A Pilgrimage to Kosovo Today

By Ryassaphore Nun Natalia
Holy Cross Scete, Ca

An inspiring pilgirmage report by a nun of Holy Cross Skete
with impressions from her visit to the Orthodox shrines of
Kosovo in 1996

 1. ON OUR WAY TO KOSOVO

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 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.

Ravanica Monastery
Ravanica Monastery


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..

 2. THE PATRIARCHATE OF PEC


It took about seven hours to reach our first destination in Kosovo. Several young people from the youth choir of St. Stephen Decani, from Novi Sad, also joined us on this part of the trip. They were joyfully singing in the back for most of the trip, but as night drew on and the bus continued winding its way, we all began to wonder when we would arrive. On the bus we marveled that we were traveling to the same area in which the righteous Katherine of Pec had lived and labored. All we knew about her was that she lived in the second half of the 19th century, and actually started a school for girls in Pec during a time when all women, especially women monastics, were subject to slavery and great harassment by the Turks.

The Patriarchate of Pec
The Patriarchate of Pec


When it was finally announced that we were at the monastery, the huge rock fortress-like walls of the Patriarchate of Pec stood before us guarding the entrance. It was already after 10 p.m., but in the darkness we could make our way along the cobblestone path, and hear the sound of a little stream running through the gardens. At last we had arrived at the stronghold and seedbed of the Serbian Orthodox Church. We were walking on holy ground.
Situated at the mouth of a picturesque river gorge, whose caves were once inhabited by hermits, the Patriarchate of Pec was founded in the 13th century, and was the ancient center of the hierarchs of Serbia. It was not until later that we found out that the Tsar-Martyr Lazar himself had received the Holy Mysteries in this church. Since it is on a main road, the Patriarchate has been devastated many times. Historically it was a men's monastery, but the last monks were expelled in 1941, and it was without monastics until 1957. During that time, seventy families came to live at Pec Monastery, to guard it against the Albanian Moslems who sought to destroy it. The Abbess, Mother Fevronia, was asked to come from another monastery with a group of seven nuns in 1957. The extensive monastery lands were confiscated by the com munists, except for a small forest. Only the church was left standing. In 1981 the old konak was set on fire by the Moslems. All of the nuns' personal belongings were destroyed, but the treasury and food storage were saved. Abbess Fevronia told us, "The greatest problems were in 1957 when they tried by every means to expel us. Their children left school to torment the sisters, so we had to ask the protection of the police, and always had police at our monastery gate. But the terror is now directed at the Serbian police, and many of them have been killed." Due to the danger of the area where the monastery is located, they have not had a new sister for fifteen years. This was a source of sadness for them, since many of them are growing old, and there are no young ones yet to replace them. Someone mentioned later that a new sister was on her way there to become a nun.

It was awesome to walk into the church, which is dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul. The three large stone churches built together are all connected by the narthex: the Church of the Apostles, the Church of St. Demetrius, and the main Church of the Hodigitria Virgin. Outside is also a small, richly frescoed stone chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra. As we entered the main church of the Virgin, we were struck by the feeling of holiness that surrounded us. In reverence we wondered what was the source of all of this grace. It was not until later that the mystery was revealed. There are relics of fourteen different holy hierarchs and martyrs here: St. Sava II, St. Nikodim, St. Maxim, St. Ioannikios, St. Arsenios, St. Spyridon, St. Ephraim, St. Sava III, St. Daniel II; and also the relics of the five martyrs Orestes, Mardarios, Auxentios, Eugene and Eustratios. Upon a golden throne of carved wood was the miracle-working icon of the Theotokos of Pec. This was one of the seventy icons painted by the Apostle Luke himself in the Garden of Gethsemane in 48 A.D. At first it was hard for me to believe, since it shone with an absolute radiance and did not seem ancient at all. The icon is hung with chains of gold and coins, placed there by people in gratitude, silently bearing witness to the miracles performed. We stood in front of this icon for three mornings in prayer and watched as the nuns never crossed in front of it without reverently making a prostration to the ground.

The intensity of the majesty of the church was enough to make you tremble. Upon the walls are painted larger-than-life frescos of the scenes of Christ's life. Fearsome angels with penetrating eyes stand flashing their swords at you from the walls, so full of character and expression that it seems as if they would come alive and sweep their weapons down upon you. The whole host of the saints of Serbia are depicted as a heavenly triumphant choir along the ceiling. As I turned around to walk out, I caught my breath, as there, on either side of the doorway are painted two huge frescos which I recognized from the icon books I had studied: that of St. Nicholas and of the Most Holy Theotokos. The ancient kings and patriarchs of Serbia also stand in procession, arrayed in heavenly finery which still retains its bright colors. In fear and absolute awe we attended the Divine Liturgy on the day of St. Marina, one of the most sublime and grace-filled services we had ever experienced. A friend described the singing of the youth choir to be so beautiful that it was as if the door to heaven was left ajar. On that morning, in the presence of all of the saints buried there, and with clouds of incense rising high up to the majestic Pantocrator in the dome, it really felt as if we were close to Paradise.

One night we asked the Abbess if we might be able to pray alone in the church for a while. As we sat outside waiting in the warm summer evening, one of the nuns brought us some melon and asked if we would sing something in English. We sang our troparion to the Precious Cross, and with joy she also rewarded us with a hymn in Serbian. Even though we could not speak their language, we communicated to some extent and delighted in one another's presence. Several of the nuns were very interested to know if we had any icons of the beloved St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco. The Serbs also consider him to be one of their own. As she went to retire, the sister handed us the two keys to their church. There we were, two sinful American nuns holding the huge and ancient keys to the church of the Patriarchs of Serbia. There we were, all alone, pouring out our prayers in supplication as we sang the Akathist hymn before the icon of the Mother of God. The lampadas were softly glowing in the darkness, and I was almost scared as I tiptoed alone into each of the churches, gazing at the large frescoes, surrounded by the relics of the holy Patriarchs. There we stayed until someone came looking for us.

The monastery surroundings were the loveliest we had ever beheld. Huge mountains rose up on all sides, and a crystal-clear river ran outside the walls. Shepherds could be seen with their sheep and donkeys on the hills, and in the mornings you could hear the tinkling bells of the sheep and the sweet piping of the shepherds. I had never seen a real shepherd before, or caught the free melody of his song. So much care was given to the gardens-there were flowers of all kinds bursting with color, evergreen bushes trimmed in the form of a cross, and the harmony of the humming bees and flowing stream sounded softly in the air. Only the ruins of the old buildings, the graveyard, and the suffering faces of the nuns bore witness to the martyrdom that this monastery has endured over the centuries.

During the last Liturgy at the Monastery of Pec, Fr. Milos gave a final, beautiful homily on the Gospel passage of the laborers in the vineyard. He spoke of those who are chosen, meaning the monks and nuns who labor in the monasteries of Kosovo, those who have given their entire life to God to live in an unending Liturgy with Him. "Our work is to beautify the world around us," he said, "and perhaps we will somehow be counted among the chosen in heaven, or at least be able to behold the light of those who are there."

 3. DECANI MONASTERY

From the Patriarchate of Pec we went to several different monasteries in Kosovo. The first day we traveled to one which became our favorite of all the men's monasteries. The monastery church at Decani, one of the largest medieval churches in Serbia, was never completely abandoned or desecrated. It is said that after the Battle of Kosovo there was a plan to convert the church into a mosque. This plan was abandoned when a Turk praying in front of the doorway in the direction of Mecca was killed by a falling stone.

Decani Monastery
Decani Monastery


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. 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. 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 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.

(Interview with Fr. Theodosy, the abbot of Decani Monastery)

 3. GRACANICA MONASTERY

The next day we were to visit the monastery containing the church which is considered the most beautiful in the Orthodox world. This monastery is located next to a large city very near the place where the Battle of Kosovo was fought. One gets the impression that it is not very easy here, being right in the middle of a hostile Moslem neighborhood.

Gracanica Monastery
Gracanica Monastery

Gracanica Monastery was St. King Milutin's greatest gift to the church in Serbian medieval times. He built forty churches, one for each year of his rule; this one was built in 1315. "In the alternating light and shadows Gracanica appeared to be an apparition of unreal beauty which inspired these verses from Desanka Maximovic: 'O Gracanica, if you were not made of stone, you would be raised to the skies."' A great cultural and artistic center Gracanica was famous for its library and printing in the late 16th century.

The monastery suffered numerous attacks, especially during the time of the Battle of Kosovo, when the buildings and precious manuscripts were burned and destroyed. In World War II, the restored konak was again totally ruined, and the church did not go unscathed. As in most other monasteries during the war, the monks were either killed, sent to concentration camps or conscripted, leaving the monastery without protection. During the time when there were no monks, several Serbian families lived in the monastery to protect it from destruction.

As we entered the church, it was very sad to see how the communists had carved out part of the frescoed walls of the narthex and replaced them with modern glass. The challenging gazes of the fully-armed warrior saints still depicted their utter fearlessness in the face of evil and their readiness to eternally fight the battle against the prince of this world. The noble women martyrs and Old Testament saints look down from the walls of the high, darkened vaults. On many of the frescos, the eyes have been gouged out by the God-haters, in an attempt to rob the saints of their power by blinding the windows to their souls.

Abbess Euphrosynia, who has lived in this monastery for forty-three years, welcomed us, and at our request described the monastery's present situation. The Abbess of Pec Monastery, Mother Fevronia, who had also come with us, said that everyone is waiting to see how long the peace will last. "We are waiting"; said Mother Euphrosynia, "we never know when the Moslems will come. If they set fire to us, we'll burn for Christ." Mother Fevronia quietly interjected, "They will not burn us. They will hang us from trees." These nuns are ready to die, or they would not be here.

Abbess Euphrosynia told us how she came to be appointed Superior of the monastery: "Six years ago they gave me this heavy yoke which I didn't want to take. I begged, I cried, I pleaded that this should not happen to me." But the Patriarch said to her, "Mother, I do not like what I have to do, but that is our cross." The Abbess said she continually looks for someone younger and more intelligent to replace her, but that the most beautiful thing to do is to obey and follow. "Whoever wants to eat has to labor." With tears she went on, "For twenty-five years my obedience was to take care of the church. When they made me abbess, I exchanged gold for ashes."

Gracanica was always a men's monastery, but since the war nuns have come. Now there are sixteen sisters; many of them are young. It was clear that the monastic life is strong here, despite the outward difficulties. None of the sisters are allowed to miss church services. Three of the nuns have university degrees, and six others have come within the last two years. Understanding the limitations of modern youth who are raised in cities and are unaccustomed to the hard physical labors with which monastics have occupied themselves for centuries, Mother Euphrosynia guides them step by step. "I don't let them work too hard," she told us. "They do lighter chores. We do not want to overburden them."
In this she echoed the wisdom of Metropolitan Amphilohye Radovic of Montenegro, a beloved leader of Serbian youth, who with his monks has published many of Fr. Seraphim Rose's writings. Metropolitan Amphilohye speaks of the "ground being prepared for rejuvenation in the monastic ranks from another circle, the urban circle. The village, from which up until today came the vast majority of monks and nuns, is today becoming less significant. Urban society forms people in a different mold and instills in them new spiritual problems, often creating new traumas, unknown to the rural society. Only true spiritual life and truly spiritually transformed people will be in a state to accept these people and reveal to them the true and certain paths to salvation." He continues to explain that in the post-war years, great concern was understandably given to the renovation of churches and buildings and the improvement of monastery economics. However, excessive concern for the economic progress of monasteries can become harmful to the spiritual life of the monastic communities, for which purpose they exist. This reinforces the necessity for the "gradual orientation of our monasteries to spiritual activity and 'obediences' (publication and printing of spiritual literature, iconography, liturgical embroidery, handcrafts, etc.)." Thus, the renewal in monasteries will have a twofold effect on the world: "In the flux of time they remain a reminder of eternal reality and have a transfiguring effect on every new society and on people of all epochs and of all times."

In speaking with some of the young nuns in other monasteries in Serbia, we discovered that this "new blood" does indeed long for a monastic life more centered on the development of the interior life of prayer, not excluding manual labor and hospitality but allowing enough time for the reading of spiritual books, solitary prayer, and intellectual activity. More of Fr. Seraphim Rose's books are being printed in Serbia, and many of the young people with whom we talked knew of him. He is popular because his writings re-connect them with the ancient wisdom of their Orthodox faith.

Every spring a carpet of wild red peonies blooms near Gracanica over the field of Kosovo, which is believed to represent the blood of the tens of thousands of warriors who died in battle. The earthly Kingdom lasts for a brief time, but the heavenly kingdom always and forever. As we were leaving the monastery, drops of rain began falling down upon us from the clear skies, and we received this with gratitude, knowing it was a sign of God's grace.

 4. DEVIC MONASTERY

We almost did not make it to see Monastery Devic, but little did we know beforehand that it was to be the most moving of them all. It was not clear on the map exactly where the monastery was located. Our bus stopped at least four times to ask the peasants on the road its location, but no one would tell us. We were in Albanian Moslem territory and people were uncooperative, seeing that we were Christians. As the bus traveled on, it seemed as if we were not going to make it. Quietly we sang a magnification to St. Ioannikios, begging him to let us find his monastery. The next person we asked said the turn was just 100 yards in front of us; and so, filled with gratitude, we reached the gates.

Devic Monastery
Devic Monastery

 St. Ioannikios of Devic

The founder of Devic Monastery, St. Ioannikios, guards the monastery and the nuns from the hostility which surrounds them. Born in the 14th century, loannikios left his boyhood home in Zeta as a teenager, seeking solitude and the contemplative life. He built a cell in the wooded area of the Black River, thus continuing in the tradition of St. Peter of Korisha, who spent many years there in prayer and fighting the demons. Many disciples gathered around him because of his great asceticism and holiness. Fleeing the praise of men, he moved to the forests of Devic and continued struggling in silence. For this he was granted the gifts of unceasing prayer with tears and the casting out of demons. During his lifetime and after his death St. Ioannikios worked innumerable miracles, both for the pious Orthodox and for non-believers.

 A History of Suffering

Of all the persecuted monasteries that we visited, Devic seemed to be the most martyred. As we walked up the dusty path through the monastery, its poverty clearly spoke of the innumerable sufferings and deprivation that the monastics have had to endure.
The first persecution came in 1455 when the region fell to the Turks. In 1544 all the monks were expelled since the monastery and all its property came under the possession of a certain Moslem. Through the intercessions of St. Ioannikios the monastery was renovated. But even then, the hardships and tribulations were great.

Devic was devastated again at the beginning of the 19th century. The monks were either killed or forced to leave. The monastery was plundered, and sheep and goats were sacrilegiously brought into the church. In 1858, after another period of renewal, the Albanian Moslems from the neighboring villages shot the Abbot, Paisios.

By 1889 new monks were there, and the brotherhood was able to open an elementary school, which survived until the beginning of World War I. But during the war, in 1914, Austrian soldiers plundered the monastery, taking away all of its livestock, furniture, and copper dishes. Some of the buildings were also demolished, and the materials were used for making barracks.

In 1941, during World War II, the monastery was taken down stone by stone and leveled to the ground by Albanians who brought hammers and picks from their farms. Abbot Damascene was taken and shot outside the gates, and all the monks were again forced to flee. The whole monastery was plundered. The ammunition and artillery of the former Yugoslav army was brought to the monastery and torched, causing a terrible explosion which leveled all of the buildings. More than one witness saw someone clothed in white robes roaming about the ruins. It was St. Ioannikios protecting the altar and the chapel where his relics lie, which were not destroyed.

The monastery remained in ruins until 1947, when Abbess Parasceva (of blessed memory) arrived with a novice and a hieromonk. As they began to gather up the debris, they found the chapel and grave of St. Ioannikios still intact. With the help of the peasants of the neighboring villages, the monastery and church were restored to their original likeness. More and more women came to join the sisterhood, and the people of the villages were inspired by the nuns' strong faith in God and their great love for St. Ioannikios. Because of the great danger from the Albanians in the 1980's and 1990's, Christians who visited Kosovo had to be accompanied by a military escort. We were some of the first pilgrims to travel somewhat freely in the area. Only a few Serbs from the surrounding villages dare to come to the monastery any longer, for fear of attack and reprisal from the Moslems. While we were there one of the sisters had to chase out an Albanian's pigs which frequently enter the monastery. It seemed to us a symbol of the continual desire to defile God's house. The most recent sister to come is in her twenties. The abbess told us that although she has a university degree in literature, she nevertheless decided to be a nun and treasures the life there.

She also told us more about the former abbess, Mother Parasceva, who recently reposed. With the use of only one arm, at times when there were uprisings of Moslems she had to bear arms to defend the monastery. She was stoned and beaten many times by the Albanians. Abbess Anastasia said that up to today the nuns are stoned and beaten on their way to town. When she was asked whether she was one of the ones who had endured this, she said that it was not important to know who was beaten, but that they were privileged to be there under the protection of St. Ioannikios. They are under constant threat of arson, and of losing their crops and food stores by theft.

Some of the monastery buildings were surrounded by scaffolding, and in the church we saw how lovingly the whole monastery had been rebuilt. The treasured frescoes were carefully raised from the rubble by the sisters and patched back piece by piece into the rebuilt walls. In tears we venerated the relics of the holy St. Ioannikios. The tomb is small and dark, ancient and filled with grace. In the tomb there is a fresco of two saints holding a scroll with scriptural quotes on it, which has been almost completely scratched out. The righteous ascetic, Blessed Stoina (1895), also labored here for eighty years, eating only bread and water and sleeping very little.

We met the nuns who had lived here for most of their lives. In their poverty, even prayer ropes are scarce. One of the nuns had no prayer rope, and when I eagerly offered mine, in utmost gratitude she made a prostration to the ground. Another nun had a beaming smile on her face as she called us to see the sheep that she led out of the barn. One of the older nuns we met had been there for forty-seven years. These were the very sisters that had labored and suffered with Abbess Parasceva in raising this monastery from the dust; and they continue at their post, as true soldiers of the Heavenly King.

In parting, we said to Abbess Anastasia how inspired we were by their podvig, their suffering and readiness for martyrdom, adding that we expect persecutions to begin in America and how little we are prepared for that kind of suffering. But in utmost simplicity and humility Mother Anastasia said, "We are joyful to be here with St. Ioannikios. This is our little desert."

 We beseech thee, holy Ioannikios of Devic,
lift up thy right hand, shield us,
halt this loss and waste, and gather us together.
We beseech thee, holy Ioannikios of Devic,
shine forth in front of their guns as they fire,
stand in front of the slaughter,
and melt their knives break their chains.
As thou dost go barefoot along the ways of the Lord,
in the midst of fugitives,
in the midst of fire and famine, keep us,
and raise us up, and teach us on the field of calamity
to build a City from the stones
with which they stone us!
-Ljubomir Simovic

 5. CONCLUSION

As we drove back through the plains of Kosovo, the sun was setting over the golden fields of wheat, painting a glowing picture like unto a poetic masterpiece. Caught up in the spirit of the moment, the young people in the bus once more broke into "O Gentle Light," and their song soared as the last evening rays turned rose colored and fiery behind the purple mountains. It was hard to believe that here, on this very plain, tens of thousands of brave men marched joyfully to their death, making the supreme sacrifice for the glory of God and Holy Orthodoxy.

"Every glimmering day," said Bishop Nikolai, "is another great day in the struggle of the two kingdoms." Which kingdom shall I choose? Shall I choose the earthly kingdom? Or shall I choose the heavenly? This question, posed to the martyred Tsar Lazar, whispers today in the hearts of all young lovers of godliness and sacrifice. The new sons and daughters of suffering Serbia are slowly coming to this place of martyrdom, seeking to attain the cutting edge in the place where the battle is fiercest and the crowns are eternal. The monastics laboring on the ancient battlefield of Kosovo have already made their choice: to die an earthly death for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom.

From "Orthodox Word" Nos. 193-4
Copyright St. Herman of Alaska Press

Kosovo and Metohija
Serbian Orthodox Monasteries of Raska and Prizren Diocese
Intervivew with Abbot Theodosy
Decani Monastery
PHOTO ALBUM
Everyday life in Decani Monastery
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Orthodox monasticism


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