Eastern Orthodox Romanians celebrate on January 6th the Baptism of Jesus Christ.
Known as Boboteaza, this holiday holds a special place in the religious calendar, and is traditionally considered the coldest day of the year.
Days prior to this date, priests go to bless people’s households with holy water; in some regions, groups of boys come to people’s houses to wish them for this occasion, a custom known as Iordanul, coming from the name of the river (Jordan) in which Jesus Christ was baptised;
On 5th and 6th, special religious masses take place, priests sanctifying water; usually, people who attend the mass take holy water (agheasmă) for them, their families and households.
Traditions, beliefs and practices regarding this holiday are aboundant in every region of the country. A popular custom is the throwing of a wooden cross in the water (river, sea) by priests, while men compete, swimming to find it, thus the one who manages to recover it, is considered to be blessed the entire year.
On this night it is believed that unmarried girls who put basil under their pillow will have a dream about the man who will become their husband.
The following day, Saint John the Baptist is revered; people named John, and derivatives from this name, celebrate their name day (it is considered to be the most popular saint name in Romania), and thus, officially, the religious winter holidays come to an end.
The Cross is the guardian of all the world, the Cross is the beauty of the Church, the Cross is the might of kings,the Cross is the support of the faithful, the Cross is the glory of the angels, and a scourge to demons.
I wrote a small article for my church’s newsletter, detailing my conversion to Orthodoxy.
I made my way onto the path of Orthodoxy as I imagine any number of converts from a strictly protestant upbringing have done so: begrudgingly and with no small amount of fussing and fuming. By the time I made the decision to become a catechumen, I’d been aware of the Orthodox Church for about six years, and for those six years I had constantly been at war with my fascination for the beauty and the tradition of the ancient faith.
It happened like this…
There was once a large Christian music festival that operated for one week every July in a little farming town called Bushnell, Illinois. As I reached my early twenties, I had fully immersed myself into a narrow subset of Protestant Christian youth that held a thinly defined adherence to Christian morality and loud rock music in equal regard. Every year, I made something of a pilgrimage to Bushnell, where I lived in a tent, flailed my arms in the midst of sweaty, screaming crowds, and spent exorbitant amounts of money for black t-shirts with skulls on them. Such were the things that preoccupied my mind for about a decade. It was at the festival,
In the dim glow and suffocating heat of the merchandise booths that I first encountered, in some small way, Orthodoxy. Or rather, a friend of mine discovered it and started on his own path to conversion. I, on the other hand, railed against such an epiphany for about five more years. My friend – Brian - had found a small publication called Death to the World, a magazine produced by monks at St. Herman’s monastery in Platina California, and it was this (and the writings of Fr. Seraphim Rose) that set him off on his own journey to Orthodoxy. As such, my complete experience with the faith was filtered through him, and I was struggling with the idea.
So there I was, languishing in what could loosely be called my own skewed version of “faith”. I grew up in nondenominational churches that leaned toward charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, and had removed myself from that environment as soon as was possible in my teen years. I hopped from youth group to young adult service to half hearted bible study in that most holy of disenfranchised young protestant traditions: church shopping. After awhile, the rock and roll worship and the spiritual discussions over coffee acquired a stale taste.
I was adrift. And I knew it. I wanted to go deeper, to be challenged, to remove a heavy burden of bitterness that I had long connected with church. I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about making this change, but I knew that if I kept heading down this road of apathy that I was traveling, faith and religion - and with them Christ - would ultimately become less and less important to me until I completely apostatized into antipathetic agnosticism. And I came very close to this attitude more than once. I often would cave to my own ambivalence and quit trying, but I never quite lost the spark of faith. Reading theology books kept me in some small way connected to the periphery of Christian thought, but any thought to performing a rule of prayer or engaging in a sacramental life of any sort went by the wayside.
Still, the idea of Orthodoxy continued to nag me. As the years had passed, I’d been given every good reason to consider a path to the ancient faith, but shunted them aside. My primary reason for rejecting Orthodoxy, then, was that it sounded like work. While I had the mindset that church should be “fun” and “engaging” and “relevant”. I loathed the Hallmark Card-esque buzzwords that had shaped my earlier faith, yet I was building my own personal “theology” based on equally empty words - and had set my own desires and whims as higher than God’s. I did not want faith. I wanted a loud concert and an engaging lecture. It would take me a few more years to come to this realization.
Time passed. I moved from Flint, Michigan to Atlanta, Georgia and soon became tangentially involved in what is sometimes called “emerging” or “emergent” church movements, but in essence operated under the label of “progressive” Christianity. I met wonderful people. Many friendships were born from the time I spent in this sub-genre of Protestant Christianity. But as with many of my attempts at taking my faith seriously, it held little weight as time passed. It never answered my big questions, and the well-meant inclinations toward extreme “non-judgment” and “acceptance” tended to make me think, “Well, if I’m going to be this wishy-washy and noncommittal with my religious dogma, why bother at all?” So there I was, back at the drawing board, with the two options of apathy or apostasy placed before me.
Having moved home after a couple years to be with the woman that would become my wife, I was soon faced again with a sincere contemplation of Orthodoxy. Long conversations took place with my Orthodox friends. I wrestled with the idea of converting from my lackluster non-faith to something that seemed incredibly challenging. Like many Protestants I had some objection, based on complete misunderstandings, to prayer to the saints and the Theotokos, and of venerating icons. Frankly, it unnerved me. Most of my life, Christianity had been about achieving a “feeling” - some kind of spiritual and emotional high that was usually bourn by my attempts at being “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “speaking in tongues”. My faith had become all about chasing an effervescent spiritual ecstasy. My hope was that I could achieve it without really working too hard. Laziness and bitterness fanned the flames of individualism within me. I wanted religion on my terms. I saw no reason to engage in a certain tradition or sacrament to achieve it. At the height of my particular brand of hubris, I often proclaimed that there was nothing I could get from a liturgy that I could not find in a couple of hours of discussion with a fellow Christian. Such a shallow, vain attempt at accountability would prove my undoing.
By late 2013, my lack of spiritual growth and my pride came together and my vices began to swallow me whole. I became keenly aware that I was veritably encrusted with sin and doing absolutely nothing to combat it. Like a pig I was wallowing in my own muck and calling it “church”. What I needed was discipline. A way to rein in the chaos of spiritual confusion my life had become. Finally, begrudgingly, I visited an Orthodox Divine Liturgy.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but within a few short minutes, my world was unmade. My intellectual and spiritual pride sloughed off for just a moment, and it was as if I could peer behind a curtain, just for a few seconds, and look unfiltered Truth in the face for the first time. The smell of incense burning on a Sunday morning always brings me back to those first moments, standing there wide-eyed and awkward, as the Trisagion was sung. I was faced then with the idea that I was not only a very unsuccessful Christian, but that I could hardly be called a “Christian” at all. What in my life made me worthy of that title? In the last five years I’d made no real attempt to engage in a faith community, form a healthy prayer life, read the scriptures, or even consider Christ a part of my life. What right did I have to call myself that word? I knew then, that my path would lead me back to this Liturgy no matter what.
So, true to form, I waited about a year and a half and did basically nothing about it. I think I may have gone to liturgy a handful or times, and I even became pretty steadfastly Orthodox in my beliefs. Halfway through 2014, I purchased a prayer book and began reading prayers from it occasionally. It wasn’t until Christmas that I decided to take the plunge. I did everything I could do up to that point. I became convinced that this was truly the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church: the same church with an unbroken line stretching back through history to the very first apostles and Christ Himself. I knew that the only way I could truly learn to humble myself, and find spiritual vitality was through the Orthodox sacraments.
I began attending liturgy regularly, and my wife joined me shortly thereafter. We became catechumens. I was at spiritually peace for the first time and yet my pride still told me one persistent lie. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had convinced myself that my spiritual crises would completely cease. I thought, rather naively, that given a solid regiment of prayers and regular attendance to liturgy, I would never again struggle with religious apathy and the laziness that confounds me when I know that I should do what is right and good rather than what is easy and pleasurable. On the contrary, these struggles remained. What had changed was that I saw them for what they were, and had the tools to combat them. The sacraments, the traditions, the prayer rules, even simple things like crossing myself or whispering the Jesus prayer during a moment of weakness, gave me the strength to pick myself up when I failed and in those rare victorious moments, to catch myself before I fell.
I sometimes find it difficult to express, especially to my Protestant brothers and sisters, just exactly what it is that draws me so strongly to the Ancient Faith. Perhaps it is in the acceptance of Mystery and the unknowable. Perhaps it is the strong sway of the mystic and the holy hovering like a cloud over liturgy. I suppose it could be that reason, logic, and historicity, as well as the benefits of conciliar debate, have been widely celebrated here for over 2,000 years. A good deal of it has to do with a basic lack of judgment and loving acceptance that flows from my chosen parish, and this after years of dejection and cringe-inducing awkwardness in churches.
Maybe in the end it is simply that I had grown cold and bitter fussing over my 25,000 denominations and had forgotten the wonder of the creed I professed. In any case, I have found something akin to a deep and dangerous - yet altogether enticing and hallowed – a path to a Faerie realm open before me. The Orthodox Church is for lovers of poetry, art, and music; it is for the seekers and the wanderers, for the determined ascetics and those mired in doubt. It is for the common layman and those learned in exegesis, for the chiefest sinner (that would be me) and the repentant supplicant. It is a difficult road, consisting of an ever widening avenue of challenges both spiritual and physical that can, if borne with obedience and humility, strengthen you beyond all hope and weaken you beneath all pride.
The road is daunting, but I am taking the first small steps onto it, nonetheless. I feel like a child might feel if, after turning a corner in some mansion in the English countryside, she comes across a humble wooden Wardrobe and decides to step into it, pushing through the old fur coats and seeing, in a bewildering contradiction, a light atop a lantern in the distance.
The Church is like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, a fantastic counter-world offered in response to a world that, like mine, has gone blind with apathy. Like the children in the old stories, I’m heading for Aslan’s Country.
Eastern Orthodox Romanian Christians celebrate on November 30thSaint Andrew (Sfântul Andrei), the patron saint of Romania (who came and promoted Christ’s teachings to the locals, almost 2000 years ago, in the present-day region of Dobrogea, where one can still find remains of the place in which he dwelt, Peştera Sfântul Andrei - Saint Andrew’s cave, which also shelters a monastery nowadays).
The night of November 29/30th is traditionally known as “the night of ghosts”.
St. Andrew is also the patron saint of wolves, and it is traditionally said that if one (in the case of people which lived/live in rural areas) does not respect this holy day, wolves shall eat his animals (poultry, sheep, cows, etc.)
The most famous ancient legend circulating is that about ghosts that wander in the villages and indulge in evil actions: spreading various plagues, maligning crops and domestic animals, etc. To prevent such things, garlic was used everywhere, from animal stables to houses.
It is also traditionally believed that during this night unmarried girls shall have a dream about the man with whom they are destined to be. (customs vary from region to region)
Christians who observe the four-week-long Christmas fast are allowed on this day to consume fish.
It is also customary to keep wheat in a pot and allow it to grow, in order to foresee how rich the harvests will be the next year.
If you become rich, consider whether or not you could worthily bear poverty. If you are happy, imagine how you could worthily meet unhappiness. When people praise you, think how you might worthily bear insult. And, all your life, think how you might worthily meet death.
- St. Nicholas of Serbia, Thoughts on Good and Evil