Today we experienced communion. Our journey began with a visit to a Serbian Orthodox church near Mostar in Herzegovina. Week of Compassion has funded the rebuilding of the simple church, which was leveled during the war, as well as the creation of a youth and cultural center. In the beautiful new yellow community building, the church now provides computer classes, recreational opportunities, and education in traditional Serbian culture, all primarily for youth. This is particularly significant for the community because Bosnian Serbs in this area were refugees during the war, and now those who have resettled are in the minority. Of the over 2,000 Bosnian Serb homes in the area before the war, only 300 have returned thus far.
The priest, Nemanja, is young--probably just a couple of years older than I, with a broad forehead and sparse brown beard. His wife Gordona is slight of build with short orangey hair and a delicate face. They both sit with us at a long table laden with bottles of juice and sparkling water, and bowls of long, thin pretzels and fresh fruit. We are blessed by Nemanja’s enthusiasm for meaningful theological engagement, as we share our experiences in ministry--our calls, our visions. When I ask him what he sees as the center of his ministry at this point, his response is lengthy and moving. He says that in the post-war context, where the community is slowly returning to the area, it is most important to help people re-engage with the liturgy, and to bring people to Holy Communion. For him, this both symbolically helps the community feel connected to one another and to God, but also literally brings Christ into their community. As a people who were displaced during the war, as were countless others, this focus on the tradition and the liturgy is a key way in which religion can play a vital role in recreating the identity of the faith community. We talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in making all things new, and the weight of that image in the context of a war-torn and smoldering country. Maybe sometimes the Spirit takes the form of a phoenix, rising from the ashes of destruction, and creating new life in the very craters left by the impact of the bombs and mortar shells.
While we feast on tiny sweet strawberries and fleshy dark cherries, and slowly sip delicious little cups of strong Bosnian coffee, the community treats us to a performance of traditional Serbian dance. The children who perform have learned folkloric dance through the church’s cultural education programming. With broad smiles stretching across their small faces, the boys and girls hop about rhythmically in pairs, draped in traditional ethnic costumes, happy, it seems, to share their rich cultural heritage with us.
We finish our time at the church by touring the small sanctuary itself, with its pale blue walls festooned with imitations of gilded icons. After Nemanja shares with us about the liturgy and the centrality of the Eucharist, I turn to a tall young man who has been diligently following us, snapping photos. I ask him about himself, and he diffidently tells us that his name is Markos, and that he is a university student, and a volunteer lay leader in the church. We ask Markos what motivates him to dedicate himself to the church, and with a shy smile betrayed by fiery eyes, he says quietly, “Love. Simply love.”
Filled with joy, we make our way to a Serbian Orthodox monastery fairly close by, in Žitomislići, where we are met by a handsome young monk named Lazar, with mysterious dark eyes and a towering stature accentuated by his long black robe. After telling us about the tragic history of destruction and rebuilding of the church, dating to at least the 1500s, we are led into a simple banquet hall, where we are generously and lavishly met by a feast prepared by one of the monks. The long table is piled high with heaping platters of fresh cabbage salad, steaming bowls of egg and nettle soup, freshly baked bread, roasted chicken, fresh white cheese made from cows at the monastery, rich cheese pastries, delicious crispy potatoes, and homemade wine and grape brandy. Laughter rings throughout the hall, and we feast in the spirit of love and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. After lunch, we sit in the grassy courtyard, drinking Turkish coffee and homemade wine while Megan plays one of the monk’s guitars, and our driver Mujo plays accordion. Megan’s sultry voice melts through the heavy afternoon heat, and Mujo’s accordion punctuates the air with traditional Bosnian music. We all laugh and dance and sing in a truly holy community.
The day ends in the town of Blagaj--which means “blessing” in Bosnian--with a walk to a Sufi tekija cradled in the womb of a massive rock edifice, which births a spring that feeds the River Buna. At the Sufi House, we women are wrapped up in hijab and we are all invited to observe the worship. We clamber up the stairs and silently kneel down in the doorway of the small worship room. A group of probably 10 men sit in a circle in the darkened room, wearing dark vests and red fezzes. They rhythmically exhale and sway, chanting the divine name of God and repeating phrases and verses from the Quran over and over and over again until they reach some point of mystical connection. New cadences begin slowly, increasing in speed and volume until climaxing. The imam switches the pitch or words subtly and the song continues. We sit in awe of a truly ecstatic worship experience, each of us swept up into the divine music emanating from that place. God seems to be pulsating in my very veins, filling my heart with unbounded love and flooding my body with a peace and vitality.
After what could have been hours or merely minutes, the men in the dark room are done praying, and we are invited to tea. Dzevad and Andrew join the men and we women enter a separate room with the Sufi women and their children. The women welcome us warmly and we sit and drink small cups of sweet hot black tea.
On our walk home in the stillness of the late night, under the warm blanket of bright stars, Andrew tells us that while he was drinking tea with the men, the imam imparted a story: their sheikh back in the 18th century famously said, “If someone comes to the threshold of your tekija, do not ask him about his faith. If he has a soul from God, give him bread and tea, and invite him in.” We certainly were invited in, and shared in communion with these Muslim mystics on the banks of the clear, pure waters of the River Buna, bound together in holy community with all of God’s people.
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