by Mother Maria Rule
Here are extracts from a talk given by Mother Maria Rule, a Russian Orthodox nun of English origin, at the church of Saint Demetrios in Edmonton, North London, on June 11. In 1982, Mother Maria was sent by Metropolitan Anthony to Serbia. What was meant to be a visit of several years lasted until 1993, when she returned to England to care for her elderly, ailing mother. She has returned to Serbia periodically, most recently last July when she was part of a three-person delegation sent by the Council of European Churches to see what help and support could be offered to the Serbian Orthodox Church by churches in the west.
During last year’s visit, our group spent two days in Belgrade during which we had a long talk with Patriarch Pavle. I have known him fairly well over the last years. I found him deeply tired, deeply oppressed, yet immersed in prayer — prayer not just for the Serbian Church and the Serbian people, but for everyone. He grew up in the northern part of Serbia where there is a mixture of Serb, Croat and Hungarian, and therefore knew what it is like to grow up in a multi-ethnic society. Then for fourteen years before he became patriarch, he was bishop of Kosovo, living in Prizren, in the thick of things. He has a tremendous breadth of concern for all involved, and a deep desire that all should find some way of living in peace together.
This was echoed in various places that we went, but it was by no means the only attitude that we met. We were down in central Serbia, near Gradac monastery, where I had lived. Here we met two people within the Church who had a much harder view – the view that, “This is our land. What are the Albanians doing in it at all? Let them go home. Let there not be bloodshed, but they should not be here.” This was distressing for our delegation to hear, but it is part of the reality of the situation there, and we needed to hear it first hand.
Then we went into Kosovo. Unfortunately, Bishop Artemije happened to be away in Greece, but we went to Decani Monastery, where Fr. Sava, the assistant abbot, helps to make the Church in Kosovo and its activities better known via the worldwide web. Like the Patriarch, he is someone committed to finding ways for everyone to live together. Certainly at Decani they have been doing all they can for all who need their help. For centuries Decani has been a center not only for local Serbs but for local Albanians. It is their monastery. At Decani there is a strong sense that it was the whole community that the monks must be among and serve.
I saw this attitude in earlier years in Novi Pazar, the town near my own monastery. We had an old Peugeot and the only man in the area able to look after it and keep it running was a local Muslim. He and his wife would talk about how the monastery was their monastery. They had their day, on the monastery’s feasts, when all the local Muslims would visit. This is so at Gracanica in Kosovo, and also at Decani.
We went from Kosovo to Cetinje in Montenegro, spending the last evening with Metropolitan Amphilochios, a Montenegrin by birth, thus someone who had grown up near the Kosovo border. They had enormous numbers of Kosovo refugees even at that time, let alone now. The supreme moment of our visit was in his salon at about 11 at night. He was talking about the Albanians of Kosovo from the inside. He was getting inside their suffering, their historical position, their mentality, and talking about the enormous privation and suffering that they have experienced, along with the Albanians of Albania.
Our visit showed us the various attitudes within the Church. You see the deepest root in such people as Patriarch Pavle, Metropolitan Amphilochios and in those we met at Decani — their search for the image of God in every person. We Christians are aware that we are God’s sons and daughters, but we must remember that the whole of mankind is made in God’s image. We cannot say that we as Christians are more in God’s heart than our non-Christian brothers and sisters. This I think is something with which the Serbian Church is really wrestling.
Among Serbs the sense of Kosovo as a homeland is very strong. Most of us born in the west can hardly imagine this. In England it hardly exists, except perhaps in Wales and Scotland, in the old Celtic and Pictish races who have a far greater sense of the living breathing land — not just of the physical earth, though that is part of it, but the actual identity with your land. Out there, living among peasant communities, it was part of one’s being and therefore part of one’s faith. One’s land was part of one’s identity as a human being. If you were a Christian, you understood this and saw this and believed this as a human being in God’s image. Therefore the land on which your people had lived was part of the heart of God. In the west it is so difficult to understand this. Clearly western politicians cannot understand.
Kosovo has been the seat of such shocking conflict, such appalling atrocities and lies about atrocities, on both sides, and then on the third side when NATO came in.
I do not want to get into the politics of this, but rather to go back to the living reality of what Kosovo in fact means to a Serbian Christian particularly, and also to a Greater Serbian communist — who, if you scratch him hard enough, you find the faith. This will sometimes take the form of, “Oh, really I am an Orthodox Communist. I make the sign of the cross every time I drink raki.” But there is something deeper than that because this is a nation of people that has been Christian from the sixth century. Then with the mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Church became more organized. The Nemanjic dynasty in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries organized the Church as absorbing the state and totally in relationship to the state. Even under the five hundred years of Turkish occupation, it has been part of the formation, part of the heart, part of the being of this nation.
What are Christians in Serbia and Kosovo to make of the tragedy that has befallen their country? I have spoken on the telephone with friends whose bewilderment about what God means by this is so deep. What does God have in his hand for us in all this?
While I was living there, before the war began, I recall a story told to me by an elderly archimandrite who helped restore our ruined monastery. During the Second World War, he was living in western Serbia, near Bosnia. He was down in the market place complaining about the huge levy imposed by the German occupiers on his monastery’s cattle and wheat. “This is impossible! It is making us unable to live,” the monk said. An old peasant stopped him in his tracks by saying, “Ah, but Father, we are Orthodox Christians. We must expect to suffer!”
In this present situation, certainly there are those who try to understand and cope with their suffering by identifying with the sufferings of Christ, an innocent suffering. For some there is a sense of a sin to be repented of – a sin of the people, a sin of the Communists, a sin of falling away from the Church, a sin of superficial observance of tradition. One of the young nuns at Gradac, the monastery where I lived the last few years, said to me this past Easter as the war was destroying so many lives and buildings: “We thought until now that we were praying to God. Only now are we really beginning to realize what prayer is. We are beginning more and more to realize that all we can do is hold people before God and ask him to put his hands under them and sustain them.”
In the discussion period afterward, when asked if there was not such a thing as a just war, Mother Maria responded in the negative:
I believe that Christ’s own example to us is the example that we must try to learn to follow. We haven’t his strength, but he has given us the example in Gethsemani. I cannot see the living of faith in any other way. Of course it is easy to say this if you have not been confronted with the political situation. We pray, “on earth as in heaven.” Obviously we are living on earth, learning to live in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Unless we are doing that, all our fighting, all our striving on earth is meaningless.
I have a shocking but true story to share with you that was told to me by a good and trustworthy friend, the bishop in Kragujevac. On Pentecost, at the little church in Varadin near Kragujevac, there was to be the usual procession around the church, with a gospel reading at each corner. The faithful had begun to come out, following the cross bearer. The senior priest, Fr. Milevoi, was standing in the church doorway when a NATO bomb was dropped. It exploded and Fr. Milevoi was decapitated. Eight parishioners were killed and another priest seriously wounded. The bomb fell out of a clear sky. The parishioners could see the plane and the pilot must have been able to see the church. I knew Fr. Milevoi personally. Please pray for him and all who have died in the war — and those who killed them.
Mother Maria concluded her talk by appealing for help to the war’s victims:
The need is great. The entire infrastructure has been destroyed in a nation which was economically crippled beforehand by the sanctions which had been imposed. One of the most distressing things I remember before I came home in 1993 was visiting a friend in the maternity unit of the hospital in Novi Pazar. While there I happened to meet a young Muslim mother whose baby died in her arms for lack of medicines. Already the sanctions had been in place for two years. Now the situation is even worse. You can help by contacting one of the organizations which is helping where there is need, irrespective of whether the needy are Serbs or Albanians, Christian or Muslim. One reliable channel is the International Orthodox Christian Charities. The IOCC staff extends help where the need is greatest without regard to the origins or allegiances of the recipients.
Every time we attend the Liturgy, we hear the words, “O Lord, save thy people and bless thine inheritance.” Yes, we must preserve our inheritance; but the person who is really going to preserve it is God. We can’t on our own. He can through us. He can in spite of us. Therefore, pray, trying to hold all of those who are suffering, not only those who suffer, but those who inflict the suffering, who are the more in need of our prayers, before God.