a common sight to behold a man and his sons riding a horse-drawn cart carrying a huge mound of hay, with geese and pigs running in front. When the bus slowed down, one could at times look into the faces of the people on the side of the road, and wonder what they thought of us American tourists who had stepped right out of the Western world.
Our bus wound its way through the beautiful Serbian countryside filled with rolling fields of wheat and golden expanses of sunflowers. The land with its cultivated hills, plum tree orchards, grapevines and farms was a feast for the eyes. The colors themselves and the sky seemed to be brighter than usual. Since Serbia is mostly a rural country, nearly everyone works in the fields, peacefully tending gardens and animals, as if in fulfillment of the ancient law given to Adam to labor and bring forth fruit by the sweat of his brow.
No supermarkets are to be found; meals are made with bread from a family’s own wheat, cheese from their own cow, and vegetables from their own garden. Picturesque haystacks dot the verdant fields, and the simple white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs only enhance the beauty of the countryside. We couldn’t get enough of the sight, and it caused us to reflect on how far away we have removed ourselves from the original plan of salvation, and how much has been lost in the modern world. No wonder there is such emptiness in the hearts of our people; the natural way of life given to us has been replaced with “virtual reality,” TV dinners, and concrete jungles.
No wonder so few in America are still willing to die for their country, or even to express a love for it.
On our way south to Kosovo, we were blessed to venerate the miracle – working relics of the holy Serbian Tsar-Martyr Lazar himself, where they lie whole and incorrupt in the Monastery of Ravanica. We were traveling on a tourist bus with Fr. Milos, the Serbian pastor of a large parish in Illinois, and some of his parishioners, mostly American Serbs.
Ravanica Monastery is a God-graced monastic abode, treasuring not only the relics of the all-venerable Tsar Martyr Lazar, but also those of St. Romilos, disciple of St. Gregory of Sinai, and Blessed Euphemia (+1958)
The monastery suffered ruin and desolation many times in its history: the Moslems burnt and pulled it down in 1396, 1436, 1436 and again in 1686-7, when all the monks were killed. The monastery was assaulted once more in the early 1 9th century, and finally it was badly damaged by Germans during World War II when its Abbot, Macarios, was arrested, tortured, and put to death by a firing squad in 1943. Due to the efforts of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich’s spiritual daughter, Schema-Abbess Euphemia, Ravanica Monastery was spiritually renewed, and is now the largest women’s monastery in Serbia, with many young nuns. We were bringing with us the Life of Schema-Abbess Euphemia which our monastery had recently published in English. After venerating the relics in the church, we proceeded to sing a Panikhida at the grave of Blessed Euphemia. There, the first English edition of the life of the spiritual mother of Ravanica was presented to Abbess Gabriela and the sisters. Mother Gabriela had entered the monastery when she was twelve, and Abbess Euphemia had raised her to be her successor. She had been through all the wandering, exile, and trials of war with Blessed Euphemia, and was the main author of this book.
Mother Gabriela was deeply moved, and said how thankful they were that the veneration of their spiritual mother had spread across the ocean. Abbess Gabriela told us later that they gained courage to publish the Life only after they saw the Life of St. John Maximovitch, since they thought that no one would believe what they wrote about Blessed Euphemia. Fr. Milos wrote in the Preface to this book that it is “a balm on the wounds of the present Serbian suffering.” Filled with the grace we received there, and the blessing of Tsar-Martyr Lazar, at last we were to go to the heartland of Serbia’s history of martyrdom -to the region of Kosovo. The farther south we traveled, the higher up we went into the mountains, passing famous monasteries and ancient fortresses. Along this same road the warriors of Kosovo traveled: “These were good men, brave men, manly men both in word and deed, men who shone like glistening stars, like fields embellished with dazzling flowers-who shone as though they were adorned in golden raiment and precious stones.” There were rainstorms up in the higher elevations; the hills were green, and the air clear and fresh. From the top of a river gorge, we looked down and noticed several caves along the cliffs. I thought to myself that surely there must have been desert dwellers in this wilderness, silently guarding the monastic flame. As we crossed over into the Moslem area, there was a noticeable difference in the surrounding countryside. In the midst of the most incredible, majestic scenes of nature, smoking piles of trash were left along the highway. More and more minarets appeared, rising out of small mountain villages. It somehow felt as if we were no longer in Serbia, but in occupied territory..
Decani, XIV century Serbian Orthodox monastery
St. Stephen’s life was martyric from his early youth. When only a boy, he was sent by his father, King Milutin, as a hostage of the Tartars to be a guarantee of Serbian trust. With God’s help, he was delivered from imprisonment, only to be slandered to his father, who had him blinded and sent to Pantocrator Monastery in Constantinople in order that the strict asceticism might weaken and kill him. St. Nicholas appeared to him and told him he would one day restore his sight.The church was completed in 1335 by St. Stephen of Decani, whose whole, incorrupt and miracle-working relics lie inside. He built the Monastery out of gratitude to God for healing his blindness.
Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich says of St. Stephen’s exile: “By his wisdom and ascesis, his meekness and devotion, his patience and greatness of soul, Stephen surpassed not only the monks in that monastery but those in the whole of Constantinople.”
Five years later St. Nicholas came to him during a vigil service and restored his eyesight as he had promised. After his return to Serbia, Stephen was crowned king by the holy Archbishop Nikodim in the church at Pec. His son, King Dusan, disagreed with his father on the course their country should take and had his father strangled, and thus the martyr-king finished his much-suffering course. When his casket was opened, his relics were found to be whole and incorrupt, and began working miracles. Repentant, Tsar Dusan crawled on his knees from the village of Decani to the Monastery, begging the forgiveness of God. Dusan went on to become one of Serbia’s mightiest rulers.
St. Stephen’s miracle-working presence can be felt there very strongly; he is sought especially for the healing of the eyes. Many miracles have been performed for non-Orthodox and even Moslems. Even today, one can see Albanian Moslems of Kosovo-men, women, and children-coming to visit the Serbian monastery. The men wear their white skullcaps; and their women, holding infant children or walking alone, come to venerate the Mother of God, or the relics of a saint which are treasured in the monastery and are known to help where all else fails. While we were there we saw a Moslem woman and her family who had come to be healed by St. Stephen.
The entire inside of the church is covered with more than 1,000 luminous frescos which are almost entirely preserved. Sunlight streamed in from the high windows adorning the dome, and it truly seemed as if we were walking into a cradle of holiness. The tomb of St. Stephen is raised off the ground in such a way that one can crawl all the way underneath for a special blessing. The relics of his sister, St. Helena, are also there, together with a coffin containing the bones of some of the warriors of the Battle of Kosovo. According to tradition, St. Helena was forced to marry the Bulgarian King Michael. She was later banished, returned co Serbia and became a nun. At one time during World War I, the Bulgarians tried to take away the casket of St. Helena but fire shot out of it and scorched the wall. A crack and black mark can still be seen. They also tried to take away the relics of St. Stephen on a cart. Reaching the village, they were stopped by an invisible force and had to bring them back.
Although the church in Decani Monastery has been preserved unscathed, the brotherhood and monastery grounds have suffered greatly throughout the centuries at the hands of the Moslems, and most recently from the communists. Everything except the church had been totally destroyed and burnt to the ground, while the monks lived in great peril for their lives. For twenty years the monastery only had four elderly hieromonks in its community, and it was not until four years ago that it was safe enough to send more brothers. Even today, iron bars cover most of the windows, and the number of hostile Albanians in the nearby village ever increases.
Being almost completely surrounded by the Albanians (who are Moslems), Decani Monastery has become an important spiritual and missionary center for the whole country. In September of 1992, more than 2,000 people were baptized in the Bistrica River outside the monastery. There are twenty brothers there now, and we were surprised that many of them were young, not older than their mid-thirties. The most recent brother, twenty-two years old, had arrived the week before to become a novice. We learned that he used to be a theater and movie actor, as well as a guitar player in a very popular band. Right before leaving for the monastery, he had won several awards for his acting in television performances, and there was not one popular magazine in Serbia that had not interviewed or written an article about him as the greatest new young talent. On top of this, his rock band released a debut album that hit number one on the top television lists in Serbia. But he despised all this in order to become a monk and so die to the world. We learned that under the inspired spiritual fatherhood of Bishop Artemye, who followed in the footsteps of the hermit St. Peter of Koris in Crna Reka Monastery, Decani is attracting more and more urban youth from the subculture.
There was something very familiar about this monastery, and we realized with amazement that it felt very much like our St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in the mountainous wilderness of California, where the grave of Fr. Seraphim Rose lies. As we walked down the hallways, there was a lively feeling in the air. Everything was worn and handmade; even the smells from the kitchen seemed the same! Even though we were not to meet the young monks, it was encouraging to know that young people coming straight out of the contemporary world were also struggling here. We were inspired to see that publishing was also a part of their life. At that time they were working on the life of St. Stephen of Decani. Seeing their publishing labors made us feel all the more at home in this holy monastery on the other side of the world. A mountain river runs along the outside wall, but unfortunately it is a popular spot for sunbathers. One of the hieromonks, Fr. Sava, spoke English and was blessed to show us the monastery. He said that many of the monks there, including himself, were converted by the writings of Fr. Seraphim Rose, who seemed to speak right to their hearts in the modern language. In a later letter to us he wrote, “Fr. Seraphim Rose, who was one of the greatest contemporary beacons of Orthodoxy, helped many of us with his wonderful writings to find our way to Orthodoxy and monasticism. We were blind to our tradition, and it was only then when we heard the living words of a contemporary saint that we felt the meaning and value of our faith.” In the light of the bright afternoon sun we were shown the monastery barn yard and wood shop, where some of the brothers were working on wood carvings and repairs. Pointing up to a nearby mountain, Fr. Sava said that there are caves and hermitages where desert dwellers used to live across the gorge. A little door in the stone wall surrounding the monastery was pointed out to us, where the communists used to spy on the monks. With the sounding of the semantron, we all went to church for Vespers. The young pilgrims were very inspired since St. Stephen is the patron of their choiri thus, the singing was more magnificent than ever before. On the right side of the church was the largest fresco I had ever seen, of the Lord in full figure; and there was such a look of love and infinite wisdom in His face that you could just stand there and pray for hours. The monks in their klobuks conducted the services at the left kliros. As the youth choir began singing “O Gentle Light,” sunbeams were playing high above on the face of the Pantocrator in the dome. Words cannot describe the resplendence of this simple services but everyone expressed afterwards that it had greatly moved their hearts. It was clear that the long-suffering Martyr-King Stephen of Decani is drawing young souls to the spiritual battlefield in the heart of Kosovo. His monastery offers those who wish to follow in his footsteps a voluntary life of tribulation and sorrow with the chance to purify themselves like gold in the furnace. The political situation in Kosovo right now is on the brink of explosion. But in the words of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic: “Assuredly, one who sacrifices everything for one radiant ideal has always emerged victorious.” They are like lambs for the slaughter, who are joyfully preparing themselves to join the heavenly choir of the New Martyrs of Serbia.