Page 2 - A Place to Not Think in Central Serbia

A Place to Not Think in Central Serbia — Page 2
Story by Jonathan Arlan

We drove for about fifteen minutes in the monastery car, a dark blue Skoda, listening to a CD of Serbian Orthodox chanting. Ekonom pulled over on the side of the road at a point marked by absolutely nothing and led me to an invisible break in the trees. Two makeshift walking sticks were leaning up against a tree. He handed me one, and we went into the woods.

The path climbed steeply, and soon we were both leaning hard into our steps and taking deep breaths. At one point he bent over, pulled a tiny strawberry from a bush, and popped it in his mouth. “Good,” he said. I ate one and said, “good.” Those were the only two words we spoke on the way up.

We climbed uphill for what felt like several hours before reaching a rope bridge that looked like a set piece from an Indiana Jones movie. On the far side of the bridge, a flight of stairs led up to a long, narrow catwalk that was attached to the face of a cliff. At the end of the catwalk was one of the most bizarre things I'd ever seen: an oblong stone structure three stories tall, built into the wall and resembling a giant beehive with a dozen tiny windows scattered across the front. It was impossible to tell what was holding it up, how it had been built, or what it was even made of. The only thing that was clear was that it had been there for a very long time, so long in fact that it looked as though it had grown organically out of the rock rather than been built into it.

Ekonom led us up the rest of the way. Inside the hive were three minuscule chambers stacked one atop the other and connected by hand-built wooden ladders: on the first floor an empty room; on the second a kitchen; on the third a bed. In each room, one of the walls was just the crumbly cliff face.

The hermitage, Ekonom told me, had been used periodically for as long as the monastery, but no one was staying there at the time. Still, it was stocked with the essentials, and Ekonom wasted no time finding a jar of coffee grounds and a bottle of rakia, Serbian brandy. He fired up a tiny gas burner for the coffee.

Serbia Hermitage

Brandy and Bliss

Carrying four tiny cups on a tray, I followed my guide to a section of the catwalk that was covered with a roof and outfitted with windows, a makeshift sunroom perched on the face of a cliff. Before us unfurled miles of rolling hills in gorgeously rippled green rows, like shockwaves frozen in time. And between the rotting wooden slats that made up the floor, I could see clear down to the jagged rocks that would kill us when the whole thing collapsed.

Ziveli,” he said, raising his glass. To life.

Ziveli,” I said. We clinked glasses and drank in silence. Ekonom sat back in his chair with the blissed-out look of a slightly high garden gnome. I tried to stay as still as possible so as not to upset the decaying bridge that was keeping us alive.

After a few minutes, though, I started to feel something like what I imagined my friend was feeling. I'm not sure if it was the alcohol (which smelled suspiciously like the solution I had used a few days earlier to clean tape off the church floor), or the quiet, or a mesmerizing bird that was not so much flying but floating in the sky before us, but I let myself settle into a state of deep tranquility. Something close to total numbness. Suddenly, suspended there with my monk, everything was very peaceful. The hike had pretty thoroughly exhausted me, but what I felt wasn't tiredness. It was perfect emptiness. There was nothing to say, nothing to do. I had nowhere else to be. I knew my legs would hurt in the morning, but for the moment I couldn't even feel them.

I wanted to ask Ekonom about this feeling, whether he had it, too. If it had anything to do with why someone might give up the already austere life of a monk in the monastery to move up to the hermitage. I wondered, too, if anyone ever went mad alone up in that nest.

When I asked one of the monks at the monastery about his decision to take monastic vows, he told me, “It's a very hard decision, but a very simple life.” Simple, maybe, but certainly not easy. They woke at 4 a.m., ate two meals a day in silence and as quickly as possible, and spent the rest of their waking hours working to keep the monastery semifunctional.

Perhaps a lifetime spent repeating the same hard work every day could lead to a more powerful version of what I was feeling. Had I gotten a taste of the holy life just by walking up to the hermitage? God, was I having a spiritual epiphany?


It turned out I was not. I was just tired and overwhelmed and, more than anything, touched—by the kindness the monks had shown despite not knowing me at all, by Ekonom’s simple gesture of leading me to the hermitage, by the warmth of the rakia that we shared. I was immensely happy, too, clear-headed, open minded, inspired, and filled with the feeling that I was on the edge of something, on the cusp of some important discovery. It occurred to me, in a blinding flash of insight, that what I had needed all along was not a place to think, but a place to not think.

I would have liked to talk to Ekonom about this idea. It felt important. But I couldn't bring myself to break the silence. Instead, I looked over at him, let my eyelids droop a little, and spread my face into a dopey smile.

“Good?” he asked.

A Monks’ Dinner by Candlelight

By the time we got back to the car, my feet were two pulsing bags of pain attached inconveniently to the ends of my legs. Slate-colored clouds were racing us back to the monastery.

Two busloads of Russian children were supposed to be coming for dinner, but by 8:30 p.m. they still hadn't arrived. With a terrifying clap of thunder, the sky opened. Lightning thrashed the surrounding hills and turned the night into a frighteningly realistic recreation of a storm straight out of the Old Testament. At 9:00 p.m. sharp, the Russians arrived, a bolt of lightning turned the room blue, and the power abruptly went out. Vesna the cook sparked her lighter and held it up to her face. “Candles,” she said.

We served by candlelight, the Russians ate by candlelight, and I washed dishes by candlelight. Everyone treated this as fairly normal, but the night had an undeniably medieval vibe to it. If the power never came back on, I suspect the monastery and the monks would carry on, just as they had for centuries, in the light of day and the dark of night, through storms, and wars, and damn near anything else because their course is clear and straight. And mine had been clarified and straightened, too, to some degree—by Marko and Ekonom, by the monastery, the hermitage, and, of course, by the Serb.

monastery wall

Jonathan Arlan is a writer and editor based in Kansas City, Missouri. He has traveled in over thirty-five countries and is the author of Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps.

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Running with Faith by Eliot Stein
The Penitent Legionnaire by Robert Ward

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