Tuesday, May 24, 2011

quest(ion)ing for beauty

I think I've been struggling with this God fellow for a while. especially that of the Orthodox variety.

Today, Sabina (from Croatia, not to be confused with Sabrina) and I wandered into the Patriarch[head of the Serbian Orthodox Church]'s Church, just after a school group walked in. Now I can't be sure that they were from the run of the mill Belgrade public school, but they all cued up (maybe 2nd graders, just to give a picture, dressed in a lot of bright pinks and purples (mostly describing the girls), giggling and bouncing in that little kid way, adding a totally different vibe to the somberness and officialness of the church's interior) to venerate the icon at the center of the church--an event supervised by their teachers. As far as I saw, no one opted out.
(I guess I should add here that I'm the girl who could never bring herself to say the 'under God' part of the Pledge of Allegiance in school. it always left me unsettled to hear that phrase echoing around the room.)
Later we wandered into an exhibit of Serbian iconography held, of all places, at the gallery of the Academy of Arts and Sciences--a charged space, at least for me, and not a neutral actor at all in Serbia's recent past. Part of the exhibit, in addition to replicas of frescoes and icons, were "Icons on the Boulevard"-- showing pictures of people walking in the streets (protesting) with icons.

I see so much beauty in the celebration of God, in the smell of the church, the face of the woman praying in the corner, the way the dim lighting accentuates her eyes and the curve of her headscarf, the expressions of the faces in the icons, the music, the veneration, the peace and persoanlness of the relationship. In the way people talk about the role of religion in their lives (I just lived with an imam and his family, and some of the conversations and discussions had in his house about the role of religion in their lives, their family, their community was utterly beautiful). And the exhibit was beautiful. It was actually my second visit to it, and still I was captivated by the art, the dedication, the craftsmanship. A recording of a Serbian Orthodox Liturgy was playing in the background, and I got lost in their voices.

Yet part of me feels guilty in seeing beauty in such politically charged spaces, not only the Gallery but Churches themselves. Because I also see so much antithesis of beauty, not necessarily in those spaces, faces or voices, but what is done in the name of, to justify or "defend" those spaces. In what those spaces are a a vehicle for. In that fine line between art and politics, icons and activism (for example there's an anti--NATO rally planned for a few weeks time. I'm sure a politicized God will be there too, or at least someone politicizing God).
Let me elaborate.
The day before yesterday, I found myself in one of the Orthodox Churches (and this isn't meant to be a rag on Orthodoxy specifically--it just happens to be most prevalent religion here in Serbia) in Kalemegdan, the park on the opposite side of the Usce (or convergence) of the Sava and Danube Rivers from New Belgrade. Kalemegdan used to be an Ottoman fortress during Belgrade's Ottoman days, and the construction of two Orthodox churches on it I see as just another way of claiming this territory as belonigning to someone else, some other tradition--whether or not it actually does, or that there is a way to separate the traditions, the history. The churches are tucked back in a corner, with a lovely view of the Danube, old ruins below. The upper church, like the Patriarch's Church we visited today, is ornately frescoed, with a lot of glinty gold things. While the frescoes are new (relatively speaking), they're still stunningly beautiful, in perhaps a less intimate way than the frescoes in a place like Grcanica which show the wear and tear of years of being touched, kissed, loved and hated. The expressions on the faces of the frescoed in Grcanica spoke so beautifully.
In my state of appreciation, I happened to focus on the three chandeliers which hang over the sanctuary. It's a low building, so they were rather close, or at least close enough for me to realize that they were constructed entirely out of bullet casings (and light bulbs). The casings had been strung, almost like oblong copper pearls, in chains.

a few weeks previously, we watched footage of soldiers being blessed by an Orthodox priest before going out to participate in what the ICTY has deemed genocide. Which bullets do those casings belong to? does it really matter?  Which struggle do they represent? or were they intended to represent? Especially from a place where genocide denial is still a problem, I find those chandeliers all the more troubling, as not only acknowledgment of, but the making sacred of, violence and those who do violence.

It's times like these where that separation between between beauty--which I can appreciate--and politics--which I can't [wow, this program has turned me into a proper anti-Political Scientist], is so thin that it's virtually impossible to see the two as separate.
and if I can see the beauty, am I not also appreciating the politics? Is there a way that I can separate the two? Do I want to separate them? Should I?
And so,
I think I've been struggling with this God fellow for a while. especially that of the Orthodox variety.


  1. It's been a while! Hope you don't mind me reading and commenting.

    I think these kind of ruminations are normal and healthy, and I've experienced some of the same questions. As an observant Jew who has a lot of love for Israel, it's very hard for me to see the government do things that I often disagree with very strongly. And sometimes fundamentalists and/or the Israeli government do things in the name of my G-d and religion that I could never condone...

  2. comments are always welcome. especially when they're an opportunity for getting in touch with old friends.
    I think I'm still in the stage of just appreciating religion--outside of the spiritual realm--but it is good to be reminded of the diversity within belief, and the space for personal interpretation.
    hope you're well, and thanks for your thoughts