We have received an email from Catherine (not her real name) in Johannesburg, South Africa (not her real address). The email reads:
My children are to be baptized in a week's time. The priest at St Mary’s Church in Johannesburg [not the actual church—OM] informed us that he would like the children to wear a cross with the crucified Christ on it. I had assumed that a cross of this type was in the Catholic tradition. The Orthodox crosses I am familiar with and have worn do not depict the image of Jesus on them. Please be kind enough to enlighten me. The priest was adamant about his preference and I chose not to question him.
We received a positive reply from ‘Catherine’ to our request for permission to post and discuss her email publicly, and indeed we received the following further information:
I should also mention that my son is 12 years old and my daughter is 10.
I am feeling a tremendous amount of guilt for not having baptized them as infants, I fear my children will suffer due to my negligence. I will not be baptizing them at our regular church, I have chosen a church where we are not known.
If any of the following is too personal of a nature for you to respond, please, if you will, answer only my cross inquiry.
I had distanced myself from the church and only returned in the last two years. I had read such a vast and diverse amount of information on the origins of Christianity, and St. Paul's role in particular, that I had become disillusioned. I studied Comparative Religions and Literature at University and this was the start of the decline of my faith in favour of rationality. It was only through a dream I had, where I saw the Lord crucified, and bleeding, that I felt I was called back.
I have a committed a grave sin in allowing my children to receive communion and attend church services and Sunday School classes. With the assistance of a deacon friend, I tutor them on our Orthodox faith as well. No one knows they have not been baptized.
Their father is no longer in my life and he was not Orthodox; we parted when my daughter was 2 years old. We were not married; I chose not to. My son was unexpected. It was a mistake that I tried to rectify by remaining with the man and focusing on creating a family. The pressure was intense though. Our cultures were too different; our personal backgrounds completely opposite. I have since then, focused on my children exclusively, abstaining from any kind of relationship with men. Not my ideal, but each way I turn I commit more sins.
Right now my children attend public school; however the influences of the Muslim and Hindu faiths are very great in our area and in the school particularly. I have been contemplating placing them in a Catholic school. I was informed that as long as they were baptized they could attend; no conversion would be required. The priest at my church, St James in Pretoria, is a monk; he is new. He has been informing us almost every Sunday, that even if we attend a service in another church, for family or friendship obligations, we must re-affirm our Orthodox faith with either him or the assistant priest. He is very approachable; both priests are, yet my feet remain frozen. I realize that their response will most likely be negative. But I ask you through the impersonal shield of the computer, I know the history between our two churches, but is not Catholicism better, than non-Christian influences? At the present my children have almost no Christian friends. I too am somewhat hesitant to place them in a Catholic school, but at this point I'm not sure what the right thing to do is.
I know I need to confess but I am ashamed and guilt-ridden. You will probably say to me, ‘And who do you think you are? Are you not just a human creature? Do you think you are immune to sin? Do you not think that God does not know what lies beyond the superficial image you present?’ Nonetheless I am petrified. I have not taken communion, nor approached the Bible when the priest holds it up for all of us to kiss, for years.
As I mentioned, if any of this is too personal for your blog, please disregard. I apologize for the length of my email. You may withhold all personal information.
Now this is quite a serious email. Let us take the issues as they come.
First of all, we contacted an Archimandrite who has been baptizing Orthodox children for 30 years. He says that the Crucified Christ on the Cross is not an issue. He would prefer that the Crucified Christ on the baptismal cross not be gross in its dimensions but this is a matter of personal and Orthodox taste. It is not a reason for a cross to be rejected if it has already been given to the child in baptism.
Next, yes indeed the children should not have been receiving Communion before Baptism. But the damage, however serious, has been done. It’s time to move on. However, we don’t see what the problem is in their having attended church and even Sunday school. Merely they shouldn’t have been receiving the Mysteries (Sacraments), including antidoron.
Next, we have to look at Catherine's fear and trembling about going to Confession (if we understand her correctly). Catherine, God is a God of love. Somewhere in the Bible it says that God desires the repentance of the sinner, not her destruction. Consider the following episode from the Bible, Luke 7, 36 ff. (for convenience we have used the King James Version; there’s nothing sacred about that translation from an Orthodox point of view):
And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to meat. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven. And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also? And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.
During Lent, St Mary of Egypt is celebrated. She was a big sinner who repented. She died a great saint. Let her be a lesson to you. Our God is a God of repentance, not of retribution. He desires our repentance, not our destruction.
Your issues of guilt are a temptation. It is well known in the ascetical literature that after the Devil and his demons persuade us to sin, they then try to bring us to despair (see the Ladder of St John of Sinai, for example). You should resist these thoughts.
This is not to say that you do not need to repent and confess your sins. But you realize that. You need to screw up your courage and go to confession to a priest, preferably one in your jurisdiction and one that you trust. You should do what he tells you. If he makes a mistake God will protect you.
You would do well not to depend psychologically and spiritually on the dream of the Crucified Christ. It may or may not have been from Christ (we don’t know such things), but depending on dreams is fraught with danger and while you should continue with your return to Christ you should leave the dream behind. You should concentrate on the known outward forms of Orthodox Christianity, especially the Mysteries, including Baptism (for your children) and Confession (for you). You should go to Confession and you should do what the priest says, receiving Communion only when he allows it. This is not a matter of formalism on our part but a matter of grounding you in the reality of the Orthodox Church.
The priests you refer to in your email seem unnecessarily strict. But the best thing to do is to listen to them. You will see later that everything will work out.
As for the matter of sending your children to a Catholic school as you describe in your original email. We would reject this option. This is going to cause no end of problem for you, and for the children. We frankly don’t have a solution to the multi-ethnic issue where the children are not being schooled in a Christian environment. The solutions that come to mind are not feasible. The main thing that you can do is avoid creating an atmosphere of anxiety in the home. It would be good for you to unburden your conscience to the priest, and to listen to him; the very act of doing what the priest says is going to free you from a great deal of anxiety.
That’s all we’d like to say. In general, in such situations, it is very useful to be able to go to regular confession and counselling with a member of the Orthodox Church whom we can trust.