Family Life in an Orthodox Rhythm
by Valerie Zahirsky
Those colorful pages of store ads that come tucked into the Sunday newspaper tell us something about our culture. They tell us that every day has become the same as every other day. Here is the ad for chocolates wrapped in red and decorated with hearts on sale for Valentine's Day. Identical chocolates but in a different shape and wrapped in red and green were on sale for Christmas. And a month from now, no matter how long it is till Easter, they'll be offered for sale in egg or bunny shapes and wrapped in pastel colors. But it's the same chocolate, the same sales pitch, the same enticing "sale price." Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter --- what's the difference? One day is like all the others. We constantly experience this sad reduction of all days to one day. It's certainly convenient in some ways (you can buy your chocolate any day of the week because the stores are always open) but sameness can be deadly, leading us almost imperceptibly from boredom to depression to despair.
An Antidote to Sameness
Standing as an antidote to this numbing sameness is the insistence of the Orthodox Church that all days are decidedly not the same. If we really pay attention to the rhythm of the church year and let it permeate our family life, we won't be bored. We won't be tempted to that despair that is the opposite of peace because it makes us feel angry and cheated: wasn't there supposed to be more to life than this endless roll of identical days?
Our homes can reflect the peace of knowing that life is leading us somewhere, and that we are preparing for something. A simple act like keeping the Wednesday and Friday fast (not refraining altogether from eating, but refraining from animal products) can be a constant reminder that we are not bound to this world. We are in it, and we care for it and honor it as God's creation, but we have a higher destiny, and fasting helps us prepare for that destiny by loosening the grip that this world has on us. We won't die without meat and butter, we learn with relief. In fact, our bodies and souls may be lightened enough to hear God's voice more clearly than before.
Another antidote to boredom is anticipation. This, too, is part of the Orthodox rhythm of life that can be reflected in our homes. Great Lent is a prime example. Our culture, if it pays attention to Lent at all, treats it as a somber period during which we must "give up" something. And even this has now become a joke. For several weeks before Easter the sign outside our local car wash reads "Don't give up a clean car for Lent!"
But Great Lent in our families can be a period of nurturing a peaceful atmosphere that gives us time and mental quietude to prepare for the Resurrection. Cutting down on outside activities, giving less of our time to TV or radio, ignoring for just a few precious weeks the noisy entertainments that constantly grab at our attention --- all these things can help us maintain a state of reflective anticipation. This is why the Church urges us to look at Great Lent as a gift rather than a deprivation. It is a gift of time --- a piece of special time we are given to remember what a great victory has been achieved for us, and what a great destiny awaits us.
Like the Prodigal Son, we may have squandered everything our loving Father has given us. But we have the chance now to recognize, reflect on, and rectify that sin. We can go back to Him. He will receive us with love and without reproach. And when the day of the Resurrection comes, we will be among those once dead who now know that Christ has "trampled down death by death" for us. That knowledge is true peace.
We Belong to Someone
A major source of disquiet for many people in our culture is a feeling of rootlessness. We want to belong; we want to have a purpose in common with others. This is another gift the Church offers us, and one we should strive to share with those not yet in the Church. We belong, first of all, because we are one with the creation of God that worships Him and acknowledges Him as its maker. Jesus Christ referred to this when He said to the Pharisees who wanted Him to rebuke His cheering disciples, "If these should keep silent, the very stones would cry out" (Luke 19: 40).
Because we are part of, in fact the crowning glory of, God's creation, we share with the rest of creation the privilege of offering Him our thanks. This is beautifully expressed in one of the hymns for Christmas:
Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks: The angels offer a hymn; the heavens, a star; The wise men, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger. And we offer Thee a virgin mother!
A family standing together in front of a candlelit icon of the Nativity of Christ and singing or reciting this hymn can certainly feel the peace and wonder of knowing that we have a place in God's creation.
Icons reassure us that we also belong to the long-established family of God's people. For example, in the icon known as the "Hospitality of Abraham," based on Genesis 18, the three seated figures represent the angels who visited Abraham with good news. But the Church understands them as representing the Holy Trinity as well. Looking at the icon, we remember that we are not only the "heirs of the promise" made to Abraham; we are also the sons and daughters of the Triune God who showed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. To have icons prominently visible in our homes , and to talk as families about what they represent, can bring us the peace of knowing who we are and whose we are.
A few years ago, a beer company advertised its product with the slogan, "It doesn't get any better than this." Now, conviviality is a fine thing (though it doesn't always have to be beer-induced). But if there are people who really believe that human conviviality is "as good as it gets," they haven't yet heard the Gospel message.
Our homes can be places where we proclaim that message and challenge the idea that some limited earthly happiness is all we can ever expect. Look at the icon of the Ascension: Christ goes up in glory, leaving us with promises that tell us what we can really expect. He has said, "And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also" (John 14: 3.)
What is this place that Christ goes to prepare for us? As Saint Paul writes, it is wonderful beyond our ability to conceive: "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him" (I Cor 2: 9). So we needn't scramble to find some meaning in this earthly life, or to measure its value in terms of beer. Icons and Scripture remind us of the promises of God. They tell us that His purpose and plan are at work for us. We must work to fulfill the plan and purpose, but we can be at peace knowing that He has declared the great things He has in store.
Just by displaying the icon of the Ascension, we create an opportunity to talk about these things in our families. We can offer a mealtime prayer thanking God for His promises, and asking His strength to help us be worthy of them in our lives. Feeling a sense of life's divine purpose will contribute to our families' peacefulness of heart. It will dispel the restlessness that constantly disturbs those who search for meaning and who know perfectly well that if it "doesn't get better than this," there is not much point in it at all.
Choosing a Different Course
The Rocking Horse Winner is the story of a family whose mother is bent on becoming socially prominent. Her ambitions drive her to need more and more money, and the pressure of this is reflected in the family. Lawrence writes that the house itself seems constantly to whisper, "There must be more money. There must be more money."
The loving young son in the family wants to help his mother. He discovers an extraordinary talent in himself: by riding his rocking horse with great attention and intensity, he can discover the names of winners in future horse races. He does this for several months, placing bets through the family's gardener and secretly giving his winnings to his mother.
But the huge effort takes a terrible toll on the boy, as his mother's ambitions and needs grow. She worries about his deteriorating condition, but has no idea what is causing it. The boy finally works himself to death on his rocking horse in one last extreme effort to still the whisper of "There must be more money."
Though Lawrence's story is set in England decades ago, it reverberates in our society today. Many families and homes are uneasy because of a perceived need to accumulate as much money and "stuff" as possible. This need can drive us unrelentingly, especially because the ability to accumulate is widely seen as a sign of success.
Once again, the Church offers us a chance to step back and take another look at those things that may be driving us. The troparion used for several saints, including the beloved Nicholas of Myra, contains these words: "Because of your poverty, riches were granted to you."
Suppose this line from the hymn was made part of a family discussion with the question, "What do you think these words mean?" Suppose too that the discussion could be brought around to the idea that many saints chose material poverty in order to pursue spiritual riches without any distractions. This idea might open up a whole new way of thinking for our children, so accustomed to seeing prominent figures who are willing to do almost anything to pile up wealth for themselves.
We can look at more recent Church members. The Grand Duchess Elizabeth, sister of the last Russian Tsarina, Alexandra, was one of the most beautiful and privileged women of her time. Raised a Protestant, she eventually embraced Orthodoxy and wrote letters to her grandmother, Queen Victoria, explaining her choice. After her husband's assassination, she chose monasticism, and she chose martyrdom in Russia during the Revolution, though her fellow European royals would gladly have gotten her out of Russia before her arrest, had she chosen to leave. But she refused to abandon the nuns in the monastery she served as abbess, nor could she turn her back on the poor and needy people of Moscow who depended on her.
It may be that we and our children will not make choices that go so dramatically against the mainstream as Nicholas and Elizabeth did, but by offering us examples of people who made such choices and who achieved spiritual greatness, the Church reminds us that this path is at open to us no less than to them. That knowledge can bring peace to people --- young or old --- who have to make a living in the success-oriented world, but who also seek the Kingdom of God.
Everybody Fits In
We all know that each human being is unique, yet most of us want to "fit in." For some people that is much harder than for others. Unusual personalities or interests, even physical appearance, can make being part of the group difficult. For children and young people especially, this can be a real problem, troubling to the soul.
The great panoply of saints can offer peace to a troubled young soul. If in our homes we follow the daily calendar of saints, we can introduce our children to holy people so varied in their abilities and personal styles that anyone can find a "model" in one of them, if not more than one.
The saints' stories are often surprising. Who would have thought that gentle Saint Nicholas could strike anyone, even the arch-heretic Arius? The stories of the saints open several layers of meaning that invite us to dig deeper into them. For example, Saint Simeon the Stylite, living on his pillar, intrigues us with his approach to holiness. It adds to our amazement to learn that he did not stay in isolation, but counseled and prayed for the countless people who came to him for advice and guidance. Perhaps most surprising of all, when his monastic elders asked him, as an obedience, to come down from the pillar where he had become such a revered figure, Simeon did so immediately. There is much to be learned and contemplated in these "layers" of Saint Simeon's story!
All the saints' lives tell us that any person, and any kind of person, can find the peace of God.
If we can make our homes places that reflect God's love, our children will believe that Jesus Christ speaks the truth when He says, "My peace I give to you... Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid" (John 14: 27).
Valerie Zahirsky is a graduate of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York (M.Div.) and of the Claremont Graduate University in California (M.A. in English.) She has represented the Orthodox Church at several international meetings and writes church school curriculum for various Orthodox jurisdictions. She frequently speaks on topics concerning women and families in the Church, and her article "Growing Up Orthodox and Female" appears in the book Orthodox Women Speak. Her husband is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America. Their two children are Barbara and Peter.
The wood engraving is by Lavrens Neilsen.