Lent and Easter in Belgrade

April 15, 2001(Easter Sunday)

Belgrade, Yugoslavia

Dear Friends,

Religion in Serbia is struggling to find itself after 45 years of official atheism followed by 10 years in which being a Serb, Croat or Bosniak was defined by religion since appearance or language really didn’t separate the groups.  Religion never died under Tito.  We celebrated Easter in Croatia in 1972 with the family in whose bed and breakfast we were staying.

After the collapse of Communism people are trying to come to grips with what being religious means to them personally.  On Ash Wednesday a man pinned a cross, tied up in a Serb national ribbon, on my jacket.  My friend Ljiljana told me that wearing it signified that I was observing the Lenten fast.  In the Serbian Orthodox tradition the Lenten fast meant abstaining from meat, dairy products and spirits.

I decided to wear the pin because I was observing my own fast, not as vigorous as the Serbian fast but, for me, pretty severe with a menu of self-denials.  I wore it as a witness, although having the Serb national colors on the cross bothered me.  (The problem was not Serb as much as tying church with nation.)

An increasing number of people are trying to observe the Lenten fast.   Some politicians seem to be among the conspicuous abstainers and I asked one normally cynical reporter if this was the type of religious “robe of piety” that I suspect many of our politicians put on.  She felt it was legitimate.  These people may have been more tied into the Tito’s belief structure (Communism) than most people and they are genuinely looking for a substitute.  She says the self-conscious awkwardness that they displayed at one of her parties, where she served meat and alcohol, indicates that it is not a show but a real attempt to touch something, perhaps spiritual.

She ran out of garbanzo beans in the first half-hour and had more than the usual amount of alcohol and meat left over.  She committed the faux pas of saying, when someone turned down meat, cheese and alcohol.  “Oh, you’re on the diet.”

“It isn’t a diet, it is a fast.”

“What’s the difference?”

That’s hard for a lot of people to understand.

On Good Friday I turned down an invitation to dinner because of my own fast.  “OK then, Let’s go for a drink. For an American, living in the Balkans is penance enough.”  One Belgrade restaurant is doing a very good business with a Lenten (no meat or cheese) menu.

On Saturday night we decided to go to a church service.  We went to the cathedral across the street from the patriarchate.  We arrived at about ten thirty.  To get to the church we walked down Belgrade’s main pedestrian street.  Most of the store windows had Easter decorations, usually eggs and chickens.  They ran from the tasteful (the window display in the bookstore near our office had icons and eggs) to the strange; motorcycle leather, lingerie and eggs.

At the churchyard loud speakers were set up so people could hear the liturgy outside.  The stalls set up in the yard and on car hoods parked along the street that a week ago sold Palm Sunday garlands now sold small painted icons, votive candles and Serbian flags.  The church itself is more Baroque than Byzantine and the artwork speaks more of Rome than Constantinople.  The spire is baroque, as is the gold ornamentation on the intricate pulpit.  There is no dome, but rather vaulting reminiscent of central Europe. But the singing is definitely Slavonic with a deep bass line.

Suzi and I watched people come and go from the church and then sat on a park bench listening to the liturgy come through the speakers.  It was Easter, and I was happy that people were discovering some form of spiritually, personal resurrection.

We walked home as street cleaners opened the fire hoses on the cobbles to wash away the dirt.  When we got home it was Easter.  I broke my fast by opening a can of Coke and sat down to write this letter.  Suzi closed the windows even though it was a fine spring evening.  The bells of St. Marko’s just down the street would ring very early and we wanted to sleep in.

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