The Beltway Catechesis

Now that our son is almost ten, he has begun to feel his oats a bit: In the middle of fourth grade, he has begun to log a few life achievements that both we, and he, are proud: he has surmounted some of his attention problems and can stay focused on the tasks at hand—reading about military history, remembering to take out the trash, remembering to modulate his quick-start anger before it bursts from his lips.

He has also learned to complain about having to go to church. Sunday mornings in our house arrive drowsily and sun-soaked, the tendrils of smoke from the censer we always light curling up the stairs.

But by the time we are actually ready to walk out the door, between him and his little sister, it is all over but the shouting. In my daughter’s case, her complaints are minor, and classic: the ill-fitting patent leather shoes, her grumpiness at being told that taking a Bitty Baby stroller to the Divine Liturgy is inadvisable.

My son’s complaints are more subtle, and dangerous. Only occasionally will he trot out the old chestnut, “God is just an idea that somebody made up way back when,” because he knows that I know that at least for now, he doesn’t believe it: For any and all problems he has with God, I have seen him sincerely implore, and sincerely repent, before the invisible and ever-present altar of the Divine.

One of our dearest neighbors, a reader of this blog, has been in treatment for breast cancer these past six or so months, and when we say prayers at night, he always remembers to lift her name like a found jewel. And he was thankful when her chemotherapy regimen came to an end.

He also knows that, in these secular times—some of my best friends are atheists!—I would never respond to that claim in the way my own mother, lightly religious herself but steeped in Southern Baptist tradition, exclaimed: “The very idea!  You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“Yep,” I say, casually. “Lots of people don’t believe in God. We do, though.” And while he may end up faithless later, he’s living in our house now.

At other times, my response won’t be a light one, but will instead be brimming with passion: Because of course there’s physics! The mysteries of evolution! The world is charged with the grandeur of God!

Believe it or not, the more complicated question is not about the existence of God, but about why it is important to go to church at all. My husband is Catholic and I’m a convert to Orthodoxy—neither of which are “just believe in your heart” kinds of faiths—but the question of why it is important to actually go to church seems to be the one that is more pressing, and relevant.

Let me tell you, when we are trying to get them kicking and screaming out of the door on Sunday morning, I have sympathy for anyone who decided that arguing about church attendance wasn’t worth it, and just decided to throw in the towel.

And sometimes it has involved literal kicking and screaming—out to and into the car, and around the Capital Beltway nearly twenty-seven miles from our house to the Antiochian Orthodox Church we attend in the Montgomery county suburbs. “Damn you,” I said one Sunday morning to one of my children, and I have shouted the F word, and punched on the accelerator while changing lanes.

If this were a movie, this would be the moment that would expose the yawning irony between my pious hopes and the less than beautiful reality of family life. “Shut up and worship the birth of Jesus Christ!” Christine Baranski’s character gripes (I’m paraphrasing) at her children on Christmas in the hilarious 1995 movie The Ref, and the implied take-away from that scene and similar scenes in other movies— would seem to be the essential hypocrisy of any kind of religious indoctrination.

What do these movies want, I wonder? I guess the “authentic” move at this point would be to throw the towel in and, what? Agree that, Yes, Mommy has been an inflexible hypocrite. Let us enjoy this Sunday morning with a walk in the park and a movie afterward. Be spiritual but not religious. You can decide for yourself when you grow up.

Well, too effing bad, I think. The notion that any of us is, or can be, anything other than a hypocrite, seems to be a legacy of good old American Puritanism, in its secular form: That by our ethics and good will alone, we can be perfected.

Instead, I am a sinner.

And as such I need more than the thought experiments of ethics and sentimentality. I need the Body and Blood of Jesus. You can’t get that anywhere else but church, I tell my son.

I have noticed that by the time we are halfway around the Beltway, their griping has stopped. After we have arrived at church, at last, the gold-touched dome with its cross scraping the sky looms over us as we shepherd each other inside.My son lopes away from me, off behind the altar screen where there are no girls.

Half of success is just showing up. My daughter and I light a candle.

When someone dies, we are served Kolliva, made of wheat berries and powdered sugar.

I am building an architecture of the invisible.

When and if they reject it, my children will still remember the Blood of Christ coursing through their bodies; their half-asleep noses will distinguish incense in their dark and dreamlike rooms.

That’s not nothing.

The colors of the icons will still shine, in the afterimages of their eyes.

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

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  • agh

    You’re a wonderful mother and a perfect writer.

    • chad

      Was this meant to make us confess or feel better about ourselves? Because I’m glad I’m not the only one dropping such letterbombs on Sunday AM. And I must note that Dr. Brooks used to be opposed to the use of “effing….”

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Good for you, Caroline, for sticking to your convictions and making your kids stick to them, too. Yes, when they grow up they might reject it all, but at least they will know deeply what they’re rejecting.
    Blessings on your Sundays and their challenges.

  • Deanna Kruszon-Moran

    Thoroughly enjoyed that. Had many of the same arguments in our home. Great essay.

  • Michael Brooks

    “Well, too effing bad.” I hope that the next Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church sees fit to add those words SOMEWHERE into our liturgical package.

  • lolajl

    Good essay! I’m sure when they’re grown, they’ll realize what a firm foundation you’ve built for them and that it will always be there for them.

  • Tania Runyan

    “When and if they reject it, my children will still remember the Blood of Christ coursing through their bodies; their half-asleep noses will distinguish incense in their dark and dreamlike rooms.
    That’s not nothing.
    The colors of the icons will still shine, in the afterimages of their eyes.”

    Beautiful loving, hopeful words. Thank you for this post.

  • Linda

    I’ll be praying for you Sunday mornings. Remember me and my 10 year-old complainer as well! That was beautiful and encouraging, thank you!!

  • This post has been shared in a couple of places by Fr. Philip LeMasters, which is how I came by it. It bothers me a bit, and, rather than doing what I normally do and moving on to the next task, and since the comments below are very favorable, I’ll just—without intent to stir debate or controversy—say that I don’t share the praise.

    There are some nice things in this essay—several lovely details—but the thrust of it seems like a light and, to be sure, non-confrontational kind of Franky Schaeffer take on Orthodoxy. You say that you can’t rely on ethics and sentimentality alone, but isn’t the conclusion about your children and “when and if” (a troubling choice of words) they reject the Church precisely sentimentality? They’ll remember the sensuous, like the fragrance of incense, and, even though in this hypothetical they won’t really believe (having rejected the faith), they’ll still have of the Blood of Christ … well, what? An idea of the Eucharist? A sentiment for the Lord? A memory of youth, a thought experiment?

    This really is a rather sentimental piece. As far as that goes, as I said, there are some lovely and amusing details. Nonetheless, I find it troublesome.

    • Caroline

      Dear Virgil: You raised some really important and valid points and I thought I ought to clarify a bit. I read something recently about the attraction of Orthodoxy for many folks who don’t really believe in Jesus due to its “philosophical and aesthetic comprehensiveness.” That’s not what i meant at all, in case you were wondering. What I meant about “the Memory of the Eucharist” is not that the lingering recollection of Orthodox aesthetics would be sufficient for my children–and I am most definitely NOT OK with any faithless or secular path that they may take. Rather, I would hope that these enfleshed habits would help to lead them back to real belief after any wandering. (Something tangible, along with the Scripture that our Liturgies are heaped with, rather than the mere rules of fundamentalism or legal theory of Calvinism, my previous theological waters…)

      You are right that the essay is couched in the frame of the secular marketplace, rather than how we think of it in the church. I guess that is because it is how we live in an overwhelmingly secular world that’s my concern here, that we find ourselves constantly contending with.

      I am happy to keep the conversation going, and I really appreciate your thoughtful examination of the issues. This essay is part of something longer on which I am working, so this is good fodder for revision. Thank you!

      • Thank you for your gracious reply. Your comment reminds me of a woman I knew who gave her son, upon her death, a particularly treasured icon, passed down from the old country and through a couple of centuries, knowing full well that he had become an atheist in his youth and remained one into middle age: she hoped, or so she said, he would find his way back to Orthodoxy with perhaps some help from the venerable icon. The man himself once said to me that he took comfort in the ritual from time to time (such as hearing the hymns at her funeral), but it was not out of religious or spiritual conviction that he felt it. His return to the faith of his infancy has, as far as I know, yet to take place. Hope springs eternal.

        • Caroline

          Dear Virgil– Thank you so much for that story. I will be thinking and praying for him and her. But I am hoping for my own children that there will no need for such measures!

          I’d love to connect on Facebook or via other means. Good for sharpening my thought and soul! A good Lent to you, and a glorious Pascha…

          • That sounds swell, Caroline. Alas, I am not on “the Facebook,” but, if you click on my Disqus name (which, as it happens, is also my real name, imagine that) or my avatar here, you can get to my journal or my Twitter account or, one way or another, my Google+ profile and so other places I can be found online. So, although I shun the most popular way to connect online, I can still be found.

            And I’ve added your author page here to my blog reader, so I’ll see future posts of yours, as long as I’m paying attention to my reader.. I’m glad you’ll be praying for the folk I mentioned in my last comment. And the best Lent (it’s upon us so quickly this year) to you too.

  • sarah_in_USA

    Well, I went thru all this opposition to Church, God and religion. I was also hopeful that something, anything, would remain, be it sentimental, ritual or else… Not sure I have succeeded. My children stopped going to Church as teenagers. My husband being an atheist, he made fun of my faith and church-going to the extent that I gave in and stopped going to church too to have a peaceful Sunday instead of a mocking, angry husband. This meant the children stopped going also… And I did not even swear on my way to Church… maybe I should have?

    • Caroline

      Sarah- The Church awaits you when you want to come back. I will pray for you. And I don’t think any effort that you made is in vain. I will be thinking of you during this Lent, and please write to me (you can get my address from Image) if there is any way I might help.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I had one day per week to relax with my children. I could not bring myself to have my very active son stuck in “nursery” because “his butt never hit a chair” according to his school teachers, and he was seen as disruptive in church services. My daughter seems to have been born with guilt, and she was constantly worried about seeking more perfection and about her mothers lack, thereof. I really didn’t need the extra grief in my life.

    • Caroline

      Dear YA– I feel you, sister. We actually changed churches because my son who has ADHD used to flip out about the loud echoing marble, and were constantly getting chastised by the ushers. We do what we can, and it sounds like you loved and protected your children, which is the most important thing of all. I hope you see this…and peace…xxx

      • Y. A. Warren

        I did try to protect them, and I do love them, though they now have teen children of their own. Thank you.

        • Caroline

          Amen…I will continue to hold you all in my prayers…

          • Y. A. Warren

            Please don’t pray to the “god” of Abraham, as he was simply an arrogant abuser of women and children.