What Lies Beneath?

St. Sava, Libertyville, Illinois

We start at the photo to the left—a small, unassuming church. Those of you from Catholic or Protestant backgrounds might find it somehow different. The shape and dome might strike you as foreign. You would be right—in a sense. This is a Serbian Orthodox church. But it’s not in Serbia. You’ll find it in Libertyville, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.

We’re all like this in some ways. We “fit” in our “normal” haunts. Your friends, family, and colleagues have a familiar role in life. If you follow my blog regularly, you probably even have an image of me in the “normal blogging” part of your life.

Put us in an unexpected place, though, and we see each other in a new light. Let’s say you ran into me in the “physical” world. You would soon revise your image of me. If you saw me with my maternal cousins, you would know we’re related. They’re like me—dark-haired and dark-eyed. You would think I resemble one of my cousins more than I do my sister. You might think that was my “normal” place. But if you saw me with my paternal cousins, you wouldn’t know we’re related. Most of them are blond and blue-eyed. And my facial features don’t look like theirs. To your eye, I might not “fit” with them.

St. Sava side view

Everyone knows, of course, that first impressions aren’t complete. Let’s take a walk around this church. When you look at the photo to the right, you see there’s more than first met your eye. This church isn’t as small and simple as it looked. The Orthodox characteristics are revealed. I’m not surprised if thoughts of Russia come to your mind. Still, this glimpse is enough for us to start forming an image of what’s inside. Humans do this. Our brains take brief bits of information and process them, immediately building up an image or map. That’s a good instinct when saber tooth cats or dire wolves included our ancestors on their dinner menus.

I have a wonderful international mix of viewers. Some of you may be Orthodox, although most are not. Orthodox viewers probably have different images in mind for this church’s interior than do Lutherans or Buddhists, for example. But each of you has an impression already, even if you haven’t consciously realized it. Take a few moments to bring an image to mind. I’ll wait.

Are you ready? Let’s see if more information supports your first impressions. Here’s a glimpse of the inside of this simple, unassuming church.

St. Sava, interior view from choir loft

St. Sava, another view from the choir loft

Did anyone expect every surface to be painted with frescoes? A few of you? Or did you think it might be simpler Christian images?

People are like this, too. As we get to know each other, we realize we didn’t get everything “right” at the start. If you see me with those maternal cousins and someone joins us, speaking Serbian, I’m lost. I didn’t grow up with the language like those cousins did. But spend time with me and my paternal cousins as we share drinks and stories? You’ll soon learn we also share a lot of DNA. I “fit” with both sides, but in different ways.

We never get everything “right” when it comes to knowing others. Those of you who have been married for decades still learn new things about your spouse. And the less often we interact with other acquaintances, the more we don’t know and are likely to get “wrong.” Think of news stories about serial murderers. How often do you hear neighbors say, “I can’t believe so-and-so could do this”? This intensifies the further we get from others. When we “know” someone only through a television lens and scripted speeches, the potential for “getting it wrong” grows by leaps and bounds.

Sometimes, we’re simply unaware of all the layers to a person or place. Our brains have so much information to process, and some data are more important than other bits. We can’t learn everything about everyone.

So let’s take a last look at St. Sava Church in Libertyville, Illinois, USA. Even if you imagined beautiful frescos painted by a master artist, I bet you didn’t have this final image in mind, unless you’re Serbian, Serbian-American, or an amazing gatherer of obscure facts and trivia.

Kralj Petar II
1923 – 1970

It’s a grave, one of two in the church. The other is for the first bishop of the church. Who lies here? This is the burial place of Kralj Petar II Karadjordjevic, third and last King of Yugoslavia—the only monarch buried in the United States. King Petar II, like many European heads of state, took refuge in England during World War II. When communists under Marshal Tito took control of Yugoslavia, the king was deposed. He lived in exile for the rest of his life. He was buried at St. Sava in accordance with his wishes.

Places and people—we all have our stories. No one knows all of them, and no one can. We’re all more complex than we and others realize. And this is true of our neighborhoods, villages, towns, cities, and countries. We can’t be summed up by our outward appearances. It takes time and real dialogue to understand and appreciate the depth of our collective humanity. But when we make the effort, and learn what lies below the surface, we discover we have more in common than we’ve been taught.

Update 22 January 2013 — The remains of Kralje Petar II Karadjordjevic were returned to Serbia today, fulfilling the wishes of his son, Aleksandar.

69 thoughts on “What Lies Beneath?

  1. Well done, JM. It’s a lovely post and the church is beautiful. It goes to show, we have more in common than we think.

      • Thanks, Christy. :) I was unsure how this post would go over, being so different from my normal subject matter. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about, and I thought I’d give it a go. A little more summer experimentation. ;)

  2. What a lovely post! I think, though, that when I find out more about other people, I don’t necessarily find that we have lots and lots in common… I find that I am fascinated by our differences. When I learn that someone who lives down the street grew up in Sri Lanka and has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, I am impressed by how very different our lives have been… in a good way.

    The stories that lie beneath the surface are also the amazing parts of my job as a writer. I get to interview local hero types. They are people who volunteer at the YMCA or work with the Rotary Club… and when I interview them, they tell me about a book they wrote to grieve a lost daughter or the charity climb of a foreign mountain they plan to make next month. You would never guess these people were so impressive if you ran into them in the grocery store. It’s a wonderful life.

    • Thanks, Anne. :) We all have many differences. But deep down, I think most of us have the same desires—love, security, family, friends, … A good life. I just get frustrated when some people try to make “right and wrong” out of our differences, when that’s not the case. Life would be dull if we were all exactly alike. Differences should at least be tolerated, if not embraced.

      And the people you describe are great examples of “what lies beneath” each of us—and why we shouldn’t be quick to jump to conclusions before we know more about others. :)

    • Travel is such an eye-opener. And we don’t even have to leave the country. I grew up in a mid-sized Midwestern city, but even traveling to the coasts and big cities has been a real learning experience about people for me. Overseas travel and work has had a bigger impact, but we can learn a lot about people even closer to home if we stop to really listen.

      • Absolutely! I did a 10,000 mile Americana radio tour and had a blast. Once you get off the freeway, you get to see the uniqueness and the sameness of Americans. But I am all about the quirks, so I liked the quirks the best!

    • Thanks, Wally. :) I was hoping people wouldn’t tune out on such a different post from me. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about recently and wanted to share.

  3. Yes, we do have a lot in common. But your church story relates to me on a special basis. I traveled with a choir and orchestra right after my senior year. We traveled throughout Europe. I believe it was Germany where we stopped the bus to stretch. It was Sunday and I, at the time, kinda missed church. There was a very small one nearby and I decided to go in. I have the picture somewhere. This church was dingy and small outside; however, the inside was almost all covered in gold. I don’t know if it was just paint or plated, but it may have been real. It was absolutely beautiful. People are like that, sometimes, too.

    • Looks can be deceiving, can’t they? The simplest exterior can hide incredible complexity or beauty. But we’ll never know it if we don’t stop and take the time to learn more. Thanks for commenting on this unusual post for me. :)

  4. Fantastic post and one from which I learned many new things. I’ve never seen a Serbian church.
    My knowledge of anything Serb has been solely through the prism of the enormous Albanian population that settled during the 1990s in Worcester (my previous city in MA. prior to moving south) I’ve always wanted to know more about the non-Albanian residents of Kosovo and their first generation descendants but honestly have never met even one! Strange isn’t it, how where one lives in the US determines greatly which ethnicities cross paths!
    Thanks for sharing this informative glimpse into your culture!

    • My mother and her family left Yugoslavia before World War II, so we’re farther removed from the events of the 1990s. Your Albanian acquaintances would’ve had a much different experience of Serbian culture than I have. The history of the Balkans is fascinating and heart-breaking. Being caught between warring empires throughout history takes its toll on people—and places.

      In a nutshell? Kosovo is where the Serbs made their “last” stand against the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s, but fell. The Serbian monarch chose death over submission to the Ottoman sultan. As a result, it’s considered “sacred ground” to many Serbs. The Albanian majority wasn’t there until Tito invited them to settle the area after World War II. And thus the stage was set for a tragic clash of cultures.

      You know I don’t get into politics on the blog, but suffice it to say there is more to Serbia and Serbs (and Albanians and Croats and Slovenes and ….) than was portrayed on the news in the 1990s. Actually, that’s true of all areas and peoples through time, isn’t it? ;)

      Thanks for sharing your experiences on this less-than-typical post of mine!

  5. I really enjoyed this post. I’m glad you were brave enough to try something different. Well done, as usual.

    • Thank you! (For letting me share some of your photos, too) :)

      I’m still not sure how this post will fare compared to most. It has a decent number of views for the summer, but fewer comments than normal…. But, several people have liked it who I haven’t seen before. We’ll see how tomorrow goes….

      Honestly? I thought most people’s comments would be along the lines of “I never knew a king was buried in the US.” But not one person has mentioned that as of this response. :)

  6. Wonderful post, and full of angles that made me stop and ponder. This is exactly what I love about exploring our world in all of its nooks and crannies because there *is* so much beneath the surface and it all matters.

    I liken this to writing and pulling together research or fictional ground for a novel. Even if we never bring it forth to the page, it is still there, as the foundation, holding up the story that the readers absorb.

    • Thanks, Kate. :) When the time comes that you get to read “Summer at the Crossroads,” you’ll now have more insight into Katarina’s world. Of course, things are different for her, but you’ll see where elements of her story overlap with our world. ;)

      I’m still curious how this post will do compared with my typical fare. It’s part of my summer experimentation with new topics and such. But I think it falls on a week where many of my regular readers are taking a break!

      Between the lines (maybe not so subtly), I’m also sharing a bit of my background for readers here. The older I get, the more I realize my upbringing was not so typically “American” as I once thought!

  7. Great post. Thanks so much for the pictures!
    People are like these buildings to casual viewers who jump to conclusions as they walk by without really visiting. Takes time to learn what’s really going on.
    Thought you might like to see some of the “painted ladies/churches” in some small Texas towns. (Morovian, German, Czech roots…many adults didn’t speak English as late as the 1950′s…and they didn’t speak Spanish.)

    • Oh, those are beautiful! My maternal grandmother was Greek and “Bohemian,” so those Czech churches share a history with me, too. And my husband is Czech on his father’s side. Totally off the point, but I was probably the only 3rd grader in my hometown who could even spell “Czechoslovakia.” And now, of course, the country no longer exists.

      This post was such a stretch for me. And there are such deep roots in it from a personal level. My maternal grandparents are buried at St. Sava. They may not be in the church with Kralj Petar, but they’re in the cemetery nearby. And my grandfather supported the restoration of the monarchy, not Tito’s communism.

      How many people are really interested in such an obscure corner of the world? But I’m glad I wrote the post, even if it doesn’t generate the normal level of “likes” and comments. This is part of me. :)

      • I thought it was great – but I’m quirky and gather tidbits of information.
        I just knew you’d appreciate those churches. Real jewels – significant to understand the land and people.
        Someday hope to see St Sava.
        Sometimes you just have to write a piece – this one was well done.
        thanks again for the tour

  8. A wonderful post. It’s so easy to make judgments about others based on our initial impressions, even those of us who make efforts not to, still do. It’s almost unavoidable, but the key is to remember that they are just first impression judgments, or even second and third impression judgments, and that we really have no idea what lies beneath.

    • Thanks, Vanessa. :) I really went out on a limb with this post, but I couldn’t not write it. One, I did want to give a little more insight into my background. But, most importantly, I think it’s easy to forget how much we share as humans. The differences often aren’t as major or important as we’re led to believe.

    • Thank you. :) If you’ve read my comments above, you know this isn’t a typical post for me. But it was one I was drawn to write. Sometimes my muse likes to take inspiration from my background in a way I didn’t expect…. ;) Undoubtedly, my paternal ancestors are now suggesting some ideas for future posts!

  9. Myself I am not religious, but I do like the architecture and the stories behind many elements of churches. It is interesting where it all comes from. A church near where I grew up had some pews and other adornments carved by well know woodcarver Robert Thompson, who was known as the “mouseman” for carving a little mouse into a lot of his works. I think there were 6 or 7 mice in this church, which in turn led to finding out where they came from, and obviously to Robert. You can find information about him easily enough online.

    The idea of people and places being the result of many layers is both true and interesting.

    • I’m not actively religious, although I’m not an atheist or agnostic, either. But this church is an integral part of my history and family, and I liked the idea of incorporating it as illustrative of the general tone of the post.

      I know this is a highly uncharacteristic post for me, but I wanted to share some of my thought processes with my readers. There’s more to all of us than we see on the blogs….

  10. That’s so beautiful, and true. No one truly can lay themselves bare. There is always something more. Some hidden secret, some unanswered want. The things that make us who we are may never be known to the person who sees us ‘inside and out’. The overly-confident colleague you know struggles with deep anxiety issues. That’s just one common example. We all need to remember that someone has something inside them.

    • Thanks, Amber. :) In today’s world it’s too easy to focus on the “surface” of people and places and miss the complexity within. I wish we could all slow down, take a deep breath, and really listen to others around us. The world might be a little saner if we tried.

    • Oh, we could get into all the studies of social media and how humans are interacting differently than previous generations did…. ;) I think we have a basic insight about each other and the other bloggers we follow, but there’s so much more. Especially when we don’t blog about every aspect of our lives. Heck, we all keep learning new things about ourselves. We can’t possibly keep up with all our family, friends, and acquaintances, too.

      I think we’d have a great time meeting up somewhere over drinks and talking about ourselves and our writing. Someday, we should all try to attend the same conference somewhere. Never mind the sessions—I think we’d have more fun meeting our fellow bloggers!

      • You reminded me I want to do a post about the Writers’ Digest conference I’m attending in LA in October. Watch for it tomorrow.

        I would LOVE to meet up. What a great cocktail party we bloggers would make. We’ve joked about it before, but if money were no object, I’d pay to bring us all together. Well, almost all. I’d exclude the folks that blog about their toenails needing a trim.

  11. Great post…so true! Every person we meet has a fascinating history that we’ll probably just barely brush the surface of as we get to know them. But like your archeological digging, the more we put into relationships, the more we’ll discover.

    • Thanks, Char. :) I really wasn’t sure how well this post would go over. It’s so different from everything I’ve done before. But sometimes this introvert gets nudged into revealing insights about herself. I’m not sure if it’s my ancestors or my muse, but they make me nervous when they do it. ;)

    • Thanks, Cin! Hey, I did say “most,” not all ;) I think we’ve got a few blond/brown-eyed and brown-haired/blue-eyed in there, too. But get all 20 of us together, and my sibs and I are out-numbered! Your green eyes must come from our grandmother’s side. . . .

  12. A wonderful post. I love the way it unfolded, very thought-provoking. History is wonderful, and it has so many surprises for us because we are mostly pretty ignorant about things outside of our own little realms. This post may be different for you in some ways, but not others. I still feel in it the presence of a person who is a keen observer and a thoughtful analyst of what she sees. Also a person who has a fascination with the stories behind things. Am I right?

    • Thank you, Carol. :) I’m sure this was a very obscure corner of history for most readers. But you are right—I am someone who often observes more than she partakes and thinks about what she sees. And I like to know how and why people and places are the way they are. And, of course, then wonder, “What if things went differently?” I think that’s what caught the Muse’s attention and got her to plant these book ideas in my mind.

  13. Beautiful post. I’m very moved by what you have written. King Peter’s family is fighting to have him reburied in Serbia.

    • Thanks, Mom. :) I think many Serbian-Americans would like the king to remain at St. Sava. But I understand the family’s desire to bring him home now that they can. I lean toward him staying here, unless the monarchy is restored some day. But that’s just my personal view that has no bearing in the matter.

  14. i really liked this. in fact, it may be my fave post of yours. i loved the way your juxtaposed the surprising or unknown facets of the church with your own background. really well done. and what a cool church. seriously, it defines, ‘more than meets the eye.’ xo, sm

    • Thanks, SM. :) It’s not easy for me to talk about myself beyond the writing, but now and again the Muse demands it. I get tired of so many people thinking different=wrong, which is just not true. And so a quiet little post like this sneaks onto the blog….

      St. Sava is an architectural gem that very few people know about. Photos can’t do it justice. Even for someone like me who isn’t religious, there’s a special feeling about it. Of course, I have family ties to it, which probably accounts for that. ;)

  15. Great post. I didn’t get a chance to read through all of the comments as I’m still without Internet access save a few costly sessions at 65 cents per minute, but I saved your post in my inbox as it seemed intriguing. :)

    One thing I find interesting is how different one’s perspective can be from what is actually the truth. For example, someone may have a set of preconceived notions about a particular individual, but that individual may not be anything like what is perceived. As Dr. Phil says, perception is rarely the same as reality (and yes, I do watch Dr. Phil :) ).

    • 65 cents per minute? Ack! My posts can wait till you’re home! That’s highway robbery. :)

      I’m breathing a sigh of relief that this post went over well. I was really unsure what everyone would think. But I thought it was a different way to combine some unfamiliar subject matter with glimpses into my background—without giving too much away. And election years in general make me long for more tolerance and critical thought. ;)

      If Summer at the Crossroads does see the light of day, you’ll understand where some inspiration and ideas came from for part of the story. :)

      Now get back to your vacation! :D

  16. I liked this JM–not only is it interesting to read about and compare to how we are as people, but it reveals another layer of who you are as well. I like getting to know you better, a bit of your history and how it relates to who you are as a person now. Little bits and pieces reveal themselves. Closed doors are opened, an invitation extended to step in and visit for awhile. I think you are very much like this little unassuming church–painted frescoes cover the interior, just waiting to be shared at the right moment. But then, as another commenter posted, “perception is rarely the same as reality”. Nicely done! I hope you do more pieces like this one and share yet another layer of JMMcDowell, archeologist, author, wife, cousin, friend…:)

    • Thank you, Jeannie! Opening up isn’t something I do easily, but I know I should do it more often—and not just on the blog. I truly am both shy and introverted. It’s hard for me to think that anyone would have a reason to be interested in what I do or think.This post represents baby steps forward, though.

      But I think you’re right. My quiet exterior hides a more complex interior. And I’m happier being like that than I would be to have a flashy exterior and no substance beneath. :)

      This will never become a “reality show” blog, but I think there will be more glimpses into what makes me who I am as a person and writer.

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