Our conversation with the abbot of Bigorski Monastery, Bishop Partenij, was truly a special one because of how exceptional he is, in every sense of the word. It was because of this that we wanted to interview him, and not only for our own readers, but for everyone.
At the center of the Monastery is a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, which contains a wonderworking icon of the Saint as well as his relics, and it is surrounded by the rest of the Monastery complex, which houses the Brotherhood’s thirty members. In 2020, in the presence of a large number of faithful, the Monastery celebrated its 1000th anniversary since its foundation, representing an important part of Macedonian cultural heritage. There, for over twenty-five years, His Grace Bishop Partenij of Antanij has been the abbot. During a recent visit to Jerusalem, he had the honor of carrying the Holy Cross on his head, the first such hierarch of the Macedonian Orthodox Church-Ohrid Archbishopric (MOC-OA) to do so. On the same visit, he concelebrated at Golgotha with priests from Greece and Romania. Of course, his everyday duties in Bigorski are also essential, as well as caring for the Monastery’s dependencies, which includes the women’s monastery of Rajčica. The divine services are also a true spiritual connection with him.
Our conversation with him is all-encompassing. We take it chronologically. We spoke about his childhood, his time on Mount Athos, the restoration of Bigorski Monastery after he returned from Athos, about monastic life, the particularities of Orthodox Christian men, and death—life’s greatest mystery (Herbie Brennan), everything. We also didn’t forget to talk about the use of social media, and the (mis)use of faith and piety to get more followers and more likes.
MM: Christ is the central figure of Christianity. When did you first feel love for Him, was it in your early childhood or…? Can you remember the time you first decided to dedicate your whole self to God and to later go to Mount Athos? How did your parents react to your decision?
Bishop Partenij: The God-Man Christ is the cornerstone, the foundation of our faith and life, which should always be Christ-centered. The beauty and mystery of Christ, His simplicity, and His exalted nature were what attracted me, or maybe it would be better to say He was my heart’s longing from my earliest years, from my earliest memories. For example, I remember when I was little and would play with my friends that I was always the priest. I would take a sweater my grandmother had knitted, and fold it a certain way so that it was like an epitrachelion. And of course, there was my late grandmother herself, Menka Fidanovska, a deeply pious and wise woman. She was probably the person who most instilled the love of the Lord Jesus Christ in my soul. She had friends in the neighborhood, in Bitola, that she would get together with and they would talk about the Gospels, Christian feast days, and Saints’ lives. Many of these conversations are etched in my memory forever. And remember that back then, our society was dominated by atheistic historical materialism, godless Socialism, and faith and the Church were both extremely marginalized, and even forbidden to a certain extent. Talking about God was considered backward, unhealthy, and socially unacceptable. So, even as a small child, I was confronted with the dualism presented by this gap between spiritual and material, faith, and faithlessness. I remember I was at a party when I first heard the words, “God doesn’t exist.” I went home in tears, and I immediately went to my grandmother and sobbed. She comforted me with the words, “Don’t worry, my child, that isn’t true. Always know that there is one God in heaven, Who is our Father and Who loves us very much.” From that moment on, my faith in God has never again been shaken. Later, when adults would talk about our communist society, my grandmother would say, “Our land is now in darkness, in lies, and a great ignorance reigns among the people. But there will come a time when all of that will crumble to dust. A society without God cannot stand, it has no blessing.” As far as I can remember, I was the only one among my friends who went to church, so adults would scold me for it and other children would make fun of me. Once, while I was at school, I was wearing my neck cross over my shirt, and when the physics teacher saw it, he came up to me and forcibly tore it off. Then he started pulling my hair and screamed at me that I should be ashamed for wearing a cross, that God doesn’t exist, that believing in God is unhealthy for the future of a Communist youth, and other things that were typical of the time. However, nothing could shake my faith in God. Since then, I was determined that when the time came, I would enroll to study to be a priest. Glory to God, it really turned out that way. I enrolled in Seminary with the help of my extremely pious uncle, Dr. Dušan Hristov Konstantinov, a respected citizen, and well-known scientist, who had a very positive influence on my parents so that they would let me study to be a priest. While I was studying at Seminary, I developed a great interest in Orthodox monasticism. We read about it in books and really took a liking to it and some other students and I dreamed that one day we would be monks. We were also blessed to have Father Nektarij as our teacher, the current abbot of St. Naum of Ohrid Monastery, and I believe he was the only monk in all of Macedonia at the time. However, we knew nothing of cenobitic monasticism. I first started to get acquainted with the angelic life on my first visit to Mount Athos, which was sometime in the mid-1980s. When I saw this priceless spiritual richness, this holy beauty and exalted way of life, my heart immediately began to cling to the wondrous Garden of the Most Holy Theotokos, as the Holy Mountain is known, full of monastic labors and holiness. When I told my parents, Boris and Živka, that I wanted to go to Athos to be a monk, obviously I was met with resistance and misunderstandings. Although they were pious people for that time, nothing was really known about monasticism in Macedonia then, and it was even considered something bad. To reassure them before I left, I swore to them in front of an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos that I would return in a year, and that I was now going to learn Greek and Byzantine chant. This was how I was able to go with their blessing.
MM: As far as Mount Athos, where did you stay? In which monastery? Did you stay in Hilandar or in a different monastery? Can you tell us a bit about life there? It’s really ascetic, isn’t it? Who was your spiritual father? What was your novitiate like? Was it there that you learned how to make bishop’s miters?
Bishop Partenij: On Mount Athos, I stayed in the Monastery of St. Nicholas, known as Grigoriou, under the spiritual guidance of Elder Archimandrite Georgios Kapsanis, now of blessed memory, who at one time was the Monastery’s abbot. Elder Georgios was an exceptionally powerful spiritual personality, who made a mark on the whole of 20th-century Orthodoxy. A big-hearted, truth-loving, devoted disciple and preacher of Christ, both in word and deed, he opened wide the doors of his monastery to all lovers of monastic life, which for us, taking into account the particularly difficult and complicated political and international relations of the time, was otherwise almost an impossibility. But to our beloved Father Georgios, Christ was above everything else in this world, and so he unconditionally accepted us, a few young men from then-socialist Macedonia, as monks in his monastery. This is why I treasure him in my heart like a holy icon, and I will be forever grateful to him. Among the first who left for Mount Athos were our current bishops and my especially beloved brothers, Metropolitan Naum of Strumica and Bishop Clement of Heraclea. In fact, Fr. Naum had been the first to go to Grigoriou and with his many years of irreproachable monastic life there, he paved the way for others and was an example to all of us.
Of course, live in the Monastery was very ascetic, with long church services, many obediences, and prayer rules. We got up in the early hours of the morning, while it was still night, well before dawn, and begin the morning service that would last for many hours would. Our days were full of obediences, meaning work we did for the Monastery, and then in the early evening, we would have the evening service. At night, we would pass our time in our humble cells saying the Jesus prayer almost without ceasing. It should be mentioned that at that time, Athonite monasteries had not yet been fully electrified and so we didn’t have electricity in our cells. We read by the light of kerosene lamps, and even then we couldn’t do it for too long because the smoke was so suffocating, and the fumes would inevitably give us headaches. As a result, we couldn’t do anything else at night but pray. We only slept the bare minimum, just enough to restore the body’s strength. I thank God for this period of my life, because the habit of prayer and the spiritual wealth that I accumulated on Mount Athos helped me a lot later on in my personal spiritual life and, of course, when I would have to rebuild Bigorski and be its spiritual leader. As for temptations, they were the same as for any monk: the struggle with the old sinful man within us, which is rotting away in the false lusts of this world, and engaging in ascetic life to master our passions and ego, and acquire blessed humility.
I did not learn how to make miters on Mount Athos, but rather this was generously passed on to me by the late Metropolitan Gelasius from the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria, originally from Resen (in western Macedonia). We had good, friendly relations with him and since he knew of my desire to establish a women’s monastery, he taught me how to make miters. Later, when the sisterhood of the Monastery of St. George the Victorious in Rajčica was founded, I passed this skill on to the sisters, and over time they perfected it and made it into what we have today.
MM: When you returned from Mount Athos, what did Bigorski Monastery look like? When were you tonsured a monk? Can you tell us about the life of the Monastery up to 2009, when part of the monastery complex caught on fire?
Bishop Partenij: When I arrived there with my first co-monk, now-Bishop Ilarion of Bregalnica, Bigorski Monastery was in a very bad state. It had been left to the mercy of time, almost five whole decades had passed without any monastic life in Bigorski, and so the resulting living conditions were very poor. The church was desolate, filthy, and defiled. The wonder-working icon of St. John the Baptist was completely blackened and extremely dirty. There was no cross on the altar, no Gospel book, not even the most basic things to celebrate a liturgy. The famous iconostasis had been gnawed at by rats and was utterly ruined with all kinds of filth. During the communist era, people even kept their cattle in the church. The living quarters were in no better shape. In the upper building, for example, there was no electricity, no running water, and no plumbing for toilets. There are photos and videos from that time, which show the utter desolation of the entire monastic complex.
I received monastic tonsure on August 5, 1995, at Vespers in honor of the Martyr Christina. I was tonsured by my bishop, His Eminence, Metropolitan Timotej of Debar and Kičevo, with whose blessing I had come to Bigorski and eventually became its abbot.
From the very beginning, we were faced with an enormous amount of work. First we had to clean up the church. The first thing I did was clean the wonder-working icon of St. John the Baptist, and asked his blessing on everything else that we would do. At the same time, as the Monastery’s eldest monk I introduced the full cycle of church services like I had seen and lived on Mount Athos. With long church services on the one hand and almost endless hard labor in the Monastery on the other, life for the first inhabitants of the restored Bigorski was extremely exhausting. I say all of us because after just a few months, I was joined by our Fr. Dositej, now an archimandrite, and then a year later by Fr. Makarij, both of whom are still here today and are real pillars of our brotherhood. Soon others followed and the Brotherhood grew. In the beginning, then, it was so hard it was almost unbearable, but God’s grace made up for our shortcomings and gave us strength. Looking back on it today, I am sure that it was those intense labors and self-sacrifice on the part of all of us then that laid the foundations for the spiritual life that we have in Bigorski today.
MM: The fire was a huge temptation, and also resulted in a lot of very difficult feelings. Today, the restored Monastery is absolutely sparkling. How many monks and novices are there in the Brotherhood? And what all is in the complex? For example, the library is amazing, among other buildings. Do you use it? I know there are many old books preserved in the library, when do they date from?
Bishop Partenij: Today, the Brotherhood has about thirty members. The entire Monastery complex is about 10,000 m2 of usable space, which includes: the main church of St. John the Forerunner, the Upper Palace building which has the monks’ cells, the pantry, the bakery, two refectories, a guest area, small and large synodikons, a large hall for special occasions, the monastery offices, the sewing room, laundry room, and the infirmary. Then there is the Lower Palace, which has the abbot’s quarters, the Annunciation chapel, the bishop’s quarters, a veranda, and guest rooms. The Eastern Palace building has rooms for both monks and guests, the chapel of St. Nicholas, and as we already mentioned, the library. The library is used by the monks, of course, but it’s also for anyone who is interested and loves books, for researchers and writers. The old collection of books that is preserved in the library today contains hand-written manuscripts and old printed books that date from the 17th century onwards.
MM: The monks are really involved in a huge amount of different activities. And you yourself are as well, it goes without saying. What does a typical day in the Monastery look like, when there aren’t any guests, when it isn’t a feast day? What are the monks most devoted to? The Eucharist, painting icons, what is the monastic rule like?
Bishop Partenij: The monastic day begins and ends with the most important activity of any monk’s life: prayer. Usually, we get up every morning at 5 am and do our prayer rules. Then we go to church for Matins, which is immediately followed by Divine Liturgy. In our Monastery, we have the great blessing of serving the Divine Liturgy every day, without exception. The Divine Liturgy is the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Mystery of Mysteries, the most central aspect of liturgical life in the Church, and the core of every believer’s spiritual life. Before our first meal, we serve a moleben to our heavenly protector, Saint John the Baptist. After the meal, every brother goes to their various obediences, or tasks in service of the community, of which there are many different ones. The entire monastic life is geared towards being in the service of God and of one’s neighbor, with a particular emphasis on prayer. As such, even more, important than obedience is prayer, which is the main emphasis of a monk’s life. Monks unceasingly say the Jesus Prayer silently inside themselves, which is something monks promise to do at their tonsure: that from morning to evening, and even during the night if possible, they will strive to say this short prayer. And even though it is short in its form, the Jesus Prayer is absolutely complete and perfect in its content and is the basis of hesychastic life. After all, a monk’s work day begins and ends with the Jesus Prayer, when he withdraws to his humble cell and is alone with God in silence and prayerful attention.
Yes, among other things, we have brothers who do iconography and mosaics. Our monastic rule is based on the ancient monastic typikon, but of course, it is somewhat modified according to the conditions in which we live and our surroundings.
MM: Your philanthropic work is everywhere, and includes so many different things. Besides helping families that cannot provide for themselves, you also help people addicted to alcohol, drugs, and gambling. What kind of treatment do you provide them with? Is it prayer, obedience? What is your relationship like with them? Do you have much contact with them yourself?
Bishop Partenij: The most essential thing in healing addicts, which here in the Monastery we refer to as our “children,” is above all the spiritual life. The Lord Christ is the ultimate physician of our souls and bodies. In the same vein, in order to attract His grace, we need to live a life in the holy mysteries of the Church, and in order to do that we need repentance, confession, prayer, fasting, abstinence, obedience, and most importantly: Holy Communion. Those who take their recovery seriously and who honestly open up to me as their spiritual father are often very quickly and relatively easily healed of their destructive passions. Many of them will come to love me like their father, and after they leave here they stay in close contact with me and the Monastery. After their stay here, the Monastery continues to help them in every way necessary.
MM: We can’t forget the miracles of St. John the Baptist that take place in the Monastery. Which ones would you say stand out from the last few years?
Bishop Partenij: St. John’s miracles here are innumerable. We sometimes write some of the miracles down that the faithful share with us and publish them. On our website, in the “Spiritual treasury” section, there is a special section entitled “Miracles of St. John,” where the brothers publish people’s testimonies about St. John the Baptist’s miracles that happen in our Monastery through his celebrated icon and his holy relics. Of course, for me, the greatest miracle of all is the spiritual transfiguration of the many souls who come here, of all the people who are burdened by sin and are resurrected to a new life. They pass from the slavery of sin to the freedom of the light of Christ. People are healed from depression and sadness, and start to have a living hope, they are transformed from moral decay and death to joy and happiness.
MM: Today, idealism has become of secondary importance, and materialism has taken over. At the same time, we hear more and more about shortages, poverty, and the like. People have become crude and insolent, in the widest sense. How can we maintain spiritual peace? What is most important?
Bishop Partenij: I am convinced that the solution for all existential problems lies in the Gospel of Christ and in the practical implementation of the Gospel in our daily lives, which of course, is entirely possible and can actually be done. Many people strive to live out the Gospel in their daily lives and in so doing, they find indescribable consolation and peace, and in the end, eternal salvation. The Savior of mankind, the Lord Jesus Christ, tells us a parable about a rich man whose field had been very fruitful. But instead of thinking about the people around him, the hungry, the weak, and those who needed his help, he got very greedy and his only concern was how to collect the harvest and keep it all for himself. Then, he decided to tear down his old barns and build new, bigger ones, where he put all these treasures that were not really his — because nothing in this world is ours, but rather God’s. He became almost frantic in his greed and desire for comfort, and this man, whom the Gospel calls foolish, in the sense of irrational, said to himself, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; rest, eat, drink and be merry!” But God responded, “Fool, tonight your soul will be required of you! Then whose will those things be which you have prepared?” (Luke 12:19-20). And undoubtedly it was so. In the race for ever more material goods, luxury, and pleasures, contemporary man harms his own soul, depriving himself of the joys of peace and a clear conscience. Once I said that modern civilization is in many ways like a terrible beast, which relentlessly runs to devour everything it sees, and if it doesn’t succeed in taking everything, then it scatters what remains, destroys it, and tramples it under its feet. The planet has been turned into a massive graveyard both for the environment and for man’s spirit. In the end, this cultural monster destroys even itself. Therefore, we need to realize that for a good, happy life, we actually require very little. Everything is dependent upon our mind’s attitude and the desires of our hearts. Let’s restrain our unnecessary and harmful desires a little more, let’s get our minds used to producing good and positive thoughts, and to thank God for even the small things and the smallest gifts. A humble, thankful person brings blessings both on himself and on those around him.
MM: Ethics are especially important in Christianity. What qualities should Christian men possess? What does Orthodoxy teach us about being a Christian man? What is your opinion on moral values and norms and how they play out in a man’s life?
Bishop Partenij: Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to see that even though Christian values have become universalized and spread throughout the world, they are all the same being ruthlessly trampled upon and relativized. In turn, this causes chaos in interpersonal relationships and creates a climate of distrust and alienation. This destroys the most sacred societal union we have: marriage. And, without marriage in the Christian sense, without this sacred union on which the whole structure and well-being of society rests, and consequentially the well-being of individual human beings, there can be nothing humane, healthy, sane, or serious. Just look around you and you can see right away how much various psychological problems and sufferings have multiplied among the people, from anxiety and panic attacks to the most severe types of depression. The primary reason for this lies in the dismantling and abandonment of the laws of God on a societal level. Quite simply, a person cannot live in opposition to Christ’s commandments of love, purity, humility, and self-control and still be internally fulfilled and happy. As the well-known contemporary saint of the Orthodox Church, Holy Father Paisios of the Holy Mountain, says: “Today people have everything, and yet they have sorrow, because they don’t have Christ.” In response to all this, my message for Orthodox men is that they establish themselves in “the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), as the Holy Apostle Paul advises us all. We must keep Christian marriage sacred, as it is not a legal contract between two individuals, but a divine institution. Essentially, marriage between one man and one woman, as we have known it for centuries, is a civilizational advancement that comes to us from Christianity. This is why we have to preserve it if we want to save and protect our civilization. The only way that we will save marriage is through sacrificial love. With his beautiful words about marriage, the same apostle tells us, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Of course, the same is true for wives as well. Thus, God calls spouses to love each other with the love of Christ. It is precisely this sacrificial, true, and lasting Divine Love that is the answer and solution to all problems and challenges. Of course, it is of great importance to preserve dignity, to grow and be brought up as a noble, moral, and prayerful person, with knowledge and, especially, with the virtue of self-control, which is actually the answer to the many vices present in the world today.
MM: The question of death is inevitable, including the fear of it. Irishman Herbie Brennan says that death is actually the greatest mystery of life. What do you think? There are many different opinions out there, that the body dies, but not the spirit, some see the soul as being energy, and so on.
Bishop Partenij: First of all, I would agree with the opinion of the Irish writer and philosopher Herbie Brennan. Undeniably, death has always been a great mystery for mankind. The question of death penetrates deep into the cognitive part of the soul, attacks it, and rules over it. There is almost no religion or philosophical system which does not deal with the mystery of death. This problem permeates the entirety of all humanity’s philosophical and literary heritage, and it would not be too bold of us to say that the history of literature is essentially the history of the question of death. Even in the world’s oldest preserved literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the central theme is death. Likewise, Odysseus is met with the frigidness of death when following the advice of the sorceress Circa, he descends to the underworld. Orpheus, the legendary musician, bravely fights death and tries many things to try to get his beloved Eurydice out of the world of shadows, but in the end, he has to leave her in it forever. Dante’s Divine Comedy takes place in the kingdom of the shadows. Shakespeare’s Hamlet also deals with the question of death and human existence; what else could the famous words, “To be or not to be?” refer to except the eternal question of life and death? Vladimir and Estragon, the protagonists of Beckett’s absurdity, will also deal with this question while waiting for Godot and wondering whether to hang themselves or live. Since it doesn’t matter, they want to go somewhere, but they don’t move. And what else can we say that would be different about all other works, perspectives of the human view of death, starting from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, all the way to Sisyphus by Camus and Dasein by Heidegger? All serious world literature, from its very beginning to the present day, asks what the meaning of human existence is in a world full of death and dying. The God-man Lord Jesus Christ also reacted with sadness to this terrible human condition, when He wept over His friend Lazarus, who had already been in the grave for four days and whose body had already begun to experience the results of death. When He wept over Lazarus, in fact He wept for all humanity, who was created for immortality but has fallen into mortality. Christ’s weeping is the most powerful demonstration of the tragic reality into which the race of Adam has fallen. But with His ineffable Incarnation, His salvific suffering, His life-giving Resurrection, the Son and Word of God “defeated death by death,” and with Himself, He resurrected fallen Adam, that is, every human being. The era of the books of the dead is now over, and the time has come for the Books of the Living. Christ is not only life but also truth. He is the world’s withdrawal from the lie into which it was cast by its separation from God, that is, death. Death is thus not only the opposite of life, but also of truth. This is why true life is not this biological one we see here on earth, but rather it is a personal relationship with God. Whoever has united themself with Christ has passed from death to life. First in their soul, and then in their body at the General Resurrection, when the bodies of all the dead will be refashioned and transformed, resurrected from corruption, to appear at the Judgment. At the same time, Christ’s resurrection is undoubtedly the most reliable, most proven fact in the history of mankind. The Risen Christ was seen by many eyewitnesses, most of whom would later lay down their lives for this truth. He is witnessed to even today by the many souls who are transformed, ennobled, made joyful, and illuminated by Him. If something is not true, it obviously cannot have the power to radically change people or resurrect them. And, behold, the Lord Jesus Christ, after His death and Resurrection, humbly yet powerfully changed the world and to this day He quietly resurrects and transfigures many people.
MM: Can you tell us what the name Partenij means? It’s from the Greek word for virginity, but what is your interpretation of it?
Bishop Partenij: The name Partenij is derived from the ancient Greek noun and adjective παρθένος (parthénos), which means virgin or virginal. More precisely, in Ancient Greece, Παρθένος was another name for the ancient Greek goddess Athena, who was seen as the protectress of virginity. Later on, in the Christian era, it became closely associated with the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, almost as her second name, and in her honor, it came to be used as a personal name throughout the Christian world, including here. As for me personally, the name Partenij was given to me by my honorable Bishop Timotei, in honor of Saint Parthenius of Lampsaki. It was also given to me because several important abbots and monks of Bigorski Monastery throughout history were also named Partenij. In fact, it used to be a rather common name in the Mijački region.
MM: What do you see as being the art of love? What is the essence of love? God is love, isn’t He?
Bishop Partenij: Earlier, we spoke about love as the ultimate life principle. I don’t think I could add anything more intelligent or deep here, except to repeat the words of St. Paul, who, speaking of incarnate Love, of Christ God, says: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). And that God is undoubtedly love, writes the Apostle of Love, St. John the Theologian, who saw and proclaimed that “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). So love, by which I mean true, spiritual, self-sacrificing love, is the sign by which true followers of Christ are recognized. He Himself says: “By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Finally, love will be the sign by which God will recognize us for eternity.
MM: With how busy you are, do you ever have time for making miters? Or did you give the work over completely to the nuns in Rajčica? Of course, there are several types, which are the most difficult to make?
Bishop Partenij: As I already said, I gave the task of making miters entirely into the hands of the Sisters. I only help them with advice and suggestions for combinations when making some of the more complex miters.
MM: Good aesthetics is a part of your nature, your refined sense of the beautiful is very noticeable and your love for music is so clear. Was it your idea to combine church singing with the Philharmonic orchestra, which resulted in several concerts? Then, as far as I know, the nuns in Rajčica chant using Byzantine notation. Did you master this ancient chant form as well?
Bishop Partenij: Ever since I was a child, I developed a love for Eastern church singing and Byzantine music. I remember, at home in Bitola, on the radio, we caught frequencies from some Greek stations that broadcast services from the local churches or broadcast Byzantine music. Then, when I went to Mount Athos, the brothers there taught me the basics, to Byzantine notation and chant in that way. When I came to Bigorski, I immediately introduced our ancient and traditional Eastern Orthodox chanting. Elder Naum did the same in the monasteries that are under his spiritual leadership. I say ours, because, in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, numerous famous authors, collectors, and reformers of this kind of chant were born from the soil of Macedonia. We also have examples of when even secular folk songs were recorded with the Byzantine notation system. Over time, therefore, Eastern-style chant spread from our monasteries to city churches, choirs were formed, and at one time it was even studied as a subject in the Secondary Theological School. In the meantime, our monastery sent students to be educated in the famous schools, directed by prominent and very experienced protopsaltai (Byzantine cantors renowned for their mastery of the skill) in Athens and Thessaloniki. Those students returned here as licensed teachers. We also maintain close cooperation with many prominent cantors throughout the Orthodox world, and it often happens that they and their choirs come here or we visit somewhere for a service with our monastery choir. Eastern-style chant is, indeed, quite complex and it can be said that it is really an entire science, therefore it requires constant improvement, study, and practice.
On the other hand, the goal of the concerts of Byzantine music and chant, organized by our Bigorski and Rajčica monasteries, was that through a special spiritual and musical presentation, we could help people to better appreciate the unique and deep experience of the Holy Week liturgies. It’s interesting to note that for the first time in the history of Macedonian music, a philharmonic orchestration of ancient Eastern Orthodox chants was produced.
MM: Finally, we see today that social media is full of recommendations for spiritual life, things like written texts that are supposed to instantly solve problems, prayers for one thing or another, about what not to do on a feast day, and so on. What do you think, is it a (mis)use of faith and piety just to get more followers and more likes? What is your advice to people about this kind of religion on social media that is without an ethical foundation?
Bishop Partenij: I have spoken about the serious mental health consequences of abusing social media many times in my sermons and interviews. And on every occasion, I emphasized that people should be especially careful, discerning, and extremely selective about the information they get from the internet. So, not every page or profile that has icons or “Orthodox” texts is truly Orthodox in content. Today with social media, every individual, whether invited or not, professional or self-taught, is given a public space to express themselves without any restrictions. Or, as the Italian writer and semiotician Umberto Eco puts it bluntly, “social media gives legions of idiots the right to express their opinions, which before they could only do in a bar, after a glass of wine, and without harming society … But now they have the same rights as a Nobel laureate to speak. It’s an invasion of idiots.” This is why great vigilance is needed because there are quite a large number of people with mental and psychological disorders, sociopaths, religious schizophrenics, self-proclaimed prophets and teachers, ignorant people, and people full of hatred and envy on social media. The fact that such people use Orthodox icons and quotes from saints and elders does not make them true or stable believers. There are even those who recklessly abuse someone else’s name or institution, and write posts that are supposedly with those other people’s approval and blessing. Therefore, my advice to readers is, when it comes to anything related to faith, you should be informed and educated from official, verified pages and profiles, managed by serious, tested spiritual persons or institutions, be they priests, monasteries, or dioceses. Of course, the best spiritual education is in church, at Divine Liturgy, as well as from the sermons of experienced clergymen, through the reading of the Holy Scriptures, the works and lives of the Saints, and, through prayer and good works, which are conceived in our minds and supported by the grace of God.
Photography: Stefan Rajhl / Bigorski Monastery archives