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The Church of the Heart

Our Response to God's Presence in the Whole of Life

by Presbytera Juliana Cownie

Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ
ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart. (II Corinthians 3:3)

It would be a very sad and difficult circumstance for us to endure if, indeed, all of God's Grace and blessings were contained merely within the walls of the Church building. Imagine having to leave behind every manifestation of God's Presence as we pass through the doors of the Church at the end of Sunday Liturgy, clinging to our memories of the Divine Services. These memories would soon vanish like mist as we went about the rest of our week, attending to our mundane, worldly routines. Our souls, being fed only once or twice weekly, would soon wither and starve. Such is not our plight, however, for which we can thank God and the wisdom of the Fathers of the Church, who ordained that we should establish home Churches. In our Icon corners, where we keep a lampada burning, we say morning and evening prayers, partake of Holy Water and Antidoron, and renew ourselves spiritually. Here we also encounter the Presence of God, Who is in our midst, and His Saints, who ever intercede on our behalf. Pious Orthodox Christians know their own weaknesses and understand how easily their thoughts can be led to stray along the alleys of vulgarity and tawdry desire. The world displays its catalogue of materialistic pleasures for us through every window we open, clamoring an appeal to our baser nature and promising instant gratification and fulfillment. But in this little corner of Heaven, our Icons give us a glimpse of that other realm, for which our souls yearn. The lampada burns continually as an image of continual prayer for which we strive. Thus, during the week we pray with our family in the home, just as we pray with our Orthodox family in the Church on Saturdays, Sundays, and Feast Days, strengthening and encouraging one another.

But what happens when we are neither in our Icon corners or in Church? As we go about our usual business, either at home, at work, or in school, are we in any manner removed from the Presence of God? Has prayer truly ended? If we heed our Lord's admonition that the Kingdom of God is within us, and if we attend to the Apostle Paul when he directs us to pray without ceasing, then we know that there exists yet another Church: the Church of the heart. By the sign of the Cross and with a prayer on our lips, we assume that armor which protects us from the insidious attacks of the demons, who are constantly plotting to bring about our downfall. We enter, thereby, into that refuge which is the Church of the heart. And should we doubt either the existence or the intent of such demons, and thus the importance of our inner Church, consider how quickly a curse comes to our lips when we are cut off in traffic by an inconsiderate driver, or when we smash our finger with a hammer. It is only by a concerted act of the will that we can develop the habit of a prayerful response to these kinds of temptations, since such a response is not instinctive to our fallen nature. Moreover, the demons do not hesitate to whisper cunning suggestions to us from their store of evil and perverse words and desires. Would we curse aloud during Divine services? In our Icon corners? No. If we are to avoid doing so elsewhere, once again we must enter into the heart, there not merely to take refuge, but to protect our inner Church from the defilement of forces and evil thoughts and worldly imaginings that constantly vie for our attention and which work against our salvation. And here we begin to learn of our responsibilities, of our proper response to God's Presence in every aspect of our lives.

Let us consider the way in which we accommodate God in our Churches, homes, and personal lives. What are our responsibilities in this regard? When we choose appropriate dress for attendance at Church, we are generally advised by our spiritual Fathers to consider the fact that we are, during the Divine Services, in the Presence of the King of Kings, for Whom we should show more respect than any earthly king. If summoned to a state function, we would not wish to appear in unclean, immodest, or excessively casual clothing, lest it appear to the other guests that we were unwholesome persons with whom it would not be appropriate to associate. So much more so in Church. It is of no importance whether or not the Priest notices that we attend services in inappropriate apparel. What should matter is that we would sully our witness before our brothers and demonstrate spiritual apathy to any newcomers present, if we did not attempt to look our best and to emphasize that we are in the splendid House of God. We bear a responsibility in seeing that others perceive the respect with which we approach God.

Though we may be slightly more casual in our dress, there is still no excuse for slovenliness or immodesty in the home Church. Here, too, we are in the Presence of God, imploring His mercy and requesting His blessing upon us. Just as God sometimes sends surprise visitors into Divine services, and we must therefore be prepared to greet these newcomers and to set a good example, so we must take responsibility for properly greeting those whom God sends to the front door of our houses, leaving them with a positive impression of an Orthodox Christian home. The Orthodox Christian home also shelters the Icon corner. If chaos reigns within the house—dirty dishes perpetually stacked in the sink, clothes and papers littering the floor, the family eating food straight from the refrigerator or out of a box in front of the television and at odd hours (that is, not sitting down to regular meals together)—, an outsider might conclude that a group of mentally ill people has taken up their abode in the place, and that the Icon corner is merely a quaint symptom of their madness. This is not unlike placing Icons next to pagan or obscene paintings and statues. Poor confused people, a visitor would murmur. They dont seem to know what they are.

By the same token, the physical appearance of our bodies and our personal habits have an essential impact on the Church of the heart, and we have an immense responsibility to see that our bodies, too, bear witness to the Presence of God within them. It is clear that others will not only judge our hearts by the outward appearance of the temple which houses them, but that the heart itself is formed by the manner in which we adorn its temple. This said, what is appropriate dress for the Christian? First of all, we should never dress in such a way as to emphasize the body. Our concern as Christians is above all with the spirit. Why, then, should we dress in a manner which accentuates our fallen physical nature? Man or woman, we have no reason to confound and distract the eye by wearing tight clothing (body-hugging jeans, stretch pants, spandex apparel, etc.), revealing clothing (shorts of any length on either sex, mini-skirts, shirts or blouses left half-buttoned, low-cut, off-the-shoulder dresses, clothes so loose as to expose undergarments), or clothes more appropriate to the opposite sex (e.g., pants on women or earrings on men). Flashy jewelry, make-up, elaborate or faddish hairstyles—these are the neon signs which make passers-by mistake a Church for a bar. We send signals by these means, and these signals simply invite defilement. The Church of the heart is more precious than most of us know. In fact, those who have seen their Church buildings burned and their homes destroyed by godless forces, and who have no other vessel in which to carry Christ, would tell us to cherish the Church of the heart above all others. The time may come when we have nowhere else to go for spiritual nourishment. The purity of our hearts will determine, then, the fate of our souls. We cannot afford to enter our parish Church as, say, Constantine and Justina to partake of the Holy Mysteries, and then walk back into the world as Wayne and Bonnie, leaving our patron Saints and spirituality behind. The world of Wayne and Bonnie must give way to the House of God, and their house must become a new dwelling, a place wherein the Holy Spirit might abide. And finally, dying to the Waynes and Bonnies of this world, our very bodies and hearts must embrace the spiritual qualities of the Saints in whose honor we are Baptized, taking on not only their names, but, to whatever degree possible, their perfection in Christ.

Our Savior has said that, Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33). We are called by God to confess His Presence before all men. This we do not only in our Churches, but everywhere. When we so confess our Lord Jesus Christ before all men, it may not be a simple matter of petty embarrassment at blessing our food in a restaurant. We may be threatened with the loss of our job, of our home, or our freedom. We may even have a gun shoved in our backs, requiring us to choose between our life and our immortal soul. Our responsibilities are great and the consequences of our witness are not small. It is not enough, in preparing to witness to the universal Presence of God, that we build mere Churches. It is not enough that our homes have a Christian atmosphere. In the end, unless we build up the Church of the heart, we will fail to live up to our responsibilities. We will lack the courage to suffer the consequences of our actions. And we will thus be guilty of failing to confess Christ before all men, of shirking our Christian responsibility to reify in ourselves God's Presence, and of neglecting to respond to the constant call of God from within.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, No. 2, pp. 63-66.