The Church: How we should view and treat the House of God

At the request of one of the readers of "Orthodox Tradition," I would like to make a few comments about Churches. I have decided not to write my comments for "Orthodox Tradition," since the majority of our readers would simply be infuriated by what I have to write.

First, let me note that Orthodox Churches are not "Temples," as we see them so often called. The Greek word for Temple, "Naos," actually means house.

This reminds us that the early Christians, under persecution, worshipped in houses, when necessary. The Jewish Temple was transformed, in Christianity, into something quite different than the fearsome place where the Jews encountered God. In Christianity, fear and awe became the roots of piety, despite the fact that, following Western scholars, certain Orthodox observers (Schmemann chief among them), have tried to attribute this piety to a deviation from the Apostolic spirit. And this worship of God in fear and trembling, as Scripture describes it, took on a new dimension in the Christian Church, by virtue of Christ's Incarnation and manifestation of God's boundless love. The Temple became, as it should properly be, the "House" of God, wherein the family of man has been reconciled to the Father through the Sacrifice of the Son, comforted by the Holy Spirit.

It seems to me, as well, wholly inappropriate that, in English, we should call our Churches "Temples." This gives the impression that we have something to do with the Jewish religion or with certain cults, where this term is almost exclusively used. Orthodox "exotica" aside, we should be very careful in our terms. "Naos" describes the House of God and Ekklesia, while it does describe the Body of Christ and the "gathering of Christians," also applies to the building in which they worship. The House of God is a Church, not a Temple.

Second, having said this, we must be very careful not to misunderstand what the House of God is. I once heard a very pious Abbess, a Romanian here in America, say: "We think of our Churches as our homes." This is a wonderful image. But it can be misleading, if it is taken beyond the realm of imagery. The Church is our spiritual home, in an emotional and pastoral way; however, it is not a house in the normal sense of that word. Thinking so, there is a great temptation to retreat into the coy primitive notions of the Church that so mutilated Roman Catholicism in the '60s, when the notion of primitive house Churches and primitive liturgical practices was thought to embody a return to "authentic" Christianity. This thinking is so aberrant as to flirt with heresy, since the Church is revealed in history through the Holy Spirit and never loses its authenticity. Those who believe that they are in the Church, but must recapture its authenticity, are, by the very nature of their thinking, alienated from the authentic Church.

As soon as Christianity was free, when it blossomed in the fourth century, contrary to the mistaken notion that its piety was diminished, its piety was in fact given full expression. Beautiful Churches, magnificent services, vestments, and the like became critical and integral parts of worship. They became indispensable parts of true Christianity. Living in the eschatological "now," Christians felt the need to capture the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, to make manifest, through the Icon of the Church, the Grace and the glory which have even now, by virtue of the transforming power of the Resurrection, been made available to us in the fallen world. And it was in the Church and its beauty that the "otherly" found expression. The Church became royal, the dwelling-place of the King and the repository of all of the whole royal heritage that has been promised to us as Christians.

It is for this reason that the Church should be adorned with the best that the world has to offer. It should be decorated with gold and silver. And like a proper Icon, it should present us with an image of another world, of a world strange to this one and yet somehow familiar to the spiritual impulses within our hearts. It should be strange and different to what is worldly and should provoke fear and awe, in the love of Christ, from the inner world of the soul. Indeed, we see in the Church itself an image of the universe, divided as it is between the Holy Place and the rest of the Church, the Saints peering out at us with spiritual eyes through the Templon (Iconostasion), as we see through their Icons, with our worldly eyes, into the Kingdom of Heaven, which we thus understand in a glimpse and which we come to know, however imperfectly, as our ultimate goal. The Church is built not for our physical comfort, but as a place of asceticism: dark, isolated from worldly comforts and things, a place in which we stand and struggle with the flesh. It is primarily a place for spiritual comfort, a place where the Divine Paraclete dwells and in which our hearts take wings. It contains that glory for which our flesh suffers and groans.

In the Church, from earliest times, vessels, vestments, the names of objects, chanting, Icons, and every form of decoration found in it were something different than what we encountered in everyday life. The very best and the very richest we put in our Churches. And, in a psychological sense, we have endowed our Churches with those things which say to the world around us that it is the repository of our dreams, the treasury in which we store the best that we have gleaned from the world, and the most important thing on earth. The Church has always represented the best that man has to offer, so that in the Icon of the material House of God we might accommodate the Grace of the Ineffable. Even the appearance of our clergy, who should AT ALL TIMES wear their clerical robes, offers us an image of God's Grace: properly dressed, beard and hair uncut, the servants of God provide us with an image of the Prophets and the ascetics. Their bodies covered and modest, we see in the clergymen (or the monks and nuns) what man can be, when he is transformed by Grace and called to perfection in Christ.

We find an image of the restored human, who is not contained in the body, adorning it with a personality, but who rises above the material and is served by the flesh, which is lifted above style, fashion, and the ego.

A Church, then, should contain nothing of the world. I have been in Churches where pots and pans, garage sale junk, and every little gadget could be found. The Altars of such Churches look more like the storage room of a Salvation Army thrift shop than the place where the King of Glory dwells eternally on the Holy Table. And they reveal a lack of true belief.

Churches are often decorated, and here in America, as though we were living in the smallest village in the remote mountains of Eastern Europe, with junk, left-overs from believers' houses, and "homey" things have no place in the Church. If, in isolated villages, poor peasants gave the best that they could offer, this does not mean that we, who are not peasants isolated in the mountains, need not give the best that we have to offer. And our best is something quite different than that of indigent villagers. The poverty of pious believers in tragic circumstances does not allow us to be cheap and to introduce into the House of God the scraps that we can no longer use in our own homes. This is blasphemy. And it is blasphemy that becomes particularly harmful when it leads to the coy primitive: Americans, who are unbelievably wealthy, even in the poorest circles, by comparison to many of the poor Orthodox in Eastern Europe, living the fantasy of being Greek or Russian peasants and making of Orthodoxy some romantic "return to the soil." This is NOT the Faith of our Fathers. If I am despised for saying so, let me say it again and again.

It speaks for itself that, except in the poorest of places, Orthodox in native Orthodox lands do not, in fact, worship in makeshift Churches. If one travels through villages in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, or the Levant, the most beautiful building in a town is inevitably the Church, adorned with all that is beautiful and priceless. And even though the temporary garage Churches of the Orthodox in diaspora are now an object of imitation by some Orthodox converts, the same Orthodox immigrants who built these temporary Churches, out of necessity, also built, with their pennies and by saving, not for vacations and college educations for their children, but for the glory of God, some of the most magnificent edifices to be found in America. This alone should put to rest the trend, among many Orthodox converts, towards a coy primitive practice of Orthodoxy that does damage to the very core of our Faith.

I fully realize that not every community can afford, even with the greatest sacrifice, to build a beautiful Church. And, given the materialism of America, believers who are willing to sacrifice for the Church are becoming fewer and fewer. Some even expect the Priest, often serving without a salary, to build Churches for them! And what is temporary is, of course, better than nothing. I have no argument with those who find themselves in such circumstances. But, by the same token, we should, even when we have little, give that greater part to God. And it should show in our Churches.

They should not, even in the most difficult circumstances, become dumping-grounds for what we can no longer use in our homes. They should not be adorned with homemade art, makeshift trinkets, and the products of amateur skills and amateur construction. Nothing should be done hastily or built without absolute care for detail and beauty. And if one cannot afford what is correct, he should wait until he can buy what is appropriate, saving, once more, not for worldly distractions (vacations, televisions, and the like), but for the adornment and glorification of the Church.

What I have said is expressed in the Fathers and the Canons, if one examines them carefully. And it is evident, as I have said, in the magnificent monuments to God that even our poorest ancestors have left to inspire and instruct us. I have always felt this and have always been profoundly uncomfortable with the trend that I see in Orthodoxy towards the glorification of the primitive which, as I said above, seems to have shattered the Roman Catholic Church in its reforms some decades ago. But beyond these academic and theological arguments, something else has always motivated me, some intuitive feeling that I could never articulate. When I was in Sweden earlier this month, Metropolitan Cyprian gathered the clergy and spoke to us about proper behavior in the Altar. What he said on this occasion, much to my surprise and delight, suddenly enlightened me. I understood the real reason that I have always feared and even loathed the makeshift in Church. What he said shook me.

In telling the clergy to enter the Altar and approach the Holy Table with fear and awe, never leaning on the latter and always showing proper respect to the holy things within the Altar, His Eminence said: "Nothing is more dangerous to a Priest than 'familiarity' with holy things." Immediately I understood the spiritual psychology of Orthodox Church architecture and decoration that I had only before felt intuitively. When the "House of God" becomes our "home," and when we fill it with what is familiar, with what we find in everyday life, we lose our sense of awe. We forget that the things of the Church lift us up, like Icons, to spiritual archetypes. We become, through the familiar, earth-bound, and we compromise that transcendence which, in the properly appointed Church, spontaneously comes upon us, on account of the transformation of our senses. The chanting, the incense, the subdued, dark atmosphere of the Church: all of these things help us to see a different world, to reach up to the loftiness of the other world. With the familiar, this is difficult. And the Church, which treats us spiritually, physically, and psychologically through its therapeutic traditions, has not by accident taken on its present form. Should we ignore this form for the coy primitive, we court disaster and foster that spiritual superficiality, that romantic notion of the Church as our "home" and a thing of the "soil," and deny ourselves the wonderful privilege of sacrificing beyond our means to leave here in the world, in the beauty of our Churches, an external token of the restoration of fallen man that is contained within the very structure of the buildings in which we worship.

By Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna