Monasticism and Spirituality

The Orthodox Church is well known for its long-standing tradition of monasticism. The uninterrupted monastic tradition of Orthodox Christianity can be traced to the Egyptian desert communities of the fourth and fifth centuries. In medieval Serbian society monasteries and monks played an especially significant and unique role. The monasteries of Studenica, Zica, Pec, Mileseva, Sopocani, Decani, Ravanica, and many others, all founded by royal patrons, outlived the state and centuries of domination by the Ottoman Turks. It is characteristic of Serbian monasteries that they have always been open to communal life. There were times when they substituted for schools and hospitals, and they became workshops for the production of icons and illuminated manuscripts. They were often used as a place of refuge from enemy raiding parties, and, last but not least, they were places of eternal rest, as they all maintained cemeteries.

Apart from the most famous monasteries founded by members of the Nemanjic dynasty, many were originally built in remote and inaccessible regions. During times of both peace and turbulence, the monasteries remained strong spiritual centres, and under Ottoman rule they were given some sort of autonomy in exchange for annual payments of taxes to the authorities. People went on pilgrimages to venerate the relics of national saints, such as those of St Simeon at Studenica, St Sava at Mileseva, St Stefan Decanski at DeCani, Holy Knez Lazar at Ravanica, and those of saints belonging to the BrankoviC dynasty in Krusedol. Regular church services were carefully observed in all of these monasteries. Most of the monks were at least semi-literate, doing their utmost to spread literacy among people whilst tutoring them in the faith and in spiritual life. During the Ottoman period they spoke and wrote about the glorious Serbian past and their grandest and most significant rulers and predecessors. In addition to the above-mentioned national saints, centuries of reverence have also been devoted to St Paraskeva, St Joanikije Devicki, St Basil of Ostrog and others.

At the end of the nineteenth century, and during the twentieth, commitment to the monastic life fell to a low level and many monasteries were left empty. Between the two World Wars, there was an increase in women entering convents, thanks especially to Russian émigrés. Interest in monasticism never entirely faded under Communism, and in Serbia and Montenegro, when this period had come to an end, it regained some of its strength.

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