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An Odyssey Through Yesterday’s Holy Sites of Imperial Russia
And Kosovo In Today’s Modern Times
“The times, they are a‑changing!” So people have said throughout the ages as foreign conquests, wars, religious conflicts, the rise and fall of civilizations, political and social upheavals, pestilence, and the simple ravages of Time, as it marches on, have all left their influences on the world we live in today. The opportunity to “go back in time” to see how the Orthodox Church evolved in its strongholds of Russia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, where it still endures and flourishes in the hearts and souls of the Russian and Serb people today , was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity given to two Americans of Serb ancestry from Pittsburgh, PA who went on a monastery pilgrimage this summer with Fr Blasko Paraklis , of the Most Holy Theotokus Church in Irvine, CA,. We visited 15 monasteries, where we spent our nights in the very comfortable guest rooms at the monasteries. We shared meals with the priests, monks and nuns, who cultivate their own fruits and vegetables, bake their own bread and pastries, raise their own chickens, sheep, cows and goats, and, at some monasteries, maintain their own fish hatcheries stocked with trout and various fish, which is the mainstay of their diets.
We started our tour in Russia, with a week in Moscow. The one word that defines Moscow in a nutshell is “t‑r-a-f-f- i ‑c”! Imagine a city of 14 million people, surrounded by three ring-roads of 5‑lanes each (to circumvent the even more congested traffic of the city center), with millions of cars at all hours of the day driven 70 miles an hour and constantly changing lanes, with only the thickness of their paint separating them from collisions, or so it seemed to us! When not dodging the bullet in traffic, we rode their world-famous subway system whose trains travel at speeds over 100 miles per hour, whose subway stations around tourist sites like Red Square and the city-center are lavishly decorated with crystal chandeliers, bronze statues and art work worthy of a museum. The trains are always full with millions of Muscovite commuters. From the moment they board the trains they all immediately open a book or the newspaper, to read, even the standing passengers, as the trains fly through the tunnels at warp speed. I was surprised that, in every instance that I was a standing passenger, older women or young girls would immediately offer me, an obvious foreigner, their seat, although I declined if we were going only one stop. In Moscow, the primary tourist attraction is the famed Red Square, where we were greeted by a dead-ringer Lenin impersonator and a Tsar Nicholas impersonator at the entrance to the square. They were quite chatty and friendly, and cheerfully posed for photographs. We were awed by the impressive architecture and grandeur of buildings like the Kremlin and the St Basil Cathedral that dominates one end of the Square, and an indoor shopping mall the full length of the Square that could be mistaken for a royal palace of the Tsars.
Another not-to-be-missed site to visit in Moscow is the very awesome Cathedral of Christ the Savior that overlooks the Moscow River in the city center. The original centuries- old cathedral was razed to the ground by the Communists during the Revolution, who then built a swimming pool on the site, then a market place and finally a skating rink, all three of which failed and sank into the ground. When Communism fell and was replaced with a new era of “perestroika”, the City Council decided that the ground at that site was holy ground, and it would only accept a cathedral to be on it, so the cathedral was rebuilt in its original design. What is so unique about this magnificent edifice is that it is really two- cathedrals-in-one, the visible one at ground level that is built on top of another one underground, each one with the high vaulted ceilings and cupolas, the ornate architecture and gold-enhanced rococo decor, the frescoes and icons covering its walls. A stairway of 75 steps descends from the upper cathedral to the lower underground cathedral. It certainly deserves its status as the pride of Moscow!
The city of Moscow is the new Russia, the modern Russia. We found the old Russia in a little Russian church in a suburban village. This is where we saw the soul of the Russian people who are so devout, who live their religion in their daily lives, who raise their children to honor their faith, who love and respect their priest, Fr Constantine, and trust him to counsel and guide them. On Sunday the church was full, with all the villagers in attendance, but what surprised us was that it was equally as full mid-week on a Wednesday, when Fr Constantine did a “blessing of the water” service at a natural well of cold, pure spring water on the church grounds. In the Russian tradition, females of all ages, children as well as adults, wear a scarf on their heads in church, even to a young mother with a newborn baby girl no more than a few weeks old, with a little kerchief on the baby’s head. What impressed us the most was that, in this church without pews, where the parishioners stand throughout the long liturgy services, when it came time for Fr Constantine’s sermon they all sat down on the floor, adults and children alike, to listen attentively to his homily as he talked to them like a father to his children, like a teacher to his students. In this little village church there are two noteworthy artifacts. One is a set of 3 stones, salvaged from the basement of the house where the Tsar’s family was murdered during the Revolution, with the Tsar’s bloodstains still visible on the stones. The other is a piece of blackened wood, found in the nearby woods, that was buried when the church was burned down during the revolution. After the fall of Communism it was salvaged as a useful piece of building material for the new church. While in storage, the totally black surface started to fade spontaneously and show colors emerging. There is now a beautiful biblical scene emerging in full color, so far about 80% complete, with about the last 20% yet to emerge. It is considered a miraculous message of rebirth for the church after the communist repression. It now hangs on a wall in the church.
We also visited the very beautiful and impressive Lavra Monastery, dedicated to St Sergius and housing his relics. It is located in the quaint rural town of Sergius , about a 1−1÷2 hr drive from Moscow. Lavra has an expansive 20-acre compound with its gleaming blue and gold onion-domed cathedral silhouetted against the skyline, and a seminary that houses 3000 monks. It has a famed healing spring in its center where visitors fill containers with its icy cold pure water to take home, and at a nearby stream visitors can bathe in the healing waters for physical and spiritual renewal. It is a medieval walled city in its own right, with a restaurant, a bakery, a museum and shops all contained within its walls. The grandeur of this monastery is breathtaking, and it exudes a feeling of peacefulness and spirituality as one walks through its grounds.
The Situation in Kosovo
On leaving Russia we flew to Serbia, and after a few days to recuperate from “the hottest summer in Moscow in 130 years”, we decided to go to Kosovo, in spite of the potential danger of traveling in this hostile Albanian-controlled province that is the birthplace of the Serbian nation. Since the 1995 war, Kosovo is still occupied by NATO multi-national forces, known as KFOR. We were informed that the Bishop of Kosovo had provided for a KFOR escort for us, to take us to the Monastery Decani , where we would leave our car with its Serb license plates and be lent a monastery car with Kosovo plates and a driver. This would enable us to travel between monasteries as presumed-to-be- Albanian Kossovars , without being attacked as Serbs. Before Clinton’s “wag-the-tail” war (which the locals call the Monica Lewinsky war), there were over 1500 Serbian monasteries and churches in this Serbian homeland. Almost all of which were burned by the Albanians. NATO made no effort to protect them. Because they were complicit in this destruction of Serb holy sites, the European Union has allotted millions of dollars in funding for these monasteries and churches to be rebuilt, with the proviso that they can no longer be called Serbian monasteries, but, rather, be known as “European Heritage Sites”, in deference to the Albanians, who object to having “Christian” holy sites built in “their” Islamic country. The few remaining Serb monasteries and churches are protected by KFOR, 24 hours a day, with military units posted at their entrances that are surrounded by barbed wire. We surrendered our passports to these military units on arrival at each monastery and retrieved them only on departure from the monasteries. Some monasteries had KFOR Italian forces, some French, some Germans and some Slovenians. Churches located in town centers were protected by KFOR police, rather than the military. One of the town churches we visited had only 3 elderly women living there, who refused to leave during and after the war. An Austrian police- woman is assigned to protect them. She has learned to speak Serbian just so that she could converse with them. Most of the monks and nuns living in monasteries have not set foot outside their walls in the 15 years since the war because of the risk of being beheaded and/or dismembered, which is what has happened to those who ventured outside their walls to pick fruit or vegetables growing in open fields. The most recent purging of Serbs by the Albanians was in 2004, when the Albanians went on a rampage, burning and looting Serb homes and killing the Serbs who had fled to Serbia during the 1995 war but had returned to Kosovo with assurances of protection by NATO, only to be immediately murdered. There now remains only two “enclaves” of Serbs in all of Kosovo, one with only 6 families in it, and the other the town of Mitrovice , where 300 Serbs reside as virtual prisoners in their homes, not daring to go outside unless necessary, even within the town itself. The town has no protective walls, as the monasteries do, but they do have a quasi-protection by a KFOR presence.
En route to Kosovo, we visited 2 monasteries in Serbia, in the mountainous territory of Ras . The first stop was a brief visit with the Bishop of Ras , at Zhica Monastery. He was very gracious and hospitable. He phoned ahead to the Abbott of the very beautiful Studenitsa Monastery, our first overnight stop, requesting that we be considered his guests. We spent two nights in Studenitsa in their comfortable guest quarters. The two 800 years old bodies of Prince Stefan, (son of King Stefan Nemanja in the 13 th century), younger brother of St Sava, and their mother, are housed there as relics. Their caskets were opened for us so that we could view their still completely intact bodies and marvel at how well they have endured the passing of time over 8 centuries, without any form of embalming. Legend has it that if you crawl under the casket of St Sava’s brother, your ailments can be cured. Having done this during a previous visit to Studenitsa last year, I can personally attest to a remarkable improvement in a chronic ailment that is no longer symptomatic. Since the first crawl had been so effective, I did the crawl again to reinforce my much improved health status.
At this monastery we met a tall, lanky, elderly American man from Texas, who had been married to an American Serb whom he dearly loved, and had converted to the Orthodox faith for her. In his Texas drawl he told us that he and his wife had visited Serbia several times on summer vacations, loved it and decided to retire there. They settled in Kotor , on the Adriatic coast.. They made a pact that whoever died first, the other would then retire to a monastery where they would be taken care of, rather than live alone.. They liked the mountainous region of Ras , which they had visited many times, so his wife would go to the female monastery of Zhica as a nun, and he would go to the male monastery of Studenitsa as a monk. His wife died 6 months ago, so, true to their pact, he came to Studenitsa to live as a monk. He changed his name from Robert (McDougal) to Fr Nikoli , and he works daily in the monastery’s gardens to earn his upkeep. Although language is still a barrier the monks are teaching him to speak Serbian.
The next day we traveled through Montenegro to the border of Kosovo, where we were met by our KFOR escort, who were Italian soldiers with NATO. A car with 4 nuns from Zhupa monastery in Montenegro also joined our escort party as we traveled first to the monastery of Pec for a brief visit while our escort waited for us, then to our destination for the night at Decani monastery. All of the monasteries we visited had beautiful gardens landscaped with rose bushes and hydrangeas, but, of all the monasteries , Pec was by far the most beautiful! At this monastery there is an eight centuries old mulberry tree, with its thick misshapen branches held up with supports, but still producing the sweetest mulberries we have ever eaten. We ate bowlfuls of these delicious mulberries that we picked ourselves, with the aid of the nuns. One of the nuns, a quite beautiful woman speaking impeccable English, was the former wife of President Tadich of Serbia. Their courtship and marriage was a well-known love story that entranced the people of Serbia, but, because she could not have children, she divorced him so that he could remarry and have a family. She then chose to lead a monastic life rather than live a secular life without her beloved husband. There are four churches on the monastery grounds, all dedicated to St Nicholas, whose body is interred in a casket in the main church, along with another casket containing four preserved heads of Saints and Archbishops who succeeded St Sava. Both caskets were opened for us to view the relics. Also in this main church is an original 2000 years old icon painted by the apostle St Luke, as well as the oldest and what is considered the best fresco of Jesus Christ in existence.
From Pec , our escorts delivered us safely to Decani monastery, where we spent the night. At Decani the relics of St Stefan, from the 12 th century, are interred in a casket. Every Thursday there is an evening vesper service attended by all the Italian NATO forces in the area. There were about 40 soldiers at the liturgy, which ends with the casket of St Stefan being opened for viewing his body, and all the KFOR soldiers in attendance lined up to venerate the relics. At Decani we met the monk, Fr Hilarian , a very tall (about 6′8″) handsome man who had been one of the most famous actors and movie stars in Serbia, winning the equivalent of the European Oscar awards several times as best actor. At the height of his fame he gave up his celebrity life-style to enter the Church as a monk, which he felt was his true calling and destiny.
The following morning we left our car, with its Serb license plates, at Decani and were given a monastery car with Kosovo plates and a driver, so that we could proceed with our monastery tour without a KFOR escort. We were accompanied by a very learned young monk, Fr Niphant , who spoke English perfectly, as our guide and mentor. Our next monastery was Cetinje , where the relics are the body of St Peter, and the hand of St John the Baptist. Our overnight stop was at the Gracanica monastery, where we had the honor and pleasure of meeting the Bishop Teodosije , Bishop of Kosovo He is a truly saintly man who radiates a kindness and gentleness of spirit, honor and humility. During the war an elderly Albanian man, emaciated, wounded and disoriented, was found wandering in the woods outside the monastery. The Bishop took him in and cared for him for one month until he found out the name of the man’s Albanian village. He called in the Commander of the Serb forces in that area and made him promise that no Serb soldier under his command would harm this man nor his village. The Bishop then personally took the man to his village, where the astonished villagers had presumed him to have been killed by the Serbs and rejoiced at his return. The man then asked the Bishop if he would grant him one favor before departing. “Allow me to kiss your hand”, he said.
In the town of Prizren , where the burned out church is being rebuilt with EU funds, we met a priest who had formerly served in Alaska. He was replacing the two former priests at this church, one of whom was found beheaded 10 years ago when the church was burned. The body of the other has never been found. At our next monastery, Devich, which had also been burned and was still in ruins, there were 6 nuns living there. The Abbess had gone to Serbia to buy supplies when the monastery was attacked in 2004, The KFOR French unit assigned to protect them evacuated the 5 remaining nuns to safety, but allowed the monastery to be burned. “Our orders were to protect personnel only, not to protect property”, they said. The Abbess said that if she had been there she would have refused to let her nuns be evacuated, and the French would have been obliged to prevent the burning in order to protect the nuns. At this still burnt out ruined monastery there is a well with a history of miracles, whose water is reputed to cure people. During the Turkish occupation 500 years ago the Sultan had ordered his troops to destroy the monastery and kill all the Serbs in the nearby village. En route to do this, the Turkish troops all suddenly and inexplicably went mad, crazy mad, and were unable to carry out their mission. The Sultan recognized that a supernatural force was at play and rescinded his order. Since then, and to this day, the village is known as Crazy Village. Even now, the Albanians who now occupy Crazy Village come and bring their sick and disabled to drink the water from the well. A blind Albanian boy from the village had his sight restored, and there are legends of other miracle healings. We each collected a bottle of this holy water to bring home with us.
In Pristina , the capital of Kossova , there is a statue in the city center of Pres. Clinton, with one arm outstretched, palm upward, “giving Kossova ” to the Albanians as their country. The Albanians fondly say that Clinton is their God, and Madeleine Albright is their Queen. By contrast, just outside of Pristina is Kossova Polje , “Blackbirds’ Field”, the site of the Battle of Kosovo on June 15, 1389, when the Turkish forces defeated the Serbs led by Tsar Lazar, and Serbia was dominated by the Ottoman Empire for the next 500 years. . There is an impressive monument, dedicated to the Serb defenders in this battle, and nearby there is an Islamic monument, shaped like a turban, that marks the site where Tsar Lazar killed the Sultan during the battle. Every year during the month of June there is a dark red wildflower that covers the battle site, making Blackbirds Field look like a blood-stained field. This flower, studied by many Botanists, is unique to this field and does not exist or grow anywhere else in the world!
Our last and final monastery visit in Kosovo was at Velika Hocha monastery, where the mother of the Bishop of Kosovo resides as a nun. This monastery is guarded by Slovenian KFORs. We again met the actor-monk, Fr Hilarian , here. He comes once a week to conduct a liturgy service for the nuns living there.. We also met again one of the 4 nuns who traveled with our escort on arrival in Kossova . Sr Anphilokia , a lovely young woman, was reassigned from her monastery in Montenegro to now serve in Kosovo at this monastery.. After this visit we returned to Decani once again to spend our last night in Kosovo. In the morning we retrieved our Serb car, and our Italian escorts led us back through the massive mountainous terrain to the border of Montenegro, where we bid them a fond adieu, with our grateful thanks for their protection. The saddest part of leaving Kosovo was knowing that in December this year, just 4 months from now, NATO plans to withdraw all their KFOR troops from Kosovo, which, in the last week of July 2010, was declared an independent country by the International Court in The Hague., therefore no longer a NATO protectorate. They will turn over the responsibility for protecting the Serb monasteries and churches, and the 2 Serb enclaves, to the Muslim Albanian Kosovo police, which is like expecting the fox to guard the hen house! The Serbs of Kosovo, the priests and monks and nuns in the monasteries and the residents of the 2 Serb enclaves„ are all very fearful of what will happen to them once their KFOR protectors leave in December. On leaving our final monastery of Velika Hocha , Sr Anphilokia gave me a hug and whispered in my ear “Pray for us!” And that is all we can do for these brave, dedicated guardians of our Orthodox heritage in Kosovo!
As we drove through Montenegro we were dwarfed by the massive “black mountains”, covered with forests so dense that it was hard to imagine how anyone could even walk through them. The Swiss Alps and the Rocky Mountains pale by comparison, and only the Himalayas can be considered comparable. The scenery is stunning! We drove through at least 25 or more pitch-black tunnels with no lighting in them, bored through solid rock in the mountainsides along the shores of Lake Piva . In Montenegro we visited 2 monasteries. Ostrok Monastery is the pride of Montenegro, a national monument, where the body of St Basil lies in an open casket to allow the daily throng of thousands of pilgrims and tourists to venerate his remains. Built high atop a massive mountain, it is accessed by a hair-raising 5‑mile drive up a very narrow winding road with no guard rails, where the car wheels were only inches from the cliff edge if 2 cars had to pass each other. Only the façade of the church is visible, built flat against the solid rock mountain top, like a white patch on the gray stone. The interior of the church has been hollowed out of the rock. On a narrow cliff about 60 ft above the church façade there is a grape vine growing in a small 6‑ft by 3‑ft patch of earth, still producing grapes since the 15 th century! Ninety years ago a woman with a toddler baby was picking the grapes, when her baby fell off the cliff onto the rocks 60 ft below. The distraught mother found her baby totally unharmed, playfully laughing, with no injury of any kind! That baby lived to be 80 years old, and he died just 10 years ago, in 2000! This is one of the many miracles attributed to St Basil. In the 15 th century he was buried in the ground for 10 years, just his body covered with earth, without any protective casket. In a dream he instructed the Abbott to build a church, then retrieve his body from the gravesite and place it in the church. He was then dug up and found to be totally intact, without any tissue disintegration! He was placed in a casket in the church, where his still intact 600 years old body remains today. People with disabilities make pilgrimages to Ostruk , seeking to be healed by St Basil, and there is a history of miraculous healings. Our second monastery in Montenegro was Moracha , whose relic is the hand of St Karalampius , a Saint who died in the year 203. At this monastery there are 30 nuns who run a thriving workshop where they paint icons for churches, they do exquisite embroidery and embroider the robes worn by Bishops, they weave their own cloth on looms, and they make pottery and jewelry as religious souvenirs that are sold in churches and monasteries, not just in Serbia but throughout Europe. They are all very skilled artists at what they do.
Thus ended our personalized guided tour by Father Blasko , facilitated by the Bishops of Ras , Montenegro and Kosovo who arranged a red-carpet treatment for us by the Abbotts and Abbesses of the many monasteries we visited. Their hospitality was boundless, and all the monks, priests, and nuns whom we met will live forever in our memories. To call this odyssey through Serbia’s history a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the kind of experience that money cannot buy, does not do it justice. We call it what it truly was … priceless!!!
With our thanks to Fr Blasko Paraklis for reuniting us with our proud Serbian heritage on this pilgrimage through the lands of our ancestors, we are two grateful fellow pilgrims from Pittsburgh, PA,
Marie Wilkie and