Yesterday SPC C and I met up with our Serbian-language interpreter, Mr. Z, and we went to visit an Orthodox priest who was just finishing the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of St. Basil the Great (it was also New Year's Day according to the Julian calendar). It took us about 45 minutes to get to where we were going because the roads are so narrow and serpentine in places.
Boy, the locals here are crazy drivers!
Though my predecessors from the last two rotations here tried repeatedly to meet with this man, they were never successful, so Mr. Z suggested we catch him at the end of his morning Mass.
The church building is tiny, and windowless from what I could see. The outside is very nondescript, and not very Orthodox-churchy, unlike all the other Orthodox churches we've seen so far. There's even a centuries-old free-standing bell tower with a stork's nest on top of it! At the base of the tower is the crowded cemetery, many of the headstones of which date back less than a dozen years.
The doorways into the church are so small that even I had to stoop to enter. Mr. Z suggested that SPC C wait outside, seeing as he was packing heat. It was quite a cold morning, and as is his wont, SPC C was not wearing a jacket or coat. (I, on the other hand, was bundled up, yet still felt cold.)
Once inside the sanctuary, though, I realized that SPC C would have been colder had he been with us, as it was probably ten degrees colder inside than out.
There was only one other person present for the end of Mass. When we arrived, the priest and deacon were behind the Iconostasis with the door closed. We could hear them singing, and could definitely smell the incense. The door opened and the priest appeared. He blessed us with the chalice, which was covered with a purificator and pall, and then he disappeared behind the screen again.
At the end of the service, the priest came forward to distribute the blessed bread (different from the consecrated bread of the Sacrament) and to give a final blessing with his hand cross. He was vested in a beautiful blue phelonion (the Orthodox equivalent of the Roman chasuble).
Mr. Z introduced us, and the priest pointed out items of interest inside the building, which had been a church since the Thirteenth Century of the common era. It clearly was the oldest building I'd been in for quite a while!
A large section of one wall was taken up by a depiction of Judgment Day for a soul, shown as a small body suspended from a scales between heaven (above and to the left) and hell (below, and to the right). Someone is attempting to preserve or perhaps restore the images, as can be seen by the many rectangles of what looks like cheesecloth plastered over the paint.
It seems remarkable that as much color still exists, despite the age and bad condition of those paintings. I would have liked to have spent more time in that space, but seeing as the priest was so hard to get to talk to, I only snapped a few photographs, and left.
Mr. Z, SPC C, and I accompanied him into a tiny room heated by a wood-burning (or in this case, corn-cob-burning) stove. The priest attempted to offer us some rakia, and was beginning to take offense at our refusal, until I used a trick I'd learned in Italy many, many years ago.
I told him I had a bad liver.
He understood immediately, and calmed down.
The conversation which ensued (actually, it was more of a monologue on his part) was certainly the most difficult one I'd had to date with any of the other religious leaders I've met.
Old animosities and fears can have a power to fester and metastasize that defies rationality and description.
I guess my friends who go to a lot of AA and/or Al-Anon meetings are on to something, as they've tried for years to explain to me that resentments shut us off from the sunlight of the spirit.
It is plain that a way of life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worth while. But with the alcoholic whose only hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We find that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die."If we are to live, we must be free of anger."
If we are to live, we must be free of anger. ("Alcoholics Anonymous," Chapter 5, p 66)
Blessings and peace to one and all,
Fr. Tim, SJ