Psychologists agree that environment is a contributing factor to an individual’s development. I imagine that the qualities of our information age coupled with the many things with which we surround ourselves has most of us experiencing more of an environmental overload than achieving an abiding peace in Christ. Yet, if we truly long to eternally communion with God, we must create space conducive to holiness.
The Apostles and those whom they baptized prayed in the Temple, gathered in homes to commemorate the Mystical Supper and found opportunities to stand privately and quietly in the presence of God. Shortly thereafter, a home or a catacomb would be the site of corporate worship until Constantine the Great would grant Christians the right to worship freely. Regardless of when, the faithful have always had to create sacred space within their homes and within themselves conducive for holiness.
What is necessary to make our dwelling holy? The most austere of our fathers, those dwelling in the desert, needed nothing and for this reason possessed nothing. In one instance, Evagrius noted that there was a brother who had no possessions except a Gospel book and he sold it in order to feed the poor. He said something worth remembering: “I have sold even the word that commands me to sell all and give to the poor.” Why would the desert fathers insist upon possessing nothing? Another story provides further insight:
A brother was leaving the world, and though he gave his good to the poor he kept some for his own use. He went to Antony, and when Antony knew what he had done, he said, ‘If you want to be a monk, go to the village over there, buy some meant, hang it on your naked body and come back here.’ The brother went, and dogs and birds tore at his body. He came back to Antony, who asked him if he had done what he was told. He showed him his torn body. Then Antony said ‘Those who renounce the world but want to keep their money are attacked in that way by demons and torn in pieces.’
None of us within the Parish setting have renounced the world to such an extent. Are we meant to have less care and concern for worldly trappings? Absolutely. Whatever we have in our homes – electronics, jewelry, clothing, art, books, even our icons and religious artifacts may be of value, but ultimately they remain of only secondary in importance compared to our greatest treasure, which is Christ. In the spirit of the Desert Fathers, we could do with less. The adage of “he who has the most toys at the end of game wins,” should be balanced with “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” than it is for a man who is possessed of worldly cares to attain the Kingdom of Heaven.
There are some items however, that should be fixtures within our homes, which assist us in creating holy space. Icons, vigil lights, a hand sensor, a Bible, prayer books, a prayer rope, cd’s of Orthodox hymnography or of Divine Services – are tools of the faithful, which encourage our prayer. Not having these items would be like a chef not having cooking utensils, pots and pans or an artist not having a colors and a brush with which to paint.
St. John of Krondstat writes that “We have images in our houses, and venerate them, in order to show, amongst other things, that the eyes of God and of all the company of heaven are constantly fixed upon us, and see not only all our acts, but also our words, thoughts, and desires.”
Again, these items have a divine purpose; they are not to be ornaments, talking pieces or dust collectors. Icons, a Bible, prayer books, a vigil light, and a censor all help us to create sacred space. St. John asks:
“Is it only for the adornment of your dwelling, as an ornament, that you hang up richly painted icons in your house, without turning to them with heartfelt faith, love and reverence due to holy things? Ask your heart if it is so. Icons in houses or in the temple are not intended for show, but for prayer before them, for reverence, for instruction. The images of the saints ought to be our teachers at home and in church. Study their lives, engrave them upon your heart, and endeavor to bring your life into conformity with theirs.”
No matter the physical environment it would seem, meaning whether we are in a home or a Church, there must exist space within each of us that is conducive to holiness. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware suggests that creating such space begins with these words of Christ, “When you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut the door, pray to the Father which is in secret.” Why would this be the case, because you may not always have your Bible, your icons, or Divine Services, but everywhere you go, as Theophane the Recluse reminds us, one always has his or her heart.
“Wherever man is, his heart is always with him, and so, having collected his thoughts inside his heart, he can shut himself in and pray to God in secret, whether he be talking or listening, whether among few people or many. Inner prayer, if it comes to a man’s spirit when he is with other people, demands no use of the lips or of books, no movement of the tongue or sound of the voice: and the same is true even when he is alone. All that is necessary is to raise your mind to God, and descend deep into yourself, and this can be done anywhere.”
This is sacred space and it is here that God and His Kingdom are found. “The heart is a small vessel,” says St. Makarios of Egypt, “…but all things are contained in it; God is there, the angels are there, and there also is life and the Kingdom, the heavenly cities and the treasures of Grace.”