Man longs for holy places, because the heart of man longs for God. The Orthodox Christian temple, the church building itself, is so arranged and ordered that it raises the mind to heavenly things. Some have been brought to Faith in Christ simply by walking into a parish or cathedral where the building is a prayer wrought in stone, wood, and precious metals. So too outside of Holy Orthodoxy, one often finds this inner longing for sanctified places powerfully expressed.
In a nearby Roman Catholic hospital, St. Mary’s, most rooms have a crucifix prominently displayed on the wall. This familiar image of our Savior, His arms outstretched in love and sacrifice for patients, staff, and visitors, is a moving reminder of the Lord’s compassion and solicitude for each one of us. The atmosphere in the otherwise ordinary hospital room is changed, colored by this reminder of the Lord’s presence. Many in our culture describe themselves with the now commonplace phrase, “spiritual but not religious,” and more and more deny the very existence of the spirit, soul, and God Himself. But even these people may comment that for them “church” is an autumn hike in the forest or a sunny day at the beach. Even that “fool” who “hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God,’ (Ps. 13 :1)” who denies the existence of the Artisan, is drawn to the beauty, complexity, and wonder of the handiwork.
One anticipates the objection, “All of creation is sacred. Therefore we have no need, especially since the Lord’s coming in the flesh, of specially sanctified places.” Would that this were so! It would mean that each of us lived our lives in constant and unwavering remembrance and vision of God. But who among us can honestly claim this? We show that this is not so by our manner of living and our homes often reflect this.
In many cultures, the hearth was anciently the material and figurative center of the home. It was the source and symbol of heat necessary for physical well-being and sustenance. The phrase “hearth and home” still calls to mind warmth, good cheer, and familial love. This so even for those who have never lived in a dwelling with an actual hearth. When so many have exchanged the hearth for less visible (and less evocative) heat sources, have we thereby ceased having a focal point in our homes? If not, has the focal point of our homes become spiritual, or do we spend our waking (and sometime sleeping!) hours basking in the cool, blue glow of televisions, computer monitors, and touchscreens? Do we orient everything else in our homes towards our counterfeit “hearths.” Do we frequently think about these contemporary symbols of rest and relaxation even when we are otherwise engaged in school, work, and recreation?
Orthodox Christian domestic life never needs to be so impoverished! The Christian family and their home ought to be a church in miniature, and the order and arrangement of our living space is an important aspect of this. An icon corner can serve as the spiritual hearth of the Orthodox Christian home. It is that holy and yet familiar place where we encounter each day, in the course of ordinary life, the image of our Lord Jesus Christ, His most blessed and all-pure Mother, his angels and righteous ones. The warmth of Christ’s perfect love envelops us, the light of His countenance shines on us, and our minds and hearts are called back to what is heavenly. Our home itself bears witness to the center of our true life, the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Sadly, we often forget this. The icon corner that we set up lovingly upon moving into a new home, or on our conversion to Holy Orthodoxy, may easily become an afterthought. Our holy place starts to seem mundane, and we spend at best only a few perfunctory minutes each day standing before the icons to quickly recite our morning and evening prayers. God has worked wonders and healings, caused myrrh to stream even from “mere” paper icons, copies of the originals. Conversely, even the most beautiful hand-painted icons, masterpieces of faith and skill, can lose the attraction, the spiritual “pull,” they once had for us. This is not because of any deficiency on their part but because we harden our hearts to the action of God’s grace. The icons are ignored, at best occasional reminders of the life of prayer that we once strove for. Like a ruined temple, the “altar” of our own domestic Church is covered over by the cares of this world, a curiosity for those who visit us or forgotten entirely.
At this point we must consider whether the icons in our homes have become pious “decorations” for us rather than the windows to heaven they are intended to be. If so, how do we restore their true purpose to our daily lives? How do we ensure that the icon corner is truly the spiritual center of our home?
The icon corner will only be this spiritual “hearth” if it is in fact a place where we pray. In addition to our daily prayers in the morning and evening, we may return there as time and circumstances permit to read a psalm or offer brief supplication and praise from the heart. We can find solace there in particularly difficult times or simply from the everyday noise and agitation of the world. We may venerate the icons and ask the Lord’s blessing before we go out of our home and at the time of our return. Children may learn reverence and love by seeing their parents’ devotion expressed in concrete action. Each year as the priest comes to bless our home after Theophany the icon corner is the natural starting and ending point of the service, and becomes a link between our private, family prayers and the prayers offered by the whole people of God. Our icon corner can even, much like our Christian temples, be a silent prayer in wood and pigments, and a witness to those as yet without Faith in Christ. Let us Orthodox Christians, who have seen the true Light, not neglect these precious, holy places in our own homes which ever direct us to the worship of the undivided Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.