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Denial and Repression of Antisemitism

Jovan Byford

Chapter Six. Antisemitism as Prophecy

Social Construction of Velimirović’s Sanctity

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“When he prophesized—Nikolaj roared, when he prayed—Nikolaj healed, when he wrote—Nikolaj prophesized.” (Predrag Dragić-Kijuk, editor of the nationalist publication Književne Novine)

1On 19 May 2003, the Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church announced its “unanimous and undisputed decision” to “include the name of Nikolaj (Velimirović), bishop of Ohrid and Žiča, in the calendar of saints of the holy [Serbian] Orthodox Church.” The announcement stated that, in canonizing Bishop Velimirović, the Assembly “solemnly confirmed the widespread belief in his sanctity, which exists not only within the Serbian Church, but throughout the Orthodox World” (Information Service of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 2003b). The magnitude of the importance attributed to St Nikolaj of Ohrid and Žiča (sometimes also referred to as St Nikolaj of Lelić or even St Nikolaj of Serbia) was reflected in the decision to allocate two days in the church calendar to his veneration: March 18, the day of Velimirović’s death in exile in the United States in 1956; and May 3, the day in 1991 when his remains were brought back to Serbia, before being laid to rest in his native village of Lelić.

2The formal canonization ceremony was held at the Cathedral of St Sava in central Belgrade only five days after the initial announcement. The special liturgy was officiated by Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the presence of twenty-eight Serbian bishops and several thousand faithful. The sacred remains of the new saint were transported to Belgrade especially for this occasion and were displayed in an open casket to be worshipped by members of the public.

3Although the inauguration of Nikolaj Velimirović as Serbia’s seventy-seventh national saint came as a surprise to many journalists and commentators, the decision appears to have been premeditated and carefully planned. Several commemorative events were organized by the Serbian Church to coincide with the announcement. On May 14, five days before the canonization was declared, a museum exhibition devoted to Velimirović’s life and work, which had toured Serbia in the preceding months, opened in Belgrade in the presence of the Serbian patriarch and numerous high-ranking bishops. The patriarch’s speech at the opening ceremony hinted at the impending decision by the Assembly of Bishops in that the head of the Serbian Church—who was until then probably the only senior church official who consistently refused to refer to Velimirović as a saint—referred to him as the “Holy Bishop.” Also, the announcement concerning the canonization coincided with the publication of the much-publicized book Holy Bishop Nikolaj of Ohrid and Žiča (Jevtić, 2003a) and a luxury limited edition of Velimirović’s book Symbols of Faith.

4This chapter examines the campaign for Velimirović’s canonization which began in the 1980s and concluded in 2003. It will be suggested that while the cause for Velimirović’s canonization tended to overlook his antisemitism, certain constructions of the bishop’s holiness have been intrinsically tied to the controversy surrounding his earthly existence. This includes the claims that Velimirović had been graced with special mystical experiences and powers—those of epiphany, prophecy, and healing—which are regarded, within the Christian tradition, as important characteristics of saints. Building on the arguments developed in previous chapters, the analysis of Velimirović’s “path to sanctity” explores the ways in which the assertions about the “mystical” dimension of the bishop’s personal history endowed the antisemitic aspect of his ideology with almost divine significance and in doing so have helped to legitimize further the lamentable anti-Jewish invective found in Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window.

The first stage of the campaign for canonization: The making of a religious “cult”

5In the Orthodox Church, unlike in the Roman Catholic tradition, there are no formal procedures associated with canonization. Proclamation of saints is not preceded by a formal diocesan inquiry, sessions by the Congregation for the Causes for Canonization, or well-defined courses of action regarding the verification of miracles. Also, no distinction is made between “beatification” and “canonization.” The Orthodox churches are believed to follow the tradition of early Christendom, when canonization was the means by which ecclesiastical authorities simply formalized the veneration of a martyr or a confessor already worshipped as such by the wider community of faithful. Slobodan Mileusnić, curator of the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Church and one of the leading experts on Serbian saints, suggests for instance that “in contrast to the [Catholic] Western Church, which declares its saints through an almost administrative process, the Serbian Orthodox Church merely sanctions a cult that already exists.” According to canonical law, the cult of future saints manifests itself as “celebration and commemoration of [the Saint’s] deeds on Earth, prayers to the Saint as intercessor before God, daily worship of the Saint’s memory, and the building of churches in their name” (quoted in Grujić, 2000; see also Jevtić, 1987b; Lazarević, 2003; Mileusnić, 2003; J. Velimirović, 1991).

6The less stringent rules for canonization in the Orthodox world are regarded by many Serbian clerics as the only authentic and apposite practice of declaring saints. In 1987, Archimandrite Atanasije Jevtić dismissed formal procedures followed by the Vatican as “papal innovation” and “frivolity before God” (Jevtić, 1987b, p. 30). A year earlier, in a statement to the magazine Intervju, Jevtić rejected the rumors that the Serbian Church planned to canonize Velimirović by stating that “in the Orthodox tradition there had never been a special inauguration of saints,” but only the recognition of someone’s widespread veneration. He defined sanctity as a matter determined by “God and the people,” not by Church authorities (Z. Simić, 1986, p. 23). Similarly, in 1988, Bishop Jovan of Šabac and Valjevo explained that “our church does not declare someone a Saint so that people can celebrate them as such, but the other way round; people are the ones who pronounce someone a saint, and the church only formalizes that status” (J. Velimirović, 1991, p. 22).

7Because of the enduring and widespread belief that canonization represents little more than an ecclesiastical formality by means of which the church ratifies an existing cult, in the early stages of the social construction of Velimirović’s sanctity in the late 1980s Velimirović’s supporters invested considerable effort into demonstrating the existence of a “living cult” devoted to the bishop. Articles published in Glas Crkve and speeches delivered at commemorative ceremonies organized in Velimirović’s honor regularly emphasized the extensive veneration of Nikolaj among Serbs. Public gatherings, commemorations, celebrations, literary evenings, etc. that were part of the campaign for rehabilitation were routinely interpreted as evidence for the vast following that Velimirović has among the Serbian people. Although most of these events were organized by the pro-Velimirović clique within the Serbian Church, and were attended by a small proportion of the public, they were nonetheless flagged as reflecting the “will of the people,” and as manifestations of the overwhelming public adulation of the bishop.

8Also, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, campaigners for Velimirović’s canonization seldom presented the alleged cult surrounding the bishop’s name as a new development. The veneration of the bishop was construed as the continuation of a longer tradition dating back to the 1950s. In fact, as early as in 1945, and therefore eleven years before Velimirović’s death, an icon bearing his image was painted on the walls of a church in the village of Rataje, near the town of Aleksandrovac (see Jevtić, 2003a). Bishop Jovan Velimirović noted that in the immediate aftermath of his uncle’s death, Serbian and Russian emigre communities in the US, as well as nuns and monks from a number of rural Serbian monasteries—most notably from Ovčara, Vračevšnice, and Ćelije—instantly recognized Velimirović’s sanctity and prayed to him as a Man of God, thereby sowing the seeds of his mass following (J. Velimirović, 1991; also Jevtić, 1987b). In a public lecture before students at the University of Belgrade in December 2004, Irinej Dobrijević (currently bishop of Australia and New Zealand) revealed that Nikolaj was regarded a saint among the Serbian diaspora in the United States as early as the 1970s. Apparently, monks at the Russian St Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan (Pennsylvania), where Velimirović died, remembered and venerated him as “St Nikolaj of South Canaan.” The veneration in the United States was evidently not limited to a single monastery: in the Serbian Orthodox Church of Holy Trinity in the town of Parma in Ohio, there is a fresco bearing the title “Synaxis of the Saints of North America” on which Nikolaj is depicted as “St Nicholas of South Canaan.” However, according to information which I obtained from St Tikhon’s Monastery, the title “St Nikolaj of South Canaan” although not entirely unknown, is rarely used there. Moreover, monks at this monastery have been celebrating Nikolaj Velimirović’s sanctity only for the past ten years or so, rather than since the 1970s as Dobrijević suggested.

9Accounts of the origins of the cult surrounding Velimirović’s name regularly cite Father Justin Popović as playing a key role in its creation. Popović is said to have mourned Bishop Nikolaj and prayed for his soul only on the first three days after his death. On the fourth day he prayed to him as a saint and intercessor before God. Popović’s authority on the matter of Velimirović’s saintliness is reflected in the following words of Bishop Amfilohije Radović: “If he [Justin Popović] who knew so much about sanctity through knowledge and experience felt that he was dealing with a holy man [Velimirović], then what can the rest of us, of much lesser spiritual importance and experience claim to know?” (A. Radović, 1987, p. 29).

10The earliest efforts in the drive for canonization occurred in and around Velimirović’s native diocese of Šabac and Valjevo, where his cult following was greatest. In 1982, clergy from this diocese celebrated Nikolaj in a ceremony traditionally reserved for saints. This was a prelude to the key event in the campaign for canonization which took place five years later. In March 1987, on the thirty-first anniversary of the bishop’s death—at an event led by Bishops Jovan Velimirović and Amfilohije Radović—Nikolaj was informally canonized. March 18, the day of his death, was declared a religious holiday in the diocese. An article published shortly afterward in Glas Crkve—whose editors promptly adopted “Holy Bishop Nikolaj” as the journal’s patron saint—applauded the informal nature of this act and relished in its spontaneous and populist character. The article emphasized the following:

The bishop’s canonization was not declared from the pulpit, it was not a spiteful reaction, a provoked reflex, but the desire of the whole of the Serbian nation. Those several hundred people, gathered in the churchyard, were the ones who canonized the bishop. They did so in the manner and in the spirit of ancient Christian tradition, in the same way that other Serbian saints from St Simeon to St Sava had been canonized. That spontaneous and sublime act, inspired by God, points towards another, if not the most important moment, the potential of the whole of the Serbian nation for revitalization and as such it provides further proof of its spiritual values. (“Kandilo pred ikonom,” 1987, p. 26)

11In an interview published shortly after the informal canonization, Archimandrite Atanasije Jevtić reiterated these sentiment when he argued confidently that “one thing which is not disputed, and should not be disputed, is the holiness of the person of Nikolaj Velimirović.” He defended the controversial act by the diocese of Šabac and Valjevo (in which he and other nationalist clerics played no small part) as being “consistent with the centuries long tradition of the Orthodox Church” (Jevtić, 1987b, p. 31). In invoking the ancient Christian tradition, Jevtić and the editors of Glas Crkve were alluding to the customs of Early Christendom, especially in the period between the 4th and 11th century, when canonization throughout the Christian world was the prerogative of lesser church authorities, namely of local bishops (Freze, 1991; Woodward, 1991).

12While the legitimacy of the informal canonization remained the topic of some dispute, the event had a notable practical and political objective. It helped to promote, institutionalize, and in some sense reify the alleged cult surrounding Velimirović’s name. Albeit unauthorized by the synod or the Assembly of Bishops, the canonization legitimized the emerging practices of referring to Velimirović as the “Holy Bishop,” the production of religious icons bearing his image, and even the building of chapels and churches in his honor. Also, this contentious decision by the clergy of a single diocese was flagged as the “first step on the road to [full] canonization” (J. Velimirović, 1991, p. 22). Thus, the events of March 1987 can be said to have been not just a spontaneous act of reverence, but also a calculated attempt to put pressure on the higher church authorities to consider what was identified as the “will of the people” and formally declare Bishop Nikolaj a national saint.

Canonization in the Orthodox Church and the need for divine confirmation of sanctity

13Two years after the informal canonization in the diocese of Šabac and Valjevo, the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Western Europe, Lavrentije Trifunović, submitted a formal request to the Assembly 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 Velimirović] to be canonized as a saint” (cited in Janković, 2003, p. 491). Predictably, the wording of the petition echoed the assumption that formal canonization was 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.” Trifunović’s petition also cautioned that the failure by the church to recognize the widespread belief in Velimirović’s sanctity would “create an insurmountable gap between our people and the highest authorities of the Serbian Church” (Janković, 2003, p. 491).

14Velimirović’s followers within the church seemed confident in the success of the petition. A few days after addressing the Assembly of Bishops with the request for Velimirović’s canonization, Lavrentije Trifunović was instated as the bishop in Velimirović’s native diocese of Šabac and Valjevo. One of Trifunović’s first projects in the new diocese was to erect a monastery dedicated to Velimirović near the ancient settlement of Soko. The great urgency with which this complex and expensive building venture was embarked upon was justified on the grounds that “the Holy Synod will canonize this monk of the Orthodox spirit [Velimirović] in the very near future” (cited in Janković, 2003, p. 582).

15A year later, however, on November 29, 1990, a commission tasked with investigating the issue of Velimirović’s sanctity, headed by the newly elected Patriarch Pavle, rejected the request for canonization. Without dismissing outright Bishop Lavrentije’s basic premise concerning Velimirović’s reputation among the faithful, Patriarch Pavle called for patience and argued that the matter should not be “forced” or “rushed” (cited in Janković, 2003, p. 558). The cautious approach to Velimirović’s status as a saint was justified on theological grounds, but also revealed reservations that were of a political nature.

16Patriarch Pavle argued that Velimirović’s canonization must come about for the right reasons. It must not be merely an act of vengeance for the injustice done to Velimirović by the communist authorities after the war. The report implicitly rejected the argument, often put forward by Velimirović’s supporters, that canonization ought to be the church’s response to the “blasphemies, stupidities, and political manipulations regarding [Velimirović’s] name” (“Kandilo pred ikonom,” 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” (Janković, 2003, p. 559).

17In voicing his commitment to “canonical principles,” the patriarch was effectively reminding the Assembly 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, Velimirović had displayed “certain human weaknesses” which undermined his status as a saint (Janković, 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 Velimirović’s smoking habit for which he was well-known among his contemporaries. It is indicative that a relatively minor vice such as smoking was considered the biggest blemish on Velimirović’s saintly reputation. The fact that the patriarch did not mention the far more controversial antisemitic political opinions as a relevant flaw is illustrative of the way in which the controversy surrounding the bishop’s politics is repressed within the Serbian Church.

18And yet, the patriarch’s response to the petition did not maintain that Velimirović’s “human weaknesses” disqualified him from sainthood indefinitely. He noted that “various weaknesses which [Nikolaj Velimirović’s] had as a man, but which he cast aside through spiritual enlightenment, are still visible, like the morning mist. And just as the rising sun dispels the fog and becomes brighter and brighter, so the sanctity of the Holy grows with the passage of time. One should allow time to dispel the mist, and wait for calmer times when with God’s blessing, the Saint’s holiness will be confirmed” (Janković, 2003, p. 558).

19Therefore, the head of the Serbian Church proposed that canonization be postponed until positive aspects of the bishop’s life had eradicated the “weaknesses” from popular memory. Significantly, he also mentioned that Velimirović had already divested himself of most of his sins during his lifetime through “spiritual enlightenment.” In that sense, the patriarch’s doubts about the bishop’s virtues appear somewhat equivocal and can be said to have been part of the broader argument against “hasty decisions” regarding the canonization and in favor of “patience.”

20More 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.” “Divine confirmation” of sanctity would constitute proof that the alleged popular veneration of Nikolaj Velimirović existed for the right reasons, reasons that were not of man’s but of God’s making. A sign from God would provide a “stamp of approval” on the life and virtues of a servant of God, and provide “proof” of the saint’s intercessory powers (Freze, 1991).

21The 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 written in 1905 by the Serbian Bishop Nikodim Milaš (1845–1915) states 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” (Milaš, 1999). In a book published in 1998, Patriarch Pavle also listed the criteria for sainthood as including “that they suffered as martyrs for the Christian faith, that their life was irreproachable, that their intercession was confirmed with known miracles which occurred during their lifetime or after death” (Patriarch Pavle, 1998, p. 128). Thus, before Velimirović could be canonized, it had to be demonstrated either that the bishop acted posthumously as an intercessor before God, or that during his lifetime the Lord had graced him with supernatural gifts.

22Although in the late 1980s Velimirović’s supporters placed relatively little attention to miracles associated with the bishop—compared to the emphasis on his widespread cult following and personal evangelical virtues—this is not to say that they were oblivious to this canonical requirement. During the official sermon delivered on the occasion on Velimirović’s informal canonization in 1987—in which he was effectively making a case for Bishop Nikolaj’s assumed sanctity—Bishop Amfilohije Radović revealed that he and Atanasije Jevtić had personally witnessed one such miracle, in the United States in the 1970s:

I would like to confess and testify with great joy about something that happened to me sixteen years ago. In 1970 I visited, in the company of Father Atanasije, who is here with us today, our monastery of St Sava in Libertyville in America. Together with our school friend Father Dragoljub Malić, we drove a thousand kilometers to get to Libertyville with the sole purpose of worshipping Nikolaj’s tomb, which holds his holy remains—the wonderful gift to the American continent—and to hold a brief service by the grave. We arrived early in the morning, it was quite misty, a quiet dew was forming. Father Atanasije led the service, the two of us sang. No one else was there—in the monastery or around it. The monastery was shut, there was complete silence. And while we sang, from somewhere a soothing melody could be heard. It was as if a strange choir was singing. The melody reached us in waves, I was unsure whether from the monastery or from elsewhere. This lasted for the duration of the service at Bishop Nikolaj’s grave. I asked myself: “Is this for real or am I imagining it?” However, under the impression of the melody, which had been angelic rather than human, delight and a wonderful unique happiness took over my soul. Suddenly I thought: “You see, the gracious Holy Bishop wants to reward our small effort and the fact that we traveled from afar to pay him this visit.” […] However, I said nothing about this to the others. It was only on our journey back, somewhere half way, that our driver, Father Dragoljub said: “Fathers, did you hear anything while we held the service at the bishop’s grave?” We asked him “What?” —“I swear that a choir sang at the grave, one like I have never experienced before.” Then I said: “You know, I was afraid to say anything , but I heard and felt the same thing during the service.” Many years have passed since then, but today I feel with my whole being that this was a wonderful divine gift to me and my sinful soul, a gift from Bishop Nikolaj, whom I loved from the very first encounter with his written word. Clearly, the new Serbian educator wanted to comfort me and make me happy. (A. Radović, 1987, p. 33)

23In considering Bishop Lavrentije’s petition three years later, the patriarch of the Serbian Church evidently chose to ignore Radović’s and Jevtić’s mystical experience in Libertyville, or at least did not regard it as sufficient justification for formal canonization. There are several possible reasons for this. Firstly, the patriarch may have regarded the two clerics as too involved in the campaign to constitute reliable witnesses to a genuine miracle. Secondly, he may have chosen to ignore it because doing so suited his overall political reservation regarding the canonization. Finally, the miracle itself does not rate very highly in the hierarchy of miracles in Orthodox hagiology. In the Orthodox world, the most highly regarded miracles are associated with the incorruptibility of a saint’s remains, or miracles associated with religious icons such as the leaking of holy oil from images of saints. Nonetheless, the event in Libertyville in 1970 continues to be invoked in the discourse surrounding Velimirović’s sanctity. For instance, in a statement to the weekly news magazine NIN in May 2003, art historian and member of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences Dejan Medaković explained that “miracles are often linked with Saints” and that “we know of some miracles on Nikolaj’s grave” (Andrejević, 2003).

Finding the “right” miracle: Incorruptibility of remains and miraculous icons

24Because 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 the case of Nikolaj Velimirović, the patriarch’s reference to the requirement for divine confirmation of sanctity did not result in an epidemic of miracles of the scale described by Krivulyin. Nonetheless, some miraculous events have been reported since 1990, including those referring to the incorruptibility of Velimirović’s posthumous remains and miracles associated with icons representing his image.

25According to the Orthodox canonical law, the incorruptibility of the holy remains (or mošti) and the presence of an unusual, pleasant scent emanating from the corpse are seen as a divine “sign,” which confirms the Holy status of the venerated Man of God. For this reason, in the Orthodox world, the holy remains of saints are often displayed in monasteries, partially draped, in open caskets to be worshiped by pilgrims. The strength of belief in the incorruptibility of holy remains is reflected in fact that (according to a story told to me by deacon Radoš Mladenović) when Velimirović’s remains were brought from Libertyville in 1991, and were taken to the monastery in Žiča, monks secretly broke the locks on the sealed coffin, in order to discover whether Velimirović’s body had decomposed. Although they found no sign of incorruptibility, Velimirović’s mošti (including the finger kept behind the altar in the chapel in Kraljevo, see Chapter 2) are venerated by the Orthodox faithful as saintly. Furthermore, some followers have reported that the remains emit the saintly scent. Milan Bates, leader of the St. Justin the Philosopher Association of Students, mentioned the following experience during the interview:

I was in Lelić; it was when the Holy remains of Bishop Nikolaj were brought there from Libertyville. I attended a liturgy, and they usually say that the remains of a saint which are […] they say they are mirotočive, they release a scent which is inexplicable, which emanates from [the remains] which are incorruptible. I can only speak from my own experience, simply that every time during the liturgy—because I was there, right next to the remains of Bishop Nikolaj—every time the tropar, that is the prayer for the bishop, was sung, the remains released a scent of sweet basil, incense, of that holy chrism which does not exist and cannot be manufactured. It is a miracle that proves God’s presence in the world…

26A miraculous event of a different kind was reported in 1999 in the religious journal Sv. Knez Lazar, published by the diocese of Raška and Prizren. The miracle, which allegedly occurred in the Monastery of St Archangel in Prizren, in Kosovo, shortly after the arrival of NATO troops in June 1999 was described in a short testimony by the local bishop Artemije Radosavljević. The account of the miracle, published under the title “The miracle of Bishop Nikolaj” was originally conveyed to Radosavljević by a novice from the monastery, named Dobrivoje, who witnessed the following event:

One day I was sitting on the balcony with two KFOR guards, (Germans by nationality). One of them said he believed in God, the other stated that he did not […] Several days later, the one “who did not believe” asked me to come to the chapel and sing something because he “liked to listen.” I sang a hymn to the Mother of God. When I had finished, I looked at the soldier, and he seemed all hysterical, and anxious. I asked him what was going on. He said “He looked at me!” “Who did?” I asked. “Him,” he answered and pointed at the icon of Bishop Nikolaj on the iconostasis. “How?” I asked. “While you were singing he turned his eyes towards me, and then turned them back to how they are now.” When he had regained his composure he said: “Until now I did not believe, but from now on, when I go back home, I will regularly go to church.” God really is beautiful when seen through his Saints. (A. Radosavljević, 1999, p. 14)

27Although these and similar stories of miracles are part of the overall discourse surrounding Velimirović’s sanctity, they were relatively peripheral to the actual cause for the bishop’s canonization. As we are about to see, the key miracle cited in the charter which formally declared Nikolaj a saint was not related so much to posthumous miraculous deeds, but to the mystical aspects of Velimirović’s earthly existence, which emphasized his qualities as a confessor and Man of God. These refer to what are said to be the bishop’s “special charisms” or divine capabilities—namely epiphany, prophecy, and healing.

The bishop who came “face to face with the living God”: Velimirović and the miracle of epiphany

28The inclusion of Nikolaj Velimirović 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.” Canonization would be little more than “a proclamation of something that already exists in the life and practice of the faithful” (cited in Jevtić, 2003a, p. 306). On the other hand, the new petition also reflected on the requirement for divine confirmation. The signatories noted that Velimirović 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” (ibid.). This claim appears to have been accepted by the Assembly of Bishops, which recognized in the formal Canonization Charter that the new saint “had been celebrated by God through splendid omens” (Janković, 2003, p. 589).

29Although the act of canonization was accompanied by the acknowledgment that Velimirović’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 of canonical law. Given the political aspect of his rehabilitation in the 1980s, Velimirović’s canonization was always going to be a matter of ecclesiastical politics rather than one of strictly canonical considerations, and the debate over what constitutes the “right” miracle. 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. Therefore, the success of the petition for canonization filed in 2003 needs to be examined primarily in the context of the ideological warfare between the Church and the liberal public over the memory of Bishop Nikolaj, which intensified after 2000. Deacon Radoš Mladenović, who helped organize the symposium during which the petition was drafted, mentioned several times during our conversation in the summer of 2003 that canonization was a gesture of defiance, in the face of rising tide of criticism: “They attacked him, and we responded with canonization.” Importantly however, as the patriarch’s reasoning in 1990 revealed, in affairs of the church, political points must be presented as theologically justified, and in the case of canonization as acts of God. Branislav Skrobonja, editor of the magazine Glas Kosova i Metohije, explained in an article published in Danas in 2002 that “people can declare someone anything they like, but only God, he who forgives and who punishes, can declare someone a saint.” Skrobonja argued that in Orthodox Christianity (unlike in Roman Catholicism) sanctity is not decided by “congregations and ministries,” but by “miracles associated with holy remains or miracles that follow prayers” (Skrobonja, 2002). Also, in the Orthodox Church, the declaration of saints—which usually takes place during the meeting of the Assembly of Bishops—is preceded by the act of Epiclesis, or the invocation of the Holy Spirit, to whose divine influence any decision is ultimately attributed. Thus, part of the canonization process involves the “theologization” of arguments, and the construction of an inherently political decision as emanating from God and the Holy Spirit. At the same time, as will become apparent, irrespective of the political struggles and goings-on behind the scenes which ultimately led to the decision to canonize Velimirović, the public representations of sanctity advanced in the context of the cause for his canonization are themselves revealing. The “theologization” of the decision taken by the Assembly of Bishops in May 2003 carries significant ideological implications with regards to the controversy surrounding Velimirović’s work.

30Bishop Nikolaj’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 above all to a second-hand account provided in the 1950s by a Russian nun, Milica (sometimes also referred to as Sofija) Zernov, who befriended Velimirović during his years in exile in the United States. It is interesting that Velimirović himself alluded to the mystical experience at Dachau when he told the Chicago Herald American in April 1946 that he “discovered God in the Nazi Hell-camp of Dachau” (“Bishop Reveals Persecution of Church under Tito Regime,” 1946, p. 30). The Anglican bishop of Chichester, George Bell, also mentions in his diaries that when speaking of “his years of imprisonment in concentration camps [sic], [Velimirović] spoke of God’s presence with him in prison, of the angels, and of his real experience of God’s care and love” (cited in Heppell, 2001, p. 92). However, over the past twenty years, it is Zernov’s recollection of Velimirović’s interpretation of the epiphany that has taken centre stage in the narrative of Velimirović’s encounter with God. It has been published numerous times in religious publications and continues to be mentioned in speeches and sermons devoted to Bishop Nikolaj (see Jevtić, 2003a, pp. 306–307; A. Radosavljević, 1986). For instance, in a sermon delivered in 1987, Bishop Amfilohije Radović explained the following:

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 endure the gaze of the bishop’s eyes, the eyes of a man who had encountered God. (A. Radović, 1987, p. 33)

31Traditionally, Christian mysticism views such experiences where “the soul is momentarily caught up in the divine presence, oblivious to his or her natural surroundings” and when “God infuses superior knowledge into the mind and soul” and “reveals divine mysteries” as manifestations of a “special charisma”—an unusual gift that provides evidence that the beneficiary had been touched by the hand of God (Freze, 1991, p. 51). As such, it is seen as a “mark of credentials” of saintly figures. Crucially however, in early accounts of Velimirović’s mystical experience in Dachau, including the above quotation, the epiphany was not invoked as evidence that divine grace had been bestowed upon the Serbian bishop. Instead, it was used to portray Velimirović 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. The account by sister Zernov was part of the overall narrative of Velimirović’s martyrdom at Dachau, examined in Chapter 3.

32In the context of the campaign for canonization, however, and especially in the aftermath of the patriarch’s call for the divine confirmation of Bishop Nikolaj’s sanctity, the epiphany gradually came to be used specifically to build the bishop’s credibility as the beneficiary of divine intervention. The alleged encounter with the Almighty at Dachau emerged in hagiographic narratives as a central life event that transformed Velimirović into a true mystic, miracle-maker, and a Man of God. This is not surprising, given that, within the Christian world, heavenly visions and apparitions of the kind described by Zernov are widely believed to 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).

33In some accounts, the epiphany was said to have turned Velimirović into a healer. In 1988, in a speech in which he pleaded for Velimirović’s canonization, Bishop Jovan of Šabac 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.” (J. Velimirović, 1991, p. 25).

34In the same speech, Bishop Jovan reiterated his belief in Velimirović’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” (p. 22). In a recent book, Protopresbyter Milan Janković suggested that “there is written evidence of a number of miraculous healings associated with his saintly prayers” (Janković, 2004, p. 42; a number of accounts of healing can be found in Janković, 2003, p. 576). During the interview for this book, Deacon Radoš Mladenović also alluded to the healing properties of Bishop Nikolaj’s remains. Mladenović explained, how in 1991, following the transportation of Velimirović’s remains back to Serbia, a group of nuns was tasked with the washing of the body with red wine, as required by protocol. The nuns are said to have packed the dust from the coffin “into small parcels,” which they distributed to the sick and the disabled “as a blessing for healing.”

35The miracle mentioned by Bishop Jovan, about the events in Vienna, was first chronicled in 1969, in a little-known book by Stefan Čakić, a Serbian priest from the Austrian city of Graz. Čakić recounted the anecdote in an article in Glas Crkve in 1986, and again in 1987, thereby reviving Velimirović’s image as a healer. Čakić explained:

The event took place in Vienna, in the Orthodox Church of St Sava, in the autumn of 1944, when, under heavy German guard, Bishop Nikolaj, together with patriarch Gavrilo Dožić, was being taken to Dachau. Nikolaj was brought to the Church to say a prayer to God and St Sava for his oppressed people. The woman’s name was Natalija Stanić, and she was a sexton and a singer at the church. Bishop Nikolaj placed his cross above her, rubbed in some holy oil, and said, “May it be according to your faith, and the prayers for the Holy Father St Nicholas.” He cured her of her illness, something that not even doctors had been able to do […] Yes, yes, our great Bishop Nikolaj was not only our most respected theologian and writer and unsurpassed orator, our most famous church dignitary, but also a miracle maker and a healer, and only Saints can do that, those ordained with Saintly halos. (Čakić 1987, pp. 76–77; the original testimony published in 1986, which contains identical claims, appears in Janković, 2003; p. 577)

36Since the reappearance of Čakić’s claim in 1986, the instance of healing has been recounted many times in Church publications. However, among the various and often very detailed versions of the story, some discrepancy has arisen regarding the nature of the woman’s predicament (that is, whether it was a physical or a mental illness), and more importantly regarding the date of the miracle’s occurrence. Čakić’s original testimony places the event in “the autumn of 1944,” when Velimirović and Dožić were being taken to Dachau. Most subsequent accounts, including that told by Bishop Jovan in 1988, place the event after the spell at the camp. According to Deacon Ljubomir Ranković, for instance, Velimirović “cured a seriously ill woman” in Vienna in “early 1945” (Ranković, 2003a). During the interview, Ranković described it as taking place “on the way back from Dachau.” The reason why the event appears to have been “relocated” to after the spell at the camp is because, in the context of the construction of the bishop’s saintly credentials, the account of healing became assimilated into the story of the epiphany. As in the aforementioned speech by Bishop Jovan, the two events were incorporated into a coherent causal narrative: Velimirović became a healer because he saw God in Dachau.

Velimirović as a “prophet”: The construction of the “Serbian Jeremiah”

37The tale of Velimirović’s encounter with God in Dachau and the alleged miracle-making which is so often causally linked to the epiphany, 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, namely the notorious Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window. As was noted in earlier chapters, the principal message of Velimirović’s notes from Dachau is that World War II was the inevitable consequence of the secularization of “godless Europe.” In the book, first published in Germany in 1985 by the then Bishop of Western Europe, Lavrentije Trifunović, Velimirović also attributed the tragic fate of Serbs during the war to their betrayal of God and Christian traditions in favor of the much-maligned European culture.

38Following its publication, Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window instantly captured the imagination of Velimirović’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” (Komnenić, 1991, p. 49). In 1993, an article published in Glas Crkve referred to “the Bishop’s prophecies,” which contained a “warning about the sinfulness of Western civilization and of the Serbian people should they remain tied to it” (Marković, 1993, p. 26).

39Because of the assumed prophetic nature of the book, Velimirović was compared with 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. In a speech delivered at the commemoration in Lelić in 1989, Vuk Drašković articulated the comparison as follows:

I would like to focus today on Nikolaj the accuser. On what one might call his Jeremiah’s lamentation in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, when the prisoner from Lelić, painfully engrossed in the tragedy and destruction of his people, asked himself: Are Serbs responsible for the apocalypse that has befallen us… We have schools without faith, politics without honesty, army without the unity of spirit, state without God’s blessing—so accuses our Berdyaev, our Jeremiah. (Drasković, 1989, p. 71).

40Similarly, theologian Radovan Bigović notes that “at moments, [Velimirović] 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” (Bigović, 1993, p. 45). Atanasije Jevtić referred to Velimirović as “a genuine patriot, but also a prophet, akin to what Moses or Jeremiah were to the Jewish people” (Jevtić, 1988, p. 19; also Jevtić, 1986a, p. 12). Đorđe Janić (1994) notes that “even without knowing of all the crimes against Serbs which had taken place during World War II, in Dachau he was writing down his thoughts which resemble Jeremiah’s grieving over the fate of the Jewish people” (p. 31).

41The claims about Velimirović’s prophetic gift were not confined to his writing at Dachau. George Bell made a reference to Velimirović’s status as prophet at a memorial service held in September 1956 at the Church of St Sava in London. Bishop Bell concluded his tribute with the following words: “A marvellous man, yes. A great patriot, yes. But he was more than that. He was a prophet of God, not only of God’s mercy, but of God’s judgment” (cited in Heppell, 2001, p. 93). In a recent booklet on Nikolaj Velimirović, Protopresbyter Milan Janković (2004) justifies the bishop’s inclusion into the Diptych of Serbian Saints by citing his “prophetic words” uttered shortly before his death in 1956, in which Velimirović predicts that the fall of communism would lead to a civil war in which Serbs would experience “a terrible tragedy” because of the absence of a clear national program. The atrocities would be perpetrated by Croats, who would receive support from the Vatican while the Pope would once again “silence the friendly Anglo-Saxons and give his blessing to the slaughter of Serbs” (p. 42). This “warning to Serbian patriots” had already received some publicity in 1992, at the time of the war in Croatia, when it was also hailed as “prophetic” and published on the front page of the magazine Pravoslavlje (“Proročka reč Vladike Nikolaja: Opomena Srbima rodoljubima,” 1992). The editors of Pravoslavlje saw the “warning”—which was marked “confidential” by its author—as especially relevant, given that it revealed that “Serbia is once again under threat from all four corners of the world.”

42The references to Velimirović’s power of prophecy, and the resulting comparison with Jeremiah, were for the most part metaphorical. Velimirović was said to have been “akin” to Jeremiah, to “resemble” the Old Testament prophet, and “remind us” of him. And yet some Church dignitaries and commentators interpreted the bishop’s words as being “prophetic” in the original Biblical sense. This is because the explanation of Velimirović’s gift of prophecy became integrated into the widely available story of the epiphany at Dachau. Just as Jeremiah is said to have acquired his gift when “the Lord reached out his hand” (Jer. 1:8) and graced him with the divine ability to foresee the future, Velimirović’s power of prophesy, manifested above all in his most controversial book, was also believed to have resulted from the visitation from God in Dachau. In 1991, Bishop Amfilohije Radović offered the following account of Velimirović’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. (A. Radović, 1991, p. 43)

43In the same sermon, Radović referred to Velimirović as the “witness to God, the seer of God, the knower of the Secrets and of Nature” (p. 44).

44The reputed divine origins of Velimirović’s gift reinforced his image as “God’s prophet.” The aforementioned article published in Glas Crkve in 1993 noted that 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” (Marković, 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 Velimirović is not venerated merely as a theologian, writer and evangelist, but also as a mystic and an intercessor between Serbs and the Almighty.

45Controversially, however, by linking the Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window to the author’s “profound enlightenment” in Dachau, the narrative of Velimirović’s prophetic gift imbued this controversial work with undeserved value and celestial authority. Historian Bora Karapandžić for instance spoke of Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window as a book “based on God’s Revelation” (speech delivered in Cleveland, Ohio in 1987, cited in Janković, 2002b, p. 204).

46Until recently, when representatives of the mainstream of Serbian Orthodox culture referred to Velimirović’s power of prophecy manifested in the prison writing, they seldom mentioned the antisemitic dimension of the book. In line with the general dynamic of repression, the bishop’s contempt for Jews was sidelined. Tributes paid to the prophetic character of Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window were by and large limited to the indictment of European secular culture and the condemnation of the Serbian people whom Velimirović saw as straying from the path of Christianity. As we have seen in the previous chapter, any focus on the controversial passages from this book tended to be dismissed as being taken “out of context.”

47At the same time, the popularization of Velimirović’s prison writing as a prophetic work “relevant to our times” and as a testament to all Serbs inevitably guided the audience towards the original text where antisemitic claims are candidly explicated. Moreover, the above quoted sermon by Amfilohije Radović directed 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 Velimirović, as the “witness of God,” exposes in his work. Although these “forces” remained unqualified in Radović’s speech, some readers would have inevitably linked the maligned influence of modernity and enlightenment to Jews, whom Velimirović openly cites in the book as the clandestine force responsible for the failures of the Old Continent.

48Also, however much mainstream writers sidelined the topic of antisemitism, authors of Serbian right-wing antisemitic literature published over the past two decades endeavored to capitalize on the claims regarding Velimirović’s power of prophecy and invoked them directly to support overtly anti-Jewish claims. In the book Western Ideological and Spiritual Poisoners, Ratibor Đurđević (1997) argues that what makes Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window such an important work 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” (p. 11). These words echo the rhetoric of Radović’s 1991 speech, but are used by Đurđević to promote Velimirović’s most reprehensible antisemitic claims, including the assertion that the Holocaust represented divine retribution against the “godless” and “treacherous” Jews.

49Whatever differences existed between the ways in which the mainstream Orthodox culture and the wilder reaches of the Christian Right invoked Velimirović’s prophetic gift, they all but disappeared around the time of the canonization. In his contribution to the edited book that accompanied the canonization, Bishop Amfilohije Radović made a direct causal link between the antisemitic dimension of Words to the Serbian People Through the Dungeon Window and the story of the epiphany, not dissimilar to that which appears in the works of Ratibor Đurđević. Radović substantiated the claim about the “prophetic” nature of Velimirović’s “harsh words” addressed to, among others, the “people of Israel” (see previous chapter) by reminding the readers that the new saint spent time in Dachau where he “saw God” and became a person who “knows God” (A. Radović, 2003, p. 511, original emphasis). These four words were the only ones in the eight-page article that were printed in bold type, suggesting that Radović (or Atanasije Jevtić who edited the book) considered them as deserving special attention. It is as if they wanted to make it clear that whatever Nikolaj Velimirović wrote in Dachau, even his most controversial message to his people, was the result of his encounter with God, and was therefore beyond dispute. This conclusion was in many ways a logical extension of the rhetoric of interpretative denial examined in the previous chapter. The story of the epiphany gave the assumed “Biblical” nature of Velimirović’s antisemitism divine origins. Velimirović’s antisemitic diatribes described as “mere repetition” of the words of God, became treated as literally the word of God, revealed to Holy Bishop Nikolaj during the mystical experience at Dachau.

50The social construction of Bishop Nikolaj’s sanctity and the way in which it is represented in contemporary ecclesiastical discourse provides an additional example of the way in which the rhetorics of repression and denial, which have become a fundamental feature of the remembrance of Nikolaj Velimirović, have distorted the boundaries between the mainstream and the extreme in Serbian Orthodox culture. When it comes to the topic of antisemitism, the apologist rhetoric has stripped the ideological position traditionally reserved for the radical Christian Right of negative connotations and has assimilated extremism into the mainstream of Serbian Orthodox culture. Most harmfully, by linking the divine proof of Velimirović’s blessedness with his most controversial work, apologetics for antisemitism features not just in narratives of the bishop’s life, but also in the routine celebration of his sanctity.

© Central European University Press, 2008

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