Orthodox America

  The Heritage of Serbian Orthodoxy

Serbian Orthodoxy, as such begins with St. Sava, "the Light of Serbia," holy ascetic, founder of monasteries, hierarch, and scholar, who not only became the first Serbian archbishop in 120l, but provided Orthodox Serbs with a holy example and left an imprint on their consciousness which is felt even today. Inspired by St. Sava and his father, the holy monk St. Simeon "the Myrrh gusher," and under their heavenly patronage as well as that of the Most Holy Theotokos--who, particularly through the wonder-working icon "Of the Three Hands", is the special Patroness of Orthodox Serbs--Serbia produced many great saints as well as a major Orthodox civilization permeated with Orthodox piety. Thus, a fervent Orthodoxy was generated in Serbia which remained during the centuries of oppressive Turkish rule, and continues to exist even today. Throughout the length and breadth of Serbia, churches and monasteries were built in an almost dazzling profusion, many of which are still important holy places and centers of spiritual life.

    Few realize that the roots of Orthodoxy in America, with the exception of Alaska, lead directly to the holy places of Serbia! In 19th-century San Francisco, which was the first center of Orthodoxy in the United States, although the clergy were mostly Russian, the faithful were mostly Serbs. And so, Serbian saints were among the first to be venerated in America.

    It hardly needs robe said that the general situation today in Yugoslavia is better than in the USSR. Nevertheless, the Church suffered a great tribulation in the early years of the Communist regime. Churches were confiscated and many believers suffered imprisonment, torture, and death. Today, however, there appears to be little religious persecution in Yugoslavia. Although there are certain pressures and restrictions, the Church possesses a certain degree of freedom not possessed in other communist dominated countries. Of course, atheist propaganda is still disseminated, but unlike the USSR, the Yugoslav state prohibits blasphemous displays or writings offensive to believers; church services may be attended without fear of harassment; persons in hospitals, old people's homes, and other state institutions are permitted to follow the tenets of their religious faith, to be visited by priests, and to have rites performed; the Church print books and icons; and in many areas there still exist roadside icon shrines. Although, among men, monastic vocations are few, there are many vocations to the married priesthood and more nuns today than at any time since the medieval period.

    The greatest threat to Serbian Orthodoxy today comes not from the state or from communist oppression, but from the disease of ecumenism. Within the Serbian Church as elsewhere in the Orthodox world the dark forces of modernism and ecumenism have been loosed. Needless to say, the formation (in the 1960' s) of an Ecumenical Council of Yugoslavia, with the participation of the Patriarchate, is most deplorable. Happily, however, the monks and nuns as well as most priests and laymen remain strongly anti-ecumenist, with a faithful remnant slowly revealing itself, preserving true Orthodoxy, just as happened in the modern-day catacombs of the Soviet Union and in the Russian diaspora, and among the Old Calendar Greek and Rumanian Orthodox.

    The great heritage of Serbian Orthodoxy can best be understood by means of a brief look at some of the most important holy places of Serbia. The oldest, most important, and most frequented of all of these is Studenitsa Monastery, begun in 1183 by King Stefan Nemanja (in monasticism St. Simeon the Myrrhgusher), father of St. Sava. Justas Serbian literature is said to begin with St. Sava's Life of his father, so too Serbian sanctity itself begins with St. Simeon, an exemplary Orthodox monarch, a zealot of Orthodoxy, a generous patron of the Church, and in old age a righteous monastic. Shortly after his death, as the words "Glory to God in the highest" were being sung at Matins, holy oil began to flow from his tomb, filling the whole church with a sweet fragrance and later working many miracles. St. Simeon's son, St. Sava, was himself for a while Abbot of Studenitsa. He drew up a Rule for the monastery and personally directed thepainting of the frescoes. Studenitsa became the spiritual center of the whole country, and such it remained.

    Dedicated to the Ascension of Christ, the rose-colored Zicha Monaatey'y, reflected in the quiet light of the setting sun, is said to be of indescribable beauty. "Zicha" means "golden thread," and it is indeed a thread linking the unseen world with our fallen world, a place intimately associated with St. Sava, who made it the Archiepiscopal See for all Serbia. A monastery for over 700 years, Zicha is today a convent. On its grounds may be seen a small church with a fresco icon of Nicholas II, Tsar and New Martyr of Russia, who is deeply revered by many Orthodox Serbs. Buried in the cemetery is the venerable Archimandrite Sebastian Dabovic, who was born in San Francisco in 1863 and became the first American-born Orthodox priest and monk as well as the first great apostle of Orthodoxy in the English language.

A labyrinth of separate yet connected churches forms the Pech Patriarchate, a veritable treasure-house of sanctity, where relics of innumerable saints are enshrined. In the darkness of its sepulchral interior a few candles and hanging oil lamps burn around the tombs containing the holy relics of many sainted hierarchs. Founded in the early 13th century by St. Arseny, the successor of St. Sara as Archbishop of Serbia, Pech became the residence of the archbishops and, in the 14th century, the center of the newly-formed autocephalous Serbian Patriarchate. Although modern-day Patriarchs live elsewhere, they are still consecrated at Pech, thus establishing a spiritual link with a rich past. Nearby are many caves occupied once by hermit monks. Perhaps someday, in a final lightning-flash of piety prior to the consummation and judgment of this world, these caves will again become the abodes of hermit monks or nuns.

    Near Pech, in a quiet, wooded valley often described as "an enchanted place;" is Dechani. The beautiful church contains an iconographic representation for each of the 365 days of the Church calendar, as well as for every known event in the life of the Saviour and every stanza of the Akathist to the Mother of God. The chief object of pilgrimage are the relics of its lath-century founder and builder, St. Stefan Dechanski. Even many Moslems come to pray before and venerate the holy relicts, which repose before the icon screen in a deep red wooden sarcophagus covered with intricately carved intertwining vines and flowers of gold. Every year his robes are changed in a special service performed by the local bishop. St. Stefan combined in his person many different aspects and types of sanctity which are rarely if ever combined in one individual--Job-like sufferer and martyr, wise and pious king, ascetic, hesychast, and helper of the sick and afflicted.

    Possessing what is unquestionably one of the most beautiful church buildings in existence, Ljzboatina Convent with its elegant and refined beauty is an outstanding manifestation of the final flowering of medieval Serbian Orthodox culture. It was built under the patronage of Princess Militsa, widow of the righteous king St. Lazar; the Princess herself entered the convent as a nun. After her repose she was revealed as a saint and wonderworker, and from her relics flowed fragrant myrrh. The whole atmosphere of the convent is still permeated with many centuries of prayer, monastic life and spiritual vision.

      Perched like an eagle aerie, high in the mountains, is one of the greatest holy places in Yugoslavia, the Monastery of Ostrog, built into the caves in a steep wall of a rocky cliff. For pious Serbs the name Ostrog immediately brings to mind the great Wonderworker, St. Vasily Ostorzhsky, whose solitary cave is high above the main church and cells of the monastery and whose holy relics still repose there. With holy zeal this saint opposed Roman Catholic attempts to introduce Latin errors and draw the Orthodox flock away from Divine Truth. Hunted by the Turks, St. Vasily journeyed into the mountains, choosing as his cell a cave at Ostrog where he entered upon a strict ascetic life and yet continued to rule his diocese. Today, as for nearly 300 years, every year prior to his Feast the relic-case of the saint is opened and the shoes changed. And, just as always, they are found to be quite worn! Even in this godless age as man's flight from God increases day by day, the saint continues to work miracles. In some respects St. Vasily is a Serbian St. Nicholas, whose miracles are as numerous as the stars of the heavens, A great wonderworker, he also zealously opposed heresy. Thus, St. Vasily is a saint for our times, exhorting belie vets to remain faithful to Holy Orthodoxy.

All the Saints of Serbia, pray to God For us!

(Condensed from "Serbian Holy Places" by John Gregerson in "Orthodox Word," May-June, 1968)