Friday 11th September 2015: The ‘little church’

This week has been “Pugin Week” – a week long celebration in Ramsgate Kent of the genius and legacy of one of Britain’s most famed and influential 19th century architects  – Augustine Welby Pugin. If you’ve never heard of him, think of ‘Big Ben’ (as in the clock tower) and most of the interiors of the Palace of Westminster, to say nothing of the countless neo-Gothic Catholic churches and chapels and buildings he designed and constructed and you’ll get an idea of his impact.
Like so many of the “Romantic Catholic” converts of the Victorian era he was fascinated by retrieving the antiquity of ye olde English Catholicism, not just by designing places of worship fitting for the emerging new freedoms of Catholic life and worship post the emancipation of 1850, but also the revival of Catholic spirituality in the home and family. To that end he designed his own family house called The Grange, which is adjacent to his famous church, St. Augustine’s, in such a way that it felt at one with the church building like a presbytery or rectory. But importantly for him it was a question of the life and atmosphere in the home being a visible and tangible extension of the Sacrifice of the Mass in which the family participated next door in the church itself.
So the furnishings had an ecclesiastical feel, the dining room was like a monastic refectory and even bells rung to signal times for the family to come together to either eat and pray. All a bit eccentric and extreme for our contemporary tastes and sensibilities nowadays I guess? But for me the underlying message of Pugin’s eccentricity if you like was a profound truth about the family home loving, living and breathing like a ‘little church.’There’s lots of discussion in the news within the Church at this time about how much we need to learn from our separated Eastern Orthodox brethren about marriage and divorce etc. But we are missing the opportunity of revisiting an aspect of the Eastern tradition and pastoral spirituality regarding the family which in his own idiosyncratic way Pugin was in touch with. Take St. John Chrysostom’s exalted vision and emphasis on Christ-filled marriage and family life.
As Archbishop of Constantinople, he believed that it is the calling of every Christian married couple to make their home a little church, and he preached with all his heart to inspire the married people in his flock, to fill them with this vision, this ideal, this goal, and to instruct them in how to bring this vision to pass in their own homes.Here are six characteristics of the home as a little church found in St. John Chrysostom’s preaching and writing:
  1. The need, indeed the requirement, that husbands love their wives with Christ-like, self-sacrificial love. “For Christ espoused His Church as a wife, as a root He causes her to grow” he said. Marital love is “a thing that no possession can equal; for nothing, nothing whatever, is more precious than to be thus loved by a wife and to love her.”  St. John was often very practical in his advice. For instance, he exhorts the husbands of his flock “Never call her merely by her name, but with terms of endearment, with honour, and with much love”
  2. Discipline in the family and home will only come about if the parents, and in particular the father, are seen to be masters of self-discipline. (So maybe Pugin’s idea of having a quasi monastic rhythm to the life of the household isn’t so eccentric after all?
  3. The training of children in the ways of faith. St. John speaks of parents shaping their children into “wondrous statues for God”: “To each of you fathers and mothers I say, just as we see artists fashioning their paintings and statues with great precision, so we must care for these wondrous statues of ours. Painters, when they have set the canvas on the easel, paint on it day by day to accomplish their purpose. Sculptors, too, working in marble, proceed in a similar manner; they remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking. Even so you must proceed. Like the creators of statues, give all your leisure to fashioning these wondrous statues for God.”Regard the soul of a child like a city which must be governed wisely. He likened the five senses to five gates to the city which parents must guard so that nothing evil or harmful enters the city.
  4. Regular Scripture study, spiritual discussions, and prayer. In one notable passage Chrysostom suggests that families need this more than monastics do: “The solitaries do not need the consolation and the help of the Holy Scriptures as much as do those who are in the midst of the whirl of a distracting existence.” He suggests reading selected psalms with children just as we do with nursery rhymes and poetry which they can memorise from an early age. Concerning fostering spiritual discussions in the home, Chrysostom recommends  that the father at the family dinner table repeat, and promote discussion about, the sermon or homily heard at church.“When you go home from here, lay out with your meal a spiritual meal as well, that the household might become a church”
  5. Praying together as a family is recommended with great zeal and in particular the prayers at the end of the day. He speaks of the night prayers being the ones most favoured by and listened to by God because knows how tired we are at the end of a day and how much energy it requires of us to settle ourselves and our children down to recite some prayers. Even if they are short and brief, “there is no fire as effectual to burn off rust as night prayer to remove the rust of our sins…”
  6. Be mindful of the example we give as spouses and parents to younger ones. God sees and hears everything we do in the home and it’s often through the eyes and ears of the younger members of the family. This reflects what the pope said recently about the delight the angels have when a mother and father exchange a kiss of affection before their children because of how it nourishes the life of grace in their souls.
In conclusion St John Chrysostom speaks of the importance of almsgiving by the Christian family to the poor. Establishing the habit of the family having a heart for helping the poor and needy is he would say, “Consider to whom you are giving drink, and tremble. Consider, you have become a priest of Christ.”  But more on that another time!
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