Surprise! I'm Orthodox Now!

In January 2012 I was officially baptized into the Orthodox faith in an old church in central Moscow. The Russian priest who performed the rites was fluent in English. One of Katya's friends, a friendly young Russian man named Dima, was one of those monk-types who lived and breathed the Church. For almost an entire year before my baptism he had been teaching me the Orthodox faith, emailing me English literature on Orthodox canons and traditions, and sponsored me for baptism.

Every adult who is being baptized must be wearing a clean white gown. They must fast for 3 days before the baptism and they must understand what they are doing. Katya and her mother had made me a nice white baptismal gown for the big day, and for 72 hours I ate only a few pieces of bread and drank water, and only after sundown.

On the day of baptism, Katya, Dima and I travelled to downtown Moscow. After a 30-minute discussion with the priest in his office, in which cookies and tea were served (so long for the fast), in which he explained to me the central tenets of Orthodoxy and discussed some miracles he had personally seen at this particular church, we went out to one small wing that had been curtained off.

Russian Orthodox churches are organized, or rather intentionally unorganized, so that multiple things can be going on at once. In one section a priest might be leading a service, while in another a priest might be surrounded by people and discussing biblical things. Throughout the church are icons of the saints and candles and holy relics and so forth, and people are free to wander around and offer candles to whatever saints they wish, and make personal prayers alone. Unlike the monotonous, robotic droning of our western Catholic-based denominations, Orthodoxy is a very lively, independent and ultimately spiritual type of Christianity.

The priest performed the ceremony in both Russian and English (I only had to answer in English), made me spit a few times on the ground, Christmated my forehead, cheeks and side of my neck with holy oil, and then baptized me by dumping luke-warm holy water out of a pitcher over my head. The whole time he was holding a service book in one hand and chanting and praying, while some other-worldly choir of angelic female voices sang in answer to his prayers from beyond the curtains.

Then he did something very rare. He took me behind the holy wall to the area that is only accessible to the clergy. In Orthodox churches, there is a large wall heavily decorated at the front of the church. Three doors, two small ones on the side and a large one in the center, lead to a sanctuary that is considered a holy place, where the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven meet. A separate altar, along with the holy bread and holy wine for the Sacrament, are kept back there, as well as whatever holy relics the particular church might have.

This kind priest took me to this holy place and showed me the church's holy relic: a piece of garment that is supposedly from the robe Saint Mary (yes, the mother of God) wore. Apparently it had been brought to Constantinople by Catholic crusaders returning to Europe from the Holy Land. When the invading Muslim Turks sacked the city in 1204, many of the Orthodox churches sent their holy relics off to the Serbian, Ukrainian and Russian churches for safekeeping. This particular Moscow church, which was nearly 800 years old, still had their Holy Relic, and the priest was showing it to me with obvious pride. He then gave me an entire loaf of consecrated Holy Bread and showed me back out to the main part of the church.

Afterwards, our friend Ms Minnesota (whom I met in 2009 in Mytischi and was still living in Moscow in 2012) met up with us. Dima stayed behind in the church to...well, do whatever he does, while Katya, Ms Minnesota and I went off to find a restaurant and celebrate my baptism!






Katya and I flew to Canada a couple of weeks after that day. We found a Russian Orthodox church in Victoria but it was extremely small (in a rented house, actually) and lacked the spirituality and mystery of the churches in Russia. In southern Ontario there's a few Orthodox churches around, mostly Greek and Ukrainian. There's a big old Russian church in Toronto, supposedly the oldest Russian church in Canada, adorned with icons painted by Czar Nicholas II's sister herself (she escaped the Bolsheviks and fled to Canada, settling in Toronto). We're planning on checking it out whenever we get a chance.

I like the Orthodox faith. I find it much more spiritual than the western denominations, which are heavily legalistic and involved in every day politics (the Orthodox church closely follows Christ's command to "..give unto Ceasar those things that are Ceasar's, and give unto the Lord those things that are the Lord's." Thus it doesn't meddle in politics or think-tanks or so-called "family values" morality.)

Orthodox icons are amazing, if misunderstood. They represent the saints and the stories of the four Gospels, and their function is to act like greeters meeting people to the church. People don't worship the icons (that would be idolatry) but instead they pray to the icons to intercede with God on behalf of them. For instance, this past summer mine and Katya's beloved fuzzy cat, Milo, died for unknown reasons. He was only 6 and seemed healthy, until he grew sick. We rushed  him to the vet's, they fed an IV into him and put him in an oxygen tank. They did blood tests and x-rays and couldn't find the reason. He passed away after only a couple of days (and after bankrupting us). We went to church that weekend and I lit a candle for him and placed it in front of the icon of Mother Mary, who is the saint of innocent souls.

Despite my conversion to Orthodoxy, and my spiritual awakening (which had always been there but didn't find a home until I first entered a Russian Orthodox church), I'm still fairly normal. I'm no monk like Dima. I drink and curse and watch sports and violent movies. So despite this post about Christianity (a religion that is mocked and bashed in the west these days, although perfectly acceptable in Eastern Europe), I'm still normal.

Well, as normal as I can be, anyways.

The Orthodox Crucifix. The top bar is where the Romans carved "Jesus Christ, King of the Jews" and the bottom is where victims' feet were nailed.

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