Draganac Monastery is this kind of place that you cannot describe with one sentence. The moment I arrived there, I felt different vibrations, between relaxation, spirituality and excitement. I arrived there on a Saturday afternoon to help settling the workcamp that GAIA Kosovo and the brotherhood of Draganac organize every year for Slava, a celebration that is specific to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Its roots go back to some old traditions that used to celebrate saints for being patron of homes and families. We were welcomed by the Abbot, Father Ilarion, and the novices (apprentices still in the process of becoming monks) who are starting to know us well: the cooperation between Draganac Monastery and Gaia Kosovo has been going on for four years now.
The other volunteers arrived, from diverse regions: Matthew is a peace corps volunteer from the USA, Mathias and Honza traveled from Brno in Czech Republic, Suzana and Ana from Serbia. Some of our volunteers were Kosovar Albanians, others from France, Turkey, Croatia or Bulgaria. We took the road to Stari Draganac, a village located twenty minutes by foot from the monastery, where our camp was settled. To reach Stari Draganac, you have to follow a nice road going through the woods surrounding the monastery. The conditions were basic: no shower, no electricity… but we all played along.
Going to Draganac implies that you will be cut off from social media, internet and network for the time that the workcamp lasts. Somehow, people tend to adapt very well to this “requirement”. The atmosphere, the work at the monastery: it is a time to meditate and engage into a “digital detox”.
We had the chance to discover the daily life of monks, sharing with them meals and being invited to the liturgies. The first day of our workcamp, we
all woke up at 7am to attend the liturgy of 8am. Hearing the monks sing and pray, breaking the silence of the surrounding forest creates this very special atmosphere that illustrates the serenity lying in Draganac Monastery. In the Christian Orthodox religion, no instrument is used during celebrations; only human voices which are believed to represent the most beautiful sounds to express faith. One of our participants almost cried from the feeling that she had while attending the liturgy. Nevertheless, staying two hours standing up in a small church full of incense is not something easy to do for everyone.
For a few of us, the experience was too intense, me included. We gathered in the summer house, this cute little wood shelter built by the monks. I had this amazing conversation with other volunteers from Kosovo, Serbia and Turkey about how we were living our faith, about Islam and Christian Orthodoxy, about believing or not… A conversation that would be later in the afternoon deepened by Father Ilarion, who invited us to discuss around coffee.
The next days have been dedicated to the preparation of the Slava celebration. Sorting candles, chopping vegetables, preparing fish; those are examples of our main tasks. The work was hard, but somehow inspiring and relaxing. Draganac is the perfect place to think about your values, your beliefs and what makes you happy in life.
Some novices also offered us to discover their main tasks and work in the monastery. One of them taught us how to create bracelets with a special technique of making knots on a rope. I could not speak Serbian, but we could both speak Russian. This way he could explain to me everything and made me re-do my bracelet until I perfectly mastered the technique. Another one, whose main work in the monastery is related to pottery-making, invited one of his artist friends who gave us a first introduction to sculpture work. We had a very rich and interesting evening, working on our pieces of clay and trying to create something beautiful out of it. Moreover, the monastery’s location is lost somewhere in the mountains of Eastern Kosovo. The nature there is abundant and beautiful. Maja, our camp coordinator shared her knowledge on herbs and explained the benefits of each flower that we found on our way back to the camp.
The main days of our workcamp occured on the day celebrating Slava. The nuns of Gracanica, a monastery located near Prishtina, came to help the monks and novices from Draganac to organize everything on time. The celebration started on the 25th of June, with the visit of the Bishop and many different people, families, GAIA’s members, friends of the monastery, KFOR soldiers… They were all welcomed by the Brotherhood and assisted the liturgy before sharing a nice meal. During this moment of festivities, a group of traditional balkan music entertained the audience, and many of us took part in the dance. The next day, the celebration continued until the beginning of the afternoon. It was quite incredible to attend such a celebration where good mood, traditional music, friendship, families, and all people willing to attend are mixed together to create this wonderful atmosphere.
After Slava Celebration, we had the chance to go to Prizren and Decani for one day, to show a little more of Kosovo to our volunteers. We could visit the Sinan Pasha Mosque in Prizren, whose beauty is legendary. It was also the occasion to discover more about Islam. Larger by its size, the monastery of Decani differs from Draganac on several aspects. The inside of the church is worth the visit. The frescoes adorning the walls are breathtaking. One of our volunteers from Turkey was puzzled when watching the faces painted on frescoes. “Why do they not smile?” she asked. Father Sophroni, who was explaining to us the history of the monastery, answered: “They have to reflect serenity”. Decani Monastery has the particularity of hosting the body of King Stefan, who died 700 years ago. The very good condition in which his body is still conserved today is believed to be a miracle.
The monks paid us two visits to our workcamp, in Stari Draganac, sharing our diner and sitting with us around the fire. The good vibrations I could feel and that I received from this place are something that I will not forget easily. The truth is: no one can forget it. Two participants from the last year’s workcamp came back for Slava and explained to me that they enjoyed the atmosphere in Draganac so much they decided to help once again this year. I will for sure do the same next year.