3 May is the feast of St. Nikolai Velimirovitch, Bishop of Zice. On this day in 1991, his relics were transferred to his native Serbia, the Chetinje Monastery in his hometown Lelic, as he had wished during his lifetime, from St Savva's Monastery in Libertyville, Illinois, where he was buried in 1956.
Everyone in Serbia recognises him by name. He is deeply respected as an eminent preacher, exceptional writer, outstanding thinker, Christian peacebuilder and charismatic church leader. For every Serb, he is like a spiritual father. But a true saint reaches out to every soul, everywhere. So did St. Nikolai Velimirovitch, whose life and teachings touched the heart of every Christian. His love for his people was unending, but he had no less affection for everyone else. He recognised the image of God in everyone who came his way and was a model of God's mercy for all people.
He lived through a trying time in his homeland's history. Wars and foreign occupations claimed many lives and sparked much unrest. When he was a little boy, Serbia had just begun to create its state after reclaiming it from the Turks. But the "Ubermenschen of the new Rome" were on their way to take their place, as the saint later wrote. They were subjects and legionnaires of Europe's new Ceasars, prepared to start a fresh war out of resentment and a craving for power.
When the world around them is falling into an abyss of "infinite weariness, despair, and death," how can a person or a country maintain God's peace in its beauty, unity, and diversity? He set an example for everyone, showing that the only way to achieve it is by giving one's life to God.
He was born in a remote mountain village to pious parents. He shared a home with more than thirty members of his extended family. His kin led a life that was full of trials and risks, just like all the other peasants. Tradition has it that little Nikolai was abducted by a band of thugs, and his life was only spared by a sniper shot from his uncle, a soldier who had returned home on leave. Due to wars, none of his eight siblings lived to adulthood, and he, the firstborn, was not in excellent health.
Nikolai was nevertheless a top student at grammar school. After graduation, he applied to a military school because, like most young people in his generation, he wanted to dedicate his life to serving his people and his nation. He was turned down because of his poor health, so he enrolled in the Belgrade Seminary, where he distinguished himself with his achievements in academics and prayer life. After leaving the seminary, he worked as a teacher in rural schools for several years before going to study abroad.
Nikolai earned his doctorate in theology in Berne, Switzerland. At the age of twenty-nine, in 1909, St. Nikolai completed his PhD work in philosophy at Oxford. The following summer, in Geneva, he defended his second doctorate in French.
But God sent him a trial that made him reconsider his view of service. In the autumn of 1909, he fell very ill and vowed to God that if he recovered, he would become a monk and aid God's people. As a result, a doctor of philosophy became a simple monk, and he accepted the transition with tremendous humility. On December 20, 1909, he received his ordination to the priesthood. Soon, he was elevated to the rank of Archimandrite and assigned to teach at the Seminary of St. Sava in Belgrade. The saint explained, "I wanted to be a shepherd. Now that I am a man, I want to shepherd the sensible flock of my heavenly Father, just as I used to look after my father's sheep when I was a child. I believe that is the route that has been shown to me.”
He was ordained as Bishop of Zica in 1919 and immediately went to work healing the sick, building orphanages, and supporting the impoverished in the aftermath of a horrific war that had ravaged his country. Bishop Nikolai led a successful spiritual revival movement that encouraged people to pray and study the Bible. Under his leadership, the movement helped to restore and rebuild monasteries, revitalising religious life in Serbia.
He became a revered shepherd for his sheep. Priests and monks, businessmen, officers, soldiers, labourers and peasants, elderly and young, sought his counsel on spiritual and social issues. He responded with amazing tenderness and insight. His answers to over 300 questions were eventually published in his book "Missionary Letters," which is now considered a spiritual classic and has been translated into many languages.
Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, and Bishop Nikolai was arrested and sent to a Nazi death camp for his resistance to the invasion. He witnessed multiple atrocities and was himself tortured while in the camp. Despite these sorrows, he never gave up hope or wavered in his belief in the "final victory of the good."
When American soldiers freed him and the other captives there in May 1945, the Communist leader Tito was ascending to power in Yugoslavia. There, he persecuted the Church and destroyed his opponents. Bishop Nikolai thought that by remaining in exile, he could better serve the Serbian people. In 1946, he moved to America and taught for three years at Saint Savva's Seminary in Libertyville, Illinois, before settling at Saint Tikhon's Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, in 1951.
On 17 March 1956, Bishop Nikolai celebrated his last Liturgy. At the end, he delivered a brief speech, stooped low as he walked away, saying, "Forgive me, brothers." On 18 March 1956, Saint Nikolai fell asleep in the Lord. He was found in his cell, kneeling in an attitude of prayer.
His biographers have called him a New Chrysostom, a universal teacher of the Church, the thirteenth Apostle, and the fifth Evangelist. He has left a legacy of soul-saving books that bring Christ's truth to modern man. Readers will discover answers to many of their concerns and solutions to many of their difficulties, as well as encouragement to pursue truth, faith, and God's justice.
And to people who look for all these things, but not to God, St Nikolai answers prophetically:
"Peace! Peace! Peace!" declare the kings while their people perish in battle. That is because they speak of peace apart from God. "Bread! Bread! Bread!" scream the economists of Europe as their people starve to death. That's because they are not asking God for it. Those who have idolised gold have all died of starvation. And steel has murdered everyone who has adored it. Have you not learned anything from the recent bloodshed? Everything is a sham and an illusion without Christ! Come, therefore, and worship Christ, our King and Lord. Amen!”
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