After Decline, Yugoslavian Monasteries Filling Again
By Richard Mertens
DECANI, Yugoslavia, October 2, 2002 (SPT) -- The sky is clear and starry above the 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 frescoed walls 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, barely.
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, predawn prayers swell with dozens of voices and the days are busy with farming, writing, translating, icon painting, wood carving and more. For the first time in years, 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."
'A revival of our people'
All across the Orthodox lands of the former Yugoslavia - Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and parts of Bosnia - monasteries are enjoying a revival. Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia suppressed religion and turned old churches and monasteries into "cultural monuments." Today, 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 also coincides with the resurgence of nationalist feeling in the former Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, a mainly Muslim section of Yugoslavia run by NATO-led peacekeepers, 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.
"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 Macedonian capital.
Of all the monasteries in the former Yugoslavia, Decani 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. Mortars have been lobbed in their direction. Italian soldiers guard the monastery's approaches, and the monks do not travel without a military escort.
But Decani's predicament seems only to heighten its 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," says 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 under repression."
The day begins at 3 a.m.
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 yolk in the old way, then blow-dry the paint with hair dryers.
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 then- Yugoslav 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 U.N. 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 monastery station wagon, tending the monastery cows, chiseling ornate wood panels. Study and more prayer round out the day, until at 10 p.m. they lie down for a short night's rest.
After a few months, many novices discover that monastic life is not for them and leave. One who stayed is the Rev. Arsenije Jovanovic, 42, who came to Decani in 1993. Jovanovic had seen the world, studying dentistry and then art. He had lived in New York City and visited the major museums of Europe. Now he spends his days painting gilded icons in the ancient style of the Byzantine Church and teaching his craft to other monks. "The hardest thing is the expression on the face of the saint," he says. To do a proper job, he continues, "you have to purify yourself at least a little."
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.
"For five years I am only thinking, monastery, monastery, monastery," he said, smiling. "God willing, I will stay."
After traveling the world, and studying dentistry and art, the Rev. Arsenije Jovanovic, 42, came to Decani in 1993. He now spends his days painting gilded icons in the ancient style of the Byzantine Church and teaching the craft to other monks.