Saint Nicholas Velimirovitch

Saint Nicholas Velimirovitch

—by Juljia Vidovic


Saint Nikolai Velimirovic (1880-1956) was bishop of Ohrid and of Zhicha in the Serbian Orthodox Church. As an influential theological writer and a highly gifted orator, he became known as ‘the New Chrysostom.’1 Bishop Nikolai strongly supported the unity of all Orthodox Churches and established particularly good relationships with the Anglican, the Old Catholic and the American Episcopalian Church. His presence in England during the years of the Great War did much to strengthen the friendship between the Church of England and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in general, and the Serbian Church in particular. His original Christian eloquence made a deep impression and his warm personality won him many friends. As the Bishop of London wrote at the time: “Father Nikolai Velimirovic by his simplicity of character and devotion has won all our hearts.”2 In his lifetime, Bishop Nikolai visited the United States of America several times, and perhaps of all Eastern Orthodox churchmen was the best known to America. After his speech at the Institute of Politics in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1927, a reporter covering the event wrote,

“His black monk’s robe, his long black beard, and his dark, living eyes, set in an oval Slavic face, gave him an appearance which contrasted as strongly with that of conventionally dressed professors and diplomats as did his views of the common problems of world peace contrast with theirs. His charm and urbanity of manner, the completeness of his grasp upon international problems only emphasized the difference in his thought … Bishop Nikolai, speaking from the point of view of a civilization in which men still are more important than institutions, points out that peace or war is a matter of the way men think and feel toward each other, and that all other things are only outgrowths of this. The greatest force for affecting men’s attitudes toward each other he believes would be a reunited Christian Church.”3

Nikolai’s attitude toward ecumenism is shown by his participation, as an Orthodox bishop and theologian, in the ecumenical meetings and dialogues between the two World Wars, and later he was present, as the accredited visitor, at the meeting of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, in 1954. In his approach to ecumenism we can distinguish two different phases. In his early works, Bishop Nikolai considered the prerequisite for the achievement of union among the Churches to be not so much agreement in doctrine as mutual love. He wrote in The Agony of the Church,

“The Church of England cannot be saved without the Church of the East, nor the Church of Rome without Protestantism; nor can England be saved without Serbia, nor Europe without China, nor America without Africa, nor this generation without the generations past and those to come. We are all one life, one organism. If one part of this organism is sick, all other parts should be suffering. Therefore let the healthy parts of the Church take care of the sick ones. Self-sufficiency means the postponement of the end of the world and the prolongation of human sufferings. It is of no use to change Churches and go from one Church to another seeking salvation: salvation is in every Church as long as a Church thinks and cares in sisterly love for all other Churches, looking upon them as parts of the same body, or there is salvation in no Church so long as a Church thinks and cares only for herself, contemptuously denying the rights, beauty, truth and merits of all other Churches. It is a great thing to love one’s Church, as it is a great thing to love one’s country, but it is much better to love other Churches and other countries too. Now, in this time, when the whole Christian world is in a convulsive struggle one part against the other, now or never the consciousness of


the desire for one Church of Christ on earth should dawn in our souls, and now or never should the appreciation, right understanding and love for each part of this one Church of Christ on earth dawn in our souls, and now or never should the appreciation, right understanding and love for each part of this one Church begin in our hearts.”4

It seems that at first he emphasizes only love and has little to say regarding the theology of the Orthodox Church. However, as bishop Athanasius pointed out, this does not mean that he denies the authenticity and uniqueness of the Eastern Orthodox Church, nor does he consider her lacking or defective in any way;5 rather, in the context of the wartime drama encompassing his and other European nations, he sincerely wishes for the unifi cation of all European Christian communities for their benefi t and for the benefi t of other Christians in the world.6 He clearly expresses the Orthodox stance with regard to the ideal of Church unifi cation: “We must return to the only source of Christian strength and majesty – to the spirit of Christ. This rebirth and the revival of Christianity are possible only in a united Church of Christ. This unity is possible only if built on the foundations of the original Church.”7 The above quotation confirms that in Saint Nikolai’s opinion, there is continuity in two things: 1) only the Orthodox Church has the plenitude of Christ, but this is not her own treasure but the treasure of Christ accessible to everyone; 2) the relationship of the Orthodox Church with other Churches must be a relationship of love, so that they can recognize the treasure that the Orthodox Church carries.

However this explains also his harsh criticism of two things:

1) The poverty of European civilization. He observes that the spirit of any civilization is inspired by its religion, and whenever we divide a civilization from her religion, she is condemned to die. He states that “the Christian religion, which inspired the greatest things that Europe ever possessed in every point of human activity, was degraded by means of new watchwords: individualism, liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, imperialism, secularism, which in essence meant nothing but the de-christianization of European society, or, in other words, emptiness of European civilization.”8 That leads him to conclude that Europe, in abandoning Christ, abandoned all the greatest things she possessed and clung to the lower, and indeed the lowest, ones.

2) The secularization of the Church. According to Bishop Nikolai, “Liberalism, conservatism, ceremonialism, right, nationalism, imperialism, law, democracy, autocracy, republicanism, socialism, scientific criticism, and similar things have filled Christian theology, Christian service, Christian pulpits as the Christian Gospel. In reality the Christian Gospel is as different from all these worldly ideas and temporal forms as heaven is different from earth. For all these worldly ideas and temporal forms were earthly, bodily – a convulsive attempt to change unhappiness for happiness through the changing of institutions. The Church ought to have been indifferent towards them, pointing always to her principal idea, embodied in Christ. This principal idea never meant a change of external things, of institutions, but rather a change of spirit. All the ideas named above are secular precepts to cure the world’s evil, the very poor drugs to heal a sick Europe, outside of the Church and without the Church.”9


He concludes that the Church ought to give an example to secular Europe: an example of humility, goodness, sacrifice – saintliness. And he asks: “Which of the Churches ought to give this example for the salvation of Europe and of the world?” and answers, “Whichever undertakes to lead the way will be the most glorious Church. For she will lead the whole Church, and through the Church, Europe, and through Europe, the whole world, to holiness and victory, to God and His Kingdom.”10

As we can see from the passages quoted above, the first period of Nikolai’s maturation and thoughtful presentation of his understanding of man, the Church, the world, the global society, and God, is full of quests and questioning, sometimes even rebellion and revolutionary zeal, seeking for something deeper and more holistic. In this period he will write, entirely in the movement of the spirit of his time that “Christianity is not a museum where everything is set from the start, but a workshop in which the roar of labor never stops.”11 All his questing for the grasp of dead ideas and petrifi ed structures of thought and life are in fact the pursuit of and the struggle for a living faith in the living God, the deep inner meaning and structuring of the whole being. Metropolitan Amphilocus notes, “While being in constant dialogue with Europe and America, in his first period of life, we can say that Bishop Nikolai considered himself, especially toward Europe, as a student.”12 He was tied to the reality of the societal currents and messianic enthusiasms of his time, distinctive to Europe and to European intellectual and ecclesiastical circles in the fi rst half of the twentieth century. But in his mature period, in the wartime and postwar time – sobered by Nazism and Bolshevism, and after experiencing Dachau – he no longer behaved toward Europe as a student but rather as a prophet who, in the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, felt responsible for not only for his people but for all the people of Europe and the world without exception.13

Nikolai begins in his youth with a kind of ecumenical humanistic vision of the Church, but in deepening his experience of the Church (which was the result of his encounter with Orthodox Russia, the Ohrid of Ss. Clement and Naum, and the Holy Mountain of St. Sava and other Athonite Fathers), he develops a clear distinction between “heterodox churches” and the Orthodox Church. He goes even further in The Century from Ljubostinja,14 writing that in the Christian world only the Orthodox Church holds the Gospel as the only absolute truth and is not governed in the spirit of this century.”15 In many aspects he came close to the ways of the early Christians, the Apostles and Church Fathers, who introduced theology into everyday life, who not only lived by it but also with it.16 This is the reason why he reproaches most sternly Western Christianity for its easy adaptation to worldly circumstances. Thus the main difference between East and West, according to him, is in “a different understanding of the Gospel of Christ – the West understands it as a theory, one of the theories, and the East as an ascetical struggle (podvig), and practice.”17

However, this does not mean that Bishop Nikolai was no longer open to ecumenical dialogue. That would be in complete opposition to his inner being; that of a truly godly man who realized and achieved a balance


between the individual and the general, the material and spiritual, God and man, national and pan-human. He was able to succeed in doing this through the mystery of Christ, the Only Lover of man, as he called Him in one of his final works, in the mystery of Christ’s Orthodox Church. Thus we can read in his inspired report from the Second Meeting of the World Council of Churches held in Evanston, Illinois, 15 - 31 August 1954: “In Evanston, one name brought all together and closer – Jesus Christ”; he continues: “As mentioned later (in the statement of Florovsky)18 the fact that if each denomination contains only a part of the Christian faith, only the Orthodox Church contains the totality and plenitude of the true faith, ‘which was transmitted to the saints once and for all’ (Jude 3). Hope in Christ [an allusion to the theme of the meeting] is based on the true and whole faith, for it is written: first faith, then hope and then love, otherwise it is a house without foundation. The same applies to eschatology which was contained in that faith from the beginning. Without such faith, it is difficult to approach with truth the Christ who is considered as the complete Hope, as well as the eschatological Christ who is destined to accomplish human history and to be the eternal Judge. The union of all the churches cannot be achieved through mutual concessions but only by adherence by all to the one true faith in its entirety, as it was bequeathed by the Apostles and formulated at the Ecumenical Councils; in other words, by the return of all Christians in the one and indivisible Church to which belonged the ancestors of all Christians in the entire world during the first ten centuries after Christ. It is the Holy Orthodox Church.”19


  • Faith in the Resurrection of Christ as the Fundamental Dogma of the Apostolic Church, Doctoral thesis, Bern, 1910 (translated in Serbian, Collected Works, vol. 2, Himmelstür, 1986).
  • Serbia in Light and Darkness, with a Preface by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Green and Co., (London: Longmans, 1916; repr., New York: Cosimo. Classics, 2007)
  • Beyond Sin and Death, “Collected Works”, vol. 6, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • The Religion of Njegosh, “Collected Works”, vol. 1, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • Orations on the Universal Man, “Collected Works”, vol. 2, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • Prayers by the lake, “Collected Works”, vol. 10, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • New Sermons at the Foot of the Mount, “Collected Works”, vol. 1, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • Thoughts on Good and Evil, (Serbian Orthodox Parish, Linz, 2001) (in Serbian)
  • The Prologue from Ohrid, vol.1 and 2, (Sebastian Press, Western American Diocese, 2012) (in English)
  • Letters from India, “Collected Works”, vol. 2, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • The Spiritual Lyrics, (Glas Crkve, Valjevo, 2003) (in Serbian)
  • The Only Lover of Mankind, “Collected Works”, vol. 10, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • The Faith of Educated People, “Collected Works”, vol. 17, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1997), 41-113 (in Serbian)
  • The Symbols and Signs, “Collected Works”, vol. 3, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • Emmanuel, “Collected Works”, vol. 9, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • Cassiana - the Science on Love, “Collected Works”, vol. 9, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)
  • The Land of No Return, “Collected Works”, vol. 9, (Bigz, Valjevo:Beograd, 1996) (in Serbian)


Source: Pantelis Kalaitzidis et al., eds., Orthodox Handbook on Ecumenism: Resources for Theological Education (Volos GR: Volos Academy Publications; Geneva: WCC Publications; Oxford: Regnum Books, 2014). Numbers in square brackets [xxx] are the original page numbers.
  • 1. Cf. Bishop Artemije (Radosavljevic), “The New Chrysostom. Bishop Nicolai 1880-1956”, in Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic), Treasures New and Old. Writings by and about St. Nicolai Velimirovic, (California-Vrnjacka Banja: Sebastian Press), 15-59.
  • 2. Cf. Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic), Treasures New and Old. Writings by and about St. Nicolai Velimirovic, (California-Vrnjacka
    Banja, Sebastian Press, 2010).
  • 3. “Living Age”, 335-6 (1928-1929).
  • 4. Saint Nicolai Velimirovic, Agony of the Church (last accessed on the 6 December 2012).
  • 5. Nikolai’s devotion to the Eastern Orthodox Church is clearly expressed in his speech at the meeting of the Anglican-Orthodox Society on 16th of December 1919, convened in the Cathedral of St. Paul in London (in English, with three additional texts: The Spiritual Rebirth of Europe, London, 1920), when he talked about the “principles of the Eastern Orthodox Church,” which are: 1) the “principle of infallibility” of the Ecumenical Council that represents all local Christian Churches guided by the Holy Spirit and 2) the “principle of inclusiveness,” which has been “in the prayers of the Christian East for the unification of all Christians.”
  • 6. Bishop Athanasius (Yevtic), “The Christology of St. Nikolai, Bishop of Ohrid and Zhicha”, in Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic), Treasures New and Old. Writings by and about St. Nicolai Velimirovic, (Sebastian Press, California-Vrnjacka Banja, 2010) 146.
  • 7. Saint Nicolai Velimirovic, Agony of the Church (last accessed on the 6 December 2012).
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Metropolitan Amphilocius (Radovic), (last accessed on the 6 December 2012). Metropolitan Amphilocus also notes that “Encouraged and inspired by the great ideas of Western Christian nations, (Nicolai) remained to the end of his life loyal to his perception, which was expressed in sermon, “Biti ili Delati” (“To Be or To Do”), where the East is “to be” and the West is “to do.” God’s is to be and to do. That is why only through the unifi cation of being and doing is it possible to fi nd a balance between the human being and human history” (The Theanthropic Ethos of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich”, in Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic), Treasures New and Old. Writings by and about St. Nicolai Velimirovic, (Sebastian Press, California-Vrnjacka Banja, 2010, 129-130).
  • 12. Metropolitan Amphilocius (Radovic), “The Theanthropic Ethos of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich”, 129.
  • 13. Ibid., 130.
  • 14. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic (last accessed on the 6 December 2012).
  • 15. Ibid.
  • 16. Cf. Djordje Janic, Hadji into Eternity, (Belgrade, 1994).
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic) pointed out that Nikolai reported accurately the positions taken personally by Father Georges Florovsky and that he adhered completely (cf. “Trois théologiens serbes entre l’Orient et l’Occident. Nicolas Velimirovic, Justin Popovic et Athanase Jevtic”, in Istina 56 (2011): 63-78 (in French)).
  • 19. St. Nicolai Velimirovic, from 20 October 1954 and reprinted in Collected Works. Vol. 13, Himmelsthür, 1986, 42-46 (in Serbian).