Wednesday, October 28, 2009


After visiting the women at Djakovica, we left Bishop Teodosije and headed east to the Serbian enclave of Gracanica, which is famous for its ancient monastery.

The photo above was taken from inside the car as we entered the village. Although we crossed no border or passed any walls, I was struck by the sudden shift in the scenery, from Albanian flags, billboards, and mosques to Serbian flags, billboards, and small little icon shrines.

As one monk at the monastery would later tell me: "There is an invisible border, and everyone knows where it is."

When we arrived at the walled compound of the monastery, which also now serves as the headquarters for Kosovo's lone diocese, we once again encountered heavy KFOR protection, including several jeeps and armored personnel carriers. This time, the soldiers were from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

When we entered, we first went to meet His Grace Bishop Artemije, a spiritual child of the Blessed Fr. Justin Popovic. Bishop Artemije has been no stranger to controversy, both in his role as sole bishop of the disputed province and on the wider stage as a critic of the ecumenical movement.

Bishop Artemije was very gracious to us and, after visiting with him for awhile and exchanging books, he took us to the small chapel dedicated to St. Maximos the Confessor inside his diocesan headquarters. We are in the chapel in the photo above.

Afterward, a monk took us over to the famous katholikon which lay in the center of the compound.

I hope the photos can give you some idea of beauty and antiquity of the frescoes there.

Here we are in front of the katholikon with one of the sisters of the women's monastery there. The compound is mainly and historically a women's monastery, but, out of necessity, the diocesan headquarters and episcopal residence have moved there now, along with about 5 monks who assist Bishop Artemije.

Next we went to visit the icon studio, where Sister Magdalena is now working on a special icon for Western American Diocese of the Mother of God, Queen of Angels, Protectress of Los Angeles (see photo above).

We finally left the monastery around 4:00 to begin the journey back to Belgrade. On the way out of Kosovo, we drove through Gazimestan, the site of the memorial erected to the Holy Martyr Lazar of Kosovo commemorating his sacrifice at the Battle of Kosovo there in 1389.

Finally, we reached the "border" with Serbia, and here things got interesting. Because Serbia (and many other countries, such as Russia) do not recognize Kosovo as a country, there cannot, ipso facto, be any border. For them, it is a part of Serbia that is being administered and occupied by international peacekeeping forces.

Since we had left Serbia on Friday, my passport had been stamped out of Serbia. And because we entered Kosovo through Montenegro (which recognizes Kosovo's independence), we had been stamped into Kosovo. Now the problem was that, for the Serbian authorities, I was sitting in the middle of Serbia with nothing certifying that I was legally in the country. This wasn't a problem for Bishop Maxim or Fr. Sava, so once again an American was complicating things in Kosovo. :)

Apparently, this is a known problem (although not to us), and the solution for passport holders of countries which have recognized Kosovo's self-proclaimed independence is to enter Serbia by a recognized border. If you're in a car, that means crossing into the FYROM and then entering Serbia from there, a detour of many hours.

Here's where traveling with a bishop can be helpful. The first thing I should note was that the Serbian guards who greeted us at the unofficial "border" were happy to see us, and gladly received gifts of small paper icons of the Panagia which we had brought from Decani. I also noticed that several of them wore prayer ropes on their wrists.

After some discussions, the head of the post called the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremic. Since it was Sunday afternoon, I suppose it took some time to find him, so we waited. But after about 45 minutes, he had been reached and gave me special permission to enter Serbia. So we waved goodbye to the friendly guards and headed on to Belgrade.

But this wasn't the end of the story. On Monday evening, when I went to the Belgrade airport to come back to Thessaloniki, I had the misfortune to get a bright young woman as border agent. Although my passport is filled with all sorts of stamps, she was one of the rare few who decided to try to sort them out. As she was asking me where my entry stamp into Serbia was, she flipped onto the page with the entry stamp into Kosovo and she went silent. I was foreseeing a problem, so I quickly explained what had happened and her face softened.

She explained in no uncertain terms that the stamp from the "Republic of Kosovo" was invalid, a proposition to which I was and am only too happy to consent, and then proceeded to cross it out and put a Serbian stamp next to it (see photo below).

I had another interesting episode at the airport that night. Since it was rather late, the airport was dead when my friend Rastko and I arrived there. We went to the counter for JAT (the Serbian national airline), where the woman was quietly reading a book. I had a bottle of Decani Monastery's famous red wine that I was hoping to bring back with me, but she kindly informed us that, since it was a liquid, I could not carry it on with me. I asked about checking it somehow, but she said it would probably break. We agreed that Rastko would just take it and, thanking her and wishing her a good night, we started to walk away.

Then Rastko stopped and said: "Why don't we give it to her?" I thought it was a great idea, so we turned around and offered it to her. Her expression was priceless. She was so surprised and happy! She took my blessing and Rastko and I headed out to find a place to sit and wait. When we walked back by the counter some minutes later on the way to security, we looked over and what did we see? She had invited all her co-workers over to her desk, where they had opened the bottle and were drinking it!

I thought: Ah, I love Serbia! :)

That's it for this adventure. Again, for all the photos from the Kosovo portion of the trip, click here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Djakovica, Kosovo

Around noon on Sunday, we left Decani Monastery with Bishop Teodosije and drove to the town of Djakovica, which is 95% Albanian. According to one source, there were 3,000 Serbs in the town before 1999; now, these 6 women we visited may be the last.

This excellent short article tells their story better than I can.

All I can tell you is what I experienced there. First, I should note that Bishop Maxim was quite excited to meet these women, even using the word "saints" to describe them, particularly their leader, Tetka (Aunt) Polyka.

When we arrived, all I could see from the outside was tall, plain walls -- there was no indication of what was inside. When we knocked on the gate, we were let inside where we spoke with a heavily armed guard. Once he confirmed with the women that we were there to see them, we were allowed to bring our car inside the gate, which was quickly shut again.

The women then came out, with umbrellas, to greet us and ask for blessings in the rain, and we were taken inside their house (in the background in the photo above). Once inside, we were again asked for blessings, which is their custom, I was told.

Being Serbs, they of course insisted on offering us all sorts of food and drink, but we were happy mainly just to see them and speak with them (see photos above).

They then took us to see the small church they are building next to the house, within the walls of their compound. You can see me, Bishop Teodosije, and Fr. Sava inside the church in the photo two above. In the photo immediately above, you can see three of the sisters walking along the east side of the church, as we are pulling out of the gate in our car.

Not far from their house is this "park," which actually was Holy Trinity Cathedral, until it was desecrated and destroyed in 1999. Just last month, the local diocese noted with sadness that every last trace of the existence of the historic church had been eliminated from the new park.

Monday, October 26, 2009

St. Demetrios Parade

Since it's the feast day of St. Demetrios the Great Martyr and Patron of Thessaloniki, I'm interrupting the narrative about my trip to Kosovo for this post about the festivities for the saint in his city.

For many centuries, Thessaloniki has had the local tradition of celebrating a "Holy Week" for St. Demetrios, with services every day of the week leading up to his feast on October 26. On Friday evening, I went with Fr. Alexios to the Great Friday celebration, in which we sang lamentations around his relics, which were on the solea.

On Sunday, Fr. Alexios, Fr. Panayiotis, and I went down to St. Demetrios immediately after our Liturgy ended in Panorama in order to participate in the annual St. Demetrios parade.

During the procession, an icon of the saint and his relics, as well as--this year--a wonderworking icon of the Panagia which is visiting, were carried in army jeeps and accompanied by the army, the navy, the police, and of course, the clergy, which this year included about 12 bishops, 50 priests, and 10 deacons (just the ones vested).

In the photo above we are preparing to start the parade from the courtyard in front of St. Demetrios'. The parade then made a square along some of the city's main streets, which were shut down for the parade. People were lined up all along the way, and you could see many people standing in their balconies.

Many elderly people, who may have been housebound, watched from their balconies, holding lit candles and crossing themselves as the saint passed by.

You can see me to the right of the saint's icon.

Fr. Panayiotis, and Fr. Alexios to the far right, with St. Demetrios' in the background.

Me, next to the soldiers. Interestingly, priests of the Church of Greece are captains in the Greek Army, in the sense of chaplains. During times of war, presumably, some would be deployed to serve the needs of the soldiers fighting.

Here, you can see the marching band behind me. They were quite good.

The icon of the Panagia.

The saint's relics.

Some of the bishops.

Metropolitan Anthimos, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, blessing the faithful during the procession.

Many monastics also marched, including (above) the sisters of Panorama's Monastery of the Dormition of the Theotokos.

The choir sang hymns to St. Demetrios and the Panagia as the procession made its way back to the church.

Taking off vestments inside St. Demetrios'.

Me with (from left to right) Fr. Alexios, our spiritual father Fr. Spyridon, and Fr. Tikhon, a priest from Estonia who studied in Thessaloniki.

You can see more photos here.

Here's a 6-minute video of the end of the parade.

Touring Decani

After the Liturgy, Bishop Teodosije took us on a tour of the monastery. At the bookstore, they sell their own wine, cheese, and (in photo above) carved wooden crosses. Some of the crosses are carved by Serbs from Kosovo in order to support themselves. They're beautiful, but a bit out of my price range. A wooden pectoral cross was 300 euro, and a blessing cross 600.

The next stop on the tour was their cheese-making area. Above is a room in which the milk is processed, and below you can see some cheese being stored.

And here's where the cheese comes from. Above, the cows, and below the goats.

The final stop was the iconography studio. Above, Bishop Maxim (himself an accomplished iconographer) tries out the work station. Below, one of the icons being worked on.

We then went for a delicious lunch with the monks and pilgrims in the refectory. Serbians, even monks, spare nothing for visitors!

It was raining on and off for most of the day. Here Bishop Maxim is in front of the monastery's main church, before we headed out to Djakovica.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Divine Liturgy at Decani Monastery

We finally arrived at Decani Monastery on Saturday evening, where we were greeted by His Grace Bishop Teodosije of Lipljan (the abbot of the monastery) and the monastery's brotherhood. We visited with the fathers, and I had some very interesting discussions with Hieromonk Sava, who speaks nearly flawless English. We then went for some much-needed rest before getting up early Sunday morning for Orthros and Divine Liturgy inside the monastery's magnificent church.

As guests, they honored Fr. Sava (from Tvrdos) and I by allowing us to serve as first and second priests during the Liturgy. Above, you can see us waiting with Fr. Sava (of Decani) for Bishop Maxim at the entrance to the church.

The bishops vesting in the middle of the church. You can see me in the background.

Here I am holding the bishop's mitre as they finish vesting.

Bishop Maxim blessing the faithful; me in the background again.

The prayers just before the start of the Divine Liturgy. I'm somewhat obscured behind one of the deacons. The complete incorrupt relics of Saint King Stefan Uros III, the founder of the monastery, are in the foreground.

At the altar during the Divine Liturgy.

I should note here that the monks of Decani are renowned for their chanting, which Bishop Maxim described as a mix of old Serbian, modern Serbian, and Byzantine chant. There seem to be many videos on YouTube which feature the monks' chanting as background. See this one for instance, which also has nice photos of Decani and other holy places in Kosovo.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Patriarchate of Pec in Kosovo and Metohija

After a fairly long car ride, we finally arrived in Kosovo (or, more properly, Metohija, since we were in the western part of the region) and headed first to Pec, the ancient seat of the Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the home of a women's monastery. Like all the Serbian treasures now, this one was heavily guarded by international KFOR soldiers. Once we passed through the checkpoint, we were greeted by the nuns and taken to the church, which is actually three churches in one -- a unique design. You enter the exo-narthex from the side, and then to your right there are three churches lined up, one after another.

Each church is fairly narrow, with a completely solid wall separating it from the next church over. The iconography throughout is simply amazing, and there are saints' relics and patriarch's tombs everywhere.

You can see some of the iconography in the photo above, and in the photo immediately below you can see Bishop Maxim and me venerating one of the tombs.

In the two photos above, you can see Bishop Maxim near yet another tomb. Behind him is a beautiful icon of the Mother of God and the Christ child.

The apse of one of the churches.

In the exo-narthex, above the entrance to the middle church, is this icon of Christ as the Ancient of Days (cf. Daniel 7).

After venerating inside all three churches, the nuns insisted on giving us coffee and some sweets. We visited with them briefly and, since it was already late, then headed on to Decani Monastery, about 12 miles away.

For all the photos from the Kosovo part of our trip, click here.

I've just noticed that a report of our pilgrimage has made its way to the official website of the whole Serbian Orthodox Church.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Baby break!