Practicing Advent Until We Get it Right

by Nancy Forest-Flier

The odd thing about Advent (I realize after have gone through forty-some of them) is that it’s a combination of the thrillingly unknown and the utterly predictable. It’s as exciting as the little paper doors and windows that our children open each day in the new Advent calendar; it’s as known and familiar as the words to the Advent songs that we can easily sing from memory. And somewhere in between these two extremes lies the meaning of Advent, its significance for us.

Advent is a season on the church calendar. It’s a specific period of time through which we must pass before we reach Christmas. It’s there for a reason. In times past, Christians fasted through Advent the way they fasted through Lent (in the Orthodox church this is still the case) because the church recognized that we need long preparatory periods in order to fully understand the major feasts. Advent, with its fresh newness and its comfortable sameness, is something we need to pass through. Why?

In my mind, these two aspects of Advent are like the front and back doors of the same house. Say it’s your house, and it’s during the weeks before Christmas. The front door is the door you decorate for the holidays. You’ve hung out a wreath, maybe you’ve strung up some Christmas lights. When Christmas comes your guests will enter through this door. They’ll be smiling, bearing gifts, maybe food, and you’ll open the door to welcome them. Who’s coming this year? Some of the people who come to your door may be invited; some may show up unexpected and surprise you. There may even be old friends who you haven’t seen for years. Christmas is that kind of event; it’s the time for visiting, for surprises.

Advent literally means the arrival of someone who is awaited. It’s a happy linguistic accident that advent and adventure are sister words in English, because it’s easy to see the adventure in waiting for the unknown. We are standing at the front door of our house and waiting for the arrival of Christ, and this always makes us happy because we know that Christ came to save us. We know how the story will end. We know that the church will be established and that the saints will be victorious. In fact, we know this so well that it tends to take the adventure out of Advent.

But during the first Advent, of course, the adventure was there in all its terrifying, harsh, bewildering reality. Mary was visited by an angel and waited for her baby to be born, not knowing what kind of life her son would lead or what kind of an impact it would have on her. The pregnancy burst in upon her and imposed a new direction on her life. All she knew was that she was bearing the Messiah, the Long-Awaited One. The rest was pure adventure.

I thought about this aspect of Advent a great deal in the early spring of 1993, when I went through a short pregnancy of my own. It lasted ten weeks and ended abruptly in miscarriage. It was not a planned pregnancy and our children (most of them teenagers) were both excited and embarrassed. (Gee, this is great. But really, Mom, don’t you think you’re a little — old?). As soon as the presence of a new baby became an established fact we began to talk about how we could fit another person into the family. We have little room in our small house for another child. Where would he sleep? I am running a translating and editing business from our home which accounts for a large share of the family income. How would I continue working? As the weeks passed we all realized that life as we knew it would never be the same. But in what way? Who could know?

As we continued on with the pregnancy some interesting things happened. We found that we were touching lives in a way we may never have done before. A dear friend, whose partner had recently died of AIDS, called me up just to put his heart at rest; with tears in his voice, he said he just wanted to be sure that we knew what the risks were, that we knew that children born to middle-aged parents have a higher likelihood of having medical problems. We assured him that we were aware of the risks, and he told us he was going to keep praying for us, and that he admired our courage. (But truly, it did not feel like courage to me. It felt frightening and confusing. What was going to happen to us?) A young woman friend, a doctor, sat on our couch in awe as we explained that we had refused amniocentesis because it seemed pointless; we would go ahead with the pregnancy no matter what the outcome. “I have never heard anyone like you before,” she said to us gratefully. (And I never had either. It seemed like everything I was doing was new. There were no precedents, no assurances.)

I recall only one day, early in the pregnancy, when I was unable to sleep because of fears about the future. And at breakfast, when I told my husband, he said to me, “You know, I figure all the plans we had made for our life before this are nothing but smoke. They’re all dreams. But this – this is reality. This is what our life looks like.” And that helped me embrace the adventure. I remember the weeks that passed after that as a time of deep peace, not because I had been assured of the future but because I was willing to live with enormous, unsettled questions. And when the miscarriage occurred we didn’t really know how to feel. Relieved? Sad? A little of both.

Passing through Advent gives us a chance to recognize that life often consists of cataclysmic interruptions, and that we have to stand at our front door and let in whoever’s coming. Indeed, it is this attitude of expectation and welcome that should characterize the Christian life. Jesus tells us that we will be judged according to our response to those who knock at our door, and he even goes so far as to identify himself with all those unknown visitors. “Into this world,” wrote Thomas Merton, “this demented inn, Christ comes uninvited.” With each knock on the door of our house we await the approach of the Messiah, knowing that truly every visitor is the Messiah and that our salvation depends on how welcoming we are.

Balancing this front door aspect of Advent, this excited expectation, is what happens at the back door. I don’t know about your back door, but in our house the back door is where we take out the garbage. It’s where we go to shake out dirty carpets and messy table cloths. It’s where we clean the dog mess off our shoes. The back door is where the most ordinary, tedious events of life take place. Christmas visitors rarely enter this way. It’s never decorated with wreaths and colored lights.

I say there’s a back door aspect to Advent because, really, who are we trying to kid? Waiting for the Messiah? We can go through the pretense of waiting for something new and exciting, but the fact is that we know very well what’s going to happen. Jesus is going to be born in Bethlehem, he’ll grow up and begin preaching, he’ll be crucified and he’ll rise from the dead. The church will take root and begin it’s well-known history. So what else is new? How can an event that we know so well, that we pass through year after year, have any impact on our lives? The question I’m really asking is, what is the wisdom of the church calendar, of going through long periods of preparation, of fasting, of prayer, of greeting the newborn Christ like a brand new baby?

A film I recently saw helped me understand this a little better. It was “Groundhog Day,” the comedy in which Bill Murray, playing a jaded television weatherman, is assigned to travel with his two-person film crew to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual appearance of the groundhog on February 2. Murray is an obnoxious, sarcastic, contemptuous bore and is particularly offensive to the female member of the crew. All goes well, the cameras are set up, the ritual takes place, the groundhog sees his shadow, and six more weeks of winter are predicted. Murray is barely able to muster enough civility to do the spot with a bit of grace, swearing under his breath that he’ll never cover Groundhog Day again. It’s all just too hokey, too quaint, for his worldly tastes. And to top it all off, Mr. Groundhog is right — a blizzard forces all the roads to close and Murray and his crew have to stay in Punxsutawney until the weather lets up.

The fun starts the next morning when the clock radio in his hotel room goes off, announcing, oddly enough, that it’s Groundhog Day! He’s puzzled. But wasn’t that yesterday? Didn’t we already go through all that? Apparently not. He arrives at the spot where the ceremonies are to take place, and sure enough, there’s his film crew, waiting to get started. He begins to wonder how much he had had to drink the night before. He begins to question his sanity. But he obediently does the spot once again. And as the day passes he sees that everything is happening exactly as it had the day before: groundhog sees his shadow; blizzard shuts down all the roads; the old school friend who he’d greeted so contemptuously on the main street hails him in exactly the same way he had the day before. Every single thing about Groundhog Day is the same.

And this becomes the framework in which Murray has the chance to change his life. Because every single morning he wakes up to the same old Sonny and Cher song, and to the same announcement that “It’s Groundhog Day!” Every day he has to do the same wretched television spot with people who apparently are unaware that they’ve been repeating all this day after day after day. Every day he has to come up with a fresh reaction to an outcome that he already knows. The groundhog is going to see his shadow, but it’s news to everybody around him. Every day he has to cope with being stranded in a dinky town in Pennsylvania with people he doesn’t particularly like (although his female co-worker is starting to look better and better).

Eventually, the repetition begins to look very much like ritual. Sitting in the park, he predicts the barking of a dog, the approach of a Brink’s truck, the moment when a passing woman will adjust her bra strap. His affection for his co-worker grows with each passing February 2nd, and he keeps getting new chances to figure out how to win her approval and affection. It takes a long time, and he makes an enormous number of blunders. But in the end he gets the girl, not by trying hard but by giving up trying. It’s the thorough turn-around — conversion — that suddenly makes him appealing to her, and in the end he is a much nicer guy. In the end he is saved.

Advent, and all the other seasons of the church calendar, are something like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, only stretched out over a year. We need the repetition because, like the jaded weatherman in the movie, we need plenty of opportunity to get it right. We need to go through all that back-door activity day after day, year after year, taking out the garbage and keeping our shoes clean, and when it comes time to say, “Oh, look, Jesus is born!” we have to learn how to say it — not with ho-hum sarcasm, not with sentimental pretense, but with some kind of apprehension about what it all means for us. And for most of us this takes a lifetime to learn.

It’s within this necessary repetition of Advent that we come to learn how to welcome in all the surprises. Some of them are pleasant (sometimes we get the girl). Some of them are not (six more weeks of winter). Some of them are staggering in the demands they place on us. But thank God the church has given us a ritual life within which we can act out the splendid surprise of Advent again and again — until we get it right.

Nancy Forest-Flier is an editor, writer and translator. The essay was published by U.S. Catholic magazine.

Reflections on Marriage

by Nancy Forest

Having become Orthodox in the course of our marriage, Jim and I were blessed with the sacrament of marriage on September 10, 1995, at the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam. After the ceremony I spoke with several women, all of them non-Orthodox, who had had quite some difficulty with part of the wedding service. The part that caused the problems was the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33):

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ”For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

I was concerned that the people who had difficulty with this passage would let it overshadow all the things that they found good and beautiful about the wedding service and about Orthodoxy in general. So I decided to write a brief letter to them to try to address some of these problems.

The idea of women submitting to their husbands, and of a husband being ”the head of the wife”, is admittedly not the sort of thing that you might read in most modern literature on the subject. It seems to advocate a kind of marital state in which women’s opinions are secondary to their husbands’, a situation which the women’s movement has been trying to correct for several decades now.

Because it was our wedding, and because I feel strongly that the truth of this passage does not deny ”women’s rights”, I want to write something about what it means to me. I am not a theologian, and my knowledge of Orthodox theology is not strong. But Jim and I were married by civil authorities thirteen years ago, so we had many years of experience as a married couple before we were married in the church.

First of all, I think there are a couple of ways that you can easily dismiss the whole passage. You can simply say that it’s a matter of translation. One friend who objected to the passage told me that she had trouble with the Dutch word ”onderdanig”, which sounds much stronger than the English ”be subject to”. And when I looked the passage up in our biblical concordance I learned that there are several words in Greek that convey the idea of obedience and submission. The word used in this particular passage is exactly the same word that is used to convey submission to God. It is, in fact, a Greek military term meaning ”to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader”. But in ordinary, non-military use the word was used to mean ”a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden”. There is another word used in the Epistles which is translated in English as ”submit”, but this word suggests yielding and weakness. The word in the marriage ceremony, however, does not suggest weakness; it suggests cooperation.

By contrast, there are two other sections in chapter 6 in which Saint Paul discusses the obedience of children to their parents, and the obedience of slaves to their masters, and here he uses yet another word. So he chose his words carefully. He chose a word which suggests sharing burdens and cooperating, not yielding as the weaker party. We don’t have this kind of flexibility in English (or in Dutch).

One might also dismiss the passage on the basis of cultural differences. After all, Saint Paul also tells slaves to obey their masters, and today we all recognize the injustice of slavery. So might we not also say that Paul’s understanding of women is as outdated as his understanding of slavery? I suppose we might, but he clearly makes a distinction between his discussion of marriage (with the different verb) and his discussion of other kinds of obedience. The key sentence is ”This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” For Paul, there was a vital link between marriage and the love of Christ for the church. He does not say that the relationship of children to parents, or slaves to masters, reflects the love of Christ for the church. It’s only in marriage.

I think there are two important issues at stake here. One is the importance of freedom in Christian life. The other is the radical change that Jesus brought to hierarchical structures (although he did not eliminate them).

In his brief sermon after the wedding ceremony, Father Sergei Ovsiannikov talked about how essential it is that people who marry be free people. He said that in ancient times, slaves were not permitted to marry; this was a rite that was reserved for free people only. Both men and women enter into marriage out of freedom, out of a desire to submit to each other and a willingness to sacrifice their singularity and to create a new thing, a married couple, a single unit. This doesn’t mean obliterating their selves, but it implies a freely-chosen state in which there is a constant, active submission to each other. Freedom is important because it means that both men and women should struggle to make intelligent, mature, responsible decisions, to listen to each other, to have the courage to admit mistakes and to defer to their partner at times. People who are not free don’t behave like this. Women who are not free never disagree with their husbands and support them even when they are wrong. This isn’t a Christian marriage.

The word ”free” is an interesting one among the Indo-European languages. If you could trace it back through linguistic history to the ancient Indo-European language, the mother language of all modern Western languages, you would find some root word that is no longer spoken today. The scholarly guess is that the Indo-European root word of ”free” was ”pri”, which meant ”to love”. In ancient English, ”free” implied a relationship. It meant someone who was ”dear to the chief” and who fought for the tribal chief out of allegiance and love, not for money or because of coercion. The freeman was not a conscript or a mercenary. ”Free” implied sacrifice and submission as well. It didn’t mean that you were ”free” of all ties, as it does today. It meant that your ties were freely chosen because of your feelings of love for the person to whom you gave your allegiance.

If you trace the evolution of the Indo-European root word as it passed into other Western languages you would be surprised at what you find: all sorts of words that have to do with loving relationships: friend, “freund,” ”vriend,” ”vrijen,” and dozens of words in other languages, even to an Old Slavonic word ”prijateli,” or friend, and the Sanskrit words ”priya,” dear, and ”prn” to delight or endear. So the connection between freedom and love has been deeply imbedded in our culture.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to return to that Greek word which was translated as ”submit”. The definition of that word is ”a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” There’s the same stress on freedom and the decision of the free person to give in to the other and to help bear a burden.

But to say that both husband and wife must be free people, loving people, may not satisfactorily address the problem of the husband being called the ”head” of the wife, and of women being instructed to be ”subject to their husbands in all things”. I think we can’t look at this problem simply from our Western, post-Enlightenment way of thinking; we can’t just insist that both the husband and the wife be regarded as separate, unique, equal individuals and leave it at that. The relationship, or the flow of love, or the dynamic that is always taking place in a marriage has to be described somehow.

Several times in this passage Paul says that the marital relationship is like the love that Christ has for the Church; he says, ”This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” There is no other kind of relationship that is described in this way in the Bible — not the Platonic love between men or the love of a subject to a king or the love between mothers and children or even the love of a spiritual leader for his flock, although these all are profoundly deep forms of love. None of them ”refer to Christ and the church” as marriage does. It’s almost as if Paul were saying that a married couple is an icon, a way of actually seeing the mystical truth of Christ and the church. So to say that the man is the”head” isn’t just a reference to traditional patriarchal sexist hierarchy; it’s a way of describing the structure of the marriage to reflect the mystical truth to which it refers. This doesn’t give men the license to lord it over their wives and beat them into submission; it should serve to direct the attention of the man and the woman to the relationship that serves as their model — the love between Christ and the church. So what is that model like?

This, I think, is where the second issue comes in, the radical change that Jesus brought to hierarchical structures, and the question of power and submission. I’m not a New Testament scholar, and I don’t have my finger on all the particular references in the New Testament, but I do know that the whole life of Christ was the story of the Son of God humbling himself and sacrificing himself for humankind. He was born in a stable, he lived in humble circumstances, he scandalized people by associating with the lower classes, he washed his disciples’ feet under their great protest. So the model of Christ’s love for the church is one of humility and sacrifice, not one of power and control.

There are many passages in the gospel in which the relationship between Christ and the church is described in terms of a bridegroom and a bride. I’m often reminded of this during the Liturgy, because it seems to me that the whole physical structure of the church itself and the movement of the Liturgy keep pointing to this relationship. The people coming into the church bearing candles (like the story of the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom), the priest comes out from the sanctuary bringing the bread and wine — the bridegroom — to the church, and the church comes forward to receive him. The parallel between this and marriage is profound (as Paul says) and intensely physical at the same time.

I think that Paul insisted that in marriage we must understand the man as the ”head” of the woman because he felt very deeply that the mystery of marriage is a real mirror of the mystery of Christ’s love for the church. In saying this, then, Paul is implying that a man’s love for his wife should be as humble, as complete, and as self-giving as Christ’s is; and in saying that women should ”submit” to their husbands, Paul, in his choice of words, is implying that women should voluntarily, in freedom, consent to listen, cooperate, and bear their share of the burden of the marriage.

We have to face the fact that as children of our age, passages like this one are going to be very difficult for us, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Submission is not a popular attitude today. So perhaps we have to go further than studying the etymologies of the words in Paul’s epistle. Perhaps we, as women, have to examine our own reaction to being told to submit, to acknowledge someone else as our ”head”. This is admittedly a very difficult thing for intelligent, educated, healthy people to do. We bristle at the very thought. In Western culture today, intelligent women are those who recognize their own individual worth; many women refuse to change their names as a way of asserting their individuality; women demand to be recognized as equal before the law. So when it is suggested that we submit to our husbands, men ought to understand what an extremely difficult thing is being asked of us. But it is being asked of us, because without our submission the icon of marriage is incomplete.

When I discussed this with a friend of ours recently, a priest with a broad understanding of Islam, he reminded me that in Islam the highest thing one can aspire to is submission, that ”Islam” itself means submission to God. And when we look to the Mother of God, who should be our model of the perfect response to God’s will, we see the same attitude of submission. But that’s submission to God, you say, and we’re talking about submission to husbands, to ordinary human beings. Perhaps this is where the mystery of marriage lies, and this is what Paul was talking about when he said that no other relationship bears the stamp of Christ’s love for the church. The submission of a woman to her husband is not a one-way street, because husbands are enjoined to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, that is, with the kind of sacrificial love that is full of respect and honor.

There is the temptation here to see marriage as a kind of balance, with husband and wife cautiously playing their submission and sacrifice cards in an ultimate effort to protect themselves and flatter their own egos: ”I’ll submit to you if you sacrifice to me”; ”I’ve done something selfless for you to show you how saintly I am, and I expect something in return. ”But this isn’t the way Christ loves the Church. If you enter into marriage with the idea that you’re going to struggle to protect your self, even by balancing out your acts of mutual sacrifice, you’ll never have a marriage at all. Marriage isn’t a deal. The flow of submission and sacrifice is a reflection of the flow of love among the persons of the Holy Trinity. We regard the Trinity not as three separate gods who love each other, but as one God who is Love itself. And perhaps here is the mystery: Paul is telling women to submit to their husbands, not primarily out of a sense of self (either submission as a way to enhance one’s ego or submission as a confirmation of one’s poor self-esteem) but without a consideration of self at all. The challenge of marriage for both women and men is that the marriage must become the primary source of identity for both of them, and that the energy that holds this thing together and keeps it alive and vital is submission on the part of the wife and sacrificial love on the part of the husband.

We are often given to understand that the challenge of marriage today is for the two partners to try to maintain their own identities. But it may be that this is a very questionable goal, and that indeed just the opposite is true. The challenge of marriage today is that in the face of a culture that forces us to dwell within the fortress of our own personality, with all the exhausting protection that such an enterprise entails, we are asked to tear down the walls and build something new with someone else. The enormous comfort of St. Paul’s epistle is his assurance that in doing so we are reflecting the love of Christ himself.

Bringing it all back home

by Nancy Forest

Eagle River Institute, 2004

A few weeks ago 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 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 live with 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 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 turning your home into a Home Church, 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 live together 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 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 that there, in that cell, was where God had chosen to meet with her and to speak 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 another 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 that 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 that 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, you learn some very surprising things. One of these is that freedom today doesn’t mean what it used to mean. 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.

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 not surprising that I’m something of a word freak. The word freedom has fascinated me for many, many years. Another person I think was fascinated by the idea of freedom was J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, as you know, was the author of The Lord of the Rings, but he was also a linguist and a professor of Old and Middle English at Oxford. And he was 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, and I think 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, by the way, 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 an Evangelical 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 here. 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. When we left home two weeks ago, we brought 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 that what he thought of as home is no longer there when he returns, is really 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 come knocking at the door and is going to 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 examples are the saints who were recently canonized at the Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky in Paris just this past May: Mother Maria Skobtsova, Father Dimitri Klepinin, George Skobtsov (Mother Maria’s son) and Ilya Fondaminsky. These were people who ran a house of hospitality and prayer 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 very interesting 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 the living 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 the 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.

So let’s go back to the Home Church. 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. 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 chaos all around. 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.

Alaskan Pilgrimage

by Nancy Forest

We got home Monday afternoon, totally exhausted after no sleep on the plane which took us across ten time zones in ten hours, and were greeted by the tail end of a heat wave (temperatures in the range of 30 degrees centigrade — above 85 F — for many days). Luckily for us, the rain came last night. We got our laundry done (just in time, too, because the washing machine broke after the last load), all the mail opened, house put back in order, etc., and now feel we’re really back home.

Alaska is a wonderful place, mainly wilderness that stretches on and on and on. It still has a frontier-town mentality — strip malls with “dancing girls” signs, people who live in the bush and thrive on moose meat and berries, people panning and digging for gold who look like they gold miners of the 19th century. Major roads are few and generally don’t go far. The only way to get to many places is by air or ferry, though in the winter there is the option of snowmobiles and dog sleds. The museums are excellent. We found several good books stores. The food is great, as is the locally brewed beer, and the people are as friendly as you’ll find anywhere. And the mountains! And glaciers! And wildlife! Not to mention the fact that Jim had no hay fever there at all, not even a sniffle. We told our hosts we were thinking of making it a one-way trip.

The main event was the five-day Eagle River Institute. The conference was wonderful. What fine people. The choir director of the Orthodox church at Eagle River, Steve Alvarez, is an Apache who works on the staff of the Native Heritage Center not far from Eagle River. There were lots of native Americans of various kinds. A beautiful, colorful group. Fr Mel Webber from a Greek Orthodox parish in California — though his home is England — gave four challenging (and often funny) lectures on the mind and heart, drawing on the great teachers of prayer. Jim had four sessions, two on prayer with icons and two on icons that connect with the Beatitudes. I spoke on the home church, not so much as the ideal home we imagine other people inhabit, but the home as a place of prayer and hospitality.

Before the conference we had two nights at Denali National Park and the rest of the time in Eagle River, about 20 miles north of Anchorage. Denali Park was wet and cool when we went but still gorgeous. Jim had a close encounter with a grizzly with photos to prove it. This happened during a “Tundra Wilderness Tour” by bus (the only way you can get into the interior of the park except for those who have a permit to camp and can enter on foot), with all the others in the group back in the bus and yelling, “Who is that idiot out there with the camera?” “My husband!” I said proudly.

We made fast friends with Dick Dauenhauer, the former poet laureate of Alaska, and his wife Nora, who is a Tlingit native who is also a poet, linguist and scholar.

The Russians brought Orthodoxy to Alaska hundreds of years ago, and it’s still very strong among the native population. We visited the oldest building in Alaska, a tiny wooden Orthodox church at Eklutna surrounded by an interesting cemetery — Indian “spirit houses”, all beautifully painted according to family, with Russian crosses on them.

All in all, I hope we will one day have the chance to return. We’ve a lot to see — Alaska is 36 times bigger than the Netherlands with half the population of Amsterdam. Not bad. Denali (Mt. McKinley) is so huge that we could often see it from the living room of the guest house where we were staying in Eagle River, 150 miles away. That’s like being in our living room in Alkmaar and being able to see all the way to Brussels! The scope is astonishing.