Friday, July 9, 2010


Most people do not understand what orthodox is - they think Jewish. I am not sure most orthodox people truly understand the mystical side of their religion. I can feel it when I enter a majestic cathedral in Europe, richly decorated with lavish columns, statues, icons, and symbols lost in translation and in our understanding. I was torn many times, upon standing inside St. Peter's Basilica, between my feelings of awe at the magnificent and opulent construction and my feelings of sorrow at the sacrifice so many millions of poor people had to make in order that such a jewel of architecture and art could be enjoyed by generations after generations. Did they starve in order to pay heavy taxes, what horrid living conditions had they endured, were they forced to work long hours for meager pay in order that this basilica be built?

Orthodox religion predates Catholicism by a year or two. If you ask a catholic, they will tell you Catholicism is the oldest organized form of religion in existence. Some historians and orthodox themselves believe The Orthodox Church to be the One, established 2,000 years ago by Jesus Christ and his Apostles. Daddy used to tell me that our family originated with the Apostles since our last name is Apostolescu, Romanian for "of the Apostles." Christianity struggled to exist during Roman times when they were forced to worship in tunnels underground Rome. Domitila's catacombs contain one of the first underground Christian churches.

The Orthodox Church is officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church and commonly referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Church is composed of several self-governing ecclesial bodies, each geographically and nationally distinct but theologically unified. Each self-governing body, often but not always encompassing a nation, is shepherded by a synod of bishops whose duty, among other things, is to preserve and teach the Apostolic traditions and church practices. As in the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and some other churches, Orthodox bishops trace their lineage back to the Apostles through the process of Apostolic Succession.

The Orthodox Church claims to trace its development back through the Byzantine or Roman empire, to the earliest church established by St. Paul and the Apostles. After baptism, a person is blessed with the Holy Spirit and must embark on a spiritual pilgrimage of striving to be more holy and "Christ Like." Most babies are baptized shortly after birth and there is a God-mother holding the newborn at the altar while the ceremony is performed. She is a stand-in mom in case something happens to the real mom. The God-mother is revered, loved, respected, and celebrated through her entire life. My own God-mother, aunt Stela, passed away a month ago. Although I miss her and have not seen her since 1985, I feel blessed that I was able to speak to her weekly until her last five days of life when she was in and out of consciousness.

The Biblical text used by the Orthodox includes the Greek Septuagint and the New Testament. It includes the seven Deuterocanonical Books which are generally rejected by Protestants and a small number of other books that are in neither Western canon. These books are used in the Divine Liturgy. Icons adorn the walls of Eastern Orthodox churches and cover the inside structure completely. Countryside Orthodox homes have an area set aside for family prayer, usually an eastern facing wall, on which are hung many icons. City homes do not have such "altars."

The calculation of Orthodox Easter is very complex, the Sunday following Paschal full moon (PFM), pronounced, "Pas-kul." Easter Sunday is the date of the annual celebration of Christ's resurrection. The Easter Dating Method has to maintain the same season of the year and the same relationship to the preceding astronomical full moon that occurred at the time of his resurrection in 30 A.D. Easter dates vary and very seldom coincide with the Protestant Easter. There was a joke about a priest who kept kernels of corn in his jacket to be able to tell parishioners how many days were left until Easter. He would quickly count how many kernels he had left in his jacket pocket after he had carefully thrown one kernel out each day. His housekeeper had thought, upon discovering his stash of corn, that the Father liked corn, so she added a handful into his pocket. When he met with a parishioner and was asked how many days until Easter, he proceeded to count the corn. Exasperated, after he counted and counted, with no end in sight, he told the parishioner that there wasn't going to be Easter that year after all.

Certainly there was no Orthodox Sunday School to attend and nobody taught us lessons from the Bible. Older females in the family would tell stories each evening after supper, while we sat around on benches outside in the garden or by the side of the road. All homes were surrounded by tall wood fences and had a very large bench in front of the main gate, outside the fence. This bench was the gathering place for many villagers who happened to walk by on their way home. I heard many fascinating stories this way, sitting at my grandparents' feet.

Aunt Leana, who was a deacon at Popesti Orthodox Church, had a well-worn Bible from which she would read stories every time I visited. She had an oil lamp by her side, large magnifying glasses tied with a string, and a large bowl of fresh fruit and grapes from her orchard. We sat on the porch or in her tiny and cozy two-room mud brick house. When her eyes got tired, she would start singing Gregorian chants and nasalized humming which she often did, accompanying the readings during Liturgy.

We had no Bible lessons - 40 years or more of communist rule forbade the owning of a Bible, open prayer,Bible study in school, and church attendance. Believers were ridiculed as missing their marbles. Atheism was the state religion. The only people who were really semi-free to observe their religion were the elderly. The communists decided that they already had a foot in the grave and one on the proverbial banana peel, who cared if they went to church? Consequently, most of the regulars were little old ladies. That's because men died much sooner than women - men pretty much counted on being survived by their wives. These ladies helped the priest with daily chores, cleaned the church, polished the silver icons, mended the kneeling pillows, cleaned the candle wax off the floors and candle holders, tended the surrounding gardens, planted the flowers, the shrubs, and cut the grass around cemetery plots with a scythe.

Easter and Christmas were the only holidays when church attendance grew tenfold. The commie handlers allowed the masses to celebrate, but took notes cautiously and carefully. We carried lit candles at midnight around the church, sang Gregorian chants, prayed and celebrated our humanity from God. Food was brought to church and shared with everybody in remembrance of Christ and beloved family members who passed away.

There were Catholics in Transylvania in western Romania, among Swabians and Hungarians, a few Baptists here and there, Lutherans in western Transylvania, and Muslims in eastern Romania, at the Black Sea, close to the European side of Istanbul. I remember visiting a mosque with my aunt at the Black Sea - it was more like a museum visit, the mosque was empty. Neither faith enjoyed much freedom, they were on par with the Orthodox. The only concession made was the use of their own language, i.e., German, Hungarian, and Arabic.

The American Bible Society had donated Bibles to the state after a terrible earthquake - they wanted the victims to find comfort in the word of God. The state, however, decided to recycle them into toilette paper. The quality of print and material was so good and the quality of manufacture so poor that the words of the Bible were still legible on the rolls of toilette paper. I had just started studying English and I pointed that out to my dad. We were appalled and saddened by the offensive abuse of the Holy Book.

Baptisms, funerals, and weddings were certainly not frowned upon. Communist elites tried to replace weddings with civil ceremonies, but most people preferred to have both. The church ceremony was always viewed as more meaningful. Everybody had to be baptized and given a name, even commies accepted that. And, of course, funerals, nobody escaped death, and, since there were no funeral homes, churches were the logical place for the last rites and passage to the other world. The last ride to the cemetery was done with pomp and circumstance, a funeral band, and a horse-drawn carriage or a large truck bed, depending on the status of the deceased.

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