From the fourteenth century to the present day, the land of Kosovo and Metohija has been, and will always remain, the spiritual heartland of the Serbian Orthodox nation. Sanctified by a multitude of monasteries and churches as well as by the blood of martyrs, the holy land of Kosovo occupies a place of honor and reverence within the souls of all believing Serbs.
After the sack of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204, the province of Kosovo became the center of the Serbian Nemanjic state. Tsar Dusan was crowned in Kosovo in 1331, and he, King Stephen of Decani and King Uros had residences in the province. In 1346 the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate was established at Pec (now a women’s monastery). In the early fourteenth century Kosovo was the richest and most densely populated region of the Serbian empire. It became a major commercial center for the Serbs, containing such industries as silk production, gold and silver mining, and fine crafts. Serbian rulers allotted the fertile area between Pec, Prizren, Mitrovica and Pristina and nearby areas to churches and monasteries, and this area eventually acquired the name Metohija, from the Greek metochion, meaning an estate owned by the Church. Many of the most beautiful Serbian monasteries and churches, as well as castles and fortresses, were located in Kosovo. Archeologists have determined that there were about 1,300 monasteries, churches and other monuments in Kosovo and Metohija in the fourteenth century.
The peaceful existence of Orthodox Kosovo was short-lived, however. On June 15, 1389, Tsar-Martyr Lazar and his army perished at the epic battle of Kosovo in defense of Eastern Christendom against theMuslim hordes of SultanMurat. The once powerful and magnificent Serbian state was now reduced to being a state of vassals. The devastation was terrible. According to early Turkish censuses, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there were ten to fourteen active places of Christian worship left in Kosovo and Metohija.
During the course of over five centuries of Ottoman rule, until their liberation from that yoke in 1912, the Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija were repeatedly subject to slaughter, exodus, oppression, and forced conversion to Islam. Many ancient churches and fortresses were either destroyed or turned into mosques, and the region’s ancient Christian culture was suppressed. History records numerous exoduses of Serbs from the region. In 1690, Archbishop Arsenije led 200,000 Serbs to Hungary after a failed uprising against the Turks.
Before the Serbs managed to gain their freedom from the Turks in 1912, they had lost an additional 150,000 people: about a third of the Serbian population of Kosovo and Metohija. During WorldWar II another 75,000 Serbs fled Albanian nationalists.
By 1971, the Albanian population of Kosovo had doubled, reaching almost one million, while there were only 260,000 Serbs. With the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 and 1992, Albanians in Kosovo began to agitate for independence. After the NATO bombardment of Serbia in the spring of 1999, 200,000 Serbs were forced out of Kosovo and Metohija, leaving only a few Serb enclaves, mostly in the north of the province. In March of 2004, anti-Serb rioting broke out in parts of Kosovo, resulting in deaths, injuries, and the destruction of thirty-five churches and monasteries. In February of 2008 the Albanian government in Kosovo declared Kosovo to be an independent state. In defiance of international law, over thirty countries, led by the U.S., recognized this illegal declaration. The Serbs now live as virtual prisoners in their own heartland, surrounded by NATO troops to keep Albanian extremists from finishing their job of ethnic cleansing.
Despite the cruelties inflicted upon them for centuries and their present dangerous position, Kosovo’s Serbs have unwaveringly kept sacred the Faith of their fathers. In the enclaves where they now live, Serbian monastics and laymen continue to keep the flame of the Orthodox Faith burning in a spirit of devotion and hope.
In this year’s St. Herman Calendar, we present photographs and descriptions of monasteries and churches in Kosovo and Metohija that have survived the recent destruction and are still functioning. May this small offering help enkindle greater love for this holy Orthodox land and its faithful people, not only in pious Serbs but in believers of all Local Orthodox Churches. For those wishing to express this love in action, we have provided information on how to help Serbs living in Kosovo and Metohija at the present time (see p. 54).
Foremost among Kosovo’s still-functioning monasteries is Decani, established in the early fourteenth century by the Serbian king St. Stephen of Decani and dedicated to the Lord’s Ascension. Decani Monastery is now led by Bishop Teodosije of Lipljan, vicar of Bishop Artemije of the Diocese of Raska and Prizren. On June 19, 2008, His Grace Bishop Teodosije visited the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, together with the monastery’s hierarch, His Grace Bishop Maxim of the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Bishop Teodosije spoke to the brethren and guests about Decani Monastery and its work, and about the living spirit of Orthodoxy that still reigns in the hearts of his countrymen.
What was most remarkable about his talk was the profound spirit of Christian love, peace, gentleness, meekness and joy that he conveyed, even while speaking about the extremely hazardous and difficult conditions under which he and his fellow monks now live. Below is a transcript of the talk, together with some of the questions and answers that followed.
The Historical Role of Decani Monastery, Kosovo
Yesterday and Today
By His Grace Bishop Teodosije of Lipljan 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.
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 atCrnaReka 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 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 RekaMonastery is that it became a nursery for monasticism—a place from which our great monasteries, founded by the Nemanjic 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 replaceHisHoliness 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 likeCrnaReka.
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 DecaniMonastery began. Our small brotherhood moved there, bringing with us the typicon and spirit of Crna RekaMonastery 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 the holy King Stephen 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. Most of these extremists were 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 of light 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 crossed over 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 were 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 see 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. Stephen would never differentiate: if someone came 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 ordinary 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 a transmitter 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 al- most 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. Stephen 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, with regard to security, etc.
In addition, I must say that the situation for our Serbian people who have 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 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 acquireGod’sGrace 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 the 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 us 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.
… 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 inspire and guide us.
Those desiring to help Decani Monastery in its work of giving aid to the suffering Serbian people of Kosovo can send donations to the DecaniMonastery 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 Serbs remaining in Kosovo. Entire families depend on the food that the monks deliver, and on the four 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 (including computers), 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.