Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich Serbia's New Chrysostom
A biography of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, published in Belgrade in 1986, bears the title, Novi Zlatoust, A New Chrysostom. Its author, Hegumen Artemije, now a bishop in Kosovo, is not the first to have drawn this comparison. Nearly thirty years earlier, Saint John (Maximovitch), who had been a young instructor at a seminary in Bishop Nikolai's diocese of Zica, had called him "a great saint and Chrysostom of our day [whose] significance for Orthodoxy in our time can be compared only with that of Metropolitan Anthony [Khrapovitsky]. ... They were both universal teachers of the Orthodox Church." In another encomium, Bishop Nikolai's worthy disciple and preeminent Serbian theologian, Archimandrite Justin Popovic, extolled his teacher as "the thirteenth Apostle, the fifth Evangelist."
Bishop Nikolai was born December 23, the feast of Saint Naum of Ochrid, 1880, the eldest of nine children. His parents, Dragomir and Katarina, were pious peasant farmers in the small village of Lelich in western Serbia. As a child, he often accompanied his mother on the three-mile walk to the Chelije Monastery for services, and it was her precepts and saintly example, as he himself later acknowledged, that laid the foundation for his spiritual development.
Sickly as a baby, Nikola never developed a robust constitution, and failed the physical requirements in his application to military academy. With his superior intellectual abilities, however, he gained ready acceptance to the Seminary of St Sava in Belgrade - even before having finished preparatory school. Upon graduating, in 1905, he was chosen to pursue further study abroad, where he earned doctorates from the University of Berne (1908) and from Oxford (1909). Returning home, he became gravely ill with dysentery. He vowed that if the Lord granted him recovery, he would devote the rest of his life to His service. And so it was that later that year he was tonsured at Rakovica Monastery. That same day he was ordained to the priesthood. He spent the following year, 1910, studying in Russia, in preparation for teaching at the seminary in Belgrade. In addition to teaching courses in philosophy, logic, history, and foreign languages (he became fluent in seven), he produced an anthology of homilies that manifest his gift for being able to express profound thoughts in a way that made them accessible to the common man.
With the outbreak of the First World War, Archimandrite Nikolai was sent on a diplomatic mission to England, where he successfully pleaded the cause of the embattled Serbs. In addition, the distinction of his Oxford doctorate helped gain him an invitation to speak at Westminster Abbey. As one Anglican prelate later recalled: "The Archimandrite Nicholai Velimirovich came, and in three months left an impression that continues to this day. His works, 'The Lord's Commandments' and his 'Meditations on the Lord's Prayer' electrified the Church of England. His vision of the Church as God's family, as over against God's empire, simply shattered the West's notion of what it had regarded as the Caesaro-Papism of Eastern Orthodoxy." (Canon Edward West, "Recollections of Bishop Nikolai, Kalendar, Serbian Orthodox Church of USA and Canada, 1979; quoted in Kesich.) Archimandrite Nikolai then took his mission to America, where he enlisted the aid not only of emigrant Serbs, but also of thousands of Croats and Slovenes in their common war with Austria. His spiritual and intellectual strengths made him a very persuasive ambassador for his country, even as he was also - and always - an ambassador for Christ and His Church. Returning home to Serbia in 1919, Archimandrite Nikolai was consecrated Bishop of Zica. The ravages of war had inflicted great physical and emotional damage, and the new bishop applied himself energetically to the work of restoration. He taught religion, helped the poor, established orphanages, and took the helm of the popular spiritual revivalist movement, Bogomljcki Pokret, steering it away from its inclination towards sectarianism. This movement encouraged prayer, the reading of the Bible, and frequent confession and communion. Under Bishop Nikolai's spiritual guidance, its influence spread, and it contributed to a revival of monasticism. Monasteries and convents were restored and reopened, and the flowering of monastic life in turn reinvigorated the spiritual life of the Serbian people as a whole, who responded with esteem and devotion to the leadership of this extraordinarily gifted archpastor.
Bishop Nikolai's gifts were also recognized abroad, and in 1921 he was invited again to America, where in just half a year, he delivered more than one hundred lectures, raised funds for his orphanages, and laid the groundwork for the organization of the Serbian Orthodox Church in America. He returned six years later at the invitation of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the American Yugoslav Society, and the Institute of Politics in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After speaking and preaching for three months in various churches and universities, he returned to Serbia, stopping briefly in England, where he spoke prophetically about what he already clearly saw as the ripening conditions for another great war. On April 6, 1941, German troops poured into Yugoslavia, and the government soon capitulated. Serb mortality in the Second World War was less the result of military action than it was of the frightful atrocities committed by the occupying Axis forces and by the Ustashi, a Croatian terrorist organization that collaborated with the Nazis in return for political support. Some 750,000 men, women, and children were massacred, among whom were many priests, monks, and nuns, while thousands more were sent to death camps in Germany. As an outspoken critic of the Nazis, Bishop Nikolai was arrested in 1941 and confined in Ljubostir Vojlovici Monastery until September 1944, when he was sent, together with Patriarch Gavrilo, to the infamous death camp at Dachau. There he witnessed unspeakable horrors and was himself tortured before the camp was liberated by American troops in May 1945.
Meanwhile, the Communist Marshal Tito was consolidating his power in Yugoslavia, crushing or intimidating his opposition and persecuting the Church. As much as Bishop Nikolai wanted to return to his homeland, he knew that if he did, he would be silenced, and he decided, as did thousands of other Serb refugees, to remain abroad, in order that he might more effectively continue to serve his people.
Bishop Nikolai arrived in America in 1946. In spite of health problems, the result of his ordeal in the camp, he resumed an active schedule: travelling extensively, lecturing, teaching, and writing. He spent three years teaching at St Sava's Seminary in Libertyville, Illinois, before settling, in 1951, at St Tikhon's Monastery and seminary in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where he remained until his repose on March 5/18, 1956.
This final chapter of his earthly life gives little evidence of the fact that Bishop Nikolai was now over seventy years old. He taught at the seminary, becoming dean and then rector; he was a spiritual father for both seminarians and monks; he was a guest lecturer at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, and at St Vladimir Seminary in Crestwood, NY; he received numerous visitors, whom he counselled and encouraged with his grace-filled words; and when he retired at night it was to write - and to pray.
Prayer was Bishop Nikolai's constant companion in life, and it is fitting that when he died he was found in his room in an attitude of prayer. Christians from all over the world gathered for his funeral at St Sava's Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in New York City. He was buried at St Sava's Monastery in Libertyville, next to the monastery church. Bishop Nikolai, however, had always expressed the desire to be buried in his homeland, and twenty-five years later, on April 27, 1991, his relics were transferred to the monastery of Chetinje, to a spot long reserved for him beside the grave of his blessed disciple, Archimandrite Justin Popovich.
In his writings, Bishop Nikolai left a legacy of enduring and inestimable value, and he is to be honored among the great writers of the Church. His four-volume Prologue of Ochrid, which should be familiar to many of our readers, is already considered a spiritual classic. (One Serbian hierarch declared that "the only two books one needs to digest and put into practice to obtain salvation are the Bible and The Prologue of Ochrid" - quoted in Rogich, p. 237.) A second volume of his Homilies has recently been published (Lazarica Press 1998) and these likewise deserve a place in every parish and Orthodox home library. Among his other works available in English are The Life of Saint Sava (SVS Press 1989),
The Mystery and Meaning of the Battle of Kosovo (see review p. 12), The Wise Abbess of Ljubostinja (written during his incarceration there in the early '40s), various other writings in the remaining volumes of A Treasury of Serbian Spirituality (Serbian Orthodox Diocese of the United States and Canada 1989), and scattered articles, sermons, and missionary letters. Other works include: Beyond Sin and Death (1914), The Spiritual Rebirth of Europe (1917), Orations on the Universal Man (1920), Thoughts on Good and Evil (1923), The Faith of Educated People (1928), Symbols and Signs (1932), The Faith of the Saints (an Orthodox Catechism in English, 1949), and The Only Love of Mankind (published posthumously in 1958). We look forward to the time when more of these are translated into English.
While the mere facts of Bishop Nikolai's life inspire awe, such a skeletal portrait does not explain his spiritual magnetism and the soul-penetrating power of his writings. These were the fruit of his life-long striving to know and to serve the Truth, which, in turn, kindled a habit of ceaseless prayer and a practiced consciousness of continually abiding in the presence of God. As Saint John Maximovitch relates in his tribute written two years after Bishop Nikolai's repose:
"The young Velimirovich, while growing in body, grew all the more in spirit. As a sponge soaks up water, so he absorbed learning. Not only one but many schools had him as their pupil and auditor. Serbia, Russia, England, France and Switzerland saw him in their lands as a bee collecting nectar. He not only strove to learn much, he also strove to acquire Truth. Firm in the Orthodox faith, he sought to obtain even with his mind that which faith gives. He did not doubt in the truth of faith; rather, he longed to sanctify his intellect with the Truth, and to serve the Truth with his mind, heart, and will. He developed his mind such that with its fruits he nourished not only himself but others as well. As much as he grew in knowledge, so he grew in spirit. ... Constantly pondering the ultimate questions, he gathered wisdom
from everywhere - from learning, from nature, from the happenings of everyday life. Most of all he enlightened his soul with the Divine light, nourishing it with the Holy Scriptures and prayer." One of the most useful pieces of advice that Bishop Nikolai received for his own spiritual life came from an Athonite elder. In response to his question, "Tell me, father, what is your chief spiritual exercise?" the elder replied, "The perfect visualization of God's presence." The bishop later related this to others, adding, "Ever since, I tried this visualization of God's presence. And as little as I succeeded, it helped me enormously to prevent me from sinning in freedom and from despairing in prison" (quoted in Kesich, xv-xvi).
Hegumen Artemije, in his biography of Bishop Nikolai, Novi Zlatoust, draws a more complete hagiographical portrait. Written with the same poetic inclination of its subject, the life conveys Bishop Nikolai's universality even as it focuses on his special bond with his Serbian people. Sharing their characteristically passionate nature, he channelled it into an ardent love for his neighbor and zeal for God, effectively communicated in the following excerpts.
Like the God-seer Moses, [Vladika Nikolai] was a great intercessor before God for his people. ... Like the Old Testament Psalmist, our holy Vladika poured out his soul in his works and in prayer. This is especially evident in his "Prayers by the Lake," "The Spiritual Lyre," and "Prayerful Songs." From his poetic inspiration and fervor arose prayers on the level of the Psalms, like the most beautiful flowers of paradise. Vladika Nikolai's spirit of prayer was so powerful that it often threw him to his knees. He was often seen weeping. He was inflamed by divine eros.* His thirst for God was unquenchable; it could be satisfied only with complete union with God. To this end, Vladika prayed everywhere: in church, at home, on the road, in prison, and in the shadow of German bayonets.
Prayer is the basic means not only for purifying the heart but also for enlightening the mind. It is no wonder that the great masters of prayer in the Orthodox Church and her great visionaries are endowed with the gift of prophecy. This was certainly true of Vladika Nikolai. He foresaw and predicted that which many after him saw and felt: that almighty Europe (as he came to know it during the period of his studies) would be transformed into dust if it destroyed its Christian foundation...
Bishop Nikolai's apocalyptic visions concerning Europe were published by our other great contemporary saint, ascetic and theologian, Father Justin, in his book, The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism (Thessalonica 1974). These penetrating visions are the expressions of Vladika Nikolai's view of the last three centuries (18th, 19th and 20th) of European history as a record of the trial of Christ by Europe, where Europe ultimately banished Christ from its midst. After that "trial," Vladika, an equal to the Apostles, declares with sorrow, "My brothers, the argument has been concluded in our time. Christ departed from Europe as he once did from Gadara at the demand of the Gadarenes. And as soon as He left, war, madness, horror, destruction, and annihilation ensued. The pre-Christian Hunic, Lombardian and African barbarism returned, in a form that was a hundredfold more horrible. Christ took His Cross and His blessing, and departed. There remains only darkness and stench..."
Our holy Vladika also saw through and predicted the suffering of the Serbian people because of their sins:
"Those who educate by blinding rather than by enlightening - what will You do with them, O Lord? They turn Your children away from You, and prevent them from approaching Your Grace, for they say: '"The Lord" is an archaic term of your dead grandparents. It is an old amulet, which your grandparents used to wear but they have died off. We shall teach you how to till the earth, how to fatten the body, and how to dig for gold, which shines more brilliantly than the dead Lord.'... What will You do with these corrupters of Your children, O Lord?"
"I shall do nothing to them, for they have done everything to curse their own seed and breed. Truly, they have prepared a worse judgment for themselves and their people than the scribes and Sadducees. For they had the example of these latter, and failed to learn from it. In their old age, they will hear sabers rattling at their threshold.... It will be worse for them than for the Babylonians, when in their might they used to worship blood and gold.... First will come hunger, such as even Babylon never knew. And then war, for the sake of plundering bread, from which they will return defeated. And then an internecine slaughter and burning of cities and towns. And then diseases, which the hands of physicians will not dare touch..." (Prayers by the Lake).
In another place he writes:
"The leaders of the people are misleading them. What will You do with them, O my Lord?
"They are leading the people astray for their own profit. ... They do not teach the people truth, but feed them lies the year round. They are incapable of doing justice, so instead they intimidate the people by scaring them with a worse injustice of times past. They pillage for themselves and their friends..."
"What will You do with them, O Lord?"
"They have done everything themselves; I have nothing to do but to leave them to themselves. ... They will see their homes in flames, and will flee their own land, hungry and sickly. They will see foreigners in their land, and will beg them for a piece of bread. ... They will hear their names being cursed, and will not dare to show their faces..." (Ibid.) Prayerful and clairvoyant, filled with evangelical love to the point of forgetting himself, Vladika Nikolai was a true father and pastor to his rational flock. And he truly sacrificed his whole self for that flock to protect it from wolves and to preserve it intact. If one of his entrusted sheep left the flock and went astray along the aimless path of heresy or godlessness, Vladika would cry out with tears: "My heart is sick with sorrow, my Lord, and my eyes do not cease to be wet with tears, for many do not taste Thee, but rather seek food for themselves on the fields of hunger" (Prayers by the Lake).
Vladika found time not only to "write and chant," but also to act. And his life was indeed full of activity. In his two dioceses, Ochrid-Bitol and Zica, everything was renewed, regenerated, and developed. It was as if Vladika held a pen in one hand and a hammer and chisel in the other. In his own village of Lelich, he built a "beautiful, glorious memorial church, that the Liturgy of both this world and the [heavenly] be sung in it." As it was with the holy Apostles, he both had nothing and possessed everything. Much wealth came into his hands, only to pass right through them - to where there was misfortune, tears, orphans... He kept nothing for himself.
Vladika became the spiritual father of the entire Serbian Orthodox people. Many turned to him for spiritual counsel: priests and monks, merchants, officers, soldiers, workers and peasants, old and young, Serbs and Russians - all who had any kind of spiritual problem, whether personal or relating to the nation as a whole. Out of this came a spiritual treasury - over three hundred missionary letters. Although these are addressed to specific individuals and contain answers to concrete questions, they are of universal and lasting value. Those who read them will find answers to many of their questions and the resolution of many of their problems, as well as support for zeal for the truth, for the
faith, and for God's justice.
Vladika loved the Serbian people, especially the simple people, the peasants; but he did not idealize or idolize his nation. He knew well their sins, and he despised these sins, as a mother despises the festering wounds of her beloved child. What Vladika loved was the image of Christ in the people's soul. For him the Serbian people were Christ-bearers, and servants of God.
Vladika loved the Serbs, his own people, very much, but he did not love them to the exclusion of others. He hated no one; he hated only evil and sin, whether that of his own people or of another. He hated "false Christianity" (vis. "A Necklace of Coral"), which is capable of inflicting the most monstrous crimes in the name of the Blessed Christ. But he did not hate the perpetrators of those crimes. He pitied them, as one pities the gravely ill.
Given Vladika's zeal for God and his evangelical way of life, it is not surprising that he had his opponents and enemies, for, as the Apostle Paul asserts, all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (II Tim. 3:12). Whenever Vladika labored most for the good of his nation, people were found, inspired by the Evil One, to attack and slander this God-pleaser. And then there arrived the inhuman foreign occupier, who, as a blind weapon of the devil, carried out a brutal and crude persecution of the saintly Vladika through expulsions and imprisonments, jails and camps, inflicting upon him many insults and misfortunes. The suffering and witness of this great ascetic and preacher of the Gospel continued even as he lived out his final years in a foreign land.
Amid these trials, Vladika never became discouraged; he never wavered in his belief in the "final victory of the good." At the end of his life, he was able boldly to repeat the words of the Apostle, I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith (II Tim. 4:7).
No portrait of this holy hierarch would be complete without mention of his humility, that essential spiritual safeguard. A world-class scholar, an internationally recognized statesman, exceptional orator, prolific writer, and gifted spiritual leader, Bishop Nikolai at the same time preserved a childlike guilelessness and simplicity that betokened his otherworldly orientation. Canon Edward West, the Anglican prelate quoted earlier, remarked warmly on this aspect of the bishop's character: "Whether it be a garden party at Buckingham Palace or dining with the Archbishop of Canterbury, or watching with detached pleasure while a group of his beloved Serbs were dancing a 'kolo,' or comforting a widowed 'popadija,' he was always the same beautiful person" (quoted in Kesich, xvii).
Today, when Serbian people are experiencing yet another trial by fire, they can look with hope and prayer to this great and wise shepherd of souls, who is able even now to guide them out of their present misfortune, along the path of repentance and renewal to their heavenly homeland, where he awaits their company in the choir of the saints.