Thoughts on Crosses

The first wearable cross I owned was a dark wooden cross about as big as my thumb given to me at my confirmation into the United Church of Christ in Randolph, Vermont, at age 13.  I had begun attending church somewhat regularly, with my mom and younger brother and sister, when I was about nine.  I don’t remember the original chain but I do remember that I altered the chain to include small styrofoam circles in pink, white, and light blue created from egg cartons.  I didn’t wear the cross often, but I liked owning it.  A couple years after my confirmation, my family stopped going to church.  My mom had never been completely comfortable as a Christian and I had become far more interested in boys and parties than in Bible stories.  My first cross was put in a box somewhere and has never been seen again.  

A lot of time passed.  I went to church infrequently, usually once during the Christmas season.  For my graduation from graduate school, though, I asked for and received a small gold Celtic cross.  I had read an article by Stephen Walker (http://www.celtarts.com/celtic.htm) that reported that the circle around the Celtic cross could be explained as a symbol of eternity, or as the way the Irish integrated Druidism with Christianity.  The multifaceted symbolism seemed appropriate for my own approach to religion, and I found the intricate etched knotwork beautiful.  I wore my cross every day for the challenging year I spent working with children with disabilities in Brooklyn.  Then my husband and I moved to London and had children, and I began to wear my cross less and less.  When our son reached the age that I probably was when I began going to church, I felt it was time for us to give church a try.  After a year or so of church-hopping, my children and I joined an Anglican congregation that was close to our home.  We have attended services regularly for a couple of years and I have not worn my cross to church once.

There are several reasons for me to choose an alternate pendant.  London in general, and certainly the well-to-do suburb of London we just manage to live in, does not “do” religion to the same degree that Boston or New York “does” religion.  My children have attended three schools between them, and during all those drop-offs and pick-ups I could count the number of moms or dads I’ve seen wearing crosses (or, for that matter, Stars of David, naqibs, bindis or turbans) on my fingers.  One odd exception to the overwhelming infrequency of worn crosses is Hampton Court Palace, where Henry VIII spent a lot of time.  The only explanation I can offer for this is Henry’s important role in the creation of the Anglican church.  But nowadays church attendance in England as a whole is low, with approximately one person in ten reporting regular attendance (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6520463.stm), and in this part of London, my guess is that the number is closer to one in twenty.  In the small Vermont town I grew up in, we were divided into Congregational, Methodist, and Catholic more than into believers and nonbelievers, but that is not the case here in Richmond-Upon-Thames.  To blend in here, one should not even know the names of that many sorts of Christianity, and one should generally not say the word “Christian” at all.  I am already an outsider thanks to my nationality and I hesitate to further publicly display my non-conformity. 

There is also the fear of being judged.  I am an imperfect, conflicted Christian.  I shout at my children more often than I’d like, I regularly covet material goods, and there are a few people- luckily only a very few- that I find very hard to like.  Of course the Christian faith says that the only “perfect” Christian was Jesus himself, so holding perfection as an ideal is unrealistic.  But in my mind even a “good” Christian would be someone who could discipline their children without raising their voice, who would always be happy with what they have, and who would find something to like in everyone they meet.  I don’t match that description.  I find the miracles in the Bible hard to swallow as literal events, I have difficulty accepting that Jesus rose from the dead in human form, and I sometimes (albeit very rarely) question whether God exists at all.  I worry that people may see me wearing a cross and telling my children sternly that they must do x and y before I count to five, and they may say to themselves, “Hmm, not a very Christian approach to parenting.”

I notice if people are wearing crosses, and I lump them into categories as well, partly based on what sort of cross they have chosen.  Large, plain cross-wearers are people I would generally assume to be or to aspire to be very serious and literal Christians.  Teenagers wearing crosses may be making a fashion statement.  Crosses with crucified Jesus figures seem to be more prevalent among men and are very seldom seen in this part of London.  With most crosses, it’s not immediately evident how Christian the wearer is, but just by choosing that particular symbol, the wearer has invited the question.  One cross-wearer who challenges my preconceptions is Charlie, the proprietress of a café close to the school our kids go to.  Charlie is a small woman who has spent a lot of time in either outdoor or indoor sun and who seems like she would have been a chain-smoker in the days that when that was somewhat acceptable.  She doesn’t seem to have been dealt an easy hand, she has clear favourites among her clientele, but her favourites include customers who are almost certainly lonely and really benefit from the five minutes Charlie chats with them when they come in for their tea.  Charlie is easily fifty, always wears her blonde hair up, sings along with the radio when the café is mostly empty, and gets slightly annoyed when frequent customers change their regular order.  She occasionally wears a large cubic-zirconia studded cross on a silver chain.  No goody two-shoes there.  That is the most common preconception, public Christians as goody two-shoes.  


Jesus himself could not have been called a goody two-shoes, but speaking of Jesus, my guess is that he would not have worn a cross and that he would not necessarily be pleased that his followers sometimes choose to do so.  I have no Bible verses to back me up, but my gut feeling is that Jesus would have felt it was better to be so secure in one’s faith that one wouldn’t need any external reminders of that faith.  But  people have a long tradition of wearing both secular and religious symbols.  I would notice, and I might not be the only one, if my husband removed his wedding ring.  The character Teyve says in Fiddler on the Roof, 

For instance, we always keep our heads
covered and always wear a little
prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion 
to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get
started? I’ll tell you, I don’t know, But it’s a 
tradition. And because of our traditions,
everyone of us knows who he is and what God
expects him to do.  [Sheldon Harnick, lyrics]



The risk of knowing “what God expects” you to do, however, is that you will then feel it is your duty to tell everyone else what God expects them to do.  Blind adherance to religious edicts strikes me as a way to avoid thinking for oneself and seems a dangerous path to follow.  There is a fine line between religion as a choice and religion as compulsion.  My fear is that the wearing of religious symbols may tip the balance away from choice.  


Conflicted as I am, I am a person of faith, and the faith that fits me best is Christianity.  Faith has pulled me through difficult times since I was a young child, and faith continues to sustain me during difficult times now.  But I forget.  I forget to turn it all over to God.  I forget to step outside myself and into the bigger, lighter world that is available to me in faith.  And that, for me, is the strongest argument for wearing my cross.  Because when I look down, I see it, and even if I don’t look down, I know it’s there, and the likelihood that I will respond to external or internal challenges in a way consistent with faith may be higher because of that.  Yet something holds me back, and every morning I opt not to put my delicate cross back on my gold chain.




   
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