Orthodoxy and the Family

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One of the topics not discussed much (even among the Orthodox) is the phenomenon of “mixed families.” I’m not sure if that is the right term, but it’s one I’m using. Among converts to Orthodoxy, many are the only Orthodox in their extended family. Occasionally a husband or wife enters the Church without the other, even though this is discouraged to some extent. Harder still, parents convert while children having already reached adulthood choose not to follow. They have their own lives to live and are working out their own salvation. Holidays make these strains all the more apparent and difficult.

It is not just a convert phenomenon. Many Orthodox families have had children marry outside the faith, or convert to another Church, again leaving the phenomenon of “mixed families.” And, of course, it’s never simple. This is family and the question to love and accept (on some level) is not and cannot be a question.

It is a stronger issue in Orthodoxy (and in Catholicism, I’m sure) since communion is not open outside the Church. Among Protestants, that a sister married a Methodist may be bothersome (depending on what kind of Protestant you are), but not an issue to complicate communion. In the modern ecumenical world, one Protestantism is about the same as another (at least when it comes to sacraments).

In my own family, our journey to Orthodoxy was accompanied by four children, two of them teenagers at the time, two younger. The teenagers could clearly have chosen to do other than they did. That prospect was a frightening thought. Admittedly we sent our children to Orthodox retreats and took them to Orthodox parishes to visit as often as possible for almost four years before we converted. As it turned out (going as slowly as we were), my wife’s younger brother and family converted before we did. Our children entered the Church with us and have made their own home here. Two daughters are married to priests.

I had the privilege of Chrismating my parents at age 80 and take great comfort in the pastoral care they have received in their parish and the Orthodox life they have taken up with due diligence.

I was once told a proverb by a Greek priest, “A monk saves his family for seven generations.” I have no idea what that means. When I first heard it I wondered, “In which direction,” meaning, “For seven generations past or to come?” Of course proverbs are interesting, but are only proverbs.

But hidden in heart of this one is the fact that family is far deeper than the modern world would like us to think. Your mother is not just the owner of the womb you dwelt in for 9 months or so. I shudder when I hear a father referred to as a “sperm donor.” Our culture is not only crude but profoundly deluded.

Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, refers not just to Adam and Eve, and married couples thereafter, it most certainly refers to the family, who are indeed, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” We are connected to one another in ways far deeper than we usually contemplate in our lonely, mobile culture.

In Serbian Orthodoxy, individuals do not so much celebrate their own nameday, but their family’s name day, their “Slava.” It marks the day (with a patron saint) of the family’s acceptance of the Orthodox faith. It is probably hard for even other Orthodox to understand how strongly this family tie is among the Serbs.

But there is a tie that transcends flesh and bone, or at least includes it and goes beyond it. As Fr. Thomas Hopko has noted on several occasions (that I have heard), saints have a way of “clustering.” It takes little more than a cursory glance at the lives of saints to find examples of such clusters. St. Basil the Great – both of his parents are saints, as well as sisters and brothers – they were simply a holy family. Those who are unfamiliar with the Tradition that surrounds Holy Scripture remain unaware of just how “clustered” was the holiness of Christ’s own family. Joachim and Anne (parents of the Virgin Mary), Joseph, his “brothers” – but these are known to most. But with a bit of research you find familial relationships running even to some of the twelve.

I am not certain about the effect of a monk, but it is sufficient to say that a single Savior, can save his family (the human family) to all generations.

But I am also well aware of how connected we remain to one another. My exposure to Church (both the Baptist Church of my childhood and the Anglican Church of my teenage and adult years) were the result of my older brother. He remains an Episcopalian, but ever a close spiritual friend.

What I am personally convinced of, is that I bear my family within me in some sense (not that I can quite explain it). I know that when I enter the altar and pray, I pray for them, remember them, and bear them with me. I could not stand where I stand as if I had been created there on the spot. I have a history and offer it up to God with all that I am. If there is saving grace in such an act, God knows, but it cannot be that prayer is ever without benefit.

For the same reason I pray for my family in generations past. God alone knows how I am marked and shaped by choices they themselves made. We do not stand alone.

This imagery could easily be extended beyond flesh and blood or simply brought back to our remembrance that we are all of one blood. We live in times in which family grows easily complicated. It cannot be uncomplicated by being less united to God. For only confusion lies outside our union with God. But we do well to remember the whole of our family and that of others. We make pilgrimage to God and there are others we would have with us. May God hear our prayers as we carry them in our hearts and bring us all to His heavenly Kingdom.  And may I never forget that I need the prayers of my family probably far more than they need mine.

17 comments:

  1. This winter photo is not of my “family tree,” but is of a tree on one of the family farms. It has seen many generations of my mother’s family in its shade – and remains in the family for at least another generation.

  2. Thanks for mentioning Slava 🙂 My Slava is on 21st November – St. Archangel Michael. That day was always very special in my family.

    I am thankful that you mentioned proverb of greek priest. Of course, we don’t know if it is precise – but even if I understand it metaphorically it gives me lots of strength and hope that if I cannot give my parents material wealth, I can pray for them – and according to this quotation spiritual life is by far greater treasure than material success – and that is quite encouraging. Although perhaps we are not monks, in this proverb a monk metaphorically can signify our periods of intense devotion to the Lord. No sincere effort ends up in vain.

    Our parents were so kind to us, sacrificed so many times their own needs for bringing us up, and therefore we should be very kind, very very nice to them. Aware of the fact that they were the instruments to bring us to earth. So, we should always show them our gratitude, help them and honor them as it is said in Exodus 20:12

    But in those special moments when, usually unexpectedly during the prayer, we feel divine sweetness deep inside our hearts we also spontaneously and lovingly identify with our Lord’s words from Matthew 23:9 and Matthew 10:37

    All Glories to the Lord!

  3. Father Stephen,

    Thank you for these thoughts about Orthodoxy and family. Glory to God!

    As an Orthodox inquirer, I am struggling to convey my love for this ancient faith to my wife and three daughters. It occurred to me in just the past few days that, as the spiritual leader of the family, I pray for God’s mercy not only for myself, but on behalf of my family, much like Job prayed for and consecrated his family, and Noah led his family to safety on the Ark. This may seem elementary to you, but for a protestant American individualist, I am in the habit of thinking of each individual’s relationship to God, rather than the person’s relationship to God through family and community. The spiritual leader of a family has quite a responsibility, it seems to me.

    I am determined not to make the journey to Orthodoxy alone, nor do I wish to lose my wife, as did Lot.

    Pray for me, a sinner.

  4. Dejan,

    I am especially glad you posted a note – with your experience of the Slava, and precisely with your warm-hearted understanding of our families and how much we owe and should pray. This is truly the Orthodox way.

    And Kirk,

    If possible, pray with your family. Small prayers, prayers that will not seem strange to them. But many people who seek to come to Orthodoxy and worry about their families have yet to establish a family prayer life, even a very modest one. That modest prayer life is part of the heart of coming to one mind on spiritual things. This is something I ask all families or individuals whose spouses are reluctant to come with them to begin doing. Strangely, it is not done much in Protestantism, and can feel awkward at first. But I think it is essential.

  5. St. Maria Skobtsova points out that the Trisagion Prayers that we pray every day and in preparation for most services are not individualistic at all.

    “…come and abide in us… have mercy on us… blot out our sin, pardon our iniquities… heal our infirmities… Our Father… our daily bread… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us…”

    Us, we, our. Not me, I, mine.

    I wonder if a lot of this has to do with the way in which we speak of salvation. Christ assumed our nature, us, and set it and us at the right hand of the Father. While we are unique in our own persons (hypostases), we are united insofar as our human nature (ousia) is concerned. I believe St. Maximus the Confessor (who we celebrated yesterday) said something to the effect of, “Christ saved our nature, we must save our persons”. We are connected to each other, this is an assumption behind Orthodox soteriology – and probably the reason how and why people can become so attached to ‘their’ sports team and identify so readily with someone from ‘their’ neighborhood. This seems to be a secular reflection of our very anthropology as similar and unique human persons.

  6. Father Stephen,

    Thanks for your kind comment. I would like to humbly offer one book to you which gives me greatest joy when I read it. It is a collection of 100 prayers written by St. Nikolai Velimirovic (Nikolaj Velimirović) – “Prayers by the Lake”

    You can read it online by clicking the link here, choosing the chapter from drop-down menu (in roman numbers) and clicking OK.

    When he was 29 years old Nikolai already had two PhD’s (one in theology from Bern, Swiss, other in philosophy from Oxford, England), but this book he wrote when he was 42 years old, and you will see that book is poetic and not intellectual. Although intellectual giant, he transcended limited domains of intelect and entered into poetic and spiritual freedom which can be better felt in this book than described.

    To quote his own words

    Accept the sacrifice of my words, my Father — accept the babbling of a penitent child, my Father!

    Correct my words with Your truth, and accept them on the footstool of Your feet.

    Cense my sacrifice with the fragrant incense of a saint’s prayer and do not reject it, O Triradiate Master of worlds.

    The ranks of angels offer You a more eloquent sacrifice, but their words stream to them from You, and return to You, untainted by the repulsiveness of darkness and not throttled in the throat by sin.

    I am poor, and I have nothing else to offer on Your sacrificial altar except these words.

    Even if I were to offer up creatures to You, I would be offering up words. For what are creatures except words. You have filled the entire universe with tongues, which are flames when they lift up praise to You and water — when they whisper Your praises to themselves.

    Indeed, this very book is collection of flaming words that glorify the Lord, that is how I feel it always, it gives me immense joy.

    Thanks again, Father, for writing your blog. It is nice to know that there is blog like this, an oasis of joy and peace, in the blogosphere.

  7. I had been married almost 6 years when I converted to Orthodoxy in 2004. My husband did not convert with me. He was initially hostile to my desire to convert; it put a strain on our marriage. However, by the time I converted he was basically indifferent.

    We adopted a baby boy in March 2005 and, at first, he did not want him baptized Orthodox. I didn’t push the issue. I did, however, pray daily. In January 2006, out of the blue, he told me he thought we should have our son baptized. Our son was baptized into the Orthodox Church on March 11, 2006. My son and I are the only Orthodox in our family.

    My husband still doesn’t have any interest in converting. Although, he did tell me recently that he was interested in sitting down to talk with my priest to ask some questions. He does go with me occasionally to church.

    I know I cannot argue/nag him into the Church. I just pray for him and for our family daily.

    Juliana

  8. Fr, bless.

    How very timely your post is. Today (22nd January; St. Timothy) is one year since my wife and I were united to the Orthodox Church through the Sacrament of Chrismation. Pray for us, Father.

    -Lucas

  9. I love the idea of the “Slava,” Fr Stephen. My wife (with my daughter in her womb) and my son and I were all chrismated and entered the Church on Lazarus Sunday almost two years ago now. I knew that the day would always be special to us as a family. Now I know that it is, in a sense, our Slava. Thank God for that day.

  10. Father, bless,

    As the wife in a mixed family – I am Orthodox, and my husband is not, whose kids struggle with Orthodoxy, I appreciate your thought very much.

    And, I’m contemplating our Slava as well. Thank you.

  11. Father Stephen,

    Thank you for another wonderful post, and one full of meaning for me. I became Orthodox in November 2005 (formerly Church of Christ), but my wife wants no part of it. My son and nephew are very interested, though, and I believe in time they will follow. I just continue to pray for all of them. Thanks, again.

  12. May God bless you all. I’ve been away today, with my father who fractured his pelvis last week. Many thoughts of family these past days.

    Dejan,

    I especially want to thank you for your kind notes and thoughts on St. Nicholai Velimirovich. He served in his last years as Dean of the seminary at St. Tikhon’s here in America and is very dear to the hearts of many here. I also found out this year that he is the Bishop who ordained Fr. Sophrony (Sakharov) who wrote about St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, and that St. Nicholai was a friend and thought highly of St. Silouan (though very few were aware that St. Silouan was such a great saint). I suppose one saint knows another one.

    My St. Nicholai pray for us all!

    Thanks for the link to his writings!

  13. Father Stephen, thanks for the suggestion regarding a regular prayer life. I will work on it.

    John, hang in there. You have made a difference in the lives of more people than you know.

  14. Thanks for mentioning St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. I knew that St. Nikolaj went to the USA (probably because of the communist rule here in that time), but I did not know where exactly, and it would be very interesting for me that I learn more about his years living in America. I wish to hear stories people from there tell about him, I know it would be most inspiring for me. We have to remember that before going to America he was prisoner in concentration camp Dachau – so I guess that after that hell there he was spiritually at his highest in America. I know that he while in Serbia was praying for long periods day and night, no food just water. And when I am reading his books, I feel that he saw such things and felt such heavenly bliss, of which I am not aware of in my life. What sublime hope and joy that fact gives me!

    We, the seekers for salvation, often ask thousands of questions, and it is quite natural. But often I feel that we will not be able to know the answers until we reach certain height. Role of great saints is that they are showing us where are those heights. They were courageous, they kept the faith even when they were in worst possible conditions in outer life, e.g. that Dachau period in St. Nikolai’s life. Great saints are lamps that are shining in the darkness of world ignorance. Nobody is saying that we should have blind faith in them, no, we will all feel joy when we read about this or that saint. We will all have our favourite saint, there were many of them during the history, so someone will give us joy. Childlike joy that we feel when we read about our favourite saint will be our surest compass. Sunflower is always looking towards the sun, and pure heart’s joy always towards the Lord.

    What I feel about saints I will best explain if I invoke here few lines from A Psalm of Life by famous H.W.Longfellow.

    Lives of great men all remind us
    We can make our lives sublime,
    And, departing, leave behind us
    Footprints on the sands of time;

    Footprints, that perhaps another,
    Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
    A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
    Seeing, shall take heart again.

    Saint Nicholai Velimirovich is showing us that one can live in XX century and still by his own effort and by God’s Grace become saint. So it means we humans are closer to the Heart of our Lord Christ than we think. What good news, what good news! Lord has not left us alone.

    Thank you Father Stephen for everything. I wish your father all the best, perhaps he should take more calcium now, please consult the doctors. And yes, if you know some story about St. Nicholai from America please share in some of your next posts. I would appreciate that very much.

    Greetings from Belgrade, Serbia

    Dejan

  15. Father,

    I wrote a comment, but since I included more than 2 hyperlinks in it – wordpress automatically qualified it as a spam, and put it in queue for comment moderation, instead of publishing it here.

    Please, go to Comments -> Awaiting Moderation
    in order to read and publish my comment.

    I was not aware of these hypelinks issue until now – otherwise I would just put addresses in brackets, without hyperlinking them.

    I wrote more detailed post on my blog about comment moderation, to help other people who experienced similar situation, and do not know what to do.

    God Bless!

    Dejan

  16. Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Our family (husband,16 year old son, Stephen and 14 year old, Clare) have had a bumpy journey. Right now, I am the only one who is Orthodox. Dear Clare is coming along, through the prayers of the Theotokos. Through this struggle, our sweet Saviour has given me the blessing and opportunity to start to learn patience and humility. I had the great joy of hearing you speak at St. Seraphim’s in Memphis, TN. Please pray for us.
    Glory be to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

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