Studenica. Manasija. Mileseva. Sopocani. Gracanica. Decani…
These are words I grew up with, conveying as they did a sense of deep mystery and mysticism. In addition to being a Serb, my mother was also a Byzantine scholar. So these sites, and the over 100 more throughout the whole region, had particular significance for her. It was the monks in these monasteries who — much as the Celtic monks of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales did during the Dark Ages — preserved Christian spirituality, writings, teachings, and art during the tumultuous centuries of Serbian history. Never having seen any of them, I knew visiting at least a few would be an important part of this odyssey.
But which to choose from, with so many and such limited time?
I chose two: Studenica and Mileseva for their historical significance, beauty, and location (click on the names for a link to more information about each). Getting there and back was quite the experience! Let’s just say my left foot quickly remembered what to do with a clutch after “a lot” of years, and, to quote Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, there “ain’t no mountain high enough (or road narrow enough…) to keep us from getting to you.” We did drive through absolutely spectacular scenery both coming and going: mountains, pastures, lakes, rushing streams; haystacks, goats, sheep, cows. And of course the beautiful villages, or “selo,” of southwestern Serbia.
Our first monastery was Studenica. My friend Lj, whom I visited in DC, had given me a beautiful framed woodcut print of the fresco of the Crucifixion back in 1990, the 800th anniversary of the founding of Studenica. It is one of the few frescoes not marred by pockmarks (a result of an attempted restoration of the original frescoes, not vandalism as I had initially thought). It is indeed glorious.
A young man (novice monk? not sure) heard us speaking English and approached us asking where we were from and why we were visiting. When I explained he quite warmed to us, answering many questions and showing us around. He told us about the holes in many of the frescoes and explained how frescoes are painted — the paint must be applied while the plaster is still wet in order for the paint to seal and become part of the plaster. So all that beautiful artistry had to be accomplished in extremely short bursts of time.
He took us into one of the side chapels — St. Stephen’s chapel. I mentioned that was the name of “the church we attend” (not about to get into the whole I-am-a-priest-who-happens-to-be-a-woman thing…). “What kind of church?” he asked to which I responded “Anglican/Episcopalian.” “Oh yes, we have priests from England come here for retreats. Our church used to be closer to your church but you changed some basic understandings of doctrine” (yes, I know, the whole ordination of women thing as well as the full inclusion of LGBT folk..), “so we’re not as close any more.” He also told us about how the Serbian Orthodox patriarch visited England between The Wars (WWI & II) and spoke in an English cathedral “during another time when we were the world’s bad guys because people blamed us for starting the First World War.” He told us how in his sermon the patriarch turned off the lights for a moment and said “you have only had darkness for a short time. We had it for over 500 years under the Ottomans.” It’s amazing how quickly people go back to 1389, how it seems like yesterday in the consciousness of so many. It is difficult to comprehend on the one hand, and yet so much of this country’s subsequent history comes from their defeat on that battlefield in Kosovo on June 28, 1389. Yet I can’t help but wonder — what would it take to stop living in the past and start living in the future…?
We would have made it to Mileseva the same day had it not been for our GPS, whom we nicknamed “Teddy,” who, with his British accent, seemed to have a mind of his own — as well as navigating the unbelievably narrow, twisty-turny mountain roads. So we tucked in for the night at a guesthouse on the shore of a small lake near Nova Varos after an amazing dinner of freshly caught grilled trout.
Driving to Mileseva the next day (Sunday) we were flipping through radio stations and caught the tail-end of the sermon from that monastery. The priest was speaking about St. Peter and St. Paul because it was their combined feast day. In the Episcopal calendar it is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul (celebrated on June 29); this being the Orthodox calendar it is celebrated 13 days later (and referred to as “Petrovdan” — Peter Day). We got to the monastery just as the Divine Liturgy was ending; it was good to see lots of families gathered there.
The big draw at Mileseva is the fresco of the “White Angel.” It is beautifully preserved and visually stunning. It also spoke to me in a deeply spiritual way: the angel pointing the empty tomb saying to the women, who were clearly overcome with shock, “why do you seek the living among the dead?” Such a powerful metaphor for resurrection of all kinds. Seeing this fresco was definitely worth the trip.
Just before we left the church, a young nun came in, sprayed the glass covering all the icons with Windex and wiped them down (a sign of religious devotion in Orthodoxy is to kiss the icon, but it is good to know the lipstick, etc. left behind does not stay indefinitely) and then pulled out a Hoover and vacuumed the sanctuary. I wonder if she ever might have dreams of celebrating the Eucharist and preaching the Word instead of always cleaning up after the others who do…
After, we headed toward Zlatibor (“Golden Pine”) through more spectacular scenery. We made it to the little town of Sirogonjo to see the open air museum of an old fashioned Serbian village, a la colonial Jamestown. During our lunch of gibanica, prebranac, and pecene paprike (again, way too much!), S asked me whether I was feeling a sense of connection with the people here so far. I answered that it is complicated — so: yes, and no. Yes because this is the language and culture in which I was partially raised. No, because even when we visited here while I was a child I never really felt completely at home. It’s the dilemma I guess most second generation types feel — not quite fish nor fowl in either country or culture. All that is now compounded by the same sort of feeling I had while living in Germany some 30 years after WWII — always wondering “and what did you do in the war…?” — I find myself looking at men of a certain age here, particularly in these border areas, and wondering the same thing. And then there’s the added layer of knowing that, for the first time in my lifetime, Americans are generally not popular here any more because of the NATO bombings 16 years ago. And then there’s also the disturbing feeling I got as we drove through this southwestern part of Serbia when I saw graffiti that said things like “1389 — we will never forget” and “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia.” I felt as if there is a tinderbox underfoot that could easily be reignited at the slightest provocation (breath held that that provocation won’t come from a reactionary response to the epitaphs and stones hurled at Serbian prime minister Vucic when he visited Srebrenica a few days ago on the anniversary of July 11, 1995…).
So, do I feel re-connected now that I’m back again? it’s complicated. Yes, and no. Da, i ne…