Bringing it all back home

by Nancy Forest

Recently we had a visit from a young Orthodox woman from Pittsburgh who is a doctoral student. She was working on her dissertation, the subject of which is religious conversion stories. She told us that in gathering data for her research, she discovered that one of the most common reactions people have when they first encounter the Orthodox church is the feeling of “coming home.” That’s the word they most often use — home.

I mention this because I want to talk today about home, in particular about the Home Church, about what it means for our homes to be churches, to be extensions of the church of which we are all a part, into which we have been baptized. What does it mean to have a Home Church? Why is it important? What are the essential elements in a Home Church? Often the idea of Home Church conjures up very domestic images of a Christian family — a Christian mom and dad, children who eagerly participate in the life of the Home Church, icons in the corner, prayers together in the morning and evening and before meals, keeping the fasts together, following the calendar. The Home Church embodies what the Russians call “the art of ritual living.” This concept is so important to the Russians that it’s all packed into two words: Bytovoe Blagochestie.

Ritual living is truly an art. It’s something you have to acquire. If you live in an Orthodox country, you probably learn it from your parents and grandparents — usually your mother and grandmother. You follow the rhythm of the calendar from your birth. You learn the recipes. Many of your friends are Orthodox, so you’re not the only one whose home is like this. It’s just the way life is — it’s normal existence. But if you live in the West, and particularly if you’re a convert to Orthodoxy, the art of ritual living, of running a home church, can be very difficult indeed. You don’t have an Orthodox mother to pass on fasting recipes. It’s easy to forget what day of the week it is according to the Church calendar. It’s easy to get lazy about prayers. It all seems so artificial at first, so contrived. Your children may reach a certain age and realize how odd their family is, how different from other families.

This is especially true of in the West, which is so terribly secularized and where so many families seldom if ever go to church. Children may want to stop fasting, stop attending church. When they leave home they don’t bring their Orthodoxy with them, they just leave this odd way of life altogether and settle into a secular mode, like their friends. I know what I’m talking about, because this is what has happened to us.

On top of this is the fact that this ideal, domestic Christian family may not be as widespread as we think it is. At least that’s not my experience. There are families in which one spouse is Orthodox and the other isn’t, or isn’t even Christian. Non-Christian spouses often make it very difficult to follow the calendar, to fast, to follow a regular prayer life. There are single-parent families. Families in which one or both of the partners have been divorced, so there’s the influence of ex-spouses to contend with. There are families with enormous problems — alcoholism, drugs, various kinds of abuse, medical problems, unemployment, kids in trouble, and all the difficulties that plague families today.

If you live in a family like this — and many of us do — you may find yourself thinking, “If only my life were normal I’d be able to set up a Home Church just the way I want.” So you imagine that the Home Church is for other people, but not for you. You may find yourself becoming resentful of the people whom you regard as the problem, the people who are getting in the way of your prayer life, of your attempt to turn your home into a Home Church. You’ve got to blame somebody, so you blame your spouse, your ex, your kids, your neighbors — even your society, Western society in general, the Post-Enlightenment West, whoever it is who you think is keeping you from living the ordinary day-to-day life you want to live as an Orthodox Christian.

My purpose here is not to solve these problems. That simply wouldn’t be possible, because each family comes with its own set of unique difficulties. What I’d like to do is examine some basic elements in this situation, and the most basic element has to do with the question, What is home, anyway? What are we talking about when we talk about home? The picture I’ve just sketched presents an ideal picture of a home — a secure place to live with a solid nuclear family. But is this a valid picture? To return to the conversion stories our friend from Pittsburgh told us about, when a person is introduced to the Orthodox Church and says, “It felt like I had come home,” what does that mean? What is that home — that perfect existence — that the Orthodox Church reflects so profoundly? On the one hand there is the parish and the rich Liturgy we share in no matter what our life is like when we leave the church building. But is it also a tidy house with a snug family doing everything by the Orthodox book? Is that all it means? Or does the Christian meaning of home have deeper roots than that?

Let’s talk about various kinds of Christian homes. There’s the standard model, the house, the apartment, with an Orthodox family inside. But there’s also the dormitory room. The army barracks. The room in a care facility, or in an old people’s home. Home is first of all the place where you live wherever it may be. It’s the place where you live out your physical existence in the world. Not all homes are cozy and pleasant, not all homes are places you would choose if you had to pick a place to live.

A South African friend of mine named Anita was active in the Stop Conscription Campaign during the time of apartheid. She was brave, she knew what she was doing, and she got arrested. She had never been in jail before. She told us that after they put her in her cell and the heavy door closed and locked behind her, the strangest thing happened. She sat down and she suddenly realized that she was home. That was the word she used — home. It wasn’t because being in a South African jail was so wonderful, or that she was being fatalistic. She said she felt for the first time a kind of freedom, being in that jail cell. Every step she had taken was a step that came out of her conviction that she was doing the right thing, that she was walking towards the truth, and being in jail was just another step along the way. She had a choice in jail — she could blame the cell, the lock, the bars, the South African government for getting in the way of what she perceived to be her calling, getting in the way of her ideal life, or she could accept the fact with her, to be fully present to her. That was the choice she made — she chose to be where God had promised to meet her.

Here’s a similar story. The priest of our church, Father Sergei Ovsiannikov, grew up in the Soviet Union. He was raised an atheist and was told in school that God does not exist. He said he had no trouble accepting that there was no God, as his teachers told him, but he couldn’t believe there was Nothing. He was convinced that there must be Something, and he was determined to find out what it was. While he was doing his military service he ended up in prison, in solitary confinement. And there, in his cell, with no one else to talk to and nothing to do, he realized he was free. Like Anita, he realized that nothing could get in the way of his basic decision to accept life as it came to him, to freely accept life. Neither solitary confinement, nor a Soviet jail, nor life under totalitarian rule — nothing could take that primordial freedom away from him. And that was where he found God. Father Sergei preaches about freedom all the time. It’s one of his favorite subjects. He always preaches in Russian, and the word for freedom is one of the few Russian words I know — svaboda. He is careful to point out, however, that the freedom he’s talking about, real Christian freedom, is quite different from what we mean when we talk about freedom today.

The word freedom in English is a very interesting one. If you happen to look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, which has such extensive etymologies and arranged according to oldest definition first, you learn some very surprising things. One of these is that freedom doesn’t mean what it used to. Our modern understanding of freedom has to do with personal choice. “It’s a free country,” we say, meaning: I can do whatever I want. I have my rights. You do your thing, I’ll do mine. But when you go back in linguistic time, you get a rather different picture. A free person was a member of a household who was not a slave, who was connected by ties of kindred to the head of the household. A free person owed his allegiance to the head of the household not out of compulsion and obligation, but out of love.

Freedom originally implied a love relationship. And if you look in the OED, you’ll see in the word history that there are other words related to free that have to do with this relationship: the Sanskrit word “priya” means dear, and “pri” means to delight, to endear; the Old Slavonic word “prijateli” means friend; the Old English “freon” means to love, from which we get our modern word “friend.” Then there’s the Dutch word “vrijen” which means to make love, and similar words for friend, love and beloved in all the Germanic languages.

So to be free means not to be in a relationship of slavery but a relationship of love. As Christians we understand the importance of freedom, because freedom comes from Christ, Christ has freed us from the slavery of sin. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” writes St. Paul in Galatians (5:1). “Stand fast therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.” And later in the same chapter, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” (5:13). Through love be servants of one another. Learning to be free in Christ, to live the life of a free man, is the life work of every Christian. “When you enter upon the path of righteousness, you will cleave to freedom in everything,” says St. Isaac the Syrian.

Frodo under attack: Tolkien portrays Frodo as the quintessential Free Man who makes the ultimate free choice — to risk his life for his friends out of love. (Painting by John Howe)

When you discover true freedom, as Father Sergei did, as Anita did, then nothing can imprison you. Nothing. As St. Paul writes in that powerful verse in Romans, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38)

Given the fact that I make my living as a translator, it’s not surprising that I’m enjoy dictionaries. The word freedom has fascinated me for many, many years. Another person captivated by the idea of freedom was J.R.R. Tolkien. The author of The Lord of the Rings was also a professor of Old and Middle English at Oxford and a devout Christian. When he gave names to the characters in his books, he sometimes just chose names that he thought would entertain his children, like Bilbo Baggins and Tom Bombadil. But some of the names of his characters have a deeper meaning. My guess is Frodo is one of those names.

I think that when Tolkien began working on a name for his hero, he chose Frodo because it’s a variant of the ancient English word for freedom, and that Tolkien meant to portray Frodo as the quintessential Free Man, the man who makes the ultimate free choice — to risk his life for his friends out of love. Frodo leaves his comfortable hobbit hole, his home, and is never able to return to it, at least not as it was. The Lord of the Rings does not end happily ever after. All through their journey, Frodo and Sam keep talking about going back to Hobbiton, going back home. But when they finally do go back, Hobbiton as they knew it is gone, and Frodo realizes he is no longer “at home” there. So he finally sails away by boat to the Western Lands, to what you might call his true home — to what Tolkien may have meant to be a kind of Eden before the Fall, or perhaps even heaven, the Kingdom of God. In exercising his freedom as he did, which was really the Christian way, he had lived his life the best way he could. He made the best choices. He made the truly free choice, the choice to put love above everything else.

So what does this tell us about home, about trying to establish a Home Church? What biblical examples of home can we turn to in searching for a model for the Christian Home? That’s where it really gets interesting, because while the Bible is filled with stories of sojourning, pilgrimage and homelessness, there aren’t very many reassuring stories of cozy homes. The Bible starts with Adam and Even being evicted, and the story of the Fall sets the tone for the rest of Scripture. For Noah, life as he knew it is simply swallowed up in the Flood — in Chaos — and all he can do is listen to God’s instructions and build himself an Ark. He can never go home again. Abraham is sent away from his home and his people and told to establish his tribe in the Land of Promise. Moses leads his people out of Egypt and they end up wandering in the desert for forty years, carrying the Tabernacle of God’s Presence with them. And Our Lord, as far as we know, had no home at all. “Foxes have holes,” He said, “and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20) When I was growing up in a Protestant church, we used to sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” “For here we have no lasting city,” writes the author of the book of Hebrews, “but we seek the city which is to come.” (13:14)

I realize the question of establishing a Home Church is actually a very practical question, and I’m not trying to spiritualize it. After all, when you come right down to it, this is our everyday experience as well. What I call our Home Church is really not the Church in our home on the Kanisstraat in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. Whenever we leave home, we bring traveling icons with us, as many Orthodox do. While we’re traveling we try to maintain our rule of prayer, and we certainly try to follow the calendar. Our Home Church is the Church that we carry with us, the rule of prayer that we as a married couple try to follow, wherever we go. Right now, there’s another Orthodox couple living in our house and feeding our cats, and they have brought their Home Church with them as well. If we were to move to another house, we would certainly set up another icon corner and have our house blessed by a priest.

But in a sense, our home is like the Tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them as they wandered through the desert, a place where, by prayer and fasting, we recognize the Presence of the Living God in our midst. That, of course, is why a Christian home can be a prison cell. Because even if they take the icons away, even if they take the Bible away, even if you cannot keep the fasts, you can always, in your freedom, recognize the Presence of the Living God in your midst and rest in the Love of Christ.

Tolkien’s story of Frodo’s journey, of leaving a cozy place and finding what he thought of as home is no longer there when he returns, is a modern myth of the Christian life. If what we’re aiming for is an ideal scene of Christian domesticity, with a perfectly running household based on the church calendar, we’re asking for trouble, because someday, somebody’s going to knock at the door and interrupt our monastic bliss. It may be someone in the family, it may be a total stranger, it may be Gandalf asking you to go on a quest, to lock our door and never to look back. And when that happens, you’ve got to open the door with joy and gratitude. Because that is where God is present, waiting to meet you. That is where you have to exercise your freedom, out of love for the real Head of the Household to whom you owe your fealty as a Free Man.

There are so many wonderful stories of saints whose lives were interrupted by someone in need, and who responded to that person out of love, only to learn later on that the person in need was Christ in disguise. The story of St. Martin of Tours comes to mind, who shared his cloak with a naked stranger.

Another much more recent example are the saints who were recently canonized at the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris: Mother Maria Skobtsova, Fr. Dimitri Klepinin, George Skobtsov (Mother Maria’s son) and Ilya Fondaminsky. These were people who ran a house of hospitality in the center of Paris before and during World War II. After the Nazis entered Paris and occupied it, they began hiding Jews, providing them with false baptismal certificates and helping them reach safety in neutral Switzerland. Finally they were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where they all perished. Mother Maria had been blessed by her bishop to begin a new type of monasticism, one that is engaged in the world and is devoted to responding to the world’s problems.

Mother Maria wrote a great deal about the spiritual life, and I think we can look to her as something of a model for establishing a Home Church along monastic lines that nevertheless has its door wide open to whatever or whomever God chooses to send it. “The way to God lies through love of people,” she wrote. “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

In Amsterdam, where our church is located, there’s a museum called the Museum of the Resistance. It’s a fascinating place dedicated to the work of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. As anyone who has ever read the Diary of Anne Frank knows, there were lots of people who needed hiding places in the Netherlands at that time. Jews were being rounded up and carted off in droves, taken to concentration camps, never to return. And the Jews weren’t the only ones who needed places to hide. Gypsies were being killed as well, and the mentally disabled, and homosexuals. Dutch men of every variety were being rounded up and sent to work in Germany under a forced labor program. All these people needed to be taken in and hid.

In the Museum of the Resistance the reality of this situation is depicted by means of a simple Amsterdam door, the sort you still see all over the city, with a long row of doorbells for every flat in the building. When you ring these various doorbells at the museum door, you hear recorded messages of all the excuses people might have not to let you in. One by one, as you ring the bells, you’re told to go away. “I have a sick husband,” a woman says. “I have a large family,” says someone else. On and on. And you, the museum visitor, have suddenly turned into a person in urgent need, in great danger, and no one will let you in. It’s an exercise in what it’s like to be on the other side of the door.

Perhaps the greatest Interruption Story of them all is the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel went to the Virgin Mary and told her she had been chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah. What an Interruption! Whatever sort of Home Temple Mary had been a part of must have been turned upside down. In some Annunciation icons, the Angel Gabriel is depicted in motion, bounding onto the scene, robes fluttering, feet off the ground, and Mary is shown seated in domestic quietness. Mary’s freely made response, her yes, has become the basic vocabulary for all Christians — she teaches us to turn our full attention from whatever domestic plans we may have made and to welcome Christ into our lives, in whatever form God has chosen to send Him to us.

It’s no accident that in most Orthodox Churches, the icon on the Royal Doors is the icon of the Annunciation. It’s through those doors, after all, that Christ comes to us in Holy Communion. It’s here that we exercise our freedom and stand before Him, allowing Him to enter us, to heal us. It’s here that we learn what it means to be a Christian, what it means to stand before an open door and to accept Christ as He comes to us.

I believe that it is there, at the altar, when we approach the Royal Doors and freely accept Christ into our bodies, that the Holy Temple of God and the Home Church intersect. This is where we learn how to establish a Home Church, there at the altar, when the doors open and we freely allow Christ to enter. Think about the door in the Museum of the Resistance, the door in Mother Maria’s house of hospitality, the door of your own home. No matter how many icons you may have or may not have in your home, no matter how successfully you may be able to keep the fasts, all these things are secondary to the way you respond when God sends someone to your door. And by “door” I don’t mean only the physical door to your home, but every point of access into your life, including the door of your own face — whether your face expresses welcome or rejection, or any recognition at all.

There’s a wonderful old Jewish story told by the Dutch philosopher Abel Herzberg about a rebbe who walks into a room where his son is deep in prayer. In the corner of the room is a cradle with a baby inside, crying its lungs out. The rebbe asks his son, “Can’t you hear? The baby’s crying!” The son says, “Father, I was lost in God.” And the rebbe answers, “If you were really lost in God you’d be able to hear a fly walking up the wall.”

Can we truly approach Christ at the Royal Doors if we fail to accept him at our own door at home? Think about this the next time you go to Communion. What does this mean for the way I live my ordinary life, in my home — wherever that home may be. And conversely, accepting Christ in Holy Communion teaches us how to accept him in the guise of the Least. We don’t approach Christ at the altar as though we were doing Him a favor, as though we were tossing Him some crumbs from our bounty, as though we had decided to take a few minutes and pay Him a visit. We approach him with humility, we literally disarm ourselves. How differently we would act towards the people we welcome into our lives if we always used our encounter with Christ at Holy Communion as our model.

We are a pilgrim people. Truly, we have no lasting city. We are like snails, carrying our homes on our backs. To the extent that we are able, we practice the art of ritual living as we go, because the value of fasting and ascetic exercises, of establishing a rule of prayer, is enormous. Fasting and prayer pull us away from the things that might enslave us and bring us back to the center of our lives, where God is waiting for us. Fasting and prayer strengthen our will, so that when the door bell rings, as it is bound to do, we will be able to joyfully open the door, where God is waiting for us. We don’t have to wait for the perfect home, the perfect circumstances, the perfect family, the perfect neighbors, the perfect coworkers, to establish a Home Church. A Home Church is actually quite a simple thing: it is the place wherever a Christian happens to be standing, where he freely accepts his role in the royal priesthood. As Father Alexander Schmemann writes in For the Life of the World:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God — and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

In looking for material on this talk I came across a very interesting iconographic image from the catacombs in Rome. It’s a second century icon of Noah. It’s not the sort of image of Noah we’re used to seeing — an old man with a long beard, a recognizable ark shaped like a big houseboat, and of course the indispensable pairs of animals, especially the exotic ones: giraffes, zebras, etc. This icon of Noah is a young man standing in a square box. That’s all. No animals — except for the dove flying above him with an olive branch in its beak. I would like to propose this as the icon of the Home Church. We, like Noah, are physical beings, and we have been put on this earth by God to praise him. We stand in whatever structure it is that may be holding us and sheltering us from the surrounding chaos. In the icon it is an abstract, minimalist representation of a boat. We are stewards of the world that God brings to our door, that he asks us to take on board, to protect from the storm — as Father Alexander puts it, “the material of one all-embracing eucharist.” And we stand in our boat, or house, or room, or cell, arms raised in prayer, as the Holy Spirit descends with a sign that God has not forgotten us, that life is continuing, that life is eternal, and that in the end we will finally be Home.

Nancy Forest is a writer, editor and translator. Her text is based on a lecture given this summer at the Eagle River Institute in Alaska.