It’s not cheating to post an excerpt of my book for this first post of the Advent blogging challenge. It’s not. That being said, I promise I won’t just post excerpts of the book every day for 30 (or 40) days. I will actually wring new words from my overworked brain for you, my lovely readers.
This bit of Nearly Orthodox comes from a chapter called, “Just Add Water” and while it doesn’t deal exclusively with the theme of “rules” I think it fits the bill pretty well.
When I was growing up Catholic, we would make the sign of the cross as we entered the church, after receiving communion and during the Creed. In our Catholic circles, outside of dinnertime prayers, only grandmothers would make the sign of the cross apart from Mass. They’d make the sign in times of trouble or thanksgiving in lieu of hand-wringing. It looked old school. It felt superstitious. It was a natural act to them, but to me it only worked in context.
In the Orthodox tradition, the sign of the cross is made at various times by various people, bound by tradition on the process—using the right hand, first two fingertips together with the thumb to indicate the Trinity, pinky and ring finger folded into the palm to indicate the two natures of Christ, divine and human. The hand making the movement, forehead to heart, then right shoulder pushing to the left, as opposed to the Catholic practice of left shoulder to right. The mechanism is similar, symbolic but precise in motion; but in the Orthodox tradition it seems to be bound by only a few loose rules on the when—for remembrance, upon mention of the Trinity or the Theotokos or the faithful departed, in times of trouble, in times of joy. It made it hard for me to know how to integrate the action into my own awkward engagement of Liturgy.
So I practiced making the sign at home and in my car in private, to get the pushing instead of pulling action down. I practiced at Liturgy and Vespers less often, waiting and watching until I realized there were no hard-and-fast rules—which almost made it worse, knowing there was no one “right way.” I practiced it so often that sometimes when I least expected it, I found I was making the sign of the cross—in the grocery store, in the car, in the middle of the night when I could not sleep. Even a minute later I’d find my fingertips still pressed together—thumb, index, middle—as if releasing the hand position would break the sacredness of that act.
The more I practice these things, the more they begin to mean something deeper to me than they did when I was a child. The sign of the cross becomes familiar, an act now fluid and integrated—like water, on my hands and on my face. When anxiety grips me, making the sign seems to squeeze the fear from my skin, from my forehead and heart, and I find myself back there on the edge of the pool afraid to enter in—so I cross myself. I consider it an admission of the moment, the anxiety, the surrender that comes before jumping into the pool.
I make the sign of the cross in the car and in the kitchen, entering into the practice, getting it right, moving slowly, one toe in the water. At Vespers and Liturgy I may be reluctant still to enter in, reluctant to jump into that water, afraid of doing it at the wrong moment, of bouncing into the deep water of ritual too fast. At Vespers and Liturgy I take my time, and I watch the other people swim along in the current of the motion. I watch from the shore, envious and afraid all at once.
Get your copy of Nearly Orthodox here!