a chaplet and a vigil lamp in front of a picture of God
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I am an agnostic and I celebrate God

Do you think God exists? I don’t know, but we really need him/her/them.

“Where is your grandma Jela now, mom?”, my daughter asked me.

“She’s in heaven, looking at us from above”, I said peeling an apple.

She went to the balcony and looked at the sky towards the 36-story Socialist building.

“I can’t see her”, she told me coming into the kitchen.

How do you explain death to someone who is not even 5? Where are our ancestors now? Does God exist?

“Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.”

– Robert G. Ingersoll, source – Wikipedia

I was born between atheism and religious tradition

Does God really exist? I wondered looking at a small beige-greyish building through the school window. That was my home, with Grandad’s rose garden at the front. The sparrows were chirping in the spring sun. It was 1988 or 1989 in Belgrade, the Former Yugoslavia, Southern Europe.

Of course he does, my Grandad would reply (if he could only hear me). Dad’s father didn’t keep the Christian tradition just to spite the Commies. The disillusioned old royalist never forgot his family used to be rich before WW2.

Well, of course he doesn’t! would be my Grandma’s reply. Mom’s mother hated the Nazis. They killed her mom in front of her eyes when she was 12. All Grandma’s siblings were partisans or ended up in German concentration camps. Communists brought my grandma a peaceful good life.

I was 9, maybe 10. Sitting in a Math class, I glanced at the large black-and-white photo above the board. Our beloved Marshal Tito was looking at us protectively from above. The Communists were saying there’s no God, yet we celebrated Christian holidays at home.

I was toying with the question of the almighty for a while now. Everybody seemed to have their own truth and I had to find mine. Making a bet with the weather felt like a good solution. Let the forces of nature decide. The day was perfect, sunny and warm. The big guy could give us a great hint if he really is there:

If God exists, it will rain outside while we have science today, I thought to myself.

It didn’t, and I decided on agnosticism.

“Are Agnostics Atheists?

No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial.”

– Bertrand Russell

Two Saints painted on a church wall, Belgrade | © Falco, Pixabay
Two saints painted on a wall in a church in Belgrade | © by Falco, Pixabay

The late 1980s in Yugoslavia were a mix of Communist atheism and religious traditions. Nationalism was growing. It revived old local names and rural traditions. After almost half of the century, religion was en vogue again.

Both Communism and Yugoslavia were about to end with a civil war soon. In 1991 the most beautiful country in the world fell apart. Every nationality got back to their old customs and erased the Yugoslavness. Serbs got back massively to the Orthodox Church.

The Slava – a unique blend of Pagan and Christian

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Slava got popular again. Every Serbian family glorifies a Christian saint, who is the family’s protector. In the pagan times, Serbs celebrated their deceased forefathers. Today’s saints are just a replacement for the pagan cult of ancestors. Serbs have venerated the family for several millennia. After they converted to Christianity, the Slava helped them keep the old cult of ancestors and their identity.

My family’s saint is St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, fishermen, and merchants. This slim guy turned pudgy in the US and started wearing red for the sake of Coca-Cola commercials. He is glorified with fish on the family table. My grandad continued celebrating him in Communism with a roast pig instead. Serbs love pork.

On the day of Slava, Serbs give a feast and socialize with the family and friends. And the day after. And the day after that. Serbs like to party even for religion’s sake.

Every 19th of December my family invites around 30 people into a two-bedroom flat. My dad spends half of his monthly pension to please the guests. My mom prepares various dishes from fish broth to desserts. This is a good opportunity to drink and end up talking about politics and a better life.

A feast old-Slavic way

I turned forty and still don’t go to church. I have twins and live “in sin” with my partner (unmarried). Still, every Slava we go to my parents’ to gather as a family. Our patron’s day is in the period of fasting (in Serbian – “posna slava”).

the Serbian Slava cake, wheat, red wine and thick Slava candle at the back
The Slava cake and wheat – The Slava, Serbian family feast in the name of Patron Saint St. John the Baptist| © Goran Andjelić, Wikimedia

On our Slava you can find the ritual food:

  • “slavski kolač” (the Slava cake) – a special type of sweet bread. It is decorated with a dough cross, dove, pig, and an ear of wheat. They are symbols of hope for a peaceful and abundant life;
  • “žito” (wheat) – boiled wheat in the shape of a small cake. It is mixed with ground walnuts and powdered sugar. You offer it to the guests as soon as you greet them. It symbolizes the Resurrection of Christ. Also, it is served in the memory of the deceased family members (that great-great-grandad from the 1st century A.D. is winking at you);
  • red wine;
  • fish;
  • vegetable salads, baked beans, stuffed peppers, “posna sarma” (a veggie version of the famous dish “sarma from the Ottoman Empire);
  • a series of sweets without eggs and dairy, such as homemade Snickers balls.

It takes all priests to make Christianity

A few days before the Slava, a priest comes to my parents’. He sings and blesses the Slava cake and the flat, waving the burning incense in every room. The flat resounds with his soft clear voice. The folks stand still, their heads bent down. A thick orange Slava candle burns incessantly in veneration of St. Nicholas for three days.

I started avoiding these gatherings when the former priest tried to recruit me for a church choir. I found it hard to explain to a clergy person that we are not spiritual in the same way.

Our priest Luka is a nice family man in his late forties, with 5 kids. He beats the bad reputation of southern Slavic priests. Some of them preach modesty in Hugo Boss suits and drive sizable shiny cars. Luka even gave money to my newborns instead of taking some for the church:

“Two babies in one house… Well, that’s a real blessing.”

He is like a dear family friend. My mother sewed a tablecloth in the shape of a country house for his kids to play underneath the table.

The Orthodox church interior - The Ceiling of Temple of St. Sava | © Flaco, Pixabay
The Orthodox church interior – The Ceiling of Temple of St. Sava| © Flaco, Pixabay

What’s an agnostic doing in the House of God?

I rarely enter the church. But I feel at peace there. The smell of incense, quietness, the dark wood, and old frescoes calm me down. Time stops. You don’t feel there’s anything more important at that moment.

I was raised on the 10 commandments. I try to live a decent life according to them.

We took our kids to church when they started exploring the world. I showed them where to light candles for the living and the dead. I don’t want to get them baptized. I got christened at the age of 14 because my Dad said so. I didn’t want to, but it was popular in the days of the rising nationalism.

However, the older I get, the more important are the customs of Orthodox Christmas, Easter, New Year, and the Slava. These little blends of cultures give me a stronger sense of myself. With every person who passes by and every line that stays on my face, I enjoy more the traditional and family-like.

I am still curious about the Tibetans’ brain and the Icarian diet. I accept the opinions of people different than mine. I appreciate and learn from members of other nations.

Nevertheless, I am more willing to be at home with my family and no TV. We talk, we eat, we bicker, we think I shouldn’t have come. But no matter what happens, these family rituals keep bringing us back to each other. The family gives you a sense of gravity. Your own blood is the love you need the most. If you don’t get it when you are small, you keep looking for it all your life. Your family roots are a part of you. And maybe God exists in them, too.

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