An Orthodox Family

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Yesterday, at least two of the comments on the post about my son’s birthday asked questions about the family and Orthodox conversion. This is extremely close to my heart – both because of the blessings we have enjoyed in our family – and the blessings and difficulties I have seen in others. I should quickly add that my own family then and now faces issues.

In 1998, myself, my wife, my three daughters and one son were received into the Orthodox Church by Chrismation. My wife and I were 44, my children 17, 15, 10 and 6. The two oldest girls had known of our intention to convert for nearly two years before and were somewhat prepared, though at least one of them was caught off-guard by unexpected grief (or this is how I understood her difficulties). The younger two did relatively well (I shared my son’s story in my previous post).

Several years before we converted my wife’s youngest brother and family had been received into the Orthodox Church in my wife’s hometown – both through conversations with us and by their own study and prayer.

In September of 2003, my parents were Chrismated at age 79 in the OCA parish in their hometown. They had been Episcopalian for about 15 or so years prior to that. We continue to have conversations with others in the family and I would generally say the subject is no longer a point of pain or argument. God will do whatever He will do.

I share all of that as background on some general observations. The issue of family is frequently one of the most problematic and least discussed difficulties in coming to the Orthodox faith. I believe that one of the things it most reveals is how individualized most families are in their approach to religious faith.

It is, of course, not unusual for a family to be members of the same Church. But in our American religious landscape that common membership may only mask a wide range of differences on religious matters within the same family. Terry Mattingly, the religion columnist (and my godson), has written that the “great dividing line in American religion runs down the middle of the pews.”

This is sometimes made manifest when certain topics are broached and opinion in the family suddenly becomes polarized. It is also manifest in the fact that many if not most families have little or no common life of prayer.

It is on this latter point that I usually begin when I am counseling someone about family and the Orthodox faith. In my own household, common prayer at the end of the evening with the children began in the early ’90’s. That is over 10 years after my ordination as an Episcopal priest. I can offer no excuse for why my family did not have a common prayer life outside of the services of the Church before then. We did not have them in the home in which I grew up. I did not see them in other homes. There was even a section in the Prayer Book for just such prayers (leaving me with less excuse).

Some things began to happen to us as a family that brought about our common prayers. The first was we made a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine. The result of that was that we began to pray the Rosary each night.

Later as my knowledge of Orthodoxy grew, we set up a prayer corner with icons, a place for candles, and began to do prayers in an Orthodox manner. We stumbled across music for some of the prayers and thus my family (all of whom have always been involved with music in one form or another) became a choir as we offered our prayers each evening. I recall an evening that the Antiochian priest, Fr. Gordon Walker, was passing through Knoxville and gave me a call. He said he was more tired than expected and asked if he could stay the night with us (I think it was also an opportunity for him to continue the conversations we had been having about my possible conversion). He came and was completely surprised at our evening prayers when we began complete four-part Russian harmonies. “You sound better than some Churches!” he exclaimed. I still miss that part of family prayer as the children have grown up and gradually moved out. Today our common prayer life is largely within the services of the Church – but I think our conversion would have been far more difficult without the prayers that became such a part of our family during those preparatory years.

When I speak with others who are considering Orthodoxy, the first place I tend to start is with the suggestion of common prayer. How can a family reach a common mind with regard to conversion if there is no life of common prayer? The grace of God makes all things possible so that I realize this doesn’t happen in all situations – but it is always a very important place to consider starting.

I even believe that the form of the prayers need not necessarily be Orthodox (at least with a capital “O”). The importance is to pray and to pray together. A common mind is a spiritual gift and is a constant refrain in the Epistles of the New Testament. But for that gracious gift to be present, I believe that common prayer is pretty much an absolute.

Along with this I would counsel patience. Grace can work in a wonderfully swift manner, but more often it seems to work in a manner that takes time. I suppose it’s the nature of the human heart.

I have always told inquirers who found themselves in an “uneven” position, that at the very least I wanted their encounter with the Orthodox Church to be something that strengthened their family even if they did not convert. I have received spouses separately and at different times into the faith, but thus far I do not think I have had a case of someone entering the Church over the objections of a spouse.

I am also aware of the Scriptures about “hating father and mother” and “leaving family,” stated in various ways – but these more extreme statements of Christ, it seems to me, are not the first place to begin when dealing with family and conversion. If husband and wife are one flesh we can hope for more than animosity and division.

Again, I think that it is appropriate to start small. Children who have had little or no common prayer in the home do not suddenly need to be introduced to 30 minutes of Compline. You’ll likely just have bored and angry children.

We began with the “Trisagion Prayers” and usually concluded with some small litany that allowed us to pray for the various needs in our lives. The younger children immediately liked the idea of lighting a candle (or more than one) for prayers, though it did occasion some disruption when disagreements about whose turn it was to light or blow them out arose.

My wife is also a voracious reader and loves to read aloud. Thus she began to add stories from the lives of the saints to her other nightly reading for the children. When she can make me sit down she still loves to read saints’ lives aloud.

We added to our prayers the various manual acts of devotion common in Orthodoxy. We crossed ourselves (in an Orthodox manner – right to left), learned how to venerate an icon and thus greeted our icons at the end of our prayers. These practices in the home meant that when we visited Orthodox Churches (which we did on the four Sundays a year I had as vacation while in the Episcopal Church) we understood the etiquette and felt at home with others in their prayers and actions.

My family’s case is unusual in several respects. I was a clergyman and we took a number of years in the process of converting. By God’s grace and the generosity of others we were able to remain in the same community we had lived in for 9 years previous, keeping our house. Thus converting did not mean moving to new home and schools – something that would have undoubtedly been disruptive and a distraction in the lives of our teenagers particularly. But I believe that God is the master of these things and did for us what was necessary for our salvation.

If you are considering the Orthodox faith, and you are in a family, consider as well the common life of your home. Pray and establish a spiritual center within the family. From that place grace will flow and many issues may dissipate and disappear as you go along. My experience also tells me that those who seek conversion frequently find themselves under spiritual attack (our enemy does not wish us anything good). Thus a family’s grounding in a life of common prayer is of even greater importance and necessity.

There’s more to say on this topic and I promise to revisit it from time to time. I would welcome any specific suggestions of related issues to write about, as well as thoughts on what I have offered here.

22 comments:

  1. Thank you, Father Stephen. This — family prayer — is good advice for all aspects of Christian living, not just to clarify the issue of conversion. I especially like the idea of the family choir. I will get some of the liturgical music from our church.

  2. Great post, Fr Stephen. I agree that the prayer time is essential/wonderful. I have done many things wrong in parenting my children (10,6,3), but one thing we always do is have family prayer every evening before the youngest goes to bed. We have sung on occasion, but it isn’t a regular part of our routine as of now.

    Your discussion of the issues regarding family during conversion strikes home, as well.

  3. Thank you, Fr Stephen. First let me introduce myself — I’ve been reading your blog (with much gratitude!!) for a couple months, ever since I heard your talk from the Faith of Our Fathers conference. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and for your ‘irenic’ spirit, as you put it last week.

    I’m wondering if you’d have any advice for those considering converting to Orthodoxy whose parents are against it, to the point of blatantly calling it idolatry and ‘false religion’? A good friend of mine is in this position and I’d be interested in hearing anything you might have to say on the issue.

    Thanks again for a fabulous blog.

  4. Do you or Matushka have any specific recommendations for books on the lives of saints that you think are best for smaller children? It seems many of them are written for teenagers and up…
    Spasibo.
    A.S.

  5. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for addressing this issue. You may recall that I wrote you about this topic several months ago. At the time, you suggested a rule of prayer. I am happy to report that we’ve started, and it seems to be going well. We light a candle, read the lectionary passages, sing a song, and close with a prayer. So far so good.

    Whether we convert or not, I decided that it was imperative that I, as the head of the household and model of Christ for my family, take charge of my children’s religious education.

    Pray for me, a sinner.

  6. Alyssa,

    I’ll ask Beth for suggestions. The Photo is of my Father and Mother at their Chrismation, btw. He and mom are now in Assisted Living. Getting around is difficult. Remember Jim and Nancy in your prayers if you will. They are doing well but age is slowly taking away so much.

  7. I try to pray each day, and would love to have my husband join me. I feel regret coming from him. He is dyslexic and doesn’t read well. Even if I do all the reading he has only joined me once or twice in prayer. I have tried to get him to turn off the telly, even just record that show and we’ll watch later but this is a major frustration. So I don’t pray if he is home (he works shifts)…
    There is always a struggle somewhere.
    Christ is Risen!
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  8. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your encouragement to pray, and to pray as family. Our Lord is the lover of mankind and He is always present, but it is often only during prayer that we humans “officially” recognize His Presence. He blesses us constantly! I pray for courage and perseverance for us all!

  9. Thank you Fr. Stephen for suggesting this. A few weeks ago I posted a comment on your blog asking for help in finding more about Orthodoxy in my area (Oklahoma). You and several of your commenters had some excellent recommendations that were very helpful. I am now attending an Antiochian Orthodox church and will begin classes as a catechumen this Saturday. Anyway, I have a 15 year old daughter still at home and I’m hoping she will go to class with me. I will try to begin praying with her. She always liked doing the Advent wreath so I think she might go for it.

  10. This subject will become increasingly important as more and more converts come to Orthodoxy.

    For a church that has not been use to adult conversions on a large scale for some time now, I think this one pastoral challenge will cause much soul searching and prayer among our bishops and priests.

    I watched a man almost loose his sanity as he struggled to convert to Orthodoxy while his wife, whom he loved dearly, fought tooth and nail against his conversion. In the end a wise priest told him to preserve his home and pray for his wife.

    Their story isn’t over yet, and the man still desires to convert, but he wants his wife with him. I have lived too loong to pass judgment on this man’s struggles or his wife’s, but I am convinced these pastoral realities will increase.

    Father, your suggestion about a home prayer rule is vital. May God give us the strength to listen and obey.

  11. We have had a few families that took time to convert precisely because there was as yet no common mind in the matter. The lack of pressure and arguing, etc., coupled with prayer, has been a blessings in their lives. St. Paul speaks of himself as a wise master-builder. We could all be patient with one another and take the time to build wisely. God is a good God and loves mankind. He is not nervous, but He is a longsuffering God, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. We can trust Him.

  12. We read the day’s saints from the Prologue as well as the day’s lectionary readings. Despite being Orthodox for 8 or 9 years, we just started. And we don’t have an icon corner or do any singing. I’m a very slow Orthodox 😉

    But I have found that the readings are very helpful. Whenever we come across a saint whose relics are kept in a particular place, my wife and children (10, 8, 6, 2) make an immediate connection: “We should visit someday.”

    This, the Trisagion prayers, and Psalm 51 make up our daily morning ritual. I’m sure we’ll change it over time, but I’d like to get these firmed up first. The other daily ritual is that I will pray a blessing over my children at night. If I forget, at least one is sure to ask for it.

    When my father (not Orthodox, somewhat anti-Orthodox) was visiting, he was very impressed with our readings. But we started just before his visit began.

    It is especially helpful to read together since it gives us valuable time to discuss issues of faith. My middle daughter even took up praying before her icon (Theodora) at night.

    Before I was Orthodox, I had a vague sense of the importance of family prayer. It has taken me a long time since my conversion to really incorporate small bits of orthopraxis into my life. But it does happen over time. Having the example of the church and its saints encourages me to dive in deeper and offers some structure for our spiritual life.

  13. Fr.,

    My four children are small — from 6.5 yrs. down to 9 months — and most nights our evening prayers are interrupted by several “accidental” bumpings-into-one-another or someone who is too tired to stand before the icons, or a baby that bites someone’s ankle during the Creed. It’s a bit chaotic, but we trust that this nightly routine, which includes a reading from the calendar and talking about a Saint with the older two while the younger ones explore the floor, will yield benefits over time.

    We’ve also realized that this routine is gradually instilling within our children the ability to concentrate on a solemn task and to be still and quiet for longer periods of time. Our six year old seems to becoming more contemplative, as well.

    I say all that just to say that I completely agree with you. Since my wife and I are still catechumens, we have found that this prayer life to be immensely vital in our journey toward chrismation.

    I’d encourage others out there with small children to begin “letting them in on this gem of the Church” early on; get them involved consistently in your family prayers. It’s difficult, and I’m sure my wife and I are not doing it perfectly, and God knows not always perfectly consistently, but we are starting to see small transfigurations as a result in the lives of our dear children.

    Father, thank you also for sharing about your extended family. We have hopes for ours as well, although right now communications are strained at best.

  14. When I youngest was a baby in diapers, we used to marvel at the metanias she could make. We would cross ourselves, bow from the waist and touch the floor (semi-prostration). She, on the other hand, simply bowed from the waist and touched her head to the floor. Oh to be flexible!

  15. This post and the subsequent comments are bittersweet for me. I converted to Orthodoxy nearly 3 years ago and nearly got divorced because of it, despite the fact that my husband attended my chrismation and gave his agreement.

    Two years of counseling have passed and we are on stable ground once again. He has found a church he feels comfortable in and “touches [his] soul musically and spiritually.” I can ask for no more. He has no interest in Orthodoxy and thanks be to God does not believe to be heretical or false. In fact, he finds the Liturgy very moving and puzzles over the fact that it “passes so quickly.” However, since he has found “a home” things are much better.

    My children (age 26 & 21) do not understand why I made this choice. My son thinks I am a saint. My daughter was angry for a time, but now sees how emotionally stable I have become and is glad that I have found peace. She has remarked that I am the most faithful Christian she knows. They both, of course, are quite wrong!

    Neither go to church anymore, despite being raised in a Christian, church-going home and that their father is ordained. 🙂

    My friends don’t understand either. Our conversations no longer revolve around Church or faith because it generally ends up with them getting rather hot under the collar about things that I say.

    My parents are glad (they are RC) yet are puzzled why I didn’t go back to Catholicism. Afterall, “it is the ONE true Church” according to my Mother. 🙂

    I love the Orthodox Church despite the problems. As much as I know I am “home,” I also sometimes feel very alone, if you know what I mean.

    For the record, we never prayed with our children except at dinner time.

    The issue faced by converts is a major one in the Church today and I don’t hear much conversation about it. I wonder if I ever will.

    Thank you Father, for your insight. By God’s grace it provides much food for thought and prayer.

    Kissing your right hand.

  16. This is a sweet and important thread. I have come to Orthodoxy not accompanied by my husband, but encouraged and supported by him. He attends occasionally and enjoys the music, Christmas, my chrismation, times I specially ask.

    I think of him when I hear the Gospel, on the Myrhh-bearers’ Sunday, about Joseph of Arimathea, “a member of the council who was himself seeking the kingdom of God.”

    It would be nice to be a story-book Orthodox couple, but God is good to us, and working his will. He can indeed be trusted.

    Prayers for your parents. A wonderful picture. I wasn’t so young when I entered, either!

  17. These are all storybook Orthodox couples – it’s just that the story is that of the Cross and our redemption which is frequently a road with twists and turns and unexpected meetings. I can suggest things to people, especially as they begin this journey, that might be of help, but it is finally a journey of all creation, I believe, because God has “purposed to gather together in one, all things in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 1). I do not think any of us will be able to tell the story, really, until that day. From now til then, there is prayer, faith in a good God, and much patience with one another. And, forgiveness for one and all.

  18. Timing is everything. My priest told me that I needed to have family prayer time despite the fact that my husband and son are not orthodox–it is just me and my daughter. I really had no idea how to even ask my husband about it about it, and was dreading doing so. This has given me some courage and at least now I have a much better idea of the benefits of praying together, and why it can be so beneficial.

  19. Father,

    Do you know of any mp3 files on the Internet which would teach a musically untrained person to sing the Trisagion Prayers? I’d like to gradually introduce communal family prayers into my home, but am sure that it would appeal more to my children if they could be “in the choir”.

  20. There are beginning to be some on the OCA Web site in their music section. I’m not sure if they’ve got settings there of the Trisagion Prayers.

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