2022 Grateful 28: Religious exploration

A while back, I visited the Anglican church in Budapest to see what they’re up to. More recently, I went to the Serbian Church, in part to see the interior of the church on Szerb utca, in part to catch up with an old friend, and in part to see how they do what they do. Call it religious exploration.

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Budapest operates from the stunning eighteenth-century Baroque walled church in the city’s Vth kerület. The mosaic on the surrounding wall depicting St George slaying his dragon hints that the church is dedicated to St George. The new mosaic in the wall above the main door cements this notion.

Serbian orthodox church with gree steeple and icon of St George above the door. Yellow building with red tiled roof and gree fir trees in the foreground. All set again a blue sky with whispy white clouds

Mosaic in yellow and white of st George slaying a dragon in a niche on top of high wall. In the backgrouds is the belltower of a baroque serbian orthodox church. A yelllow building with red roof set against a blue sky with whispy white clouds

I read that the gate is in a decorative style called Zopf, which is apparently a variant of late Baroque popular in Central Europe in the eighteenth century. It’s also the name of a Swiss plaited bread.

The church was built on the foundations of an earlier church by Serbian immigrants* who had fled to Hungary from the Turks. Today, all that’s left of the original is the altar that stands to the right you walk down the steps.

You’ll no doubt have noticed what appears to be gravestones set into the walls. And they are. Gravestones, that is. They’re the graves of believers who were involved in the early days of the church. They’re old. Very old.

The church was designed by Salzburg-born András Mayerhoffer (he was also responsible for Sissy’s Palace in Gödöllő). Finished in 1733 (the bell tower was added in 1752), it’s traditional in nature with wooden parapets and pews separated for the sexes. In 1838, in the great flood that almost drowned the city, everything inside was destroyed so what we see inside now dates from the mid-1800s or later.

The inside is breathtaking. When it comes to interiors, Orthodox churches and their iconography are matchless. Stunning.

These beautiful and elaborate paintings are described as “windows into the kingdom of God”. They are used in worship both in the decoration of the church and for private homes. The icon is seen as both a form of prayer and a means to prayer.

I’d asked what time mass started and finished. It’s fluid, they said. It starts at 10 but people come as and when they like. It’s all very relaxed. And it was. Yes, the priest appeared at 10 but the altar boys filtered in one by one over the next half hour, as did the choir. The congregation ebbed and flowed, too, building to a crescendo about an hour into the service.

I had no idea what was going on. People were randomly blessing themselves (right to left, not left to right as I’m used to) and bending down to touch the floor, some making a half-hearted effort, others going the whole hog. You’d need to be fit and you’d need to be able to sing to get the most from it. If you’re interested, there are many types of bows.

The 13th Century Pope Innocent III […] said right to left signified that the faith extended from the Jews (right) to the Gentiles (left). But, he continued, others reverse the order because a Christian moves from “misery” (left) to “glory” (right) “just as Christ crossed over from death to life.” A late medieval explanation said Jesus suffered for us (left) and then ascended to heaven (the preferred right).

In general, the complete sign of the cross was and is made to acknowledge that all of our faculties (mind, heart, and soul) and all of our strength (shoulders) are being dedicated to the service of God through the cross of Christ, the sign of our redemption.**

The icon of St George in the middle of the church was roped off so that people could line up to pay their respects – this was about the only order there was that was visible to the uninformed eye.

About 50 minutes in, there was a prayer that I assumed (correctly) was the Our Father. There were two communions – one for those who’d not eaten anything before coming to church and the second for everyone else. The three doors on the altar opened and closed randomly (or so it seemed to me). Curtains were drawn. The priest appeared and disappeared. As it was all in Serbian (obviously), I was clueless.

Eastern Orthodox is one of the three main Christian religions that sits beside Catholicism and Protestantism. We believe pretty much the same things, but the practice varies considerably. I was trying to make parallels in the pageantry and had a quiet laugh at all my atheist/agnostic friends who’ve kidded me about Catholic mass being like an aerobics class and the ceremonies almost theatrical. We have nothing on the Orthodox. They’re in a class of their own.

I was struck though by how the mass was very much for the people. While the priest did his thing, people wandered about greeting each other quietly. Some had muttered conversations. There were no glares or stares or mental reprimands telepathically moving through the incense-laden air. People stepped in and out of the church as they felt the need. They mostly stood or leaned against the high arms of the seats. They sat when they needed to. Otherwise, they stood.

About an hour into it, I was ready to give up the ghost, but I wanted to see it through to the end.

It must be hard for Catholics to convert. The innate guilt would have us coming on time and staying till the end. Just in case. Very few did that. Fluid. It was all very fluid. I’m grateful for the experience and were it not for the language issue, I might consider moving over.


*Interesting account of ethnic Serbs in Hungary.

**Fr Anthony Nelson gives a good explanation of the origins of the difference.

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