"Being at Home with God"
By Presvytera Vassi Makris Haros
What does your heart desire? This question was put to me one summer while I was living in New York City. I was a fashion design student and participating in a three month co-op, a college work/study program where students alternate quarters between classes and work. It was a great chance to see what the “Fashion World” demanded. I was definitely up for the challenge and creative enough to make it worth my while. But was participation in the fashion world the right choice for me?
My first sign that it was not was the day I played hooky from work to attend Liturgy. I couldn’t tell you the saint or the special feast that pulled me from work, but I must have been homesick. I had been on several co-ops across the country at this point, and I consistently found Church to be comforting and familiar. What I do remember is the widow at the bus stop who was also in church that morning. As the bus doors opened, I helped her up the high steps. In her thankfulness she blessed me with the most beautiful prayer, one that changed my life: “May you have all that your heart desires.”
Although I understand now that this is a common Greek saying, it was the most profound thing I had ever heard: “my heart’s desire.” What could my heart desire that would be different from any other part of my body? I suppose my feet desire comfortable shoes. My stomach desires healthy food. My ego desires attention... but my heart? What could my heart desire that would be so unique it was singled out in the prayer of the widow?
For days and months I struggled to understand what my heart’s desire was and how it was different from following my ambition. Eventually, it became clear that the fashion industry was not providing what my heart was craving. My heart’s desire was to be near God, to serve God through ministry and to work in the church.
In the season of the Annunciation, I often wonder about the Virgin Mary. I’m sure if you asked her when she was young about her ambitions, her list would not include: give birth to the Son of God, raise Him to be a grown man, and then watch Him hanging, crucified, on a cross. But—considering that as a young girl she was raised in the temple where prayer and awareness of God’s presence was a daily reality—if you asked her if she wanted to be near God and to please Him, she would reply, “Yes!” just as she had in the Gospel of Luke, 1:28-38. Being near God was familiar and comforting to her. Being near God was home.
Although we are not called to the high honor of the Virgin Mary, we are all called to find our home in God. How, then, do we teach our children and family that being near God is home—and the answer to their heart’s desire?
We must begin by establishing a connection between church and home using the tools of worship, so worship is familiar and God’s presence is welcomed. We need to have a strong understanding of liturgical time by celebrating the feasts and the fasts, so we can experience the Orthodox Faith in our time. And finally, we must pray so that, in a dialogue with God, we might understand who He is and who we are.
How can we make room for God in our homes so that we are at home with God?
Are the tools of worship available and familiar to everyone in the family? The tools of the Church incorporate all our senses. They are things we can touch, smell, see, taste and hear. One tradition in Orthodox countries is to burn incense in the house to bless the family members and the icons once a week. This can be done on Saturday mornings or evenings in preparation for Liturgy the next day. There can be an icon collection of patron or favorite saints displayed in all the bedrooms with a more formal family prayer corner (iconostasis) in a public area. Liturgical music can be played in the home or in the car when traveling. There are many adult and children’s choirs with chanting and singing of Orthodox hymns and folk songs. I recently came across a new CD of the Akathist of the Panagia, Nurturer of Children. Unlike the akathist prayers that are read and chanted during Great Lent, the prayers in this akathist are written as a parent’s petition to the Panagia to intercede in the raising of their children.
With church bookstores expanding and the internet readily available, every household should have a prayer corner where one can find icons, incense, prayer ropes, prayer books, and church music. When the tools of worship are available, liturgical worship is familiar and comforting, not distant or foreign.
How can we include God in our day so that we are at home with God?
Second, in order to experience Church in our homes, we should have a good understanding of liturgical time. If you find that you have to miss church to tend to young children or due to illness, restrict entertaining activities until afternoon when the Liturgy is over. The Archdiocese’s website www.goarch.org lists several parishes that streamline liturgy on Sundays, so even if you can’t be there you can be reminded of what is taking place.
Celebrate the feasts and name’s days. Have gifts, cake and a special meal for each family member’s name day, study the saints’ lives and learn their special hymns. During prayers, sing the hymns of your patron saint or parish’s feast day. Commit to learning the hymns of the 12 major feasts.
When children are old enough, have them begin fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. As they get older extend it to the 40 days before Christmas and Pascha, and then include the fasts for the Panagia, the Apostles, and St. John the Baptist. In time your family will find themselves celebrating the feasts, having experienced the discipline of the fasts; the liturgical calendar will have more meaning.
In addition to participation in the fasts, always practice the lesson in the Gospel of Matthew, 25:31-46. Show generosity to those who have less. Feed the poor. Clothe the naked. Visit the lonely. These are very real ways to include God in our daily lives and be near Him.
How can we make room for God in our hearts so that we are at home with God?
The third aspect of experiencing the church in our homes is prayer. Prayer is more than our talking to God with a list of troubles and blessings. It is also a time to be silent and aware that He is present. Prayer can be spontaneous or structured. Pre-established prayers offer us the appropriate language for understanding our relationship with God and are important regardless of a person’s spiritual level.
Prayers can be long and elaborate or as simple as, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Regardless of the length, they must be said, not so that God can hear us, but so that in the silence of prayer, we might hear God. And then the relationship can really begin to grow.
Besides establishing a family prayer rule of morning and evening prayers, there are many reasons to pray throughout the day. Prayer books available in most Orthodox bookstores have prayers for every aspect of human life: meals, sick people, before taking a test, and even when traveling. One important note: it is important that each person in the family has a prayer book that is age appropriate. Young children, teenagers, young adults and parents all need to be able to read prayers according to their age and ability. Adults need to move beyond their childhood prayers into a more mature prayer rule. Like any other “exercise,” you need a coach; be sure to consult your parish priest or spiritual father before beginning a prayer rule, so that a healthy discipline can be established.
Home is where the heart is
If we continue to establish a connection between the Church and home in these ways, we will find plenty of room for God in our homes, our daily lives, and our hearts. And when we are at home with God, like the Virgin Mary, we will truly have our hearts’ desire.
Presvytera Vassi Makris Haros is a graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. In the past, she served the Metropolises of Detroit and Pittsburgh as their director of youth and young adult ministries. She currently attends Transfiguration Greek Orthodox in Florence, South Carolina where her husband, Fr. Athanasios, is the parish priest. They have a 6 year old son.