Fifty! St. John, Baptism, and Me.

Fifty!

On Saturday it will be fifty years since two of my brothers and I were baptized.

It will also be the feast, in ROCOR, of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, to whom we prayed that we someday could be baptized.

St. John

In 1973, Dad went without us to the All-Diaspora Youth Conference, held that year at Holy Trinity Monastery,  where he learned of St. John. St. John was a priestmonk whose care for his flock was noteworthy and laced with miracles, which continued after his repose. Dad had said, when he saw us again, “Now kids, there is a man I want you to pray to for help. He was very pious and really loved kids. He even had an orphanage. He isn’t a saint yet, but he will be someday.”

“Daddy,” I asked, what’s his name?”

“I knew I’d forget,” Dad said, “So I wrote it down.” He always had little pieces of paper in his pockets with Bible verses, names of those who needed prayers, and observations from his readings of scripture. He found the right paper, unfolded it, and said, “His name is Vladdika John.” He put the emphasis on the first syllable.

“How do we pray to him if he isn’t a saint yet,” I asked.

“You say, ‘Holy Vladdika John, pray to God for us.” And we did. For years.

Eventually our situation improved, and years later my youngest child was named for the saint, and was baptized, thirty years ago, on the day of his Glorification.

When my older brother went to Jordanville to be a Summer Kid, he came home and told us, among other things, that the proper pronunciation was “Vka-EE-ka.” We thought he was fooling us, but it turned out that he was correct. We pray to St. John often now, and are grateful for his help.

Us

My life has had many blessings and advantages – private high school, a good college, an amazing husband, children and grandchildren, and the opportunity to help my husband serve in three parishes.

But I got off to a rocky start.

My father had converted in 1970, and we three children also wanted to be Orthodox. My mother, who had asked Dad for a divorce prior to this, did not wish to become Orthodox. They were engaged in a prolonged custody dispute that was a battle both for our bodies and for our souls. I have written about it a little in my MFA thesis, and when I get my second wind, I will write some more.

During the custody battle, the judge sided with my mother no matter what she saw wrong in my mother’s health and behavior. When one of us had been hurt, Dad refused to bring us back to her after our weekend visit, and we fled to friends in Florida. Dad was arrested for contempt of court for refusing to tell the judge where we were. (“Some courts deserve nothing but contempt!” he yelled as he was being led away.) His lawyer made a deal. If Dad gave the lawyer enough information that the court could find us, the judge agreed not to return us to our mother, and to place us all in the same foster home.

The foster family, whom I call the Altmans because that isn’t their name, had one child from the husband’s first marriage, one son they had together, the husband’s granddaughter from the daughter of his first marriage, a brother and sister who were foster children, and a three year-old girl who was a foster child. They added us to the family. It was crowded and they were extremely frugal, feeding us mostly government surplus food and going perhaps too far in economizing on water. We arrived in spring and finished out the school year. But the family’s custom was to send away foster children every summer. Some were sent to other foster homes, or to relatives We were allowed to go to my father’s parents’ home so he could equip us for camp, and then we were sent to Camp Norwich in the Berkshires for eight weeks, at Dad’s expense.

We had been made catechumens a year before, when I was in fourth grade, but wanted to be baptized and be fully Orthodox. Dad had been waiting until he had full custody. When he realized that might never happen, however, his attitude changed. He had applied for a job teaching in Brazil and had obtained passports for us. If he lost custody, his plan was to take us where there was no extradition. That decided, if we wanted to be baptized, he no longer wanted to fight us. But the request had to come from us. And my older brother was supposed to be the family spokesman.

The excerpt

Many years later, I wrote about it in my thesis, “Words So Far from Roslindale.”

Baptism

            We had not been to Liturgy since Paul and Alexandra took us when we first returned from Florida. It was so good to be at the monastery, the convent, and our St. Mark of Ephesus parish once more. I asked Dad, “When can we get baptized?” We had been made catechumens the year before. A catechumen is someone studying to join the Church. We wanted to be full members.

            Dad said, “If you want something, you have to ask.”

            So after the Liturgy at the monastery, I waited for Joseph to speak up and ask Fr. Panteleimon to hurry up and baptize us. But he was too polite, and the window of opportunity was coming to a close. So I piped up and said, “Hey! When are you going to baptize us?”

            This is not a textbook way to address a clergyman, but it was effective. We had to leave for camp on June 30. So early, early in the morning on June 29, Serge and Mother Stephania met us at Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Serge was to be our godfather, and Mother Stephania was there to slather me with oil. The Russians simply anoint those about to be baptized, but the Greeks say that you have to be oiled like a wrestler so there will be no place for the demons to catch you.

The baptism begins with an exorcism, and spitting at the devil, which Serge did with panache. I was bad at spitting, barely produced anything, but the boys did us proud. Serge anointed the boys, Russian style. Mother Stephania first slathered me and then went and slathered the boys with olive oil, as well. The monks had an old oil drum, painted blue, which they used for adult baptisms. There were steps leading up, and Fr. Barnabas, the deacon, held our hand as each of us climbed up and in. He lifted each of us out of the font. I thought he was trying to put us on the step, so I kicked out that way and caught my foot in his broad sleeve, but in the end I made it to the floor safely.

Next, we were chrismated. “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit!” the priest said as he anointed my forehead, hands, throat, knees, and feet. We had our hair cut in four places, in the sign of the Cross, a first offering to the Church. We were dressed in new clothes, over which we wore a white “garment of gladness” on which the nuns had embroidered a cross. We were handed a candle and a cross and led into the church for the Liturgy, at which we communed for the first time. I don’t have words for the joy and contentment which that service brought us. To this day, when I am in need of spiritual refreshment, I remember the feel of the water against my skin.

When we entered the church, each of the monks came up and kissed the crosses we held and then our hands and asked us our new names. Danny and I kept Daniel and Ann, but Frankie’s original patron saint came after the split between Constantinople and Rome in 1054, so he, like Dad and Sophroni, had to choose a different saint. Dad had chosen his confirmation saint, St. James the Brother of the Lord. But Fr. Panteleimon said that Frankie would be named for the Elder Joseph of Mt. Athos’s patron saint, St. Joseph the Betrothed. And so officially my older brother became Joseph at church and at home, and Frank everywhere else. Sometimes we were naughty and just called him Franz Joseph, because of his imperial ways.

After trapeza at the monastery, we went to the convent, where the nuns rejoiced over our baptism and made a fuss over us. The next day we went to our parish, St. Mark’s, in Roslindale, which was a little dicey because we didn’t want to run into anyone from our mother’s circle of friends while we greasy from the baptismal oil, which we weren’t supposed to wash off for a week. But the only relative we saw was my dad’s younger brother, Sophronious, who was also Orthodox. Before this we had always left for the church hall just after the Gospel, when the deacon says “Ye catechumens, depart!” This time we stayed for the consecration and were the first to commune. It was the happiest weekend of our lives.

We had been worried about Mamma learning we had become Orthodox, but we had decided that it was worth whatever fallout would come. We were also concerned about Dad’s family learning of our baptism and being offended. But, we had started to tell them the horror stories about life at the Altmans. (Dad went to court, while we were in camp, and had an order put in place that we be able to bathe alone in fresh water at least twice a week.) When we came home from Saturday night Vigil with our hair oily and kissed everyone and went straight to bed, our aunts decided that we had been treated for head lice, and decided not to mention it or ask us any difficult questions.

Glory be to God. I am grateful.