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East European Perspectives: March 5, 2004

5 March 2004, Volume 6, Number 5


By Jovan Byford

Two years after the informal canonization in the Diocese of Sabac and Valjevo, the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Western Europe, Lavrentije Trifunovic, submitted a formal request to the Council of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church in which he appealed to the highest ecclesiastical authority to "examine whether necessary conditions have been met for this great Bishop of the Serbian Church [Nikolaj Velimirovic] to be canonized as a saint" (cited in Jankovic 2003, p. 491). Predictably, the wording of the petition echoed the assumption that formal canonization is the means of recognizing popular belief in someone's sanctity. Bishop Lavrentije argued that "a great proportion of the faithful, even whole dioceses, have already declared Nikolaj a saint" and that his "image is already represented with a halo, and even temples are being erected in his name." Trifunovic's petition also cautioned that the failure by the church to recognize the widespread belief in Velimirovic's sanctity would "create an insurmountable gap between our people and the highest authorities of the Serbian Church" (Jankovic, 2003, p. 491).

4. Canonization In The Orthodox Church And The Need For Divine Confirmation Of Sanctity
A year later, however, on 29 November 1990, a commission tasked with investigating the issue of Velimirovic's sanctity, headed by the newly elected Patriarch Pavle, rejected the request for canonization. Without dismissing outright Bishop Lavrentije's basic premise concerning Velimirovic's reputation among the faithful, Patriarch Pavle called for "patience" and argued against "premature conclusions" and "hasty decisions" regarding this matter (cited in Jankovic, 2003, p. 558). The cautious approach to Velimirovic's status as a saint was justified on theological grounds but also revealed reservations that were of a political nature.

Patriarch Pavle argued that Velimirovic's canonization must come about for the "right reasons." It must not be merely an act of vengeance for the injustice done to Velimirovic by the communist authorities after the war. The report implicitly rejected the argument, often put forward by Velimirovic's supporters, that canonization ought to be the church's response to numerous "blasphemies, stupidities and political manipulations regarding [Velimirovic's] name" (Rankovic, 1987, p. 26). Similarly, the patriarch saw through the political motives behind the call for canonization, instigated by nationalists within the church. He argued that "we must wait for this crisis to pass, and wait for a time when reason and canonical principles will once again take over from emotions and badly conceived national interests" (Jankovic, 2003, p. 559).

In voicing his commitment to "canonical principles" the patriarch was effectively reminding the council that, contrary to popular belief, canonization in the Orthodox Church was more than the ratification of a religious cult. Patriarch Pavle pointed out that prior to canonization a candidate's reputation of sanctity must be shown to be faultless. He noted that, in life, Velimirovic displayed "certain human weaknesses" which undermine his status as a saint (Jankovic, 2003, p. 558). The report did not elaborate on the nature of the weaknesses, but according to a popular anecdote frequently recounted in religious circles, the patriarch's comments alluded to Velimirovic's smoking habit for which he was well known among his contemporaries. It is revealing that a relatively minor vice such as smoking was invoked as the biggest blemish on Velimirovic's saintly reputation. The fact that the patriarch did not mention the far more controversial anti-Semitic political opinions as a relevant "weakness" is illustrative of the way in which the controversy surrounding the bishop's politics is routinely repressed within the Serbian church. It is also important to mention that the patriarch did not maintain that Velimirovic's "human weaknesses" disqualify him from sainthood indefinitely. Rather, he proposed that canonization be postponed until other positive aspects of the Bishop's life have eradicated the "weaknesses" from popular memory, akin to the way that "the rising sun dispels the mist and becomes brighter as the day progresses" (Jankovic, 2003, p. 558).

More importantly for the present discussion, the patriarch's report also argued that prior to formal canonization a future saint's alleged holiness must be shown to have received "divine confirmation" as proof that popular veneration exists for the right reasons, reasons that are not of man's but of God's making. The often-neglected requirement for divine proof of sanctity, invoked by the patriarch on this occasion, is rooted in the Orthodox canonical tradition. The authoritative "Canons of the Orthodox Church" by the Serbian Bishop Nikodim Milas (1845-1915), state that a saint can be declared only "if marks of prophecy and miracle-making were apparent in the deeds of this person, or if their body after death gave out signs of sanctity" (Milas, 1905/1999). Thus, before Velimirovic could be canonized, it had to be demonstrated either that posthumously the bishop acted as an intercessor before God, or that during his lifetime the Lord had graced him with supernatural gifts.

Because the Orthodox Church does not have formalized procedures associated with the verification of miracles, the requirement for divine proof of sanctity is potentially problematic and often controversial. In the Russian Church, for example, there have been instances when, once the need for miracles had been voiced, what followed was an abundance of unsubstantiated claims. Recent calls for the canonization of the imperial family of Tsar Nikolai Romanov were accompanied by an "industry of miracles" with almost 2,000 unconfirmed instances recorded between 1997 and 2000 (Krivulyin, 2001, p. 20).

In Velimirovic's case, the patriarch's arguments did not result in an epidemic of posthumous miracles. Instead, the reference to the need for divine confirmation acted as an invitation to the bishop's admirers to devote more attention to the mystical aspects of their hero's existence and bring into play what were said to be the bishop's "special charisms" or divine capabilities -- namely epiphany, prophecy, and healing.

5. Canonization In The Orthodox Church And The Need For Divine Confirmation Of Sanctity
The inclusion of Nikolaj Velimirovic in the roll call of Serbian saints in May 2003 was preceded by a successful petition, signed in January of that year, by a group of senior Orthodox clerics including nine bishops. As in 1990, the petition appealed to the custom within the Orthodox Church to honor and celebrate those "who had already been chosen by the faithful as intercessors before the throne of the Almighty" (Jevtic, 2003a, p. 306). However, this petition also reflected on the requirement for divine confirmation. The signatories noted that Velimirovic had been celebrated among the faithful as "one chosen by God and a Saint, especially since the days of his suffering for Christ in German prisons and camps, where, according to testimonies of numerous reliable witnesses, he experienced epiphany and the mercy of a visit from God Alive and True" (Jevtic, 2003a, p. 306). This claim appears to have been accepted by the Council of Bishops, which recognized in the formal Canonization Charter that the new saint "had been celebrated by God through splendid omens" (Jankovic, 2003, p. 589).

Although the act of canonization was accompanied by the acknowledgment that Velimirovic's sanctity had received "divine confirmation," it would be naive to assume that Bishop Nikolaj's status as a saint hinged entirely on this matter. Given the political aspect of his rehabilitation in the 1980s, Velimirovic's canonization was always going to be a matter of ecclesiastical politics rather than one of strictly canonical considerations. Even in 1990, the patriarch's recommendation concerning the requirement for a miracle was as much a theological point as the rationalization of his political reservations. At the same time, the patriarch's reasoning revealed that, in affairs of the church, political points must be presented as theologically justified. As will become apparent, irrespective of the political struggles and goings-on behind the scenes -- which can only be speculated upon at this stage -- public representations of sanctity advanced in the context of the cause for Velimirovic's canonization are themselves revealing and carry significant ideological implications.

Velimirovic's alleged experience of epiphany during the imprisonment at Dachau, which was invoked as a "splendid omen," is a reference to an event when, in the words of his followers, the bishop "came face to face with God." "Testimonies of numerous reliable witnesses" mentioned in the petition refer to a single unverifiable second-hand account provided in the 1950s by a Russian nun, Milica (sometimes also referred to as Sofija) Zernov, who befriended Velimirovic during his years in exile in the United States. Over the past 15 years, Zernov's recollection of Velimirovic's own interpretation of the epiphany has been published numerous times in religious publications and continues to be mentioned in speeches and sermons devoted to Bishop Nikolaj (see, for example, Radosavljevic, 1986; Jevtic, 2003a, pp. 306-307). For instance, in a sermon delivered in 1987, Bishop Amfilohije Radovic explained that:

"In the most tragic moment, not only of his personal life, but also the life of many European peoples including his own -- during his internment at Dachau -- [Nikolaj's] eyes met the living God himself. When a wonderful and devout soul, Sofija Zernov, asked him after the war about his time at Dachau, he was to say: 'In the camp it was like this: you sit in the corner and repeat to yourself -- I am dust and ashes. Lord, take my soul away! Your soul then rises towards heaven and you see God face to face. But you cannot bear it and you say: I am not ready, I can't, take me back! Then you sit for hours and repeat to yourself: I am dust and ashes. Lord, take my soul away! Your soul then rises towards heaven again...'; and he added to this miraculous testimony: 'I would give all that is left of my life on earth for one hour at Dachau'... Sister Sofija also said that she could not bear the gaze of the Bishop's eyes, the eyes of a man who had encountered God" (Radovic, 1987, p. 33).

Traditionally, Christian mysticism views such visions and apparitions as manifestations of a "special charisma" -- an unusual gift that provides evidence that the beneficiary had been touched by the hand of God. As such, it is seen as a "mark of credentials" of saintly figures (Freze, 1991, p. 51). However, in early accounts of Velimirovic's mystical experience in Dachau, including the above quote, the epiphany was not invoked as evidence that divine grace had been bestowed upon the Serbian bishop. Instead, it was used to portray Velimirovic as a believer who desired and relished the prospect of a life of adversity, hardship and suffering and whose virtues of patience, fortitude, faith and courage were immune to the trials and tribulations of earthly existence. Thus, the account by Zernov was part of the overall theme of Velimirovic's martyrdom at Dachau, which continues to dominate narratives of his life (Byford, 2004).

Eventually however, the epiphany came to be used specifically to build the bishop's credibility as the beneficiary of divine intervention. As representations of Velimirovic's supernatural competence became more frequent after 1990, the encounter with the Almighty at Dachau emerged in hagiographic narratives as a central life event that transformed Velimirovic into a true mystic, miracle-maker and a Man of God. This is not surprising, given that it is widely believed that heavenly visions and apparitions occur for a purpose, as a prelude to further divine intercessions which "serve to convert, inspire, instruct or reaffirm the faithful about God's active presence in their midst" (Freze, 1991, p. 60).

The epiphany was said to have turned Velimirovic into a healer. In 1991, in an article in which he pleaded for Velimirovic's canonization, Bishop Jovan of Sabac and Valjevo alluded to his uncle's special power, and linked it to the event in Dachau:

"After the war, he used to say that he had never been closer to God than [at Dachau], that he had never felt the presence of God more strongly and that such happiness had never been repeated. This is why he regretted not staying in Dachau for the rest of his life. After Dachau, during his stay in Vienna, the Bishop blessed a seriously ill woman at the local church and wished her to recover, and the patient did recover, after many years of illness" (Velimirovic, 1991, p. 25).

In the same speech, Bishop Jovan reiterated his belief in Velimirovic's powers of miracle-making when he noted that even posthumously "numerous pious men and women in our country prayed to Bishop Nikolaj and in turn witnessed instances of healing" (Velimirovic, 1991,p. 22).

The miracle mentioned by Bishop Jovan was first chronicled in 1969, in a little known book by Stefan Cakic, a Serbian priest from the Austrian city of Graz. Since Cakic's account was rediscovered and published by "Glas Crkve" in 1986, the instance of healing has been recounted many times in religious literature. Interestingly, among the various and often very detailed versions of the story, some discrepancy has arisen regarding the date of the miracle's occurrence. Cakic's testimony places the event in "the autumn of 1944, when, under heavy German guard, Bishop Nikolaj, together with patriarch Gavrilo Dozic, was being taken to Dachau" (Cakic, 1987, pp. 76-77). Most subsequent accounts, including that told by Bishop Jovan, place the event after the spell at the camp (for example, Rankovic, 2003a). This is because the account of Velimirovic's power of healing became assimilated into the story of the epiphany and the two events were incorporated into a coherent causal narrative.

6. Velimirovic As A 'Prophet': The Construction Of The 'Serbian Jeremiah'
The tale of Velimirovic's encounter with God at Dachau and the related story about his miracle-making highlighted the importance of this period of the bishop's life and gave it a pronounced mystical dimension. Significantly, belief in the authenticity of the epiphany also affected the perception of the bishop's writing at the camp.

Following its publication in 1985, "Words to the Serbian People through the Dungeon Window" captured the imagination of Velimirovic's supporters in Serbia. This was primarily because the book's anticommunist and anti-Western overtones appealed to nationalists within the church. The text was widely perceived as a prophetic work, in which the author "forewarned us about the country we now live in...about Yugoslavia, a state that despises God and the rights of man and a country devoid of any sense of honor and self-respect" (Komnenic, 1991, p. 49). Also, the book was said to have provided a "warning about the sinfulness of Western civilization and of the Serbian people should they remain tied to it" (Markovic, 1993, p. 27).

Because of the assumed prophetic nature of the book, Velimirovic was compared to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who warned the children of Israel about the catastrophic consequences that rejection of God would bring about on the Jewish people. The nationalist writer and politician Vuk Draskovic referred to "Words to the Serbian people..." as "Jeremiah's lamentation over the tragedy and destruction of [the Serbian] people" (Draskovic, 1989, p. 71), while the theologian Radovan Bigovic noted that "at moments, [Velimirovic] reminds us of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who yells in the spiritual desert and unmistakably prophesies and predicts what will happen to Europe and its people if they do not change" (Bigovic, 1993, p. 45).

While most references to Velimirovic's power of prophecy and the resulting comparison with Jeremiah were essentially metaphorical, some clerics interpreted the bishop's words as being "prophetic" in the original Biblical sense. The explanation of Velimirovic's gift of prophecy became integrated into the widely available story of the epiphany. Just as Jeremiah is said to have acquired his gift when "the Lord reached out his hand" (Book of Jeremiah, 1:8) and graced him with the divine ability to foresee the future, Velimirovic's power of prophesy, manifested in the controversial book, was also believed to have resulted from the visitation from God in Dachau. In 1991, Bishop Amfilohije Radovic offered the following account of Velimirovic's prison writing:

"No one has ever written about Europe what Nikolaj wrote behind the windows of Dachau. His book was written on toilet paper. Nikolaj wrote that text, which is moving, apocalyptic, and relevant both for our times and for those when it was written. That text will only gain importance with the passage of time. Especially because it was written in Dachau, where the Bishop saw the living God. That is what is most important to Bishop Nikolaj. In Dachau, after that vision, he lived like a prophet from both the Old Testament and the Gospels. He described and discovered the internal forces which move events on the continent of Europe and the whole world, and showed his people the way. Every letter written in Dachau is a letter written to every Serbian mother, every Serbian youth, every Serbian girl, every Serbian child, every Serbian sage, Serbian philosopher, poet and statesman.

"Because what happened at Dachau?... There he experienced the dust and the ashes. And God raised him and conveyed to him untold secrets. He said to God: I can't bear it -- take me back.... At Dachau, Bishop Nikolaj saw the Living God. He is one of the most important witnesses to the encounter with God.... His deepest suffering, his most profound crucifixion was also the source of his most profound enlightenment.... There he pronounced the words uttered by Christ on the Golgotha: My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me? But that is when his soul and everything else became clear to him. And he became a witness to this and will remain so until the end of the world" (Radovic, 1991, p. 43)

In the same sermon Radovic referred to Velimirovic as the "witness to God, the seer of God, the knower of the Secrets and of Nature" (Radovic, 1991, p. 44).

The reputed divine origins of Velimirovic's gift reinforced his image as "God's prophet." As an article published in "Glas Crkve" in 1993 noted, Bishop Nikolaj was "a prophet of planetary dimensions" not simply because he could "predict the future" but because he was able to "read God's plan, understand the intentions of God's Providence, and, by following divine logic from start to finish, draw the intended conclusions" (Markovic, 1993, p. 26). The epiphany at Dachau provided this type of assertion with a supernatural point of origin and in doing so reinforced the belief that Velimirovic is not venerated merely as a theologian, writer, and an evangelist, but also as a mystic and an intercessor between Serbs and the Almighty. Controversially however, by linking the "Words to the Serbian People..." to the author's "profound enlightenment" in Dachau, the narrative of Velimirovic's prophetic gift imbued this controversial work with undeserved authority.

To be fair, in line with the general dynamic of repression that persists in representations of Velimirovic in mainstream Serbian Orthodox culture, when referring to his power of prophecy or his prison writing, those who represent the mainstream seldom mention the anti-Semitic dimension of the book. For the most part, Velimirovic's contempt for Jews, which stands at the core of the controversy surrounding his life, is sidelined. Tributes paid to the book and its prophetic character are by and large limited to the indictment of European secular culture and the condemnation of theSerbian people, whom Velimirovic saw as straying from the path of Christianity.

At the same time, the popularization of Velimirovic's prison writing as being "relevant to our times" and as a testament to all Serbs, guides the audience toward the widely available original text where anti-Semitic claims are candidly explicated. Moreover, the above-quoted sermon by Amfilohije Radovic directs potential readers to what is considered to be the most important message of the book, namely the identity of the "internal forces" behind European civilization which Velimirovic, as the "witness of God" exposes in his work. Although these "forces" remain unqualified in Radovic's speech, readers will inevitably link the maligned influence of modernity and Enlightenment to Jews, whom Velimirovic openly cites in the book as the clandestine force responsible for the failures of the Old Continent.

Also, in Serbian right-wing anti-Semitic literature, Velimirovic's power of prophecy is invoked directly to support overtly anti-Jewish claims. In the book "Western Ideological and Spiritual Poisoners," Ratibor Djurdjevic -- Serbia's most prolific writer of anti-Semitic material -- argues that what makes "Words to the Serbian People..". so important is that at Dachau, "inspired by the insights of the Prophets of Israel, the Bishop learned the most profound secret about all the tragic events and suffering: it was God's Judgment over the godless, the traitors, and those who despise Christ the Lord.... He considered it his holy duty to reveal God's will to the people." (Djurdjevic, 1997, p.11). These words echo mainstream Serbian Orthodox rhetoric, but are used in a way that promotes Velimirovic's reprehensible anti-Semitic claims, especially the assertion that the Holocaust represented divine retribution against the "godless" and "treacherous" Jews.

Finally, in recent months, in response to attacks on Velimirovic's reputation which accompanied the canonization, representatives of the Serbian church have found themselves under pressure to respond to allegations that the new saint's prison writing is blatantly anti-Semitic. The most commonly invoked apologist argument is that Velimirovic's stance toward the Jews belongs to a specific type of benign "theological" or "Biblical" anti-Semitism (Radovic, 2003; Rankovic, 2003b; Jevtic, 2003b). As Amfilohije Radovic explains, Velimirovic's statements about Jews were in fact "words of divine love" because Nikolaj "criticized those he loved, because he loved them." Radovic notes that "the bitter and crude things that Nikolaj said about his own Serbian people, about Europe, about the people of Israel" need to be understood in the "prophetic sense" as an attempt to "sober up those he addressed and return them to the path of Christ" (Radovic, 2003, p. 510). Predictably, Radovic reinforces his argument by reminding the readers that the controversial words were written in Dachau, where Velimirovic "SAW GOD" (Radovic, 2003, p. 511. Author's emphasis). Thus, Bishop Nikolaj's anti-Semitism is interpreted as being merely a reiteration of God's instruction to the "people of Israel" that they repent and return to the path of Christ. Underpinning this "defense" is one of the oldest premises of traditional Christian anti-Semitic rhetoric -- namely, that the Jews killed Christ and have drawn upon themselves eternal damnation that will end only when they accept Christian teachings. Although implicit rather than openly stated, this claim has become entrenched in the discourse surrounding Velimirovic's reputation. Its persistence obscures the boundaries between the mainstream and the fringe in Serbian religious politics and inadvertently legitimizes both the "Words to the Serbian People..." and contemporary anti-Semitic literature, where this argument is openly elaborated.

The parallel drawn between Velimirovic's anti-Semitic work and the words of the Bible, in the context of the recent polemic, also removes the bishop's controversial statements about Jews from their ideological roots in the political culture of the 1930s and links them to the "eternal truth" believed to be contained in the scriptures. Moreover, because of the assumed "Biblical" nature of his anti-Semitism and its alleged "divine origins," Velimirovic's stance toward Jews is made to appear not as an objectionable and obsolete political position, but as a theological matter that cuts to the bone of Christian belief. As a result, criticisms of Velimirovic from the liberal left are instantly dismissed by the church as malicious and spiteful attacks on Christianity as a whole. This way, the new saint's religious ideology remains unchallenged within the Serbian Orthodox Church; the controversy is swept under the carpet, while anti-Semitic themes continue to feature on the visible margins of religious discourse, perpetuated through the narratives of Velimirovic's sanctity.

Jovan Byford is lecturer in social psychology in the Department of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom.

*This article is part of a larger research project on the rehabilitation of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic in contemporary Serbian society funded by the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. The article is published with that institute's permission.


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