In April 2023, I traveled to Serbia to adopt my son.
He was ten years old and living with a foster family in Belgrade. Months away from returning to the orphanage, he had aged out of the stage where squishy cheeks and little-kid innocence meant adoptability. He was old enough to comprehend this ominous situation while acutely feeling the culmination of years of trauma, so he was acting out and refusing to do schoolwork.
This adoption came with more risks than I could comfortably carry and so I shifted my focus to Serbia. To me, this is a land filled with memories of youthful adventure, where I spent holidays with cousins and friends as a teen. Having last visited a decade ago, adopting a child from Serbia gave me reason to return. With all the uncertainties of adoption, it was easy to concentrate on my reunion with this country. Adoption was abstract, uncertain, and unpredictable. A trip to Serbia, which could occur with or without adoption, was tangible, concrete, and seemingly predictable.
And so, as I went through the adoption process, I thought as much about Serbia as acquiring a son. After many months of social workers, paperwork, fingerprints, and government offices, we were summoned to that country. We arrived on Holy Saturday.
I was sure the timing was providential.
After more than five weeks of fasting, psalm reading, and Presanctified Liturgies, I saw Serbia as the culminating pilgrimage of my Lenten journey. It was no coincidence, I thought, that I would be in Serbia for Holy Week, Easter, and then the joyous days that followed. I quickly mapped out the churches and monasteries we’d visit while also planning for an endless string of coffee shops and national restaurants. I packed walking shoes, long skirts, and headscarves as well as trendy ballet flats, a fluffy jacket, and mascara. I planned to divide my time between holy places and coffee shops, finding spiritual fulfillment as well as enjoying the social and culinary pleasures of Serbia’s capital. Even if the adoption didn’t work, Serbia was there, and I was going to Serbia.
But then, everything flipped upside down. Within days, the little boy was living with us–officials had expedited the process to accommodate the Easter holidays–and our lives became governed by unforeseen rules and restrictions. For instance, we could not travel outside of Belgrade with him, as our guardianship documents were only valid within the city. Violating this rule would jeopardize the adoption. What’s more, he had only ever spent as much time in church as it took to light a candle, which meant that his tolerance for an hours-long Holy Week service was so brief that we barely had enough time to venerate an icon. Plus, his emotional needs were consuming. At the same time, we still had to hop around multiple government agencies in pursuit of one approval after the another. In our free time, I stood on the side of playgrounds, calculating how to wear him out enough so that he, and therefore we, could sleep more than a few hours at night.
But the calendar does not slow down for a process: feast days come and go regardless of where we are in our lives. In the middle of Holy Week I found myself deprived of sleep not because I was attending the at services I so loved, but because a scared child was clinging to me throughout the night. I was subsisting on crackers and apples, not because of the asceticism of the fast, but because my nerves curtailed my appetite. But Easter arrived. We cracked eggs and proclaimed Hristos Voskrese to one another in the kitchen–and I made myself some instant coffee.
I was so far from where I had wanted to be, but yet exactly where I needed to be.
A pilgrimage is not necessarily about visiting a place but about our movement toward transformation. Sometimes this transformation can happens as we walk on sacred ground or pray in a sanctified space. But in the end, our movement allows us to synergize with God and be transformed.
Adoption, for me, was a pilgrimage. It was and is a trip to a holy place in the soul, where transformation occurs only after great hardships and–as in my case–after a trip to a place that offered all the spiritual and material pleasures I had to refuse in the name of love for a little boy.
I came to understand that this Holy Week, Easter, and Bright Week–this time in a tiny apartment with a broken washing machine, a husband, two teenage girls, and little boy I had only just met and yet so loved–turned out to be my aesthetic practice, my fasting, my prayer. Bereft of the comforting pattern of services even though we were within miles of monasteries in the name of love was the hardest, and yet most meaningful, Paschal journey I could have imagined. My time with this little boy became my prayer; my late nights in his bedroom framed my Holy Week.
“Piety, piety,” said St. Maria of Paris, “but where is the love that moves mountains?” Here was that love, demanding so much and yet promising such transformation.
This adoption process, like all pilgrimages, finally drew to an end. Not only that, but right before we left Belgrade, my son finally managed to attend an entire Divine Liturgy. At that point, it felt like the Serbian experience I had originally envisioned had somehow come to pass. It felt like we had prayed at all the monasteries and savored all the coffees. That may have been my imagination, or I may have been granted a small foretaste of the fluidity of time. Whatever the reason, standing in that church, I knew I had arrived. I made the journey and caught the synergy, with a boy marveling at the sight of incense wafting into the heavens. My pilgrimage was complete.
Dr. Ashley Lackovich is a Serbian Orthodox Christian, nonprofit leader, global education consultant, and writer. With a PhD in Leadership and Change, Ashley spent over a decade living overseas where she supported children in conflicts and humanitarian crises in places such as Ethiopia, Syria, and the DR Congo. Currently working in nonprofit development, she consults through Enhancing Girlhood LLC and serves as president of Enhance Worldwide, a nonprofit she co-founded to support girls’ education in Ethiopia. She volunteers on the National Sexual Assault Hotline, RAINN, as well as for her communities of faith. She is mother to two daughters from Ethiopia and a son from Serbia.