Orthodox America

In Memoriam - Archpriest Gragolyub Sokich  

Late in the evening of Sunday, 21 May, I received sad news by telephone. My dear old friend Archpriest Dragolyub Sokich, retired pastor of the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint John the Baptist in Paterson, New Jersey, had passed away that morning. His passing was not unexpected; he had suffered from an incurable illness of the kidneys for some time already.  I left hurriedly the next morning and was able to attend the funeral in Paterson on the morning of Tuesday, 23 May.

Father Dragolyub was a special person; everyone who knew him sensed that he was unusual. In his youth he had wanted to become a monk, but God's Providence ordained otherwise.  He married and became the father of a family. Yet though he lived in the midst of worldly cares-he worked in road construction for many years-there was always something intense and other-worldly about him. He was born and raised in Serbia. As a young man he fought in the civil war against the communist forces which eventually, thanks to Western support, took over Yugoslavia. He was keenly aware of God's protection in all the dangers and battles that he passed through. After the war he became a refugee from his homeland. He came to the United States and studied theology at Saint Vladimir's Seminary in New York, where he met one of the great influences of his life, the outstanding Russian emigré theologian, Father Georges Florovsky.  The other significant influence on his spiritual development was another of the great figures of Orthodoxy in this century, the saintly Serbian scholar, spiritual writer and preacher of religious revival, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, whom he served for a time as personal secretary. Ever after Father Dragolyub would recall examples and saying from these two teachers. One story told how he witnessed an unforgettable meeting between two contemporary saints, Bishop Nikolai (who is widely venerated as a saint) and Saint John Maximovitch. Each perceived the other's sanctity and made a deep bow.

Father Dragolyub was a man of uncompromising honesty and unshakable conviction. He had no use for the niceties and intrigues of church politics. His inability to be a hypocrite kept him from being ordained for many years after he finished his theological studies. After Bishop Nikolai's death, the Serbian Orthodox diocese in North America was dominated by a bishop of very doubtful character, who later caused a schism in his Church. Only years later, when this bishop was removed, and the Church faced great problems and conflicts, was Father Dragolyub ordained to the priesthood, so that he could defend the Church from the schismatic forces. He continued to work as a construction engineer, and his wife Olga as a teacher; he never relied on the Church for his support. He devoted all his free time to building up the Serbian Orthodox parish of Saint George in Elizabeth, New Jersey. That was where I met him, back in 1970, when by God's grace I was drawn to the Holy Orthodox Church. I often attended this church, and I always received support and words of wisdom from Father. Sadly, he was not understood or appreciated by many of his parishioners and countrymen.  Though he was a true Serb through and through, he always insisted on the supreme importance of the Orthodox faith over all other categories of nationality or culture.  I can clearly remember occasions when Father's family, or sometimes I myself, would be in church for a service, while parishioners would walk right past the church and go into the hall to eat, drink and socialize. Later, Father Dragolyub left Elizabeth and founded a new Serbian Orthodox parish in Paterson, New Jersey, where he tried to make parish life more church-centered. For example, when a folk dance group was formed in the parish, all the children and young people attending were expected to participate in religious instruction in between their dance rehearsals.  /. . . /

When I was already a priest, but had no parish of my own, Father welcomed me into his parish and made me his unofficial assistant for as long as I remained in the area. I witnessed how he celebrated the Divine Liturgy-with great seriousness, often with tears. He strove, he said, for "100% concentration," because he could never forget the mystical reality that is at the heart of the Liturgy, where everything is on another plane. In his words, "You cannot embrace the All-embracing, you cannot conceive the Inconceivable." The proskomedia, when the priest cuts the bread and pours the wine in preparation for the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, he would describe as "metaphysical surgery." He felt a real bond with those whose names he commemorated, no matter where they might be.  "A man is at his best when he is praying for others," he said. He pointed out that three times in the priestly prayers of the Liturgy, we recall that God has brought us out of non-being into being.  The Liturgy was at the very center of his life.  From Sunday to Wednesday, he told me, one should give thanks for the Liturgy, and from Wednesday to the following Sunday prepare for the Liturgy.

Father Dragolyub, though surrounded by all the demands and pressures of the world, thought constantly of his soul, his death and the sinfulness that is the lot of us all.  All his life he prepared for death.  He had no time for mundane things, such as gossip or church politics. When I would telephone him and ask, "How are you, Father?" he would sometimes reply, "I am taking a bath in my sins." He preferred to talk about philosophy and theology, rather than everyday news and scandals. He was a witness to the power of prayer in ways that sometimes verged on the miraculous. He devoted much of his free time to writing, especially in his later years, after he retired from his job.  As his health declined, he devoted his time to revising a memoir of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, which he had written many years before, and to writing another book, in which he gathered together all the unusual and supernatural occurrences which he had encountered in his pastoral experience, to show the penetration of this world by another world.

Now Father Dragolyub himself has gone to that "desired fatherland."  I shall not forget him; I count it a privilege to have known him. It is not easy to convey one's personal experience to others, but I wanted to write a few words about my friend and teacher, mindful of Saint Paul's admonition: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.

Hieormonk German Ciuba

(Reprinted from Prikhodskoi Vestnik, The monthly newsletter of Saint Xenia parish, Nepean, Ontario, July 1995.)

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