Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Looking at Orthodoxy

We have received another email, this time from John Smith in Cleveland, Ohio (name and location changed). John indicates that we can discuss his email on the blog. Here is the text of his email:
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Dear Orthodox Monk,
Thank you for your web log. It has become a source of great inspiration for me in my own spiritual struggles and striving towards God. I pray that you might be willing to offer some advice. I am 41 years old. Most of my life I have been seeking spiritual fulfillment, even from an early age. My home life was stable growing up. My family loved me and there were no major difficulties (no violence, no abuse, etc). Yet something that was missing was spiritual direction. My Father is completely secular. My Mother self identifies as Christian but has no religious practice with the exception of prayer (not a prayer rule, but her own private prayers). She does not participate in church services, does not study Holy Scripture, does not know about Holy Tradition, etc. So as a youth I began to explore on my own. I have searched far and wide, studied many different paths, both Christian and Non-Christian. I have a teenage son who lives with his mother and her husband. Until quite recently I have worked in the heart of “Corporate America”, the very antithesis of the desire and longing of my soul for a contemplative life. The greed, pride, selfishness, competition, deception – it is a miserable environment indeed. Satan is strong in the business world. I removed myself from that environment. I could no longer justify my being in the midst of such a situation for the “security” of a weekly paycheck. As our Lord has said, “You can not serve both God and Mammon.” (Matthew 6:24).
So now I find myself without a job. I am currently supporting myself from the modest savings gathered while I was working. This will not last and I need to make a decision about the direction of my life. I have no desire to return to the business world. It even pains me to consider it. While I was there I felt like all of my energy was being chewed up and spat back out. And for nothing. For an empty hollow illusion. And I knew all along it was an illusion. I knew all along that there was nothing of substance, nothing of value, nothing meaningful, yet I persisted as I felt it was my duty to do so. I needed to survive. I needed to pay the bills, to have shelter, to have food, to provide for my child, etc. I have lived a modest life (materially speaking). I don't own a house. I rent a small space. I don't have many material possessions, just some necessities – simple clothing, books for study, a computer to research and communicate. I don't have a TV. I own a phone which I use only when necessary. I spend a lot of time in silence, study and prayer. I am thankful for the extra time I have now that I am not employed. My current situation has allowed me to devote more time to things that really matter. But I know the end of this will come. I will run out of money and will have to seek employment. I don't want to go back to my previous life. I don't want to enter into the world of business. I was never one to buy into that lie. Even while I was in the midst of it, I knew “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15-17). I did what I did to survive, yet all along, I felt a call to a more contemplative life. Still, I waver. Sometimes I think perhaps I could do it, that I could embrace a life of renunciation, a life in utter and complete devotion to God. Other times I think that this a crazy idea, that there would be no way for me to do it, that I would fail, or that I would not be able to decisively take the next step.
About 7 years ago I began to study Orthodoxy. My studies have been private. I do not currently participate in a local parish although I have researched and found there are several Orthodox parishes in my area (Greek Orthodox, ROCOR, Antiochan Orthodox and others). I hesitate to visit as I am not sure that my calling is to parish life. And if it is, I am not sure which parish would be my spiritual home. Are these all Orthodox? Is there corruption in the Church? I read about different issues – this Metropolitan did such and such; this synod rejects that synod; this communion persecuted that communion; and so forth. It seems at times that the world itself has entered even into the very Church that Christ has built. No man is without sin. The devils assail us. What is one to do? Kyrie Eleision. Lord have mercy.
In part due to these misgivings, I have not joined a parish, which means I have not received any of the Mysteries of the Church. Monasticism might be the path for me, yet I am uncertain. Would I really be able to do it? Could I, who have been in the world for so long, really take that step? And if I did take that step, would I be able to follow through? These are questions I ask myself. These are questions I pray about. How do I discern what God wants?
Is there a spiritual practice I can do at home that would reflect the life of a monk? What I mean is, can I train – to a greater or lesser extent – to live a contemplative life, to see if this is something I would be able to do? Are there layman's vows I could take? Can you recommend anything for me at this stage of my life? I know historically (and I believe it still to be the case) that Orthodox monasticism has both cenobitic and ermetical paths. Perhaps my calling is one of a hermit? Any insight you feel led to share would be greatly appreciated.
Please feel free to post this message on your blog, but please do not share my real name or email address. Thank you.
First of all we would like to point out that while we like responding to emails on the blog, there is a serious danger of inadvertently injuring the author of the email. Sometimes the author of the email is sensitive and misunderstands what we are saying. So we have to emphasize that we can only respond to the general issues that are raised in each email. We can’t respond on a personal level. So what we are going to say is for John in a general way and thus for all our readers generally; we don’t know John and can’t assess him spiritually to give him specific guidance. He is going to have to meet an Orthodox priest or Elder face to face to get Orthodox personal guidance. Moreover, we avoid making comparisons among the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States so we generally avoid giving specific instructions on the blog of the form: go to that jurisdiction.
That having been said there are serious issues that John is raising.
Before we look at the issues raised by John’s leaving his employment and living on his savings, let us look at the issue of Church membership.
John remarks that his mother has some sort of personal spirituality but nothing that is connected to any church at all. John, it seems to us, is at risk of repeating his mother’s mistake. We wonder in fact whether there is not a tendency in the family to a sort of asocial life: we all know the sort of person that doesn’t make friends easily and tends to live an isolated life. Indeed, we all know the image in American culture of the ‘hermit’ living in a shack in the woods, a little eccentric but largely harmless. We wouldn’t want John to end up as that sort of American folk icon.
As we remarked in our last post, from the Orthodox point of view, salvation begins with a social act: entry into the Church. Normally this is accomplished by baptism and we are of the view that baptism is the proper way to receive all converts to Orthodoxy. Baptism is formal entry into the society of believers, described by Paul the Apostle as the Body of Christ.
This is not just a matter of being enabled to receive the Mysteries (Sacraments) as acts of personal devotion to Christ. We don’t receive Holy Communion individually; we receive it with others in a social act during the social act of the Divine Liturgy. For all the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Orthodox Church are social in nature: there is always a priest present, and in most cases, such as in the Divine Liturgy, other lay members of the Church. However, while group confession was practised in the early Church it has fallen into disuse; only in rare cases is it used today. Notwithstanding that, in the Orthodox Church serious sins are to be confessed to the priest so there is a fundamental social dimension to repentance. Of course, to be baptized, or even to be received into the Orthodox Church by any other means, there must be a confession of previous sins to the priest. This confession cannot be avoided in any serious Orthodox setting.
Now the next thing to look at is the position of Christian monasticism in the above. From the Orthodox point of view, monasticism is both a calling from God to a member of the Orthodox Church and a personal election to adopt permanently a way of life (celibacy) by a member of the Orthodox Church. Hence, from the Orthodox point of view it is a basic error to consider that monasticism is an alternative to entering an Orthodox parish. Monasticism is an election by a member of the Orthodox parish to a life consecrated to God: the vows are given to God in a service in the Orthodox Church (again, a social act), normally in a monastery. As the service of tonsure makes clear, the monastic, whether male or female, is entering into a special category of members of the Orthodox Church, the ‘choir of those who live alone’. Because of these facts, monasticism is regulated by the canons of the Church. Moreover, from the Orthodox point of view the monk must be properly inserted somewhere in the Orthodox Church: he must be written into a recognized monastery somewhere in the Orthodox Church and that monastery must be under the immediate jurisdiction of some Orthodox Bishop.
For the service of tonsure, which John should read carefully for what it says about what monasticism is, including the above points, see here.
We will turn to the issue of cenobitic vs eremetical monasticism below. For now let us turn to the issue of work. John has had a very bad experience with his previous work and he has stopped working. However, he doesn’t tell us anything about what happened except that he was working at the heart of corporate America.
Now for better or for worse we do not think that the Gospel imposes the values of Republican economics espoused by the Tea Party, or the theories of Ronald Reagan; or the economic values espoused by the Democratic Party; or the economic values espoused by Karl Marx; or for the most part the economic values espoused by anyone. There are some values in the Gospel which constitute divinely instituted natural law—the right to private property for example—and we are not denying those basic values. However, we do not think the Gospel teaches either Keynesianism or Monetarism. We think that the Author of the Gospel is silent on these things and that it is possible to be a good Orthodox Christian without believing or disbelieving in these things. What the Orthodox Church teaches us that we must believe in order to become members of the Orthodox Church is the Nicene Creed, for which see our translation and discussion here. For a deeper understanding of the Gospel, many people recommend St John Chrysostom’s commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, which addresses many social and economic issues from an Orthodox point of view in addition to providing a classic Orthodox interpretation of the Gospel.
Because of these things, we think that it is possible to critique modern corporate America from any number of points of view. The person making the critique might be right; they might be wrong. We don’t think it is an Orthodox dogmatic issue. So we can well believe that John could legitimately be disgusted with his experience of corporate America.
However, when writing to the Thessalonians the Apostle Paul makes clear that Christian believers are expected to engage in some kind of fruitful labour—Paul says ‘ work with their hands’, which is interesting. Let us suppose that John enters an Orthodox parish. He’s going to have to work at something. At what? Is he required to return to the corporate world? No. If he doesn’t like it he can do something else. What? We don’t know. We don’t know what he was doing in the corporate world so we have no idea what he might do outside it. At an extreme, we suppose, John could use the remainder of his meager savings to open a truck garden and, getting a pickup truck, sell his produce at the local market. Perhaps he is trained as a lawyer and he could open a sole-practitioner office, doing a lot of pro bono work. We have no idea. But he has to do something; he has to work.
If John does have a vocation to prayer he might want to take up a manual trade that allows him to repeat the Jesus Prayer all day long while he works. This is possible but should only be done under the guidance of an expert in the Jesus Prayer. What manual trade? Maybe John could become a skilled furniture maker. A lute-maker. We don’t know, really.
But, John says, maybe he should become a monastic. This is not an alternative to the above scenario; it is a subsequent evolution of the above scenario. This is important to understand. First John enters an Orthodox parish. He works, simultaneously engaging in a spiritual way of life. He attends the Mysteries regularly, including Confession. He discusses with his Confessor how he is doing as a lay member of the parish living the Gospel. He discusses whether there are any indications that he might have a vocation to the monastic state.
At the same time, as a member of the Orthodox parish John sorts out his social obligations. This includes his legal responsibilities for the upbringing of his son. John is unclear about his legal responsibilities in this matter but his phrasing suggests that he was never married to the child’s mother. Such things happen; they are forgiven in confession; they are washed away in baptism. However that emphatically does not mean that we escape our social and legal responsibilities. Does John have a child support judgement outstanding against him? He is going to have to honour it. For a discussion of the Orthodox monk and the law, see here. For a discussion of whether a divorced man can become an Orthodox monk, see here. No one is going to accept John until this is sorted out, perhaps when the child reaches the age at which John is no longer obliged to support the child (or even the mother, as the case may be).
So let us suppose that John’s Confessor encourages the lay member of the parish John to consider monasticism. What happens next? John has to go to an existing Orthodox monastery and discuss with the Superior the possibility of becoming a monk. The Superior might be interested; he might not. If he refuses John but John and his Confessor believe that John has a vocation, then John has to keep knocking on monastic doors. Everyone is tested before being made a monk and one of the tests is being refused everywhere until we’re fed up. Then we understand whether we have a vocation.
Let’s suppose that John enters a monastery. Then he has to work cleaning toilets. For years, until the Abbot is impressed with his humility. Then the Abbot might let John put on an old habit as a habit-wearing novice

Here are three books that treat of Orthodox monasticism: Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, Wounded by Love and St. Silouan the Athonite. In these books, John, issues arise as to the nature of Orthodox eremeticism, usually understood as Hesychasm. You will see that in all these three cases of eminent Orthodox monks of Mount Athos—Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, Elder Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia and St Silouan of Panteleimon Monastery, all from the 20th Century—the monk experienced both incredible Grace and incredible trials but in no case did he really live as a hermit. The eremitical life is a very advanced stage of the monastic life, a calling only to a very few. The eremitical life presupposes considerable previous progress in the spiritual life as a regular cenobitic monk.

Here is a book about an Orthodox eremetical saint, St Seraphim of Sarov.

Elder Paisios (Eznipedes) was a 20th Century Athonite Elder whose life is very interesting; he lived for a time as a hermit. Information on obtaining the English translation of his life can be found here.
We think that is enough.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

More Questions from Mr Gove’

We have received another very interesting email from Jean Gove’. Mr Gove’ accepted that we publish the email under his name in order to discuss it.  Here is the email:
My thanks for the lucid answers to my questions almost a year ago.
Another question I've been grappling with for a while:
1.    Are there any Biblical and/or theological reasons as to why the Eucharist cannot be self-administered?
2.    How is the special (super?)nature of the Christian priesthood established historically and theologically?
3.    Why isn't the ‘sending forth’ of the Apostles applicable to all Christians?
4.    And what ultimately makes a priest a priest?
Jean Gove’
We delayed replying to this email for the reason that the authenticity of the Orthodox priesthood has never been an issue for the author of this blog so he doesn’t have a set of arguments at his fingertips.

Let us therefore make a number of general remarks.  The first time in Christian history that the underlying issues that Mr Gove’ is posing are raised is the Reformation, about the 16th Century.  Remember, however, that the Reformation unfolded in a Roman Catholic historical context and has no historical meaning outside of the historical evolution of the Roman Catholic Church.  Before the Reformation, there is no real issue.  The matter has never been a matter of dispute in the Orthodox Church (except after the Reformation, perhaps, among those influenced by the Reformation).

Without having the historical data at our fingertips there are, however, a number of heresies from the 1st to the 4th Centuries that indirectly raise the issue of the priesthood but there is no argument from within ‘normative’ Christianity (we’ll explain what we mean below) that attacks the institution of the priesthood as it is found historically in say the middle of the 3rd Century.

For example, in the historical data concerning the monks of Egypt, starting with Anthony the Great (3rd - 4th C) and including Pachomios (4th C), there is nothing that would indicate that the monastic saints had any doubt about the authenticity of the Christian priesthood.  We find for example in the Life of Anthony the story that a deacon came to Anthony as part of a group of pilgrims without displaying his rank of deacon; when it came time for the group to leave the members asked Anthony to say a prayer; he refused, insisting that the deacon lead the prayer.  It is clear from the context that Anthony understood the man to be a deacon through charismatic clairvoyance.

Evagrius came to Egypt in about 383 as a deacon and in one of the stories of the desert fathers an anti-Origenist monk harshly criticizes him for speaking out in the assembly and one of that monk’s remarks is to the effect, ‘We know that in the world you could easily have become a bishop but here keep your mouth shut.’ In Evagrius’ own writings, the priesthood is treated as existent.  Evagrius himself was offered a bishopric, which he declined.

One of the early canons of the Church from this period regulates that the monk may not seek the priesthood although he may certainly accept it if it is offered to him.  However, there are stories of monks in the Egyptian desert going so far as to cut off their ear so as not to accept the priesthood (a bishopric if we remember correctly) since without an ear, according to their reasoning, the provision of the Old Testament that the priest be without blemish would apply—although sometimes cutting off the ear wasn’t enough to prevent you from being ordained!  This was not because they rejected the existence of the priesthood but because they did not want the honour.

In Syria there is at least one episode in the lives of the ascetics recorded by Theodoret of Cyr (contemporary and interlocutor of Symeon the Stylite, 4th C) where the local bishop comes around to the pillar of a stylite (not Symeon) to ordain him; the stylite draws up the ladder and refuses to descend to be ordained; the bishop ordains him from a distance, remaining on the ground while the stylite is as it were in Heaven; the ordination is treated as valid.

So certainly by the middle of the 4th Century, and even the 3rd Century, no one is disputing within the boundaries of ‘normative’ Christianity that the priesthood exists.  There are deacons, priests, bishops and they have more or less the authority an Orthodox would understand today.  This is not to say that Roman Catholic teaching on the authority of the Bishop, especially the Bishop of Rome, and on the structure of the Church has not evolved since then.

It is also not to say that in some Gnostic heresies from the 1st to the 4th C there is not a radical break with ‘normative’ Christianity and a completely different understanding of the Gospel, including the existence or non-existence of a priesthood, and the characteristics of the priesthood if it exists and also the role of the prophetic ministry.

In this it should be remembered that because there is an Aaronic priesthood in the Old Testament and because already in the Epistle to the Hebrews there is a discussion of Christ as the new High Priest, the humanly natural thing would be for the Christian polity to understand that Christianity has a priesthood at least similar to the priesthood of the Old Testament.  However, in Gnosticism the ‘Bad Guy’ is the God of the Old Testament, so within the Gnostic family of heresies it would be normal for the Christian priesthood to be understood in completely different ways from within ‘normative’ Christianity.

We might remark that another heresy that seems to have rejected the priesthood was a 4th Century Mesopotamian heresy called Messalianism.  Now this heresy is poorly understood since we don’t have much historical data on it.  However, it seems that one of its tenets was that through continual prayer the Holy Spirit might enter into the person in bodily form transforming that person into a saint.  This heresy had, it seems, a number of antinomian elements, perhaps arising in accordance with its teaching that until the Holy Spirit took up bodily abode in the person the Holy Spirit and the Devil both abided in the person.  In other words, until the final transforming experience, which was understood in largely sensible material terms, the person was the abode of both God and the Devil.  (Evidently the mode of abode of the Holy Spirit in the person before the transforming experience was different from after).  The few descriptions we have of the Messalians (from their enemies, certainly) indicate that they lived communally on the streets without work in an atmosphere of sexual promiscuity.

We can now explain what we mean above by ‘normative’ Christianity.  We are simply using the term to enclose those streams of Christianity that accepted the Council of Nicea although those streams of Christianity certainly diverged in subsequent Ecumenical Synods.  There is nothing at the Council of Nicea that would indicate that the priesthood was in any question at all.  The author of the Arian heresy was the deacon Arius; there is no indication that he had any doubts about his priesthood.

Now the above is not a detailed theological and historical argument; for that Mr Gove’ is going to have to go to a University and talk to a Professor of Church History; as we remarked we simply haven’t studied this matter.  We have only made some remarks from memory to give the reader a feel for the actuality of the historical situation.

To continue with Mr Gove’s other questions, the fundamental issue that Mr Gove is raising in his first point is ecclesiology.  This is the ‘theory of the Church’: what is the Church and why?  The reason that the Eucharist cannot be self-administered (although see a remark further down) is that the Church was founded as, and understood from the beginning to be, the society of persons who have turned to Christ; the Church is Christ’s Body; it is a society.  We can see this already on the day of Pentecost.  Mr Gove should read the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke the Evangelist, who personally knew Christ and Mary His Mother and who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys.  From the beginning the Eucharist, just like the Last Supper, was a communal act.  In one of his Epistles Paul harshly criticizes the practices of the Corinthians who abuse the nature of the Eucharist as a communal meal, one person getting drunk and another remaining hungry.

In modern studies of ecclesiology, it is taken for granted that the Bishop is where the Church is and the Church is where the Bishop is; it is the Eucharist presided over by the local Bishop that defines the local Church as part of the Universal Church.  The statement that the Bishop is where the Church is and the Church where the Bishop is, is a very ancient 1st or 2nd C statement, we forget whether it is pronounced by Clement of Rome or Irenaeus of Lyons.  But it is the basis of the theology of the Church as a communion of persons in the Holy Spirit.  For while we are members of the body of Christ that does not mean that our personhood has been obliterated in our baptism.

Now the one remark we need to make here is that there is the ancient recorded practice of ascetics taking consecrated bread from the Divine Liturgy to the desert (not secretly but openly) to partake of it during their period of solitude before they return to participate in another Eucharist.  This practice soon fell into desuetude but lives on in the Orthodox Church during Lent, when during the weekdays of strict fast no Eucharist is celebrated but two days a week (sometimes more) bread consecrated in the Divine Liturgy of the previous Saturday or Sunday is partaken of in the Liturgy of the Presanctified.  While such a practice no longer exists in the Roman Catholic Church, no one studying liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church argues that the practice is an Orthodox abuse of the Eucharist.

Indeed in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, on Holy Thursday, the annual commemoration of the Last Supper, consecrated bread is reserved for emergency use throughout the year until the next Holy Thursday, when what remains is consumed after the Liturgy.  In both churches, the priest will take to the dying (or historically in the Roman Catholic Church, the dead) a small bit of this consecrated bread to communicate them.

To further indicate the communal nature of the Church, when one is baptized there must in addition to the priest be a baptized lay person present to complete the social dimension of the Church: entering the Church is a social act and not just a personal act between the believer and Christ.

This position and many of the other positions just discussed are rejected in Reformation theology, either by Luther (the possibility of reserving the consecrated bread for later use) or by Calvin and his successors (the nature of entry into the Church, where the Church is treated as the charismatic unity of all born-again believers in Christ).  But as we said these are very late developments in Christianity.

Moreover, in the Orthodox Church the baptized person is communicated immediately after their baptism.  It is clear that in the Eucharist of Vespers of Holy Saturday (which belongs liturgically to Resurrection Sunday) there is specified a large number of Old Testament readings partly to provide time for the baptism of the catechumens; after baptism they would come to the Church to participate in the rest of the Eucharist so as to receive their first communion.  We are using the term ‘Eucharist’ rather than ‘Divine Liturgy’ so as to speak to Mr Gove’ in the language that he prefers.

With regard to question 2, the establishment of the autonomous priesthood seen as an issue in dogmatics and Church history, we would again refer Mr Gove’ to a Professor in a university.  People write doctorates on these questions; perhaps Mr Gove’ would like to do graduate studies on the matter.

With regard to question 3, the sending forth of the Apostles, while it is true that at the end of the Gospel of Matthew the Great Commission just before the Ascension of Christ is given to the Apostles, we have always understood that the Great Commission applies to the Church as a whole.

Let us suppose that Mr Gove’ becomes Orthodox.  Should he then immediately go to Africa to enlighten the heathen?  We think not.  He should first finish his doctorate in dogmatics so he knows what to teach the heathen.  Then if he thinks that he has a calling to missionary work, he should contact the Bishop who has jurisdiction over the area where he feels called to be a missionary.  The Bishop might want to ordain Mr Gove’ and make him a missionary priest (either married or celibate) to serve where Mr Gove’ wants or elsewhere; or he might accept that Mr Gove’ work as a lay member of a missionary team (usually missions are group activities; remember Christ sent the Apostles out two by two); or he might suggest that Mr Gove’ become a University Professor in his home town either in a secular field such as physics or in theology; or he might suggest that Mr Gove’ become a monk as a preliminary to becoming a missionary.

Finally, there is Mr Gove’s last question on the ultimate nature of the priesthood in the Orthodox Church.  The priesthood is a charismatic gift of God in the Holy Spirit to the person being ordained which enables him to make things holy, to handle the holy and to stand as the image of God to the members of the Church; the priesthood enables the believer to sanctify the bread and wine; to sanctify the water; to remit sins; to heal the sick; to join believers in marriage; to make monastics; to make other priests—in general to handle and to do all those things in the Church which make the Church a space of salvation for the believer.  However, it is not the priest that saves the believer; it is God working with the believer who acts sincerely according to the Gospel commandments, including making use of the services of the priest.

Ultimately, Mr Gove’, becoming Orthodox is a matter of being drawn by the Father.  The knowledge of the dogmatic reality of the Church, while it is studied in universities, is ultimately a matter of being enlightened by the Holy Spirit, first in Baptism and subsequently through personal spiritual endeavour guided by the Church.  As Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) remarks in his extended introduction to the writings of Silouan the Athonite, one of the stages of spiritual growth that a Christian goes through is the acquisition of a dogmatic consciousness, which could be defined as a charismatically given inner criterion of dogmatic correctness.  A friend of ours who grew up in Greece remarks that although many Greeks do not practise their religion, because they were baptized as infants and communicated by their mother every Sunday in the parish church, even those who have drifted away from the Church have a clear understanding of what their faith entails.  They just don’t want to practise it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Returning to God

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.
In addition:
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.
Thank you.
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.