On November 23/24, 2019,Visoki Dečani Monastery in the Serbian Autonomous Region of Kosovo and Metohija celebrated its patronal feast day, of St. Stefan of Dečani, the great medieval king and martyr who built the Monastery and whose incorrupt relics lie there today. Always an occasion marked with great joy and solemnity, this year was notable due to the larger than usual number of pilgrims who came from all over the Balkans and Europe to celebrate the life of this great saint of the Church of Christ. At the Divine Liturgy, the large katholikon, one of the largest in the Balkan peninsula, was overflowing with pilgrims and it is estimated that over 3,000 people came.
One could not help but feel the holiness of the Saint’s presence all throughout the Monastery, strengthening those who had come, many of whom live in very difficult conditions in Kosovo, Metohija, Bosnia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, all places where the canonical Orthodox Church is under various forms of pressure and persecution. Saint Stefan’s Monastery of Visoki Dečani is actually the only medieval Serbian Orthodox Monastery to be continuously inhabited since its foundation, in 1335, where invading Muslim armies and then communist traitors were never able to force out the monks. As such, it is a source of great strength to all faithful Christians and people who live in the very trying times, which we do today.
This year’s feast was also marked by the presence of Archbishop Mark of Berlin from the Russian Church Abroad, who, though he is of German ancestry and a hierarch of the Russian Church, speaks fluent Serbian as he was tonsured a monk by the great universal teacher of Orthodoxy of our time, St. Justin of Ćelije. Archbishop Mark gave a beautiful, inspiring sermon, in flawless Serbian, to the thousands of gathered faithful at the end of liturgy, which we present here in English in its entirety:
Your eminences, my dear brothers of this holy monastery, and all my beloved brothers and sisters here today; Truly, I am not worthy to be here among all of you, but rather, being here in all of your presences is a great honor to me. And in fact, it is God who has made us all worthy to gather together here in this holy temple, beside the relics of Holy King Stefan. I wanted to greet you all with this great feast; however, I think that it isn’t accurate to say this is a “great feast.” No, this feast is truly an extraordinary one, the greatest of great feasts. Those of us who were here last night for the Vigil may have noticed that, instead of reading the Matins Gospel of the Resurrection, we read the Gospel for the Saint, which is truly an exceptional occurrence. A church’s feast day, this monastery’s feast day, is celebrated with the same honor as Pascha. It isn’t more important than Pascha, to be sure, but it is another Pascha, a second Pascha. If we replace the Gospel reading for the Resurrection with that for Saint Stefan, it shows just how much the brothers of this Monastery honor Holy King Stefan.
Why do they have such a great respect and devotion for him? Why have all of you come, and many of you came from so far, to honor this Saint? I think the reason for this is that Saint Stefan was a great builder, he built these great walls around the Monastery to protect it, but not only that, he builds up a protective wall around our souls. And he is still building up this church and this monastery with his prayers, and he strengthens us all with his prayers for us and for all Orthodox Christians. And this wall he builds with his prayers is strong, the strongest protection we can have. We know this because no one, throughout the many centuries, has ever destroyed or harmed his monastery. And in the same way, by his strong prayers, no one will ever be able to destroy our souls, no external power will get to us.
And this wall is not measured by its height or depth, or by how many stones were used to build it. No, we measure the strength of this wall with a spiritual criteria. This impregnable wall is a reminder to us all that we must be Christians not just on Sundays, not just on Christmas or Pascha; but it is something we must live every single day of our lives, every second even. Only then, when we build up our souls every day, will we Christians build a wall like the one St. Stefan did. We will be strong in Christ when we become relentless in our Christianity, when we demonstrate that our Christian faith is not just a passing whim, but when we make our whole lives into what Christianity is first and foremost about: repentance.
What does a monk do? Why does he wear a black robe? Repentance. Repentance is our very foundation. Let us remember that when the Lord came to this world, and that he began the preaching of His Gospel with the words, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This is why we repent, so that we might receive the Kingdom of Heaven into our own hearts. Our hearts are most precious vessels, for they can receive and contain God’s grace.
It is for this reason that the martyrs, the apostles, the martyrs throughout the centuries took up their crosses: for the sake of repentance, for the sake of their great love for Christ. This repentance, which is the foundation of our lives as Christians, leads us to the Cross, and it is through the Cross that we arrive at the Resurrection. In our repentance, we are always and forever, each of us who is a Christian and who repents, we are Christ-bearers, Cross-bearers. In our hearts, we always bear the Cross of Christ, and together with it, the Resurrection. It is only by living in this way that we can withstand the evil forces that war against us. You see these evil forces every day, destroying your churches, trying to destroy men’s souls, corrupting our young people with every kind of filth. Only Christians are truly capable of resisting violence and compulsion, both political and national violence, but also moral violence, people who war against virtue. There are many forces in the world today that we must stand up to, without fear, with courage, and to resist them and instead move only forwards, ever forward towards the Cross, towards the Resurrection.
Our struggle is not against any person, against any group of people, no, our struggle is against our sins, and our struggle is for the Cross, for the Resurrection, for the Ascension. Here in this holy church, we remember the most important thing of our lives as Christians, and that is our prayer and our repentance. And this is not just for one day, but prayer and repentance should be our companions. They should accompany us every day of our lives, in everything we do. Only on these two foundations can we build peace, can we build up thick walls which will protect us from every evil. I wish you God’s help in this endeavor, that you would really put forth effort to work on your salvation. And know that our help is in God alone; in man there is nothing to be found except arrogance, but this arrogance is our cross, for it makes us suffer. But, all this is followed by life. With God’s help, we will live as Christians.
Please consider helping Visoki Dečani Monastery either by making an online donation here: https://www.paypal.me/visokidecani, or by purchasing some of the monks’ products at their online store, which they ship all over the world: https://www.decani.org/en/shop-new . Your support is greatly appreciated and will have a very big impact.