Contemplatives in Confinement: Our Lonely, Messy, Beautiful Home Church

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

[All photos by Rob Horner, who is stuck at home with me and needs to stay busy.]

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).

 

 

5 comments:

  1. I appreciate your post very much. After being Orthodox for a few years, and after a rather dramatic search that left me with Orthodoxy as my last hope, I’m realizing how bad I am at being Orthodox at home and how much I rely on the Church, being in the Church Temple, to focus.

    I confessed to my Priest that I have had almost no interest in online liturgies. That on a Wednesday night, it feels easier to pack everyone up and go to Vespers than to pray for 5 minutes together at home. The little church at home is obviously in need of repair here, or more likely, construction.

    And I hope by the end of this lockdown, we will have made some changes here. I have asked our clergy, when topics for classes have been solicited, to have some class on an ideal Orthodox home. The reaction seemed like, “we have no idea what that would look like” from one of the Deacons.”

    Our children are very attentive, at least they seem that way, during the services. At home, there is always someone distracting, misbehaving, My realization I guess is, it’s much easier to be Orthodox in the Temple than it is at home – and this shouldn’t be so – and I’ve felt that more than ever.

    As much as I criticize the culture for the sake of my children, to be aware of the way the world thinks, and as much as I want them to know why and what they believe, I realize I fail in putting together or into action some protocol for life lived. The fallbacks are the same as the culture, TV, and whatever distracts the attention so that it is occupied and there is some “peace”. But it’s not really peace, it’s distraction. What a difference that we equate, that I equate all of the time. And so, having said prayers, it is just the turn you have to make to get on to distractions again.

    On top of this, I do not handle “lack of peace” well. I am not creative in steering my children, though it might be simple with other people’s children if I had the same task with strangers, into thinking, or reflecting, or inspiring interest in the things of God. But it is not because I am not creative, it’s because I don’t use my creativity.

    I don’t know what all of this reveals except, there’s problems. I’m not depressed or downcast over all of this, I know improvements can be made and I in no way expect something perfect. If nothing else I realize sloth to be a very deadly sin. Sloth is really not laziness, but avoiding that which causes a disruption in internal “peace” which is really just distraction – because if we really had “peace” we wouldn’t rely so much on distraction.

    Okay, now I can copy and paste this to my Priest for confession :).

    God bless you sister,
    Matthew Lyon

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Matthew. I think this struggle is true for all of us, in different ways, and God is using the difficulties of this Lent and Holy Week to show us where we’ve missed the mark. We have such an opportunity here! I like this quote about struggle from Abbot Nikon Vorobiev: “If he fights sin and is wounded but continues the struggle, repents, asks forgiveness and help from God, then he is a holy soldier of Christ. In this battle with sin he acquires many spiritual treasures which he could not do otherwise.” (Abbot Nikon: Letters to Spiritual Children, p.113)

    2. Dear Matthew,
      Christ is Risen!

      I’m a ‘28 year married’, 47-year old mother of 6 (mostly grown) children. and two grandchildren..not that I’m counting; two is quite more than I’d ever expected. One of my sons is a monk and another preparing to be a monastic…the fifth child, a girl, wants to be a Nun, or a Nurse. We shall see. One piece of simple, pleasantly rewarding advice (that I took, surprisingly- even to me..)
      originated from our Bishop, 25 years ago. I listened.
      HE SAID: “Pray. Do not make your children pray. When you are REALLY praying, they will pray too.” I took his advice. I prayed and prayed and prayed some more. Repeated this, day after day, month and into years…I now have children who’d rather pray than eat. It worked. It actually worked. So how, 25 years later, when the we are in a “shelter-in-place” shut down, our children pray. Livestream liturgies and services are “do-able” not easy, but it’s feeding us- literally. Christ Himself comes to us. Took some work and a bit of faith on my part, but just pray….you first, then them.

      Love and HOPE in Christ,
      Elizabeth

  2. Lynnette, Thank you so much for your words, pictures, and words that paint pictures!! I am new to your blog and l am so thankful for having stumbled upon it . We married in the Orthodox Church but promptly left for 20 yrs as l married a non Orthodox!! Fast fwd 20 yrs and this same man brought his bride back home as a retread and himself as a convert !! All thru the prayers of my Greek Mama (of blessed Memory) who became my husband’s sponsor!! Our then older teens thought we had flipped our lids!! It’s been over 18 years and we are still learning !! This Lent has been quite challenging yet we know God is always with us. Thank you for sharing your love and faith with us. May God grant you and your family His abundant mercies!!

    1. “Retread”! I’m still laughing. 😂 Thank you, Andrea, for your kind words. What a beautiful story of being welcomed home for both of you. In these unusual times, may you have a meaningful Holy Friday and a blessed Pascha!

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