Monk Sophronios (Copan) is an American monk living out his monastic calling in a small monastery in Eastern Kosovo, dedicated to the Holy Archangels Gabriel and Michael. Orthochristian.com recently had the opportunity to interview him about his experiences as an American and a monastic in Kosovo while he was in America giving talks about his monastery and the contemporary situation of Orthodox Christians in Muslim-majority Kosovo.
—Fr. Sophronios, you’re here in America mainly to give talks about your monastery, correct?
—Yes, about our monastery, but also about the situation of how people live in Kosovo now. There’s definitely been more pressure put on us by the local Muslim population this year. There was a trend of things getting better for the past ten years, but these last couple of months there’s suddenly been a number of provocations.
—What sparked this? Or is it seemingly out of nowhere?
—I’m not quite sure. I’ve heard different theories. I think a lot of it comes from the dissatisfaction of the local Albanian population with how the situation of independence turned out for them. I think for a long time the Serbs were their scapegoat, but now they’ve gotten rid of the Serbs, and yet their country is poorer and worse off than before. For some, that makes them question the situation, but for others it makes them dig deeper into their nationalism.
—So they’re taking it out on the Serbs who are left?
—Basically, yes. There are also some political questions about that, but I can’t really discuss that. To speak just from my own experience, the first few years I was in Kosovo, nothing really happened to me, but now, recently, just the week before I left for America on this trip, I went to the store with another monk. He parked the car and I went into the store. When I came out, some policemen were screaming at him in Albanian, which he doesn’t know. I asked them in Albanian what the problem was, and they started screaming at me, “Do you have drugs in your bag? Do you have a gun in your bag? Are you selling illegal drugs and illegal arms?!” I said no, and they kept screaming the same things at me. They said it was a really serious situation, and they wanted to take us to the station. They asked for our documentation, so I pulled out my American passport, and they immediately said “Oh, we’re sorry. You’re good to go.” That shows how much it’s just an ethnic-religious provocation. If you honestly suspected that I had drugs, then what does an American passport prove? What they’re really concerned about is Serbs and monks walking the streets. Then they continued to harass the other monk, who is Serbian. I told them he doesn’t understand what they were saying, so they could tell me and I’d tell him in Serbian, and then they said they would let us go, this time.
The same day, the police screamed at some nuns on the street until they cried. And still in this same week, I had to go to a trial because several months before that people were screaming, “Kill the Serbs” in the store. What was scarier to me was that no one around us reacted then, in a crowded store, no one cared, because of course there are crazy people saying crazy things everywhere. What’s scarier is when no one reacts or cares. But, in any case, the trial couldn’t happen because the accused man didn’t come, and this happened yet again and now it is postponed for a third time. And according to Kosovo law you have to have a Serbian interpreter, but the court said they couldn’t find one, even though they had had several months to prepare. I think these few examples demonstrate how well the local Kosovo justice system is functioning.
—Are the attacks more focused on monasteries and churches, or just on Serbs in general?
—I think it’s just Serbs in general. I’ve heard anecdotally that it’s happened to a lot of people, and you can read about more cases online, but mostly, they just don’t bother reporting it. But even while I’ve been here in America, I’ve been getting messages from the brotherhood back home, about how some Albanian Muslims drove their car right up next to the church and blasted loud music, and you can’t do anything about it. You can’t oppose them. Another day, they blocked the road to the monastery and they wouldn’t move. You couldn’t get in or out. These things are all happening very quickly. It’s not going in a good direction, after a long time of going in a good direction.
—What is it that you’re hoping will come out of raising this awareness among Americans?
—I’m hoping the American people will come to a greater awareness of what the rest of the world is like, and especially about what life is like for Christians in other parts of the world, and especially in Muslim-dominated parts of the world.
Also, although we’ve been talking about negative things so far, in my talks I’ve been focusing on how Kosovo is a story of resurrection and a story of joy. You can persecute us and take away our jobs and land and kill people, but in the end, we are Christians, so we have hope in Christ, and we have joy, and we have all the treasure in the world, and we’re not afraid. And I think that really is the truth among Christians and monks in Kosovo. We live in very difficult conditions where we’re persecuted, but we’re not defeated.
—Could you give a concrete example or two from your monastery of how you see this resurrection and joy despite the persecution?
—There is the history of the monastery itself. It was founded in the Middle Ages, but the Turks destroyed it, killed all the monks, and burned it down in 1455. Then in 1863, the local Serbian community raised it up again. So after 400 years these seeds of prayer planted by the old monks did not lie fallow, but sprang up again. Everyone thought it was gone. Nobody remembers who those Turks were who seemed so powerful at the time, but the monastery lives again. And then communism came after WWII, and again the monastery was extinguished. And then it came to life again in the late 1990s, right as the Kosovo War was at its height and living and security conditions were at their worst, and now we’re the second largest brotherhood in Kosovo. Twenty years ago, nobody had heard of our monastery. It didn’t exist as a living brotherhood. This is a story of resurrection, of how the good prevails over the bad, and that if you live your life in Christ, if you pray, if you hope, then ultimately resurrection prevails.
—You’ve spent time in monasteries in America, and on Mt. Athos, and in Greece itself—would you say it’s this sense of joy and resurrection, this death that leads to life, that led you to Kosovo? It’d be easy to say you’re crazy for choosing to go to Kosovo.
—I’m not even sure why I chose to go to Kosovo; I’m not Serbian, but there was always something about it that drew me in on a very deep level in my heart. What I found is that the persecution, the hard living conditions, the poverty, and the chaos is very difficult, and I won’t lie about that. What it does, though, is kill the old man; it kills the ego. If you can survive it, if you’re willing to put Christ above yourself and your ego and what you want, above your so-called human rights, you uncover the true joy in the Holy Spirit, and I think that that’s what a life of monastic martyrdom is. We deny ourselves the joys of this world, and in return God grants us a much greater joy, and this is something that is more clearly seen in a place like Kosovo; and in places like Syria, where people are living this in a very real way. People will scream at you and hurt you and take away your rights, and life can be very difficult, but you have a joy that you didn’t have when you lived in so-called freedom.
Kosovo is like a microcosm of the Orthodox life, where everything we read about in books becomes very clear in real life. But it’s the same life for all of us, no matter where we are.
—How long have you lived there?
—Are there examples you could point to in that time of any hostile Albanians coming around, maybe even becoming Orthodox, because the monks continued to live there and endure persecutions with faith and prayer?
—It wouldn’t be a good idea to tell you the name of a specific Albanian who became Orthodox, but I can tell you that the focus in our monastery is on hospitality, and on showing love to everyone. We take classes in the Albanian language so we can show them we care about them. When they come, we speak to them, give them food, answer their questions, and show them brotherly love. It has an impact on people, so yes, there have been secret baptisms of Muslims in Kosovo, and there are many Albanian Muslims who have become our friends. You see that hearts are changing. When you offer yourself and put yourself in a vulnerable place of love for the sake of Christ, it often brings fruit. Someone who was your enemy becomes your friend, and in some cases, he comes to know Christ. Our Albanian teacher taught us to sing Agni Parthene in Albanian, and it had been her idea! She found it online and thought it was so serene, and so she wanted to bring it to class.
—She’s a Muslim?
—Yes. It’s things like this that give me hope for Kosovo. We also work with a volunteer program where youth from Western Europe and the Balkans come and help around the monastery. This happens a couple of times a year, and it really brings a lot of different people together who normally might not get along, like Croatians, Albanians, Germans, Frenchmen, Italians. We took a picture as we were preparing for the feast of the monastery’s Church of the Life-Giving Spring, and in the picture there were two Albanians, a Croat, a Turk, a German, a Bulgarian, a Greek, a Spanish woman, and an American, making food for the feast day of a Serbian Orthodox monastery. It is such a beautiful thing.
They all come together and work in this Orthodox monastery, and in the process, learn about Orthodoxy and prayer. And they’re also doing a lot of service, which shows their sacrifice. They’ve chosen to come help these poor monks and God rewards them; I see how they become more interested in God and prayer, where they previously had no such interests. One of my favorite cases is that of one Croatian volunteer (and Serbs and Croats do not have a good history together at all) who is now almost a catechumen. She reads Orthodox books and goes to Liturgy even in Croatia, and keeps coming back here again and again. Again, you see that love and opening your heart to others is the way to bring people to Christ. It’s a martyric witness.
—Please say a little about the life of your monastery and how can we help you. Of course we can pray.
—And that’s huge. We can feel the prayers of the faithful supporting us. You have this cross in Kosovo, but in the cross is a huge blessing. That’s a basic teaching of the Church. The prayers of the faithful the whole word over support each other—we’re one Body. And I think I’ve truly come to learn this in Kosovo. In America you can feel more isolated, which is also partly geographical, if you’re up in the mountains somewhere, you feel like an end unto yourself; whereas in Kosovo I’ve started to feel like I need to be a good monk not just for my own salvation, but I need to be a good monk to save you, to save her, to save my friends, to save people I’ve never met, because somehow God works in that. It’s not just about me. I don’t have to get up at 3:30 in the morning to pray just because I need to (though I do need to, of course), but because you need me to as well.
I don’t mean to exaggerate but I’ve learned that it’s truly as St. Silouan said—our brother is our life. Our monastic life is largely organized on the teaching of St. Paisios about asking what I can do to make my neighbor’s life easier. How can I make his life better? Because in doing so, I serve Christ. So that’s how we live. We try to see how we’re all interconnected, and we believe that God reveals Himself in the concrete people around us. It’s not in something in my head, in something I imagine, in something I read, but it’s in the people in front of me that I encounter God, because He has sent them to us.
—How did St. Paisios become so important for your monastery? Is it because Abbot Ilarion has a devotion to him?
—Of course, he’s generally popular, but Fr. Ilarion is also drawn to him.
I have felt his influence in many ways, and I pray the canon to him a lot. He really helps me, and through his help I came to Kosovo and found Fr. Ilarion. I finally found my path, and I found joy and repentance in the Church. That’s how I survive Kosovo. It’s so hard, and one thing I have discovered since coming here is just how much all of us who are children of the contemporary West have so much secularism and deadness and faithlessness in us; how much, even, for those of us who are from such a background but who have become Orthodox, Orthodoxy is still so much of a veneer for a deep, fundamental brokenness and inner deadness. Our thoughts might tell us this life is meaningless and stupid, and then this lived joy of life in Christ in the Church, and the examples of those around me, and especially that of Elder Paisios—these things that I cannot dispute—are all like a wrench thrown in my broken Western thinking, saying “No, however stupid it seems right now, this is the most meaningful thing in the world—this monastic life, this ascetic life, this life in the Church. It’s the most meaningful thing in the world and it will change your life.”
And I keep going, and the more I keep going in the difficult life in Kosovo, I find the blessing in Kosovo. St. Paisios helps me to see the Resurrection and not focus on any bad things I might see happening around me or even in the Church.
—That’s an important message, because Church politics and incidents of clergy misconduct can affect a lot of people.
—Right, but we need to focus on the saints. One Athonite monk told me that when you have a problem in life, you don’t focus on the things you don’t know or don’t understand—you begin with what you do understand and you build off of that. That’s how you solve problems in life—and it’s the same with the spiritual life. You don’t fret and obsess over not understanding something, but you focus on what you do know, even if it’s one thing. Begin with that, and grow from there. We’re too often stuck in our doubts and faithlessness, and we think that we’ll find an answer there. But that’s stupid. Focus on the things you do know.
—That reminds me of something our Patristics professor Dr. Christopher Veniamin, a spiritual child of Elder Sophrony, taught us. We were studying The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and he said, if something here doesn’t make sense to you now, that’s okay—just put it down and come back to it later.
—It’s so simple, but we get caught up in our heads and we can’t think of something so simple. But, according to the way we think, Orthodoxy doesn’t make sense.
—Ultimately, Orthodoxy is above logic. It’s a paradox, because it’s ultimately not contained by our minds. This truth, combined with the difficulty of living in Kosovo broke my mind, or, rather, is breaking my mind, as I should say, and in a good way! It’s a process. It breaks this need to understand, to figure out, to analyze. In these mental processes and traps, you lose the opportunity to pray, to love God, and to help your neighbor, because you spend all your time thinking about things that ultimately are quite trivial and even quite ethereal, quite apart from actual life. So when our minds “break,” which is what happens when the difficulties that encircle us are met with prayer and life in the Church, then you find beneath this—hidden beneath the fallen mind—the simplicity of joy, love, and service, and truly, the privilege of service.
—That’s very much like Fr. Seraphim (Rose), who says he crucified his mind.
—That’s exactly it. Even a secular, complicated, modern Western person, still has, beneath the veneer, a simple joyful person inside of him somewhere. The podvig of our time is to uncover that.
—How many of us even want to do that, let alone are able to actually begin it?
—That’s the problem—the pride of our modern age—we’ve been taught to despise that simple, joyful person and to think that’s something low, when actually that’s the greatest thing you could have. So how can we begin to seek it when we’re so full of pride that we despise precisely what we should be seeking? We have to overcome the pride of our minds by humiliation and by hardship. You don’t become humble except by humiliation.
—The priest that baptized me often said there are two ways to become humble: Either you force yourself to absolutely keep the commandments, or, more likely, you’ll be publicly humiliated.
—Right. One time, early on in my time in Kosovo, when things were especially chaotic and hard for me, and I was still more used to the comfortable life in America than what I was finding in Kosovo, Fr. Ilarion said to me, “Fr. Sophrony, we’re Christians—we’re called to die. Do you think that’s supposed to be fun?” Everything is fine—just endure it. It’s supposed to hurt.
Metropolitan Porfirije of Zagreb, who was a spiritual child of St. Porphyrios in Greece, once said to me that if it doesn’t hurt when you’re doing your prayer rule, you’re not doing it right. It should create a pain of heart, and if it doesn’t, you’re not doing it right.
—To wrap up, what else can we do to help your monastery?
—We have our new website where you can buy our products. There’s free shipping, so it’s very economical for people abroad. That concretely helps our monastery and we do the work with our own hands. All the products are made by the monks. The help goes directly to the monastery and to the people around us who look to us for help. You can also become a benefactor of the monastery, which is a huge help.
We are also working on a women’s wool collective. We take wool from the monastery’s sheep, we pay to clean it, and we give it to women in the villages, whose families earn maybe about 100 euros a month in government aid. We give them the wool and they make sweaters and vests. We’re going to sell them on our site, and all the money will go to the women.
—Thank you for your time, Fr. Sophronios.