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A Journey Through Time and History on a Pilgrimage to Holy Mountain, Greece, and Serbian Lands

On June 24, 2013, a small group of Amer­i­can pil­grims hail­ing from Cal­i­for­nia, Col­orado, Wash­ing­ton State and Flori­da, flew from the U.S. to meet in Thes­sa­loni­ki, Greece, to begin a pil­grim­age to monas­ter­ies and holy places in Greece and on Mount Athos, and in Ser­bia, Koso­vo, Mon­tene­gro and Herze­gov­ina. The pil­grim­age was led by H.G. Bish­op Max­im and orga­nized by Fr. Blasko. Four­teen days lat­er on Mon­day, July 8, the pil­grim­age came to an end and we pil­grims flew out of Bel­grade to our var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions with full hearts, chas­tened minds, sore ankles and knees and mixed emo­tions. I think I can speak for all the pil­grims, and def­i­nite­ly for myself, that with­out a doubt it was the best pil­grim­age I have ever been on. Our expec­ta­tions were high and it far exceed­ed all expec­ta­tions. One could say that there is noth­ing like trav­el­ing with a bish­op to open doors and expand oppor­tu­ni­ties, and that was cer­tain­ly true in our case. But I think this is not the whole sto­ry of the suc­cess of our pil­grim­age, because I have been on pil­grim­ages with bish­ops before and it was noth­ing like this. Through the prayers and gen­tle arch-pas­toral guid­ance of our Bish­op Max­im, it seemed that a spe­cial grace and bless­ing and the lov­ing prov­i­dence of God hov­ered over our entire jour­ney. We were blessed in a mul­ti­tude of ways, great and small, almost too numer­ous to men­tion.

The rich­ness of the total expe­ri­ence of this pil­grim­age is beyond expres­sion, and I apol­o­gize in advance to my fel­low pil­grims if my words inevitably fall short of the full­ness and bright­ness of what is undoubt­ed­ly etched in your mem­o­ries. This pil­grim­age was a suc­cess because it suc­ceed­ed in being, for each of us, what it was intend­ed to be, name­ly, true pil­grim­age. But a jour­ney to dis­tant lands and to monas­ter­ies and holy places, even if called a “pil­grim­age”, does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly trans­form itself into a true pil­grim­age. In our con­tem­po­rary world, dom­i­nat­ed by vir­tu­al­iz­ing tech­nol­o­gy and over­whelmed with infor­ma­tion, words, espe­cial­ly reli­gious words like “pil­grim­age” and “com­mu­ni­ty”, often become debased and lose their true mean­ing. To under­stand what true pil­grim­age is, the dif­fi­cul­ty of attain­ing it in the con­tem­po­rary world, and why our pil­grim­age suc­ceed­ed so admirably, let us recall the words of Ortho­dox the­olo­gian Philip Sher­rard, who knew the Holy Moun­tain back­wards and for­wards through more than thir­ty years of fre­quent and long pil­grim­ages and who, in his 1977 arti­cle “The Paths of Athos”, observed that “a pil­grim­age is not sim­ply a mat­ter of get­ting to a par­tic­u­lar shrine or holy place. It is a delib­er­ate sun­der­ing and sur­ren­der of one’s habit­u­al con­di­tions of com­fort, rou­tine, safe­ty, con­ve­nience” in which “the pil­grim sets out on a quest which is inward as well as out­ward and is, in vary­ing degrees, into the unknown. In this sense, he becomes the image of the spir­i­tu­al seek­er.” The essence of pil­grim­age then, is, in a way, the entire Chris­t­ian jour­ney in con­cen­trat­ed and inten­si­fied minia­ture. True pil­grim­age is a delib­er­ate break in the rou­tines of life to embark on an ascetic and ini­tia­to­ry jour­ney to recov­er the onto­log­i­cal Cen­ter which is also the pro­to­log­i­cal Ori­gin and the escha­to­log­i­cal End of our being in Christ. It is a kind of inte­ri­or­ized monas­ti­cism through an exte­ri­or­ized xen­iteia (exile or pil­grim­age). In the Lad­der of Divine Ascent, the first sev­en steps (renun­ci­a­tion, detach­ment, exile, obe­di­ence, repen­tance, remem­brance of death, and com­punc­tion) are a sum­ma­ry of the Chris­t­ian asceti­cal path, just as the last sev­en steps (meek­ness, humil­i­ty, dis­cern­ment, still­ness, prayer, dis­pas­sion and love) are the glo­ri­ous fruits of this path. In Step Three, xen­iteia (exile or pil­grim­age), St. John says “xen­iteia is sep­a­ra­tion from every­thing in order to keep the mind insep­a­ra­ble from God.” This lap­idary sen­tence express­es the essence of pil­grim­age. With each effort to climb the dif­fi­cult and often slip­pery steps guard­ing the entrance to the many holy places we vis­it­ed, with each ven­er­a­tion of a holy and incor­rupt rel­ic or body of a saint, with each hour spent stand­ing in prayer and praise in an ancient monastery, one could see how this xen­iteia, this exile from every­day­ness in a quest for the Eter­nal Now­ness of the Pres­ence of God, began to work its spir­i­tu­al trans­for­ma­tion in us pil­grims, inte­ri­or­ly in each of us as indi­vid­ual per­sons, and also col­lec­tive­ly, grad­u­al­ly, through our shared strug­gles, form­ing in us a com­mu­ni­ty sen­si­tive to the spir­it of place and the his­to­ry of holi­ness, a lov­ing com­mu­ni­ty of tem­po­rary exiles, pil­grims and ascetics look­ing out for each oth­er, seek­ing the com­mon goal of light (lucha or phos) in Christ. We start­ed by renounc­ing or leav­ing behind the com­forts of home, grad­u­al­ly detach­ing our­selves from our ordi­nary lives, the rig­ors of the pil­grim­age form­ing our shared expe­ri­ence, exil­ing our­selves from com­fort, con­ve­nience and con­sumerism, until we began to learn the obe­di­ence of a pil­grim, and expe­ri­ence, through a sud­den shaft of light pierc­ing the heart like a spear, per­haps as we bent to kiss the fore­head of St. Basil of Ostrog in his cave, or at some oth­er numi­nous moment, the illu­mi­na­tion of a grace that drew us to repen­tance, remem­brance of death, and that joy-mak­ing mourn­ing of true com­punc­tion.

The key to the suc­cess of our pil­grim­age, the spir­i­tu­al glue that held it togeth­er and linked all our expe­ri­ences from Greece to Ser­bia was the wis­dom of Bish­op Max­im who saw to it that we begin our jour­ney with the expe­ri­ence of St. Gre­go­ry Pala­mas in Thes­sa­loni­ki and then move direct­ly into Athonite monas­tic expe­ri­ence, most specif­i­cal­ly Hilan­dar and Ormylia, thus root­ing and ground­ing our pil­grim­age deeply in the time­less spir­i­tu­al cen­ter of all Ortho­doxy, the holy moun­tain of Athos, and prepar­ing the way for our dis­cov­ery of Ser­bia as a kind of spir­i­tu­al home­land for us all, regard­less of nation­al­i­ty.

The Greek por­tion of our pil­grim­age began with a day in Thes­seloni­ki, vis­it­ing its holy places, espe­cial­ly those that St. Gre­go­ry Pala­mas made holy by his pres­ence and his arch-pas­toral min­istry. At the end of the day in Thes­sa­loni­ki, the whole group trav­eled by bus to Oura­noupo­lis, where we spent the night in the hotel rec­om­mend­ed by the Friends of Mount Athos. We had a mag­nif­i­cent sup­per in the out­door patio of a tav­er­na right at the edge of the sea. The next morn­ing the men went to get their dia­moni­te­ria (visa to go to Mt. Athos) and there at the office we met Bish­op Max­im with the abbot of Hilan­dar, Fr. Metho­d­ios. Then the men of the group board­ed the fer­ry to the Holy Moun­tain where we stayed for four days, and the women trav­eled in our tour bus to Ormylia Monastery, that most Athonite of all women’s monas­ter­ies, found­ed by Elder Aim­il­ianos, where they had a won­der­ful and blessed stay.

For the men, the Athonite por­tion of our pil­grim­age began at Hilan­dar, where we spent an extra­or­di­nary day and night, full of prayer, ser­vices, holy con­ver­sa­tion with Bish­op Max­im and Abbot Metho­d­ios — not to men­tion excel­lent food. (The food in all the monas­ter­ies we vis­it­ed was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly good, healthy, abun­dant, Mediter­ranean and monas­tic.) The impor­tance of Hilan­dar monastery for Ser­bia can­not be over­stat­ed. The Byzan­tine Com­mon­wealth that is the Holy Moun­tain has shown amaz­ing resilience in its more than thou­sand years of exis­tence. If exile (xen­iteia) is a vital dimen­sion of monas­ti­cism, equal­ly so is sta­bil­i­ty. The sta­bil­i­ty of Hilan­dar over the cen­turies has made the monastery a refuge for many seek­ing to escape the tur­moil of the world, and also a place where trea­sures could be pre­served. Today, as we were told by the Hilan­dar monks, many Ser­bian cul­tur­al and spir­i­tu­al trea­sures, threat­ened by war, vio­lence and hatred, have found their way to Hilan­dar for safe­keep­ing and preser­va­tion. Hilan­dar was the first of the Athonite monas­ter­ies to open a muse­um with­in the monastery where many of these trea­sures can be dis­played. The monastery was full of Ser­bian pil­grims dur­ing the time we were there, includ­ing a large con­tin­gent of a group called the Defend­ers of Christ’s Tomb, who were dressed in col­or­ful tra­di­tion­al garb which includ­ed a flint­lock pis­tol thrust into a sash. Abbot Metho­d­ios gave us a tour of the monastery and showed us the restora­tion being done after the dis­as­trous fire of 2004. We also stood in awe before an 800-year-old grapevine, which spout­ed out of St. Simeon’s (Ste­fan Neman­je) tomb and is still bear­ing fruit.

The next morn­ing we trav­eled to Vato­pe­di where we spent a night, most of which was spent in a long and glo­ri­ous vig­il awash in the mag­nif­i­cent Byzan­tine tones of the antiphonal choirs of the Vato­pe­di monks, cul­mi­nat­ing in the divine litur­gy and eucharis­tic com­mu­nion. Before our depar­ture we had an audi­ence with the redoubtable Abbot Ephrem, and a spir­it­ed dis­cus­sion, deal­ing among oth­er things with how the Holy Moun­tain is deal­ing with encroach­ing tech­nol­o­gy. Then it was on to Ivi­ron, where Bish­op Max­im and the pil­grims were met by none oth­er than Elder Vasil­ios him­self, one of the most impor­tant of the Athonite abbots and spir­i­tu­al lead­ers who renewed monas­tic life on the Holy Moun­tain in the 1960s and 1970s, and who is a good friend of Bish­op Max­im. He spoke to us about St. Isaac the Syr­i­an and Dos­to­evsky, mem­o­rably declar­ing that “St. Isaac, who pos­sessed immea­sur­able rich­es of grace, seems to him like a Dos­to­evsky of the Spir­it, while Dos­to­evsky is like St. Isaac in the world.” The dis­cus­sion con­tin­ued in that vein and the hearts and minds of us pil­grims were kin­dled and enlarged by it. Then after a stop in Karyes, which is the admin­is­tra­tive cen­ter of the Holy Moun­tain, where Bish­op Max­im had to reg­is­ter his pres­ence, we went to Simonos Petras where we spent our last blessed night on the Holy Moun­tain. Because of a dis­as­trous fire in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, Simonos Petras lost many of its great­est trea­sures, but all this is com­pen­sat­ed for by the amaz­ing monastery perched pre­car­i­ous­ly on St. Simon’s Rock hun­dreds of feet direct­ly above the blue Aegean, pro­vid­ing spec­tac­u­lar views which them­selves draw us to praise of God for such beau­ty, as well as by the extra­or­di­nary vital­i­ty of its monas­tic life, renewed through the life and work of that bril­liant spir­i­tu­al comet, Elder Aim­il­ianos, and con­tin­ued by its cur­rent abbot, Fr. Ely­seos.

At each of the monas­ter­ies we vis­it­ed on the Holy Moun­tain, because we were trav­el­ing with and under the omophor of Bish­op Max­im, we were giv­en pref­er­en­tial treat­ment, includ­ing spe­cial lunch­es and times with the abbots of each one, includ­ing senior monks, and with spe­cial tours of the monastery grounds, holy relics, monas­tic projects and activ­i­ties such as gar­dens, olive groves, vine­yards and in one or two cas­es, such as Vato­pe­di, state-of-the-art winer­ies. Of course at each we were in church for ser­vices and vig­ils and hier­ar­chi­cal litur­gies last­ing six to eight hours or more. At each of these monas­ter­ies, we pil­grims prayed spe­cial prayers for our home parish­es and our spe­cial inten­tions. And joy of joys, we were able to receive com­mu­nion at all of the monas­ter­ies we stayed at, because we were trav­el­ing with our bish­op and had his bless­ing to receive. (They are very strict on the Holy Moun­tain about con­fes­sion before com­mu­nion.)

All too soon the Athonite por­tion of our pil­grim­age came to an end and we reluc­tant­ly board­ed the fer­ry back to Oura­nop­o­lis to meet with our fem­i­nine fel­low pil­grims for the ride back to Thes­sa­loni­ki and an ear­ly morn­ing flight to Bel­grade to begin the Ser­bian part of our pil­grim­age. On the way to our hotel in Thes­sa­loni­ki, our bus went to Ormylia once again, because the Gerondis­sa, who has great respect and love for our Bish­op Max­im, insist­ed he stop with all his Amer­i­can pil­grims for a vis­it and lunch. Gerondis­sa Nikode­mi and the nuns met our bus at the monastery gate with the bells ring­ing joy­ous­ly, and after the usu­al wel­come of water, spoon sweets, cof­fee and raki we were giv­en a com­plete tour of the monastery, includ­ing the main church with its stun­ning fres­cos, and then treat­ed to one of the finest lunch­es we have ever had in a monastery, sim­ple, ele­gant, monas­tic, yet made with much love and praise to God. Dur­ing a stim­u­lat­ing gen­er­al dis­cus­sion after lunch, which ranged from the monas­tic “take” on envi­ron­men­tal issues, the inter­net, tech­nol­o­gy and prayer, the monastery priest, Hieromonk Ser­a­pi­on of Simonos Petras, regaled us with numer­ous fun­ny sto­ries, and after a brief time in the book­store we reluc­tant­ly took our leave of beau­ti­ful Ormylia, with Ser­bia in our sights.

With the excep­tion of one of our pil­grims, the rest of us had nev­er been to Ser­bia or Mon­tene­gro before, so as our plane land­ed in Bel­grade the antic­i­pa­tion in our hearts was almost tan­gi­ble. Would the real­iza­tion be equal to the antic­i­pa­tion we felt as our feet first touched the soil of Ser­bia? With­out in any way seek­ing to com­pare our pro­found and com­punc­tious expe­ri­ences on the Holy Moun­tain with what we expe­ri­enced in Ser­bia, still it must be said that the pil­grim­age real­ly seemed to soar to new heights in Ser­bia, Mon­tene­gro and Herze­gov­ina, per­haps in part because we pil­grims were day by day being slow­ly trans­formed in the cru­cible of the rig­ors and rev­e­la­tions of pil­grim­age into a more aware, more spir­i­tu­al­ly sen­si­tive com­mu­ni­ty of Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian pil­grims, and also because the fur­ther we trav­eled from Belgrade’s moder­ni­ty into the vil­lages, moun­tains and monas­ter­ies of the coun­try, the more we began to sense — was it just our imag­i­na­tion? — the holi­ness of place, where saints had trod, where sac­ri­fice, suf­fer­ing, mar­tyr­dom, hero­ism in the face of oppres­sion, faith and trust in God in the face of unimag­in­able adver­si­ty, bore wit­ness through mir­a­cles remem­bered and still being man­i­fest­ed, mirac­u­lous renew­al of destroyed monas­ter­ies and church­es, and the ever-present mir­a­cle of the Res­ur­rec­tion revealed in the lives of saints and the incor­rupt relics they left behind for us to ven­er­ate and won­der at and con­tem­plate. Speak­ing for myself as a first-time vis­i­tor, as an Amer­i­can of non-Ser­bian descent, I can say with­out a doubt that being an Amer­i­can in Ser­bia as a pil­grim, meet­ing and speak­ing with Ser­bian hier­ar­chs, monas­tics, priests and laypeo­ple, expe­ri­enc­ing the beau­ty of its moun­tains and the great-heart­ed gen­eros­i­ty of its peo­ple, and above all, the puri­ty, nobil­i­ty and strength of its Ortho­dox tra­di­tion, espe­cial­ly the splen­dors of the Ser­bian monas­tic and litur­gi­cal her­itage, was a pro­found rev­e­la­tion for me. Tru­ly, we pil­grims can say of Ser­bia, using the words of the incom­pa­ra­ble Mon­tene­gran poet and prince-bish­op, Petar Petro­vich-Njegosh, from his great work, The Moun­tain Wreath: “A shin­ing light will always be seen there / burn­ing atop of your con­se­crat­ed tombs.”

After set­tling in to our hotel in Bel­grade, the Palace Hotel, Fr. Blasko led us first to the enor­mous and enor­mous­ly impres­sive St. Sava cathe­dral, built in the style of Hagia Sophia, then to the old Russ­ian ceme­tery, and also to Kale­meg­dan Park where we saw the church of St. Paraske­va, drank the waters from her holy well and admired the view over­look­ing the con­flu­ence of the Sava and Danube rivers. The day end­ed with a walk to the Skadar­li­ja area of restau­rants and shops, and a mar­velous din­ner out­doors while being ser­e­nad­ed with tra­di­tion­al Ser­bian songs. At this point I must men­tion that a Ser­bian friend of Fr. Blasko, Zor­i­ca Zec, joined our pil­grim­age and jour­neyed with us till the end. A jour­nal­ist and author of at least four nov­els, Zor­i­ca came with us to chron­i­cle our expe­ri­ences as Amer­i­cans on pil­grim­age in Ser­bia. With her warmth, intel­li­gence, sense of humor, infec­tious joy and knowl­edge of all things Ser­bian, she was a won­der­ful addi­tion to our group and con­tributed much to mak­ing our pil­grim­age through­out Ser­bia as good as it was.

The next morn­ing fea­tured an audi­ence cum pho­to ses­sion with Patri­arch Irenej, fol­lowed by a guid­ed tour of the Patri­ar­chal Muse­um of the Ser­bian Ortho­dox Church, after which we set out for the great monas­ter­ies of Ser­bia. About an hour out of Bel­grade, we stopped for lunch at Fr. Blasko’s mother-in-law’s house, where we met his wife Danielle and chil­dren, and were treat­ed to anoth­er of the many mag­nif­i­cent and munif­i­cent Ser­bian meals we enjoyed. Then we con­tin­ued on our way, stop­ping first at Racov­i­ca Monastery, the bur­ial place of saint­ly Patri­arch Pavle, next at the Church of St. George in Oplenac, where we were stunned by the beau­ty of its mosaics and fres­cos. Then it was on to Zica Monastery which for us pil­grims will always be remem­bered as the place where our intre­pid fel­low pil­grim Patri­cia Pow­ell had a fall and was won­der­ful­ly cared for by the nuns, but also mem­o­rable as a monastery found­ed by King Ste­fan the First-Crowned and built by St. Sava around 1207, where the kings of Ser­bia were crowned, and also where the ever-mem­o­rable St. Nico­lai Velimirovich was con­se­crat­ed bish­op in 1919 and 22 years lat­er arrest­ed by the Nazis. It is also note­wor­thy to men­tion that the nuns of Zica have a spe­cial con­nec­tion with the monas­tic com­mu­ni­ty of Ormylia. Then it was on to the great and beau­ti­ful Stu­deni­ca Monastery, found­ed by Ste­fan Neman­ja in 1190, where we ven­er­at­ed the relics of St. Sime­on, father of St. Sava, and also the relics of St. Ste­fan, the first Ser­bian king, and the relics of Holy Moth­er Anas­ta­sia, moth­er of St. Sava. The church of the Vir­gin, often called the moth­er church of all Ser­bian tem­ples, is a beau­ti­ful, sin­gle-domed basil­i­ca built of white mar­ble in a style har­mo­nious­ly com­bin­ing Byzan­tine and Romanesque styles.

On the next day we jour­neyed into Koso­vo and Meto­hi­ja, head­ing for Monastery Gra­cani­ca Monastery, Decani Monastery and the Patri­ar­chate of Pec. Going from Ser­bia into Koso­vo, now a sep­a­rate “coun­try” of most­ly Mus­lim Alba­ni­ans, was quite a sober­ing expe­ri­ence for us Amer­i­can pil­grims. It was like going from a land of light to a strange land of oppres­sive dark­ness and tawdry ves­tiges of imi­ta­tion West­ern cul­ture. Pol­lu­tion was every­where, espe­cial­ly in the rivers and streams. For­mer Ser­bian ceme­ter­ies were des­e­crat­ed and destroyed, and we saw also a lot of burned out and destroyed build­ings. The irony is that they love Amer­i­ca there. We saw, of all things, a large stat­ue of lib­er­ty on top of a hotel roof. We were told there is a large stat­ue of for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton there as well. No fur­ther com­ment need­ed!

We first stopped at Gra­cani­ca Monastery, found­ed by Ser­bian King Ste­fan Milutin in 1321, and present­ly a women’s monastery. It suf­fered much dam­age sev­er­al times dur­ing the wars with the Turks, but even so the main church pos­sess­es many stun­ning orig­i­nal fres­cos. There are five lev­els or tiers of fres­cos on the very tall walls of the main church, ded­i­cat­ed to the Holy Vir­gin, and over 4000 fres­cos in all, we were told by the nun show­ing us around the church. These, show­ing the life and mir­a­cles of Christ are of extra­or­di­nary qual­i­ty. The sub­jects of the paint­ings in the narthex include the entire Neman­je dynasty, the first ever paint­ed, also the founders, King Milutin and Queen Simoni­da, and also the King as a monk and his moth­er as a nun. There is, also in the narthex, a very impres­sive depic­tion of the Last Judg­ment. We were told that there are at present 10 nuns liv­ing there. Gra­cani­ca Monastery is now the seat of the bish­op of Ras­ka and Prizren, Bish­op Teo­dosi­je. It has been des­ig­nat­ed a Mon­u­ment of Cul­ture of Excep­tion­al Impor­tance. One can only pray that such a des­ig­na­tion will help in its pro­tec­tion and in the pro­tec­tion of the price­less trea­sures housed there­in.

We trav­eled through Koso­vo to reach two of the great­est monas­ter­ies in all of Ser­bia, which are locat­ed in the west­ern part of Koso­vo, sur­round­ed as it were in a hos­tile sea of Mus­lim Alba­ni­ans: first, Decani Monastery and then the Patri­archy of Pec. And what amaz­ing monas­ter­ies they are too, gen­uine oases of shin­ing light in that dark land. Of course we had heard of Decani, and its strug­gle to sur­vive dur­ing the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The real­i­ty of actu­al­ly being there was pro­found. It is set in the moun­tains like a bright jew­el of a heav­en­ly city. Moun­tains tow­er above it, a clean and love­ly riv­er runs through it, there are lush gar­dens, beau­ti­ful flow­ers, vine­yards (they have a mag­nif­i­cent win­ery there that pro­duces high qual­i­ty red and white wines, and a tra­di­tion­al plum brandy which they serve to pil­grims upon arrival). We met the famous Fr. Sava, who fif­teen years ago kept the world abreast of what was hap­pen­ing in Koso­vo dur­ing the wars and its destruc­tive after­math (120 Ortho­dox church­es destroyed), and who is now the abbot. He is a youngish man, in his 40s, of great ener­gy and cul­ture, and he speaks per­fect Eng­lish. He told us that since the war end­ed, Decani has been attacked four times, the last inci­dent in 2007 when some­one fired an RPG (rock­et pro­pelled grenade) at the monastery. Patri­aar­chate of Pec Monastery is equal­ly beau­ti­ful, and its tra­di­tion­al name is the Patri­archy of Pec because the first Ser­bian patri­arch and all sub­se­quent ones have been con­se­crat­ed there. At both monas­ter­ies there are U.N. sol­diers sta­tioned, usu­al­ly Ital­ian, in order to deter fur­ther attacks — a sober­ing real­iza­tion of what still is stir­ring beneath the sur­face of the cur­rent peace. At the Patri­archy of Pec, we ven­er­at­ed the mir­a­cle-work­ing icon of the Moth­er of God, tra­di­tion­al­ly believed to be by the hand of St. Luke and brought from Jerusalem by St. Sava, and the relics of St. Arse­nius, the suc­ces­sor of St. Sava, St. Nikodemos the Ser­bian Arch­bish­op, St. Sava the Sec­ond, St. Joaniki­je the first Ser­bian Patri­arch, and some relics from the ear­ly Chris­t­ian mar­tyrs. We also met and had a stim­u­lat­ing con­ver­sa­tion with Bish­op Jovan, a force­ful and ener­getic hier­ar­ch with a live­ly per­son­al­i­ty.

The next morn­ing we pil­grims found our­selves on a long bus ride to Mon­tene­gro head­ing for Ostrog Monastery, the home of the mighty mir­a­cle-work­ing man of God, St. Basil of Ostrog. We had a secret feel­ing in our hearts that this would be a high point — lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly! — of our pil­grim­age, that some­thing spe­cial would hap­pen there. Before we got to Ostrog, we stopped to vis­it Mora­ca Monastery, which pos­sess­es icons and fres­cos from the 13th cen­tu­ry. Among the most sig­nif­i­cant is a cycle of paint­ings of the life of the prophet Eli­jah, the mas­ter­piece of which is a fres­co of the Prophet in a state of con­tem­pla­tion, being fed by a raven. We arrived at Ostrog in the dark of evening, had sup­per and retired to the guest­house for the night. In the ear­ly morn­ing, we met out­side the guest­house pri­or to the steep climb to the upper monastery, where Fr. Blasko was going to con­cel­e­brate the Divine Litur­gy in the tiny cave church high up the cliff wall where St. Basil’s relics are. Arriv­ing at the upper monastery, we were dis­mayed to see a long line of pil­grims stretch­ing from the cave entrance all the way down the path to the park­ing lot. We were stand­ing resigned­ly at the back of the line, when sud­den­ly a monk beck­oned us Amer­i­can pil­grims for­ward and led us right into the cave and up into the tiny cave-chapel, which could hold no more than 10–12 peo­ple crammed togeth­er, where the litur­gy was being cel­e­brat­ed. Half our group went in for part of the litur­gy, fol­lowed by the oth­er half. At the end of the litur­gy, we were the first to ven­er­ate the relics of St. Basil. It was a pro­found, priv­i­leged and holy moment that rich­ly blessed us and ele­vat­ed our spir­its. We left the cave prais­ing and glo­ri­fy­ing God.

From Ostrog, we trav­eled to Dajbabe Monastery, where we ven­er­at­ed the relics of St. Syme­on of Dajbabe, who while a monk at Ostrog received visions from God, includ­ing one which led him to Dajbabe to con­struct a monastery in the cave found there, and after­wards live in it till his death in April 1941. He had had a vision of the com­ing hor­rors of war, where broth­er fought against broth­er and he prayed to God to take him so that he would not have to wit­ness such frat­ri­cide. He died just a few days before the war broke out in that region. Before his death he was vis­it­ed by the great Ser­bian the­olo­gian Fr. Justin Popovich, who was him­self can­on­ized by the Church on the same day as St. Syme­on. This monastery had a very strong spir­i­tu­al pres­ence. We then trav­eled to St. Petar of Cetinje Monastery, where we ven­er­at­ed the hand of St. John the Bap­tist and the relics of St. Petar. After this, we had an audi­ence with Met­ro­pol­i­tan Amfilo­hi­je, who spoke to us in inspir­ing words about St. Petar of Cetinje, and about the Church in Ser­bia, her strug­gles (his impas­sioned remark: “what is Ser­bia with­out Decani? What is Ser­bia with­out the Patri­archy of Pec?” struck us all deeply). Then after telling us about the great Mon­tene­gran poet Njegosh, he pre­sent­ed to Fr. Blasko the gift of a mag­nif­i­cent edi­tion of Njegosh’s mas­ter work, The Moun­tain Wreath, which Fr. Blasko accept­ed on behalf of Bish­op Max­im and the Dio­cese of West­ern Amer­i­ca. Then the met­ro­pol­i­tan delight­ed us by singing a Ser­bian song which he accom­pa­nied him­self on the gusle, the sin­gle-stringed lyre of Ser­bia!

Fol­low­ing this won­der­ful vis­it, we drove into Herze­gov­ina to Tre­bin­je, to the hotel Leo­tar, where we spent the final two days of our pil­grim­age. In Tre­bin­je, our first vis­it was to Tvr­dos Monastery, Bish­op Maxim’s home monastery, which is a beau­ti­ful monastery full of flow­ers, and boasts an excel­lent win­ery. We met with Bish­op Atanasi­je, who is a spir­i­tu­al men­tor to our Bish­op Max­im and is him­self a spir­i­tu­al son of St. Justin Popovich. He has a strik­ing­ly crag­gy face, in which one seems to see all of the tri­umphs and tragedies of Ser­bia, as well as an imp­ish sense of humor; he delight­ed us with many sto­ries of his vis­its to Amer­i­ca. Then we climbed up the moun­tain to New Gra­cani­ca Monastery, the main church of which was built by a wealthy Ser­bian Amer­i­can busi­ness­man, and where the famous poet Jovan Ducic is buried. We also vis­it­ed the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, after which we went to a restau­rant in the moun­tains where we had a mag­nif­i­cent Herze­govin­ian meal, with two bish­ops present, Bish­op Max­im and Bish­op Gre­go­ry and a num­ber of priests. After the meal, songs, both Ser­bian and Amer­i­can, were sung.

Our last day in Herze­gov­ina was the feast of St. John the Bap­tist accord­ing to the Julian cal­en­dar, and we walked from our hotel to the small church of St. John the Bap­tist to cel­e­brate its mid­sum­mer sla­va, first with a hier­ar­chi­cal litur­gy con­cel­e­brat­ed out­doors by three bish­ops, — Bish­op Gre­go­ry, the rul­ing bish­op, Bish­op Max­im and Bish­op Atanasi­je — after which we were ush­ered into a near­by build­ing which rapid­ly filled with men and women in a joy­ful and cel­e­bra­to­ry mood and treat­ed to a won­der­ful sla­va feast with copi­ous and deli­cious food, wine and song. It was a tru­ly mag­nif­i­cent and fit­ting end to our two days in Herze­gov­ina and the cul­mi­na­tion of our pil­grim­age. We then board­ed our lit­tle bus for the long ride back to Bel­grade, a last late sup­per with Bish­op Max­im and our final good­byes. Dur­ing this spir­i­tu­al jour­ney togeth­er, the rela­tion­ship among us nine pil­grims changed from that of strangers to friends and to a lev­el of inti­ma­cy and love for one anoth­er. We were rich­ly blessed in the Spir­it by all we saw and did and felt on the pil­grim­age, and yet our days were also filled with much laugh­ter, enjoy­ment and humor­ous times. Whether any of us see each oth­er again is in God’s hands, but through the unfor­get­table expe­ri­ences we shared, an unbreak­able bond of friend­ship and love has been formed in us.

To sum up this extra­or­di­nary pil­grim­age in words ade­quate to our indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence is impos­si­ble. Suf­fice it to repeat what I said at the begin­ning, that it was through the Prov­i­dence of God a true pil­grim­age for us all. We all felt inef­fa­bly blessed in many ways. In par­tic­u­lar, the expe­ri­ence we all had of Ser­bia, through her monas­ter­ies, shrines, saints, relics, holy places, and the cumu­la­tive pres­ence of her Ortho­dox her­itage, bore wit­ness to the mys­te­ri­ous and extra­or­di­nary role Ser­bia has played in the his­to­ry of Holy Ortho­doxy and in the his­to­ry of the world. I say this as an Amer­i­can born and raised who loves his coun­try, but is also aware that he comes from a post-post-mod­ern, self-absorbed soci­ety in which many are total­ly igno­rant, utter­ly mis­in­formed or com­plete­ly uncon­cerned with the his­to­ry and real­ty of the Balka­ns, and would prob­a­bly find these remarks either incom­pre­hen­si­ble or delu­sion­ary. Through the eyes giv­en to me by holy Ortho­doxy, I could begin to see some­thing of the hid­den great­ness of Ser­bia. Ser­bia is not great sim­ply because she is a nation of Serbs. To read the crit­i­cal and prophet­ic words of St. Niko­lai and St. Justin addressed to their fel­low coun­try­men is enough to take any stars out of our eyes on that score. Ser­bia is great because she is Ortho­dox, glo­ri­ous­ly and uncon­quer­ably Ortho­dox. Ser­bia is in size a very small coun­try but the longer I was there, the larg­er Ser­bia seemed to me to be, in its ulti­mate mean­ing, his­tor­i­cal­ly, spir­i­tu­al­ly and prov­i­den­tial­ly for Ortho­doxy as a whole, and even for West­ern civ­i­liza­tion as we have known it. The most impor­tant thing I take away with me through this pil­grim­age to Ser­bia is a far deep­er sense of what it means to be an Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian in the present world we live in. This pil­grim­age has giv­en us pil­grims the pos­si­bil­i­ty at least to under­stand, if only just a lit­tle, these words of St. Justin Popovich, tak­en from his intro­duc­tion to St. Nikolai’s Prayers by the Lake:

Expand and deep­en your soul with prayer, and you will begin to cry over the mys­tery of the world bit­ter­ly and vehe­ment­ly. Make your heart prayer­ful, togeth­er with your soul and your mind, and they will become inex­haustible foun­tain­heads of tears for all mankind. …Prayer expands the bound­aries of man to [those of] the Ulti­mate Man; it makes one sen­si­tive to all pains and sins; it enables one to cry with the eye of all the tearstained [ones] and to mourn with the sor­row of all who mourn. Through the won­drous prayers of our psalmist [St. Niko­lai] flows the soul of the Ulti­mate Man. The bound­aries of time and space van­ish; the prayers have the fra­grance of a uni­ver­sal soul: it is not man, the slave of time and space, who speaks, but the Ulti­mate Man.”

Sub­mit­ted by Vin­cent Rossi, with grat­i­tude to Bish­op Max­im for mak­ing this blessed and grace-filled pil­grim­age pos­si­ble, July 18, 2013.


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