Sunday, November 28, 2010

Draga: the Serbian Orthodox Church

Today it was my delightful pleasure to partake in a Serbian Orthodox worship service for the first time. I’m most familiar with protestant denominations, ranging from deep Calvinism to the jollies of North American evangelicalism, and lately I’ve found solace in the structure and foundation of the abundance of imagery of Catholicism.

Today I’ve witnessed a living tradition that goes back to the eastern Roman empire, entirely foreign to me. Most unusual I found that the entire congregation stood for the hour and a half it took the priests to go through their rituals. It was nine in the morning on a rainy Sunday, and the church was full, and everybody stood. Orthodox churches have no chairs, Draga said under her breath.

Serbian Orthodoxy was founded in 1217 by Sava, now venerated as a saint, who was also a chief legislator and did much to establish the Serbians as an autonomous people. Hence Serbian Orthodoxy also serves as element of the national identity of Serbia, not unlike the Church of England, or even the Reformation as a whole, which manifested much of the breaches of nations in Western Europe.

Like Catholicism, Serbian Orthodoxy maintains a Romanesque pantheon of saints, who are either Serbian defenders of the faith or as often defenders of the Serbian nation. As in pre-church Rome, national politics in Serbia always had a religious component to it. In 1517 a Serbian militia thought it proper to march onto the Ottoman empire. They were defeated, the Ottomans decided to strike back, and in 1540 the whole area came under Turkish rule. The Turks stayed 400 years, but their lasting influence is contained only in the Serbian addiction to what is called Turkish coffee (a thimble of violently strong coffee resting on a hardy scoop of coffee ground blubber).

In 1594 the Turks decided they needed to make a statement, dug up the bones of Saint Sava, brought them to Belgrade and burned them on a central hill called Vračar. When the Turks left Serbia, the Serbians decided they needed to make a statement too, and began to build the largest church in the Balkans; a temple devoted to saint Sava, precisely on the spot where his bones were violated. It reminds me of the temple of Solomon, which also underscored the identity of a nation, and which was built on the same mount Moria where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac, from whom that nation would spring.

     “It’s not finished yet,” says Draga next to me.
     “Nothing ever is,” I say, “Take me there.”
     “I will,” she says.

I met her on the Amazon. I was on the run. She ran a souvenir and jewelry shop. When she asked me what I was doing there I told her that I was looking for a temple to worship God in. She said that there were plenty of those to choose from. But I see in most religions a celebration of what we can never comprehend, a clumsy corona of imagery around a core that will always remain untouchable.

She emerged from the cloudy glass doors of Nikola Tesla Airport, to find me standing there, lost again. “Come home to me,” she said and became my Sava, my Beatrice, my Temple of Solomon, all at once.

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