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.
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.
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.
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 lastthe 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.