Facing Into the Incomprehensible Mystery

October 04, 2018 10:18 PM

Lat: 44.809, Long: 20.457

This will be my last posting from our trip into and through some of the Balkans.

I am putting my finishing touches to it on Sunday, October 7, around mid-day. We are currently back in Croatia, in Zagreb.

Peace, love, joy, patience and humility are the values I seek to experience and express. They are what I want to teach. I want to be a practitioner of these values. Every day we are given limitless opportunities to grow in our learning, experiencing and expressing these values.

One of the things this journey through the Balkans has taught me is humility. As we near the end of this trip, I am just beginning to see the incredible complexity of the history of this part of the world. The various identities people embrace - religious, ethnic, national, etc. - are, frankly, beyond my ability to understand. I know that there are people in other parts of the world, other than the U.S., who receive the Ordinary Life e-mails. For those of us in the U.S., the national history we live with is so fractionally small compared with that of the peoples who make up the Balkans. Our nation is just a little over 250 years old. I’ve been in some buildings here that were constructed over a thousand years ago. Like, Diocletian’s Palace that I mentioned in an early post - that is almost 2,000 old.

Here is a paradox: these countries and people have, over the centuries, gone through enormous upheavals. Invading armies have taken countries and lost them. Wars have been fought that have taken thousands of lives. Economies have been wiped out overnight. One of our guides said about how ordinary citizens’ loyalties were manipulated, “If you have to choose between having food to feed your children or ‘free speech,’ what would you choose?”

I was convinced after seeing and hearing about the horror the people in this city underwent in the early 90’s that I understood the anger of the residents of Sarajevo, which is in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Then we went into Serbia and while in Belgrade, the capital, heard another guide tell “their side of the story.”

Dinner with an inhabitant of Belgrade

Dinner with an inhabitant of Belgrade

I thought of the U.S. and the conflict that still exists between those who believe that Confederate statues and other symbols are just fine and those who think they should be removed. I grew up in the South where some people referred to the War Between the States, as the “war of Northern aggression.”

Everybody has their point of view.

We are not a big group on this tour - around 25 persons. One night in Belgrade, our main tour guide had arranged for local people to come and sit with us at dinner. The man who sat at our table turned out to be an orthopedic surgeon. English, of course, is not his first language but he speaks it fluently. He was insistent that we could ask him any question we wanted to. What this process revealed is that he knows much more about what is going on in the U.S. than any of us know about what has or is going on here.

Back before the invention and use of aircraft as military weapons, the settlements that became cities tried to defend themselves from aggressors by fortresses and castles. They were not always successful. One such period of history was when the Ottoman Empire was on a move to take over this entire region of the world. One of their tactics was to invade a town and, in the process of plundering, they would capture all the male children between the ages of 7 and 12. They would take these children back and put them with others and “train” them to be soldiers. Then, eight to twelve years later, these children would be the soldiers who would go back and invade and conquer their former homes and families.

Street Musician in Novi Sad

Street Musician in Novi Sad

When we first began to travel, thirty plus years ago now, I would notice how people would identify themselves. People would ask, “Where are you from?” The standard answer for someone from the U.S. was, “From the states.” Except for people from Texas. Then the answer was, “We’re from Texas.”

The same sort of thing applies in the Balkans, except it is much more completed. In Serbia, for example, the primary way of identification is religious. Most Serbians are Orthodox. In Croatia the primary way to identify is national - “I’m Croatian.” Most are Roman Catholics.

On our last full day in Zagreb I elected to stay behind while most of the rest of the group went on a challenging hike through one of the national parks here. So, I’ve had the day to wander the streets of this misty city. After the group left, I went to the cathedral here. It is the largest and oldest in all of the Balkans. It was simply a matter of luck that I arrived just as mass was getting under way. The building itself is huge. Three of St. Paul’s would easily fit inside of it. It was absolutely packed. Folding chairs were placed along the side aisles. Some people stood through the service. The organ and choir, in what we would call the balcony, was large and wonderful. The building itself soaring. It was built sometime in the first part of the 12th century. The stained glass was beautiful.

Taken after mass in 12th century cathedral

Taken after mass in 12th century cathedral

I am not sure why, but I have always been “spoken to” by this kind of architecture, music and ritual. I couldn’t understand a word of it. I somewhat could follow along because I know the structure of the mass. It took a crew of priests to give communion to so many people. While on this trip I’ve been reading a book by Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth. It is about the period of time when these great cathedrals were built. Though the book is about England, I’m sure the same dynamic was true for anywhere such huge cathedrals were built.

Every time I’ve stepped into one of these kind of structures, I’ve been moved. I’ve wondered, “Where did this come from? How did they know how to do this?” People worked on these structures, men and women, who knew they would never live to see their work finished. Even high up in the cathedral, eighty feet or more, careful attention was paid to every detail. All sorts of wonderful emotions are evoked for me, from simply being in one of these cathedrals, to say nothing about getting to attend and participate in one of the worship services. One of the ways I would describe my feeling is that of facing into an incomprehensible mystery.

I said to our guide the other day as we were leaving for Zagreb, “I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never be able to understand the incomprehensible complexity of the history or people of the Balkans.” He said, “Be patient, my friend. Live here for fifty years. It takes that long to learn the history.”

On the way to Zagreb we stopped to have a lunch snack. As our bus pulled back onto the highway, our guide pointed out a hotel along the side of the road. Many people were gathered in groups around it. He informed us that the hotel had gone out of business and was taken over by the government to provide housing for refugees, mostly from Syria, who were on their way, hopefully, to a new life in Eastern Europe. They were young people, young families with children. I saw them and wondered about their future.

Last trip photo!

Last trip photo!

Our guide’s words to me about patience and waiting for fifty years came to mind. All over the world, it seems to me, there is turmoil. How will we, fifty years from now, look back on it all? What will we wish we had not done or had done differently? How can we practice peace, love, joy, patience and humility in these times? Even more, what does it mean in our time to live with active hope?

These are matters I wish to speak to in the days ahead in Ordinary Life.

See you soon.

Much love,


Living Under the Same Moon

September 26, 2018 5:19 PM

Šetalište Pet Danica | 55°F

This part of the world is divided and diverse.

And, ancient.

To give you an idea -

First, some of the division and diversity.

The countries of the former Republic of Yugoslavia we are visiting are: Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Slovenia. (We are not visiting Kosovo, Macedonia, Armenia or other places formerly included as part of the Balkans.)

In the first country we are visiting, Montenegro, a nation of only slightly over 5,000 square miles, there are four languages spoken: Serbian, Montenegrin, Albanian and Bosnian. There are these nationalities that make up the population as well. As for religion, the vast majority here are Orthodox Christian. Though I found out from our excellent guide that the Orthodox Church here is divided into three factions - each with different bishops and structure. This difference is primarily about who owns what property. These disputes go back for many, many years. There are also , in order of their percentages - Muslims, Roman Catholics, Jews and “nones.”

The unemployment rate in Montenegro is almost 22%.

In other parts of the general area other religions are dominant - Islam, for example, in Croatia.

Second, something of history.

The history of human occupation of this area can be traced back to 5 B.C. Actually, we visited one place, Risan, to see some Roman mosaics that were discovered in 1930. Their restoration has been on-going since then and the archeologists evaluate that they date from the end of the 2nd century BC. Risan is mentioned as far back at the 3rd century BC.

We also visited the World Heritage Site of Kotor, a walled city of magnificent proportions that was started in the 9th century. Once one enters one of the city gates, prepare to be lost because the place is a maze of streets. It is crowded with shops, places to eat and churches - lots and lots of churches - some within just a matter of yards from each other. Kotor is the location, we were told, of the oldest Roman Catholic Church, originally built in the early 12th century. This church is called St. Tryphon’s Cathedral.

Ancient City of Dubrovnik

Ancient City of Dubrovnik

Travel like this, like life itself, is hard. It is also, like life itself, a lot of positive things. But, it is hard. Evidently the tour company wants people to feel like they are “getting their money’s worth.” We are. It is, nonetheless, early morning schedules, lots and lots of walking, changing hotels sometimes every day, etc.

We spent almost an entire day being guided through and hearing an outstanding lecture about the ancient city of Dubrovnik.

Many of the other international trips we have taken have had specific religious orientations - the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage or the St. Nicholas pilgrimage, for example. This one has not. It has, however, turned out to contain a ton of “religious” information as well as multiple opportunities to reflect on core spiritual values and teachings.

Job by Mestrovic

Job by Mestrovic

For example, in the city of Split, Croatia, we saw some of the work of the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. Though I had never heard of him until this trip, he was a very prolific artist. Two of his many pieces are huge sculptures commissioned by the city of Chicago. He became very wealthy, unheard of for most artists during their lifetime, and ended his career spending many years on the faculty of Norte Dame where the campus has numerous of his works on display. He built and donated the museum in Split to display some of his works. If you look him up on Wikipedia, you can see some of his works. He was primarily interested in religious themes and I found his works moving.

Then, also in that city, is Diocletian’s palace. Diocletian, you may remember, was the emperor who preceded Constantine. He is the one who began lifting a ban on Christianity. Diocletian himself worshipped the Roman god, Jupiter. He had a temple built to him here as well.

Artist’s rendering of Diocletian’s Palace

Artist’s rendering of Diocletian’s Palace

Diocletian’s palace is one of those places, like the Grand Canyon, that cannot be captured in photographs. It is as big as a city block, three stories tall, and has over fifty chambers in the lower floor. They are still doing archeological work on it. Though you can go into it, with a guide, there is no way to comprehend it. The building blocks are huge, put together precisely and without mortar and are still standing sturdy in place. All the time while walking through the lower chambers, I kept reminding myself, “This was built nearly 2,000 years ago. How did they do this? How did they know to do this?” It was built in a matter of ten short years. Diocletian intended it for his “retirement home.”

View of Chamber in Diocletian’s Palace

View of Chamber in Diocletian’s Palace

I read, as I referred to in my last post, a book in preparation for this journey. That book, written before the involvement of NATO in the Serbian/Bosnian conflict in the early 90s described the conflicts and tensions that existed in this part of the world. Though these conflicts involved ethnicity, they were primarily about territory.

On the day I am writing this post we are near the end of a day in Sarajevo. Most people have heard of this city as the Winter Olympics have been held here twice. This is also the site of one of the largest and most horrible genocides in recorded history. For reasons that are not clear to me, news about what was really going on here did not really get much attention in the United Staters. It did in other countries because so many people from here fled elsewhere.

I remember seeing images of the cello player in Sarajevo. (Enter that phrase into Google and you’ll find the description of what was going on.)

I do not remember getting news of how the Serbians had completely blockaded Sarajevo. Their intent was to destroy the city completely and to wipe out the entire population. Had it not been for eventual international intervention, they may have succeeded.

Destroyed Building in Sarajevo

Destroyed Building in Sarajevo

Much of the city has been rebuilt. Some of the buildings, even in the heart of the city, are still rubble. The buildings that were not destroyed clearly show the signs of gun shots and shrapnel on their exterior.

Our guide for this day, a young Bosnian man who is also a professor in the university here, took us to see what is referred to as The Tunnel of Life or The Tunnel of Hope. This tunnel was built, or dug, in a few months early in 1993. (Look up Sarajevo Tunnel for more and for images.) This tunnel allowed food, war supplies, and humanitarian aid to come into the city, and allowed people to get out. It is an amazing feat of engineering in a time when technology was not nearly what it is now.

Bombed Ruin Between Two Inhabited Buildings

Bombed Ruin Between Two Inhabited Buildings

See what I mean about spiritual lessons and values everywhere? We need a “tunnel of hope” and/or a “tunnel of life” in our time and world. In the midst of our own personal and global divisions and divisiveness we could use wise and skillful ways to connect to those “supplies” that might lead to an end to all this crazy conflict.

One of the things I noted about our guide was what a great sense of humor he had, always joking and seeing the funny side of things. He said that this was one of the marks of Bosnian people - a good sense of humor, a happiness not dependent on circumstances. He also said that the Bosnians were marked by stubbornness. The spiritual word for this is “determination.” Not to give up hope as a value regardless of how the future might look.

On that first day of arrival and after we had decided on hiring a driver to take us on the very long five plus hour drive to the place where this journey was to begin, we were greeted with another site that neither a camera or words can adequately convey. As we were driving and daylight was turning into dusk and then darkness, we saw coming up over the horizon the biggest, brightest and most beautiful moon I think I have ever experienced in my lifetime. Truly, I have never seen anything like it. It captivated the four of us in the car. Each of us was moved by it. We talked about it. It brought us together.

All the people regardless of their ethnic, religious or national identities on the globe who are now, have been or will be on the planet share this: we are all born under, live under and will die under the same moon. If only we could look up and see that which marks us all as living members of the same human species, we might not be so mindless and end up doing or saying things that contribute to hurting rather than healing our humanity and our planet.

Stay tuned. More to come.

A Journey Through the Balkans - Bill Kerley's Blog

September 25, 2018 10:55 AM

Šetalište Pet Danica | 64°F

Getting From Here To Where We Say We Want To Be

We chose to come to the Balkans because of its beauty. A mutual friend who has traveled all over the world said, when Sherry asked him, “What is the most beautiful place you have even been?” he responded without hesitation, “The Balkans.”

Not knowing how many other international travel journeys we might be allowed, we chose this one. “This one” means we chose one offered by the Road Scholar Travel Group. We had done two earlier trips with them and they were outstanding.

We decided to come a day early so we could walk about the ancient city where the trip begins for a day or so on our own.

I teach peace, love, joy, living in the moment, not judging, etc. The beginning of this trip has given me an excellent time to practice these things.

For one thing, our plane was delayed leaving Houston for over two hours. Thankfully, our connecting flight in Frankfurt left us with nothing to worry about. Except, of course, navigating the Frankfurt airport. It is huge and getting from one international flight to another is challenging. Of course, when we got to our gate, that flight, too, had been delayed.

Eventually we were on our way, with gratitude in our hearts that the flight was not too long, a couple of hours, because the leg room on this Airbus was the slightest I’ve ever experienced. As we flew, I pointed out the beautiful seashore scenes of the city where we were flying into - Dubrovnik in Croatia. As we began our decent the pilot informed us that the flight had been diverted to another airport because the one where we were schedule to land had been closed due to high winds. We found out later that these high winds have a special name in this part of the world and that this was nothing all that unusual.

Part of Old Town Herceg Novi, 1382

Part of Old Town Herceg Novi, 1382

We landed in a place called Zadar with no plans of how we would get to our final destination, Hercegovina Novi in Montenegro. The airline, Croatia Air, had an obligation to get the passengers to Dubrovnik and chartered buses to do this. The drive would take so long that the tour manager informed me via text message that the transfer we had arranged to take us from the airport to the hotel where the tour starts would not be available at the late hour we arrived.

What to do? A bit of background is in order.

When we first enrolled for this tour, Road Scholar put together a “message board” so that people who had enrolled for this tour might connect with each other. One member of the group informed us that he had written a novel set in Bosnia during the time when that country was experiencing horrible conflict - indeed, the whole region was. I responded that I would read the novel. I’m glad it did because it put “flesh and bones” on the history I was reading.

His book is “The Reluctant Hunter” and the author’s name is Joel Levinson. I read it and wrote him my review of it. One of the things his novel did was help me understand in a more understandable way what I was reading in “The Balkan Ghosts.” Joel contacted me a couple of weeks after he got my review and informed me that the novel has been picked up and optioned for a movie. He asked if I would post my review to Amazon, which I did. You can read about the book and my review of it there.

At any rate, while we were sitting in an lounge waiting to board out plane to Dubrovnik I looked across the aisle and there sat Joel. I recognized him from the picture on the book. We had had so much back and forth exchange about the book that it felt like we had known each other for a long time. When we got to Zadar and faced the complexities we were dealing with, Joel suggested that we hire a driver to take us to our hotels.

Cats are very common - a beggar cat

Cats are very common - a beggar cat

He connected, through one of the police at the airport, with a young man who regularly hired himself for such tasks. His name is Igor. He spoke impeccable English which he said he first learned by watching old movies on TV with English subtitles. Igor was a tall, good-looking young man with a deep voice - and an deep passion for his country. What he meant by “his country” was not only Croatia, the place of his birth, but what had at one time been and what he referred to as “the republic.” This was when, under Tito, all of this part of the world, including parts of Greece and the Western part of Turkey, was considered “the Balkans.” Most people referred to this part of the world as Yugoslavia. “Yugo” means “under” and was a way of referring to all of the countries “under” the Slavic countries.

I’ve tried to understand what happened and why it was that one day, literally during the day one day, people who had been living together as neighbors, working together, raising children together, attending the same national festivals and holidays, suddenly turned on each other and began a killing spree that led to one of the greatest genocides in recorded human history. What Igor said was, “It was stupid. It was unnecessary. It gained no one anything. It only hurt us all. It was the politicians who did this - big ones in Germany, Italy, Russia. The United States has largely not paid attention to what has really been going on in this part of the world.”

I have heard something like this on several travels to other countries.

The truth is that we all want the same things: to be safe, to have a good life, to enjoy our families, to make enough money to take care of them, to see that our children have a future, etc. Nations and countries, just like individuals, seem to have “character flaws” that prevent this from happening. Why is this?

So back to where we began: what are the beliefs and practices that keep us, in the very process of getting to be where we say we want to be, from getting there? We say we want peace, love, joy and patience to mark our lives. So often they don’t.

I believe that these spiritual qualities live within each of us. We cannot automatically turn them on like a light switch. We must cultivate them. Though we are endowed with these qualities, we by nature become neglectful and forgetful. We neglect and forget our true nature, our Source.

And, just as on this particular journey, difficulties are part of the path we walk. Our spiritual practices are what allow us to know that our happiness is not dependent on any outward circumstance. Further, if we look deeply, we will see that enlivening our own souls and enlivening the world are one calling.

I’ll update you on how this particular journey goes as we proceed.