From the Baltimore Sun:
2002.11.28 Baltimore Sun: New monks flock to old way
By Richard Mertens
New monks flock to old way
Tradition: In Kosovo, a monastery welcomes novices to its strict life.
November 28, 2002
DECANI, Kosovo - The sky is clear and starry above Decani monastery as
bearded men in black robes hurry across the yard and through the wooden
side door of the Church of the Ascension.
Standing in the dark they begin to pray, briskly and without pause, their
voices at times rising into song and filling the church with rich
harmonies. Around them, barely visible in the dim glow of oil lamps, saints
and warriors of the Orthodox Church look down from frescoes painted nearly
700 years ago.
These Serbian monks belong to a line that goes back to the 14th century,
when King Stefan Uros founded a monastery in a cleft of the Accursed
Mountains in southern Kosovo. Rising long before dawn, they pursue a life
of work and prayer whose essential rhythms have barely changed over the
centuries. The stone threshold of Decani's church has been worn smooth by
the feet of generations of monks coming to pray.
A decade ago, this way of life had nearly died away. Forty-five years of
communist rule in the former Yugoslavia had cut off the supply of new
monks. A handful of older monks remained, keeping tradition alive, but only
Today, young men come from all over the former Yugoslavia to embrace the
rigors and, they say, blessings of monastic life. The monastery's cells are
overflowing, pre-dawn prayers swell with dozens of voices and the days are
busy with farming, writing, translating, icon painting, woodcarving and
more. For the first time in generations, Decani is thriving again.
"Of course it is difficult," says the Rev. Ilarion Lupulovic, 28, a
successful actor on the Belgrade stage before he joined Decani monastery
six years ago. "That is one of the reasons why I came. But there is also an
opportunity for great peace and joy, and you can even say love, when you
are a part of a community like this."
All across the Orthodox lands of the former Yugoslavia - Serbia,
Montenegro, Macedonia and parts of Bosnia - monasteries are enjoying a
revival. Tito's Yugoslavia suppressed religion and turned old churches and
monasteries into "cultural monuments." Religion is permissible again, and
many young people are turning to it even as their society falls
increasingly under the spell of Western secular culture.
The monastic revival coincides with the resurgence of nationalist feeling
in the former Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, monks of the Serbian Orthodox Church
fight to protect their monasteries and the province's remaining Serbs from
hostile ethnic Albanians. In Macedonia, new monks are reoccupying dozens of
abandoned monasteries, animated in part by a desire to shore up Macedonian
identity in a region dominated by more populous nations.
Though Decani's monks were credited with protecting ethnic Albanian Muslims
from marauding Serbs, their humanitarian gestures have done little to
change the way Kosovar Albanians feel about the church.
Most Albanians blame the church for promoting Serb nationalism in the 1990s
or for doing too little to curb its excesses. They view the church and its
institutions the way they view the whole Serb presence in Kosovo: as an
There is a widespread belief among ethnic Albanians that centuries ago
Serbs built Orthodox churches and monasteries on the site of Albanian churches.
"They came to our land and they occupied it and took our churches," says
Uka Gashi, 32, a former fighter in the Kosovo Liberation Army, sitting in a
Decani cafe about a mile from the monastery.
The monks see it otherwise, in a view that goes beyond land and into the
"The revival of the monasteries is a revival of our people," says the Rev.
Stefan Sanjakovski, a professor at the Theological Faculty in Skopje.
The Rev. Sofronij Dimeski, 28, and a few other monks moved into an empty
12th-century monastery high in the mountains of central Macedonia. The
isolation and harsh beauty make the monastery, called Treskavec, uniquely
suited to monastic life, he says.
"There's no place like it in Macedonia."
Not only men are choosing monastic life. Three years ago, Abbess Sister
Kirana, 38, led young nuns to the village of Jankovec, in southern
Macedonia, to resurrect an abandoned 16th-century nunnery.
It was exciting work but hard. In the beginning, the nuns had no water or
electricity. The neighbors, too, were suspicious of the grave, black-garbed
"When they got to know the life of the monastery, all their suspicions were
gone," says Sister Kirana, who declined to give her full name.
Of all the monasteries in the former Yugoslavia, Decani's is perhaps the
most remarkable. After NATO forced Serbian authorities out of Kosovo three
years ago, ordinary Serbs fled the Decani area. The monks are the only
Serbs left for miles around. Mortar rounds have been lobbed in their
direction. Italian soldiers guard the monastery's approaches, and the monks
do not travel without a military escort.
But all of this seems only to heighten Decani's appeal. With 33 monks and
novices, it has the largest brotherhood of any monastery in Serbia. "The
outer situation has not affected the inner, spiritual life at all," said
the Rev. Sava Janjic, 37, the deputy abbot. "I can say it's even become
more intense. In the history of Christianity, spiritual life increases
Monks take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that date to the dawn of
their vocation. But modernity still leaves its mark. The typical monk today
is educated and city-bred and no longer the son of peasants. Monks use
computers and e-mail; they can be reached by cell phone.
They are not afraid to innovate if it serves tradition. The icon painters
at Decani mix pigment with egg yoke in the old way, then blow-dry the paint
with hair dryers. In a larger sense, many monks strive, through their
writing and translating, to give modern expression to Orthodox traditions.
No one exemplifies the new monk better than Decani's deputy abbot. Educated
in Belgrade and fluent in English, Janjic came to Decani in 1992 with four
other young monks. In 1997, he set up a Decani Web site, which he and other
church leaders later used to caution against violence and to criticize the
policies of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. During the Kosovo
war, Janjic and his fellow monks harbored ethnic Albanians fleeing Serb
paramilitary gangs. Today he publishes sharp commentaries rebuking the
province's United Nations and NATO overseers.
"The monastic way is no longer seen as some kind of time machine, going
into the past," he says. "It's not a petrified form of spirituality. We
wear strange clothes and follow strange rules, but Orthodox Christianity is
able to give something spiritually to these people today."
Decani's monks protest that they are soft and weak compared to monks of
old. After all, they have indoor plumbing. But their day begins at 3 a.m.,
when a bell rouses them to private prayer. At 4:30 they gather in the
church for four more hours of prayer and liturgy. They emerge for breakfast
and the day's work: washing the station wagon for one, tending the cows for
another, chiseling ornate wood panels for another. Study and more prayer
round out the day, until at 10 p.m. they lie down for a short night's rest.
The monastic revival has not pleased everyone. Parents who grew up under
communism are dismayed when their sons and daughters renounce worldly
ambition and family life. Some have accused religious leaders of deceiving
or even kidnapping their children.
In the end, neither hardship nor parental disapproval stops those
determined to live the monastic life. Zvezdan Stefanovic, 30, came to
Decani this year after toiling for luxury hotels in Belgrade and Buenos
Aires. A cheerful man with curly reddish hair, he shares a crowded cell
with four other novices. He doesn't seem to mind. He seems almost to enjoy it.
"For five years I am only thinking 'monastery, monastery, monastery,'" he
says, smiling. "God willing, I will stay."