The Domestic Church

When in the ancient city of Capernaum, situated on the Sea of Galilee, pilgrims visit a Roman church built in close proximity to a synagogue that dates back to the time of Christ.  This particular Roman Church is built upon an earlier Byzantine Church, which is built upon an earlier structure that had been expanded from its original floor plan, a home.  This home was in fact the home of the Apostle Peter, the home in which the Lord healed Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with fever.

Although the archeology of this site confirms that the home was the site of worship for the first Christians, Scripture also provides insight into the use of the home as a gathering place for the Lord’s disciples and those whom they would baptize.  On the occasion of Pentecost, where were the disciples gathered in one accord?  As in this instance of the Mystical Supper, they were gathered in a home.  In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, St. Luke writes of those first Christians who continued in the Apostles doctrine and fellowship, they continued daily with one accord in the temple and broke bread from house to house, eating food with gladness and simplicity.  And, when writing to the Corinthians, Saint Paul sends greetings to the faithful from a domestic church when he writes: “The churches of Asia greets you.  Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartedly in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.”

Although we are almost two thousand years from the establishment of the first Christian communities, as in the beginning, the Christian home remains a microcosm of the Church.  Within the patristic tradition, the home is often referred to as the domestic Church most commonly by St. John Chrysostom.  As a small Church, the individual or the family, both which gather in the communion of the saints, must be established firmly on the unshakable Rock, which is Christ.  When this occurs, that is when “…a home [is] filled with prayer,” according to Sister Magdalen in her writing, Orthodox Tradition and Family Life in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World, “God is ‘tasted’, prayer is as natural as breathing, and Holy Tradition is passed to the next generation less by preaching than by life and example.”

The passing on of Holy Tradition or, put another way, the imparting of the fullness of the Faith, is Christian pedagogy at its purest and best.  When the family, chooses to understand the home as a center of learning through living the faith, or in the words of St. Benedict, the family chooses to make their home a “school for the Lord’s service,” the clergy and the faithful of the parish need only affirm and complement what is lived in the domestic church, rather than attempting to introduce God and His saints to an individual or individuals, who are all but unwelcomed houseguests.

Throughout the entire history of salvation, there are those individuals who so established their domestic churches, unto their salvation as well as unto those who came into their midst.  Saint John Chrysostom elevates one such example:

Consider Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and the three hundred and eighteen born in his house (Gen. 14:14). How the whole house was harmoniously knit together, how the whole was full of piety and fulfilled the Apostolic injunction….

He then reminds those in the fourth century Antioch:

When husband and wife and children and servants are all interested in the same things, great is the harmony of the house. Since where this is not the case, the whole is oftentimes overthrown and broken up by one bad servant; and that single one will often mar and utterly destroy the whole. [30]

Reflecting upon this Truth after a vibrant and spirit-filled ministry, Father Anthony M. Coniaris has concluded:

The most influential school in the world is not Oxford or Harvard or the Sorbonne or Yale or Cambridge. It is the home.  The question is not, “Is there a school under your roof?”  The real question is, “How good is the school under your roof? What are you teaching? What are you not teaching?” If the one hour a week spent in Church and Church School is to be effective, it must be supplemented in the greatest of all schools, the home, by dedicated Christian parents who, by family discussions, family prayer, a special family evening, family Bible reading, family devotions at the supper table, will give their children the greatest gift possible: the knowledge of the One, True God Christ Jesus Who will walk with them through life, strengthen them, heal them, guide them, and give meaning to their life, grant the peace of God and lead them ultimately to life eternal.

What does this home look like?  Father Paisios of blessed memory, although writing about the good use of the monastic cell, also provides those of us in the world with a beautiful description of the Christian dwelling, be it a simple room or a multitude of rooms.

It is worth the effort to make our cell (or our home) like a little church, with icons and whatever else helps us reverence it and provoke godliness in us.  It will then have the power to pull us in and to allow our thoughts to concentrate, so much during our prayer as during our spiritual duties in general which, having been given the disposition, we will do with joy.

The reason that Father Paisios suggests that the home ought be understood and also ornate like a church is because within the seclusion of our homes, our vices can too often run rampant.  St. John of Kronstadt explains: “Watch your vices, above all at home, where they appear freely, like moles in a safe place.  Outside our own home, some of our vices are usually screened by other more decorous ones, while at home there is no possibility of concealing these black moles that undermine the integrity of the soul.”

As was once said by St. John Chrysostom:

So it’s better to conclude our sermon at this point, exhorting you in your goodness to remember what has been said and keep it ever in your mind; when you go home from here, lay out with your meal a spiritual meal as well.  …In short, the household might become a church, so that the devil is driven off and the evil spirit, the enemy of our salvation, takes to flight; the grace of the Holy Spirit would rest there instead, and all peace and harmony surrounded the inhabitants.