Serbian Orthodox Diocese Kosovo-Metohija
THE PLACE WHERE HEAVEN HAS KISSED THE EARTH
Updated: May 10
"As long as the bells in Peć Patriarchate, Dečani, Gračanica, Devič, and other sanctuaries ring for our people, and especially for those who want to return to their native region, they know we can only survive if we live as one big family."
Interview with Fr. Sava Janjić, the Abbot of Visoki Dečani Monastery
Published in Politika daily in Serbian on 16 April 2023 and adapted in shorter and updated version in English by E.B.
Is the Resurrection a new way of understanding life?
The Resurrection of Christ is a manifestation of eternal life in this time-space and, at the same time, the elevation of humanity and the entire creation to a new mode of existence. It is simultaneously a historical event that becomes a measure of a new understanding of the meaning of human life. This is because, in order to resurrect the new person in Christ, the old person in each of us must die and be crucified through a voluntary sacrifice of love. Therefore, the Resurrection of Christ reveals the eternal human longing for immortality. We enter into true eternal life only if we are crucified with Christ, since that is the only way we can also resurrect with Him. This is a living indicator that only united in Christ do we live eternally. True life is life in the Body of Christ, in which the mortal is united with the immortal and the transient with the eternal. By changing our consciousness, through repentance (metanoia - the change of mind and heart), we participate in this mystery before which the fear of death and transience disappears, leaving only joy and infinite wonder.
You are the abbot of Visoki Dečani, the most beautiful Balkan church. Many consider Easter in Dečani to be a special celebration.
Visoki Dečani Monastery, like all Kosovo-Metohija and all other sanctuaries of the Orthodox Church around the world, are living spiritual workshops where the transient ascends into the eternal. They are places where heaven has kissed the earth and raised it into eternity. Therefore, life in such a sanctuary is a constant encounter with the crucified and risen Christ, with a new mode of existence. We are constantly witnessing how from the confinement of this time and space, amid worldly concerns and troubles, a new dimension of existence suddenly opens, a new awareness that we no longer live for ourselves alone, but are called for Christ to live in us. In these blessed days of Passion Week, we went through the entire divine-human drama of salvation, preparing for Christ's ascent to the cross, which is a symbol of everything that is transient and mortal.
Can you provide some details that illustrate the Dečani joy of the Resurrection?
All the days of Holy Week, we have had preparations for the feast of Christ’s resurrection. All the brothers were practicing singing for the most important services, praying by themselves, reading the Gospel... Services were much longer than usual. Liturgically, this was one of the most intensive weeks of the year. Besides that, Father Danilo was taking care of the kitchen preparations, while Father Nektarije was responsible for the Easter eggs. On Holy Thursday, we boiled and painted them. This tradition is a long-standing practice in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The eggs hold deep symbolic significance in our culture, representing new life and resurrection: the hard shell of the egg symbolizes the tomb from which Christ emerged. On Holy Friday, we served the vigil with the Matins of Holy Saturday and chanted the Lamentations around "Christ's tomb". The service commences with a mournful tone, but gradually, the joy of Pascha overtakes the sorrow.
On the following day, what happened?
On Great Saturday, the Church contemplated the mystery of the Lord's descent into Hades, the place of the dead. But Death, our ultimate enemy, is defeated from within. Saturday was the day of watchful expectation, in which mourning was being transformed into joy. The day embodied in the fullest possible sense the meaning of harmolipi (joyful-sadness), which dominated the celebrations of Great Week. Bishop Teodosije presided over the vigil, serving the service alongside Dečani monks, with believers in attendance.
Then came the Paschal night…
On that night, we experienced the radiance of the light of Resurrection, which we expressed through joyful singing, the light of candles, and the unstoppable joy that manifests itself through all of us together. We began the celebration with the Paschal Matins and a procession around the Church, followed by the Holy Liturgy until the early morning hours. We were joined by around 300 believers, from Kosovo-Metohija, central Serbia, and Montenegro as well as KFOR soldiers After the Holy Liturgy, we enjoyed an Easter breakfast in the packed monastery refectory. Every visitor received an egg.
Nevertheless, Visoki Dečani is seriously endangered. How do you see the solution to this situation, primarily in your monastic environment?
With its turbulent history, Visoki Dečani Monastery is one of the symbols and examples of the endangerment of our entire Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and Metohija. One of the main prerequisites for enabling normal life for our clergy, monastics, and faithful people in Kosovo and Metohija is the need to ensure a special legal status for our Church. It should be granted under internationally guaranteed protection that would, as much as possible, contribute to solving the problems we face. Above all, such a status would enable the protection of our identity, religious freedom, and property rights, ensuring in the meantime economic sustainability, since our communities live on their own hands and labor.
What about Dečani Monastery?
Our monastery needs special security protection, considering all the previous attacks. These solutions are not political issues in themselves, but rather general civilizational matters. There are many examples in Europe and around the world where endangered cultural and religious heritage, together with their communities, are provided with special protection. Such an initiative should serve to strengthen religious freedoms for everyone in Kosovo and Metohija. After all, Dečani is a symbol of the encounter of different artistic traditions. For centuries, not only Orthodox Serbs but also other people who live here have recognized the House of God in this sanctuary.
How do you see the future of your people and your Church in Kosovo-Metohija?
The Serbian people have been in Kosovo-Metohija for centuries. Through their spirituality and culture, they have formed the core of our national identity here. Political realities are constantly changing, but only with a firm determination to live on our own land, together with all other people of goodwill, can we pass to future generations what we have inherited from our ancestors. Besides political and geographical realities, the Serbs live as a nation that sees its deepest identity in loyalty to its faith and tradition. Such identity essentially does not depend on politics and is open to everyone who seeks community in the values that have connected us. Through the tradition of St. Sava and the Nemanjić dynasty, St. Prince Lazar, and other great personalities of our history, we have become the people of God, who recognize their neighbors not only among those of the same language and customs, but in all those who share the faith that the "earthly kingdom does not last long, but the Heavenly one is from now and forever." To such people, according to an early Christian text, Epistle to Diognetus, "every land is a homeland, but they are strangers in every land." Reducing the identity of a nation to a political identity loses this deeper meaning.
What do you mean?
Nations that live exclusively by ethnic identity, which has largely been formed in its present form in the last few centuries, are constantly in mutual conflict over territories, power, and authority. A nation that lives with a Christian identity is like the ancient Jewish people, a nation with a mission. That is why all Christians fundamentally consider themselves the New Israel, and their true homeland is the Heavenly Jerusalem. Christian liturgies and sanctuaries are only landmarks and beacons on the path to eternity, not idols and altars that are worshiped, forgetting that they should always recognize God in others and that God came to save everyone and lead them to the knowledge of the truth.
Does the feeling of vulnerability increase the connection between the Church and the people?
In difficult times, we are always closer to each other. Therefore, as a Church, we are always stronger when we are on the path of the cross. The difficult war and post-war years in Kosovo-Metohija have further connected the people who gather around our sanctuaries. In periods of comfortable peace, if there ever was one, the Church was seen as an organization in which one could experience something beautiful and find temporary comfort. But in these recent years, we have witnessed that the Church and the people are not two different concepts. We find true hope as a nation only to the extent that we live by the faith of the Church. Besides that, the clergy and the monks see their meaning only to the extent that they authentically live with Christ and care for the faithful people, directing them on the path of truth, helping and encouraging them.
Can the Church be a support and a source of security for a returnee in Kosovo and Metohija?
Certainly, the Church can be a support and a source of security for returnees in Kosovo and Metohija. In times of uncertainty and hardship, the Church serves as a spiritual refuge, providing guidance, hope, and comfort to those who seek it. Our churches have never been fuller, and we receive numerous believers from Kosovo-Metohija and pilgrims and visitors from all over the world. So, as long as the bells in Peć Patriarchate, Dečani, Gračanica, Devič, and other sanctuaries ring for our people, and especially for those who want to return to their native region, they know we can only survive if we live as one big family. Hence, as long as we live as a Church, all political divisions must be foreign to us. Every person can have their opinions, but they are only for this world and this age. In the Church, especially when it is manifested as a miraculous event in the Holy Liturgy, there are no divisions and discord. We are called to live as one Bread of the Lord, as one Body, and not as small groups of separated people who look for an ideology that will bring them temporary benefits and comfort. Only when we live this way do we feel a deep sense of security and hope, and only then can we truly feel and experience the Resurrection, which begins now and here and continues into eternity.
Can Easter and the depth of the Lord's Resurrection be the basis for the connection between man and man, and between man and God?
The Resurrection of Christ, which is inseparable from His crucifixion and represents its ultimate meaning and outcome, aims not only at re-establishing the lost community of man and God but also strengthening the awareness of the essential connectedness between all of us and the entire creation. The Lord on the cross is the King of Glory who, with arms outstretched, embraces the whole of creation, willingly suffering out of love. The cross, in the light of the Resurrection, becomes the true tree of life that connects the earthly horizontal dimension of existence with the spiritual dimension that gives meaning to all created things only in the mystery of Christ. That is why Easter is the feast of all feasts, the feast of attaining true existence and joy. Living as separated individuals, each in their own lives and worries, we lose the awareness that only in Christ can we see and comprehend the true meaning of life. Individually, we see only segments that we interpret in one way or another, but according to the Apostle Paul, we "have the mind of Christ.” An authentic life in God is recognized only if we recognize God in others and His wisdom in the whole creation that breathes with the Holy Spirit.
Do we live in a world that is technologically perfectly connected, yet personally just as divided?
Technology, like everything else God has given through humans, has its meaning only to the extent that it allows us as people to express our creativity and do so for the common benefit. Unfortunately, many today see technology as a means of strengthening individual consciousness that separates them from others. It then becomes a reason for alienation and dysfunction in life, especially for young people. Young people especially need to learn that the meaning of life can only be found as individuals, not as avatars on social networks or in video games.
In light of the sanctuaries of Kosovo-Metohija, what is your message to the conflicted worlds, hatreds, and divisions?
The Resurrection of Christ is a feast of joy in which everything shines through Christ and is renewed in Him. The mystery of the Resurrection, therefore, calls for everyone to unite together in Christ and embrace one another, forgiving with the Resurrection. That means finding space within ourselves to see the other as a part of ourselves and a part of the great Mystery of God, rather than as a rival or an enemy. In true faith based on the Resurrection of Christ, there can be no hatred or conflict. Wherever there are divisions, wars, and conflicts, darkness and ignorance of God's love reign, people dig for themselves "broken wells" without knowing how to find the "spring of living water." As Christians, especially here in Kosovo-Metohija, we should be peacemakers and heralds of good news. Despite all our difficulties, we should not allow bitterness to enter our hearts. The joy that is given to us in Christ and that comes like living water from God's sanctuaries should freely flow and nourish all those who thirst for eternal life.