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.