I wanted to share this incredibly beautiful poem with you. I first read it in 2002 and was so moved by these Grace-filled words that I made sure to save the magazine.
I thought about it a couple of years ago and wanted to post it. I searched and searched but could not find it anywhere. Unfortunately, I sometimes put things away so well that even I can’t find them.
A few week ago, I contacted the editors of The Orthodox Word hoping to be able to purchase a back order but was told they were sold out of that particular issue.
Then, yesterday I was looking for something in the bin under my bed and guess what I found? Yay!!
Before you read this, I want to say that though this poem is written about Serbia, it can be applied to every single country on earth. St. Sava prays for Serbia, St. Patrick for Ireland, St. Nektarios for Greece, St. Herman for America…the list goes on forever and there are so very many saints rooting for us in Heaven and praying ceaselessly for our salvation.
Nowadays, when secularism and political correctness creep their way into our thoughts, and worse, our lives, may the saints beg God to grant us discernment and strength to live as true Christians.
Originally printed in The Orthodox Word No. 227, 2002
The Heavenly Liturgy
by St. Nikolai Velimirovich
On May 6/19, 2003, the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church, gathered in Belgrade, with one heart and one voice decided to canonize the great shepherd, church writer, historian and poet of the Serbian people, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich of Ohrid and Zhicha (1880-1956). On this day Bishop Nikolai’s name was entered into the Calendar of Saints of the Holy Orthodox Church. Five days later, on the Feast of the Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Cyril and Methodius, Enlighteners of the Slavs, a festal Hierarchal Divine Liturgy was celebrated in honor of the newly proclaimed St. Nikolai in the Memorial church of St. Sava on Vracar in Belgrade, with all the members of the Holy Assembly participating.
By this canonization of the Holy Assembly joyously confirmed the widespread consciousness of Bishop Nikolai’s holiness among the people of God, not only in the Serbian Orthodox Church, but in all the other local churches as well. For Orthodox Christians in America, this canonization has special significance, since St. Nikolai spent the last ten years of his life in America, reposing in the Lord at the St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.
In this issue of The Orthodox Word we present, for the first time in English, a short but powerful work by St. Nikolai. “The Heavenly Liturgy” has become one of the most beloved poems of the Serbian people. It has been set to music, and is commonly sung to the accompaniment of traditional instruments such as the gusle.
The theme of this poem is simple and clear: Calamity is visited upon a people by God in order to bring them, through repentance, to love for the Kingdom of Heaven rather than the kingdom of this world. This same theme has found expression in other works of St. Nikolai. In “The Tsar’s Testament”, for example, Great-Martyr Tsar Lazar of Serbia (+1389) chooses to accept the earthly defeat of his army for the sake of the spiritual cleansing of his people. As the dying Tsar agonizes in doubt over the correctness of his choice, an Angel says to him: “As is the case with individuals, O Prince, so it is also with a group of related individuals, that is, with nations. Your state has already grown old, and must fall. It has not fallen because of a chronological old age, but because of the poison that it has been taking and accumulating in itself… There was a danger that the soul of the people would be reduced to earth, ashes, and death by the spirit of wickedness. Only a great terror, like a mighty wind, could have blown away this foul spirit and saved God’s people from destruction. It was in order to save your people spiritually, therefore, that your state had to fall.
God’s severe but loving hand of chastisement has ever moved in the history of nations. Time and again, by His allowance, the ancient Hebrew people experienced great trials due to their sins: the Egyptian bondage, the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, the two Babylonian exiles, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Likewise, in the present era of the New Israel, the Church of Christ, the Lord has allowed great misfortunes to befall Christian nations in order to correct and purge them. Such was the defeat of the Serbian kingdom by the Turks in the time of Tsar Lazar, such was the fall of Byzantium at the hands of Muslims in the fifteenth century, and such was the enslavement of the Orthodox countries of eastern Europe by Communists in the twentieth century.
As people of the New Israel, Orthodox Christians have traditionally seen the events of history not merely as the result of outward circumstances. Rather, they have seen the hand of the Lord in them–a hand directing them to repentance for their sins both individual and collective, a hand directing their hearts to God and to His Kingdom that has no end. This is the consciousness, the awareness of the Church. The newly proclaimed St. Nikolai exhorts all of us to enter into this consciousness when he says: “Read your history as you should, and you will see the entire law of God engraved in it. With deep letters, like flaming cedar, the Lord writes His law, so that even the illiterate might be able to read it in spirit. He has written and sealed it once in the Holy Bible, but He is tireless in renewing His law in the life of every people… Awaken spiritually, therefore, and do not immerse your soul in the earthly kingdom. For freedom never means the earthly kingdom, but the heavenly. Freedom is a regular guest from the other world, and not a permanent resident of this world. Like a winged angel, as transparent and delicate as ether, and as powerful and vivifying as ether, freedom flies in with its wings as a guest, hovers with its wings among us, and with its wings flies off–to the other world.”
–The Editors of The Orthodox Word
THE HEAVENLY LITURGY
Listen! What is that sound from afar?
Is it wind or gale?
Or the maple leaves murmuring?
Or the grass whispering to the earth?
Or the stars chanting in the sky?
It is neither wind nor gale,
Nor the murmur of maple trees,
Nor the whispering of the grass,
Nor the chanting of the stars;
It is the Divine Liturgy being celebrated
In Christ’s Heavenly Kingdom.
John Chrysostom celebrates the service.
With him are three hundred bishops,
Martyred in this world,
And three thousand honorable priests,
St. Stephen serves as deacon,
And with him, St. Laurence.
St. Paul reads the epistle;
And St. Luke, the Holy Gospel.
Holding the Cross is the Emperor Constantine.
The fans are borne by holy warriors:
Demetrius and Procopius,
George and Eustathios,
Along with many others.
Fiery Marina carries the flame,
With incense kindled by Elias, the Thunderer.
Holy Healers anoint with oil,
And the Baptist sprinkles water.
Cherubim chant the Holy Hymn,
And the King of Glory sits upon His throne,
Filling Heaven with the light of His Countenance.
On His right stands the Blessed Theotokos,
Arrayed in star-studded royal purple.
St. Sava hold the scepter,
And numberless people are present,
More numerous than the stars in the heaven.
Saints and angels stand intermingled,
So that no one knows who is more beautiful.
When the Divine Liturgy ends,
The saints come to Christ,
Prostrating themselves before Him.
The very last is St. Sava,
Along with the holy saints of Serbia.
He prostrates himself
But does not wish to rise;
He remains face down before the throne.
The Holy Virgin comes
To lift him to his feet,
For to her he dedicated Hilandar, *(Hilander Monastery on Mt. Athos, dedicated to the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple)
But Sava rises only to his knees,
Not wishing to rise further.
He kneels before Christ.
The Good Christ comforts Sava,
Speaking to him tenderly:
O my child, Sava, son of Nemanja,
Why art thou so sad?
Why dost thou weep?
Never before hast thou wept so piteously.
Thou didst not weep thus for Kosovo,
When the Serbian kingdom was lost–
The kingdom and her rulers.
Tell me then, dear child,
How does Serbia stand?
How stands the faith of her people?
Are they now as they were in times past,
Or have they changed, Sava?
Do they celebrate many Liturgies
And build many churches,
As they once did in the time of Nemanja
And his son St. Sava,
In the time of the glorious King Milutin,
And my beloved Stephen of Decani,
In the time of Lazar, My martyr,
And the glorious Milica of Ljubostinja,
And Angelina, the mother of Krushedol,
And the other kings and princes?
Do holy hymns resound throughout Serbia?
Is My Gospel being proclaimed, spreading throughout all the land?
Is the Sebian land fragrant with incense?
Is the stature of the Serbs honorable
Before men and angels?
Do the nobles deliberate with justice?
Are the rich giving their alms?
Do neighbors excuse one another?
Are the strong aiding the weak?
Do young men respect their elders?
Do young maidens remain virgins?
Are the priests living in holiness?
Do the monks pray for the people,
And do they warm their caves with tears,
Fervently praying for men?
Do they celebrate Sundays?
Are they filling the churches on feast days?
Tell me, dear Saint,
Second savior of the Serbian people,
What is the reason for thy distress?
Why do tears streak thy face,
And why dost thou end the heavenly hymn, weeping?
Then Saint Sava replied:
“O Lord, great and powerful,
Before whom the Cherubim tremble,
Is there anything unknown to Thee?
Thou seest into the very heart of man,
And knowest his most secret thoughts.
Thou seest the worm beneath the oak tree’s bark,
The viper under the stone,
Every grain of sand at the bottom of the sea.
From Thine eyes the dark iniquities of sinful men,
For whom Thou wast crucified, are not hidden.
But Thy love covers all.
Out of love dost Thou pretend ignorance;
Out of love dost Thou ask me what is known to Thee;
Thou knowest better than I.”
“Serbs are not what they once were,
Worse than before Kosovo; (Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when Tsar Lazar and his army sacrificed their lives)
They have changed for the worse in everything.
Thou gavest them freedom,
Glory and victory.
A kingdom larger than Dushan’s, (Emperor of Serbia +1355)
But they became haughty with Thy gift
And turned their faces away from Thee.
The Serbian nobles have degenerated;
They flirt with three faiths
Yet do not believe truly in any of these.
They have displaced Orthodoxy
And discarded their Serbian names.
They have forsaken their slavas
And offended their saints.
He who builds a church
Builds it not for Thee, but for himself.
They build churches to be seen by men,
But they do not pray to God in these temples,
Nor do they keep His law.
The nobles have trampled down justice;
The rich have neglected almsgiving;
The young show insolence to their elders,
Pretending to be more clever.
The strong ones ignore the weak
And torments him until the end.
Neighbors do not forgive one another,
But they renounce each other for gain,
For as little as a patch of muddy ground.
Priests have weakened in their faith;
Monks have left their fasting.
Maidens throw away their virginity;
Arrayed in silk, they strut about in sin.
Young men scorn honor
And flaunt their depravity.
The people do not love Sundays
Or feasts and old traditions;
Churches are vacant on festal days,
Standing like deserted caves:
Empty are churches; empty are souls.
Dark lawlessness reigns everywhere.
Shame irritates and vexes me
Because of the sins of my people,
Because Thou keepest me near to Thee.
These are the reasons I week, dear Savior.
Eternity is too brief for my lament.
Rather would I be in hell…
If only the Serbs would return to Thee!
In peace, the Lord heard Sava’s grieving;
Then lifted He His holy head.
His thoughts shook the heavens.
Lightning and thunder flashed
As dark clouds rushed in;
Hail fell on St. Peter’s Day,
And all of the Serbian land was whitened,
Like the leprous face of a harlot.
The Serbs lamented in their distress,
But the Living God they did not remember–
They did not recall God or their sins.
Saint Sava stayed kneeling,
His face ashen with terror.
Then the Lord bridled the clouds;
Rain and dew ceased to fall.
The once mild sun blazed,
And the Serbian land shriveled.
Rivers and streams dried up;
Deep wells failed.
The Serbs cried out in their distress,
But the Living God they did not remember–
They forgot God and their sins,
And Saint Sava remained kneeling,
His face pale with terror.
Next, the Lord sent forth lice
To cover the fruit trees.
The hungry insects consumed plums and apples,
Blighting the cultivated orchards
All over the once lovely land.
The Serbs clamored in their distress,
Yet the Living God they did not remember–
They forgot God and their sins,
Yet Saint Sava remained kneeling,
His pale face lined with terror…
Then the Lord loosed death
To slay both old and young.
Cruel diseases reached everywhere.
Many died; cemeteries were crowded,
But gravediggers were few,
And their arms grew weary.
The Serbs lamented in their distress,
Not remembering the Living God,
Forgetting their sins.
And Saint Sava continued kneeling,
Terror fixed on his pale face.
Then the Lord withheld the crisis.
The land filled with abundance,
But the people shouted:
“There is nothing to be had–anywhere!”
Serbs, ever lamenting their distress,
Remembered neither the Living God nor their sins,
As Saint Sava remained kneeling,
His face pale with terror.
The Lord unbound Satan
And loosed him from hell upon the Serbs,
That he might do his own will for a time,
Do what he liked with the county
And the bodies of its people.
But God forbade him to touch their souls.
Satan raised armies,
Raised up his beasts and men,
All of them enemies of God,
But one in mind with himself,
Of whom beasts would be ashamed,
Beside whom wild boars would be disgraced.
Satan armed them with fires of hell,
Setting them against the Serbian land.
Fires roared forth from hell’s gate,
And Satan ignited the house of the Serb.
He destroyed all that had been built,
Devoured all that had been kneaded,
Carried away all that had been woven,
Plundered all that had been saved,
Squandered all that had been stored,
And spat on all that was sanctified.
Nobles he bound in chains,
And hanged the leading men
Or starved them in prisons.
He killed young men and
Shrouded young maidens in mourning.
He gathered mothers above cradles,
Over cradles bloody and empty.
He bound the tongue of the Serb,
Not permitting him to sing, to cry,
Or to pronounce the Name of God,
Not permitting him to consider his brother a brother.
He bound the legs of the Serb
So that he could not walk freely,
But only so far as his binding cord allowed,
As far as the rifle butt pushed him.
And Satan bound the arms of the Serb,
So that he could not work freely,
But only at forced labor.
He could not sit nor eat bread
Without Satan’s proud command.
He could not consider his children his own,
Nor freely think…freely breathe.
Thus it continued for a long time,
Until the Serbian land swelled
With the bodies of its dead,
With the blood of Serbian martyrs,
Like a dough made with potent leaven.
Then God’s angels began to weep,
And the Serbs turned to God,
Their only Friend,
Their only One True Savior;
They turned to the Most High God
And to Saint Sava.
At this, Sava trembled with horror.
Leaping up, he cried out in a loud voice:
“Enough, O Lord! Spare those who remain!”
And the Lord heeded Sava:
He took pity on the Serbian slaves,
And forgave them their sins.
The face of the Serb brightened;
Bells rang joyfully.
The land was fragrant with incense;
The Truth of Christ shone brightly.
Charity and honesty reigned;
Angels descended from heaven
To embrace the Serbian land.
Oh, listen! What is that sound from afar?
The Divine Liturgy is being celebrated
In Christ’s Heavenly Kingdom.
St. Sava celebrates
And with him serve three hundred bishops,
Along with three thousand priests.
Archdeacon Stephen serves
And with him Habakkuk, (New-Martyr Habakkuk of Serbia, martyrked by the Turks in 1814)
Who had been impaled as Christ’s martyr
On a lawn in the midst of Belgrade.
The King of Glory sits upon His throne,
While, like the sound of a mighty storm,
There sounds from earth the Serbian shout:
Blessed is the mother who bore Sava,
And blessed are the Serbs so long as he guides them.
**The Heavenly Liturgy translated from Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, Collected Works. Translated by Rev. Fr. Gregory Allard, parish priest at St. Alexis Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Indiana, and Rev. Fr. Dragan Petrovic, parish priest of St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.