Never-Ending Prayer
According to the rules of St. Sava, prescribed for those with immense spiritual energy, the prior and fraternity of Chilandar choose a worthy ascetic who remains here until the end of his life. ”No one, except for the chosen ascetic, shall have power over the cell. Neither the prior, nor any member of the fraternity… Those not worthy or capable of spiritual living may not be chosen for the cell…” Dilapidated and deserted in one period, the hermitage of St. Sava complex is again the most beautifully arranged and most representative part of Karyes, seat of Mt. Athos

Text and photo: Mišo Vujović

Empire without a crown, state without an army, land without women, wealth without money, wisdom without schools, kitchen without meat, prayer without an end, death without grieving...

This is how the Serbian sage, episcope of Žiča and Ohrid Nikolaj Velimirović, described Mt. Athos. In the intact nature bathing in sunlight and sea waves, in the eternal greenery covered with calmness, tucked in the gentle valleys of the only monastic state in the world, the old monasteries live a full life as witnesses of different eras, endowments of great states and their powerful rulers. The names of benefactors and ktitors, whose lanterns continue burning stronger on the everlasting path of eternity, are spoken every day with respect and prayer passion next to burning candles. This harmony of life merged into the heavenly ladder of salvation was described as early as the XIV century by Nicephorus Gregoras:
”I also think that Mount Athos is beneficial due to its very good climate (clean air), abundant and various greenery. There are also many kinds of endemic species of trees and flowers, as well as arable land. Due to the constant scent of varied and colorful flowers and the whole nature, we can say with certainty that Mount Athos leaves a pleasant impression on everyone who approaches it. The whole mountain is bathing in sunlight and its whole coastline by the sea. There are many species of singing birds. Throughout the year, a mysterious veil of mercy and magic spreads here, saturating all human senses. This feeling becomes even stronger when one hears voices from the morning service in the middle of the forest, when the whole nature and our Lord sing together with the monks. It seems to me that there is a divine guitar and the psalm singer’s born instinct that give birth to wonderful harmonic music. This chorus is complemented by the gurgling of the water from many springs and streams, looking for the shortest path and seeming to tell us with their silence about the monastic path...”
Eugenius Vulgaris describes it as a generous mountain with gifts that cannot be expressed in human words. The monastic state covers an area of about 322 square kilometers, it is 57 km long and the width of the finger surrounded by the sea is 7 to 10 kilometers, with the peak of Athos 2.033 meters high.
The administrative seat of Holy Mount Athos is the settlement of Karyes, which can be reached from the port of Daphne in twenty minutes by old buses from the early 1980s going down a dusty road. The monastic seat is dominated by a church dedicated to the Assumption of Holy Virgin Mary, endowment of Emperor Constantine from 335. The church was destroyed in a big fire in the IX century, restored in the X century and plundered during the invasion of the Catalonians in the XIII century. In the mid-XIV century it was restored and painted by Bulgarian emperors. One of the greatest relics of Mt. Athos, the wondrous icon of Virgin Mary Axion estin” is in the altar of this church.


Opposite of the main church is the Protat building, seat of the Mount Athos governing body formed by the Church Municipality (Kinotis) and made of representatives of all monasteries. After a few minutes of walking down a paved path one reaches the Hermitage of St. Sava of Serbia. The whole complex (quarters, church, auxiliary buildings, access road and yard), earlier grown in weeds and desolated, today is certainly the most beautifully arranged and most representative part of the seat of Mt. Athos. Similar to many other sanctities on Mt. Athos, the Hermitage too had its ancient vesture restored. It restarted radiating its imperial light from the time of its founder nobleman-ascetic. With ardent prayers to Virgin Mary the Milk-Giver, Lord Jesus Christ, St. Sava of Serbia and Sava the Rectified, Nikodim of Chilandar called upon architects and masons to return the old glory to the place of prayer, where St. Sava begged saints on his knees for forgiveness of sins of his fatherland. In his early youth, the nobleman replaced luxury and richness with a monastic cloak, prayer and poverty, and thereby provided eternal treasure to his whole nation.
In the Karyes Typicon, written under the dome of this small church, St. Sava left his successors difficult rules of asceticism:
... Therefore I, more sinful than anyone, weak and incapable of spiritual feats, came to Mt. Athos and here found those chosen by the Lord who advance in their spiritual deeds in various ways. And I strengthened my weakness, and tried as hard as I could. I made the holy monastery, home of Holy Virgin Mary, in which a holy life is lead, according to the rules of cenobite…(Chilandar, author’s remark) And then again here in Karyes, I made a place of solitude, to remember our holy father Sava (the Rectified), where two or three men shall live abiding to the word of our Lord: where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be among them...”
St. Sava furthermore orders: no one, except for the chosen ascetic, shall have power over the cell. Neither the prior, nor any member of the fraternity. And no one may disturb the one living here...
St. Sava prescribes that the prior and fraternity of the Chilandar Monastery shall choose a capable and worthy ascetic, who shall stay in the hermitage until the end of his life, with full independence: he remains there until his death and no one can replace him... Neither the monastery nor the prior have any authority over this cell. Those not worthy or capable of spiritual living may not be chosen for the cell…


The rules for serving the Lord in the Karyes Typicon are written only for those with immense spiritual energy. For true ascetics, such as the humble monk Nikodim of Chilandar. A decade ago, he replaced the ill, now passed away monk Simeon. The hermitage cell or typicarion has always been very reputable among the Mt. Athos fraternities. And so it has remained until the very day.
A framed copy of the icon of Virgin Mary the Milk-Giver stands above the gate with a welcome sign underneath it stating: Blessed the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Father Nikodim greets dear guests by singing: Rejoice, Mary…”, mentions names, and then hurriedly takes the guests to a small chapel to get the blessing of the protector of this temple, Virgin Mary the Milk-Giver. The Karyes ascetic sings to the Heavenly Empress”.
St. Sava confirmed his great love and respect to the greatest supporter of the fraternities by placing the Milk-Giver, contrary to canonic rules, on the right side of the Imperial Gate, as the altar icon.
Left of the entrance to the temple is a small narrow room where the greatest Serbian educator meditated.
The liturgy in the hermitage almost never ends, father Nikodim rests from prayers by working in the garden, in the yard, and sometimes some of the visitors replace him in the choir.
Hardly anyone could carry on such a way of life without big help from heavens and blessing from up above, says Pero Mrkajić from Pale, who occasionally helps father Nikodim.
The pages of the Prayer Book that turned yellow from continuous reading are only a detail of the devotedness of the Karyes Typicarion guardian, whose face never carries shadows of tiredness or bad mood. He does not speak much, his life is the gospel, he prays for the known and unknown, for renewal of life and salvation of the soul. If someone makes him angry, he prays to the Lord to save him from the power of Satan. Help him, Lord, he knows not what he is doing, says Nikodim humbly giving Pavle the task to sing a dozen prayers.
During the evening liturgy, important guests from Russia arrive. They carry gifts, and bring icons and lamps to be blessed by Virgin Mary. Big aid came for the Hermitage, says father Nikodim, from Russia. Naturally, the humble guardian also returns gifts. The important guests from Russia inform the Karyes monk that his gift, the large and painted with prayer copy of the Milk-Giver, has been delivered to the president of Russia Dmitri Medvedev by the Patriarch of Russia Kiril. Nikodim sees the guests off and under the lights of candles and lamps continues to fulfill the prayer testament of St. Sava.


The Milk-Giver, protector of the Hermitage, is a unique icon showing Virgin Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus. St. Sava brought this wonder-making icon from the monastery of St. Sava the Sanctified. The legend goes that St. Sava the Sanctified, before departing from this world, left a testament to his monastic fraternity to give two icons of Virgin Mary, the Milk-Giver and the Three-Handed, as well as his shepherd’s stick, to a monk of noble origin named Sava when he comes to adoration.


And I place these rules in this cell, to be exactly followed by the one living here: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you may not eat oil, nor drink wine; on Tuesdays and Thursdays, eat oil and drink wine. During these five days, eat only once a day. On Saturdays and Sundays eat fish, cheese and everything else allowed twice a day. On Saturdays and Sundays during the holy lent, you can eat oil and drink wine, and on other days neither eat oil nor drink wine. During the Christmas lent, act as ordered for other days of lent. During the lent of the Holy Apostles, act as we said for other ordinary days…” (extract from St. Sava’s Karyes Typicon)


We should always and carefully watch out that everything is in order, decent and pious, in singing, reading and night vigil, remembering the words of Christ: Take care and pray not to fall into sin, because the spirit is awake, but the body is weak. Thus be careful, be awake, because then you will get the reward you earn with your efforts… And for liberating this place from anyone from the outside, my will is, with our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Mother, that everything shall be as I had written here, and that it shall not be destroyed. If anyone would, however, fail this and go beyond it, and disturb the one living here or take from this place books, icons, or anything else belonging to this place, may he be damned and cursed from the Holy Trinity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost and from sinful me, and may he not be delivered from his sins in this nor any future century. Therefore I wrote and signed by my hand in the year 6707, and year of our Lord 1199. Last among all, Sava the sinful” (extract from St. Sava’s Karyes Typicon)


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