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,

Bill