About His Life
Rastko Nemanjic, or Sava Nemanjic in monasticism, was a Serbian prince who made great contributions to the whole Orthodox world, not just his own Serbia. He was the son of Stefan Nemanja and Ana who were both devoted to God. From his early childhood, Rastko did not think about inheriting his father’s kingdom and aspired to monasticism, knowing that the kingdom will be taken care of his brothers Vukan and Stefan.
Very early in his life, in late teenage years, Sava departed his home and went to the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos) to receive monastic tonsure. He was tonsured at a Russian monastery called Rusik. He departed that monastery and spent the best years of his monastic life at the Greek monastery of Vatopedi at the Holy Mountain. There, he was joined by his father who also became a monk and received the name Simeon. While they were living at Vatopedi, Sava learned Greek and learned Byzantine chanting. Sava was such a good chanter that he ended up being the Protopsaltis (first chantor) of the Holy Mountain.
When the time was right and when he received permission from the abbots of the Holy Mountain, he went with his father and rebuilt Hilandar monastery. This monastery was originally founded by Georgios Hilandariou but was renewed again and rebuilt by Sava and his father Simeon. During this time, many Serbian monks started coming to Hilandar and the Holy Mountain in general. At Hilandar, St. Sava used the typikon (order of church services) of Vatopedi monastery as well as Byzantine chant.
St. Sava also helped our Church to obtain its autonomy and autocephaly. His political connections in the Orthodox world and particularly Constantinople helped him rise to the spiritual heights of being the first Archbishop of the Serbian lands. He organized Serbian Churches based on the Athonite model. This included Byzantine/Serbian Architecture and Byzantine chanting as well as various different typikons of the Church that were taken from various parts of the Orthodox world; mostly from Palestine, Jerusalem and Constantinople, and also Alexandria. (When the Patriarch of Alexandria visited Serbia a few years ago he thanked St. Sava for the gifts he brought to Alexandria during his visit! There has been almost 8 centuries since Sava visited Egypt!)
Wherever Sava was, he was always a great ambassador of the Serbian people. Skin color or nationality were not his concern. He always sought what was good in everyone and tried to expand the borders of Serbian Orthodoxy into heights that no Orthodox Church achieved at that time. As a great ambassador of Serbs, he was loved by every race of men and every Orthodox and even non-Orthodox nations. This is why he is also known as Equal to the Apostles!
St Sava died in Bulgaria on Theophany enjoying the outmost respect in the Orthodox world as a Saint who he was while he was still alive.
What does his example mean to us now in America?
To many Serbs, St. Sava represents different things. However, many understand St. Sava to have been Serbian nationalist. The truth is that St. Sava is a SAINT. To be a Saint means to be above Nationalist categories and live for heavenly reality. This does not mean that Sava was not passionate about the good of his Serbs, he absolutely was! However, through that passion many people benefited both Serbs and non-Serbs. Therefore St. Sava is first and foremost the symbol of Orthodoxy and tolerance and not the Symbol of Serbian-ness. When he organized the Church in the Serbian lands, he took what was the best from all over the Orthodox world. He was not afraid to be a Greek, or Antiochian or Russian, or Alexandrian in the Orthodox sense. What we see in the Orthodox Church of Serbia is the blend of various traditions that exist in other Churches. Serbian Orthodoxy, as defined by St Sava, is pan-orthodoxy or ALL ORTHODOXY. Of course, everything is blended into one seamless whole which today we call Serbian Orthodoxy.
The truth of the matter is this, there is not a church in the Orthodox world that can say that has what the Serbian Church has. Through St. Sava we have everything that is good from every branch of Orthodoxy. The Spirit of the Serbian Church is therefore the Spirit of inclusiveness, the spirit of brotherhood and compassion and as such is incredibly potent when it comes to our mission in the American lands. Just like St Sava, we should never hide behind National categories and justify our exclusivity. If we want to follow the path of St. Sava of Serbia, we will accept with open arms everyone who is coming to our Church to meet Christ and gain salvation. The moment we stop thinking about our Church in relation to other Orthodox Churches or to other Orthodox and even Non- Orthodox Christians, we will know that we are not on the path of St Sava.
Whenever we hear our kids singing hymns to St. Sava, remember that they are always singing hymns to freedom, equality, love of our neighbors, and openness. When these songs of theirs hit our hearts and we start living what our kids are singing, we will know truly what it means to be the disciple of Christ, the disciple of St. Sava of Serbia.