When we belong, we belong: on raising my future children Greek Orthodox

Guest post by Katie Billotte
Photo by jemasmith, used under Creative Commons license.

As I enter I am struck by the smell of incense. I drop my coins in a box and grab three scraggly yellow candles, lighting one for the living, one for the dead, and one for me just as I have been taught. Each one is pushed into the pale sand in whatever space is free amongst the plethora of other yellow candles each in various stages of burning. I make the sign of the cross over myself, from right to left with three fingers, the way my grandmother showed me on a cold winter day in Colorado in a time before I knew there were years. Still I remember her hand as it replaced the small mitten over my fingers and formed them into a neat divide of three and two and then guided them from my head to my stomach and then to each shoulder, before resting at last across my heart.

As I bend to kiss the Byzantine mosaic depicting the Mother of God, I feel my grandmother’s lips against my cheek. The ancient sounds of Greek chanting touch my ears and I hear the old men who gathered at my grandfather’s restaurant the first Friday of each month to gossip and tell stories temporarily transforming the suburbs of Denver in the 1990s into some Greek village in the 19th century.

Once, not long ago, I had resigned myself to the idea that I would never again smell those smells, hear those words, or light those candles. I was angry at the Church and the men who run it, disgusted by its backward politics. Certain I could never belong to any organization so openly misogynist, so homophobic. In fact, I have heard from plenty of corners in the last several years that my mother should have never lead me into those incense filled pews at all. They say that I was a lamb going to intellectual slaughter. It does seem strange that a progressive, Queer-positive, feminist single mother would choose to raise her daughters not only in a Christian church, but in the Greek Orthodox Church. A church that is literally Byzantine. A church where women are not only kept from the priesthood, but kept out of the Altar.

And yet she did and I am so grateful. I knew without question when it was that my mother and the Holy Mother Church parted company on certain matters of principle. In almost every single one of those matters, by the way, I have come firmly down in my mother’s corner. But by staying even in the face of some very significant disagreement, my mother taught me an even greater lesson: when we belong, we belong. There are things we are tied to with ancient threads and we do not cut those threads because we disagree. We stay and demand our place in the wonderful tapestry into which we have been weaved.

I have a deep respect for those who have no faith and especially for those who choose to raise their children without a god. At the same time, I know I will never be one of them. In fact, it has recently become clear to me that I cannot even bring myself to entertain the idea that my future children will be dipped into any baptismal font that is not Orthodox. Not because I fear anything. My family would not reject me. Even my grandfather, now in his 80s, would not object if I placed his hypothetical great-grandchild in the hands of an Episcopal priest or a Wiccan priestess or no one at all. I do not fear Hell. Unlike its Western counterpart, the Orthodox Church has never taught that “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” means anything about carrying denominational membership cards. And even if it had, it seems like an area where I would agree to disagree.

No, whatever children come in the future will be taken like I was as an infant and submerged three times in a golden fountain as prayers are chanted in a vaguely Eastern cadence. Their hair will be clipped. They will then be rubbed with oil and given the Eucharist for the first time, full members of the Church of their ancestors and mine. I will walk with them as we struggle to untangle that mysterious knot in which culture, family, faith, and politics are all balled up into one and yet still do not quite fit. If their paths leads them away from those chants, from icons that hang over my bed, from the candles my mother lit, from the crosses my grandmother made, I will still claim them. They will still belong to me. I will remember my mother’s lesson that nothing can undo belonging.

Comments on When we belong, we belong: on raising my future children Greek Orthodox

  1. Thank you for this. I recently started to go to church again after many years when I found out that I was pregnant. It’s hard to explain why to my friends and husband who are not religious and in some cases, very anti-organized religion. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, maybe it’s a comfort thing, I’m not entirely certain myself. And I actively stand against some of things that my church teaches but I still find myself going, just scoffing under my breath and muttering obscenities when the priest says something completely absurd about women’s health or same sex couples. So, again, thank you for showing that progressive, well educated people can be a part of a church.

  2. I am a 42 woman and pregnant with my first child. I was raised Ukrainian Orthodox and although I have developed my own ideas about religion and spirituality over the years, I still respect the church and it’s traditions. My nephew recently had his daughter christened in the Orthodox church, and his wife and family (who are non-denominational) were shocked at the ceremony, which is intense and symbolic. It was unnerving for then to see a baby of two months dunked in holy water… But as I told them, “That’s how we roll!”. I have fond memories of going to church as a child with my family (mostly now deceased), yet I still struggle with the choice I would like for my own child.

    • Ha! As my dear sister says, “Baptisms are really the perfect intiation into being (Insert your traditionally Orthodox ethnic group here). Your parents invite a bunch of people you don’t know. There is a long church service in a language you can’t understand at the end of which you are wet, oily and screaming. And then everyone goes and gets something to eat.”

      • So true! Being baptized, married… or dying for that matter in the Orthodox church, boy do they mean it! Hence, the respect I have for it…

      • Bahahahaha!! I love this comment!! My Baba was Ukrainian orthodox and, over the years, I’ve been to SO many weddings/funerals/family gatherings at Churches/cemetaries etc held in Ukrainian where I don’t understand a word….then we eat, drink and be merry and it all feels right because I belonged in that family, no matter what words were said.

  3. Thank you for this. I’m not particularly religious but I was raised Catholic and there’s really nothing as comforting to be going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. My husband doesn’t really understand because I never go to church otherwise but you’re right. When we belong, we belong. Sadly nowadays many people are excluded from belonging which is why is difficult for me go when I know there are others that aren’t welcome and I’m lucky I have that option

    • You are always welcome at our Catholic parish. Yes, there are dogmatic beliefs about certain aspects of participation but nonetheless there is participation for everyone in some fashion. Look the United States government is far from being good but yet you remain an American. Why do people feel drawn back? Because there is a God, no matter what anyone tells you differently.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this piece. I’m currently in seminary, studying to become a Lutheran pastor and have a strong fondness for the Orthodox church as my lifelong best friend is Syriac Orthodox. I fell in love with the Lutheran church in my early twenties because of its theology of grace and culture of open welcome (not to mention, that they ordain women and LGBTQ persons), so I don’t have those rich historical ties to the church like many of my classmates (who refer to themselves as “cradle Lutherans”). For me, the incense and the Holy Eucharist, and the beautiful religious art are all things which muster up that nostaligic feeling as I’ve always been associated in one way or another with Liturgical faith. The various ecumenical traditions of my past have formed me into the person I am and have guided me in my faith formation, but the liturgy has always moved me profoundly even from a young age -probably because of that connection to the ancient.

    My son was baptized this past Easter at the Easter vigil service (one of the most ancient services of the Church for both the east and west which recounts the entire history of God’s saving activity through the scripture and celebrates the in-breaking of the light of the resurrection of Christ on the night before Easter). This was one of the most moving services for me ever, as my son became part of the community and recieved God’s promises, his two Syriac Orthodox Godmothers (well, one God Mother, and one God Aunt as she likes to be called) were standing there supporting him, promising to help us raise him in the Faith that has been so positively influential for us all.

    • Interestingly enough, my best friend is a Lutheran–a gay Lutheran convert who is considering going to the seminary. I know that doesnt’ address your incredibly insightful comment, but WOW! that is kinda weird, right?

  5. “When we belong, we belong. There are things we are tied to with ancient threads and we do not cut those threads because we disagree.”

    This. I could explain why this, but I don’t think I need to.

  6. Thank you for writing this! I am Roman Catholic and I love the Church… the people part can be difficult… but my belonging is there for sure.

  7. This is awesome. I want to print this out and hand it to anyone who questions why a scientist and PhD (me) marrying a non-Christian would be having a wedding in a Catholic Church. I am Roman Catholic and these traditions mean so much to me and my family. I learned some of the greatest lessons about humanity and kindness toward my fellow man at the hands of the priests and nuns who taught me for most of my life. Yes, we disagree on some hugely fundamental issues but that doesn’t mean I don’t belong.

  8. As someone married into a Greek family, this made me smile. I’ve noticed how women are excluded from the faith, but I can also vividly recall the clucking and eye rolling from all the old Greek ladies at my wedding ceremony during the ” wife shall obey the husband and become a servant unto him ” bit. I have also noticed how very strong Greek women are in their homes and communities, I am happy to be asked to belong. I find the ceremonies comforting in a way I never have with any other religion. (I did cry like a baby during my daughter’s baptism tho, that one was harsh)

    • Truth! Strongest people I have ever met are old Greek ladies–and that includes my mother (Please, don’t tell her I called her an old Greek lady. She hits!).

  9. I fullheartedly agree with this post. Some religions are so much more than the religion. It is our history, our culture, our ancestors and our prayers. We may not agree with everything or every idea but as we are taught in Judaism (at least it was taught this way in my house), QUESTION EVERYTHING. Argue until your face is blue and you have finally made your point, but at the end of the day I am still a Jew, and would still be Jewish even if I never stepped foot in a temple again. I want my future children to know who their Ima (mom in Hebrew) is, and the culture, the faith, the people that made me who I am.

  10. I can see where you are at with this, even though my parents have religion/belief of sorts, I have none, and my kids will have whatever they choose. My real question is what is that prayer? The name sounds fantastic, yet I can’t find it in google. “I could use some help here”. I think everyone can relate to that phrase somewhat, so I would like to know more!!

    • Oh, I was joking ( a bit). That is the whole prayer, that (I guess) I just made up, “I could use some help here.” Do feel free to use it.

      • Hehehe, does that show my true colours somewhat and that I’m not a churchgoer? Whatever. Is a common, all encompassing phrase that I thought would be a kinda cool prayer to read if it existed. Nev mind! Go you and yours. xo

  11. Love this so much. It’s exactly how I feel about my relationship with orthodox Judaism. We don’t attend an orthodox shul only because we don’t live near enough to walk, but we’re sure going to do our damnedest to move as soon as we can. People reject it because there are things (like its issue with homosexuality and women rabbis) that it stands against, but they lose so much tradition, ritual and culture that we’ve carried through thousands of years of survival, that the more liberal of denominations just don’t do. The majority of the people I’ve come across at the synagogues I’ve frequented over the years don’t even know what half the rituals are or mean. I definitely don’t want that for my kids.

  12. Yes. This is why I say I am a Secular Catholic.

    Many of the rituals are long celebrated by my family, Catholicism is a part of our identity. I hate parts of it, and what some people associated with it have done, especially those in power, but there are good parts, and those I want to keep.

    I won’t throw out the baby with the bath (baptismal?) water. I think I can keep the good and toss the bad. It’s my history.

    Thank you very much for your post.

  13. thank you so much, all of you. reading this post and reading the comments, i’m honestly sitting her with tears in my eyes. i was raised roman catholic and still consider myself catholic even though i disagree with a lot of the larger issues and rarely attend mass (though i more often attend a non-denominational service elsewhere). really i too take issue more with the people aspect i often encounter (even when i was a youth group leader). but the church and it’s traditions are so important and beautiful to me.

    i want to raise my children christian but i also want them to experience the catholic church. my pain comes from my internal conflict with the church, my husband wants no part of any religious activities, and all of our friends are incredibly vocal, and quite insulting, atheists (not saying all are this way, just this particular group). also i live in another state from my family so i have support but it’s long distance.

    i’ve been feeling like i’ll be going at this alone so it warms and breaks my heart at the same time to know that you folks are out there. and hearing how strong you are helps me to hold to my resolve.

  14. More people need to read stories like this. I’ll never forget a party I held once where one of my muslim friends said she was muslim to an american friend-at-the-time. What had been a lovely, laid-back evening turned into a full-blown american vs. muslim argument/debate because my muslim friend drinks/occassionally swears. Couldn’t seem to get it through his head that muslims could believe/belong to most parts of their religion, but not others, but that it was perfectly ok for Christians (him) to swear even though they believe it’s “wrong”.
    Belonging is more than beliefs in a religion – it is belief, love and understanding of a culture which was once formed around religion and which religion still happens to be at its core.

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