ON THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE REBIRTH OF THE BROTHERHOOD OF VISOKI DECANI MONASTERY, ORTHODOXY INTERVIEWS ABBOT TEODOSIJE*
March 20, 2002
- pronounced: Vysoky Dechany; Teodosije - pronounced: Teodosye
By Jelena Tasic
We neither asked for nor created the conditions in which the Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija are living today. However, we understood that a man can save himself regardless of the age, the place and the conditions in which he is living only if he completely turns himself over to God. If he prays to Him calmly and expects His assistance. That only monks are able to live in conditions in which ordinary people cannot has been shown again here in Kosovo and Metohija, emphasized the abbot of the Visoki Decani Monastery, Father Teodosije (Sibalic). In an interview for Orthodoxy Abbot Teodosije spoke of conditions in Kosovo and Metohija, the position of the Church, the shrines of Kosovo and communal life in the Visoki Decani Monastery which this month commemorates the 10th anniversary of its spiritual rebirth in the completely (Moslem) Albanian surroundings in which it has lived for the past two and a half years.
The 19th of March of this year will be the 10th anniversary of the date when our spiritual leader and bishop, Artemije, brought part of the brotherhood from the Crna Reka Monastery to the Visoki Decani Monastery with the intent of revitalizing this monastery. Seven of us came from Crna Reka and we were immediately joined by three novices. Before our arrival the Abbot of the monastery was Father Justin (Tasic) and there were three other hieromonks here with him, which was not enough for such a large monastery, the Imperial Lavra, to live a full monastic life. Father Justin wanted the monastery to be revitalized, since he, too, invested much personally for this sacred family to survive and persevere during the most difficult time of Communist godlessness and the Arnaut reign of terror. Upon our arrival it was his decision to go to another monastery because he knew how difficult it is to bring together the old and the young. And that is how the rebirth of Decani Monastery began, first in the spiritual sense, and then in the physical, material sense as well.
What were some of the challenges you encountered?
At first it was difficult for the people to accept us but we basically had no need to prove ourselves. We allowed time to pass and our lives and deeds to speak for us. Everything was spontaneous. With Gods help and the blessing of the Holy King, somehow everything turned for the better. We brought with us our spiritual experiences from the Crna Reka Monastery which, although insufficient for life in the Imperial Lavra, were nevertheless a good foundation on which it was possible to build and further develop monastic life in all forms. This foundation consisted primarily of obedience, trust in the abbot and the spiritual leader, and that everything done in the monastery is with a blessing, which is the basis of communal life. We were completely open to accept everything that came to us as Gods will and that is how God, again through our spiritual leader and bishop, directed and led us. We had to do many things ourselves but with time it became increasingly easier. The number of the 10 monks and novices with whom we began has now, thanks to God, increased threefold. Now there are some 30 of us. We have only two older monks, Father Nikolaj and Father Nikodim, while the rest are all somewhere between 20 and 40 years old.
We live in accordance with the monastic typicon (the rule) of coenobytic (communal) life as established by the Holy Fathers. We adopted many things from the Holy Mountain /Mt. Athos/ itself and from monasteries with a longer monastic tradition. On the other hand, Bishop Artemije had taken into account everything that is necessary for a monastic community in Crna Reka. Upon his appointment as episcope, the spirit of Crna Reka was transferred throughout the entire Diocese, and the number of 15 monks originally in that monastery increased tenfold during these 10 years. This offshoot, transported from Crna Reka, was planted first in Zociste Monastery, which was revitalized before Decani but later, alas, destroyed, then here among us in Decani and later in other monasteries: Sopocani, Duboki Potok, Djurdjevi Stupovi. Although the monasteries differ from each other in their external characteristics, history and tradition, all share the same spirit. The entire Diocese is now in the spiritual sense a little Crna Reka.
How do you explain that despite its dedication to the tradition of the Holy Fathers, Decani, in its contacts with the world, has been largely successful in destroying existing biases regarding monasticism?
With the arrival of the young monks, various activities developed within the monastery. Every one of the monks had already completed school or held a job in the secular world or was gifted with special talents. My role as the abbot was simply to recognize in them the talents they had already received from God and to direct the knowledge which they already possessed in a way which would be beneficial to our monasteries, to our Church as a whole and to our people in general. Some of the brotherhood spoke foreign languages and had a disposition toward intellectual work. We did not hesitate to introduce contemporary technology as an aid to our work and as early as 1994 we set up our first computer with the help of our contributors. Later, with the emergence of the Internet, we were represented globally as well. When the war and conflicts in this region began, this turned out to be a powerful means and weapon to spread the truth about ourselves and our Church, as well as about our suffering people. I think that this way, more than any other, has allowed us to succeed in informing the world about our problems here in Kosovo and Metohija.
Despite its presence among the public, the monastery has managed to preserve its spirituality. What is the secret behind this?
From the beginning we placed the highest emphasis in our monastic life on prayer, both in the church during Holy Liturgy and in our cells. We had felt the importance of prayer for the monk and the power of Holy Liturgy to offer us everything that is necessary for our soul and to protect us from traps and damaging influences which can turn us from the monastic path as far back as Crna Reka, where Liturgy was served each day. This is what provided and continues to provide a sense of balance for us, this is what helped us to prevent putting the focus of our life in the monastery elsewhere as has been the case, unfortunately, in other monasteries. The fact that we have a car today, something we truly require, as well as Internet access, computers, contemporary technology even in our workshops where we craft wood and paint icons - all this does not represent a danger to any one of us individually, because the monastery is based on communal life and it protects all of us from stepping outside the bounds appropriate to a monk.
Nevertheless, for the past two and a half years the monastery has lived in Albanian surroundings. It is protected by foreign troops: with the exception of the Decani monks, there are no other Serbs from the Pec Patriarchate Monastery to Djakovica.
When one looks at it from without, the life of a monk in our monastery, as well as in all the monasteries in Kosovo and Metohija, has changed considerably. Seen through the eyes of the world, it is a fact that we have lost our freedom of physical movement and that we are in constant physical danger from our potential enemies. We are protected by foreign troops. We are relatively safe within the monastery itself, but every time one of us steps out into the yard, let alone goes out on the monastery land, there is a possible danger of becoming a target for someone who wants to kill us. There are many ways of doing this without being found out. Especially when we travel, which we do on a daily basis, or at least several times during the course of the week. Simply, we feel their hate, which frequently is so strong that they literally lunge at us. Even though we have done nothing bad to them, they hate us only because we are Serbs and because we continue to remain in this region. However, from the history of the Church we know that it has always been strongest when it was suffering. So it is here with us today. Externally much has changed: we have been left without our Orthodox Christian people, without our believers, completely alone within the walls of the monastery. On the other hand, spiritually, nothing has changed. The very same obediences, the very same way of life is still lived in our monastery. For this we must first thank God, as well as the Holy King whose relics have always been here. Just as the sun gives light and heat in the material sense, warming the Earth and the people who live on it, so the Holy King in the spiritual sense shines for those of us who are here and spiritually warms us on the inside. This is a blessing of which we are perpetually aware, as well as of his living presence even in the smallest details of our everyday life and in this respect we are at an advantage in comparison with those who have external freedom but lack the peace which can be felt here. That is why the greatest number of youth have come to the monastery since the beginning of the war. These are our best monks, those chosen by the Holy King to serve him here as part of his holy family.
What are your contacts with the representatives of the international community like?
From the first day we understood that only the international community, first and foremost KFOR (Kosovo Force - NATO led international peacekeepers in Kosovo, ed.), the army which protects and surrounds us, followed by UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo, ed.) and many non-government organizations, can help us in this situation because practically all official institutions of the Republic of Serbia were forced to leave the territory of Kosovo and Metohija, and we could not expect any form of direct assistance from them. There was no reason for us not to accept cooperation with the international community, because from the beginning their approach was not that of an occupying force but of people who wanted to help us. They themselves say that they are here chiefly because of those who are endangered, those who are in the minority with respect to the other residents of this region, and that is, concretely, our case. We are completely endangered as far as security is concerned and all our human rights are curtailed.
Have the local Albanian authorities attempted to help you and to become closer to you?
The local Albanians and the local authorities in Decani from the beginning have completely ignored the monastery and our existence. Not only ours but our entire peoples existence. Many Serbs have been expelled. Those who remained have been abducted, tortured, murdered; consequently, none of the Serbian residents could remain in Decani and the surrounding area nor in the other towns of Metohija. Not only the people themselves but nothing that is Serbian. No symbols, monuments with names in the Serbian languages, because they wanted to eradicate every trace of us. Even our grave markers have been destroyed, our graves desecrated. On the other hand, it has been in a certain way advantageous to us that the local authorities do not want to establish any links with us because as a result we have the precious peace so necessary to our monastery life. The ordinary people practically does not dare to make any sort of move and come closer to us in any way because they fear revenge from extremists. Perhaps if they been more cunning, if they had portrayed themselves before the international community and the whole world as democrats and people who want to protect and accept minority communities in this town and the surrounding area, if they had tried to shower us with attention and love.
How do you comment on the demands of the Kosovo Albanians that Visoki Decani, which they claim is allegedly a part of their historical and cultural heritage along with Bogorodica Ljeviska and Holy Archangels, be returned to them?
They have subordinated everything to the attainment of their goal, which is the independence of Kosovo. They have even begun to re-tailor history and to write things for which there is no historical or material evidence. For example, they say that there was a shrine on the present site of Decani built by certain Gashi clan; however, when the "Serb conquerors" came, they destroyed everything and expelled everyone, converting the Albanians to the Orthodox faith, giving them Serbian names and then building their own shrine, decorating it with art works and so on... This is the version of history they are writing and spreading throughout the world. Unfortunately, many people accept it, especially those who are not familiar with the facts regarding Kosovo and Metohija.
Last year the monasteries of Visoki Decani and the Pec Patriarchate were included on a list of the 100 most endangered cultural monuments in the world. How much will this help for the real truth to get out in the world?
I think that responsible individuals from UNESCO and all those who concern themselves with Balkan issues are aware of the truth, and that all these stories the Albanians are coming up with will not be long-lived. Lies tend to unravel quickly and thus their version of history cannot be sustained. At the same time, however, we cannot ignore their fictions which could have negative consequences for us. We must be active and demonstrate our spirituality, culture and history. The monks who live here are the ones who are demonstrating, through their lives and the hospitality shown to everyone who comes here, who we are as a people, what we once were and, at the same time, what we essentially represent today. If this monastery was only a monument, it would not have so much significance and spiritual power. However, because it is a living monastery with the same spiritual content it has always had, this has an entirely different dimension, and everything the Albanians are trying to present to the world becomes irrelevant before what we are presenting as truth and fact.
Does the monastery still have a diplomatic mission, considering the number of individuals from UNMIK, KFOR and various delegations who come to Visoki Decani?
That is something which occurs spontaneously even though it is not our primary goal. We have brother monks who not only speak foreign languages but are competent to present our views, those of our Church as well as those of the people who previously lived here and were forced to leave due to the circumstances. We neither want nor accept to be Serb representatives in local institutions, whether political, international or local. We are of the opinion that they cannot use us to fill the void which has ensued as a result of the expulsion of the Serb people. We want to fight for our people and to represent its interests because it is our duty to do so. However, they must understand that they must bring back the Serb people instead of having monks represent their people in the political sense.
In the monastery yard is the tomb of Sava of Decani, the Bishop of Zica, a man of the cloth who was involved in national issues. His testimony at the Berlin Congress, where he was the representative of Serbs from Kosovo and Metohija, could have been written today. Is history perpetually repeating itself in Kosovo and Metohija?
That is the type of situation that is imposing itself. When we are left without the possibility of our state taking care of us or indeed being present in the region, then the Church inevitably must take the helm and guide the state vessel lest it experience complete shipwreck. Lest we disappear completely from this region. This is what we have seen happen in our time when Bishop Artemije was forced to take the helm in his hands. In addition to leading the Church, he was also forced to take on some of the responsibilities which the state was called upon to concern itself.
With the experience of the role of the Church in Kosovo and Metohija behind you, how do you view the debate now taking place in the rest of Serbia regarding the function and role of the Church in a contemporary, democratic society?
I am really afraid that even after the changes which occurred in Serbia the Church again has not been given the position it should occupy in our society and community. Just as the Communist regime ignored the Church as an important factor in the life of the Serb people and refused to consult or include it in the resolution of key issues for its people, I am afraid that today those who wish to include the Church in the life of our state and our people are not doing this in an appropriate manner but instead according to their own judgment and caprice, which may well do more harm that the previous effort. It is necessary for our Church to assume the place which belongs to it and not for others to determine the function, position and role that we should have among our own people. But all these are just beginnings and it would be premature to make a final judgment.
How do you assess the engagement thus far of the new government with respect to solving the Kosovo-Metohija problem?
Our expectations have not been fully met. The people who are in power today really should pay a little more attention to those of us who stayed here. We are like islands in an ocean and despite the fact that we are alone, isolated and far away, we are nevertheless a part of our country and society. The people who live here, the brotherhood which represents both our Church and our state here, should receive some support, both moral and perhaps material, so that they can survive. Our roots, our history, our culture, practically everything which defines the Serb people lies here. We must not give everything up too easily. We must show the international community and the whole world that we care about Kosovo and Metohija. Not only in word but in deed, too.
To what extent has the situation in the Province changed after the Kosovo general elections and will the holy shrines be able to survive under such difficult circumstances even if the expelled Serbs do not return in great numbers?
The situation has not changed significantly since the elections. At least not as far as daily life is concerned. There is a lot of talk about returns but very little has actually materialized. I am afraid that people are slowly losing patience, hope and the desire to return so a more decisive approach to the problem by both the international community and by our government is needed. First and foremost, they should help those remaining in Kosovo. As far as the shrines are concerned, they will survive, because we do not depend as much on others as we do on ourselves. If we are spiritually strong and if we live a true monastic life, then our monastery will survive. We have the example of the St. Catherine Monastery in the Sinai, which has survived for years in the desert in an environment where there are no Orthodox. I hope that this will not be the case with our holy shrines here but even if we are forced to live under these conditions for a while, it is my hope that with Gods help we will survive.
Abbot Teodosije celebrating the Divine Liturgy
Translated by Snezana Lazovic