In the following we would like to offer our readers this document, which is the work published (in Russian) a nun of the Russian True Orthodox Convent Lesna, about her and her sister’s, Mother Amvrosia’s historic visit to Novi Stjenik for the monastery feastday of St John the Baptist.
We bow to them in humble gratitude for their love and charity towards us, and must say that we are not deserving of their compliments, which only show the goodness in their own hearts. They are truly an inspiration to us and we hope that we will exchange many visits in the future which are only reflections of the perpetual closeness we feel in spirit.
Note: In the original document they used only their photos, but we are going to add some of our own which were made with our camera. We must also in footnotes correct a few mistakes (misunderstandings) which they made about the order of life in the monastery.
RETURN AFTER 60 YEARS:
LESNA NUNS IN SERBIA
-Nun Tatiana, Lesna Convent, Provemont, France
The Serbian state in the history of the Lesna community came to an end in August, 1950, when the sisters led by Matushka Theodora, the third abbess of the monastery, left Belgrade for Paris. Since that time none of the Lesna nuns has gone to Serbia, although many of them for a long time retained memories of this country and its kind and pious inhabitants. The reminiscences came to an end with the death of the last of the sisters of the Serbian period. M. Paraskeva, the very last “Serb”, is still alive, but is not keen on talking.
Memories of the life of the Lesna nuns in Serbia, especially in the monastery of Khopovo, were revived with the arrival in Lesna of True Orthodox schema-nuns of the monastery of Novy Stjenik in October last year. Since that time a lively correspondence has arisen between the Lesna sisters and the Stjenik sisters. But nobody ever mentioned a journey to Serbia, although many were dreaming about it.
M. Ambrosia was also dreaming about a trip to Serbia. She very much wanted to go to this country – every since she read in the Lives of the Saints how Holy Righteous Tsar Lazarus, before the battle of Kosovo, had the opportunity to choose for himself and for his people: either victory and an earthly kingdom, or defeat and the Heavenly Kingdom. He chose the Heavenly Kingdom and lost the battle. The story about this act struck the heart of M. Ambrosia, and she began to dream of seeing the people that lives for the Heavenly Kingdom. When she got to know the sisters from the monastery of Novy Stjenik, then she had a still greater desire to go to Serbia. Her desire was fulfilled in July of this year after the Abba and Amma of the sisters of Novy Stjenik, Schema-Archimandrite (1) Akakije and Schema-Nun Euphrosyne, wrote to Lesna and asked that one of the sisters come to them for their patronal feast (in Serbia, Slava) – for the Nativity of the Holy and Great Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord Joh. Sister Tatiana travelled together with M. Ambrosia. On their return they recounted the following:
PART 1. 3rd JULY: BELGRADE-MANASIA-DESPOTOVATS-MIKUL
Our flight from Paris was delayed because there was a torrential downpour that lasted for about two hours. In Belgrade the sun was shining and there were many people waiting to meet passengers at the airport. But nobody came up to us, so we began to wait, staying a little apart from the crowd. Soon M. Ambrosia saw through the glass doors a nun coming towards the airport and immediately recognized Mati Euphrosyne.
It is difficult not to recognize Mati Euphrosyne, so unique is her appearance. And it is not a question only of her monastic clothing: she sticks out sharply even among monastics. Something ancient or even eternal breathes out from her: her majestic gait, noble bearing, enchanting voice, slow speech, beautiful, irregular face and piercing glance. You can’t immediately tell whether this is a woman or a man, but it is immediately clear that this is – a warrior. A warrior of Christ. All the Stjenik nuns are warriors of Christ, not only by name, but also in their life: it was precisely for this reason that Schema-Archimandrite Akakije tonsured them, when still quite young, into the schema, that they immediately “engage in the battle”, in his words.
However, Mati Euphrosyne is a special warrior: unbelievably bold, uncompromising, quick to make decisions, firm in carrying them out, pitiless towards herself, tender to her sisters and other True Orthodox Christians. Mati’s wonderful honourableness and fearlessness was displayed from the very beginning of the Stjenik nuns’ confessing path – when they were expelled from the “old” Stjenik in October, 2003. In that year there was much talk among the Serbian monastics about the necessity of registering a protest against the ecumenist politics of the Serbian patriarchate. On Frushka Gora, which is often called the Serbian Athos because of its large number of monasteries, there gathered in conference some high-ranking monks. (2) However, nobody went any further than talking except Mati – only she wrote a letter to her ruling bishop protesting against the violations of the Apostolic Canons committed by the Serbian patriarchate. The reaction of the bishop is well-known from the communications on the Novy Stjenik website: the “schismatics” (in Serbia the True Orthodox are called “zealots”) were thrown out by a crowd of “right believers” armed with knives and chains. The sisters were saved from punishment only by some personal friends of Mati – policemen from the town of Čačak. The expulsion took place on Mati’s namesday, and the festive “kolach” was cut up by the sisters under the starry sky, from which snow suddenly began to fall on them and on the cake.
Well, Mati met us on a hot July day and took us from Belgard first to Despotovats – the last little town before the ascent to Mikul mountain, where Novy Stjenik is hidden almost on the very summit. We travelled in a Mercedes which had been lent to Mati for the journey to Belgrade by one of his man friends (and consequently, friends of Novy Stjenik), the owner of a restaurant in Despotovac. Later Mati would meet his Grace Photius, a bishop of the True Orthodox Church of Greece, in the same Mercedes, and he, being well acquainted with the straitened circumstances of the community, would say in shock: “Kyrie Eleison!”
On the way Mati explained to us the situation of the Serbian True Orthodox Church and the situation of the Stjenik nuns themselves. The official churches of Serbia, the Orthodox and Catholic, are unanimous in their hatred for the True Orthodox, so that it is impossible to find a building for a parish in any of the populated parts of Serbia: the matter would be closed in any office of any boss after the handing in of the first papers. The priests and parishioners of the Serbian patriarchate also have no mercy on the True Orthodox. “This is notFrance,” said Mati, “where people are indifferent to what religion you confess. This is Serbia. They hate us because we confess the Truth.”
However, the situation is different in the area where the Mikul mountain is situated. In those places we can clearly feel the protection of the Serbian saints and the rulers Tsar Lazarus and his son, Despot Stefan Lazarevich: it was here that they carried out their feats and built monasteries, and now it is here that they defend the Serbian people from earthquakes, floods and communists. “The communists and ecumenists from the official church do not appear here, although go round everywhere in Serbia,” said Mati. “Aggression and heresies have not penetrated into this area.”
Mati said that the simple people who live here respect the “zealots” from Novy Stjenik and help them, and she told stories about some of the benefactors of the monastery. One of the them, the owner of a small mill, has for two years now been giving the sisters flour for all their needs and does not accept any payment, while their needs are great: the sisters often bake prosphoras, and every day bake bread for themselves and the pilgrims, and they need a lot of flour for various needs in the kitchen. Another benefactor, the same who lent the Mercedes, gave the sisters a washing machine, which had to be put in the monastery “podvorye”(3) in Despotovats – a tiny flat in a multi-storey house, because there is no electricity in the monastery. Now we had to drop in at a wine shop and buy several chests of wine donated by the same benefactor for the community feast. Neither of the benefactors has yet joined the Serbian True Orthodox Church because the priests in their parishes reproach them for helping the “zealots”. But they reply, as a freedom-loving Serb should reply: “This is my business, and I can do what I want with my goods.” These people do not join the True Orthodox Church because it is difficult to overcome traditions and family ties. They often go the monastery and attend many services; they venerate the sisters and help them a lot.
On the way to Despotovats Mati took us to Manasija monastery, which was built by Despot Stefan Lazarevich at the beginning of the 15th century. It fell into ruin in the 18th century, and was brought back to life in the 1920s by Russian nuns from Khopovo. Externally the monastery retains its ancient majesty – battlement walls, medieval towers and beautiful frescoes move us with their beauty and simplicity, but the inner life of the monastery has apparently died. In any case, the service that we happened to fall in with was flaccid and ill-attended: on the kliros the chanter was scarcely audible, in the corner two or three very old nuns were standing, two or three pilgrims were at the entrance, and a professionally shorn priest was walking around with a virtuous gait and a censer in his hand.(4) However, in Manasija we did meet Nun Ambrosia, who in her time had visited Lesna monastery in France – at first under Matushka Theodora in Fourquet, and then under Matushka Magdalina in Provemont. She spoke with us in Russian and sent her “most heartfelt wishes and low bows to the Lesna abbess and all the sisters”.
In Despotovats we stayed in the “podvorye” and there we got to know Euphemia, the wife of Fr. Stefan Nikolic, a priest of the Serbian True Orthodox Church. He is the brother of Mati Euphrosyne. He lives with his wife and nine-year-old daughter Michaela in a flat next to the “podvorye”. Fr. Stefan and Michaela were in the monastery, while Euphemia was waiting for us so as to give us lunch. The podvorye consists of a tiny room and kitchen. In the room are many photographs of representatives of the Greek, Russian and Serbian True Orthodox Churches, including Hieromartyr Joseph of Petrograd and, of course, the holy Hierarch Philaret of New York, whom the True Orthodox Serbs venerate so much that they hang several of his portraits and icons on every wall in the house and in the church. Over the door hang portraits of the slaughtered Orthodox sovereigns King Alexander in military uniform and Tsar-Martyr Nicholas in Russian national clothing.
In the podvorye we encountered traditional Serbian hospitality for the first time: the guest is unfailingly offered a cup of coffee or tea, a glass of cold water and a dessert – jam in a little bowl or some sweet cake. Everything is carefully laid and poured into glasses of sparkling cleanliness, beautifully sliced and offered on a tray. Don’t think of leaving the house before you have tried one or another variety of refreshments. This time the coffee was prepared by Mati – cold, according to a special recipe, and very tasty.
Having left the podvorye we set off – but not quite yet for Mikul mountain, but to the owner of the Mercedes, so as to give him back his car, because we had to go to the monastery in a Landrover, which is more suitable for that impossible mountain road through the woods that awaited us. The return of the car took some time because we had to be treated to cold tea with the owner. We sat on the verandah, which was entwined with a wild grape-vine – outside it was already completely dark. The Serbs at the table greeted us and asked us questions in Russian. By this time we had already formed out first opinion about the Serbs – that they are direct, simple, generous, welcoming and friendly amongst themselves.
Mati was chatting in a friendly and humble way with the owner of the house-restaurant and his wife about the menu of the forthcoming feast and calculating how many boxes of wine would be needed, how much beer, how much water, how many onions, how many vegetables, how much bread, how many fasting cookies… In the conversation it was suggested that part of the deliveries should be made by this restaurant, part – by another, while the monastery would pay. Later, during the feast, we learned that all this had been brought by the owner as a gift to the community, and he himself, together with his worker, served the tables.
Now we set off on our journey. Mati would drive the Landrover, which was overloaded with passengers and foodstuffs (Euphemia would go with us). Novy Stjenik is 1000 metres above sea level, and Despotovats – 250 metres, to that we had to climb up the mountain for quite a long way. We drove in the darkness by the light of the headlamps through a thick leafy wood. Often along the road, and sometimes right across it, lay logs that had fallen down or been sawn off by lumberjacks. The mountain road, of course, had to wind around and go in a spiral, but the road to Mikul mountain has other particularities: it is a dirt road, and under the earth springs burst out in various places, which is why there are many ruts and holes filled with water in it. Mati is a virtuoso driver and tried not to fall into these holes, but still the car shook in two directions: left-right and front-back. So as to keep the road from being completely swept away by water, stones have been pushed into the soil in many places, so that the car suffered still more bumps and shudders. And it went on like this for two hours. Anyone who has felt sick on the one-hour trip on the road to Paris will not be able to tolerate this road through the woods, even with a driver like Mati. So one involuntarily thinks that those pilgrims who go to the monastery if only once a year can be considered to be ascetics.
We arrived late at night. There is no electricity in the monastery, so we saw only circles and spirals of light from the two torches with which Schema-Nun Nina and Novice Sarah met us joyfully. Since we were scarcely alive after the road, we were forgiven our refusal to have the inevitable treat of water and jam. We went to sleep, while Mati and the sisters set about unloading the car.
1. Fr. Akakije is only a hieromonk, not an archimandrite.
2. The sisters seem to have misunderstood this. There were no meetings on Frushka Gora, rather meetings at Monastery Sopochani and a few other meetings against the ecumenistic direction of the Serbian Patriarchate.
3. In Greek, ‘metochion’ – a dependancy, a property owned by the monastery outside the monastery, used either by monks while traveling or as some source of income (for example, a vinyard, farm etc)
4. It must be noted that the nuns only entered the church to venerate the icons, they did not, nor have any intention, to attend the service.
PART 2. 4th JULY: CELLS- LITURGY – ICON-PAINTING WORKSHIP –CROSS
We were woken up at 5.30 by a very quiet knock on the door – that’s how they knocked in order not to awake our neighbours. Our cell was one of three in the corridor on the first floor in the house where the cells and the trapezas are. Besides the cells, there is a chapel – a house church – on the first floor. We were there later and saw many icons and a very beautiful iconostasis. Both iconostases in the monastery, as well as the beds in the cells, were built by the father of M. Alypia, a very good carpenter. Her brother, in holy baptism Elijah (his Serbian name is Ognen), is also a carpenter, and came to the monastery with his family for the feast from the city of Novy Sad – at the other end of Serbia. In the chapel the sisters daily read three akathists: in the morning at 7.30 – the akathist to St. Philaret of New York, at 8.30 – to Hieromartyr Charalampus, and in the afternoon at 2.30 – to the Great Prophet and Forerunner John. At Compline on every day except Saturday, they read an akathist to the Mother of God: on Wednesdays - the Three Hands, and on the other days – of the Annunciation.
In the corridor opposite the cells there are slippers, sports shoes and trainers: they take their shoes off before going into the cells. M. Ambrosia and I were in the cell in which M. Nina and Sara usually live. “Usually” we said because there is no permanent cell-occupancy in the monastery. The sisters sleep where they have to – there is not enough living space. In all there are three cells in the monastery with two or three bunks in each, while there are eleven sisters, and in addition guests are constantly staying the night – priests, monks and pilgrims: men, women and children. (1) But it is planned to give separate living space for guests, about which we shall say more later.
The cells where we are living are tiny. On one wall is a two-storey bunk, on the other a “one-storey”. Between them there is a table at the window and two chairs at the door, one of which has to be moved when someone comes in. The floor is concrete, covered with carpets. The beds are without mattresses (a board covered with a blanket). However, at the head there is a beautiful Orthodox cross. There are very many icons, on which they hang prayer-ropes. Later we saw the same custom in the church.
The liturgy this morning is at 7.00, because it is Sunday. On ordinary days there is the midnight service and Mattins, and this service lasts from 2.00 to 5.00 a.m. The Sunday service began with Mattins, then they read the rule of preparation for communion, (2) and then there was the Liturgy (without the reading of the Hours). There are many differences in the service; the most surprising is that they read the irmoses (3) and the kontakion in the canon, but sing the sedalens. The church is so small that there is nowhere to sit, and everybody stands - the sisters and the pilgrims (the small children are sometimes held in the arms). The sisters stand on the left, and the guests – monks, men, women and children – on the right.(4) In front of the iconostasis, near the royal doors, there are two high candlesticks, and on each there is one thick candle-end, which they sometimes light and sometimes snuff out. The pilgrims put think wax candles in the sand, usually three at a time.
Already in the first service in the church of Novy Stjenik we had a very strong impression of early Christianity – here there were praying and chanting people who were being persecuted and who were therefore burning in faith. During the liturgy there was not a single moment of silence, not a single pause – the chanters chanted, the priest chanted, and the pilgrims chanted, including the children. Their style of church chanting recalls the Georgian polyphony – that is, the words are pronounced by the chanters, while the rest “hum” their part. This creates an uninterrupted background of sound. The rhythm of Serbian church chants is brisk, almost like a march, while the intonation is “martial”. We can hear how the words of the chants strike chords in the hearts of the chanters. From all this the impression is created of strong, ardent prayer from the whole people, a powerful current directed there, towards the altar, to the iconostasis – above towards God, to the Heavens. The Creed is sung briskly, quickly and loudly, and at the words “was crucified… and suffered, and was buried” they go quiet and slow, but without sobbing, then again quickly and briskly. Everybody received communion. They went up to the chalice with shining faces. “The Body of Christ receive ye…” was sung by all, including the servers. After communion they all remained to listen to the prayers. Several people read, not in any particular order – first the nuns, then an adult laywoman, then a girl, then another laywoman.
We had lunch in the house where we were living. There are two trapezas on the ground floor: one for nuns, the other for laypeople. The priest eats with the nuns, as do the monks.(5) A reader stands at the open door between the two trapezes, and a priest goes up to this door when he blesses the food, while the prayer is read by a nun in her trapeza – loudly, so that the pilgrims should hear.
After lunch M. Alypia showed us the icon-painting workshop, which was in a small house near the big one. In this there lived M. Alypia,(6) and there was also a cell for Vladyka during his visits. Now the monastery is building a new building for the icon-painting workshop, and the sister-icon-painters will be living there. In the present workshop, which is small, there work M. Alypia, M. Lukia and sometimes Fr. Akakije. The order of work on an icon is as follows: first they make a pencil drawing, then they paint the icon with colours on paper, and then they repeat it on wood. True, M. Alypia, as she admitted, never succeeds in repeating an image without changes, and as a proof she showed us several of her icons on paper and on wood. Sometimes they really do differ very much, but both are very good. Later they told us that sometimes it is quite difficult to determine who painted the icon – Fr. Akakije or M. Alypia, while M. Lukia’s style is immediately obvious. We had no opportunity to convince ourselves of this. But we saw many icons of Fr. Akakije: in the monastic church of Novy Stjenik, in the church of the men’s monastery of the Serbian True Orthodox Church in Vrdnik on Frushka Gora, and in the home of the parents of Fr Akakije in the city of Novy Sad. Copies of icons of St.Seraphim of Sarov and St. Savva of Serbia painted by Fr. Akakije were given to our sisters by the Stjenik nuns.
Having visited the icon-painting workshop, where, it goes without saying, we drank coffee, we set off with M. Alypia and M. Isihia to Mikul stone – to the Cross raise there by Fr. Akakije. The sisters said that at the foot of the Cross they serve litias during great feasts. It was proposed that there would such a litia during the Slava, but they did not go because of the strong wind.
On the road we dropped in at the just-finished cottage for pilgrims. The sisters are building cottages for male pilgrims in the wood, at some distance from the monastery. More exactly, now the sisters are no longer doing the building, but they are hiring workers, or volunteer pilgrims come. The sisters themselves built the church and the present house of residence. During the building Mati was ill with pneumonia, but she did not miss a single working day – she carried water and bricks, like all the others. While the building of the cottages is continuing, the pilgrims sleep in tents which are put up in large quantities here and there in the wood. In the summer the sisters also sleep in the tents – that is, in those that are above the living block in the wood. (7) Building went on even during the preparations for the feast – they were putting a carved fence in front of the entrance to the church, were cleaning the area for the cottages in the wood, and taking bricks out of the lorry.
The most grandiose construction of the present stage of building is the brick wall separating the monastery from the world and the sisters from the pilgrims. On the side of the pilgrims there remain the church and the cottages, on the side of the sisters – their house of residence, the present icon-painting workshop, the future workshop and a field on which the monastery animals graze: a cow, an ass and some chickens…
TO BE CONTINUED…
The following chapters will be published as they are translated.
1. We must clarify that men never stay in the monastery house, rather at the men’s camp or a nearby cottage.
2. Another misunderstanding. The Matins are immediately followed by Liturgy, the prayers before communion are usually read the night before.
3. Not correct – we first read the irmoses, then sing them after each ode. And the sedalions are the sections sung between the kathismas in the earlier part of the service, which is the practice in all Orthodox churches.
4. It is a small church, so that the choir takes up the better part of the left side, but nevertheless women do stand to the left and are always clearly delineated from the men.
5. All men, including priests and monks, sit in the guest trapeza only.
6. Another misunderstanding – the sisters must have been confused because the future icon workshop is planned to also serve as a cell for sisters. The current small workshop is only used as a workshop, with a small room which on occasions is used as quarters for the bishop or visiting hieromonk.
7. The sisters only sleep outside of the monastery residence (in a specific, seperated camp) when the monastery is housing elderly women guests who cannot stay in tents.
PART 3. 5th JULY. THE SOURCE – THE SKETE
In the monastery there is a skete: a vegetable-garden, goats and a small house situated about three kilometres from the monastery. We must bear in mind at this point that for fifty kilometres around the monastery there is not a single place of human habitation – just mountains, fields with wild herbs, springs, woods, wild beasts and birds. The sisters live take their turn to live in the skete: two or three come for a month and look after the vegetable-garden and goats. Then they are replaced by two or three other sisters. Once a week, on Sunday, the skete-dwellers go to the church for the liturgy, have lunch in the monastery and leave for the skete in the evening. Sometimes they are taken on the tractor by Fr. Akakije, but this is rare – usually the go on foot. Besides their household duties, those in the skete are supposed to read the Psalter – during the course of the day they read all the kathismas. There is no electricity in the skete also, so that they have to read while there is daylight. (1)
We set off for the skete on Monday, July 5th. It was a complete expedition: on the way to the skete we had to go through fields where marjoram was growing, as well as St. John’s wort and other medicinal teas and herbs. We had to collect quite a few in order to dry that for the winter. We were supposed to get to the skete and read the akathist to the Mother of God there. Besides us, the expedition was joined by the young pilgrims Nina, Maria, Ioanna and Michaela, and headed by M. Alypia. Michaela is nine years old, the other girls were about seventeen. We were all given straw hats, kitchen knives and plastic bags for the preliminary collections. The final collection was put into a big rucksack on M. Alypia’s back.
We were preparing for the trip for more than an hour – first we were looking for the knives, then the girls wandered off, then Michaelа ran up to Mama to get her permission, then the boys wanted to tag along, but they didn’t get a blessing for that… It was already midday when we set off. It was a very hot day. The road went through fields. More exactly, it was one huge glade full of wild herbs with field flowers of various shades of white, yellow and lilac. We moved very slowly, and stopped by islands of one or another herb that we needed.
On the way we entered a wood where there was source from which the sisters take drinking water (there is no water in the monastery). It flowed down in a thin stream from the mountain. Over the source, on a big plank, they had hung an icon of the Mother of God. They put water into canisters in the rucksacks. The path to the monastery for those carrying water goes uphill and lasts about twenty minutes. You can’t carry much in this way, but they need a lot, especially in the summer. Sometimes they bring a car as close as they can, and bring the water in the same rucksacks or simply canisters from the source to the car. Sometimes Fr. Akakije comes on the tractor. Sometimes the ass helps out. The ass is called Rada. Generally speaking, Rada is pretty capricious and stubborn, she neighs and kicks, but carries the water obediently. In winter Fr. Akakije goes there on the snow-mobile. They take non-potable water from another source which is easier to get to. Later we saw Fr. Akakije carrying huge canisters there and taking them to the monastery on the tractor. He made two such journeys, while we wandered around, and at the end of the second Michaelа seated herself among the canisters and got a ride to the monastery on the tractor. In general, one can see Fr. Akakije during the day only in quick motion – either on the tractor, or heading with rapid steps somewhere with this or that instrument in his hands, in a patched-up podryasnik and wearing a hat pushed onto the back of his head.
During our visit to the skete two young schema-nuns were living there: M. Juliana and M. Magdalina, an Englishwoman, and a comparatively elderly schema-nun, M. Justina, a Serb of Austrian citizenship. M. Magdalina was tonsured in the monastery this winter, she was tonsured by Hieromonk Augustine, a native of Singapore, who serves in the Greek True Orthodox parish in Guildford. Fr. Augustine also came to the feast and often served in the church on the days we were in Novy Stjenik. M. Juliana came to Novy Stjenika after her first year in university – she gave up studying and left for the monastery. She got to know the “zealots” and no longer wanted to stay in the world. M. Juliana is very tall and very quiet. She speaks English well, but it is impossible to talk with her – she gives a meek look, smiles pleasantly and replies to questions with one word. Besides her native English, M. Magdalina speaks Serbian and Russian, but she is completely silent, the most silent of the sisters.
M. Justina came to Novy Stjenik during a snowfall in winter, after her husband had found the True Orthodox “zealots”. Both of them, M. Justina and Fr. Theoctist, lived in Vienna for about thirty years, raised sons there and then decided to go to a monastery. At first they were in Bosnia, in the official Serbian church. Their bishop put them into a men’s monastery – Fr. Theoctist was numbered among the brothers, while the future M. Justina was sent to serve the brothers – preparing food, cleaning and washing. It very soon became clear that there was no point in remaining in this community – there were too many temptations from all sides, first of all from the bishop himself. Now Fr. Theoctist is struggling in solitude, while M. Justina has become a Stjenik sister. She knows several Russian words, and these, combined with her warmth and kindness, were quite enough for her to express her ardent and tender feelings for us, the guests from Lesna. The sisters later told us that before M. Justina’s arrival they were expecting to see a worldly woman, but instead there arrived an ascetic.
The skete-dwellers were very welcoming. They gave us the traditional treats: water and jam made of small yellow plums which they grew there, in the skete. M. Justina showed how they dried the goat’s cheese. This was during the fast, so we didn’t try the cheese, but it looked very nice. M. Justina also made a tasty drink from jam and water. Then they decided to give us some marjoram tea. Thus it once again became clear to us that the level of hospitality depends, not on the variety of products, but on the fullness of the heart.
The girls ate and laughed outside, seated at a table under the plum trees, while we chatted in the room about prayer-ropes, the Russian White Guard and the fate of the Serbs in the contemporary world. The Chetniks were mainly young Orthodox warriors – they fought for Serbia against the Germans during the Second World War on the side of the allies and were betrayed by them. The English motioned them into a ravine, and there they were all killed. Truly, the same destiny as the destiny of the Russian White Guardists in Europe. Those of them who did not perish from the Bolshevik terror, on leaving for the West were betrayed by the “allies” just as mercilessly and terribly as the Serbian Chetniks. Concerning the contemporary situation of the Serbs, the sisters said that, besides the massive deaths during the bombing of Belgrade, Novy Sad and other Serbian cities, and the bombing of monasteries on Frushka Gora, the Serbs are being systematically and methodically killed one by one in the prisons of international terrorism, in journeys, simply on the street. (2) Then we read the akathist to the Lesna Mother of God. The girls came and stood with us. Michaela held the akathist book in front of us and turned the pages.
The vegetable-garden is big, and very accurately laid out. The vegetables are all almost the same as with us: onions, lettuce, guerkins, beetroot, cabbage, camomile and big yellow flowers like dandelions, but with longer stems. Lunch was at 5.00, and the service at 7.00.
Before the service they thrice sounded the gong, which is called a klepalo: at 6.30, 6.45 and 7.00. Entering the church, one must kiss all the icons in a definite order, from right to left, including those hanging on the wall at the height of a man, and those that are part of the external altar iconstasis. Having kissed the icons, one must bow three times before the Royal Doors while facing the altar, and then turn and bow to everybody present. This order was demonstrated to us the first time by Jovan, a nine-year-old boy, who served in the altar throughout the feast and struck all of us by his sincere piety.
During the evening service they read and chant Vespers and Little Compline, and during the latter – the Annunciation akathist to the Mother of God. The akathist is read, and only the last verse is chanted, and this time it was read in Serbian by a pilgrim. We returned from the service when it was already dark, and we had to read our evening prayers by the light of candles.
1. Actually, the sisters read the Psalter from 2 to 4 or 5 in the morning by the light of candles or petrol lamp, and the rest during the day.
2. “Serbs are being systematically and methodically killed one by one in the prisons of international terrorism, in journeys, simply on the street’’ – Stjenichanka would like to apologize for this (as far as we know) untruth, which none of our sisters would ever say. W e don’t understand how our Lesna sisters understood this from any conversations they had with us, or any they could have had with bystandards, etc, as no one has ever claimed such a thing. It is true that many civilians were killed during the NATO bombing, though it was claimed to be on only military targets. However, we do no know of Serbs being killed in some international action besides the NATO bombing as it suggests in the text. It must also made clear that there was no bombing whatsoever upon the monasteries of Frushka Gora (though there were on army enclosures on the mountain).
PART 4. 6th JULY. VLADYKA – KOLIVO – KOLACH
We got up at 1.50, like yesterday. We set off for the church by the light of a torch – it was complete darkness all around. At 2.00 the night service – midnight service and Mattins – began. Fr. Augustine, the hieromonk from Guildford, served. He carefully and distinctly pronounced the responses in English and Church Slavonic, and acted calmly and simply. On previous days it was Fr. Stefan, the brother of Mati Euphrosyne, who served, while Fr. Akakije served at the Liturgy.
We left the church at 5.00, it was already beginning to dawn, and the workers had set about putting the carved fence around the church. Fr. Akakije had made a drawing of the carving; he had found a sketch in one of the carpenters’ journals as a sketch with an ancient Serbian cross on top. From the roof of the church there opened out a broad and far-reaching view – to the three corners of the world. There was open space all round. In the distance tall mountains were turning blue, while on the way towards them our glance ran over big and small hills of various shades of green, over the fields, over groups of trees, descending into ravines and valleys and rising again to the mountains, to the sky. The sky here is very lofty, at night it is starry, while in the morning it is bright, shining and always triumphant.
After breakfast we helped the sisters and pilgrims in the kitchen: we washed dishes and cut up onions for the festal trapeza – the next day was to be the monastery’s Slava, the Nativity of the Great Prophet and Forerunner of the Lord, John the Baptist. During this work the pilgrim Glykeria, Fr. Akakije’s mother, told about the graves of the White Guardists in the cemetery in the city of Novy Sad, where she lives. Nobody looks after the graves any more – there is nobody to do it. All those who remained in Serbia under the communists have died. There are red crosses on the graves with the inscription ‘May the Will of the Lord be done!’ She sometimes goes to light candles and pray for the Russian dead, and once she saw a candle on one of the graves that continued to burn and did not go out even under a strong wind.
When we were working in the church – polishing candlestands, cleaning icons, hanging up inscribed cloths, washing the windows and floors – we got to know the altar-attendant, M. Kassia. She became an ardent “zealot” when she was listening to a course of lectures that Fr. Akakije gave several years ago in Novy Sad. She said: ‘My sister and I went to these lectures together, and she understood nothing, but I immediately accepted everything in my heart, and I so wanted to become True Orthodox, I so wanted it! And now I know that there is nothing better than True Orthodoxy!’ Then we swept the steps of the big porch in front of the church and put the flower-pots in place in preparation of the arrival of the bishop.
Bishop Photius arrived at about 1.00 in the afternoon. Mati Euphrosyne brought him in the Landrover (the Mercedes again did its job in taking him from Belgrade to Despotovats and remained with its owner). Vladyka is quite a young Greek, not tall in stature, who acts in a simple and meek manner. There were no special ceremonies at his arrival, only the sounding of the bells, and he was met in the church by the priest in vestments. We were introduced to Vladyka immediately, by the church, and we spoke a little to him in English. When Vladyka was leaving, M. Ambrosia and I made a gaffe – the wind tore off both our wimples, there at the entrance to the church, and hurled them to the ground. In the presence of a Greek bishop and Serbian True Orthodox Christians. Glory to God for all things! M. Alypia and M. Isikhia laughed a lot when we described our confusion to them later: “In front of everybody! Ha-ha-ha!”
Before dinner, which on that day was at 4.00, we cleaned nuts for the adornment of the kolyva. First we took off the shells, then we divided the cleaned nuts into two halves. One part we left in the dark brown inner shell, while from the other part we removed the shells, and the nuts became light, almost white. In this way M. Alypia got tow colours for her mosaic pattern on the kolyva. Later we saw the kolyva in the church, and on it was a complex and beautiful national ornament made out of nuts of two colours.
Vladyka Photius came for the evening festal service himself, with his staff in his hand, without a meeting or vesting. He went into the altar and from the beginning of the service himself read the first psalm in Greek by heart. On the whole he gave the impression of a meek, simple man, without pretensions. He vested himself. If someone made a mistake in the service (which is not surprising, since nobody besides Fr. Akakije knows Greek), he calmly corrected, and the service went on.
Not only in the service, but at all times Vladyk conducted himself very simply. The more we got to know him, the more we saw in him attractive traits – humility, responsiveness, patience. M. Nina referred to him simply as “Bishop”, and not once did he object or correct her. He did not even frown or smile – he took it as his due. Before he left, pilgrims hurled themselves at him from all sides to be photographed with him, “with Vladyka”, and he patiently stood near the church until all those who wanted came up to him in turn – individually and in groups – and stood next to him for the photo shoot. Before leaving he looked very tired, but not disappointed, not annoyed, but calm, quiet and humble – he had fulfilled the Will of the Lord.
At the feast Vladyka concelebrated with four priests: Fr. Akakije, Fr. Stefan, Fr. Augustine and Fr. Nektary – a hieromonk from the men’s monastery at Vrdnik. Besides Fr. Augustine, all the priests were Serbs, of about the same age (30 years), and very similar to each other – tall, thin, hook-nosed, with long, dark hair and beards. In none of their movements was there a trace of fawning in relation to the hierarch: they submitted freely, in accordance with their inner impulse, but neither was there any arrogance. Everything was simple and calm. They were dressed in vestments of various colours. Evidently that is the only thing that Novy Stjenik is rich in.
In accordance with the Greek practice, in the church in Novy Stjenik there is always a carved chair with a high back on the right wall – the throne for the hierarch. Vladyka stood on this throne; occasionally he sat down during those moments of the service when he was not in the altar. From this throne he also blessed the festal breads – in accordance with Greek practice. The custom is as follows: one of the priests takes the loaf and stretches it to Vladyka. The other priests support the loaf as if participating in its offering, while Vladyka puts his finger on the loaf and quietly prays. That’s all – no censing, and no prayers said out loud. Then the loaf is put on the others so that it touches them, and in this way the service of the blessing of the breads comes to an end. (1)
During the festal service we were again struck by the inspiration with which the True Orthodox Serbs pray. All pray together, in unity, in friendship, firmly, with conviction – the Lord will hear and reply to our prayer. The whole church chanted. The chanters chanted the melody with the text, while the others either chanted together with them, if they knew the text, or “hummed” their tone – without pauses, all the time.
When the Gospel was brought out, a boy server with a candle went up to the priest. The server is called Jovan. He is always pious, but at the feast he was especially concentrated: his face was still more inspired, and his wide-open eyes attentively followed every movement of the priest. All his movements were precise and accurate.
In his sermon at the end of the Liturgy Vladyka Photius said that just as the great Prophet and Forerunner John struggled in the wilderness, so the nuns of the monastery of which he was the protector also struggled in the wilderness. The terms “ascetic exploit” and “desert” in Vladyka’s sermon should be understood, not metaphorically, but literally. The Stjenik sisters are ascetics in the patristic sense of the word. The whole of their external life – without electricity, without mains water, with sewage – is already an ascetic exploit. This is not enough: they impose upon themselves the exploits of strict fasting and intensified prayer in all situations in which somebody needs their prayerful support – in illness, in woe, in difficulties. Novy Stjenik is situated in a real wilderness – far from habitation, far from roads, high in the mountains, inaccessible to all except those who share with the ascetics their ardent faith and love for the Truth.
1. The nuns are indeed describing the Greek practice, but they seem to have forgotten how it actually takes place at our monastery. At the blessing of the five loaves, the priest regally censes around the offering of wheat, wine, oil and bread three times while singing a special, slow Byzanine setting of ‘O Lady and Virgin, Rejoice’ (or if the serving priest does not know this, then another, quicker version three times) and then he, or the bishop, if present, reads the prayer blessing the offering out loud.
PART 5. 7th JULY. THE FEAST
PART 5. 7th JULY. THE FEAST
Mattins began at 7.00 with the reading of the Psalms – Vladyka read them by heart in Greek. Instead of bringing out the icon they venerated it during the Polyeleos as it lay in its own permanent place, adorned with flowers. Then they turned to the priest to receive anointing. Fr. Akakije anointed them with oil from the burning lampada, while the triumphant and concentrated Jovan held it.
During Mattins there took place the festal rite of “kolach”. The Serbian “kolach” is not quite the same as the Russian kalach. First, it is different in form – in the Serbian bread there is no opening in the middle. Secondly, it is different in its purpose and quality. The Russian kalach can be of any purpose and quality, but the Serbian kolach is precisely a festal bread, fluffy, tall, with special decorations. We saw how the sisters arranged roses made of dough on the kolach before putting it into the oven.
It then makes a great impression, and the final result is beyond all imagination.
In the morning they brought this huge fluffy bread into the church, and when the right moment came, Fr. Akakije before the eyes of all cut the kolach on the bottom in the shape of a cross, poured wine into the “wounds” and raised it high above his head. Mati put her hand on it, and after her everyone who could reach the kolach in the crush. From the common, combined movement of many hands the kolach began to spin to the chant of wedding verses. Later, when we were talking to our sisters about this feast, Sister Anna asked us: “What does this rite symbolize?” We said: “Conciliarity [Sobornost].” Perhaps that is so. Unity in Christ, unity in Orthodoxy, unity in the confession of the True – that, probably, is what is signified by the loving, unanimous, uninterrupted movement of many, many hands, souls and hearts.
In the Liturgy Vladyka Photius served – simply and lovingly – with the same priests. Everybody received communion – all the sisters, all the monks and all the pilgrims. During the Liturgy I had to go out onto the porch for a short time, and outside a multitude of people were standing. They were standing quietly and triumphantly. The True Orthodox Serbs take part in the service with mind and heart and lips – from the beginning to the end. O Lord, glory to Thee!
Most of the guests set off for the festal lunch, which in a tent behind the church. The wind was very strong, so they tied the tent to the tractor, and this “union” continued without a break long after the feast. The tent was big enough to accommodate more than one hundred people at the tables. The tables stood in the shape of the letter Π – the short horizontal part was laid for Vladyka, the priests and Mati, and there we, the Russian guests fromFrance, were also seated. The remaining tables were distributed in two long rows the whole length of the tent. At them were placed the True Orthodox monks and the pilgrims who had arrived from various regions of Serbia, and also local guests – mainly men, peasants from the villages on Mikul mountain and on the way to it. It was a military tarpaulin tent without windows, so that it was dark there – a little light penetrated through the entrance and through the cracks formed from the joining of the canvas sections above and in some places on the sides. On Vladyka’s table was the national-monarchist flag of Serbia, which impressed all the guests, because Serbian patriots were gathered there, as became clear later, when Fr. Akakije gave his festal greeting. From what we could understand (he spoke in Serbian, so we didn’t understand much), he said that the Serbs had nothing more important than Orthodoxy – and True Orthodoxy at that. He said: “If your bishop became a heretic or prayed with heretics, don’t go to this church any more, pray at home”. He also asked the people to support the Stjenik sisters, who were bearing such a heavy burden for the sake of the triumph of Christ. He said: “Every contribution of yours to the sisters, even the smallest, is seen by the Lord and counted by Him in your favour in the life to come. This is all for your salvation.”
Fr. Akakije was followed by Sister Tatiana, M. Nina and M. Ambrosia. Sister Tatiana read in English a welcome speech written in Lesna by M. Euphrosyne, M. Nina read the translation of the speech in Serbian done by M. Juliana, while M. Ambrosia offered Fr. Akakije gifts for the monastery of Novy Stjenik and a little bell for the trapeza in the form of an Orthodox church. Because of the darkness in the tent, the speech was read by candle-light, while a microphone was used because of the large gathering of people.
This is a translation of the welcome speech of the Lesna sisters into Russian:
“Your Grace Most Reverend Vladyko, Your Reverences Fr. Akakije, Your Reverence Mati Euphrosyne, honoured Fathers, Mothers and Sisters, beloved brothers and sisters, Christ is in our midst!
“His Eminence Archbishop Tikhon, our Matushka Abbess Macrina and all the sisters of the Lesna monastery send you their blessing and congratulations on the feast of the Nativity of the Holy Great Prophet and Forerunner John, the Baptist of the Lord, on the patronal feast of the monastery of Novy Stjenik. May this holy community be preserved through the prayers of the Great Holy Prophet and Forerunner John, the protector of monastics, for many, many years! May this community flourish and become a light of enlightenment for the True Orthodox Christians of Serbia!
“The blessed life of St. John the Baptist, full of miracles and signs his great ascetic feats, his ardent striving for God and deep humility before the Saviour Whom he was the first to recognize – has served as a model of the monastic life from the first days of the Church to our days, and we pray that his example may inspire you, too, in your ascetic feats. Together with the Most Holy Mother of God, St. John stands before the Lord, always ready to intercede for us, his humble followers. May his prayerful intercession continue to be a consolation for you, especially in our difficult times.
“M. Ambrosia and I have the honour to represent our sisters from the Lesna monastery of the Most Holy Mother of God here today. As many of you know, our monastery is particularly closely bound to Serbia. Our sisters, together with many Russian refugees, acquired a home for ourselves in your country when we were forced to leave our homeland, saving ourselves from the persecutions of the communist fighters against God. The Lesna nuns settled in the monastery of Hopovo on Frushka Gora and thanks to the truly Christian mercifulness, generosity and hospitality of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian people, we were able to preserve our monastery, our traditions and customs. We are forever in debt to our Serbian brothers and sisters. The memory of them will always be alive in our hearts and our prayers. In August, 1950 our sisters left Serbia forFrance. Today, exactly sixty years later, the Lord has granted us the opportunity to return here once again and pray with you.
“The Lesna sisters were brought to Serbia by the founder of our community, Abbess Catherine of blessed memory. She founded the Lesna monastery, the first missionary monastery in Russia, on the western frontier of the Russian Empire, and thereby aided the true regeneration of Russian women’s monasticism. Hundreds of young ascetics followed her example, and many new communities were founded by her disciples. She was able to continue her activity also in Serbia and inspired the regeneration of Serbian women’s monasticism also. Her spiritual children became abbesses in the monasteries of Kuvezhdin, Vavedenie, Manasia, Grachanitsa and many, many others. In these monasteries, as in Hopovo, Russian sisters worked hand in hand with Serbian sister, because in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, nor Serb, nor Russian, but there are only citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem. And these citizens are you and us.
“Matushka Catherine died here, in Serbia, and her remains are in Hopovo. In October this year we shall celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of our monastery, and we shall glorify our worthy-of-honour Matushka Abbess Catherine, who, as we believe, has won glory with the Lord and is among His saints. We believe that her prayers have returned us to Serbia and brought us to our dear sisters from the Serbian True Orthodox Church. After all, they are the true heirs and disciples of the Serbian sisters who lives and struggled next to the Hopovo nuns, and our Matushka Catherine intercedes for them before the Almighty Lord just as she intercedes for us.
“We thank Fr. Akakije and Mati Euphrosyne for inviting us to come to you for the opportunity to pray with you and take part in your feast. We hope, if God wills it, to see many of you at our triumph in October. Please accept our gifts: a portrait of the Royal Martyrs and a Russian bell for your trapeza. His Majesty the Martyr Nicholas II was a distant relative of our Matushka Catherine and a great benefactor of our community. He was also a great friend of the Serbian people. May the Lord reward you a hundredfold for your kindness, may He bless you with all that is necessary for your salvation, and may He keep you for many years!
“Many years and may Christ God save you!”
Later the Stjenik sisters and the True Orthodox pilgrims came up to us to say how deeply they had been touched and how grateful they were for our love and support. M. Isihia, for example, said that not only every word, but also every sound of our welcoming speech penetrated her heart to its very depths. Hardly were all the guests similarly penetrated by the feeling expressed in this speech, but many came up to look at the portrait of the Royal Martyrs and stood for a long time in front of it.
The meal finished with a word of gratitude from Mati Euphrosyne directed to all those who had honoured the monastery feast with their presence. The majority of the guests dispersed immediately after the meal, but the monks, pilgrims and relatives remained for the evening service and the Liturgy the next day. During the Slava the Liturgy is serve on three days – the duration of the feast itself.
Vladyka left a little before Vespers after being photographed with all those who wanted it. M. Ambrosia and I were called to have supper with them and the pilgrims in the guest trapeza, where we had the good fortune to speak a little with Vladyka. At the end of the conversation he said that he would come to Lesna without fail.
PART 6. 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th JULY. MEETING WITH THE SISTERS
Immediately after breakfast on July 8th, the second day of the Slava, Fr. Akakije and Fr. Augustine sat at the table in the sister’s trapeza and occupied themselves with the photographs from the feast – transferring them from three different cameras into the computer. They worked with great concentration and effort until lunch. Before becoming a monk, Fr. Augustine was a photographer, and now he often helps in work with the photos.
Later, the sisters and Fr. Augustine himself told how, several years ago, he was very ill, so ill that the doctors “waved their hand at me”, but then the illness suddenly stopped and ceased to spread in his body although it did not disappear completely. We saw photographs of the period of his illness, and on them Fr. Augustine looks doomed – completely different from now. He say that he was saved from death by the prayers of the Stjenik sisters, and very much venerates them for that. But the sisters think that he got better by no means because of their prayers, because they are not worthy of such gifts (of healing).
After lunch on July 9th, the third day of the feast, the sisters invited us to their “secret place” – their summer kitchen, which is closed to pilgrims and where the sisters gather to work. All of them were there, including Fr. Akakije and Mati. And there we observed one of the usual “conferences” of the monastic community of Novy Stjenik. But this time the subject was everyday – Mati distributed obediences (the kitchen, the trapeza, the church) as well as things bought in Belgrade, in the METRO shop, while Fr. Akakije showed the gifts received for the feast.
When the conversation about current tasks came to an end, Fr. Augustine came, and the sisters went over to reminiscences about the tragic circumstances in which Novy Stjenik had come into being. The enraged supporters of the official church combed the woods around “Old” Stjenik searching for Fr. Akakije. In their hands they had heavy chains with locks on the ends – with them they intended to beat up the “schismatic”. The murderers several times passed just next to the place where Fr. Akakije was standing and praying without noticing him. Suddenly a huge dog that he had never seen before ran up to him. He froze – now he would begin to bark, and he would be discovered. But the dog did not begin to bark, but stood silently next to him, covering him so that nobody could see him from the path.
Mati Euphrosyne told how the expulsion of the sisters from Stjenik took place on her namesday, October 8 according to the new style. The sisters were preparing a namesday kolach and were waiting for Mati to begin the feast. At that point the representatives of the official church appeared – about 200 people, stirred up by wine and hatred for the “zealots”. Some of them had knives. In the crowd, under the guise of laymen, were some priests. They hurled the sisters’ things out of the cell windows and straight onto the street. The sisters dragged them away from there. The exile’s kolach was cut already under the open sky. At that point snow began to fall from the sky. “In this way we understood that something significant had happened,” said Mati.
Eight “zealots” were expelled from Stjenik, including Mati (she was the abbess), M. Nina, M. Ipomonia, M. Anysia and the future M. Elizabeth, M. Lukia and M. Isihia, who was then a novice. M. Ipomonia and M. Anysia died already in Novy Stjenik, and their carefully tended graves are situated behind the church. M. Ipomonia died quite young. She came to Stjenik as a schema-nun, from the monastery which she founded with the help of Fr. Akakije in her house. Next to her house Fr. Akakije built a church. Many hopes were laid on this monastery, but the Lord decided otherwise – M. Ipomonia and two of her novices, among them the future M. Lukia, moved to Stjenik. After M. Ipomonia’s death the church in her house and the house itself passed to her brother, and nobody knows what is happening there now.
The sisters got out an album and showed the photographs of the places where they lived before coming to Mikul mountain and beginning Novy Stjenik there. At first they lived for several days in quite a large house of a True Orthodox Christian in Čačak. At that time they were in such a stressed state that they slept two hours a day: their persecutors knew where they were hiding, and came up to the windows to threaten and abuse the sisters. At that time Fr. Akakije served the Liturgy every day standing on his knees, because the table for the altar was very low. The hatred felt for them by those around them forced the sisters to move to a wooden house of the father of that True Orthodox Christian who had sheltered them in Čačak.
The father, or “granddad”, as the sisters called him, was well-disposed towards them and venerated their faith, but at the same time he did not renounce his former views – his devotion to Josip Broz Tito and the communist “ideals”. On the wall in his house he hung icons and a cross on one said, and the red star and the portrait of Tito on the other. The sisters tried to persuade him that these symbols were incompatible, but he stubbornly insisted on his viewpoint. The village in which granddad’s house was situated was completely communist. The inhabitants of the village did not display any special enmity towards the sisters, but neither was it possible to become friendly with them. The sisters lived there in complete isolation from the whole of the surrounding world. “Granddad was very kind and loved us, but how he could shout! Not only at us – he was simply a clamorous person,” said the sisters. In the evening he could calmly burst into the room in which the sisters all lived together during their prayers and make such a terrible noise without any reason – he simply didn’t want to “talk”. So they had to move away from Granddad. Moroever, new novices were constantly joining themselves to the sisters, and it was becoming crowded there. So they moved to Mikul mountain.
The sisters showed photographs of the building of Novy Stjenik in which Mati looked very thin. At that time she had pneumonia, but she continued to take part in all the heavy work. The first winter in the just-built living accommodation was spent by two monks, in complete isolation in the snow-covered mountains. They later recounted how they had rejoiced at every bit of news “from the world”. Seeing that some news had come by telephone, they did not listen to it immediately, but made a whole feast: they sat at the table with a cup of tea and joyfully listened to it together. They were very cold in winter, first because of the absence of insulation, and secondly because one of the windows was a little open, and they did not know how to close it.
When they showed photographs from Guildford, we saw familiar faces on them – Anna, Paolo and Roma, who come to us on feastdays with Grisha from Germany. It turned out that Fr. Augustine had baptized and married them. We saw a photograph before the crowning in which Paolo stands in a strict black suit, but barefoot – in open white slippers, very much in his style. Fr. Augustine told how Anna and Paolo talked endlessly about Lesna, and he had dreamed about being with them ever since. He particularly wanted to hear the chanting of the Lesna sisters, about which he had heard a lot.
In the evening of July 10 the Stjenik nuns called us to sit with them. We sat down behind the church where there is a big table and long benches under a tree. The sisters covered the benches with something soft and warm, and brought everyone tea and water. It was already quite dark, and we chatted in the light of the moon and torches.
It is time to talk about the torches. The day at Novy Stjenik begins significantly earlier than the rising of the sun, and ends later than its setting, so that life continues also in the dark.
But the dark in these places is like pitch. Of course, there are the stars – many of them, and very bright, but this does not change matters. You have to illumine your path, otherwise you’ll simply hit your face or break your leg. So everybody has a miner’s torch on her forehead. Sometimes even during the day you will see a sister with such a torch, only turned off – that means that she is going into the basement, and there she will turn on the torch. We were also given such a torch – true, one for the two of us, - and took it in turns to put it on our forehead.
Well, we sat under the starry sky amidst the mountains and chatted about our monastic life. The sisters told some enthralling stories – how they celebrate Bozhich, that is, the Nativity of Christ, how they recorded an interview with a True Orthodox priest from the States, how people from the Rainbow camp came to them. Christmas with the Serbs is conducted in a quite different way from in Russia, Europe or the States. For example, they don’t have Christmas trees, but there is badnyak, a young oak, which they cut down in the forest on Badnyak Day, that is, Christmas Eve. But this is another long and interesting story, which will have to be told without fail before Christmas. The priest from the States is the father of Novice Sarah, the only person among all those who were present at our meeting who was baptized into True Orthodoxy immediately after her birth. This priest, Fr. Steven, is the last priest in ROCOR who received his rank with the blessing of the holy Hierarch Philaret of New York. The interview with Fr. Steven was recorded on video by Fr. Akakije, and in the near future we shall try to translate it into Russian and put it on our website.
Now we shall tell about the Rainbow camp. The story is as follows. There arrived in the monastery some Serbian representatives of the Organization of United Nations who spoke with Fr. Akakije and Mati. They said that contemporary youth had the most varied interest, including “spiritual” ones, and they were interested, among other things, in Orthodoxy, and now a group of young people from various countries wanted to have a camp at some distance from the monastery and come sometimes to the church for services. Fr. Akakije and Mati thought about it and allowed the “group of young people” to make a camp on Mikul mountain and come sometimes to the church. THREE THOUSAND people arrived on the mountain, pitched camp and lived in it for about a month. About fifty people came to the monastery every day.
Now we must remember what contemporary young people look like and how they behave – especially those who are striving for “spirituality”: barefoot, half-naked, with hair of various colours, with tattoos on their arms and legs, with rings in their ears, noses and lips. They behaved shamelessly and aggressively, although on their lips were the words “love, peace, we shall preserve our planet,” etc. Moreover, they truly think they are seeking love and peace. It is their leaders, who are hidden away somewhere in the depths of the camp, who know that the aims of the Rainbow movement are quite different – and destructive. Through the slogans of love and peace they lure young people into these camps, where are drugs, free morals, twenty-four-hour banging on drums, dancing by the camp-fire and complete mental chaos.
The young people from Rainbow came to the monastery not only for the service, but also to eat – they “accidentally” had not brought any food to the camp, and had not foreseen that for fifty kilometres around there is no living habitation, not to speak of super-markets. Seeing how things had turned out with the “youth group”, Mati and Fr. Akakije took what was happening as a trial of their devotion to Christ and exhibited the most generous hospitality of which a monastery is capable: every day they fed about fifty people (different people came every time) and conducted educational talks with them. M. Isihia prepared food for the guests, while M. Nina talked with them.
The guests dined in their usual form – half-naked, barefoot and with rings – but they went to the church dressed, with shoes on their feet and having removed their rings. (1) They said that they felt grace. They said that they had the same striving as the sisters – for love and peace. Some affirmed that they would leave the world and come to the monastery. M. Nina naively believed them, which she admits now with compunction. But even then she felt aggression and egoism in all these stories about “grace”, “love” and “peace”. Nobody from Rainbow, of course, came to join the monastery or wanted to be baptized into Orthodoxy. But Mati comforts the sisters, saying that the seeds sown by them in the hearts of the “rainbow” youth will sooner or later grow up. A time will come when these young people will become not very young, and life will present them with cruel demands, and will take them through illnesses, losses and disillusionments. It is then that they will remember the church services in the monastery and the discussions about God and the saints.
It was especially hard for those who were in the skete at that time. M. Alypia says that they had not one moment of peace from the various kinds of noise: boom-boom day and night, people shouting, singing, screaming, hooting. In general the camp knew neither day nor night – around the skete there wandered half-naked men and women all the time. At any minute and at any time some exotically arrayed person could arrive. “And they always needed something – give me water, give me paper, give me a pencil, give me this, give me that, and always immediately and unfailingly with terrible aggression”, said M. Alypia.
To top it all, the Rainbow people almost burned down the monastery. The summer was very hot. The forest was completely dry. And then, one fine day, - more exactly, one not very fine night – fire came down from above through the forest and towards the monastery. It had all begun with a ritual dance which had been performed in the midst of a circle of fire on the stone high above the monastery by a young man clothed in a red string around his foot. The sisters would not have managed to quench the quickly spreading forest fire, even if there had been enough water, but there wasn’t any water. The sisters did what they had learned to do well during the persecutions – pray. They prayed to their heavenly protector – the Holy Prophet and Forerunner John, and the fire stopped at a short distance from the monastery.
When the Serbian representatives of the UNO appeared at the monastery the next year with a similar suggestion, Fr. Akakije said: we shall let into the monastery only those accept True Orthodoxy. It is evident that none of the Rainbow people wanted to be baptized. In any case, the summer passed peacefully. True, there is now a new misfortune: NATO wants to buy the area above the monastery so as to build an aerodrome there for their planes. (2) The sisters are praying and asking to be defended.
At the end of our story about our discussions with our dear and beloved Serbian sisters, we shall include a letter for those Lesna nuns who did not come to Novy Stjenik this time. The letter was written in English. Here we publish it in translation into Russian.
June 29 / July 12, 2010.
Holy Leaders of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
Dear, respected and revered Matushka Macrina and all the sisters of the Lesna monastery,
Christ is in our midst!
It was a great consolation and honour for us that your sisters – M. Ambrosia and Sister Tatiana – visited our monastery. Together we glorified the Most Honourable and Great Prophet and Forerunner and Holy Baptist of our Lord Jesus Christ John, the protector of our holy community and all the monastics, and celebrated his feast. Together, as one soul, we prayed in our church.
However, we very much desire, and will strongly pray, that our meetings with you should take place not only on great feasts, but more often and also when we have fewer guests and it is quieter. When, at our meeting with your sisters, we told each other about our struggle for the Truth, we saw that we have had the same temptations as you. But, as the Apostle said: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8.31), and “who will separate us from the love of God? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8.35). “But in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us” (Romans 8.38). We are of one spirit with you.
May the Lord save you for your gifts – they were an unexpected joy. May the Lord save you for your bows and your prayers. We also send you our bows. May the Lord hear your prayers and have mercy on us! Amen.
With love in the Lord,
Mati Euphrosyne and all the sisters of the monastery of Novy Stjenik.
(1). Actually, the Rainbow visitors, the same as all visitors who come to New Stjenik, were immediately clothed properly upon entering the grounds of the monastery. Afterwards if they came for repeted visits they would come already respectfully clothed.
(2). A misunderstanding. NATO has not attempted to buy the property above Mikulj; rather, they are seeking to buy a large military base from Tito’s time – “Pasuljanske Livade“ which is 100 km from the Monastery.