The stars are shining above Decani Monastery as monks in black robes hurry across the yard and through the wooden side door of the Church of the Ascension. They gather in the cavernous darkness and begin to pray, their voices at times rising into song. Around them, barely visible in the flickering light, saints and warriors of the Orthodox Church gaze out from frescoed walls painted nearly 700 years ago.
These Serb monks trace their lineage to the 14th century, when King Stefan Uros III founded a monastery in a cleft of the Accursed Mountains in western Kosovo. Rising well before dawn, the monks pursue a life of work and prayer whose essential rhythms have changed little since that time.
Just a decade ago, this way of life had nearly died away. Almost a half century of communist rule in the former Yugoslavia had choked off the supply of new monks. A few older monks remained, keeping tradition alive, but just barely.
Today, young men from all over the former Yugoslavia are beating a path to Decani to embrace the rigors and, they say, blessings of monastic life. The monastery's cells are brimming. Days are busy with farming, writing, icon-painting, translating, woodcarving, and more. For the first time in decades, Decani is thriving.
And not just Decani. All across the Orthodox lands of the former Yugoslavia - Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and parts of Bosnia - monasteries are enjoying a revival. Tito's Yugoslavia suppressed religion and turned old churches and monasteries into "cultural monuments." Now, religion is permissible again, and many young people are turning to it even as their society falls increasingly under the influence of Western secular culture.
The monastic revival springs not just from pent-up religious feeling, but also from the resurgence of nationalism. In the 1990s, Orthodox priests in Bosnia and Croatia blessed Serb fighters who carried out "ethnic cleansing" in the name of the Serb people. In Kosovo, Serbian Orthodox clergy supported Slobodan Milosevic when he began his crackdown on ethnic Albanians. Today, when the tables have turned, Serb monks fight to defend their monasteries and the province's Serb remnant from the hostile Albanian majority.
In Macedonia, just south of Serbia, young people are moving into dozens of abandoned monasteries. They are animated in part by a determination to shore up the small and weak Macedonian nation in a region dominated by more populous nations.
"The revival of the monasteries is a revival of our people," says Father Stefan Sanjakovski, a professor at the Theological Faculty in Skopje.
Not everyone is pleased by the resurgence of religion. It worries liberals, who see the growing influence of the Orthodox Church as an impediment to the development of a Western-style separation of church and state. Politicians curry the favor with the church in all sorts of ways. In Macedonia, the government is building a massive 250-foot-high cross on the mountain above the capital. In Serbia, the government instituted compulsory religious education this year.
The Serb church "is a nationalist church," Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP news agency in Belgrade, says bluntly. "It's not organized in a very modern way."
Most monks say they chose their vocation for reasons more spiritual. Father Ilarion Lupulovic forsook a successful career on the Belgrade stage six years ago to come to Decani. "Of course it is difficult," says Father Ilarion, who is 28. "That is one of the reasons why I came. But there is also an opportunity for great peace and joy, and you can even say love, when you are a part of a community like this."
Taught to submerge their personalities in communal life, most monks are reluctant to describe the paths that brought them to the monastery, except to say they felt called by God. They say their choice was less a rejection of secular life than a search for one more spiritual.
Father Sofronij Dimeski, who lives in an isolated 12th-century monastery high in the stony mountains of central Macedonia, finds that his life there is "filling up my soul." Like many young monks, he displays a quiet ferocity about his vocation. "My parents didn't accept it," he says. "They were very against my decision. They were raised in different times, without God."
A love of poetry and philosophy led Metodije Zlatanov to monastic life. As a young man, Mr. Zlatanov was part of a group that sought to revive Macedonian cultural tradition. "We tried to live this tradition," says Zlatanov, who teaches in a religious high school and publishes books of poetry. "And so we found ourselves living in the church." But Zlatanov went farther than the others. "Even as a teenager, a question that was very important for me was whether it was possible to live as a philosopher," he says. "Monastic life was an answer to this question."
Men are not the only ones drawn to monastic life. Three years ago, Abbess Sister Kirana led a group of young nuns to the village of Jankovec, in southern Macedonia, to begin to restore an abandoned 16th-century nunnery. "It's rewarding and exciting, but also very difficult," says Sister Kirana, who studied architecture before turning to religion. In the beginning, the nuns lacked water and electricity, and the neighbors wondered about the grave, black-garbed women who had moved in next door. "When they got to know the life of the monastery, all their suspicions were gone," says Sister Kirana, who declined to give her full name.
Of all the monasteries in the former Yugoslavia, Decani is perhaps the most remarkable. After NATO evicted Serbian forces from Kosovo three years ago, ordinary Serbs fled the Decani area, making the monks the only Serbs for miles around. Today, Italian soldiers guard the monastery's approaches, and the monks do not leave without an escort.
But Decani's predicament only increases its appeal. With 33 monks and novices, it has the largest brotherhood of any monastery in Serbia. "The outer situation has not affected the inner, spiritual life at all," says Father Sava Janjic, the deputy abbot. "I can say it's even become more intense. In the history of Christianity, spiritual life increases under repression."
The monks take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that date to the dawn of monasticism. But they do not reject modernity altogether. The typical monk today is educated and city-bred, uses computers and e-mail, and can be reached by cellphone. The icon painters at Decani mix pigment with egg yolk in the old way, and then blow-dry the paint with electric hair dryers.
No one exemplifies the new monk better than Decani's deputy abbot. University educated and fluent in English, Janjic set up a monastery website in 1997. As civil war loomed in Kosovo, he cautioned against violence and criticized Milosevic. During the fighting, he and his fellow monks protected ethnic Albanians from Serb paramilitary gangs.
Today, he publishes sharp commentaries rebuking the province's United Nations and NATO overseers for failing to curb ethnic Albanian extremists.
"The monastic way is no longer seen as some kind of time machine, going into the past," Janjic says. "It's not a petrified form of spirituality. We wear strange clothes and follow strange rules, but Orthodox Christianity is able to give something spiritually to these people today."