After Easter, Helen and I travelled to Serbia where we had kindly been invited to stay with the British Ambassador Denis Keefe and his wife Kate. It had originally been intended as a holiday, though the official engagements inevitably increased and it seemed better in the end to adopt the principle that ‘a change is as good as a rest’!
On our first morning, we met up with Fr. Robin Fox, our chaplain in Belgrade, who had worked hard to organise a programme for us. He took us first to the home of Princess Ljubica. Now a national monument, the house is remarkable in showing how Serbia’s political history and leanings were mirrored in the choices of interior furnishings made by a noble lady. The picture below shows a room, furnished in Ottoman style, that was used by Prince Charles to meet a delegation of religious leaders on his visit to Serbia last year.
We then walked next door to the residence of Patriarch Irinej. The Patriarch received us with great warmth and the traditional Serbian coffee and rakija (plum brandy). He told us how much he had enjoyed his recent visit to Lambeth Palace. We exchanged Easter greetings. I thanked His Holiness for the hospitality he offers to our chaplaincy and expressed the hope of continuing deepening relationships between our churches.
After sharing decorated Easter eggs with a member of the Patriarch’s staff, we walked on to the Cathedral of St. Sava. The Temple is still under construction and represents a wonderful symbol of hope for the future for Belgrade. It is magnificently decorated. We were given a guided tour of the crypt, which is decorated with extraordinary icons and finished with gold. I was particularly moved by an icon remembering the faithful of Serbia who had perished in Croatia during the Nazi period (below right).
Our main purpose in going to Serbia had been to visit some of the monasteries in the South of the country. Dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, these are of world importance and embody the ‘soul’ of Serbian spirituality and identity.
We had expected to see beautiful buildings, and we did. But we had not expected to meet vibrant communities of mainly younger and highly educated nuns and monks.
The mother abbess at Gradac monastery (below) told us of her love of English literature, particularly T.S. Eliot. She explained how she is trying to formulate a way of life which is both faithful to orthodox tradition and of contemporary relevance. She told us of the struggles the sisters encounter in balancing a devotion to prayer with offering hospitality to groups of visitors. And she wondered what forms of community life were proving successful in Western Europe.
Zica monastery was built by Stefan, the first king of Serbia and by tradition the coronation church of the Serbian kings. Having fallen into disuse under the Ottoman empire, it was restored and re-occupied by a community of nuns in the 20th century. The picture below shows their lovely refectory, painted in the traditional (and formerly very costly) Azure blue.
Studenica is one of the most famous monasteries. It is also one of the most inaccessible, high up at the end of a long hair-pinned road. On the afternoon we visited it was snowing. The monastery is famous for its remarkable 13th century wall paintings, like the Madonna and child below. Photos are not normally allowed, but they made an exception for us!
Robin – chaplain and honorary chauffeur – then drove our hire car three hours north home along the Serbian roads through torrential rain and snow with exceptional skill and determination.
On our final day, we were taken to a refugee camp on the Croatian border. The camp is right on the border, with the camp fence forming a national boundary. Having travelled from as far away as Afghanistan, the refugees had been hoping to cross into Croatia and then Germany – but their path is now blocked.
The camp is supported by the EU and by NGOs such as the Catholic Relief Service, the Serbian Orthodox ‘Philanthropy’ and Christian Aid. Conditions in the camp were much better than I had seen in camps in Greece. I enjoyed meeting the teachers at the little school-room: they do well to teach English and Serbian to pupils who are more at home with Farsi and Arabic!
And in the final ‘team photo’ below, you can see the British Ambassador (holding an icon), his wife (far right), with representatives from Philanthropy, Christian Aid and our two churches.
It was a truly memorable visit. Serbia is a country that has known so much suffering over many centuries. Yet it has kept Christianity alive in families and monasteries. Relations between Anglicans and the Serbian Orthodox Church were disturbed by the events of the 1990s. I am personally committed to healing and reconciliation. I was delighted that despite the different traditions of east and west, and our very different national histories, our visit enabled us to celebrate unity, togetherness and friendship in Jesus Christ.