What exactly is there to teach a child (or a teenager, for that matter)? In what ways is it beneficial for a child to sit down and learn about the Holy Trinity or Christ’s two natures? Is that where we should start? Are dogmas the central focus?
To me, church school is an interesting, but completely alien concept. The idea that I may go to church for anything else except worship feels strange. The notion that I can be taught about worship – by any other means except worship itself – is also strange. I instinctively dislike the thought that someone would try to ‘school’ me about God.
As a monastic, I haven’t had the experience of raising my own children. But I was a child once, and my memories of those years are all built around emotions, not knowledge: I remember playing, I remember my best friends, I remember some of the naughty jokes we played on the old people (that is, anyone over 20). I also remember nice old ladies (and their pockets filled with sweets) and grumpy old men (who always had some seriously boring advice to share). I remember colours, singing, the smell of incense. The only services I remember are the commemorations of the departed (because we always got a lot of koliva and candy) and singing Christmas carols (for the same reason: candy, candy, candy).
As a teenager, things changed. The nice old ladies and the grumpy old men became my enemies – it wasn’t their fault, but hormones do strange things to people. The only thought I had concerning church was: never again. It was boring, attended by old people (this time, anyone over 30) and completely irrelevant to my own life. The worst thing would have been having to confess or attend some sort of church school. I tried once to confess as a teenager and I couldn’t deal with it; it felt as an intrusion, almost like an abuse. I also refused to study religion in school – we had to choose between religion and applied science. I preferred to dissect frogs and look at their insides. THAT was cool.
I do have some good church memories from that time, though. I remember visiting an asylum for old people. I remember an old lady (really old, in her 90s), who used to be a French teacher in her youth. She asked me if I spoke any French. We then spoke for a few minutes and she was crying all the time. We talked about the weather and my age and things like that, and she silently cried through the whole conversation. I remember realising for the first time that the world is filled with suffering and that I can actually do something to take some of that suffering away.
That was the first time I felt a real connection between me and Christ. When I went back to church, the Cross suddenly had a different look. Out of everything in the church, that Christ on the Cross seemed to be looking straight at me and calling me; we had a secret, I had been revealed something – this time, it was about me. It was relevant; and personal.
Perhaps it may help to look at these things from the child’s perspective. When they are young, make sure they create beautiful memories in church. Build a small playground for them, be nice to them – help them feel loved. If you help them associate Love and Christ, Love and Church, you’ve introduced them to the deepest theology. As they grow older and become teenagers, get them involved in the real things: visits to orphanages, asylums, hospitals, prisons etc. Make their time count.
All they need to know about dogmas and doctrine they’ll get from attending the services, from the random things they pick up from sermons, from the bits and pieces of an accidental discussion. Build Christian values in them, not Christian knowledge. Work with their hearts, rather than their minds, because the theology of the heart cannot be erased. If you teach them love and compassion, you’ve taught them enough. If you help them love God and the world around them, you’ve introduced them into a living experience of Christ’s commandments. Rather than knowing what His commandments are, your children will be living them. Trust Christ to do the rest.
We all learn by watching others whatever age we are, I have learnt more of the faith from watching others than anything else. Children learn by what they see us do not what we tell them. St Porphyrios makes the point in writings that by love and Prayer children are brought up in the faith, he has many examples of where it works and where prayer has repairs situations which went wrong.
Catichisam has it place especially with adult converts and when the worship is not in the language of the people, though the best of this is in response to questions or discussions not set teachings which may or may not be reverent.
Dear Phoebe, I apologise for not getting back sooner; these last weeks have been frantic. St Porphyrios is a wonderful source of great writing and teaching; he’s spiritually ‘safe’ because he is always driven by love and compassion, and there seems to have been not one trace of pride in him.
Thank you Fr Seraphim for another reminder to live our faith.
Thank you for your support, dear Dumitru. We all need to reminded the very basic things, from time to time. In fact, I strongly believe these very basic things are the most important, and that getting caught with higher intellectual questions is very often just a superficial way to avoid the difficult aspects of Christianity.
My wife and I threw our television set out as soon as she got pregnant, and we home-schooled our
daughter through high school. The result: a sweet but strong young lady who plays classical piano,
has always loved to read and has always chosen her friends wisely. At 23 (in a few days) she continues
to be a solid part of our ministering household.
One thing we did not do when she was a toddler was try to turn her into a super-short adult. There were
always paper and crayons, and her favorite doll, at church, and she could fidget all she wanted. She just
understood it wasn’t a place to make noise. The result: she’s a “preacher’s kid” who loves church services
(including the Daily Office), because she grew up with them as a positive experience–as nice outings with
Mommy and Daddy.
Sunday School was a good thing, however, because it provided a place to make friends within a Christian context, so I tend to support it. For the same reason, I favor parochial schools (if they are sound) as
(admittedly a distant) second-best to home schooling.
Thanks for a very nice article, Father!
With you in Christ,
Fr. James +
Thank you, father James, for your comment. I was blessed to go through childhood without TV, too (although, to tell the whole truth, this blessing only happened because we lived under a Communist regime, not by my parent’s choice).
There is a time for everything; childhood is the time to enjoy the safe world of your family and friends, and to learn from them what true love feels like. Life will teach you all the other, awful things later on, anyway. What’s the point to rush them in?
Thank you Father, that hit a chord! Oh the religious education that was wasted on me. The only thing I remember about my confirmation classes (I was raised an Anglican) was that I never understood them.
Dear James, thank you for your comment. I’m afraid I was even worse – after going through one class of Religion in school, I decided I was never going to have anything to do with that. I still believe it was the right choice (and I give my parents credit for not trying to impose it on me), because it allowed me to find my own way into Christianity later on.
Christ is Risen! Your blessing Fr. Seraphim!!
“Work with their hearts, rather than their minds, because the theology of the heart cannot be erased”…!
I like so much this… work with their heart!
Thanks a lot!!! : )
GREAT BRITAIN OF MY HEART
Thank you for your kind words, dear Abel. May we all be blessed.
Dear Fr. Serafim,
What an excellent reminder that Eastern Orthodoxy is not based on intellectual knowledge, but on the nous, on the knowledge of the heart.
I’m a Church School teacher myself. I co-teach high school ages (14-18), and the task that was set before us was to make sure that our students left with a basic knowledge of the major stories of the Bible.
What we also do in class is talk about love, and gratitude. We have a challenge for all of us (teachers included) to pray, to have something to be grateful for, and to remember how someone has blessed us. We report on this during the first part of class. And I think it goes a long way toward teaching our young people how to be grateful, and how to recognize blessings. Our Church School is during Matins, so we send everyone off to be in Divine Liturgy, so they get their theology that way, by participating in the liturgy. It has been such an honor and a blessing to look up and see three young men from our class serving at the altar.
Thank you for the reminder that my main job is to show them a lot of love, and to encourage them to love others as Christ loves them. My co-teacher is the knowledgeable one (I am just the comic relief), so I trust that they may also walk away with a bit of knowledge. But I pray that the trust they have shown me means that we have also spoken to their hearts.
Your servant in Christ,
Dear Tanya, thank you for these paragraphs. I’m glad to hear from you, because you have so much more experience with this. As a Church School teacher, you must have seen the advantages and disadvantages of all versions of religious education. I am happy to see we share the same vision, it give me courage.
Thank you very much father! God bless you.
God bless you, too, dear Christos. Thank you for your comment and forgive me for not replying sooner.
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