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Serbian Church In History - Times of Saint Sava

Article Index

TIMES OF SAINT SAVA

By the end of 12th century, Grand Zupan of Raska Stefan Nemanja (Stephan Nemanya, 1169-1196) managed to unite most Serbian lands into a single state. In his foreign policy he opted for Byzantium, although he went to war with it several times. It is also very important that he opted for Byzantine spiritual (Orthodox-Christian) and cultural influences too. Stefan Nemanja was a devoutly religious person and from the very beginnings unreservedly keen on Eastern Orthodoxy, which had, without any doubt, already set firm roots in his lands and among his people centuries before. Even today there stand churches and monasteries which were founded by him. They represent a clear sign of his religious zeal: monastery of the Holy Theotokos (Sveta Bogorodica) and monastery of Saint Nicholas (Sveti Nikola) in Toplica; monastery called George's Pillars (Djurdjevi stupovi) in the vicinity o f Ras and Novi Pazar; church of Saint Panteleimon (Svetog Pantelejmona) in Nis; church of the Holy Archangel (Sveti Arhangel) in Skoplje. He also built the famous Studenica (Studenitsa) monastery, which has rightly been named "mother of all Serbian churches". It was in this monastery that Stefan Nemanja had taken his monastic vows and it was there that his body was laid when brought back from Hilandar monastery. It is still to be found there today.

It is essential to consider the person and accomplishments of Saint Sava, the first Serbian Archbishop (+1236), when reflecting upon Serbian Christianity and not only when medieval times are concerned. Stefan Nemanja had three sons: Vukan, Stefan and Rastko. Having been born around 1175, Rastko (Saint Sava's baptismal name) was youngest of the three.

Since the days of his early childhood he exhibited an affinity towards Christian devotion and book reading. It is not, therefore, by coincidence that at the age of 16, and against his parent's wishes, he had left the court accompanied by a Russian monk and entered the monastery of Saint Panteleimon (the old Rusik monastery) on Mount Athos — the Holy Mountain. It is there that he took monastic vows and became monk Sava. From the very beginnings of his monastic days he unreservedly dedicated himself to austere asceticism and devout prayer thus swiftly gaining attention of all monastic communities on Mount Athos, especially so for being a member of a royal family.

The aged Stefan Nemanja soon followed his son's example and footsteps. He abdicated his title at a nobleman's assembly in Ras in 1196 and chose his middle son Stefan as his successor. Immediately upon doing so he took monastic vows and, accompanied by his son Sava, spent the rest of his life in peace and monastic tranquility of the Holy Mountain as Simeon the monk.

Living on the Holy Mountain, father and son attracted attention not only as devoted monks, but also as founders and donators of many a monastery on Mount Athos. Establishment of the Serbian monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos came as a natural consequence to such activity on their part. Hilandar was built in 1199 on a site occupied by an older, previously abandoned monastery. Only a year later, on the day of February 13th 1200, Simeon the monk departed from this life. Council of monks of the Holy Mountain immediately had him canonized as Saint Simeon the Myrovlyete. His son Sava composed a Service to him and also wrote his biography. Saint Sava also wrote the Typikon of Karyes for monastic use at the Karyes hermitage of Saint Sabas the Sanctified. Furthermore, he was the author of the Hilandar Typikon which he based upon the one in use at the Monastery of the Most Holy Theotokos in Constantinople. This Typikon is in effect even today in the monastery of Hilandar.

During the lifetime of Saint Sava the whole of the Holy Mountain, including monastery Hilandar, felt severe repercussions of the Fourth Crusade, when Latin armies sacked the capital city of Byzantium — City of Constantinople, and established the so-called "Latin Empire" (1204-1261). During the course of these events, Latin crusaders also pillaged many a monastery on the Holy Mountain. Taking safety precautions, and intending to effect reconciliation among his brothers who were in conflict back home, Saint Sava relocated the body of Saint Simeon and laid it in the monastery Studenica in 1208. Then he composed the Studenica Typikon, very similar in its contents to the one he introduced in Hilandar. Sava was archimandrite in Studenica until 1217. Taking into consideration that Saint Sava ceaselessly traveled Serbian lands, taught Orthodox faith, spread literacy and religious zeal, built churches and monasteries, educated and trained priests, monks and teachers, it is considered that Saint Sava's stay in Serbia on that occasion was one of the most fruit-bearing of all. It is from this period of life that many a story and legend about him came into existence, depicting him as the illuminator and the teacher of the Serbian nation as a whole, a miracle-worker, and deliverer of the sick, the poor and the destitute.

Until the appearance of Saint Sava the Church in Serbian lands had been under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Archbishopric of Ohrid. Sources mention only three dioceses: Ras, Prizren and Lipljan, and all three were headed by Greek bishops. Accordingly, Saint Sava decided to make the Church in Serbia fully independent and to recruit and train local priests, monks and bishops. This was not an easy task since Serbia at that time felt great pressure both from the south (Latin Empire) and the north (Roman Catholic Hungary).

Grand Zupan Stefan, Sava's brother, was in 1217 compelled to receive his royal blessing form the pope in Rome. That same year, by no coincidence, Sava left Serbia to take up residence in Hilandar once again. It is from there that he journeyed to Nicaea to visit the Byzantine Emperor Theodore Lascaris and Patriarch of Constantinople Manuel, both of whom had taken refuge there after the fall of Constantinople to the Latins. His intention was to negotiate with them on the matter of independence (autocephality) for the Church in Seriba. His petition for autocephality was granted, this being the best possible solution when considering general circumstances in the region. In Nicaea Sava was ordained archbishop of the Church in Serbia receiving the title "Archbishop of Serbian and Maritime Lands".

Thus, almost four centuries after having adopted Christianity the Serbian nation received its spiritual independence — Church autocephality. This international and ecclesiastic recognition confirmed Serb spiritual maturity and ability as a nation to have its own Church organisation according to the model already set by other Eastern autocephalous Churches (those of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch).

After completing his task in Nicaea, Saint Sava returned to Serbia via Hilandar where he stopped to pick up his best disciple-monks, whom he foresaw as future bishops in Serbia. He also made a stopover in Thessalonica where he managed to complete the Krmcija (Krmchya, Constitution) which regulated legislation concerning the newly independent Serbian Church. One of Saint Sava’s first tasks was to bring this Constitution to life. Apart from the three existing dioceses, Sava immediately established eight new ones: Diocese of Zica (Zhicha, which became the See of the Archbishopric of Serbia), and dioceses of Zeta, Hvostan, Hum, Topolica (Toplitsa), Budimlje (Budimlye), Dabar and Moravica (Moravista). Each of these dioceses had located its See in a monastery. Their founders and donators richly endowed these monasteries. All of them owned extensive land — fields, forests, vineyards, pasture, orchards etc. in order to be able to support their very important spiritual and educational mission among the people. Each of the newly ordained bishops received his own copy of Krmcija, which was to direct him in exercising his rights and duties.

On the day of the Feast of Ascension of Our Lord in 1221 a State-Church Council was held in Zica monastery, which was the See of the Archbishopric. On that occasion Saint Sava crowned his brother Stefan Prvovencani (Stephan Prvovenchany) as first king of the Serbs, thus making Serbia a kingdom. After the ceremony, Saint Sava held his famous “Sermon of Zica” in which he extensively elaborated on Orthodox faith. He taught the king, nobility, newly ordained bishops, abbots, and all that gathered basic truths of the Orthodox Christian faith, which were founded upon the Bible, deeds of the Holy Fathers, Oecumenical and local Church Councils.

Of course, all these changes and new moments in Church and State affairs in Serbia could not go ahead so smoothly, i.e. without problems from within and without. First obstacle to Saint Sava’s accomplishments came from the Archbishopric of Ohrid, headed by the learned Demetrius Khomatian who delivered a written objection to Saint Sava. He accused “Sava the Monk” for leaving the Holy Mountain to “return to the world”, and for making himself an archbishop without his (Khomatian’s) knowledge and explicit approval. However, these accusations could not hold water, since Saint Sava always took meticulous care to honour all Church rules and canons before taking action to change Serbian internal structure and international posture when both State and Church affairs were concerned.

First Serbian king, Stefan Prvovencani, took monastic vows in his old age, thus following in his father’s and his younger brother’s footsteps. He died as Simon the Monk in 1228, and his body rests even today in monastery Studenica. His son Radoslav succeeded him on the throne. It was during the first year of his reign that Saint Sava decided to undertake his first journey to the Holy Land (1229). This event was not only a personal act of pilgrimage. It meant a great deal for the whole of the Serbian Church, then a young Archbishopric. Saint Sava visited Jerusalem and the monastery of Saint Sabas the Consecrated. He purchased monastery of Saint George in Akona and monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Zion, both to be inhabited by Serbian monks. Saint Sava utilised his stay in these and other monasteries to learn their monastic rules and constitutions so that these could be applied in churches and monasteries of Serbia. From then on, the Serbian Church was more influenced by the Typikon of Jerusalem than that of the monastery of Studion of Constantinople. Saint Sava returned to Serbia bearing great gifts of icons, oil lamps, priestly vestments, church decorations, books, holy relics, etc.

In 1233 there occurred a change on the royal throne in Serbia. After a period of short disturbances Radoslav’s brother and Saint Sava’s nephew Vladislav was crowned king. This internal crisis was quickly overcome due to Saint Sava’s undisputed spiritual authority and reputation.

Apart from being a great Christian and a spiritual leader, wise and practical, Saint Sava knew how to make shrewd estimates on what was good and beneficial for the future life of the Church and the people. Sava entered a mature age. The end of his fruit-bearing earthly life was nearing and he knew this well. He thus decided, in the interest of the Church and the State, to undertake another journey and not only to the Holy Land, but also to other sanctuaries of the East. Possibly feeling that he would not return alive form this journey, he abdicated his archbishop’s throne at the occasion of the Church council in 1233 and appointed Arsenius of Srem (+1266) to be his successor. Taking such and similar precautions in order to insure the safety of the Church he departed for Holy Land during the spring of 1234. This time he visited Alexandria and Patriarch Nicholas, ancient monasteries of Egypt, Mount Sinai and monasteries located there. He took the return journey via Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople, where he procured many a needy thing for the Church back home. He left Constantinople to travel through Bulgaria and to meet the Bulgarian Emperor John Asen in Trnovo. He celebrated his last Holy liturgy one day ahead of the Feast of Epiphany in 1236 never to return to Serbia alive. He became ill and died in Trnovog on the 14th/27th of January and his body was laid in one of the local churches. His nephew, King Vladislav, managed to move his body back to Serbia and to have it entombed on the on the 6th/19th of May 1237 in the church that he (King Vladislav) intended to be his own mausoleum — that of monastery Mileseva (Milesheva).


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