|A typical Romanian wagon|
This custom does not come naturally to Orthodox Americans, and the reason is pretty obvious. While one might pass several Orthodox churches in a small Romanian village, and in many of these locales, everything is strung out along one main road. In the U.S., you can easily drive 100 miles between churches, and even so, the Orthodox churches would have to be sought out. In this context, crossing yourself while passing churches is a hard habit to form. When in Romania, at least, I assumed the custom and enjoyed being able to do so.
While driving through Romania, you quickly become accustomed to the ubiquitous Romanian wagons on the roads--long, almost canoe or dug-out shaped carts, open-ended on the rear. Romania is rich agriculturally, but I saw little in the way of mechanized farming. I observed lots of hay and grain being cut by scythes and gathered by hand. Only in Moldova--south of Iasi--did I really see anything in the way of tractors and harvesters and hay bailers. And I did not see a single pickup truck in the country. So these wagons are absolutely necessary for hauling any number of things down the road: hay, equipment, small livestock, children, or mothers-in-law. The sheer number of these one-horse carts does not necessarily imply backwardness. Many of the riders were as modern looking as anyone, perhaps talking on their cell phone as they clip-clop down the road. I did not take advantage of the countless opportunities to snap a photograph of these carts on the back roads of Romania. I have always refused to treat people as if they were quaint photographic props.
I visited seven monasteries in Bucovina alone. The neglected and down-at-its-heels Arbore Monastery was the only one that was not a going concern, with monastics in residence. I pulled off the road and was locking the car before going through the gate. Two carts approached me, each with two adults in the driver's seat and a wagon load of children behind. These Romanians were clearly what we call "country people," a bit poorer in dress than many I saw. As they drew even with the abandoned monastery, all of them--and there were ten to twelve altogether--started crossing themselves. As each of them did it three times, it was a bit hard to miss!
No doubt, some readers will shake their heads over this, dismissing it as a silly superstition, if not an outright cultish practice. Well, I will reject the superstition argument out of hand, but I fully embrace the accusation of cultishness. Christopher Dawson, one of the greatest historians of the last century (or any other century, for that matter), always maintained that the "cultus" (the cult, or religion, if you will) came first. From this foundation, a culture emerged. Given enough time and favorable condition, the culture could blossom into an actual civilization. But then something very interesting sometimes happens. The civilization, in its hubris, thinks that it was self-creating, and its verities self-evident. Having no more need for the cult, it kicks it away. Of course, what happens next is what always happens when a foundation is destroyed--the superstructure begins to crumble and fragment. This fragmentation is where we are now as a country--albeit with the appearance of a myriad of new cults. But they are all cults of Self, and offer no foundation with any real permanence.
Romania has lots of problems. Four millions of its citizens live elsewhere, in order to simply survive. The country needs good governance, jobs and security--and of course, by this I mean jobs offering a livable wage. But as long as their citizens still cross themselves while passing their churches, I wonder if they don't have strengths that elude us in our bracing age.