Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Baptism

Saturday the 22nd. Mom called at about 7:00 and woke me up, telling me she was on her way and that she was bringing the chain for my baptismal cross. I couldn’t go back to sleep after that, so I finally got out of bed at 8:00, put on a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers, and headed out the door, intent on taking a long walk to work off some of the nervous anxiety I was feeling. I was supposed to be at the church at 9:45, so I had about an hour and a half.

Mom arrived at my place at 9:15. The walk hadn’t helped at all; I was still a ball of frazzled nerves. Imagine a rubber band pulled almost to the breaking point and then ‘thrummed’ constantly, causing little strips of stressed rubber to pop away and curl up. Imagine these pieces of curly popped rubber band pieces getting tangled up with other little pieces that have popped and curled; finally forming a tangled ball of frayed rubber band ends which are constantly being stretched even more as new frayed ends are added to the tangle. What you’re left with finally is a frazzled ball of split rubber band ends, constantly snapping and reforming under the tension as the tangles get denser and denser. That’s how I felt.

Ok, now that we’ve established the mood, mom and I drove over to my sisters place to pick her up. As we pulled up to her house, I remembered the chain for my cross... mom hadn’t shown it to me yet, and I was anxious to see it. “Okay honey, hold on...” Mom dug around in her purse and produced a small box, which she presented to me with an expectant smile. I opened it and withdrew a very pretty silver chain. Almost too pretty... wait a minute. What are those teeny tiny little sparkly things? What is this? A diamond dust chain? I winced inwardly. It seemed kind of feminine to me... but mom was waiting for my reaction. “I love it mom!”

Knocking on my sister’s front door and being immediately confronted with two huge dogs, both of them scrambling to be the first to bestow it’s slobbery, dirty pawed, scratchy clawed, crotch sniffing, wet nose rubbing, nerve wrangling affection upon us did nothing to help my nervous state, especially after having discovered that the chain for my baptismal cross would look just about right on Arwen Evenstar. I greeted the dogs. “GIT!” It came out loud, gruff, and no-nonsense. After a brief greeting, my sister quickly ushered the two dogs into the back yard. Chey and mom then disappeared into the bedroom where Chey was getting ready.

As I kind of just milled around there in the entry foyer, waiting for the women folk to finish whatever it is they do to get ready, I fairly shouted into the bedroom, “Mom, show my chain to Chey and see what she thinks!” Chey and mom ceased their talking about mother-daughter things and I listened as mom showed the chain to my sister. She didn’t hesitate with her verdict: “It’s too feminie, mom!” I knew it... it’s too feminine, my baptism will be ruined! Mom, why didn’t you get a guy chain for me? I don’t want to bear my baptismal cross on a little girly chain! I hurried to the bedroom and implored Chey to find me some kind of chain, any kind of silver chain she might have around the house. Every chain my sister showed me was either too long, too gold, too weird, or too tangled. My frustration grew and started to spill over into my mom and my sister.

I had just about decided to drive back to the house and grab my old crucifix chain - which used to belong to my grandmother - and use that for my baptismal cross. I asked mom what time it was as I was poised at the front door, keys in hand and ready to go. “9:35 honey. You still have time!” I stopped right there with the screen door half open. No, I didn’t still have time... and then it hit me. I was letting the enemy have his way with me again! AGAIN! He was ruining my baptismal morning! My stupid pride was messing everything up and making everybody tense and me miserable. Stupid pride. I took some deep breaths, calmed down, and asked to see the chain my mom had gotten me again. She gave it to me, and upon closer inspection, it really was just a normal silver chain. There wasn’t anything sparkly on it at all... it just had very fine simulated rope threads running up and down it’s length which, upon a mere cursory glance, gave the illusion of sparkling. It was actually quite nice, and there wasn’t anything feminine about it when viewed closely. And who really gives a flying horses patoot if it’s feminine, anyway? I laughed and let out some of my anxiety. Things were going to be ok. It was just a chain, and it was a nice chain. My mom loves me, and I had probably hurt her feelings by dissing her chain. I told her that the chain was fine, it was perfect in fact, and that I loved it, which is the truth. So, by this time it was getting late, and we had to GIT to the CHURCH!

I remember very clearly everything that happened before we arrived at the church. However, once we arrived, my memory starts to get a little sketchy, and it gets worse as this account of my baptism progresses. Hopefully I'm remembering everything in basically the right order, as when I'm flustered, nervous or anxious, it's hard to remember things clearly, and I was definitely flustered, nervous and anxious. When we got to the church I introduced my mom around to Dax and Nancy and Louise. Then I laid my cross on a little table with all of the other baptismal crosses, and just kind of wandered around for a while and talked to a few people. Then I saw Leah standing across the room and my heart leaped into my throat. Ok, there’s Leah... I had written her, telling her that I wanted her to come and that it was ok for her to come. It just wouldn’t have been the same without her there, but I was surprised that it was so painful seeing her there, with neither of us giving any indication that we'd noticed each other. As if we were strangers. I stood there for a little while longer with my mom and my sister, kind of thrown into a spin, and then I walked over to Leah and gave her a hug and said “Thanks for coming.” I think that was the first thing I’d said to her in over a month. She smiled and returned my hug and I went back over to my mom and sister and stood some more, waiting for things to start.

Next all of the catechumens and our sponsors went out into the hall, where we went through the 'Reception into the Catechumenate’ ceremony. We had already done this once several weeks ago, but it made sense to do it again to refresh our memories and strengthen our resolve. Fr. Justin performed exorcisms and we all renounced the enemy. Then we all turned to the west and spit on him. I wasn’t able to really get a good nasty spit for the enemy like I wanted to, or else I would have slobbered all over the books in the bookstore. I satisfied myself with just making it really loud.

Now my memory of things gets a little vague, becoming more of a disconnected jumble of images, sounds and sensations. I remember standing over by the bay windows with hardly any room to move around at all. I balanced on one foot for a while, then the other, and finally settled for resting one knee on the bench-like part of the bay window, with one hand leaning against the wall. It wasn't a comfy position, and I couldn’t see very well. Plus, I had a burning candle to deal with, and it was a challenge not to light something on fire... like Fr. Justin’s robes, which came pretty close several times to my candle flame. Hot wax dripped onto my hand a few times, adding more stress to a stressful situation. I inwardly screamed like a woman when this happened.

Fr Justin baptized the babies first, and then one by one we all climbed into the fount, and Fr. Justin dunked each of us three times: “In the name of the Father,” ... DUNK ... “and the Son,” ... DUNK... “and the Holy Spirit.” ... DUNK ... “Amen.” When I got in the water, my pants and shirt immediately inflated like balloons. Oh boy... nice. I didn’t see anybody else inflate like a balloon when they climbed into the fount. I was worried that I would be too buoyant with my clothes puffed up with air, and that I wouldn’t be able to get all the way under water. It wasn’t a problem though, and I crossed my arms in front of me, held my nose, and went under three times. It's difficult to describe how it felt... almost like a brief, sharp panic every time my head went under. I was actually afraid that I might drown when I was under water. When it was finished, I kind of remember just being on autopilot, as my brain wasn't really processing what had just happened. I think it's still processing it.

I was the second to the last to get dunked so I didn’t have to stand around soaking wet, waiting respectfully as everybody else got dunked... I only had to wait for one more person. So when all of the baptisms were finished, I went into a back room and changed into dry clothes. Then when we came back out, Fr. Justin bestowed our baptismal crosses upon us. I haven’t taken mine off yet, although it tangles with my hair when I’m sleeping. That’s ok though, I can deal with that. This cross ain’t coming off, come hell or high water.

Once again, this day is kind of a blur, so the next thing I remember after getting dressed and coming back into the church is the ‘smocking of the gown’. At least, that’s how I think of it, as when we don the baptismal gowns it’s not so much you putting the gown on yourself, as it is getting smocked by Dax and Fr. Justin. So I raised my arms and this gown was pulled down over me and around me and onto me, kind of like how I would imagine it if it were being done on an assembly line. Very efficient. By the way, I think the process should be called 'dunked, smocked, and greased’, instead of just 'dunked and greased’.

So now we are all standing a little closer to the altar, where the chrismation is performed, or what some people call ‘getting greased’. All of the catechumens were anointed with oil on our eyes (that’s the eyelids, not the eyeballs, as having oil poured into our eyes would probably suck), ears, lips, forehead, chest, back, hands, and feet. The oil kind of burned my lips a little, and I imagined myself having a rare allergic reaction and dropping dead right there in the middle of my baptism. I guess if I were going to drop dead, right then would have been the time to do it, as they say that everybody is a saint for a short while immediately after they are baptized. Then I entertained the morbid thought of someone speaking at my funeral: “He led a saintly few dozen microseconds, St. Elias the Newest.” Already canonized and everything. These are the kinds of random thoughts, or logismoi, that plague me when I’m in church. Oh, and St. Elias the New is my patron saint, by the way.

Anyway, the burning went away, and then Fr. Justin led us around the church with all of us grabbing onto his robe. Then we were led around a second time, this time through the deacons door on the right, and we entered the altar. I’d never been behind the iconostasis or inside the altar before, and I don’t remember much about it because I was so petrified by actually being back there. Fr. Justin told me to bow and venerate something, but I was so nervous that I got down and performed a full prostration and didn’t even know what I was venerating. Then I felt like a retard and got up and did the bow, and then we were led back out through the other deacons door and then we were back in front of the iconostasis again.

I’m sure I skipped a lot of stuff because this entire experience was more like a dream than something that happened to me in real life, and as such, like a dream it’s hard to remember. So this was the end of the ceremony... I was officially an Orthodox Christian, as were the other catechumens. We all stood there as the parishioners one by one greeted us and kissed us and hugged us and wished us well and many years. I endured this with a modicum of grace, I think, up until Leah approached me and gave me the Orthodox cheek kiss and hug, after which she smiled and walked away without a word. She left pretty immediately after that I guess, because I didn’t see her again.

This definitely isn’t the way I imagined my baptism happening... I always pictured it as being a lot more joyful, and that I’d be sharing it with my best friend. I’m still in a daze, kind of in shock even, because what passes for reality these days seems more like a bad dream that I should be waking up from now, any minute. It’s the dreams, not real life, that are supposed to defy logic... correct? I thought that was the way it was supposed to be, but something definitely seemed 'not quite' to me about all of this, as if one essential ingredient were missing. So I stood there, greeting the rest of the parishioners, with what felt like a God-sized hole where my heart is supposed to be. Ironic, the size and shape of that hole... I guess I should start working on getting that thing filled in.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Walking and reading again

I was walking around the neighborhood and reading, again, and I stopped off at the Howdy Doody for what-nots and hoo-jiggers. The book I'm reading is "Way of the Ascetics", which Dax gave me as a baptism gift. I skipped right to the chapter about 'Inner Warfare', which is what I'm dealing with right now. I was struck in particular by this passage:

We are saved by hope (Romans 8:24)...
...But hope that is seen is not hope.

Wha? Huh? I didn't get that at all at first, but then I read on, and it was explained that once you see hope, it isn't hope, but hope realized; that which you were hoping for.

So what is hope anyway then? I'm still a little confused about that.

So anyway, I walked into the Howdy Doody and put the book down on the counter. The girl behind the counter looked at the book and tried to pronounce the word 'ascetics'. She asked me what the word meant, and I said that it meant... ummm... an ascetic is somebody who hangs out in the desert. And... you know, like a monk or something. A desert monk. Hmmm... but more like, somebody who is religious. A religious person. But more than that, kind of... I don't know really. I guess to my knowledge an ascetic is someone who devotes themselves fully to God.

She brightened at the last part of my tumbledown explanation, and as I was leaving, she said "God Bless!"

My Icon Corner

This is my icon corner. It started with just the blessing cross, which I bought about a year ago when I first began to suspect that there might be something to this Orthodox Christianity thing, beyond the fact that my then girlfriend was an Orthodox Christian. That particular cross had been hanging on the wall in the St. Maximus the Confessor Orthodox Mission bookstore with a price tag of a hundred dollars, and after about three months of talking myself into ponying up the money for it, I finally decided one night that I would buy that cross as a symbol of what I suspected and hoped was to be a continually growing interest in, and eventual commitment to, Orthodox Christianity.

Thus began my icon corner.

Here is a close-up of the actual icons. The Christ Pantocrator and the Creation of the Universe icons on the left were given to me as gifts. The Transfiguration icon was a freebie at St. Maximus, as was the Nativity icon. I bought the two small icons at the St. Maximus book store; one is of the Guardian Angel, and I don't know what the other one is. I don't remember who I thought it was when I bought it, and I keep forgetting to take it to church to show Fr. Justin so he can tell me. The other tiny one balancing on the Nativity icon is a personal Theotokos icon given to me by Nancy.

I have placed various items in my icon corner which symbolize people in my life whom I want to remember in my prayers. Before I describe each item individually, here is a picture of all of them together:

To kick things off, we have an item which serves a double purpose, but I only realized that just now. It's a cobalt blue bottle shaped like a violin or something, maybe a standup bass. I keep holy water in it, and I also keep two bracelets which belonged to my grandmother draped over it. The bottle was given to me by Erica Helpenstiel back in 1993 as a going away gift. I don't remember if I was going away, or if it was her... you see, she was getting married and I was moving to Austin... so it's kind of fuzzy. Anyway, I kind of see this bottle as grandmothers corner of the icon corner. Grandmother was Catholic by the way, and she died last March. March of 2009, not LAST March.

Next item up for bid is a beautiful Star Trek Communicator Pin. This belonged to a friend who I never actually met. He was the owner of a website that was all about classic video game console emulation. I knew him online for about 10 years, and he became a dear friend. He died last April... 2009, not 2010... of an awful brain disease that he had kept secret. His name is Jason Melton, but a lot of us knew him as Ice. His mom sent me some of his stuff, including this pin. RIP Ice. You are remembered. I pray for you.

Here is a bottle of oil from the vigil lamp at the reliquary of Holy Hierarch St. John, Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco. My friend Nancy gave me this oil on a day when I was feeling really rotten. I've heard of Holy Oil from the St. Catherine Monastery on Mt. Sinai that can heal cancer, so I anoint myself on my chest with this oil, right above my heart. I don't know if I'm doing it right, or even if holy oil can be used to help mend a broken heart, but I try anyway. Thank you Nancy.

This is a bracelet that my sister Cheyenne gave me for Christmas. It's actually a Catholic bracelet; not Orthodox, but that doesn't matter to me. I wear it to services, and when I'm not at church, I put it here in my icon corner.

Zoe, Fr. Justin's... 4 four year old daughter, gave me this 'grocery list' one day when I was painting the closet of Fr. Justin's rent house. As I sat there painting, Zoe kept constant vigil right outside the door with an endless stream of conversation. At one point, between her favorite color and Harry Potter, she solemnly handed me this grocery list. She didn't indicate what I should do with it; it was more like she had bequeathed it to me. I keep it here in my icon corner because it is a symbol of purity and innocence, and happiness. It also reminds me that love exists and life exists, and that my own little problems do not even come close to defining reality. God bless Zoe and all Orthodox families and clergy.

These are various pendants and prayer ropes/beads which I keep on my wall. The rosary belonged to my grandmother, as did the crucifix pendant. Above that is my first Orthodox cross pendant, and above that is a cross I found on the floor at 7-Eleven. The prayer rope was a Christmas gift from Nick. I keep Nicks rope there to remind me of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Here is a photograph of Leah, some of her hair that I keep woven through several rings which belong to her but which she returned to me, the Prayer of St. Ephrem which she wrote down for me to keep during Lent, and a glass bead that I found on the road while out walking, which is identical to some beads that I gave her for her birthday in 2008. Also, I keep the blue prayer rope that she gave me draped around the blue candle holder when I'm not wearing it (you can see it in the above picture of the table items). All of these things remind me to pray for Leah, and also to remind me of forgiveness and reconciliation.

I was out walking one day, immersed in despair and self pity, when I glanced down and found this rusty old pin which reads, with a bit of difficulty, "I'm Injury Free!" I imagine this pin being some kind of incentive prize for a 'safety in the workplace' campaign at some factory. What it does is to remind me that if I can read through the rust, that is... if I can clear my spiritual sight, then I too will be injury free. I will be healed. I am, in fact, already healed, if I can only allow myself to see it and make it real.

So that's my icon corner.

The End.