Friday, July 20, 2007
The communist graffiti is barely visible in the receeding darkness, while the early Christian motif is publically displayed, to the interest of younger Serbs like my friend Nebojsa. This picture, though took on a crappy disposable, seemed to sum up my week in Serbia. I put a little more effort into this.
Upon arrival we met up with a visiting scholar who took us to a "liturgical music group" at the Belgrade Academy. Not sure what to expect, we entered a beautiful Beaux Arts style building and found ourselves in an office crowded with families and lined with antique books. At the center was a joyful man at a piano, glad for more visitors. The group sang piece after piece of liturgical hymns from eastern and western Christianity. I'm not sure why, but all of a sudden one man recited a significant portion of Matthew 16, from memory, in Latin. If this is what the Belgrade intelligentsia are up to, then one more farewell to Yugoslavia. We left as more people joined in, and had dinner in a neighborhood which resembled Montmartre in Paris, only cheaper.
Communism and Clinton have done a number on Belgrade, and Serbia in general. Bombed out buildings and war memorials to civilians killed by the NATO campaign are common, civilians who hated Milosevic as much as the rest of the world did, probably more. The economy is struggling, but seems however to have made a positive turn. The people are friendly, the food was phenomenal. My Serbian friends who study Byzantine art and architecture aren't doing so because they had it drilled it into them when they were young, but for the opposite reason. Communist education left the subject completely neglected and now they're fascinated by a heritage long ignored. Conversely, at the monastery of Zica , we witnessed an orthodox priest struggling to convey his liturgical lesson to about fifty unruly schoolchildren. Things have changed. Medieval Serbia is a beautifully puzzling blend of East and West. One could spent a month there and still not visit all the countryside monasteries. The hospitality of monks and nuns follows what I've come to accept as the rule - you're either ignored, or treated with an almost absurd hospitality.
Nis, my host Nebojsa's (and the Emperor Constantine I's) hometown, has been through a lot. There one finds a testimony to Ottoman oppression (the skull tower), its own concentration camp from the Nazi days, and a massive Communist resistance memorial which seemed to suggest to Serbians that the only reason there aren't concentration camps anymore is thanks to Tito. Somehow the churches made it through all this (not without their own share of resistance), and in Belgrade they were even showing off a bit. The massive church of St. Sava is even bigger than Hagia Sophia.
The inside of St. Sava's is still being built. Cement grinders and cranes, workers and construction noises abound. But the people can't seem to wait, which made for a perfect parable of the Kingdom of God. A few well-placed icons and candles amidst the chaos suggested a future completion. Worshipers adored Christ despite the distractions, in anticipation of the day when their worship will be complete. I hope I'm not being too cryptic, but has it ever been otherwise?