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Day 5: Wednesday, June 20


Refreshed and renewed, today is a big day as we venture eight centuries back and a few hours west towards Monastery Studenica, one of the largest and richest monasteries. It was founded in 1190 by Stefan Nemanja, also the founder of the medieval Serbian state and father of St. Sava of Serbia. We cut through the thick forest on a winding road wondering how these sites were even chosen. Soon we see the rushing Studenica River (after which the monastery is named) and are told that the water is particularly cold, thus the name Studenica derived from the old word “studeno” or cold. We arrive at the picturesque monastery guarded by stone gates and enter the main church dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos. One is transported back to medieval Serbia! Renovations are underway to restore this treasure as we encounter scaffolding. Marko, the man in charge of the restoration and cleaning of the frescos, is eager to show us what we’ve come to see.

We enter the church and immediately see the above-ground tomb of St. Sava’s father Stefan Nemanja (St. Simeon the Myrrh-Flowing) on the right, the sarcophagus and uncorrupt relics of his brother St. Steven the First Crowned ahead to the right just in front of the iconostasis, and his mother and Stefan Nemanja’s wife Anna – St. Anastasia on the left.

The sarcophagi are heavy laden in silver and gold, beautifully preserved, and respectfully covered during the renovation. Marko is quick to remove the covers as he sees that we are not just tourists, but pilgrims who have come to venerate these holy and beloved saints.

The monastery’s fortified walls encompass only two remaining churches of the more than 20 churches that stood here throughout its history. Both remaining churches are built in white marble and both are a treasure trove of 13th and 14th century Byzantine-style frescos coveted and studied by visiting scholars over the years from around the world to decipher these iconographic mysteries.

Both Monastery Studenica and the Nemanjic family are extensive topics at the root of the Serbian identity worthy of much more time and penning than we’ll ever be able to offer here. We will endeavor to provide just a glimpse of the importance of this stop and why this family in particular is worthy of recognition.

Stefan Nemanja, a member of the Vukanovic dynasty, was born in 1113. Around 1150, he married Anna, born in 1125, the daughter of a Byzantine emperor. This royal marriage solidified both political and religious ties between the Kingdom of Serbia and the Byzantine Empire centered in Constantinople. The couple was blessed with two sons, Vukan and Stephan. In later years, sometime between 1169 and 1174, when they were quite older, through prayer and by the grace of God, their third child Rastko was born. Stefan Nemanja was a great supporter and benefactor of many monasteries on Mt. Athos. Hilandar was the main endowment of the Nemanjic family, but Monastery Studenica was home.

Although betrothed to a union of two powerful families, Rastko yearned for monastic life. He was different than most, even from early childhood. In the Serbian court, he received a good education in the Byzantine tradition which yielded great political, cultural and religious influence in Serbia. Rastko showed himself serious and ascetical. On his royal side, as the youngest son, he was made Prince of Hum in young adulthood circa 1190. It was not just an honorary title but a practical one which would prove helpful later in his life. As a ruler, he was “mild and gentle, kind to everyone, loving the poor as few others and very respectful of the monastic life.” He showed no interest in fame, wealth or the throne.

In 1192, no longer being able to serve in the world as a royal but desiring true monastic life, Rastko left for Mt. Athos where he was tonsured and took the name Sava. His father urged him to return to Serbia, but instead, it would be Sava who convinced his father to leave the ruling kingdom with the words, “You have accomplished all that a Christian sovereign should do; come now and join me in the true Christian life." And so he did. In 1196, Stefan Nemanja left the throne to his middle son Stefan. He and his wife Anna took monastic vows, renouncing this earthly life and becoming the monk Simeon and nun Anastasia. They lived out their days in separate monasteries; Anastasia thanking God for His blessings and Simeon continuing to support and build monasteries on Mt. Athos with his son Sava, the primary one being Hilandar.

We write here about this family in order to set the stage for the importance of monastery we are now visiting. The story is complex but worth reading and best recorded in the simple book, “The Life of St. Sava” by St. Nikolai Velimirovich. St. Sava traveled extensively, holding a pan-Orthodox spirit and vision for the education and enlightenment of his people. Thus, he is called “The Enlightener” by the Serbian people. After many years between Mt. Athos and Studenica, high up on the cliff of the mountain above Studenica, through fasting and prayer, it was revealed to Sava that he should travel to Constantinople to obtain autocephaly for the Serbian Orthodox Church. The people were ready, monks were learned and ordered, and the church had a stable hierarchy. Autocephaly was granted and St. Sava became the first Archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox church in 1219. At the same time, Serbia became an independent and sovereign country.

Stefan Nemanja’s abdication of the throne in favor of his middle son Stefan created great turmoil among the brothers as Stefan married a Venetian noblewoman to create an alliance with Rome. Stefan was crowned in monastery Zicha and was now equal to other kings. He was called “the First-Crowned King of all Serbian lands.” This resulted in dissention and warring between eldest brother Vukan and Stefan which lasted even after their father’s death in 1199. In an attempt to bring peace to the quarreling brothers, even though Simeon was buried in Monastery Hilandar in Mt. Athos, St. Sava brought his father’s body back from Mt. Athos to Studenica. The peacemaking was successful and Sava saved the country from further political crisis by ending the dynastic fight. Stefan Nemanja, now St. Simeon the Myrrh-flowing, was canonized in 1206.

Fast forward now to our day. The morning is getting away from us and we realize that we must leave the church in order to return to it in time for vespers. Why? Well, we’re going on a hike, but not just any hike – we’re venturing up the mountain to visit the monastic cell of St. Sava.

A kilometer or so away from the monastery gates, we find a tiny path and embark on the long-awaited hike to the upper cell of St. Sava. The midway point is about an hour and a half up the steep, winding path. The narrow trail takes us through a lush forest of greenery full of beautiful flowers, a variety of mushrooms, bugs and snakes and hoppers and things with wings and foliage like no other. Sticks used by pilgrims before us are available for borrowing by anyone in need. We chanted, prayed and breathed hard in an effort to endure this treacherous path with some semblance of dignity. At the halfway point, we came upon a spring of fresh water. The balmy air, heat and humidity was quenched by the cold, fresh water and we rested in the hospitality of Fr. Arsenios who was waiting to offer us refreshment. We decided, however, to enjoy his hospitality on the way back. Instead, we just needed to rest in the porch of his modest house, perched atop a hill, overlooking a few graves as a good reminder of our future. We entered a small, modest chapel imbued with a fragrance of incense fresh from midday prayers combined with moisture from the surrounding nature. Someone is praying for the world from here all day long.

Determined to get to the top, we continue up the trail. An hour later, we arrive at a well and refresh ourselves again before we enter this hallowed ground. We walk through the arched gate, venerating even the doors, stepping over the threshold into paradise. We have arrived to the pinnacle – hallowed ground where St. Sava spent countless hours in fasting and prayer. After singing the troparion, everyone is stunned and quiet. It’s not a castle, but a cave. The path is not laden with gold but worn from traversing from the cell to the chapel, and back. The birds are even flying lower than us. We can touch the clouds. God is present, and so are we.

We found a crew of workers busy reinforcing what little is left of St. Sava’s cell. Only one monk at a time has the blessing of the abbot of the monastery to live here. At first, one thinks it would be peaceful and full of grace. But then, stories of monks being tempted by demons, vulnerable through long nights alone remind us that solitude and the ascetic life is a special calling and not for everyone.

We drank from yet another spring inside the cave: fresh, cold, pure water. We spent time venerating the grave and praying for the monk Gavrilo who burned alive there in the cell in 1981. Sayidna Joseph anointed each of us with holy oil. We prayed in the chapel embedded in the mountain and just sat silent listening to the wind and the wings of the birds as they flew by. It was heaven on earth.

After a while, realizing that the sun would set, we began our trek downhill in order to make it in time for vespers. On our way down, we heard a strange chanting. On the steep and narrow trail, we encountered four pilgrims carrying a big cross of the crucified Christ (from the fresco inside the Church of the Dormition in the monastery), an icon of the three-handed Theotokos and a stole. They were pilgrims on the “Vidovdan Pilgrimage Tour” who left Belgrade on June 2 and would be walking their way to Kosovo in time for the June 28 celebrations of Vidovdan. They would then continue all the way to Mr. Athos and finish their pilgrimage on August 19, Feast of the Transfiguration by the old calendar, and celebrating this feast with Divine Liturgy in monastery Hilandar atop Mt. Athos.

Descending was more difficult than ascending. We stopped at the midway point to refresh with a bit of strong Serbian coffee, plum brandy and a piece of sweet offered by the humble monk we met on the way up. We wanted him to join us but he preferred to serve us quietly and remain in silence. Before we left him, he made a great prostration before Sayidna Joseph in a sincere gesture of humility and love. His eyes sparkled as we begged him to remember us in his prayers. He bid us farewell.

We arrived to the “konak” (guesthouse) with just enough time to wash up and change before vespers. During worship, our hearts quieted as we listened to chanting by members of the group Moysiye Petrovich from Belgrade: a Serbian Byzantine group of voices combining laypeople, seminarians and musicians interested in preserving the integrity of Byzantine chant. They heard we were pilgrims from America and rather than meet in the city, they drove three and a half hours to the monastery in order to respond to vespers and later offer a concert in honor of His Eminence and our group.

Needless to say, vespers was memorable that night as the chanters made every effort to offer pan-Orthodox renditions of the hymns. We prayed standing next to the relics of St. Steven the First-Crowned and his mother, St. Anastasia. We were encouraged to pray to her and ask her intercessions before the Lord; to help us form ourselves properly just as she did, with courage, strength, faith, love and dignity. Pilgrims come from all of Orthodoxy to pray before her relics and those of her son as well. Infertile couples have been blessed with families and sick people have been healed. There are countless accounts of these miracles chronicled in the monastery’s annals. Nearby is Stefan Nemanja – St. Simeon the Myrrh-flowing at whose tomb, at the bottom, you find an indentation so deep, a trough of sorts, created by the partaking of myrrh which flowed from his relics for hundreds of years. Today it is dry, but we pray for God’s mercy and restoration of this miraculous oil soon.

At the end of the service, we made prostrations and venerated the relics of this holy family before being anointed with more holy oil and departing the sanctuary.

In spontaneous joy, we gathered in the church courtyard to meet each other and exchange common interests. It was like a scene from an ancient era when the royal court would gather for social exchange. The scrumptious Lenten dinner was welcome after a long, physically challenging day. The concert offered as a gift of love combined with the homemade atmosphere enjoyed in the trapeza (dining room) of the konak helped everyone relax as we enjoyed each other’s company, sang and even benefitted from spiritual words offered by Father Vitaliye, the spiritual father of Studenica monastery.

It was time to rest our aching bodies and renew our spirits in time for the next day as we had only reached the midpoint of the pilgrimage. We each took a blessing from Sayidna and said good night.