Struggle for Family Life

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Struggle for Family Life
Summer 1998
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”]

Family life has been given considerable attention by the news media recently. Indeed, so-called “family values” even become part of many political platforms. This summer, “The Family” will be the major consideration at our Archdiocesan Assembly in Winnipeg, Manitoba from 7 to 10 July. The parish has an important rôle to play in the strengthening and supporting of the Orthodox Christian family, and our deliberations in Winnipeg should help us focus our attention on this rôle and offer ideas about how such support can be given and built up.

Like most of the social ills of our day, the problems of the decay of the family will not be solved by simple education, advertising, programmes or legislation, although these can be constructive elements. As has always been the case, recovery will be found in the hearts of those who comprise the family itself. Repentance is the watch-word.

The societal environment of our Orthodox families is anything but supportive. Actively corrosive is perhaps the better term. If one pays too much attention to this corrosive environment, he or she might be swallowed up by a storm of temptation, might become depressed, or might even give up hope. It takes prayer, determination, discipline and even something akin to a missionary attitude to live in a constructive, positive, loving, life-giving way as an Orthodox family.

With the above caution in mind, however, I want to consider this corrosive societal environment we live in, an environment that is truly a storm of temptation. It is an environment which has forgotten or rejected God, and which, like communism, is pre-occupied with base materialism. Material success we are prodded towards every day by almost every element of our life : at school, on radio, television, internet, in newspapers, magazines, and by our neighbours. Making money, wielding power, getting the better of the other – these are the main motives driving daily life. Competition is a close relative. Deceit is actively encouraged. Striving to get the most for the least, and at best something for nothing, people trample each other. Material demands have made us technological slaves, and the cost of living has so risen with the pursuit of comfort that few families now escape the fact of both parents’ working. Parents and children alike find themselves labouring under the heavy burden of daily demands, and there is general fatigue and malaise. Families fragment, and most people are lonely. There are storms of temptations.

The core of our modern materialistic environment insists that we humans are the greatest, that we are the best, that we are the smartest, that we can accomplish everything. We convince ourselves that we can do anything, that each of us is captain of his/her own soul, the pilot of his/her own destiny. We think that we are in control. We think that if things get unmanageable, all we need to do is to find a new programme, or to manipulate things in just the right way, and we will be totally in control again. Thus, blindfolded, we try to sail on upon the choppy waves in the storms of temptations.

In society in general, there is a parallel escapism which seeks to ease the strain and pain of sailing the boat of denial. The present phenomenon of each person in a family having his or her own room in which to be isolated, even insulated, from the family is a symptom. Some seek solace in television or other forms of audio-visual entertainment ; some travel ; some flee to phantasy in one form or the other ; some crave consolation in some form of sensuality. Others take an alternative route of escape by living in a make-believe way here in Canada. Even in the middle of a city, we can find people trying to reconstruct life in another place, in another century, in another culture, in another time. Too many go further : they try to numb the pain of life with alcohol and/or drugs. Adults and children alike are strongly pressed by peers to conform to this rat-race. Storms of temptations constantly toss the leaking ship of denial about.

If we honestly hope to begin making a change in our lives and in that of our families, we must first refuse to blame anyone else for what has gone wrong, and take up our own responsibility. In doing so, in ”getting a grip”, the very first step, even before taking responsibility, is the necessary call to the Lord for help. We are not, in fact, in control of everything in our lives, and we alone cannot do or make anything. We need help from God.

When we call on the Lord, we begin to recognise how we have been taken in by the assorted lies about what is necessary in life. It is at this pivotal point, this turning point – this point of repentance – that we can begin to turn the tide that has been pushing us, or dragging us, or hurling us about. We are not the captain of our own souls, the pilots of our destinies. All of our lives are interconnected, and what each one of us does or is, affects everything and everyone everywhere. Once we have seen through the lies of materialism, acquisitiveness and consumerism, we can begin to acknowledge that we do not actually need everything that we are told is a necessity. We can begin to acknowledge that we could live quite happily with much less. We can begin to acknowledge that we do not have to be driven by perpetual acquisition, and that we are indeed not “born to shop”.

Once we arrive at this awareness, we begin to admit that because we have fallen into such insatiable acquisitiveness, we have contributed to the mistreatment of human beings and of the ecology of the world. We admit that we have, worse, thereby actively removed food from the table of the hungry everywhere in order to maintain our demands. This sort of awareness is particularly important, not only because it is true, but because it can help us always to ask the question : “Do I really need this ?”

This awareness is the foundation – the root of repentance – of a change toward a better direction for personal, family and parish living. Indeed, repentance, and its twin, forgiveness, are the root of our whole life, as we see very plainly in the Holy Gospels and in the whole of the New Covenant. Where does this lead us in the context of our Orthodox families ? In the context of the obligatory repentance and forgiveness, we understand rightly that if change is needed, it must begin with ourselves. In repentance and forgiveness, we work together with our Lord, who effects change in our own hearts by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. This change affects for the good our own relationships with our family-members, and the family itself then becomes the crucible in which forgiveness and repentance are refined in ourselves, alone and together.

In this process, it is crucial that we begin by not treating each other (both in our families and in our parishes) as commodities. If we are honest, we will readily admit that we have done so. People are like ikons. Their value is found in who they are, not in what they do, how much they know, whom they know, how attractive they are, or how much they earn. And so we begin anew to treat each other with tender, patient, nurturing love, like delicate flowers and plants in a garden whose blossoms and fruit we want to encourage. Orthodoxy has always encouraged this, and there are many pious stories of persons who have treated the ugly, the diseased, the disadvantaged, the deformed as beautiful flowers, as revelations of Christ. We consider each person to be a saint. Our famous hospitality, too, has roots in treating all humans without distinction, as the ikons of Christ that they are. This way of perceiving other people is also the source of our readiness to give alms, to be generous to the beggar on the street, and not to ask questions. It is the source of true care for the neighbour, wherever that neighbour may be, and regardless of how that neighbour acts.

Orthodox families need to be rooted in the love of Christ. This is their source of life and strength as they stand resisting the tide of unbelief, the tide of materialism, the tide of the objectification (the reification) of others (reducing human beings to mere things). This rooting in the love of Christ, this nurture, needs constant attention. It requires vigilance. Although it may be difficult enough for an adult to stand out as we do and must, it is, by far, more so for a child or a youth, whose peers can be merciless in their attitudes and comments.

Through their own love for Christ and the saints, parents must, therefore, make real efforts to lead by example, and to help their children to find this same love, to find this same strength, to find this same reason for living. For everyone, this love of God is caught, not taught, although some teaching helps to inform, direct and refine it. This love is the all-encompassing characteristic of our relationship with Christ, just as it is that which develops our distinctive personalities and personal characteristics. This love gives strength to face every hardship, provides hope, overcomes temptation, overcomes sin. This love enables us to live in Christ’s freedom.

In our families, some sort of short, daily prayer is necessary morning and evening, with as many together as possible, even if only for a very few minutes. Daily we should be reinforcing good Orthodox Christian habits : blessing food and thanking God for it ; blessing the family on departing the house ; pausing briefly before the ikons before travelling ; blessing God on rising and retiring, and before beginning to work, to play, or to start any project. Daily we should be reading the Bible, too, and taking at least one meal together.

These good habits reflect the fact that our Orthodox Christian Faith touches every aspect of our lives, and that there is nothing that we do, nowhere that we go without Christ, or without His blessing or protection. It is by drawing on this blessing that we will have strength to endure the daily struggles. It is by drawing on this blessing that we will be able to grow. It is by drawing on this blessing that we will be able to live and share Christ’s love.

This love develops and flourishes when we are spiritually vigilant. Parents teach their children vigilance by example. As both Saint John Climacus and Starets Anthony of Optina have said, when we are observing the faults of others and talking and criticising, we do the work of the devil. We have to watch out for enmity and judgement in ourselves, guarding against a critical spirit. “What are the sins of others to us” says the Starets, “when we are up to our necks in endless sins ?” Citing the Psalter, he encourages us to ask God to set a guard before our mouth, to turn our hearts away from evil thoughts. If we see a fault in another, we ought to pray.

Starets Anthony gives some good advice, which I will summarise. When you rise and when you retire, let your first and last thoughts be towards God. Greet Him. Bless yourself with the sign of the Cross. Many a Slav will say : “Good morning, Bozhinka”, which means, “Good morning, dearest God”. Bow down literally and give thanks to God for everything. Get your heart and mind in gear, set on a good path by asking God to help you to do what is best. Starets Anthony says : “No-one shall complete the path to Heaven, save he who begins every day well”.

Try to keep a prayerful disposition with actual prayer wherever possible during the day, and know that the Lord is with you, along with the heavenly host. Do not fall into wasteful idleness. Pray. Read the Bible, or the lives of the saints. Help someone. Try to watch your thoughts and learn the positive aspects of silence. Beware of idle chatter and try not to be excessive in laughter, and most especially in so-called derisive humour. Do not quarrel or envy. Be modest in eating. Be a servant of all. Remember the inevitability of death and keep your heart to the Lord. Love His creatures, humans, all animals, everything. And finally, take each day as it is, one step at a time, putting everything in God’s hands, just as He taught us.

In the end, if we as persons and we as families are vigilant, if we are faithful, if we persevere, holding tightly on to the hand of Christ our Saviour, we will find that we, like the Apostle Peter, will not be overcome by the storms of temptations, but will sail safely in the ship of the Church into the harbour of heavenly joy.