Thursday, January 10, 2008

banished to the outer darkness

There aren't too many things that excite me about this new house in Elkridge (which now isn't scheduled to be completed until June or July, incidentally). The setting lacks most of the advantages of a site that's truly urban or truly rural, or even the usual amenities of a truly suburban location. It's not a very walkable area, nor will we have much opportunity to get outdoors within our own domestic space. (There's a small balcony, but it will be off one of the kids' rooms.) The distribution of space is odd, with large bedrooms and a comparatively small living space, due to the garages taking a bite out of the first floor. (This is a stacked townhouse; ours, the bottom unit, has a chunk taken out for the one-car garages--one for us, one for the neighbors above.)

But one thing that I have been looking forward to is having my own walk-in closet. The master bedroom and bath could almost serve as its own apartment. (In fact, it's not much smaller than our first apartment was.) There are double sinks and a double shower, a mammoth linen closet (besides two more in the hallway), a large bedroom area with a bay window, and two walk-in closets, the larger with its own window on the front of the house. Even the smaller one is still a very generous size. I can't possibly make full use of it with my clothes, so I'm thinking about other functions. A desk would be one thing to look at. I won't have a dedicated office, but for my needs a closet might suit. More importantly, though, I plan to establish my icon corner there.

Sharing a home with an iconoclastic Protestant, I've tried to be sensitive in this area. One of the earliest things I bought as I was exploring Orthodoxy was my first icon--a little diptych with traditional Byzantine icons of the Pantokrator (Jesus as Judge) and the Theotokos (Mary holding Jesus as a child). I would only get it out when I prayed (more to the point, when I did my morning and evening prayer rule), and kept it stowed away the rest of the time. A year ago, my Godparents got me a candle for Christmas, so I started burning a candle during my prayer rule as well. I had put some icons up at work, and eventually I asked Julie if it would be OK to hang one of those--another Pantokrator--in our walk-in closet, so I could do my morning prayers in there, rather than going out to the dining room. Later, my Godfather bought me an icon of St. Peter the Aleut (my patron), which I put on the shelf in the closet.

I would also use the diptych with Ian when we prayed before he went to bed. Initially, I carried it into his room for that purpose and put it away afterward. When we rearranged our bedroom to make space for Jenna, a small bookshelf ended up in the eastward corner, so I started leaving my candle and diptych there. Because of Jenna's sleep schedule I was doing most of my praying in the closet, so I started leaving the diptych in Ian's room to avoid the trouble of carrying it back and forth. And that was pretty much the extent of the icons around our house.

So I was pretty excited about the thought of having more dedicated space. Even though I would prefer to have them out in a more public area, it's not my purpose to offend Julie, so I'm fine settling for something that suits my needs without disrupting anything else. I figured I could put my Orthodox books on a shelf that's already built into the closet, my icons on the wall or the shelf, and my candle probably on the shelf as well. I also have a prayer rug that I almost never use because Julie doesn't think it goes with anything in our present decor; I figured I could put that down more or less permanently in the closet. Then I got to thinking about incense.

Incense is a regular part of Orthodox worship. In most services, there's at least some point where a priest or deacon censes around the whole church. At other times, a censer is used just at the iconostasis or in the altar. Often when a particular feast icon takes center stage there will be a part in the service where everyone gathers around it with the priest right in front, censing and praying. The rising smoke has long been a traditional symbol of the prayers of God's people rising up before his throne. In the heavily liturgical scene in St. John's Revelation, a great deal of incense is offered, and it is specifically said to represent the prayers of the saints. In the Israelite temple, there was a special blend of incense that was forbidden from private use, offered at a dedicated altar of incense. In Orthodox homes, it is common practice to use incense during prayers and to cense around the home, just as is done in church. For this, a hand censer is used, rather than the swinging censer with bells. But the purpose is the same. Typically, you cense the icons around the house and the people (because we are also icons of Christ).

I've long appreciated the dimension that's added to my worship in church when the sense of smell is incorporated. I figured especially if I'm going to have my own dedicated space it might be good timing to start using incense in my prayers at home. So this year, when I got money for Christmas, instead of spending it all on books, I spent some of it on a hand censer, charcoal, and incense. I told Julie what I was doing, but I didn't ask if it was OK. I fired it up two nights ago, after she'd gone to bed and again in the morning before she got up. She commented on the smell lingering in the air, so I thought I'd try skipping it in the morning and see if that helped. Last night I got the incense burning before Julie went to bed, and she was already complaining about it. She fled pretty quickly to the bedroom. I think the smell was stronger than the previous night, since I had a better idea what I was doing with it and got the charcoal burning hotter. At least, it seemed like it was consuming the incense faster than before. I couldn't smell anything in the bedroom, but my nose isn't very good anyway, and I was probably acclimated to the more overwhelming scent in the dining room. Julie woke up and complained again.

Even before that, I'd started thinking that burning it in the house was going to be a problem. I'd underestimated both how much it would bother Julie and how much the smell would spread. I doubt that even a closed closet door would be enough, if she were sleeping in the next room. But now I have a censer, two pounds of incense, and close to a year's supply of charcoal. (I was trying to make the most of the shipping cost.) So I'm not quite ready to scrap the idea.

Plan B (or C, or D, or something like that): Take the operation outside. The agreed-upon course at this point is that I'll start keeping my prayer rule on the balcony. Julie's allowing me to hang an icon out there, and I can use a TV tray for the candle and censer. It suits me fine for now, since "I like the cold" (how many times have I heard those words from my son's mouth?), and it rarely gets too cold in MD. In warmer weather, I can just consider it part of my ascetic discipline. Plus, it's usually dark when I'm praying, so at least it shouldn't be unbearably hot. Once we move, who knows? I'm thinking a corner of the garage might work. (Someone said to me about our new house that a man needs his own space, even if it's just a corner of the garage. I'm not sure this is what he had in mind, though he is Orthodox.) Of course, that throws off my plan for the closet. Maybe I could just get them to add an exhaust fan :-)

I've tried to tell Julie that it's only frankincense, and if it was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for her. But all kidding aside, I get it. For much the same reason that I feel different praying with incense, she has a rather opposite reaction. It's her house too, and I have no desire to make it seem less like home, if that's the effect of making it smell like a Church with which she does not identify. This whole experience has reminded me of the "dark machine of superstition" post from a year ago. When the funky smell from the machine's exhaust is causing family members to choke, I guess it's time to take it outside.

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