“Your grandma tells me you are Christian.”
These were the words spoken to me by Judy, Grandma’s paid helper who comes once a week to do whatever needs doing. She’s a middle-aged woman who is a full-time nanny; she does grandma’s bidding on her day off. Judy and Grandma had just returned from an outing to the doctor. Judy’s statement lingered in the air between us: she put it out there, but I wasn’t quite ready to receive it. Of all my characteristics Grandma might have mentioned, this is what she selected?
“Interesting,” I said. Maybe Grandma had a point: perhaps I was a Christian whether I chose to be or not. It didn’t matter if I accepted Jesus as God. It didn’t even matter if I went to church. Some essence that trumps anything I might believe or do has been passed down through generations. I am Christian because as far back as anyone knows, my family has been Christian.
I don’t know if it was her getting older or my religious explorations but since I had been in town, Grandma’s Christian identity had cranked up a notch. She acted horrified by the fact that I had never in my life attended an Eastern Orthodox service. “How is that possible?” she asked incredulously. You never took me, I wanted to say.
Now that Grandma was almost 90, she had a good excuse for never going to church. She said the service started too early and lasted too long. Standing was expected during certain portions of the ceremony, which she could no longer manage. For these reasons, I gave up on the idea that she and I would attend a service together. It seemed strange to go without her, so I ditched the notion of going at all. I thought it was ironic that of all the faiths and denominations I had visited, I would be missing the one that was perhaps most closely associated with my family. I made my peace with this fact. Then, early one Sunday morning, Grandma shuffled into my bedroom in her nighty. “Let’s go to church today,” she said. I looked at her through one squinted eye. I had other plans for that morning, but I wiped them away. If Grandma wanted me to take her to church, by all means, I would do so.
The issue that divides the Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church is reminiscent of the main division within Islam. The Orthodox Church refused the authority of the pope, who Catholics considered infallible. Orthodox Christians rejected the notion that a person could possess an essence, passed down by blood or some other invisible source of transference, which made his relationship to the divine more profound than that of an ordinary person.
This same idea has been hotly contested among Muslims, and it created the Sunni vs. Shiite rift. After Muhammad’s death, a dispute erupted over who should become the next leader of the ummah. Some believed Muhammad had intended his successor to be his cousin Ali, who had been a faithful member of the ummah from the beginning. No one could deny Ali’s loyalty, but others thought Muhammad had specifically wanted to avoid appointing a leader who was related to him by blood. Perhaps he feared his legacy would become like a monarchy where leaders who ascend based on a birthright are assumed to possess an intangible quality that makes them special. This could threaten the equality among members he worked so hard to establish and inspire a devotion that should be reserved for Allah alone. People in this camp believed Muhammad would want his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to take over.