The Day We Became Heretics

*This story has been edited slightly to add the facts that my friend Sveta left in the comments.  Thanks Sveta!

So, I promised to tell you the story of Lee kissing the cross in a Ukrainian Orthodox church.  And here it is:

When I was pregnant with Sloan I spent a month in Ukraine researching a book that I was working on.  While there, I spoke with a handful of World War II veterans, but I didn’t get all the information that I wanted or needed.   At this point I already had a publisher lined up for the book so I felt a lot of pressure to complete it before the baby came.

So I began contacting people here in St. Louis who might be able to connect me with more veterans that I could speak with.  One of those people was a Ukrainian-American man who was a parishoner at a local Ukrainian Orthodox church.  He invited Lee and I to visit the church and told us that after it was over we could speak with some of the older people in attendance.

So Lee and I scheduled a visit to the Ukrainian Orthodox church of St. Louis.  At this point I was great with child.  And I had reached the status of beached whale.

Whenever I mention my enormity in my first pregnancy, people so sweetly roll their eyes and say “Whatever, I bet you were adorable,” and other really nice things. 

I’m here to tell you that I’m not exaggerating.  Sloan was 9 lbs. 3 oz. and I carried him all out front.  I was humongous.  And here is a picture to prove it…

random-001See?  G-R-E-A-T with child…

So one Sunday morning, I waddled myself into a small church building with my very crazy supportive husband at my side.  Determined not to make an enormous spectacle of ourselves, we sat in the little cry room in the back.  It was dark in the room and there was a large window that looked into the sanctuary where we watched the service with fascination.

The entire service was conducted in Ukrainian and if you didn’t know, Ukrainian and Russian are not the same.  So we had no idea what was going on and I’m pretty sure we both fought hard not to doze off.  There was another woman in the room with us and she actually had a baby so we tried to look attentive so as not to offend.

It was a very surreal experience.  In all my visits to Ukraine, I had only ever been to one Orthodox service and I only stayed for a few minutes, then left because I felt extremely out of place.  Seeing all the pomp and circumstance that went into the service was very interesting.  I really wished I understood what they were saying.

At the end of the service, the priest (are they called priest’s?  I’m not sure) batyushka – the guy in the robe and headdress – walked through the church with a large cross held out in front of him.  He stopped at the end of each pew and let everyone offer a simple prayer, after which they leaned forward and kissed the cross.  They also kissed his hand, which is a part of this story I had forgotten until Sveta reminded me.

As I watched this, I prayed silently that he would not come to the cry room because I had no intention of kissing that cross.  Not only did I not understand why I would be kissing it, but there were a lot of strange lips that were landing on that cross and I really didn’t want to swap germs with all of them… 

Much to my dismay, however, the batyushka made it to the cry room where my heart was now beating very quickly.  What to do?  The woman with the baby murmured a few words in Ukrainian, then leaned forward and kissed the wooden cross and the batyushka’s hand.  Then he turned to us.

Lee, the consumate Baptist, stood up and reached his hand out to try and shake the priest’s batyushka’s hand.  Instead, the small man furrowed his brow and thrust the cross in Lee’s face.  Lee bobbed his head for a few seconds like a drunk hummingbird, trying to avoid the inevitable.  But he finally took a deep breath, puckered up and kissed the cross. 

And then I kissed it.  Because I didn’t know how to avoid it and my husband had already paved the way for me.  As soon as the priest batyuska left, Lee and I lost it.  We could not stop laughing – the whole situation was just so comical.  And as I belly laughed, my gigantic midsection bounced up and down, which made us laugh harder.  The woman in the room glared at us and left abruptly.

And thus ended our experience in the Ukrainian Orthodox church.  Incidentally, I ended up not really getting any good contacts out of them after all.  When we attended the banquet after church, no one seemed interested in talking, so it was a wash.

Well, except for the memory, which is now one of my favorites. 

And now you know the story of Lee kissing a cross.

The end.

Comments

  1. Oh, dear, you made me laugh. The Orthodox church is very old in its hostory and that’s why the ceremony is so pompous. The priest is called ‘batyushka’ in Russian. And not only you don’t understand the whole ceremony, I never understand it up to the end myself. The ceremony is in old Slavic which is very difficult for understanding. Besides, there are so many habits that seem strange – one of them is to kiss cross. More than that it is required to kiss the hand of the priest as well – I always try to avoid it because I don’t understand what for.
    Christianity in Europe and America is much simplier. I find the Bible in English more understandable for me. Yeah, I read Bible in English and know prayers in Russian, not old Slavic.
    Differences in cultures… And it’s so interesting for me to know how other cultures see ours.

  2. GREAT info, Sveta. And I’m remembering now that they were indeed kissing the batyushka’s hand as well as the cross, but we managed to avoid that! Thanks for the comment! Love and MISS you!

  3. Elizabeth Ward says:

    What a hysterical story! Thanks for sharing it!
    Elizabeth Ward

  4. Some more information for you. Orthodox church ceremonies are based on rituals that are very ancient that’s why some of them are difficult to understand in the modern world. Being Orthodox myself I don’t quite understand and accept some of the rules required by this religion. But what I like about it is beautiful icons – my favorite are St. Nicolas, St. Panteleimon (he is responsible for health), Diva Maria with a baby, Prayer about the cup.
    The ceremonies of wedding and baptizing are especially beautiful, even royal. The baptizm of Ulyana was wonderful – batyushka (when we address to batyushka we call him Otyets and then his name, e.g. Otyets Pavel or Otyets Andrew) was young and did well with Ulyana and at the end of the ceremony made a wise speech.
    Besides, I like the ritual of lightening candles – there is some explanation in the Bible for this ritual. I find it very deep as if I touch something heavenly important. When we light the candle, we put it on a special place in front of the particular icon and pray. And I like the atmosphere of the church, its special quietness, though I find it difficult to stand at the ceremony up to the end. it’s very long and I always faint.

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