Nun Melania with the Patriarch
Young nun Melania with the Patriarch Pavle, Patriarchate of Pec 1991

From The Times, (Internet) March 7, 2000
By Eva-Ann Prentice

Why Serbia's elite are willing to give up
everything for God

Eve-Ann Prentice reports from Belgrade

Neda doesn't like talking about the rift with her parents. The denim-clad 24-year-old bows her head and shrugs; she cannot understand why her family disapproves of her lifestyle.

The arguments do not centre on drink, drugs or Neda's choice of boyfriends; in most households in Britain the young artist would be considered a paragon of virtue. But Neda Kovinic lives in Serbia and her mother and father are upset because their daughter has become a devout Christian. Worse, she is considering becoming a nun.

The bright-eyed young woman is typical of a huge number of well-educated twenty and thirtysomethings who are turning to the country's Orthodox Church to find meaning in lives blighted by war, Nato bombings and the heavy hand of the Belgrade regime. In the past many disillusioned young Serbs moved abroad to escape what has become a sanctions-strapped pariah state. Now a groundswell of youth has found a new escape route from shortages and the corruption endemic in the Serbia ruled by President Milosevic - they are retreating to Orthodox convents and monasteries.

Their parents are often hurt and baffled; many middle-aged Serbs were brought up as atheists or agnostics during the Communist heyday of the Tito era, and they regard the Orthodox Church with suspicion or hostility. They also realise that they are unlikely to become grandparents if their offspring become nuns and monks.

"My parents were not at all religious," says Neda. "I first became interested when older friends started attending church about ten years ago."

Neda, a student of fine art, architecture and interior design, explains: "I thought that art would help me to find my place in the world and teach me how to express myself. I have now realised that art is not serious enough to express the deep things in my life."

Neda sits in a small, neat apartment in Belgrade with her friends Vesna Vesic and Dusan Radunovic, who are also contemplating taking religious vows. Unusually for Serbs, they do not smoke and they drink coffee, eschewing the bottle of slivovitz offered to guests.

"Now I fast and go to church every week," says Neda. "It is the only way I can understand the dangers of life in Serbia. Fear of death, which can paralyse people, can be overcome with faith in eternal life. Fear of death is everywhere in the world but, here in Serbia, especially during the bombing, it has been extreme. Living as a nun would offer me a very pure way of living."

Vesna, also 24, was baptised into the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo three years ago: "It completely changed my life," she says. "It changed the nature of my life and work. Before that I was looking for meaning in classical music and philosophy, but it was not enough."

Vesna, a student of fine art and sculpture, produced one of only two Yugoslav entries chosen for the Venice Film Festival last year - a video she made of her own tears. "It is a close-up of my tears of repentance. I wanted to do a video about fear, but after my baptism it became clear to me that I needed to concentrate on repentance. I wanted to make a film about real tears, not simulation. The repentance is my personal repentance for my sins."

Dusan is a serious, postgraduate student of comparative literature at Belgrade University and his Roman Catholic girlfriend, Sanja Buhan, sits at his side as he explains why he is considering becoming a monk. "My family is agnostic," he says. "I am trying to find some deeper, more ethical way of life. The crisis in this country over the past few years has created a deeper need for a spiritual life. I often go to a monastery to talk to the community there and try to fulfil my intellectual and emotional needs. Will I become a monk? You always have that thought in your mind."

Neda cuts in: "This change in young people is connected with the naked life we live here now, without comfort. We cannot travel, so we travel within ourselves."

"We all have big problems with our families," says Vesna. "Our faith isn't strong enough to stop bad things happening. If our faith was stronger, maybe these things wouldn't have happened."

Five or ten years ago Serbian Orthodox churches were usually full only at Easter and other key dates in the Orthodox calendar. Now it is estimated that three times as many people attend church regularly, most of them young, urban and educated. They can be seen on weekdays as well as Sundays emerging from the ornate churches of Belgrade having attended long Orthodox services where the congregation stands throughout.

"People are giving up successful careers to go into the Church," says Dusan.

"This does not usually mean jobs that pay well, because those jobs are scarce in Serbia and often involve criminals and the mafia," says a photographer friend of Dusan. "But most of those joining convents and monasteries are people with fulfilling work, those with good degrees and who enjoy their professions. They are not escaping from dead-end jobs."

The Church Synod has called on President Milosevic to resign, but religion is generally treated with indifference bordering on contempt by the ruling family, especially by Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, who is a stalwart Communist of the old order. The Church is also highly critical of Nato, blaming the alliance for failing to protect scores of churches that have been destroyed in Kosovo by vengeful ethnic Albanians.

Serbia's young people are sickened by the destruction of the monasteries and churches in Kosovo and cannot understand why the West has raised barely a whisper of complaint. They take heart, instead, from the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, who has launched an appeal to protect historic Christian monuments in Kosovo. "Since the arrival of . . . peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, Albanian extremists have damaged and totally destroyed more than 80 Orthodox churches and monasteries in the region, [some] of them dating back to the Middle Ages," Archbishop Christodoulos said last month in a letter to Tony Blair. A Greek Orthodox official in Athens said that the same text had been sent to President Clinton, the United Nations and leaders of other European Union and Nato nations.

The monastery that Dusan is considering joining as a monk lies on the edge of the sleepy, snow-blanketed village of Kovilj, a few miles south of Novi Sad. Twenty monks, with an average age of 29, spend their days in quiet contemplation, reading, farming, making icons and candles, which they sell, and praying. All the monks have faced opposition from their families over their decision to join the monastery.

"Some parents have come here to try to force their sons to leave," says Father Isihije, a senior brother known as the priest-monk. "Some do not talk to their sons for six or seven years."

Father Isihije, whose name dervies from the Greek word for "quietness", was ostracised by his own family, including his father, who was a diplomat. The 6ft 2in priest-monk speaks fluent English "because my family spent time in Washington".

So what sort of lives do these ostracised young men lead? The monks rise at 4.30 in the morning, then pray for nearly four hours before eating a simple breakfast at 8.30. Their only other meal is at 6.30 in the evening.

"The centre of our life is Church services," says Father Isihije. "We have services for five hours a day and we spend several hours doing our daily chores, which we call obediences. Everyone takes a turn in the kitchen, painting icons, making candles or looking after the cattle. We also have private prayers in our cells using our prayer ropes [an Orthodox version of rosary beads]."

During their private prayers the monks sometimes prostrate themselves on the floor. The lifestyle is not intended to be punishing, however, merely modest. "We have central heating and we do not go hungry," says Father Isihije.

Before taking their final vows, monks and nuns spend between two and five years as novices and up to half of them drop out during this probationary period. This still leaves a vast number who go on to pledge their lives to the Church. Figures are not kept for the whole of Yugoslavia, according to a church spokesman, but members of the synod estimate that the number of young people entering monasteries and convents has tripled in the past ten years.

With no end in sight to the woes and upheavals in the Balkans, it is a trend that seems set to continue.