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of Belgrade, Burek, and Churchbells

Radio interview (matti/john)

I thought this was neat to share for those interested: Matti and I got to go on a Serbian radio station for a short interview about our group. It is about an hour and a half, with audio from our choir concert. It’s mostly in Serbian, but the questions are translated and our responses are in English(of course).

Here’s the link:

Small Miracles (AnnaGrace)

“But Immediately He talked with them and said to them, ‘Be of good cheer! It is I: do not be afraid.’ Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased.” – Mark 6:50-51

I wanted to share a few beautiful experiences that I have had in the past week. Christ’s love is so near to us, and there are many miracles that come from His love.

Early in the morning this past Thursday, our team made our way to the cathedral of St. Sava for Divine Liturgy, on the old calendar feast day of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. For the first time since we’ve been here, the liturgy was celebrated in English, and we were privileged to hear and understand the prayers we love, and sing the melodies we grew up with. When the liturgy was finished, I was caught off guard by the number of people who approached us to thank us. With tears individuals spoke of how beautiful it was to see how much love we had for our faith, they mentioned how moving it was to hear Orthodox hymns sung in English, and how God was giving them a gift through our songs.

Another experience that touched me occurred during one of the bi-weekly bible discussions that we have with Serbian students. We are studying the Gospel of St. Mark, and we were spending time talking about the miracle of Christ as He came to His disciples and calmed the storm. Because I love stories, I asked if anyone had a personal story of when a personal “storm” had been calmed in their own life, and what that was like. Then one girl who was attending for the first time, responded with tears, and told a story that I will never forget. One day, as a small child, she had been sitting under a table, and a giant vase began to slide off of the table towards her head. Her mother was watching this happen, but was too far away to come and help in any way. “But that’s not all,” the girl sobbed, “My mother has told me over and over again, that just as the vase was about to land on my head, she saw a hand appear, and gently push the vase away. It landed and shattered on the floor a few feet from me.” After our bible discussion was over, I had the privilege of following up with this girl, validating her tears, and listening to her as she shared her story. It was a beautiful story, and she has a very courageous heart that is longing for God and at the same time struggling to find Him.

Finally, on Sunday afternoon a small group of us travelled to a monastery about an hour outside of Belgrade. After a weekend of being grumpy and tired, I knew I needed a monastery visit, but I was not at all prepared for the holiness that hit me as I walked through the gates. The monastery radiated with joy, and the prayer that seemed to be contained in the monastery walls overwhelmed me. In the monastery’s small chapel I was fixated on the icon of the Theotokos, as simple byzantine chant kept me focused and entirely there. The whole experience was so real, and touched my heart in a way I can’t quite explain. On the way home I jotted down my thoughts in a short poem. I tried to capture and process my time at the monastery, as well as my time so far in Serbia.

Wanting to stay
In a place so real
With a life so full

Wanting to be
In a sea of flowers
With faces toward heaven

Wanting to weep
In a place so holy
With hearts wide open

Wanting to run
On a path so narrow
With eyes on The goal

I am reminded time and time again of how good our God is. He is calling each one of us to Himself, knows each by name, and continues to beautify the world around us by so many small miracles.

Kosovo photos(Mariah)

Last weekend we traveled to Kosovo, which is a small territory that recently declared independence from Serbia. It is the spiritual hub of the Serbian Orthodox culture. There used to be hundreds of monasteries and churches throughout the are of Kosovo, but many of them were destroyed during the Islamic occupation of Kosovo. We visited a handful of the monasteries that are still standing. Most of the monasteries we visited were as old as the 13th and 14th centuries, though some had been destroyed and rebuilt more recently than that. It was an amazing experience to see such holy places and to be reminded of the presence and love of God. I experienced such peace and beauty on this trip, I did not want to leave! :}

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Memorial service for the nuns who were killed in an attack on the monastery in 2004.

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Beautiful Kosovo countryside. Reminds me of Bozeman.
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Pecka Patrijarsija monastery
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Church dedicated to St. Dimitri

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Tomb of a Serbian patriarch
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Church dedicated to the holy apostles

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Church dedicated to the Holy Theotokos

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Church dedicated to Saint Nicholas

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Wonderworking icon of the Theotokos. Original was painted by Saint Luke.

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We were all loving the gorgeous mountains
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Decani monastery
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Some of our group singing in the monastery. They have beautiful voices! 🙂
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Relics of St. Stefan, founder of the Monastery

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Bogorodica Ljeviska church in Prizren

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Prizren
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Gracanica monastery

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Monument erected at the site of the battle of Kosovo
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Photo by Macrina

 

Good Earth (JP)

And just like that, it’s already July.

The passage of time here doesn’t feel real. Simultaneously we’ve always been here, are just arriving, are about to leave.

A couple of days ago, we had a “family” meeting to check in with everyone about how the trip is going so far: what we’ve done, what needs work, encouragements, plans, concerns, etc. This was a great time because sometimes in a group this size, you’re not always aware of the little things going on with everyone else. Despite that it was wonderful to see how in tune everyone was with each other and with what we are looking to do with our time here.

In particular, I found it encouraging hearing about others’ interactions with several of the students we’ve had coming to our groups. A few of them have grown up in or around church but for various reasons no longer really follow it. They know scripture but can’t see the Orthodox church as home, don’t see the need for the sacraments, believe in a higher power but don’t want to define it. Yet they are continuing to take time out of their lives to join us for these discussions, and a few have expressed that it’s meaningful to them, that it’s giving them something to think about. A real hope of mine is to have them come to liturgies with us soon.

Sometimes in the middle of bible discussions, it’s hard to gauge what’s going on internally. There’s part of you that always fears you should be doing more, speaking more clearly, being more profound (No? Just me?). But an important thing I was struck by this week was what we studied in chapter four of St. Mark, with Christ’s parable of the sower. The condition of the earth has to be right to receive it. It has to be soft enough to foster roots that don’t die in the heat. It has to be cleared of thorns and things that choke it. All that is the struggle on our part, to prepare the earth of our hearts so that it can receive the word so and it can grow.

But equally important (especially for me in my struggle to learn to trust God) is to remember: the seed/word ultimately grows and brings life, fruit, by virtue of what it is. I don’t make the fruit. My struggle for results in mission work don’t create new or better Christians. The word, which Christ is always sowing, has life in itself, to deepen into the earth, to surge skyward, to bring forth fruit some 30, 60, 100. The Word is life giving, and no matter how I prepare the earth, it is still the Word that brings it to perfection. Keeping this in mind, I know that the studies of the scriptures with these young people contains the seeds of life and truth by virtue of the scripture itself. I am just an unworthy participant in Christ’s work of sowing.

We’ve had wonderful opportunities to show and share our faith while here. Please pray for continued courage and humility as we continue doing so this month!goodsoillogo.gif

 

 

Thoughts from Mara

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A few months ago, I finally decided that I wanted to join the team going to Serbia for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know what I would be able to help with in such a short amount of time, but I knew that I wanted to see Orthodox missions in action and to experience a taste of what life was like in an Orthodox country.

The first few days after arriving in Belgrade were spent getting everyone settled in. We got our bus passes and cell phones up and running. We went on a scavenger hunt. We spent time as a team and broke bread together. These days were spent getting to know the city and getting to know one another.

It was so beautiful for me to talk to the three Russian friends who also came along on the trip. I was able to gain more perspective about what Orthodoxy means when it is stripped down without its cultural ramifications. Together, we have so much in common! I also learned of our differences. I was amazed at the piety of these new friends and their dedication to God.

The first Saturday that we were in Belgrade, we went to Ada which is a manmade island that has swimming, parks, trails, and restaurants. We met up with a few of our new Serbian friends and contacts. I immediately was drawn to this beautiful girl. I had some deep conversations with her as we took a walk and sat under a shade tree while people-watching. We spoke of Tesla, abortion, and the Church on our first meeting. It was wonderful for me as an introvert to bypass the small talk.

As I met a few more young people, I started realizing how jaded they were from corruption in the church, the state of their government, the brokenness of the aftermath of war… and I knew why I had come. It was to pray.

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One evening, I was out with two of my friends walking at night and we saw some Roma children smoking cigarettes and running out into the streets. We saw people staggering home. I caught a glimpse of something on the ground among the litter. It was a damaged diptych which used to be the Theotokos and Christ, but only the left side remained. The screws which attached the other side were mangled and torn. The face of Christ was scratched.

This is Serbia. A nation that doesn’t know what to think of the church anymore. A nation that sees beauty in the icons and the Saints, but doesn’t want to attend liturgy when bishops are driving BMWs and parishioners do not donate to charity.

I met up with my friend that I met at Ada one last time two days before I left. We talked about boys and our favorite books. After a while, the conversation deepened and we started talking about God. I learned about how she goes to pray in Saint Mark’s every week. She is fortunate to sit in front of some of the most beautiful icons in the world. She knows her Bible, and yet she doesn’t want to attend Liturgy anymore. She has grown tired of the struggle of watching people pray their perfect prayers and yet not give money to the homeless. She has watched priests demand $1000 to baptize the children of poor peasants. It is just too much for her.

She then asked me, “How do I get what you have?” I explained that I wish I had the answers, but I don’t. All I know is that we must cling to Christ and we must keep Him at the forefront. We must focus on the icon of Christ and not the distractions of this world, be it corruptions of the church, or of worldly passions. We must struggle to find Christ even in the most difficult of circumstances.

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The last day of my trip, I went to a monastery. It was quiet. I had a moment of reflection in the church there. It is so easy to take my parish for granted. We have a priest who lives with and loves his people. There is a deep sense of community. There are opportunities to help the poor. The parishioners are open and welcoming and the prayers are sincere and heartfelt. I forget that when I step outside of this bubble, that there are hurting people.

Serbia, you and your people will forever be in my heart. I will try to pray for you and I ask of you to pray for me, a sinner.

Finding familiarity (Matti)

When living in the midst of a thriving metropolis, few realize how fast and loud life is until they remove themselves from the stimulus. Having grown up on a ranch, with the closest neighbor being a cow, the bustle of Belgrade was a symphony of noise- blaring car horns, dinging trolleys and the never ending drone of a foreign tongue always pulsing thought the city. I must admit, it was overwhelming and intoxicating at first. This life of noise, concrete and a continual presence of people was as foreign to me as the Serbian language. The vast pastures I had grown up in were nowhere to be found in Belgrade.
Then I entered the church of the Ascension of Christ and for the first time since coming to Belgrade, I experienced the same feeling of unending vastness and remarkable wonder I feel when I am alone in the middle of some field. The blur of Belgrade life faded behind me when I stepped over the marble threshold into the cool narthex of the temple. Like the country bumpkin that I am, I gazed open mouthed in awe at the icons painted across the walls. A sense of peace washed over me, the distinct feeling one gets when they return home from a very long journey. A comforting silence filled the church, interrupted only by the foot steps of my companions and the sizzle of dying candles. Bright icons marched across the walls and ceiling, telling the story of my faith, the reason for this adventure.
It astounded me that though I was thousands of miles away from home, a familiar site was just a block from my hostel. Never before had I pondered how universal the Orthodox Church is. Though it is small, it permeates the world; similar in theology and service in every country that houses it. Far away from the familiarities of home, I am still able to enjoy the comforts of my faith.

My smallness(John)

So there will be more posts coming soon with pictures and kind of the “day-to-day” here, but right now I just had a few thoughts I wanted to get out.

The time spent so far has been good and growing. We’ve had our first few bible study sessions, and we’re working on bringing in more and more students each time.

Living together has introduced me to friendships I wish I’d had my whole lifetime. Lots of laughs and tears have been had already, and I’m touched at how much this group supports each other, and how much they love the Serbians we’ve gotten to know.

There’s also difficulties in living with so many; you have to learn to respect people’s space, including your own. Experiencing so many different personalities in a small hostel is a journey in humility, and everyone is stepping up well to learn.

As far as living in Belgrade, there’s a lot of joy being in a country where by default Christian means Orthodox. You don’t have to explain that you’re not Jewish or a particular denomination– people know. They know liturgical life and saints. At times, the relief of the cultural backdrop can almost make you forget why you’re here.

That’s something that’s been hard to put into words too: why, exactly, we’re here. It’s the crossroads of sharing our experience of faith as young American Orthodox people with those from a rich Orthodox history and heritage, building from each other’s strengths and learning together to grow in Christ. It’s something I think we all profoundly feel and understand in our hearts, but are still experiencing the learning curve of what it looks like in practice.

Last week, a few of us went out to an art gallery showing. Long story short, but it was terrible– nonsensical,arythmic guitar strumming, dim lights, and water color paintings with nihilist words printed on top. We left early, laughing and chatting on the way back. Then, one in our group stooped down and noticed a small wooden icon of the Theotokos, face down in the trash on the sidewalk. She rescued it and brought it back with us.

That image has stuck with me. It was a visual reminder of what I was slowly learning while being here: the work is bigger than us. We don’t have anything to offer. We don’t have the ability to come in, in 8 weeks, and cause a spiritual revival in a country that is beautiful but dry.

This is obvious, right? And you don’t go into it with those thoughts, that you’ll make a huge difference. But there’s something about being here and experiencing that inwardly that is very humbling, almost discouraging– unless it turns is to the remembrance of God.

Because the truth is, God is absent from nothing. Absolutely nothing is wasted. He uses all things to accomplish His love in a dying world that forgets Him whether they are surrounded by churches or have never heard the gospel. God uses our tiredness and inability far more than our skills or accomplishments. And part of sharing your faith, whether in another country or in your neighborhood, is learning that you may never see the fruits of seeds sown. The ministry is as much for us so as to become minsters of our own story of faith in Christ, so that this “mission” would not be a stand alone event, but an integral part of how we show Christ to our world, wherever we are living and whatever we are doing.

I’m feeling like the first work of missions is yourself. To empty yourself, to let yourself feel weak, to realize that if God does not bless what we do it’s in vain. Taking from the lessons we’ve learned while here, our greatest and most valuable struggle will be to seek God, to trust God, and to build loving, meaningful relationships with those here.

Pray that God will give us those opportunities to bring more and more to our group, and that we will be patient and trusting to receive those opportunities.

 

 

 

a mixed bag of reflections (Seraphim)

A few days ago we were blessed to have a series of lectures which I found quite intriguing, and so I thought I would share some thoughts that our experience so far in  Belgrade has sparked in me…

At a very fundamental level of our being, humans are creatures rooted in argumentation, or rhetoric. Just as there are three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in whose image and likeness man is fashioned, man having three chief properties—the will, the mind, and the spirit—so also are there three levels of rhetorical construction, consideration, and persuasion in an argument—the logos, or rationality within the argument; ethos, or the projection of the persona of the proponent of the argument; and pathos, or appeal to the emotions of the reader, audience, etc. If we are indeed rhetorical creatures in some deep sense, it would not be strange for our actions and impulses, then, to formulate, and betray reasoned, although perhaps not always strictly rational arguments, whether what betrays us (our actions) reveals our ideological or existential presuppositions, our personal flaws sense of aesthetics, or what-have-you. The importance of correct thinking and speaking then cannot be stressed enough, and this is certainly an important aspect of our tradition as Orthodox Christians.

Indeed, viewing the world through this lens and using these terms, it can be shown that God Himself formulates the creation of the cosmos with an argument. The logos: creation is good; pathos: “I, being love, desire to love” (that is, love cannot exist, or even be understood conceptually apart from the object of its affection); ethos: “thus sayeth the Lord,” and such and so on. God the Word, Jesus Christ, insists through His ministry on earth that there be no division between flesh (the material), soul (the life), and spirit (the divine) in the resurrection, but rather, our life in this age is a struggle to exercise the unity therebetween; Just as God is the living God who says, “I AM WHO/THAT I AM;” just as the Holy Spirit was “above the waters” during the creation, so also then, it can be shown how the Lord is not absent from the created world, but rather, as Christ says, “my Father is working until now, and I have been working.” (John 5:17)

In a similar manner, prayer can be understood as a concentration of the faculties of our soul—our thoughts, feelings, and desires—in order to petition God for something. The saints all urge us to seek humility and communion with the Lord and many of them write that by seeking the fulfillment of our own will, not only will we be overwhelmed by temptations and irritations when things constantly run contrary to our desires and worldview, but also they tell us that we are only able to find peace through reconciling our own will to God’s, in striving to imitate Christ. In the same way that Christ likens the resurrection to gathering wheat, and removing tares from amongst the harvest, we must uproot sin from our life, from our soul, in order to meet the risen Lord. Just as when even a small portion of a weed’s roots remain in the ground, the whole plant will regenerate itself, so also allowing even a small trace of bad habits which breed sin to remain within us will render fruitless our efforts to be united with God through prayer. If we meet Christ, Who has been laboring for our salvation, Who intercedes with mercy for our sake, and we have not been thankful for what we have received in this life—whether through forgetfulness, hardness of heart, or any manner of distraction—then what will be left to us that can affect our salvation when we are helpless? The Lord has already saved us from sin, from the devil, and from death during this life; all that is required of us, and indeed must be required of us, is to humbly submit and say, “let Thy will be done in me, Thy servant.”

The cognitive dissonance then which I experience is, how to say, that I feel not put to any use despite knowing that, as Orthodox Christians, we believe Christ calls us all to interior knowledge, to attaining to, struggling for spiritual awakening; whereby, we struggle for the salvation of all. There can never be, then, even one insignificant or uselessness moment, but only laziness, insensitivity, and/or forgetfulness of God’s mercy, that creation is a gift (as many of the saints urge us to remember). As Christ Himself tells us, “what I say to you, I say to all: watch!” (Mark 13:37)

May then that the Lord will bless us, may we edify one another in prayer and worship, and may we all be saved.

The Beauty in Struggle (AnnaGrace)

Today in Belgrade I flip through the pages of a newly begun journal that detail some of the beauty I have thus far experienced, the quotes I have held on to, and the many new things and images that have run through my head during my first days in Serbia. The journal is a little book, and has my mother’s beautiful handwriting on the first page “a small book of beginnings…Glory to God for all things.”

A constant thread running through my little journal is that of beauty and struggle – and the continuous connection present between these two concepts. This has been a reoccurring theme in the conversations I have had in my first week here. These conversations have happened with both members of my team, and the new Serbian friends I have made here, and usually consist of an acknowledgement that all too often we find ourselves struggling. All too often we have no answers, and all too often we forget that Christ Himself is “ever present and filling all things,” and defend the self-constructed images we have justified to put in His place.

It comforts me to know that there is good in our struggle. That the search for meaning, love and God give proof to the existence of meaning, love and God, and must begin faithfully and continue always in our struggles. That as if by struggling, and an acceptance of our failings, we are beautifully connected to others in our broken humanity. Can there be anything so real as pain, and anything so palpable as the mercy which comes to fill our pain?IMG_0102 (1)

“No healing is possible. No repentance is possible. No prayer is possible, until the heart that heals, repents and prays is your sinful, fallen, yet beating heart. False images do not have hearts. False images do not love. Most painful than all, false images will never reflect Christ, because there is nothing false in Christ, nothing common between Life and void. Prayer begins with pain at one’s fallen nature; it grows out of this pain, and its flowers bloom out of it.” – Fr. Seraphim Aldea

Take my hand and struggle with me. Help me to struggle in humility alongside the Serbians with whom I cross paths, and within the relationships I strive to invest myself in.

Take my hand then, and struggle anew with me… because in it we find beauty.IMG_0065 (2)

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