Rev. Dr. Vasilije Vranic, economos

Stewardship as Ktitorstvo

At the occasion of celebration of the 800th Anniversary of the University of Cambridge, a benefactor with ties to the University donated a set of bells to the University Church, the Great St. Mary’s. The donation included twelve bells, the cost of which made the donation a major, founding contribution to the University. In his comments on the motives for this act of generosity, the donor said: “I am delighted to help Cambridge University and Great St. Mary’s sustain their important and historic partnership in this 800th anniversary year. It gives me great pleasure to know that these new bells will be enjoyed by everyone in Cambridge for many hundreds of years to come.” [emphasis mine]

One will undoubtedly ask what does a donation to an Anglican church in England have to do with Orthodox Serbs across the Ocean? But it is relevant to the dynamics of our ecclesial life, and as I hope to demonstrate here, it could also be a reminder of a part of our own tradition. It is the awareness of the historical and perennial importance of that donor’s generosity and its altruistic nature that reminds one of the Ktitorstvo, a great tradition of the Serbian people, which, unfortunately, seems to be somewhat dwindling at present. Ktitorstvo stands for a tradition of founding religious or charitable establishments, such as churches, monasteries, hospitals, educational institutions. Thus, it is deeply rooted in the Christian ideal of charity and altruism.

There is also another aspect of Ktitorstvo – it provides a noble satisfaction to the benefactor. It is through his/her foundation that the benefactor continues to live both visibly, for as long as the foundation stands, and historically, through the eternal commemoration of generosity by which an establishment was inaugurated. Again, there is an example from the University of Cambridge. The famous Trinity College was founded by King Henry VIII in the 16th century. In history Henry VIII will be remembered as a very energetic and controversial ruler. However, in the scholarly world he will be remembered forever by this monumental foundation. Yet, Trinity College was founded by a royal decree uniting two older colleges. Neither of them exists physically any more. One of those was Michaelhouse, which was founded by a certain Henry de Stanton (Lord Chief Justice of Edward II). Although this college does not exist anymore, Lord Stanton will nonetheless be remembered forever as the founder of one of the first colleges at the dawn of institutionalization of higher education.

To turn to our own tradition, it is virtually impossible to consider the history of Serbian people without being overwhelmed by the generous and long-sighted acts of Ktitorstvo. When thinking about Ktitorstvo one’s mind goes immediately to such pearls of architecture as Studenica, Hilandar, Zicha, Dechani, whose  founders were members of the royal Nemanja dynasty. In the more recent history there are also foundations of public service such as Foundations of Ilija Kolarac and Sima Igumanov. These two men were not of royal ancestry, but they continue to live in the consciousness of the Serbian people as great patrons of culture and education. Kolarac is remembered by his concert and lecture hall, and Igumanov by his generous foundation, which provided funds for the Serbian Seminary in Prizren until the last exodus of Serbs from Kosovo.

And it is this tradition of Ktitorstvo that now needs to be reinvigorated in order for our church on this continent to continue to thrive. We often here about Stewardship and the necessity of our people to take an active part in preserving the sacred mission of our Church by supporting it not only financially, but also with their talents. And evidently this Stewardship is nothing else but another word for Ktitorstvo. Conceptually, stewardship is not different in any way from the age-long Serbian tradition of Ktitorstvo, upon which our culture, national identity, and tradition were founded.

In the ancient Rome, the victorious military generals were greeted in special triumphant parades, which greatly resembled religious ritualistic celebrations. The ecstatic crowd of admirers often hailed the generals as divine. Yet, the wise Romans would always appoint a servant to stand next to the general during the procession and to constantly repeat the words: “Remember you shall die!” I think that nowadays in our decision-making process, and our everyday lives in general, we lack the clear awareness of the truth that the human life is ephemeral. The Psalmist describes the fleeting human existence in this world with the words: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”[Ps 103:15-16] Also, man’s life is described to be “like a breath, his days are like a shadow.” [Ps 144:4] Even a brief meditation on these texts and on the reality of the shortness of human life on Earth points to an obligation that, while looking to the prospect of eternal life, each and every one of us has to leave behind a monument to our earthly existence. What more noble witness of our existence could one leave then the one tested and proved by time – Ktitorstvo or Stewardship?! Should we not, just as that Cambridge benefactor did, take our pleasure in knowing that by building ourselves into something immortal, each according to his/her ability, our own existence will be marked by something noble and memorable? Ktitorstvo, or stewardship, is our sure way to memory eternal.

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