The five bells began to ring. Their sweet notes grew in size as they floated over the snow-covered neighbourhood. A squirrel, more interested in gathering food than hibernating, stopped in its tracks to listen. The voice of the bells seemed to call for the neighbourhood to awaken from its mid-winter slumber.
The morning sunlight struck their eyes with a sharp intensity as they left the church. Shading his eyes with his hand on his brow, Roman searched for his children finding them playing in the freshly-fallen snow. Taking the hand of his wife, Olenka, they began to walk slowly to the family car parked a few blocks away. Roman found it hard to believe that ten years had passed since they first walked out of St. Vladimir’s Church as husband and wife. The time had gone by so quickly. Olenka squeezed his hand telling him that she wanted to look at him. Roman gazed upon her and thought how beautiful she was, even more beautiful than on their wedding day. How can that be, thought Roman. Olenka’s smiling eyes of blue spoke again to Roman of her love for him.
Their children’s laughter broke the embrace of their eyes. Roman called out, “Children, it’s time to go! Baba will be waiting for us!” [Baba is Ukrainian for Grandmother]. Hurriedly, they ran to the car. Olenka was busy brushing the snow off little Ivan’s coat and leggings as Roman cleared the snow off the car’s windshield. Andrew, their 9-year-old-boy, got into the car and claimed the seat behind his father. Helena, 7, decided to sit in the middle of the back seat so she could look after little Ivan, something she loved to do. As Olenka closed her door, Andrew asked his father, “Daddy, will Baba have some fresh bread for us?”
“I certainly hope so,” replied Roman.
Four-year-old Ivan just hummed, “Mmm! Mmm! Mmm!”
Helena took great delight with Ivan’s response and said, “I just love the smell of Baba’s house. I think it’s the smell of love.” Quickly she added, “Daddy, did Baba’s house always smell so good?”
“As far as I can remember!”
Roman’s thoughts drifted back to when he was a college student. He lived in Winnipeg while he studied. He would come back to Toronto for the holidays and always looked forward to walking into his family home and smelling the freshly baked bread. Helena was right, he thought, it was the smell of love.
The drive to St. Catherine’s usually took an hour an a half. In order to help pass the time, Olenka would read the children a story, or tell them about their family that came from Ukraine three generations ago. And if they had been to church that day for Divine Liturgy [the name of the Eucharistic Service for Byzantine Christians], she would ask them what they remembered of the church and the service. Today was one of those days.
“Okay, okay!” Olenka said with a slightly raised voice, trying to get control of the conversation. Helena and Andrew were almost hysterical in laughter. Ivan had decided that upon seeing some cows in a field, he would imitate them to the best of his ability. Even Roman was smiling at Ivan’s attempts.
“What do you remember from the Divine Liturgy this morning?” asked Olenka.
“It wasn’t as dark in the church today as it usually is,” commented Helena. “Oh, and that thing that the deacon had. He swung it and a lot of smoke came out.”
“That’s called a censer, and the smoke is from incense,” said Roman.
“I like the smell of incense. I think it smells like love.”
“You can’t say that,” said Andrew.
Helena retorted, “And why can’t I?”
“Because you said Baba’s house smelled like love.”
“Well, maybe love has many smells,” said Helena. Olenka looked at Roman and smiled.
After a bit of silence, Andrew asked, “Dad, what does it mean to pray without ceasing.”
“Where did you hear that?” said Roman with a puzzled look.
“I heard it in the church this morning. That older man who always sits in the front with all those books read it at the Divine Liturgy.”
“I think it means that we should pray without a lot of “c” words,” said Helena.
Little Ivan, silent throughout the conversation, spoke up, “I liked the singing we did in church. And I like Fr. Clement’s beard. And I like the candles. And I like kissing Jesus, and His Mother….”
Ivan’s litany was cut short as he recognized where he was. An anxious silence came over the family—Baba’s house was just around the corner.
* * *
“Mmm! I love the smell of your house, Baba,” said Helena. Andrew began to wonder why his younger sister was so concerned about smells. Olenka kissed Baba on the cheek and asked, “Is there anything I can help with, Mum?” Olenka knew that everything was ready by the smile on Baba’s lips.
Baba was a middle-aged woman (not even Roman knew her age) with her silver hair up in a bun. She had the table set for lunch with her best china and silverware. It was her son’s tenth wedding anniversary; nothing would stop her from providing the very best for him and his wife and family. It was one of the small ways in which she showed her love for them.
The children were already waiting as Roman, Olenka and their grandmother walked into the living room. On the far side of the room in the corner was an icon table. Roman had made one for his own family and his mother after Fr. Clement spoke of the importance of a family centred on the life of the Trinity. “The family that prays together stays together.” An icon corner was a practical way of living this out. His mother’s corner consisted of a small table on which was placed an icon of Christ’s transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, a well-worn prayer book, a Bible, a picture of his deceased father, Wasyl, a cross made by Andrew last summer at camp, and a small candle. Roman had found that he liked the idea of this special place in his home and his mother’s home. He didn’t know why he liked it, just that he liked it.
Roman lead the grace for the meal they were about to eat. “May the poor eat and be satisfied. May they who seek the Lord praise Him, and may their hearts live forever. Christ our God, please bless the food we are about to receive. Amen.”
“Amen!” resounded Ivan.
These words of the prayer had been memorized by Roman about a year ago. They were printed in the parish bulletin and he cut them out and put them on the refrigerator. Later in the year, when he was reading from the Bible, he was surprised to learn that the words of this grace were not just made up by Fr. Clement, but actual words from the Psalms. It was about that time that Roman had installed the icon corners in his mother’s home as well as his own.
They sat down for the meal. In the corner of his eye, Roman caught Andrew making the sign of the Cross. “What are you doing?” asked Roman.
“I’m trying to pray without cessing, I mean, without ceasing.” said Andrew, and continued in the same breath, “Could you please pass the bread?”
* * *
Later that night, Roman found himself pulling out their wedding album from the bookshelf in the living room. He went over and lit the candle on the icon corner and returned to his favourite chair and took a sip of the tea that Olenka had brewed. He was just starting to open the album when Olenka entered the room, saying, “Well, they’re tucked in. Would you like another cup of tea?”
“No, thanks. I’m still working on this one.”
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked as she sat down beside her husband.
“You bet! I thought that after ten years, we could take a drive down memory lane.”
Olenka smiled and opened the album. Roman looked at the picture and then to his wife. Again he thought that she was by far more beautiful than ever. His mind began to wander to the Divine Liturgy that morning, the walk to the car, the drive to his mother’s place, Andrew’s question about praying without ceasing, and the fine meal that they had shared. But he kept coming back to Andrew’s question. Just what does it mean to pray without ceasing? His meandering thoughts were interrupted by Olenka’s voice.
“Honey, what are you thinking about?”
“Oh, about the day we just spent together, and how much I love you.”
Olenka knew that look in his eyes. “And what else?”
“Nothing,” said Roman with a smile.
“Honey, I’ve been married to you for ten years now. I know that look in your eyes well – tell me.”
“Okay. I was thinking about Andrew’s question today, you know, the one about unceasing prayer. It struck me as odd.”
“That Andrew would come up with a question like that. I mean, here I am, 34 years old, and I ‘heard’ the same reading today as he did. I guess I just wasn’t listening. I’d like to give him an answer, but I can’t because I don’t know the answer.”
“Maybe we should look that reading up in the Bible; it might give us a clue.”
Olenka got up and walked to the icon corner. She lifted the Bible and went to the kitchen to look at the church calendar. She found the reading for the day, the Saturday of the thirty-second week after Pentecost, and brought the Bible back to Roman.
“First Thessalonians, chapter five, verses fourteen to twenty-three.”
Olenka sat down beside Roman. He opened the Bible, found the selection, and read it aloud.
“Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Roman looked at Olenka. “Well, what do you think?”
After some silence, Olenka spoke up, “It seems to me that the ‘rejoice always,’ the ‘pray without ceasing,’ and the ‘in everything give thanks to God’ all go together.”
“I agree. That’s what I think about when I think of prayer—giving thanks to God and praising Him.”
Silence as both of them look at the page.
“But why do we pray? What reason is there? And how do you pray without ceasing? That seems impossible to me,” said Roman.
Olenka smiled. “You should have heard little Ivan when he said his prayers tonight. After I helped him with the sign of the Cross, he started his litany as usual: God bless Mommy and Daddy, and Andrew and Helena, and Baba, and so on. Then all of a sudden he stopped.”
Roman listened intensely.
“He slowly turned to me and said, ‘Mommy, I know why we give thanks to God. It’s because we came from Him and we want to go back to Him.’”
Roman looked to the icon of Christ on the icon table. Out of the mouth of babes, he thought.
* * *
Sunday morning. The sound of the bells told the children in the back seat that they were nearing St. Vladimir’s Church. After Roman had parked the car, the children ran ahead and entered the Church. Helena was pleased that she could smell the incense that hung in the air. It still smells like love in here, she thought. Roman and Olenka followed behind the children as they went to venerate the icon on the tetrapod. Fr. Clement barely could be seen through the iconostas. He was preparing the bread and wine for the Divine Liturgy.
Roman didn’t have the best of nights. He awoke a few times through the night pondering Andrew’s question and little Ivan’s remarks in his night prayers. What mostly bothered him was the guilt he felt—that he didn’t know the answer. He had always prided himself on being able to answer the questions of his children, whether they be about ships or farm machinery, or about bees and butterflies, or even why water goes down the sink the way it does. He had to find the answer. It was then he realized that he was searching more for himself than for his children.
Divine Liturgy started. “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and always and forever.” Roman found it hard to follow the Liturgy this morning. He was transported back to when he was a boy of Andrew’s age.
Little Roman stood in front of the iconostas, his own grandmother standing behind him. She was pointing to the icon of Christ the Teacher. Roman heard his grandmother tell him how much Jesus loved not just the little children, but all people. The book, he was told, was open so that he and everybody could learn everything about Jesus that He wanted to tell us. Roman took a step closer to the icon and reached out to touch the book depicted in it. His grandmother said, “If you want to read that book, you can. But it is not like any other book you have seen. It is a living book that is written in the heart of Jesus. He will bring it to you, if you want, and the heart of Jesus will be with your heart, and there, He will write these words in your heart.”
Roman’s thoughts were interrupted by the deacon’s exclamation: “Let us be attentive!” The Gospel of St. Luke was about to be read. Roman attuned his ears. The deacon’s voice rang out the words of the Gospel like the bells outside rang out their sweet notes. “‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’ So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully… ‘Today, salvation has come to this house.’”
As the Liturgy continued, Roman found his thoughts were more focussed. How often he found himself like Zacchaeus, atop a tree, looking for answers. Perhaps it wasn’t the best place to be, especially looking for answers that really count. Roman began to pray in his mind, “Jesus, I don’t understand why I’m saying this, but please, I want you to stay at my house.” Then he heard Fr. Clement’s voice: “Take, eat, this is My Body….”
* * *
Fr. Clement always took time after the Liturgy to greet those who were still in the Church after the thanksgiving prayers had been said. Roman approached him and said, “Glory to Jesus Christ!”
“Glory forever!” responded Fr. Clement. “How are you and your family today?”
“We’re fine, thank you.”
“I understand that you just celebrated ten years of marriage!”
“Yes, that’s true…”
Ivan threw his arms around Fr. Clement’s legs with such a force that it nearly knocked him over.
“And I see that you have the fruit to prove it!” Fr. Clement began to laugh, and Olenka and the family joined. Ivan laughed the loudest, mostly because he just loved to laugh.
Roman hesitated for a moment. “Father, I have a few questions for you and I’m wondering if you have a bit of time to answer them.”
Fr. Clement’s eyes widened with excitement. His smile was barely visible beneath his exemplary beard. “Of course I have some time.”
Roman turned to Olenka and asked if she would take the children to the nearby restaurant for brunch, a tradition that they have practiced ever since they were engaged. Each of the children gave Fr. Clement as big a hug as they could and followed their mother out the doors of the church into the brilliant sunshine.
Fr. Clement brought Roman back into the church nave and they sat in the first pew. “I always love to talk to others in the church, especially before this icon of Christ. He loves us so greatly.” Fr. Clement made the sign of the Cross and turned to Roman and asked, “What can I help you with?”
Roman began to tell him of the preceding day and its events and especially of Andrew’s question and little Ivan’s remarks during prayer. Fr. Clement listened intensely, his eyes closing every so often as if he were in some sort of deep meditation. After Roman had finished, Fr. Clement turned again to the icon of Christ. Roman decided to do the same.
“And what is your question for me?”
“Actually, Father, I have two questions. Why should we pray, and how do you pray without ceasing?”
Fr. Clement turned to him and said, “Roman, you work as an office manager in an accounting firm, don’t you?”
“And you have a number of people that you are responsible for?”
“Yes, we try to work as a team. I guess you could say that I’m a team manager.”
“In your work, then, when you want to have one of your ‘team players’ perform a certain task, don’t you go to that person and inform them of the need of the task and then try to get them to perform the task according to your will?”
“Well, yes, that’s true.”
“Prayer is very much like this in one way, but also different.”
Roman looked puzzled.
“St. John Damascene once wrote: Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.’”
“That saying seems familiar to me. Didn’t I learn that in my catechism?”
“You probably did. Roman, prayer, to put it simply, is a dialogue or conversation with God. And in that conversation, we glorify Him, and praise Him, and thank Him.”
“Yes, I read that last night in the first letter to the Thessalonians.”
Fr. Clement closed his eyes. “We also tell God of our needs and desires in prayer, just like you tell your co-worker of your needs and desires for a project. However, there is a difference here. In prayer, God already knows our needs and desires. Remember what Jesus said in the Gospel, ‘Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things,” and David wrote in the Psalms, ‘Lord, all that I long for is known to You, my sighing is no secret from You.’ Another thing that is different is that God’s will cannot be swayed like your co-worker’s.”
“So, what does all this mean?” asked Roman.
Fr. Clement opened his eyes. “It means that prayer is necessary for our sake, to make us reflect on our great needs and arouse our wills to desire what God wishes us to have. That’s why we pray. Prayer—our dialogue with the Saviour—ultimately leading us to our happiness, in this world and especially in the next, because it opens us up to do God’s will, which is to be perfected in His image and likeness.”
Roman thought for a moment. Fr. Clement seemed to be making sense. He was glad that he came down from the tree of his pride. Then asked, “And where does this dialogue take place?”
“Well, Roman, that leads us to your second question about praying without ceasing.” Fr. Clement turned back to the icon of Christ and said, “The dialogue with our Saviour first takes place in the mind and then there is a hope that with some work, it will descend into the heart. When prayer descends into the heart, then it is possible to pray all the time, to pray without ceasing, while you are awake and while you sleep. It has been described by many as the Holy Spirit praying in you—the conversation between the three Divine Persons of God happening within you.”
Roman felt like a dry sponge that had just reached a pool of water. He asked, “How do you do this?”
Fr. Clement reached for the cord that was wrapped around his wrist and said, “There is a way that is very ancient and that has been passed on to us through the centuries. It is called the Jesus Prayer. We pray the words ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
“I remember hearing my own grandmother praying those words when she was making bread.”
Fr. Clement continued, “Many people practice this prayer unbeknownst to others. That is the beauty of this prayer. You can pray it on your lips or in your mind. With perseverance and discipline, and of course with God’s grace, it will descend into the heart.”
“Father, I’d like to pray this prayer. Could you teach me?”
There was that excitement in Father’s eyes again. “Yes, Roman, I will be happy to teach you.”
“When do we start?” said Roman with an eager smile on his face.
“Today. Just as you learn to swim by jumping into the water, so you learn to pray by starting to pray. You start to pray the Jesus Prayer today. We will keep in touch to see how you progress. Right now, you should be with your family. Go, be with them.”
“Thank you, Father, you’ve helped me a lot in this little bit of time.”
Roman got up and placed his hands together with his palms up. He received a blessing and started to walk out of the Church. He heard Fr. Clement’s voice, “Roman, teach your children!” He understood what Father meant.
* * *
It had been a Sunday full of family activity. They went tobogganing at a nearby park for the afternoon. It was a little cooler than the day before and little Ivan showed signs that he may be catching a cold. Olenka and Roman had prepared a wonderful dinner of hot dogs and Kraft dinner (Andrew’s favourite dishes) along with the mandatory vegetables and fruits. It was time for the children to go to bed. Olenka gathered the family in front of the icon corner. It was Andrew’s turn to light to candle. Helena said, “I like the smell of this candle. It smells like love.”
“Everything smells like love to you,” said Andrew. Roman put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder.
Roman announced to his family that they would try a new prayer at the end of their usual prayers. He went to explain how he learned this new prayer from Fr. Clement. Then he started, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,…” They continued to pray, each of them offering their own petition. At the end, Roman began with the new prayer. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He prayed it ten times and then made the sign of the Cross.
Andrew turned to his father and said, “Dad, I like that new prayer. Can I learn it too?”
“Of course, Andrew, you can learn it with me. We can all learn it.”
* * *
Later that night, Roman came down to living room alone. He lit the candle on the icon table and knelt down. He made the sign of the Cross and began to pray his new prayer. He focussed on the image of Christ before him, lit only by the flickering flame. After some time, he felt a peace, something which he had not felt before. He prayed, “Lord, I’m new at this. I’m glad that you came to my house. Teach me more about you.”
Roman sensed that he was at the beginning of some incredible journey. He made a mental note to tell Olenka about all of this. Then he felt that peace again. The candle flame flickered ever so gently. He could smell its scent. Helena was right, he thought, it does smell like love.