Thursday, December 17, 2020

Evening Note for Thursday, December 17

Thought for the Evening: The Epistle to the Domestic Church

As Aquinas notes in various places, the New Testament epistles provide a thorough ecclesiology, although sometimes indirectly. What of the epistle to Philemon? Aquinas holds that it sheds light on grace in the Church so far as it extends to individuals, and in particular to those who have temporal responsibility in this world. There is something to this, but I think there is another way to understand Philemon that allows us to be more specific, namely, as the epistle that concerns the domestic church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the notion of the 'domestic church' in 1655-1658 and 1666, noting the important role of households in the early Church, which it characterizes as "islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world" (1655) and "centers of living, radiant faith" (1656). It links the notion to that of the priesthood of the baptized (1657) and notes that one of the functions of the Christian family or household is to be, like the Church itself, open even to those who are alone in the world. 

This is pretty general, but there are other places where the concept is discussed more fully. One is Christ, Our Pascha, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic catechism. The UGCC places a significant role on the notion of domestic churches, because it has been a church under rather severe persecution and its families are often scattered around the world because of it, so the domestic church has in many ways been one of the major means of its survival. Unsurprisingly, then, its catechism discusses the domestic church at some length, with the most extensive discussion occurring from 654 to 667. The family has a vocation to be the domestic church (655), in which the members of the family 'liturgize' by combining service to God with service to others (654). The family as the domestic church is built around the sacrament of matrimony, just like the parish church is built around the sacrament of orders (655). It is "the primary cell of the Christian community" that involves evangelizing, praying, and witnessing by example (656). It also discusses, in terms of the Ukrainian tradition, different aspects of the domestic church as a liturgical unit, such as icons, parental blessing of children, family prayer, Scripture reading, participation in traditions associated with holy days, and of course, matrimony itself.

This perhaps suffices to indicate the importance of the idea; but it has been more practiced than theorized. We can, however, think of Philemon as an epistle that gives us more insight into this familial vocation to the domestic church, particularly what it contributes to the Church at large. The letter, from Paul and Timothy, is explicitly directed to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and kat' oikon sou ecclesia, the church at your household (v. 2). Paul then says he thanks God when he hears of their love and faith toward Jesus and their fellow Christians. He then identifies what I think we can see as the two primary functions of the domestic church: the sharing of faith (v. 6) and the refreshing of the hearts of Christians (v. 7). The latter is particularly interesting and important, because we find it elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 16, we find Paul discussing the household of Stephanas, the first converts in Achaia, and notes that they have devoted themselves to the service of their fellow Christians (16:15), and rejoices that members of that household have come "for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours" (16:18). The word here is the same as in Philemon, so we have something that is definitely connected with the role of the household as domestic church: refreshing the hearts of the saints.

Philemon gives us a bit more of an understanding of how this refreshment. A slave in the household, Onesimus, had run away and become a Christian and helper of Paul; he is returning, but Paul charges that they receive Onesimus as a brother and as they would Paul himself, and to take this as a benefit they are giving Paul himself. He then sums this all up as refreshing his heart (v. 20), where the word, 'heart', means literally something like 'innards' or 'insides', and is often a figurative expression for mercy, pity, sympathy. By generously giving their familial hospitality, they, like the household of Stephanas in 1 Corinthians, can do something that brings repose to those who need to be acting out of mercy and pity -- namely, all of us -- and by their example giving a sort of restoration to that mercy and pity. It's an experience we've all had at some point, of being refreshed in our own good works by the good works of others, and this is, I suggest, one of the key functions of the domestic church: by a sort of familial hospitality and generosity, refreshing the mercy and good works of the whole Church.

In a Church without emphasis on the family, the household, we would expect a sort of drought; individuals cannot forever do good, cannot forever act mercifully, without refreshment. The lone person eventually goes dry, eventually begins breaking down from the exhaustion of it. And I would suggest we do see such droughts at times in the history of the Church; our own time is one, I think. On the other side, we find that a revival of the household as a Christian entity, even the mere attempt of families to rise up to their vocations as domestic churches, has immense benefits. The family can perhaps never remain wholly untouched by the world around, and inevitably assimilates things from it, not all good -- but as domestic church it begins the spiritual alchemy of slowly transfiguring these things into something nobler, a process that is slow and halting at times but that is nonetheless very real. And from it we get profound devotions, great leaders, and far more good than you might expect from even the most minor household routines.

And I think as well of the fact that so often, like the household of Stephanas, the 'church at the household' has been the platform for the Church when there was no other, and how it has often remained with extraordinary durability. Some of the successes of early modern missions to China came about when a number of Chinese families recognized that some of the ceremonies of the missionaries were clearly linked to their own family traditions, their ancestors having been converted centuries before and their family practices having preserved significant elements from that time. And, of course, there were the Japanese Christians, all of their priests murdered, subject to one of the most brutal persecutions in the history of the Church, but surviving, keeping the faith as best they could in their families, reciting the prayers even though they had become garbled and praying before a Buddhist shrine with a statue of the bodhisattva Kannon, holding a child, on some part of which they had made a mark to indicate that this was not Kannon but Maria and her Child, until one day, the country having opened up again, a priest tending a church for foreign traders stepped outside and found a number of curious but cautious Japanese gathered there, Christians in a country without Christianity, because they had heard a rumor that the priest's prayers and practices were like their own. During the persecutions of the Elizabethan era or the French Revolution or any number of others, it was the families that held the Church together, that protected the priests, that took in those who had suffered, and it was the families that slowly pulled everything back when the times allowed. It is not on its own the whole Church, but it is not an optional concession; it is an essential aspect of the life of the Church, enough that there was preserved in Scripture an entire Pauline letter devoted to it.

 Various Links of Interest

 * Ulatowski, Weijers & Sytsma, Corpus Methods in Philosophy

* Robert Schneider, Uncovering Ramanujan's "Lost" Notebook (PDF)

* Scott Moringiello, More Beauty Than Our Eyes Can Bear

* Dan Nixon, The body as mediator, discusses Merleau-Ponty 

* Pat Smith on the political vision of Wulfstan of York

* Taylor Ross, Against Religious Fellow-Traveling, on Simone Weil

* Stephen Palmquist, How Political Is the Kantian Church?

* Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke, "Shame on you!", discusses moral grandstanding

Currently Reading

 Michael Flynn, Falling Stars
John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain