I developed a habit of crossing myself when I first went to USSR in 1991. I’m not Catholic or Orthodox, but to spend two months in Soviet states that were atheist by law can make anyone aware of his church teachings as a youth…if he was lucky enough to have had any in the first place.
Time among the godless was humbling, especially in other parts of the Soviet empire, such as Bulgaria and Macedonia, where there was still a memory, only 50 years earlier, when their churches were still open and vibrant, and people could wear crosses around their neck without ostracism.
It was not just humbling, but knee-buckling, to watch old great grandmothers teaching their great grandchildren how to genuflect and cross themselves in the great cathedral in Sofia, for neither their parents or grandparents had been allowed to do these things, and didn’t know how.
Or the way the small Russian Orthodox stood six-deep to hear their priest sing out his liturgy only 300 yards from the much larger Bulgarian cathedral. I visited both every time I came to Sofia.
Of course, I didn’t want anyone to mistake me as either Catholic or Orthodox, so I adopted a crossing no one else had. I held my fingers differently and first crossed my forehead, then my breast, as I had seen Spanish ballplayers do in the big leagues when they stepped into the batters box.
For 15 years, until 2009, I visited the Balkans 2-3 times a year, 2 weeks at a time, visited dozens of towns and private homes, from Yevgrani (Jews) to Tzigane (Gypsies), walked miles and miles of streets filled with tobacco smoke, and, squatted in outhouses and factory toilets that hadn’t seen a wet mop in months.
I got to see up close the healthcare benefits of the great Socialist lie. I saw men with peg legs, like Long John Silver, thousands of smiles that had never seen a dentist’s pick, villages without pavement just a few miles from a city, and the fading smiles of sweet innocent faces as they found out there had always been things better “out there” but never knew until they got their first cellphones.
All I could do was quietly shake my head, cross myself and mutter “God bless them” under my breath.
That became a silent prayer that I have used now for over 25 years, sometimes 10-15 times a day, as when I see a 5-year old w/thick glasses, as my youngest son had to wear, when all those things he wanted to do, but couldn’t because he had no peripheral vision, would jump back in my memory. Those were rough years for him, and I’m constantly reminded.
Old vets from my dad’s time get to me, and I have a site for vets from my time, so we can pass stories around until we look that them.
So do those kids at St Jude’s Hospital.
Then there’s the tastes, the odors, the songs on the radio, that carry me back, more often as not these days to my sins and regrets, rather than my nostalgias.
Finally there’s the internet news headline or Twitter, which I can only stand to read 15-20 minutes at a time, for there are at least a half-dozen “goddamns”, “SOB’s” and other expletives per viewing, all of which I have to then cross myself and a quiet “God forgive me” or “Spare me, Lord”.
Most days I’ll cross myself 15-20 times a day. Everyone at the “Y” understands.
So, anyway, this parable of what it all means came my way just yesterday.
I was walking into Food Lion to pick up some things, and as I approached the automatic doors, one of those memories sprang into my mind as I spied a girl in the parking lot who reminded me of a girl I dated in high school, and just as quickly how I’d lied I told her to get out of a date.
Harmless enough, I immediately crossed myself, when at that very a woman, 60’ish, came out of the automatic door, saw me, and immediately went into a rage. “Don’t ever do that in front of me!” she half-screamed.
“You mean crossing myself? Sorry. I was just saying a quick prayer. I assume you don’t like Christians?”
“You bet, I don’t.”
“Does that apply to any other sign of Christian belief?”
“Well, let me ask you. If I had been wearing a Make America Great hat, instead, would you have been just as angry?”
“Now, that’s interesting. You can even learn a little lesson here. You hate Trump. And you hate Christians, but it’s that Christian faith most Trump followers have that keeps us from slapping the shit out of you. So you’d better count yourself lucky that you can make it back to your car without a fat lip.
Please, Lord, don’t let me hit that woman.