I excel at armchair theology. Philosophizing is one of my spiritual gifts. As I sit on the sofa with a profitable book or listen to a live audio-stream of a sermon, I nod in agreement at the ancient Christian concept of the home as a “little church.”
Oh, yes. Such a wonderful expression of Ortho-doxy, “straight teaching.” So spiritual. So intellectually satisfying. I wholeheartedly approve of the idea of our little home church.
But that doesn’t mean I want to be stuck here.
More Theory, Please
Excuse me while I brush the potato chip crumbs off the sofa cushion before I sit.
As I was saying, the idea of the home as a “little church” permeates the Orthodox understanding of family living. Each year between Theophany and Great Lent, we schedule appointments with the priest to come and bless our homes. He sprinkles holy water in every room of the house—the home altar, of course, but also the laundry room, the messy walk-in closet, and the kids’ bedrooms with Legos buried like sharp little landmines in the carpet. In the home, there are no “secular” spaces. Every space is sacred.
In a beautiful part of the Orthodox marriage ceremony—Caitlin, could you please put your plate and fork in the dishwasher and not on the counter above it?—the priest places crowns on the heads of the bride and groom. These are martyr’s crowns because of the sacrifices they must make for one another, but the newly married couple are also crowned as king and queen of their new household, their “little church.”
It’s a beautiful vision of the home. A noble one. But now that I am trapped in our little church, sheltering at home in our little church, streaming online services in our little church that desperately needs a fresh coat of paint in the kitchen, my efforts at little-church administration seem anything but beautiful.
Facing Reality’s Dust Bunnies
In the here and now of a global pandemic, the reality of Ortho-praxy, of practicing this right teaching about home as church and work as prayer and God as being everywhere present and filling all things, with sometimes way too much family closeness… Well, it’s all hitting quite literally too close to home.
With the spaghetti sauce baked onto the stovetop and loads of dishes stacked in the sink because of cooking and eating every meal at home, the words of St. John Chrysostom are inspiring and, depending on the time of day, annoying:
The family as the “home church” functions as a place of spiritual healing of passions, just as a true cenobitic monastery operates within Orthodoxy. Daily life, cohabitation, marriage (pulling a yoke together), and life in general of the “home church” refines character, broadens a narrow heart, and teaches that without love in Christ and effort, family life is merely resting on loose and fragile foundations and is easily in danger of being lost from moment to moment. — St. John Chrysostom
Yeah, well, this is all very spiritual and intellectually satisfying straight teaching and all, but I’m guessing that somebody else washed St. John’s dishes.
Oh, great. My peevish thoughts are now illustrating the narrowness of my heart. *heavy sigh*
I’m having a Lenten moment, and I don’t like it at all.
Experiencing the Church of the Home, Here and Now
In our home, the icon corner is on the east wall of the living room, an area suitable for visitors that stays mostly clean. The vigil lamp burns day and night, refilled with olive oil before breakfast and after dinner. We say our morning prayers here almost daily, and occasionally evening prayers (not my strongest discipline). Rob and I stand in front of our home altar to pray during times of great need.
But with Holy Week upon us, our home altar is expanding. At the dinner table, we eat leftover pieces of blessed bread and join a parish-wide effort of reading and discussing the day’s chapter of Tending the Garden of Our Hearts by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger.
Our conversation sounds a bit like an Adult Ed class at church, because our home is a little church.
We are streaming the daily services from the laptop to the television screen, and we have prepared the family room to allow us to participate rather than simply spectate. When the service begins and our church’s iconostasis fills the TV screen, we place our icon of Christ Almighty and the “sweet kissing” icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ child on the left and the right.
Our family room looks a little bit like our church, because our home is a little church.
In the past, we seldom used our home censer; now during every online service we light the charcoal and add a few nuggets of incense. The familiar fragrance of the sacred temple fills our home.
Our family room smells like church, because our home is a little church.
The Bridegroom services vary from one night to the next, filled with profound words commemorating the last days of our Lord’s earthly life. As we follow the hymns on our cell phones, we listen to the priests and the chanter, and we sing along as best we can.
Our family room echoes with music like the church, because our home is a little church.
Last Friday, after the evening Compline service on YouTube, our priests demonstrated how to fold crosses using construction paper. Our paper crosses now stand in a glass along with the dried-out palm crosses from previous years.
The floral department at my local grocery store carries pussy willow branches in springtime, so we followed the Russian tradition, displaying a vase full of them while we watched the Palm Sunday service, chanting along.
On that day three people of German-English-Prussian extraction stood worshipping together. Yet our family room looked a little bit like a Russian church, because our home is a little church.
Seeing Church in a New Light
After driving to our church to help out with the video streaming, my husband brought home twelve beeswax candles from the narthex. I positioned them in the form of a cross inside the sand-filled top of a shoebox. On Thursday night, when a passage is read from the Passion Gospels, we will light each candle along with the candles at church.
On that night, our family room will glow with light that points us to Christ, because our home is a little church.
Then, and now in this imperfect moment, the light shines on the blobs of spaghetti sauce and on the potato chip crumbs. It shines on the rug in need of vacuuming and on the hearts of three people trying to tame their thoughts as they worship the One who suffered, who died, who rose again.
The light shines on family members who uttered careless words a few hours earlier. It shines on us as we apologize and forgive one another.
The light shines as we prostrate ourselves along with the Prayer of St. Ephraim. We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up. We stumble, and we rise to newness of life.
And here, in the midst of the mess, with “love in Christ and effort,” armchair theory becomes reality. And it’s beautiful, even in isolation and imperfection.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5 RSV).