It was by God's providence that I, as a student and as a person seeking God, yearning for the monastic life, came to the Monastery of Crna Reka [in the Diocese of Raska and Prizren]. At that time, a small brotherhood was there. His Grace Bishop Artemije was the abbot then, and he guided the brotherhood.
A talk by His Grace Bishop Teodosije of Lipljan,
delivered at the St. Herman of Alaska Serbian
Orthodox Monastery, Platina, California , June 19, 2008
At Crna Reka I found a monastic community that had been established according to the coenobitic typicon. The brotherhood lived very humbly. Crna Reka was unlike other monasteries in the Serbian Orthodox Church. I was drawn to it by the great Christian love that the brothers had for each other, as well as by the modesty and peacefulness that radiated from them. I consider my arrival and the beginning of my monastic life at Crna Reka to be a great blessing from God. All the monks who came there laid a foundation for their future monastic life.
Our abbot taught us to deny self will; he taught us to be modest, not to be prideful and not to have haughty thoughts. He also taught us that we should see a brother in every man who came to visit, and that we should extend our hospitality to him. So, this is how Crna Reka became a light that shone far, upon all who loved the monastic life. What is most important about Crna Reka Monastery is that it became a nursery for monasticism—a place from which our great monasteries, founded by the Nemanic dynasty, renewed their monastic communities.
Personally, I think that we were not aware of what God desired for us. We looked at things very simply and gave ourselves up to God's will.
I arrived at Crna Reka in 1987, and four years later Bishop Artemije was elected as Bishop of the Diocese of Raska and Prizren to replace His Holiness Patriarch Pavle, who had been the bishop in that diocese for thirty-three years. Many of our monks were filled with sorrow at Vladika Artemije's departure from the monastery. It was said at the time that his departure would be a big loss for the Church. I, on the other hand, felt spiritual joy; I said to others that we would not lose anything, but rather that Crna Reka would spread throughout the entire diocese, and that the diocese would become like Crna Reka.
I am grateful to God that we all began our monastic life in such modest conditions. Later, however, it was by God's providence that, I together with seven other brothers, moved to Visoki Decani Monastery. With our relocation, a new chapter in the history and life of Visoki Decani Monastery began. Our small brotherhood moved there, bringing with us the typicon and spirit of Crna Reka Monastery as from a royal lavra.
We lacked experience, but we were led by our bishop [i.e., Bishop Artemije]. We also had great help from St. King Stefan of Decani [whose holy relics are treasured at Decani Monastery]. Soon the brotherhood began to grow. Even then we did not know what God expected from us, why all this was happening.
The Lord gave us six years of peaceful life so that the brotherhood could be formed, and so as to allow our spiritual and monastic lives to take root. Later we were visited with suffering in Kosovo. Everyone here knows how our holy shrines were destroyed and what the people endured.
Albanian extremists rose up against the Serbian population. The greatest number of these extremists was located in the vicinity of our monastery. We, of course, did not know what was coming. We did, however, have a few signs from God. One of these signs was a cloud that surrounded the dome of our church, circling around it. This was first noticed by one of our monastery workers. It was in the evening. The cloud then spread throughout the entire monastery, went down to the river below our monastery, and from there it headed in the direction of central Serbia . We did not know what this meant, or how to explain it.
In the course of the conflict of 1998–1999, everything around the monastery was destroyed: everything Serbian and Albanian. Many bombs fell in the proximity of the monastery during the NATO air attack. Our monastery was in great danger, but it was the only place that remained untouched. Not one window was broken. It was as if God was protecting our monastery.
Visoki Decani was a place to which many came seeking shelter and help. First, our Serbian people came for help. Later, when the Serbian army was withdrawing from Kosovo in 1999, a few hundred Albanians with their families came to us, seeking help. We also had Romas [Gypsies] and Muslims come. We received them all as brothers; we did not discriminate against anyone. This is precisely why we are so blessed and happy. We truly saw that Visoki Decani Monastery played a very important role, and many people throughout the world know this today. We helped both Serbs and Albanians because we knew that St. King Stefan would never differentiate: if someone would come to him with faith, he would provide him with help. And while the two sides hated each other, we in the monastery could not hate anyone. This was also our security—a guarantee for our survival in that place. We are just regular people. Even though we are monastics, we could not have behaved in such a manner—to have had such peace and love—without our Lord's gift of Grace, with which He sealed us.
The Serbian army withdrew; the NATO troops moved in and immediately took our monastery under their protection. We sought their protection because of the danger that existed after the conflict in 1999. Another miracle from God was the fact that, during this isolation, our monastery continued its regular monastic life. We had some freedom, and our monastery continued to grow. The NATO soldiers in charge of our monastery's protection, who are Italian, made themselves available to us, offering their help in monastery projects. Here again, our brotherhood found itself in the role of being transmitters of God's love and of Orthodox spirituality to people who are not of the Orthodox Faith—in this case, to people who came to Kosovo as occupiers. Truly, during all this time, living almost nine years under the protection of these soldiers, we have had the opportunity to convert many to the Orthodox Faith. Many have been baptized, and those that have not received baptism have certainly taken with them a great love for Orthodoxy.
So, if we look back, we see now that God truly wanted our monastery brotherhood, along with St. King Stefan of Decani, to be a vehicle for many to find their salvation in the Orthodox Faith, even in the midst of hardship.
At the present time, there are no Serbs in the vicinity of our monastery. We are surrounded by Albanian Muslims. Among them there are those who respect us, and there are those who are extremists. It is the latter who have launched grenades at us, four times so far. Their goal is to scare us and the soldiers who guard us. Of course, their goal is for us to leave our monastery. These same extremists have destroyed over 150 churches since 1999.
We, of course, are not frightened. Our brotherhood is growing, and today we have thirty monks. It is the same with other monasteries in Kosovo.
I should mention that those Albanian neighbors who sympathize with us cannot show this in any way, out of fear for their lives. So, as you can see, the situation is rather bad in every way—politically, security-wise, etc.
In addition, I must say that the situation for our Serbian people who stayed in Kosovo is even harder. Our monastic communities play a very important role for our remaining people. Our holy shrines provide spiritual support, and our monks are doing everything they can to help our people. I say this in order to convey to you how important it is for us monastics to have peace before our Lord and to accept everything that comes from Him, whether we want it or not. If a man attains peace and if he is ready to receive everything as God's will, then God's help will certainly not be lacking. I think that, for a monastic, the most important thing is to acquire peace and self denial, for everyone rejoices in a peaceful person, but everyone flees the proud.
I am not a very good speaker. I have good brothers who make up for my shortcomings, and when we are together we are complete. When I have to do something by myself, I feel tremulous. You are our brothers. It is a blessing to live in community. I give thanks to God that, after I was consecrated as a bishop, I was able to stay in the monastery. It is dangerous for a bishop to live without monastics around him. Likewise, if a bishop does not like monastics, he is on a dangerous path.
Bishop Maxim [of the Western American Diocese] has monks with him. This way they look at each other and can see one another as if in a mirror. It is very difficult if a man is alone as a monastic, surrounded by lay people only; he becomes lost very quickly.
Every monastic needs to understand that he is saved in relation to other monastics or brothers. He cannot manifest egotism in any way. He must be ready to serve. This service, which is constant love for one another, returns God's love, and this is what God is asking of us. In a community, we have an opportunity to serve one another and live a common life.
This is very important for us as human beings. Temptations are necessary so that a man can be purified and ever continue his growth in Christ. The Holy Fathers say that this is similar to rocks in a river: when water moves them and they rub against each other, they become polished, but if there is only one rock, it will remain the same. We are human beings, not angels, but we cannot harbor evil in our hearts. Of course, it is easier to speak about this than to fulfill it.
We have a very simple life in our monastery; it is a coenobitic or communal way of life. We follow a typicon as on the Holy Mountain [of Athos]. Since we are a coenobitic monastery, we don't have the solitary, hesychastic way of life. Of course, we should not be saddened at this. We had some monks who longed for the solitary life, and they left the monastery. After they left, however, they did not find what they were looking for. This was because they did not have inner peace ( smirenje ).
Man can acquire God's Grace in many ways. The Lives of Saints are a great example of this. No two people have received God's Grace in the same way. St. Seraphim of Sarov said that we need to be like a wise merchant who continues to trade in such a way as to acquire the most profit. The practical goal and aim of every ascetic effort ( podvig ) is to acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit. If we do not accomplish this, we are in great danger. It is rather sad if someone has made a great ascetic effort but has failed to prepare himself as a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, acquiring peace is the greatest guarantee of every ascetic effort. As salt is necessary for food, likewise the peace of one's soul is necessary for ascetic endeavors.
Q: Because of the circumstances in Kosovo today, we assume that the monks in your monastery probably have to help people every day either liturgically or pastorally, providing relief, even taking care of the sick outside of the monastery. Please explain to us what all this entails.
A: I have said many times that we monastics who live in Kosovo have been given a privilege by God as no one else has. This is something that we ourselves have to truly respect and understand properly. In places like Kosovo, a person can gain salvation very easily.
On one side we are faced with danger, that is, we live in uncertainty, and this allows us to surrender ourselves to God's will. In Kosovo, we have those who truly need help. During the communist regime in Serbia , churches and monasteries were very poor and people were supporting them. Today, when we have certain freedoms and when many rich people want to help through the Church, we are in a position where we must help our people, most especially in Kosovo, where departments and institutions of our [Serbian] state don't exist. Our people see the Church as an institution, and so we must be doing that which in a normal situation would have been done by the state. This is in no way easy.
On one side it is very difficult, and on the other, it gives much joy and Grace. I take the opportunity to visit all the [Serbian Orthodox] enclaves, which are like islands or oases in the desert. Actually, they are little villages in wide-open areas, saved only by a miracle of God. Because I myself cannot always go, I have given the obedience to three monks to go around and visit our people, to be with them. Following each visit, these three monks inform me of our people's needs. Then through various funds I try to get them help. The monks truly do this with great joy. Besides giving material help to our people, we are also establishing trust between them and the Church, and some of them have returned to church. Therefore, at this moment, this is our mission.
Our duty is twofold. One is to maintain our monastery in every way, spiritually and materially; the other is to ensure that the monastery has the means to help others—it cannot be short of food and other supplies. Our monasteries now serve as centers for help, and people can at any moment come to us for aid.
Historically this has always been the case. During the five centuries under Turkish occupation, the monastery was given special treatment; for example, it did not pay taxes, and so on. Thus, the monastery was able to help the people. It did not just keep everything for itself, but rather gave to those in need. Historians have written much about this role of the monasteries. Many moments from history repeat themselves. Such is the case with the monastery's role in providing assistance to those in need in our day.
Q: Two years ago, Sister Irina from Gracanica Monastery [in Kosovo] showed some pictures of some medical work that she did in villages. Are they able to continue that work today?
A: Yes, regularly. Sister Irina from Gracanica Monastery has the blessing of her abbess and of Bishop Artemije, in whose diocese Gracanica is located. They continue to provide medical help to our people in the villages. Of course, Sister Irina is a medical doctor. She receives some help from other doctors as well. Their work is very important because there are some villages that no one wants to visit. We who are in the Church can go and visit them, and we are doing that on a regular basis. Of course, it is always necessary for us monastics to have a good balance between our prayer life and the social work that we are called to do.
Our Lord said: The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few (Matt. 9:37). In Kosovo, there are many places that need our help and work. Of course, our work is not enough, but we do what we can. Our Lord does not expect us to do everything. But, at any given moment, that which is given to us we readily do and we cannot neglect it.
Q: A man came to us recently who visited Serbia last year. He had a shirt on with the inscription: Crucified Kosovo—Resurrected Serbia.
A: Yes, there are many people who in such a way express their feelings about Kosovo. I think that this is good in Belgrade and other places, so that other people can remember Kosovo. But this can also be very dangerous if it is used in the wrong way and in the wrong place.
There was recently an incident where a young Serbian man crossed a bridge that separates the southern, Albanian side [of Kosovo] from the northern, Serbian side. He was dressed in black and had a cross on his shirt. He ran across the bridge and opened fire on Albanian police. The young man ended up in the hospital in Pristina, and I do not know what happened after that.
On the same night as the shooting, someone put a Serbian flag on the top of a minaret. This was a big insult to Albanian Muslims, and they surely sought revenge afterwards.
Every act of instigation further complicates the situation for us Serbs who live in Kosovo. I told Serbian soldiers not to fire at mosques, since Albanians do not know the Gospel and Christian moral values. Their morality is to seek revenge. They remember evil done to them for many years and consider it their duty to avenge themselves.
So, this is why our young people who wear shirts with similar slogans can actually make the situation more difficult for us who live in Kosovo. I don't think this is well-pleasing to God. In these hard times for Serbs, it is more important to work through peace rather than through these external manifestations.
Q: What is the origin of the term Visoki Decani? Is it called “Visoki” [High] because there is also another, lower monastery?
A: It is because, when it was built, the church was the tallest church in the area. The height of it, from the floor to the dome, is twenty-nine meters.
Visoki Decani was founded by the Nemanic dynasty. It received its title due to its height, by which it directs us to heaven and to God.
Thank you for your care; we know that you pray for us. Your prayers strengthen us. May God grant that we continue praying for one another here on earth, and may He also grant that we be together in heaven, in His Kingdom.
You see how far apart we are in terms of miles, and yet we are like one. That is because our Lord and the Holy Spirit inspires and guides us.
THE DECANI MONASTERY RELIEF FUND
Those desiring to help Decani Monastery in its work of giving aid to the suffering Serbian people of Kosovo can send donations to the Decani Monastery Relief Fund (DMRF). All the money donated to the DMRF goes directly to Decani Monastery, where it is used to purchase food, clothing, fuel for heating and cooking, and other needed commodities for the scattered remnants of Serbs in Kosovo. Entire families depend on the food that the monks deliver, and on the two soup kitchens that the DMRF supports. The DMRF also provides monetary assistance for housing and medical care. It supports four schools in the region by providing classroom supplies, wood for heating, and assistance to pay for electricity. Firewood is also purchased for churches, monasteries, and convents. The Fund supports the education of war orphans (with a regular scholarship every three months) and children with developmental disabilities in Gracanica.
Donations are fully tax-deductible and may be sent to:
c/o Very Rev. Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes, President
Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church
2618 W. Bannock Street
Boise , ID 83702 USA
(Tel: 208-345-6147, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)