Archimandrite Damjan (Cvetkovic): “Playing at Holiness is a Dangerous Thing”

A Talk on Patriarch Pavle, Serbia and Innermost Kosovo. Part 1

We have talked with Archimandrite Damjan (Cvetkovic), Secretary of the Žiča Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church, on his meetings with Patriarch Pavle, his main lessons, the importance of the “material” aspect in the Church, the ability to withstand the challenges of the secularized world, exposed positions, life in a hostile environment, the ability to rejoice, and why it is impossible for the Serbs to betray Kosovo.

His Holiness Patriarch Pavle (Stojcevic) of Serbia His Holiness Patriarch Pavle (Stojcevic) of Serbia Father Damjan, you remember with great love your meetings with the ever-memorable Patriarch Pavle, a man of holy life, respect and reverence for whom we see not only in Serbia (dear to our hearts), but also in Russia and throughout the Orthodox world. Please tell us about these meetings. What is imprinted on your memory?

—Yes, fortunately I had several meetings with Patriarch Pavle, which left the brightest memories. Once there was a very interesting and important meeting for me. The Patriarch visited us at the monastery. Then I lived at Bukovo Monastery of the Timok Diocese. I lived there for twenty years until our Vladyka Justin was elected Bishop of Zica. Then he and I moved here, to Kraljevo, in the Diocese of Zica.

So, Patriarch Pavle came to our monastery, stayed overnight, and then celebrated the Liturgy together with our bishop. The Patriarch liked to come to monasteries like that—without pomp, in a simple way. We served the Vigil, rested, and went to have a meal. We had dinner at about seven on that day. And we talked with the Patriarch till eleven in the evening. And do you know what struck us? We very quickly simply forgot that we were talking to a patriarch, a person with great authority. There was a feeling that we were sitting and talking with our older brother: he opened up to us so easily, speaking so directly, allowing us and himself such a degree of freedom... I repeat: freedom, not some kind of undue familiarity.

Simply and frankly we talked about our daily problems and monastic temptations: how we should take our obedience if some difficulty arises, when jealousy or dissatisfaction with a brother is aroused in us. We discussed all this openly. I remember him saying very sternly that a monastery is neither buildings, nor frescoes, although it has a long history. The monastery, according to him, is first of all the monks living here and now, and their spiritual state.

I emphasize once again: he always spoke to us as equals. He simply spoke as an experienced monk speaks to his brethren. For me it was not only a joyful surprise: I think it was one of the most important meetings in my life. Because he showed us from experience: no matter what position or rank we may have in the Church, we will never stop being mere monks. You are always a monk, and you must keep it to the end, regardless of your positions and ranks. And the Patriarch told us a lot of similar things about monastic life: how to keep yourself as a monk and how to feel in this state. He told us directly how he felt as a patriarch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such humility in my life.

How did he feel as a patriarch?

—He simply said: “I have been ordained to the position of Patriarch. I know for sure that this position requires the possession of a hundred talents. But I also know for sure: If I have only one talent, and I invest it in the service of Christ and His Church, the Lord will add ninety-nine more talents to me, necessary for the position of Patriarch.” He gave absolutely everything he had to Christ, and he expected all help from the Lord. He knew that his human strength was not enough to fulfill his duties as a primate.

The same applies to any position and any obedience. It doesn’t matter what obedience you have: be it baking prosphora, cooking, working in the farmyard, in a workshop or reading and singing in church, we are required to give our talent to Christ and the Church. And the Lord will add everything that is missing. This is such a law of life according to the Gospel. It would seem paradoxical, but it is true. We will never have enough knowledge, capabilities and strength—never. All that is required of us is trust in God: giving Him everything we have, believing in His love for us and support for us sinners. And there will always be support. Patriarch Pavle spoke about this very profoundly and concretely from examples from his own life.

How do we understand the phrase: “Give your talents to Christ and His Church”?

—I think that, firstly, being aware clearly and without false “humility” of your poverty, not being proud of what you have (some gift or talent), and living by the rule: “This is not mine; God gave it to me.” God Himself says that your talent is a gift. We received it for a time from the Lord. We will have to answer how we used it. We will have to return it with a profit—everything is as in the parable.

And, secondly, never refuse any work by saying: “I can do this but can’t do that. I want this, but not that.” When we give Christ everything that we have—our knowledge, strength and opportunities—the Lord will invisibly, incomprehensibly add to us what is missing. Work conscientiously and with discernment—that’s what is required. I say without any modesty—it’s the way it really is, and I know for certain that I don’t have enough qualities to be the secretary of the Žiča Diocese. But I know that if I do my job earnestly, attentively and conscientiously, expecting help from the Lord, He will always provide it and add strength. And what’s interesting is that I never feel like, “Wow! He’s added now.” I just see that things ended well. I have seen this all my life, and I have been a diocesan secretary for over fifteen years. I did a lot of things that I didn’t know how to do, but I succeeded each time by some miracle—not a loud one, but a quiet one. Everything is just as Patriarch Pavle said to us, young monks, at a late meal in a provincial monastery.

The same happens not only in the case of a diocesan secretary, but also with the rector of a parish, a choir director, a reader...

—With a cleaner, a cook, a milkman, and even a journalist. In every position we are required to give God what we have. N. shouldn’t necessarily be the best journalist in the world—no; N. should be honest in his work. Try in earnest and conscientiously to do what you should do in accordance with your capabilities. Everything else is just added on. Everything will just work out.

The rule of the French knights: “Do what you can, and come what may.”

—Exactly. But it seems that the experience of the French knights is newer than that of our great ascetics (laughs).

But let’s recur to that memorable evening with Patriarch Pavle. He reminded us of the story of the miraculous feeding of thousands of people with bread and fish, drawing attention to the episode when after the meal they collected many leftovers into baskets. They didn’t throw the loaves away, but they carefully collected them. The Patriarch said after the meal: “Pick up the leftovers. After all, not only the apostles did it.” And he told us that it is very important to care about every piece of bread. “Never throw away food.” He tore off a piece of bread, cleared his plate with it, and ate it. He said to us, who were somewhat surprised: “Firstly, food isn’t wasted. And we help our brother, who will then wash the dishes.” It’s both simple and yet so profound, so important. We don’t think how important it is to always care about our neighbor, even in such “trifles”. “Always think of your brother.” This became the rule of the monastery brethren. When I was staying in Moscow, someone told me that it might seem improper to some that an archimandrite of the Serbian Church should wipe his plate with a piece of bread. I was told, “Don’t do that.” I argued, “You think that it shouldn’t be done, but I know exactly that it needs to be done, since Patriarch Pavle taught us this—to respect our neighbor’s work—and I’m very grateful to him for this.” There were no objections.

That is, with Patriarch Pavle it was not such public posturing as, “look, I’m humble.” It was simple and natural with him.

—He didn’t play at all—he was absolutely natural. He was who he was: a man, a monk, a priest, a bishop—without any affectation and posing. He just was himself.

Father Damjan, are there Christians in Serbia who could be called spiritual heirs of Patriarch Pavle?

—I’m absolutely certain there are. I won’t give names. I have no right to give any assessment to people, and I don’t want to. But I am absolutely convinced that both among the laity and our bishops there are people who can be called spiritual heirs not only of the late Patriarch Pavle, but also of such bright and strong-minded people as Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral, Bishop Atanasije (Jevtic), and others. We have their heirs. I am sure that not only among Serbs, but also among Greeks, Russians and any other peoples there are always those who can safely be called successors and heirs of Patriarch Pavle. In my opinion, this is one of the most important foundations of Orthodoxy. I think it is largely thanks to them and their ability to live with Christ that the Church exists.

I would prefer not to give assessments in the style, “This one is such kind of a person, and that one is such.” It shouldn’t be done. I am convinced that it is impossible to evaluate a single person. What kind of “appraisers” are we? It’s not a good idea to make judgments about priests, bishops or laity—it’s not our business. It would be better to turn our attention to ourselves—there will be more benefit. It seems that it’s not until a person ends his life on earth that it’s at least a little revealed to us how strong he was. Because of our weakness we look for flaws in every human being and are happy to dig into them, or even replicate them: “he was a little proud here, sang or spoke poorly there, was not very literate, didn’t look properly”, etc. In fact, it doesn’t matter! If a person has kept the image of Christ in himself, this is the only thing that matters to me. Everything else is appearance, brother. Just outward appearance. So there is no need to panic; there are real Christians for whom Christ is not an appearance, but real life. I don’t think you can get very far with just looks and appearances. One shouldn’t try on the appearance of a holy man.

How do we understand that?

—It’s very simple. We believe that Patriarch Pavle is a holy man. For instance, he, being a patriarch, repaired his shoes, watches and clothes himself, cooked food for himself, and so on. He really did it. But is that the only reason we regard him as a saint? Does this confirm the holiness of his life? And if I’m pursuing holiness without having Patriarch Pavle’s or the Apostle Paul’s professional skills, do I really need to be laughed at by trying to mend shoes or make tents? I doubt that. You don’t have to repeat it. That is theater, even some kind of copycat behavior. You should be yourself and have a personal dialogue with God—that’s what matters.

The higher the position, the more exposed you are. No matter what you do, you are always under fire.

—That’s right. Such a position isn’t to be envied.

So, we have established that there are heirs of Patriarch Pavle. They see him and his path to God as an example for themselves. But one shouldn’t theatrically imitate Patriarch Pavle or any other person of holy life.

–Absolutely. The theater and the Church are different institutions. And they have different missions. Playing at holiness is a dangerous thing.

Part 2

Peter Davydov
spoke with Archimandrite Damjan (Cvetkovic)
Translation by Dmitry Lapa


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