by Greg Cook
Let us raise our children in such a way that they can face any trouble, and not be surprised when difficulties come; let us bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord…. When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving, to be generous, to love their fellow men, to regard this present age as nothing, we instill virtue in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them. This, then, is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ’s judgment-seat?
– St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 6:1-4
From the very beginning of the Church, Christians have accepted the family as a gift from God for the purposes of spousal love, mutual care, instruction and raising of children, and spiritual life. In Christ, the family becomes not merely an aggregation of related individuals, but a miniature church and icon of the body of Christ. As such, family members are called to bear one another’s burdens and to be at peace as persons and as a group of persons in communion. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church teaches that the family is central to the gospel; she teaches this truth through holy scripture, prayer and liturgy, the writings of the church fathers, and the lives of its saints.
One theme running through this teaching is the need for families to live at peace within themselves. This requires constant prayerfulness and repentance on the part of all involved. Living in the family, we are known in a unique way in a broad range of experience: emotions, habits, crises and stages of growth. As Frederica Mathewes-Green puts it, “Being thoroughly known, yet loved anyway, is life’s greatest joy. But it lies on the other side of this thorny divide: you must allow yourself to be thoroughly known.”
We are called to love one another and be at peace both because of and in spite of revelations about our flawed personhood, because we are created in the image and likeness of Our Lord. Quite simply, we are called to love one another as Christ loves us, not according to how we “feel.” This is the Gospel message of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The early Christians received numerous examples from scripture about keeping peace in the family, beginning with the bloody story of Cain and Abel, and including the strife in King David’s family. Indeed, although the scriptures include numerous injunctions about obedience, order and fruitful instruction within the family, they are also replete with examples of the effects of sin and the ravages of unchecked passions. We see that grace, repentance and forgiveness are the keys to peace in the family.
One example comes from the book of Genesis, where Joseph’s envious brothers sell him into slavery. They are upset because their father Jacob favors the young Joseph, who is also blessed with prophetic powers. Joseph endures humiliations and imprisonment, yet when he is in a position to exact revenge, he instead chooses to save his brothers. A second example comes from the book of Hosea. Although Hosea’s wife Gomer is unfaithful, he humbles himself to go purchase her and restore the family. In both examples, the aggrieved party would have been in the right under the laws of their time to either renounce the other family members or exact vengeance. They could also have continued to heap the transgressions of the offenders back on their heads, thus perpetuating the breach in the family. Both Joseph and Hosea serve as types of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to reconcile people to one another and to God.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches about peace and reconciliation in the family. Yet he acknowledges that strife may come. He speaks about the Gospel as potentially dividing relatives. Another example is found in what is perhaps the message par excellence about peace in the family, the parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal squanders his inheritance in a distant land. Finally he returns to his family, but with no expectation of enjoying any privileges as a son. The father welcomes him back, bestowing forgiveness and grace upon the repentant son. Jesus does not stop here, though. He also mentions a dutiful older son made envious of the prodigal’s warm welcome. Grace — precisely because it is undeserved — may stir up jealous feelings in the hearts of others. (Many parents can tell stories of how their children expect the strictest equality when it comes to bestowing and receiving favors or punishment.)
Our Lord’s own family is a good example of the struggle for peace. Joseph nearly divorced Mary when he learned of her pregnancy, before the angel told him of the divine nature of her child. The key to the Lord’s teaching is that God must be the family’s focus. In his epistles, St. Paul expands on the practical ways of loving God and one another: his key is mutual submission, along with the realization that the family is a mini-church or body of Christ.
Through the centuries, the church has expressed itself in worship through prayer. Since God is our focus and the sustainer of our lives, there are prayers for nearly any situation, and some of those prayers deal directly with family life. For instance, in the Pocket Prayer Book published by the Antiochian Archdiocese we find “A Prayer of Parents For Their Children and For Relatives and Friends,” “A Prayer of Married Persons,” and “A Prayer of a Child.” All these implore God to bring peace into troubled hearts and for peace among persons in the family. Likewise, the questions for self-examination before confession help us to see if we have fulfilled our responsibilities towards parents and others in the family.
The Fathers of the Church give us much practical advice on how to maintain peace in the family. St. John Chrysostom declares that parents should create peace in the family by preventive means: to lay a foundation for peace rather than wait for strife to break out and then address it.
“It is helpful for everyone to know Scriptural teachings,” writes St. John Chrysostom, “and this is especially true for children. Even at their age they are exposed to all sorts of folly and bad examples from popular entertainments. Our children need remedies for all these things! We are so concerned with our children’s schooling. If only we were equally zealous in bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord! And then we wonder why we reap such bitter fruit when we have raised our children to be insolent, licentious, impious, and vulgar. May this never happen. Instead, let us take to heart Paul’s admonition to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Most of all, let us give them a pattern to imitate.”
Sometimes people come to belief in Christ later in life and so their children are not raised in a climate of faith; or, through disobedience of God and pursuit of worldly gain, children and parents may become embroiled in strife. Regardless, there are still God-centered ways of conduct which may help foster peace in the family. We see examples of this in the lives of many saints.
The Serbian Saint Sava experienced much pain and suffering due to power struggles and envy in his family, and yet — through God’s abundant grace — peace was restored. Although Sava’s parents were God-fearing and Orthodox, it was not until later in life that they truly dedicated themselves to God. Sava actually fled from his parents to enter the monastic life, but he was later reconciled to them. All three lived blessed ascetic lives in the monastic ranks; Sava’s two brothers, however, fought for control of the Serbian lands. Fr. Daniel Rogich, in The Serbian Patericon, writes that “The state of affairs in Serbia had been quite poor ever since Simeon’s [Serbian ruler and Sava's father] departure in 1196: there was little religious leadership, and the brothers [sons of Simeon, brothers of Sava] Stephen and Vukan were locked in a terrible fratricidal struggle for political rule of the kingdom.” But the saint knew what he must do to save his family and people.
“When he returned,” the Patericon continues, “Sava brought with him the medicine to heal the entire situation: the relics of his father, [St.] Simeon . Sava invited his two brothers to a Memorial Service for their father. As the casket was opened, before their eyes the body of their father was found to be sweet-smelling, exuding a fragrant oil and myrrh, warm and aglow, looking very much alive, as if he were only restfully sleeping. This act of veneration of their father was the first step in healing the fraternal schism between Vukan and King Stephen. Shortly thereafter, the civil war was halted and a peace agreement was drawn up.”
This reliance on God and veneration of his father also helped heal a breach between Sava and the king over Stephen’s political flirtations with Rome. Stephen eventually returned to Orthodoxy and was even tonsured a monk shortly before his death. (Sadly, his sons also fought for control of the throne, and Sava was only partially successful in reconciling them.)
There is a temptation for believers and non-believers alike to sigh and say of stories about saints, “Fine, but what about me?” The implication is that saints are not really human, hence their achievements are unattainable by ordinary mortals. Fortunately we have other examples from both literature and “real life” about the possibilities of peace in the family.
As is the case with most aspects of life and the Orthodox faith, Dostoevsky gives us many splendid examples of efforts to bring peace to families. In The Brothers Karamazov, we are introduced to a family best described (using a common term from our own time) as dysfunctional. The brothers suffer from the death of both mothers, estrangement from their father and each other, the existence of a malevolent bastard child of their father’s, and haggling over money and inheritance. Despite these impediments, there are efforts within the family to create bonds of peace and to heal old wounds. Book II of the novel begins with a “peace conference” at the local monastery. The family hopes that the holy surroundings will help the peace process. Alas, the attempt at reconciliation founders on the pride of some of those involved and the buffoonery of the father. It is a fateful event because the family goes on to splinter for a time, culminating in the murder of the father. But then grace begins its work. The oldest son, Dimitri, accused of murdering his father, repents of his sins and begins the process of spiritual healing. Ivan, the intellectual, is torn away from his rebellion against God and dalliance with devils. Alyosha, the youngest, puts into practice the lessons learned from his starets Zosima and works to bring grace, hope and love to his family and others he knows. The brothers are reconciled in God, even though they must endure pain and suffering in the process.
Not everyone accepts literature as a valid guide for life, and so we must also look at real life examples of ways to bring peace to the family. Stories told about the hieromonk and starets Fr. Arseny provide us with examples of “ordinary” Christians persevering in the faith even under the most trying circumstances. One such example comes to us from the book Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses. The story concerns Yuri and Kyra, two of Fr. Arseny’s spiritual children. When they asked for his blessing for them to marry, the starets told them, “Carry each other’s burdens and in that way fulfill the law of Christ.” This is what they did over the course of many years. During World War II, Yuri served in the Ministry of Defense, and during that time Kyra became pregnant by another man. When he returned from the war, Yuri came back not only to his wife but her child from adultery. He relates in his story that his parents had not condemned her when she went to them, pregnant. She writes the same in her story. There were hard years for them of emotional turmoil, during which they raised the girl Katia and a boy they adopted. At one point the couple prayed before an icon of the Holy Theotokos, and Yuri’s heart melted within him.
“I knelt before her [Kyra] and said, ‘Forgive me! I have been in the wrong, there will be no more of this artificial separateness. You know that I love you. My behavior has been the result of pride. This is certainly not what Father Arseny taught us, I lifted her up, stood her in front of me, and kissed her. It was all resolved. We had our faith, our children who united us and our love, a gift from God. I had been wrong, and I was guilty before Kyra since I had forgotten the blessing of our spiritual father and forgotten the fact that she was my wife. I had made her suffer and had suffered myself. All that was over.”
Later, Fr. Arseny was released from a labor camp and helped fully restore them to each other as husband and wife. The process involved confession and ruthlessly facing their own sins. In this way peace and harmony was restored in their family. There are similar stories throughout this book and its predecessor involving people forgiving unfaithful spouses and ungrateful children by trusting in God and living in humility, setting aside their own self-centered agendas.
We must not underestimate the power of forgiveness and holy striving as the path to peace in the family. Consider the example of the hermit Abraham, who searched for years to find his niece, St. Mary the Harlot. He found her, forgave her, and brought her back to God’s fold.
Or ponder Alyosha Karamazov’s speech to some grieving children at a funeral, where he urges them, “Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other!”
Finally, we hear the words of the Apostle Paul, who implores believers: “Let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ … And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians, 5:33-6:2a, 4)
There are no guaranteed solutions in this world marred by sin, yet the words of the scriptures and examples from the lives of faithful people provide us with guidelines for building, promoting and restoring peace in the family.
Greg Cook is a writer who lives in the Puget Sound region of Washington State with his wife Mary and their two cats, Benedick and Beatrice. He is a member of St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Brier, Washington. He works in a library, and has been a teacher, dishwasher, newspaper reporter, cook in the U.S. Navy and a musician. His writing has appeared in a number of publications including Parabola. He has been an OPF member since 2001.
The image is from a Byzantine marriage belt made in Constantinople in the sixth or seventh century; from John Meyendorff’s book, Marriage (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press); the Greek inscription means, “From God, concord, grace and health.”