A Great Day at Lesna Monastery
2/15 August 2011, Transfer of the Relics of St. Stephen, Archdeacon and Protomartyr
Three important events mark the development of True Orthodoxy in Serbia. The first took place about fifteen years ago, when three Serbian monks from the Holy Mountain confessed the Faith by choosing the path of True Orthodoxy. The second occurred eight years ago when the entire sisterhood of Stjenik Monastery decided for the love of the Truth to leave the Belgrade Patriarchate and join True Orthodoxy. The third happened today at the Lesna Monastery, when the True Orthodox Christians of Serbia, after many efforts, were finally given their own elected bishop.
Now to start from the beginning. What, actually, is True Orthodoxy, and how does it differ from the official Orthodoxy which is also called "World Orthodoxy"? The answer: Like the term "Orthodox Christian," which appeared in the distant past in order to make clear the difference between those who were also called Christian but who had abandoned the essential Christian confession of faith and church practice, so in our times the term "True Orthodox" has appeared, in order to distinguish between those who have kept the true confession of faith and church life, and those who have apostatized from the fundamental traditions of Orthodox Christianity.
The True Orthodox Christian movement appeared in Greece in 1924, in connection with the introduction of the New Calendar, and thereupon similar groups appeared in Romania and other countries throughout the world. The largest True Orthodox Christian movement, however, also known as the Catacomb Church, appeared in Russia in 1927, following the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius, which submitted the Church to the God-hating Bolshevik authority.
The Russian Church Abroad holds a special place in 20th century history. She produced perhaps the greatest contemporary Orthodox saint - St. John of Shanghai - along with great Orthodox theologians such as Archbishop Averky (Taushev) and Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox missionaries such as Fr. Seraphim Rose, and wise archpastors such as Metropolitans Anthony (Khrapovitsky), Anastassy (Gribanovsky), and St. Philaret (Voznesensky).
The Russian Church Abroad had an especially close relationship with the Serbian Church, which was the result of the historical bond between Russia and Serbia, which was strengthened during the epoch of the renewal of Serbian statehood. During the nineteenth century, the Serbian state arose from the ashes. Little by little she freed herself from the Turkish yoke, but during this time constantly met with obstacles placed in front of her by the European powers. The only steady support which the young Serbian state was offered came from the Russian Tsar, who showed himself as the main protector of Orthodoxy throughout the world.
When Austro-Hungary first occupied and then annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, this met the stormy protest of the Bosnian Serbs, who instead of their centuries-old dream - freedom and unity with Serbia - were only granted that one foreign rule, the Turkish, be changed for another, the Austro-Hungarian. Their dissatisfaction culminated in the assassination in Sarajevo, which was used as an excuse to attack Serbia. On the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were the German and Turkish Empires, and the Bulgars soon joined them. Despite Serbian heroism, Serbia had not even the smallest chance to defend her freedom, and again all Serbian hopes were directed to Russia, to Tsar Nicholas II.
The Holy Tsar Nicholas's advisors told him that Russia's going into war on the Serbian side when she already had so many internal problems would be very dangerous, even to the point that the survival of of the Russian Empire would be threatened. When they finally asked, "Your Majesty, can we in any way avoid entering the war?" the Tsar-Martyr replied, "Yes, if I betray Serbia. And this I cannot do." The Tsar would pay for his decision with his life four years later, when he and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks on 4/17 July 1918.
In his prophetic sermons, St. John of Kronstadt said that the Antichrist could not appear among us because of the autocratic imperial authority, which restrained the shameful and mindless teachings of the godless. As he explained the words of the Apostle Paul, For the mystery of iniquity is already at work: only that he who now restraineth doth restrain, until he be taken out of the way. 8 And then that wicked one shall be revealed: whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the spirit of his mouth and shall destroy with the manifestation of his coming. (II Thessalonians 2: 7-8). St. John of Kronstadt explains this by saying that the Antichrist will not appear on earth as long as the autonomous imperial authority existed. "He who now restraineth" is, in his deep conviction, the Russian Orthodox Tsar-Autocrat. "The Lord preserves the well-being of the earthly kingdom and especially the well-being of His Holy Church, and will not allow the teachings of the godless, heretics, and schismatics to overwhelm it." This "overwhelming" was precisely what did occur in the decade after the murder of the Holy Royal Martyrs. Apostasy began to spread quickly, freely, and openly. Orthodoxy was engulfed by the waves of Renovationism, the New Calendar Schism, Sergianism, Modernism, and the desire to "reform" the Church in the image of Protestantism. In the end appeared Ecumenism, which Fr. Justin Popovich correctly called the "pan-heresy," because it unites in itself all the unorthodox teachings in the world.
The end of the First World War brought disaster to the Russian Empire, but also the creation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the future Yugoslavian Kingdom, in which the entire Serbian people would finally find itself free and united. King Alexander I the Uniter, in the memorial chapel of Kaymakchalan left a touching dedication to Serbian warriors: "To my great heroes, fearless and loyal, who with their breasts opened the doors of freedom." It was well known, however, to the Serbian king how much the Serbs owed to the Russian Empire. This is why in his new state he immediately offered the warmest hospitality to the Russian refugees from Bolshevik terror - the Russian Church Abroad, the remnants of the Russian White Army, scientists, professors...altogether in Serbia there arrived about 50,000 unfortunate people who were forced to abandon their fatherland.
At the beginning of 1921, there arrived from Constantinople Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), the most respected Russian theologian during the period before the Revolution and the candidate who had received the most votes on the occasion of the election of the Holy Confessor Patriarch Tikhon. Many Serbian bishops and theologians in those days were students of Metropolitan Anthony. All the church authorities who were out of the reach of the Bolsheviks submitted themselves to him, following the ukaz of Patriarch Tikhon. A year later, in the banquet hall of the Karlovtsi Gymnasium, with 24 Russian hierarchs attending, along with the Serbian Patriarch Dimitri and representatives of other local churches, the foundations of the Russian Church Abroad were laid, and Metropolitan Anthony, who after the arrest of Patriarch Tikhon remained the senior Russian hierarch in freedom, was elected as the president of the Synod. He remained in this position until his repose in 1936, and was succeeded by Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky). The tomb of Metropolitan Anthony is in the crypt of the Iveron Chapel in the New Cemetery in Belgrade.
Among the Russian emigres in Serbia was also numbered St. Theophan of Poltava, the former spiritual father of the Royal Family. He was one of the Russian hierarchs who settled in the monasteries of Frushka Gora (Krushedol, Hopovo, New Ravanica, Gergeteg, Shisatovac, Jazak, etc.). The sisterhood of the Lesna Monastery with their Abbess Ekaterina also found themselves in Serbia. This sisterhood in Russia had numbered 500 nuns and 700 orphans who lived and were schooled in the monastery. We should point out, especially, taht women's monasticism in Serbia totally disappeared during the period of Turkish slavery. The Lesna nuns settled in Hopovo and other monasteries, and around them gathered Serbian novices, so that thanks to the Lesna sisterhood, between the two World Wars, Serbian women's monasticism was finally renewed. When the Lesna sisterhood, after the Second World War and the coming to power of Communism, were forced to move to France, the nuns left behind them, along with the relics of the Venerable Ekaterina, which lie in the monastery of Hopovo in the Frushka Gora, thirty two renewed women's monasteries. This is yet another symbolic connection to today's consecration, which took place in the monastery of this same Lesna sisterhood, at which the new hierarch's vestments were a gift of the Lesna nuns.
Not even when the Synod of the Russian Church Abroad left Serbia, fleeing the Communists and the Red Army, were the bonds between the Russian Church Abroad and the Serbian Church broken.
In general, the Serbian Church resisted renovationism longer than the other local Churches. It is commonly believed that she remained steadfast until the repose of Patriarch Gabriel (Dozich) in 1950, after which began her gradual slide into Sergiansim, Ecumenism, and ecclesiastical Modernism. Despite the entry of the Serbian Patriarchate into the World Council of Churches in 1966, however, there were no obvious signs of apostasy within the internal life of the Serbian Church such as the introduction of the New Calendar in Greece or the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius in Russia. Even after 1950 there remained great spiritual fathers such as St. Bishop Nikolai (Velimirovich, +1956) and Fr. Justin (Popovich, +1979), who raised their voices in defense of Orthodoxy. Furthermore, as we have said, the connections were long maintained between the Serbian Church and the Russian Church Abroad, which was the greatest and most important of the Churches separated from "World Orthodoxy." The Serbian Church, then, even after 1950, can said to have been in "indirect communion" with the True Orthodox Churches of Russia and Greece. Throughout the '60's and '70's, the faithful of the Serbian Orthodox Church often communed with Greek Old Calendarists and Russian Catacomb faithful through their participation in the sacramental life of the Russian Church Abroad. Due to this fact of the Serbian Patriarchate's taking longer to be infected by Sergianist, Ecumenist, and renovationist tendencies, the reaction to these problems - a movement of True Orthodoxy - also appeared late relative to its appearance in other Orthodox lands, in the 1990's.
Another factor sets the Serbian situation apart from that of the Russian and Greek True Orthodox Churches, which is the length of the time period in which there was a break in the episcopate.
Russia always somehow maintained a True Orthodox episcopate, although it existed after awhile only in the catacombs, later to be regularized and renewed by the Russian Church Abroad. Even though in Russia, in the period between 1921 and 1923 alone - according to official data - 28 bishops, 2,691 priests, 1,962 monks, and 3,447 nuns were killed, the Russian True Orthodox Church, known also as the Catacomb Church, even after the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius in 1927, still had its own bishops and clergy led by Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd. To illustrate this point, it is instructive to realize that the number of hierarchs in Russia who refused to accept the Declaration and separated from Sergius and the "official" church were more numerous than all the hierarchs functioning at that time in all of Greece. The True Orthodox hierarchs, after the Declaration, consecrated about twenty more catacomb bishops (that we know of), who served in secret, in concentration camps and other conditions of severe persecution.
The persecution endured by the Russian True Orthodox surpassed in cruelty the persecution of Christians in the first centuries of the Church, to the point at which, at the beginning of the Second World War, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in almost totally obliterating the hierarchical structure of the Catacomb Church. Nevertheless, throughout the post-war period, there existed proofs of a catacomb hierarchy in Russia, and, of course, the Russian Church Abroad maintained in exile a continuous, unbroken succession of right-believing, canonical, and uncompromised hierarchy for the Russian Church. This same Church Abroad renewed the hierarchy of the Russian True Orthodox Church, beginning with catacomb consecrations conducted in conditions of the greatest secrecy during the last years of the Soviet period, and then openly after the liberalization of the Soviet regime in the 1990's.
In Greece after the New Calendar schism, the faithful were left with only a priesthood at the presbyteral level, with no bishops, because at that point all of the hierarchs had accepted the calendar change. In 1935, however, eleven years after the calendar change, hierarchs consecrated before the 1924 schism returned to the True Church and undertook the archpastoral care of the True Orthodox of Greece. After the repose of Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Florina, in 1955, they were again left without hierarchs, but in 1961 bishops of the Russian Church Abroad began the process of consecrating bishops for the True Orthodox Church of Greece, consecrations which were later regularized by the decree of the Russian Church Abroad in 1969, under St. Metropolitan Philaret.
In Serbia, the faithful who separated from the ecumenist Belgrade Patriarchate in the 1990's had no bishops or priests, only monastics and laity. The hierarchs of the Greek GOC ordained priests for Serbia, and the Serbian True Orthodox flock came under the temporary administrative care of the Greek GOC.
When Hieromonk Akakije arrived in Serbia from Mount Athos and settled in the Frushka Gora (1996) - where he founded a cell dedicated to the enlighteners of the Slavs Ss. Methodius and Cyril - the number of True Orthodox Christians who gathered there could be counted on one's fingers. Over the next fifteen years, the Serbian True Orthodox Church acquired her monasteries in the Frushka Gora and Avala, as well as the the women's monastery in the Kuchai mountains, with about twenty monks and nuns, and a few priests. Several parishes were also founded, with about 200 faithful, of which those in the large urban centers of Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Nis are the most important.
To renew her hierarchy, however, it was necessary for the Serbian TOC to acquire her own bishops. Consequently the Administrative Council of the Serbian TOC concluded that for the needs of today's church life, decisive measures had to be taken for the renewal of an integral and entire canonical structure fo the Serbian True Orthodox Church. Upon taking such an important and responsible decision for the further growth of True Orthodoxy in Serbia, the Serbian Church did not, for its part, break communion with the Greek GOC, but rather simply renewed its historical church-canonical status.
The essential needs of the faithful in Serbia were recognized by our sister Russian True Orthodox Church, the inheritor of the most illustrious traditions of the Russian Church Abroad. As in the past the Russian True Orthodox hierarchs fraternally and unconditionally helped the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece to renew fully the hierarchical structure of their Church, consecrating bishops for them, so in the same way they have decided to help the Serbs now.
The glorious Lesna monastery was chosen as the site for the consecration of the first Serbian TOC bishop, in that it was so important for the recent history of the Russian Church and the greatest women's monastery of the Russian diaspora. The Righteous St. John of Kronstadt was a spiritual support for Lesna during his lifetime. Having enormous respect for the podvig of Lesna's abbess Ekaterina, he affectionately called her "Ekaterinushka," while the nuns of Lesna he named "my Lesnjanochke." Mother Ekaterina undertook everything with his blessing, and many of her efforts could not have succeeded without his material support. Lesna to this day keeps as a precious relic a letter from St. John addressed to one pious donor named Pelagia, in which he advises her not to hesitate to send help to the Lesna Monastery. When this holy righteous batiushka visited the Lesna community in 1899, he attracted about 50,000 pilgrims, among whom were a great number of the ill and unfortunate who believed in the power of his prayers.
It was at this time that the righteous pastor of Kronstadt and All-Russia spoke the prophetic words, "From your hive, Ekaterinushka, many swarms will be multiplied." And, in fact, around ten monastic communities sprang from Lesna in Russia, and later in Serbia the nuns of Lesna renewed or founded over thirty monasteries. In Russia, the Lesna community was visited and helped by Tsar-Martyr Nicholas and his family. In Serbia, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) often resided at their monastery. And when the Lesna sisterhood relocated to France, their monastery was often visited by St. John of Shanghai the Wonderworker, who for over eleven years was the hierarch of the eparchy in which the monastery was located. Lesna was also a summer residence of the former first hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, St. Philaret (Vosnesensky), who is the archpastor most responsible for the renewal of the hierarchy of the True Orthodox Christians of Greece and the Catacomb Church of Russia.
Now with the consecration of a Serbian bishop at the Lesna Monastery, the episcopacy of the Serbian True Orthodox Church has been renewed, awakening the hopes of a greater and more serious rebirth of True Orthodoxy in Serbia. This certainly does not mean that we hope for external pomp and glitter, nor for financial power and political influence. Not at all. True Orthodox Christians know that the Apostasy is a process which cannot be stopped, and they are satisfied simply to know that those who desire their salvation still have the possibility to save themselves. The True Orthodox are used to living and worshipping modestly. It is enough for them to have a wooden hut in the mountains which they can make into a church. They are satisfied if they can meet in some believer's flat and have the divine services. For them, it is common for a priest to travel a hundred kilometers to confess and commune one family. They are used to persecution and insults, to being called fanatics and sectarians. They do not fear suffering - they only consider themselves unworthy of martyrdom for Christ.
In this struggle, the True Orthodox Christians have as examples the first Church, the the Lord's Apostles, that small group of His disciples which could all fit into the one Upper Room, a group of simple fishermen, women, and some relatives and friends of the Teacher. They also have as their examples the martyrs of the first centuries of Christianity, such as St. Ignatius the God-bearer, who, when leaving for Rome to be thrown to the lions, said, "I am the wheat of the Lord, being ground by the teeth of the beasts to be found the pure bread of Christ." Their role models are the Holy Fathers and Teachers of the Church who did not fear to confess their Orthodox Faith, like St. Gregory the Theologian, who, for example, upon mounting the episcopal throne of Constantinople, found all the church buildings of the capital in the hands of heretics, while the members of the Orthodox Church were a small and downtrodden minority, and the Arians enjoyed the support of the imperial government. Settling in the house of a relative, the saint set up one of the rooms of the house as a chapel dedicated to the Resurrection of the Lord, and this tiny house-church was large enough to hold all the Orthodox believers left in the capital city! St. Gregory totally devoted himself to the rebirth of Orthodoxy, and with the power of the word of Truth, he succeeded in bringing to his side many who had gone astray. During this work, he was full of energy and self-sacrifice. His sermons and deeds made him many enemies, who in their hatred for him made attempts on his very life many times. Through all the temptations and attacks of his enemies, however, Gregory demonstrated an indomitable will and courage of spirit, so much that he right deserves the title "confessor." Because of his personal witness, there were cast at him "as many rocks as others had received roses."
The True Orthodox today also look up to St. Maximus the Confessor, who in reply to the assertion that all were communing with the heretical patriarch, including those who had put to that point been Orthodox and of one mind with Maximus, replied, "Let the entire world commune with the patriarch - I will not commune." St. Maximus was condemned to exile. He remained Orthodox, completely alone, deserted by everyone. His sufferings lasted for seven more years. They summoned him to Constantinople, where they accused him, cruelly tortured him, mutilated him, and sent him into exile in the Caucasus, where remained steadfast until death.
The eternal ideal for the True Orthodox Serbs is St. Sava, who said, "Brothers and children, this is what I beg of you first of all, to lay all of our hopes on God and above all to keep His True Faith. For as the Apostle says, no other foundations can be laid except those laid by the Holy Spirit through the Holy Apostles and God-bearing Fathers, and that is the True Faith which was confirmed and confessed by the Seven Ecumenical Councils...For the devil has contrived many heresies in different times and eras, and many tares of the evil teaching have been sown by his servants, the leading heretics of the world, for the ruination and confusion of the True Faith, which ruination and confusion we condemn, and with them we condemn the men who invented the evil dogmas, and we abhor every shameful heresy."
The True Orthodox can also look to St. Mark of Ephesus, who on his deathbed said to his disciples:
"I say and confess this before the many honorable men who are present here, that I absolutely will not in any way accept communion with him [i.e., the Ecumenical Patriarch, who had concluded a union with the heretical Papacy at Florence], nor with his people, not in this life nor after my death, as I do not recognize the accomplished union, nor the Latin dogmas which he and his like-minded men accepted, for whose installation he occupied the first cathedra with the goal of casting out the real dogmas of the Church. I am totally convinced that the farther I go away from such, the closer I am to oneness with the Truth and the Holy Fathers, the theologians of the Church. I am also convinced that those who number themselves with such, stand far from the Truth and the blessed Teachers of the Church. Therefore I say: As I was separate from them my entire life, so now at the time of my departing from the body, I reject communion and unity with them, and I adjure and command that no one of them come near my burial, nor my grave, nor any one of our services, in the attempt to vest and concelebrate in our divine services; for that would be the mixture of that which cannot be mixed. For they must be completely separated from us, until God gives a good correction and peace to His Church."
Serbian True Orthodox Christians also hold up as examples many True Orthodox martyrs who suffered during the last century, such as St. Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd, founder of the Catacomb Church in Russia, believing that their confession was not in vain.
They look to St. John of Shanghai, who rejected submission to the Sergianist Moscow Patriarchate, and was consequently thrown out of his church in Shanghai and forced to serve on the street. From the point of view of the Moscow Patriarchate, he lived and died as a schismatic, but God has glorified him as a saint.
The separation of the True Orthodox from Ecumenist "Orthodoxy," from the lukewarm, renovationist pseudo-Orthodoxy of this age of apostasy, can now begin to bear abundant fruit, thanks to what has now transpired in the Lesna Monastery. But the labors that await the newly-consecrated Bishop Akakije of Resava and Shumadia are very difficult:
- To organize a regular parochial life for the True Orthodox Christians in Serbia, for the sake of the complete satisfaction of their spiritual need.
- To complete two church construction projects, a monastery at Koshtunichi and the spiritual administrative center at Uteshiteljevo, which began this year.
- In due time, it is to be hoped and prayed for, the election and consecration of a worthy candidate for the Serbian TOC episcopate.
- The most difficult task, of overcoming the divisions within the Serbian TOC which appeared a few years ago, and which recently have become deeper and more hardened, due to the fact that, unnecessarily, for all too many years, the Serbian TOC did not have its own effective administration, but was ruled from abroad, a situation which created fertile ground for machinations and pitfalls, so that sometimes it seemed that the rule from Corinth and later from Athens worked precisely on the principle of "divide and conquer."
- Related to the above, the amelioration of the relationship with the Greek GOC will be a very difficult taks, but it will certainly be on of the main goals of the new hierarch, if for not other reason than the gratitude that the True Orthodox Serbs feel towards their Greek brethren.
- Furthermore, there will be the very delicate task of starting a dialogue with the various anti-ecumenical movements which have now arisen in Serbia which, though they fall short of the confession of True Orthodoxy, nevertheless in some way share our concerns and love their homeland and their traditional Faith.
- After this, there is also the task of the regularization of the legal status of the Serbian TOC in the eyes of the Serbian government, which will necessarily involve overcoming the obstacles put in our way by the Belgrade Patriarchate.
- It can safely be predicted, as well, that the newly consecrated hierarch will persist in the efforts for unity between the Greek and Russian True Orthodox Churches.
All of these, as well as all the other labors for the Church we have not mentioned, must have one purpose: to give the possibility for salvation for those who desire it. For, to use the words Archbishop Tikhon spoke at the consecration of Bishop Akakije "there is nothing more important in the world than the salvation and unity of Man with his Creator."
May God keep His zealots on the royal path of True Orthodoxy, remaining faithful to Him and His Holy Church to the end of the ages; and may He grant the new bishop, His Grace Akakije, many years! Eis polla eti, Despota!