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Thoughts on life by Teri McCarthy

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You Can’t Judge a Priest by His Cover

Posted by admin in April 3rd, 2009
Published in Uncategorized

You can’t blame me! You see I was raised in a very fundamentalist home. We didn’t have priests. So when Little Olga (see Is There Life in Outer Space? February 11th) and Svetlana asked to be baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church I struggled. When they asked me to be their godmother and stand with them during the ceremony, well I had to really pray. Honestly, I wrestled with it. Russia was just emerging from communism and I felt Orthodox priests were “iffy” to begin with; add to that the fact they survived the communist government and I concluded: can’t be real Christians. But it was what the girls wanted and I did have a strange inexplicable peace about it. So we scheduled the date in late October when the girls would be baptized.

I met them at the church an hour before the ceremony. I had bought roses for each of them. There was a fresh foot of snow on the ground but the morning was clear, and the sky topaz and the church looked so beautiful. I love Russian Orthodox architecture. I love the onion domes and all the arched windows. We greeted each other with hugs and kisses and the girls were so excited. A little like brides on their wedding day. We went into the dimly lit church with candles burning, incense heavy in the air. We spoke in muffled whispers about the day and what to expect.

This day was “Girls-Only Baptism.” NO BOYS ALLOWED. Theirs would be tomorrow. So a small group of about twelve girls gathered in the back of the church with us. I, at 33, was the oldest of the tiny group. We were ushered into a neighboring building by a novice. This is the building where baptisms took place. All the girls were whispering, giggling—not disrespectfully, but joyfully. There in the baptismal room was a large golden laver sitting on a wooden platform with two steps. I was looking at the paraphernalia when he walked in.

First of all he was fat. Right then I was disgusted with him. Any Christian who suffered for his faith under communism just needed to be thin (that’s my belief system). Not only was he fat but he was dirty. He had a piece of bread in his beard. Okay, a crumb, but still it showed. He had dripped something like coffee or tea on his pink and gold robe. He wore a priestly cap but the hair underneath flowing down to his shoulders was oily, stringy and looked like it had never, ever been brushed or combed. He made me sick. I thought, “What have I done? I’ve brought these new Christian girls into this heresy.” It was too late to back out and so I just prayed.

The priest explained that he had spent the last few days praying over their names and asking the Holy Spirit to give him a “life verse” for each of them—a Scripture passage that would be theirs for the rest of their lives. Yeah. Right. Like that’s gonna happen.

So he had the girls stand in a circle around the laver. He was awkward and clumsy. It was crowded with the twelve girls, the novice following close behind every step of the priest, I was the only godmother that showed up and we were all encircling this golden laver. The priest stood in front of each girl and asked her, “What is your name?” The girl would tell him her name, he’d fumble with some scraps of paper and then read her Scripture verse, put some oil on his finger (the novice was holding a cup of oil) and the priest would turn around, dunk his finger, place it on the girl’s forehead, say a prayer and move on to the next girl. Assembly line baptism. How great is that?!?

First one, “What is your name?” Girl would answer, “My name is Mirka.”

“Mirka,” the priest would say, “God loves you and this is His word for you….” And he’d read the Scripture, dunk his finger, oil her forehead, say a prayer and move on to the next. My eyes were rolling back in my head and I had to work hard to control the heavy sighs trying to escape my chest. This wasn’t mass, but it was mass ministry and I didn’t like it one bit. I stood behind Svetlana and Olga laying my hands on each of their shoulders silently begging God to forgive my leniency. Then all of the sudden I quit praying because priest guy had gotten into a conversation with one of the twelve (girls, not Apostles).

“What is your name?” he asked.

“My name is Irina,” she answered.

“What is your name?” he asked again. Oh great, he’s not only sloppy and fat, he’s deaf! “What’s wrong with you old man?” I thought to myself in good Christian love.

“My name is Irina,” she repeated. Everyone was getting uncomfortable now.

“What is your name?” he asked her again.

And he stood there looking at her and he placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “What is your name my child?” And he smiled, gently, tenderly and I started to tear up and I didn’t know why. His face was really quite lovely. I had focused so much on the bread crumb in his beard and the coffee stains on his robe that I hadn’t really looked into his face—into his eyes. But now I was forced to and he was, well…really quite beautiful. The girl started crying, sobbing actually.

“My name is Svetlana! My name is Svetlana!” she said again and again between her sobs.

He held her in his arms and said, “Yes. Yes. That is your name. Svetlana. God loves you Svetlana and this is His word for you,” and without even looking at the scraps of paper he quoted, “’Fear not for I have redeemed thee. I have called thee by thy name and thou art mine’” (Isaiah 43:1).

And he anointed her with oil and prayed a blessing over her and a holy hush came over our small crowd of witnesses. In that moment Little Olga turned around and with tears flowing down her face she said to me, “He’s real! God IS real! If He knows her name then surely He knows mine.” And her smile was that of a child resting safely in her Father’s arms.

The priest went around the small group. Each had a scripture, was anointed and prayed for and then each one-by-one stepped into the laver and was doused with a ladle of water. Being from a Baptist tradition I thought folks had to be dunked for it to be real, but this was real. It was probably more real than any baptism service I’d ever seen in my entire life.

You see, Svetlana (aka Irina) so desired to make a profession of faith but she had seen what the communists had done to her nation’s Christians. She was afraid that if her real name was found on a church roster and the communists took control again that she’d be imprisoned or even killed. She wanted desperately to be baptized, but feared what her nation’s government might do. But in that dark small wooden room with an unkempt priest and a very leery American, God showed that room full of new believers that He knew them by name and that they were safe in Him and He used the foolish things of this world to teach me a very important lesson. Peace.

3 users Responded In This Post

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97. Deb said,
April 3rd, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Oh Teri, that made me cry. You are a great writer.
Did you ever check your facebook inbox. Just wondering.

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98. jromanowski said,
April 4th, 2009 at 10:42 am

Amen sister!!

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102. big sister said,
April 7th, 2009 at 10:02 am

I want to go back to Russia with you! This story, this testimony, this reminder of the workings of the Holy Spirit and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – His presence – His all knowingness – WOW – He does know us by name – Bless His Holy Name!!!!! Love and kisses

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