I am an atheist. And I don´t want children. Yet, on Saturday the 26th of September, I found myself standing in a orthodox church in Illichivsk, half an hour outside of Odessa, holding soon-to-be-baptised Aurelia Katherine. How come? Because Skip and Helen asked me to become the Godfather of their daughter, Aurelia.
Accepting an honor like that is the easy part. But for me, and I think for people who share my atheistic views, going to church is always a bit of negotiating with ones beliefs. On the way to the Ukraine, I finished reading Reclaiming travel by Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison, released earlier this year. Thinking all this through, I thought of the following passage from that book:
“We can find ourselves in some delicate situations where the right thing to do, ethically or socially, is not always obvious. We often have to make small concessions to the customs of our host, small and not so small. Sometimes a vegetarian will eat pork so as not to seem ungrateful. Sometimes a staunch feminist will cover her head before entering a place of worship to respect local norms. These are perfectly respectable choices, just as it would be reasonable to politely refuse the meat or choose not to visit the place where the customs were objectionable to you. These moments can be awkward but, in a way, these aren´t terribly hard decisions. In most cases like these, live and let live is the ethical guidance enough. To behave is the easy part. What´s more challenging is to accept the limitations of our own beliefs.”
Now there are a few things about an orthodox child baptism ceremony in the Ukraine you should be aware of if you end up in one. Everyone who walks into a church is suppose to wear a cross. No discussion. Thinking of the bigger picture, hanging that cross around my neck and stepping across the threshold of the church was a very easy decision. Just before the ceremony was about to start I found out that the mother is not to be present during the ceremony. Helen, in this case, is not allowed in the church during the ceremony. Surrounding the baby now were the Godparents, dad, Helen´s parents and Helen´s brother with his wife and four children. Plus the priest. (That man could hold a note. Seriously. And he held it – loudly – very close to my face.)
Holding the baby for the first half of the ceremony is the task of the Godfather. To help out, Skip had strategically put himself in a position where Aurelia could see him most of the time. That did help – up to the point where the Aurelia got dipped in the water (up and down a few times). Then the newly baptized baby is handed over to the Godmother – Ilona. She tried to comfort Aurelia for the rest of the ceremony, but it wasn´t easy since the priest kept on rubbing oil on her forehead, hands and feet. When Aurelia´s grandfather tried to comfort her from his position two meters behind Ilona and Aurelia, one of the church staff nicely, but firmly, told him to step back. The ceremony evidently includes four people, and four only; the priest, the baby and the Godparents. Towards the end Helen was called in. The priest now placed Aurelia´s parents behind us, the Godparents. We were told to turn around and bow to the parents. Then the parents – Skip and Helen – had to bow to us. At the same time, Aurelia was handed back to the parents alongside the baptism certificate and one of the candles used in the ceremony.
The ceremony in that church on that warm, sunny day by the Black Sea was an interesting experience for me from so many perspectives; being active in a church service in a language I am yet to learn while holding a baby in my arms trying to keep her in a good mood although all she is seeing is a priest who is chanting, singing loudly up close and touching her head. It´s safe to say that I on that day was way, way out of my comfort zone. But I am a very proud Godfather of Aurelia.