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Word Magazine October 1993 Page 4 – 5
NURTURING THE ORTHODOX FAMILY
by John T. Chirban
“The modern family is the building block of society.”
“The contemporary family is slowly decaying.”
We have all been exposed to such clichés that underscore the importance and endangerment of the family. Yet we seem to be at a loss about how to enhance the family structure. To respond to this dilemma, we need to consider facts about the current status of “the family” and clarify how we can nurture the Orthodox family in our own homes.
The psychological profiles of family members, in general, reflect a lack of emotional fulfillment, entanglements and enmeshed relationships. As a people, Orthodox Christians whose roots are based in traditional cultures, e.g., Greeks, Russians, Serbians, Antiochians, tend to dismiss such alarming problems as alien to both the culture and tradition.
There is no question that, in the United States and Canada, Orthodox Christians have felt the impact of North American cultural issues: drugs, alcohol, suicide, changing sex roles and role confusion, sexual promiscuity and its epidemics, as well as modern day epicureanism and hedonism have all made an impact. It may be helpful to recognize that these are all spirituallyoriginated disorders. They are often symptoms of disordered homes and indelibly engrave their pathology on otherwise healthy children. The presence of these disorders and their symptoms are often less visible in the relatively affluent or the more culturally endowed people of our time. Middle-class North America is insulated, or chooses to be insulated, from the reality of inharmonious homes. We do this vis-a-vis material comforts and worldly success cushioning ourselves until “somehow,” “out of nowhere,” a symptom pushes through the facade in the form of a divorce, drugs or suicide. In this way, comforts blur our vision of the importance of our spiritual lives.
I am suggesting that spiritual vitality is at the heart of the Orthodox family. But what exactly is spiritual vitality, and how do we know if spiritual vitality exists in our homes?
One test of spiritual vitality in our homes may be answered by asking direct questions: “What do I believe?” and “How are my beliefs made manifest in my life?” Our answers to these questions could be a barometer of our spiritual vitality and of our genuine life in Christ. Frequently, many families have no explicit beliefs and lack meaning and purpose. Life becomes simply a series of temporal stimulations. This ambiguity in life seems to be implicit in our culture, but it also defines what it means to be “existentially sick.” If a family has no direction, it cannot be going anywhere. And if we understand the Devil (etymologically, diavolos, as the one who divides) as the author of chaos, this setting provides the breeding ground for trouble.
Many families perceive that they are “achieving” if children “get” married, “have” a family, and “make” money. To be sure, many try this and find that it secures neither the marriage nor the family. Nor does it make family members more intrinsically fulfilled. Families resources are exhausted with the expectation that such pleasures and luxuries as vacations, recreation and extravagant homes will constitute “success.” What is discovered, again, is that in spite of such efforts, the family and its members are neither secured nor protected.
Clearly, a family is not simply the product of a wedding ring or children: it is rather a process and an experience of some complexity and “something more.” One psychologist identifies this “something more” as pothos, a virtuous yearning, or a “passionful” pride.1
Such filial love is expressed with equivalent power by Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who prematurely retired from the Senate in his early forties after learning that he had a chronic, terminal lymphoma. He wanted to spend his last years with his family. Tsongas stated, “I’ve yet to meet anyone who chose family over career and regretted it. No one on his death bed ever said, ‘I didn’t spend enough time with my business.’ “2
Yet, if we are able to speak objectively, we must recognize that there is nothing unique about culturally—based love in the family. Non—Christians maintain this love, secular humanists endorse it, and, as a native of Cicero, Illinois, the “work place” of Al Capone, I can attest that even the Mafia practice it. Caring families are not necessarily Orthodox families. There is, however, another dimension in the Orthodox family which may help us to understand its finer elements. What matters is the degree to which the pothos of the home is influenced by the essence of the faith.
We need to ask: Is mere influence enough? Have we realized the potential power of our faith in marriage and the family? Or, more directly: Would it not be better for us to experience the full essence of the Orthodox family rather than merely to be influenced by it?
The Essence of the Orthodox Family
It should not be surprising to us that Jesus Christ had hardly anything to say about the basic family, as a building block, since a family is not defined by its structure but rather by its substance. The New Testament speaks of “God’s household” and the “family of believers” (Ephesians 2:19, Galatians 6:10). Scriptural reference addresses what fills the home. For the Christian, the essence of the family, of life, is achieved in the spirit of God. A home based upon the resources of human beings alone does things that human beings do. A home based upon the resources of God does things beyond human imagination.
Therefore, the Orthodox family and home must recreate the particular elements which distinguish the Church: it must reflect the marks of the Church. As Orthodox Christians, we must see family life flowing out of the life of the Church, not vice versa. For when disordered homes influence the Church, entire congregations may lose their course. The priority must be God, who provides direction. Left to human design, the family becomes lost in the forces and values that surround it.
What are the elements of the Church? What marks of the Church should families properly manifest in the home? Holiness. Humility. Love. And action.
St. Paul writes “to the saints” in his epistles, referring to Christians as those people who believe and work as they believe. Such are holy people, not perfect, but people who bring “God’s power into their daily lives. Christians who do not take their holy identity seriously lose their greatest asset the chance to be in the process of experiencing and achieving their potential. It is through such holiness that we can be made into “new beings,” thereby experiencing the “God—vision,” to know a resurrected existence.
St. Gregory the Theologian says, “It is a good thing to speak of God but still better to purify oneself for God.” A Christian home is one where family members learn how to affirm their goodness, and to correct their sins. Homes must convey through the experiences of respecting, valuing and caring. We can do this practically by understanding both our sins and our virtues. By acknowledging our “state,” and improving our “selves,” we embark upon the process toward holiness. In so doing, one takes God and faith seriously.
When St. Augustine was asked to describe the Church, he said, “The first thing that I can say about the Church is humility. The second thing that I can say about the Church is humility. The third thing that I can say about the Church is humility.” Certainly humility is the virtue upon which all other Christian characteristics are built. Humility sets the stage for listening. If one can be humble, and listen, he or she can hear God, “other,” and self.
Most of what we know about the communication gaps between parents, children and generations stems from the problem of poor listening. The individual is often so absorbed in his or her own thoughts that the needs, wishes, and concerns of others are rarely heard, let alone understood.
When we practice humility we are open to God’s grace and the contribution of others. We are able to hear the voices that influence us both inside and outside of our own minds. With humility, we can hear the needs of our family and respond in kind. Humility is a harbinger of love.
The Greek word for community literally means communication. In the faith, as we communicate, we are bonded as a unit. Communication is therefore the process of love. One of the greatest diabolical attacks on the family is poor communication: husbands against wives; fathers against sons; and brothers against sisters. Through effective communication, love can nurture the wholeness of the family unit. The family, like the Church, must be a community, having a common unity. Christian communication, intimacy, and love cannot be separated from the love of God, as it is God who models and fuels “good relationships.” Such family spirituality requires that we pray and talk about our relationship with God.
At the same time, love in the home needs to be expressed and experienced as friendship. The definition that I prefer for “friendship” is illustrated with two circles that overlap one another, and one of those circles is divided in two. The drawing is accompanied with the maxim, “A friend doubles your joys and divides your sorrows.” This concrete definition of a friend can also serve as a test for those who care about us. Indeed, those who love us double our enthusiasm and divide our pain. Such a definition of friendship should be modeled and experienced by the members of a family. Friendship of family encourages, comforts and enables each member to grow.
One Christian family prays openly together at the end of each day. If the husband and wife are arguing, they bring the “issue” to prayer, because above all else they agree to pray together. In this way, their pattern of seeing arguments from a single point of view is broken by their commitment to God through communication. Through loving communication and friendship we share quality time with one another. St. Paul insists, “ … Love is long suffering, love is kind; love is not self seeking, it is humble and is not puffed up … But it rejoices in the truth. It hears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:4-7). These
Characteristics of love provide the kind of solid reinforcement upon which a Christian home is built.
Christ says, “You shall know them by their fruits!” (Matthew 7:16). In the Epistle of St. James, we learn, “Faith without works is a dead thing!” (James 2:17). The criteria for eternal life, according to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, is through works: feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, visiting the prisoners, and caring for the afflicted (Matthew 25). Doing works bears witness to our faith.
By living in an Orthodox family, a child learns how to be cared for in the home so that he or she may give care in the world. The product of our family reflects the degree to which we have made the effort to connect the things we say or believe to the things we do. An Orthodox family integrates faith and life; it is real and ideal. It is holiness, humility, love and action. Such are the marks of the Church, and they are also the critical dimensions of the family. These qualities constitute our Christian identity and ultimately our well-being.
Nurturing the Orthodox family is critical for the individual and society. By drawing upon the natural, spiritual resources of the Orthodox Faith, the sustenance of the individual, the home and the Church are assured and all are nurtured.
1 Papajohn, J. Pothos. Alumni Lecturers. Brookline: Holy Cross Press, 1974.
2 Tsongas, P. Heading Home. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th. D. is a professor of psychology and co-director of counseling and Spiritual Development at Hellenic College-Holy Cross school of Theology and an advanced fellow in behavioral medicine at Harvard Medical School at The Cambridge Hospital.