“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God … But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.” (1 Cor. 2:14-15) I met and learned from such spiritual pastors. Such was the meeting with an apostle of the Church of our days, the Right Reverend Nikolaj (Velimirovich) of Ochrid (subsequently Zica).
In 1928, I visited the small ancient town of Ochrid, which lies between mountains on the amazingly blue Lake Ochrid. In a fatherly manner, I was received by Vladyka Nikolaj in his large but simple archpastoral home. I remember that I went with him on a trip beyond the mountain to a monastery’s feast day on a carriage harnessed to a pair of horses.
I saw how the whole population of the town, half of which were Muslim, greeted him on the streets. In those years, Kemal Ataturk took the fez off of men in Turkey but the citizens of Yugoslavia were not connected to such an order of the Turkish dictator and continued to wear their dark-red fezzes. And when Vladyka Nikolaj went by them they smiled widely and greeted him touching their hand to their forehead and chest. It was a Muslim gesture but the smile was Christian. Here was ecumenism before “ecumenism”. Every person believing in God manifested the inherent humanity in themselves, the sign of closeness of God. And what Vladyka Nikolaj had told me became clear: Muslims (Serbs who were made Turks long ago) also go on pilgrimages to the grave of St. Naum, which is in an Orthodox monastery on the lake near the border of Albania. They pray there about their simple needs and instances of healing occur. Such religious co-existence of Muslims and Christians was something new for me and later I never saw it in any Christian or Muslim country.
The apostle of this mixed population of south Serbia (where so much Christian and Muslim blood had been shed over the centuries), Vladyka Nikolaj said, “These simple believing Muslim-Serbs are similar to the Orthodox living near them.” I was convinced of this by an Athonite monk who was traveling the country to collect funds for a monastery. He sometimes noticed more sympathy among the Muslim towns of Serbia than among the Christian towns.
I saw how Vladyka Nikolaj behaved himself among his Orthodox people at the feast of the monastery on Lake Ochrid. There was simplicity and piety in the people and in the bishop himself. There was not a shade of familiarity, abstractness, or artificiality of word or gesture. The people surrounded their father. There was spirituality in that feast and no ceremonialism or fanfare. This was the spirit of the Early Church, and I was reminded of the images of Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, and Athanasius of Alexandria. Those surrounding the Right Reverend Nikolaj on the shore were not waiting a tender smile or tales but only something beneficial for the soul.
Bishop Nikolaj became the religious leader of Serbia. Being a great writer, thinker, and poet, he corroborated with secular papers in Belgrade, teaching among the people. (I remember his simple and pointed articles in the paper Politica: “Войниче, не псуй,” that is, “Soldier, don’t swear,” a very relevant article for not only a soldier.) His “Missionary Letters” comforted the people and taught faith with their concise literary form and poignant religious thought. None of the “usual” words were here, everything was new and unexpected and interesting for the people.
A friendship with Right Reverend Nikolaj was maintained until his repose. After being freed from a German concentration camp, together with Patriarch Gabriel, after the war he did not return to his homeland but went to England where he strove to influence Churchill and the politics of England in relation to Serbia. England, however, made a stake on Tito. Vladyka Nikolaj moved to the United States and after a short time settled in our St. Tikhon Monastery in Pennsylvania.
We occasionally met. In the beginning of 1947, when I was the dean of Holy Virgin Mary Church in Los Angeles, he visited me and I found out from him about the preparation for my becoming a bishop. “Do not refuse!,” he said in a firm, fatherly way. I recorded a touching, religious song. In Serbia, it was made the anthem of the “Bogomoltsev” [Pilgrims] Serbian Orthodox movement:
Помози нам, Вишни Боже,
Без Тебе ништо не може,
Ни орати, ни спевати,
Ни за правду воевати…
The image of Right Reverend Nikolaj also helped my ministry. This was the way of apostolic ministry in our day. From the very beginning, my pastoral ministry was combined, as was his, with writing. A stranger to convention and superficiality, I also strove for simplicity, fresh humane words, and sincerity of faith. And, like him, I wanted to mobilize and turn secular literature to service of the Word. Even now I believe that secular culture and literature are really given to humanity in order to help promote Divine Truth. Vladyka Nikolaj one day said to me, “When I was a young man and returned to Serbia from Western Europe and St. Petersburg with various diplomas, I began to learn faith from my parents.”
1. Meaning: “Here was ecumenism before there even was such a thing.”
2. Help us, God above,
Without Thee nothing can we do
Neither plow nor sing
Nor fight for truth…
[verses rhyme in Serbian…]