Archimandrite Damjan (Cvetkovic) is the Secretary of the Diocese of Zica of the Serbian Orthodox Church. We spoke with him about preaching Christ in the modern world, the need for trials, the dangers of “comfortable” Christianity and how to deal with panic in our difficult times. Archimandrite Damjan also shared his thoughts on why, in searching for a father-confessor, married people should not run after monks and instead find a married priest.
—The freedom God has granted to man is a very dangerous thing. Only when he is guided by this freedom does a person decide who his master, brother and God are. Only my personal choice leads me either into bondage to sin, or to cleansing from it. This applies not only to an individual, but also to a nation and a society. Judging by my personal experience, I will say that a hostile environment sometimes has its benefits: in this way a person or a nation can see more easily who their friend or enemy is, and it becomes easier for them to make right choices, if only for the sake of preserving themselves. Spiritual “hothouse” conditions are extremely dangerous: it is very easy to be overcome by pride, start lying to yourself, saying, “Everything in the spiritual sense is good with me”. Such self-satisfaction will inevitably lead to a destructive fall. “Why cultivate virtues in myself when everything (outwardly) is fine anyway—I have prayers according to schedule, beautiful music, bells, pious conversations, bows, priests’ blessings and the like?” No, such a comfortable form of Christianity has never led to the good—efforts are always needed. That is why, it seems to me, God sends us trials; they help us firstly to see our own weakness, and secondly they make us work hard, so that the name of Christian does not become an empty shell.
—That is, there is also some benefit in the current trials, which, for example, Serbia and Russia have been faced with?
—Not only a benefit, but a task from Christ, which we must fulfill in order to remain faithful to Him. You can still be a Christian without a Schengen visa, but without Christ it’s hard, isn’t it? It is unlikely that the Serbs will be able to remain Christians if they accept and agree with the aggressively imposed “values” under the rainbow flag, even if they are promised entry into another “civilized society” for this. And let them laugh at us, mock us, call us “barbarians” and “backward”—it is better for us to be “backward” with Christ than to betray Him together with the “civilizers” (Lord, help them return to Thee!).
—Each one of us is called to preach Christ. Does this mean that we should call everyone we meet to suffer, saying, “If you want to be with God, there is the straight road to the Gulag or Jasenovac for you—only there will you find salvation”?
—I totally disagree with such calls. We do not know another person properly—his strength and capabilities; and we do not even know ourselves properly. Therefore, it is irresponsible to set any conditions, all the more so from yourself. We must preach, but in my opinion the only true preaching Christ is our own lives. My father-confessor used to tell me: “Don’t preach Christ in anything other than your own life.” He didn’t just say, but even shouted and insisted. You can speak fine words from books and shout pious slogans as much as you please, but what’s the use of them if you yourself don’t live according to the Gospel? It seems to me that we are now in a huge crisis of spiritual experience.
—Are we really?
—You see, the Serbs lived under the Turkish yoke for almost 500 years. It is difficult to talk about any prosperity for the Serbian Church at that period and under those conditions. For the most part, the task of the Orthodox was just to survive physically. Somewhere in the nineteenth century we gained our autonomy, but the bishops from the Phanar who headed the Church couldn’t care less about faraway Serbia and some Slavs. True, it was a matter of material gain, but for a “very spiritual” Hellene to condescend to enlightening Slavic barbarians—that was impossible.
We are a very young Church. Of course, we can and should recall the bright days of the Nemanjic Dynasty (or the Holy Nemanjic Wine, as they say in Serbia), St. Sava and other great Serbian saints. But half a millennium spent under a yoke, including a spiritual one, must have had an impact.
—Even seventy years (not so many) of the Russian Church’s Communist “Babylonian Captivity” have had an effect. That can’t be compared to several centuries.
—I hesitate to compare, but I quite admit it. We all had a hard time.
—But now, thank God, it’s easier for us.
—On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, there are also challenges and troubles. For example, the desire of some laypeople to confess their sins to monks at all costs. I am convinced that it is best for a married person to confess before a married priest. He has experience in family life, can give advice and recommendations in a sphere with which a monk has nothing to do, and shouldn’t have. Why should I burden a monk with my family ups and downs? Why should a monastic care about my mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, etc.? Have pity on monks—after all, this is none of their business. Similarly, you might turn to an astronaut for financial advice or to a historian for a perspective on Russian football. St. Paisios the Hagiorite said that in the twenty-first century mankind would have two main troubles: insanity and divorce. How can a monk help in family matters? Once again I say: let’s leave monks their sphere of activity, let’s not lay heavy burdens on their shoulders (cf. Mt. 23:4).
And a monk (I remember this from conversations with our beloved Patriarch Pavle and his fellow-strugglers) has no right to pretend to be a father-confessor and claim the role of a saint who can resolve family problems! You can only be a father-confessor for your brethren in the monastery where you all live together, where you know every member of your small community. Leave a married priest (who doesn’t live worse than a monk, is not lower than him, but has a good understanding of family matters) this aspect of life. To put it simply, stop running after monks, submissive as they are!
And it is harmful for such a runner himself. This is the usual vanity: “I go for confession to no one but schemamonk so-and-so himself!”
—We don’t just hear about wars and rumors of wars (cf. Mt. 24:6) daily, but every minute. Alarming, sometimes frightening news. How should I as a Christian take these rumors, Father Damjan?
—Take them as you always do—why panic! None of us knows if tomorrow will come. It seems to me that we should not pay such close and even panicky attention to something global—each one of us faces his own end of the world. We are experiencing the end times right now, and not when Channel 1 or the BBC reports about it. We need to change our lives now, this minute, and not sometime later when push comes to shove. Help your mother or wife peel potatoes today and this will already be something—in this way you will show love for your neighbor. Focus on your own life and please leave it to Christ to deal with problems and catastrophes on a different scale. He knows how to do this and will bring it to a good result, to His victory. And we can participate in His victory provided that in our lives—small but very valuable for Christ—we showed love to our neighbor. So, don’t panic. After all, such things are not taking place for the first time, right? Everything will be fine—trust in God.
P.S. Dear brothers and sisters, we continue to help Kosovo Serbs and churches, and monasteries of Kosovo and Metohija. If you have the opportunity and desire to help, your donations can be transferred to:
Sberbank “MIR” card number: 2202201429782747 (recipient: Petr Mikhailovich D. / Петр Михайлович Д.)
The obligatory note: “Aid to Kosovo”.