Defined by faith, especially

Many Americans participate in a congregation close to their homes – a neighborhood church, as it’s often called.

For others, though, the decision is more selective and may require travel to gather for worship, communal action, and other events.

Frequently, these members define their personal identity strongly by these religious circles – I certainly do as a Quaker. Still others, like Jews or Greeks, find their identity further enhanced by the use of a foreign language, such as Hebrew or Greek, in worship and possibly also at home, as well as unique holidays on dates the wider public doesn’t celebrate.

I am fascinated by the intensity of this identification for some people or its relative weakness in others. I rarely hear individuals define themselves as, say, Methodist or Presbyterian or even Baptist with the sense of intense core identity I hear in Quaker, Greek, Mennonite, or even “nonobservant Jew.”

Think about the Amish, with their German dialect accompanied by distinctive dress and horse-and-carriage transportation. Or Ultra-Orthodox Jews who also observe the dress restrictions and likely add Yiddish to the mix.

Let’s assume we’ll find similar patterns in new ethnic populations appearing in the nation – Islam, especially. Anyone else feeling some empathy?

What’s your experience of religion and personal identity?

TEN FACTS ABOUT ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY IN AMERICA

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia is a member of a Greek-American family that lives at a distance for their Greek Orthodox church. While that faith shares practices and teachings with a number of other Eastern Orthodox denominations, some of its customs that she takes for granted do puzzle her classmates.

Here’s some perspective.

  1. Number of Greek Orthodox adherents in the United States: Between 440,000 to two million in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, depending on the counting method being used. They are spread among more than 500 parishes and served by roughly 800 priests. The Antiochian archdiocese has 83,700 adherents and 206 parishes.
  2. Number of followers in the Orthodox Church in America (evolving mainly from the Russian Orthodox): 115,000 estimated, with 456 parishes.
  3. Other Orthodox representation includes two Serbian archdioceses, plus Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Macedonian, Assyrian, Coptic, and two Armenian organizations.
  4. Date of Christmas: January 7, concluding the 12 days of Christmas.
  5. Date of Easter: Based on the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar used in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, the Orthodox date can fall anywhere between April 4 and May 8 on the Western calendar. (The Greeks call it Pascha, for Passover.)
  6. The highest level of leadership: The Metropolitan, or archbishop. The Roman Catholic Pope was once one of them.
  7. Icons: The interior of the churches, especially, are replete in stylized depictions of Jesus, the Holy Mother, and many saints. Many of these are murals on the ceiling.
  8. The iconostasis: An icon-covered wall runs in front of the altar and has a large central door as well as two smaller doors at the far end of either side. During the service, the priest often passes through these.
  9. The priests are typically married.
  10. Fasting: It’s not a total avoidance of food but rather constrained by intricate limitations. The longest periods of fasting are Advent, before Christmas, and Great Lent.

Orthodox Advent began November 15.

INTRODUCING THE ELEMENT OF ORTHODOXY

For most Americans, Christianity is contrasted between Protestant and Catholic. In the past, or so it seemed, you were born into one or the other, and in my neighborhood, it took a long time to mix. Even now I find many people are surprised to discover how much variety exists on the other side of the line. (Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, etc., or Italian, Irish, Polish, German, Hispanic, French, French-Canadian, etc.)

It takes some doing to realize just how different Eastern Orthodoxy is from the strands of Western Christianity we’ve known. And then you get into the variations there, starting with Greeks and Russians.

In my new novel, What’s Left, the family lives at a distance from the nearest Greek Orthodox church, so its connection to the faith is stretched thin at the beginning. Still, it’s part of their identity.

While I do relate some of the customs they rediscover, I don’t do much with the dietary limitations for Advent and Lent – essentially, vegan with no oil or alcohol. How’s a professional cook supposed to do his job if he can’t sample the food? (Any of you facing this conundrum are invited to tell us how you address it.)

So what about other traditions of dietary limitations? Kosher, for instance?

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Do you observe any dietary restrictions? What’s your experience? Have you ever fasted? How long?

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A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)