If you squint at the top of the snow-covered mountain that overlooks the small coastal town of Bar, Montenegro, you can just make out a white speck on its top.
The mountain is a holy place for all the different religions in the area: Catholic, Orthodox, and Islam. But when the Montenegrin Orthodox tried to separate and be independent from the Serbian Orthodox, a struggle ensued for power, land, and rights to the Orthodox heritage. At one point, the Serbian Orthodox Church flew a helicopter over the mountain and dropped a small metal church on top. Click here for more on the story.
This symbolic attempt to “religiously claim” the territory marks part of the spiritual malaise of the region. Like other countries in the Balkans, religion cannot be separated from ethnic or national identity. Croat=Catholic. Serb=Orthodox. Montenegrin=Orthodox. Bosniak=Muslim. But many times religion is used as a manipulative tool by those who wish to wield some kind of political power—this rips out the beating heart and leaves an empty shell.
It is bafflingly ironic that the Orthodox heritage—rich in theology, liturgy, and rooting into the beginning of Christianity—should bar the 630,000 people in this tiny country from God.
“They are afraid of anything outside of the Orthodox Church,” one missionary said.
“They think we have a different Bible,” another missionary told me, “and the priests tell the people not to read the Bible.”
This seems to be one of the biggest roadblocks—the people feel that it is dangerous to read the Bible because they might misinterpret it without a priest. Even more, the liturgy, which is chock full of Scripture and theology, is conducted in Old Slavic, which no one can understand.
Spiritual conversations are not easy to come by, although one Serbian missionary who has been here for 20 years said that the people are now more open and less aggressive when you bring up the topic.
Yesterday, as I wound my way through Montenegro’s wild and formidable mountains, I decided to stop at Ostrog, the famous monastery built into a cliff face. Orthodox pilgrims come from all over the world to pray, drawn by reports of healings and other miracles.
I must admit my palms started dripping sweat as I began the slow, treacherous climb up the narrow road which only occasionally had a few medium size rocks to (hypothetically) prevent an unfortunate driver from driving off the edge.
“Is that for prayer requests?” I asked them. They smiled and nodded, and tore me off a piece of paper. Afterwards, I explored the rest of the monastery and passed by the women once more on my way out.
“You should wait for the blessing of the priest!” they said to me. When I tried to understand what that meant, they looked surprised. (Author’s Note: The following conversation is what transpired in my head, but due to communication difficulties due to communicating a difficult topic in my Croatian, it could have sounded very different to their ears.)
“Are you Orthodox?”
“What are you?
“I’m a follower of Jesus Christ.”
“How do you cross yourself?”
“What do you do?”
“I try to live as Jesus commanded, I read my Bible to learn who God is and how He relates to people, I pray, I enjoy relationship with God. We believe in the same God and the same Jesus,” I tried to explain.
One woman had heard of Protestantism and asked me if that was it, but the other two looked even more confused, and the questions kept coming:
“How often do you read your Bible? Do you have an Old Testament? The Psalms? Are you a Jehovah Witness?”
In the end, I left the conversation frustrated with my lack of language to properly engage in conversation, but fascinated at these women who trek once a month to write their prayers and wait for the blessing of the priest.
I try to imagine what would happen in this country if there was a reformation within the Orthodox church—if the priests began to lead the people as true shepherds and teach the people the way of Jesus. In a land where there is only around 150 known believers (all Evangelical), this is something worth praying for.