Hello fellow sinners. It’s Sunday morning and time to go to church. Before you put on your most pious faces and head to your favorite houses of worship, let me invite you to my church where the devout humbly bow their heads, the incense fills the air, and you can get a drink before noon.
That’s right, you’re all invited to a Serbian Orthodox church where God speaks Serbian and, if you’re a little late, don’t worry about it. We’re very casual. You may ask yourself, “What is a Serbian Orthodox Church?”
It’s simple. It’s a member of the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, a very Byzantine religion with emphasis on the word “orthodox,” as in, its hasn’t changed in nearly two millennia. At all.
Just joking. We’re actually very tolerant. Quite frankly, we’re not too worried if we don’t see you in heaven. We believe that if you’re not one of us, you’re probably no fun anyway. So there.
I should take a moment to point out something about the Serbian part. We long-suffering, peace loving, and most-holy Serbian people (alleluia, alleluia, alleluia) don’t have much going for us in the traditional sense. Serbia is generally a poor country known mostly for starting wars, (we started WWI and almost kicked off WWlll; yahoo!!!), food with lots of onions and garlic, and hard liquor which we make for ourselves if we can get away with it.
For this reason, we think God has a soft spot in his heart for us. At least we pray he does; we’re in serious trouble if he doesn’t.
My church is St. Elijah Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Merrillville, Ind. A cathedral, I guess, is more prestigious than a simple church which is probably a place where God hangs out part-time. A cathedral, on the other hand, is a home with multiple baths and granite countertops to where he brings friends and angel buddies from heaven.
In case you heathens didn’t know, St. Elijah is the prophet who defended the worship of Yahweh over the more popular Baal, according to the Book of Kings, and, of course, Wikipedia. Also, in some Balkan folklore, he is responsible for thunder, lightning and bad weather in general. No wonder we always have to repair out roof.
The first thing you notice when you enter our church (beg your pardon, cathedral) is how incredibly beautiful it is, and, how much dough it must have cost to build. The vestibule or narthex is the entry where Serbs burn candles for the deceased and people on the short list for entering the afterlife. Usually, there is an old guy with a heavy Serbian accent who sells the candles. (True story: My wife, Regina, and I once arrived very late on account of a mix up due to a time change. Seeing that we were terribly embarrassed, our old guy said, “Don’t worry. You no miss nothing.”)
Straight ahead, always on the east side of an orthodox church is the sanctuary which includes a beautiful altar of ornately carved wood with an arched double door in the center flanked by two single doors to the right and left. The sanctuary also includes a sacristy and vestry where holy stuff is kept and where the altar boys shoot craps, swig holy wine and check out the latest issue of Balkan Babes. “Holy sh#t! How’d you like to kiss the icons on her?”
The altar is covered with life sized icons of some important saints such as St. Nicholas (without his Santa Clause outfit) and of course, JC. One is of him as a baby in Mary’s arms, one shows him as a young adult, and well, as you know, the story kind of ends there.
The nave is the area where the congregation sits, or in our case, mostly stands until they can’t feel their legs anymore. In general, men tend to sit on the right and women on the left. You may think it’s sexist but I think our church forefathers figured out that old men with bad hearing spent most of the liturgy talking about everything from the weather to the price of chickens. By segregating the sexes, you could isolate the old goats and make it possible to find a quiet place to sit.
One warning if you come to our church. There is a middle-aged guy with male pattern baldness who has a wart on the back of his head the size of a small cathedral. You can’t help but stare at it and when you do , trust me, you will not be thinking holy thoughts. You’ll just want to get the hell out of there. Avoid this man at all costs.
If you do find a nice, quiet place to sit, you will find a book that contains the liturgy written in English and in Serbian, including text in the Cyrillic alphabet. We don’t bother to bring Bibles. That would only confuse us. After all, as a fellow Serb I know who is a serious churchgoer and devout Bible reader once said to me, “Why do they make the print so small in the m#therf@cker?” It was a slip of the tongue, of course, but he had a point.
You will also notice that our nave is stunning, in particular because of the recently completed religious reliefs which decorate the massive domed ceiling. The images are of angels and more saints, some of whom I’ll bet are former parishioners dressed up in robes who donated a lot of money to the church a long time ago.
Most of these guys were Serbs who worked in the steel mills in Gary and East Chicago, Ind,, and were affectionately known as mill rats. From what I remember of my time in the mills, some of the rats were as big as the wart on that guy’s head. Now I’m not saying that Serbs think you can buy your way into heaven, but every dollar given to the church is one less dollar that could presumably be spent on the sinful ways of the flesh. Or, on demon alcohol, which brings me back to the part about getting a drink before noon on Sunday.
The St. Elijah’s cathedral sits next to our church’s hall, a truly beautiful place you can rent for weddings, social gatherings, bar mitzvahs, whatever. Like any self respecting hall, it has a full bar, but it doesn’t matter. Every Serbian church I’ve set foot in has a social area where you could at least get a shot and a beer. And, on most Sundays, after the liturgy, some of us will go to our hall to socialize, which means buying a shot (or two or three) and a beer.
Anyone with any qualms about demon alcohol can easily assuage their guilt by telling themselves the money is going to the church. Of course we don’t want people driving home drunk, but if one of us does run off the road when leaving a Sunday service, we don’t say the Devil made us do it. We’re honest. We say we copped a buzz in the name of the Lord. Heaven is going to be great.
2 years ago