Children in Church
- PASTORAL COMMENT
Children in Church
by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Every Christian mother considers it one of her primary obligations to teach
her child prayer as soon as his consciousness begins to awaken prayer that
is simple and easy for him to understand. His soul must be accustomed to
the warm and fervent experience of prayer at home, by his cradle, for his
neighbors, his family. The child's evening prayer calms and softens his
soul, he experiences the sweetness of prayer with his little heart and
catches the first scent of sacred feelings.
It is harder for a child to take in the atmosphere which prevails in
church. At first he just observes. He sees people concentrating and rites
he does not as yet understand and hears incomprehensible words. However,
the very solemnity and festivity of the church have an uplifting effect on
him. When a two year-old child wants to take part in church, to sing, speak
or make prostrations?in this we can see his uplifted state of soul, with
which he is involuntarily infected. We say this from simple observation.
But there is also something higher than our sense perceptions. Christ is
invisibly present in church and He sees the child, blesses him, and
receives him into the atmosphere of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Grace
envelopes him as a warm wind wafts over a blade of grass in a field,
helping it to grow up slowly and gradually, to put down roots and develop.
And so the mother hastens to bring her child to Christ, to His grace,
regardless even of whether he has any understanding at all of this contact
with the gift of grace. This especially concerns the Eucharist, the very
closest union with Christ. The mother brings her infant to this mystery
while he is still a baby lying in her arms. Is the mother right?
"Suffer the little children to come unto Me, for of such is the kingdom of
God." Can you really say with certainty that there and then in the fields
of Palestine these children had already understood Christ's teaching, had
been sitting at the Teacher's feet and listening to His preaching? Do not
say this, for the Evangelist himself remarks that "they brought unto Him
also infants, that He would touch them: but when His disciples saw it, they
rebuked them". In bringing their little ones, the mothers' purpose was
simply that His hands should touch the children, and not that He should
teach them divine knowledge.
Allowing children to have contact with spiritual grace is one of the first,
basic concerns of a Christian who thinks about his children, and the task
of Christian society, which is concerned about its youth. Here is the door
to a correct Orthodox Christian upbringing. Enlightenment, compunction and
joy, as they awaken in the infant's growing consciousness are an external
indicator of the fact that the little Christian is feeling warmth from the
divine source in himself. And even if he does not feel it, the invisible
action of God's grace does not stop; only we do not see it, just as we do
not see the effect of the sun on our own health instantly and at once. In
Russian literature we have such apt examples of the disposition of
children's souls during preparation for confession and communion, after
confession and after communion of the Holy Mysteries.
Nevertheless, how often it is forgotten that herein lies the key to
organizing religious education. How often, on seeing the inadequacy of
religious education, we pick up the programs and re-work them, lay the
blame on the textbooks and the teachers?and forget about the importance of
the church and the influence of the services; certainly we do not always
ask ourselves the question: "But did the children go to church?"
As the child grows tip, he should enter more deeply into the life, of the
Church. The child's mind, the youth's mind must be enlightened by the
church services, learn from them, become immersed in them; the church
should give him knowledge of God.
This matter is more complex. The task of religious 'education will be
fulfilled only when we teach our children to love church.
When we, the adults, organize church services, make arrangements for them,
shorten or lengthen the order of service and so on, we are accommodating
ourselves to our own concepts and needs, or simply convenience, understood
in adult terms. But in so far as the concepts, needs and spiritual
strivings of children are not taken into account, the surroundings are
often not conducive towards making children love church. This is
nevertheless one of the most important means of religious education: let
the children come to love the church, so that they may always attend church
with a pleasant feeling and receive spiritual nourishment from it. And
since parents often cannot help here, if only because not, infrequently
they are irreligious themselves, we are often compelled, when we think
about our Orthodox children, to place this work into the hands of the
community, the hands of the school, the hands of the Church.
Just as we are not afraid of destroying a devotion to learning and books,
or love for our national literature and history by making our children come
running to class at the sound of a bell and sit at desks, and by immersing
them in an atmosphere of strict discipline and compulsion; so also, one
might think, we would have no reason to be afraid of using a certain amount
of compulsion in the matter of attending church, whether it be part of
school regime or an expression of self-discipline on the part of youth
organizations?both those that are connected with school and those that are
not. But certainly, if this remains just compulsion, and to such an extent
that it creates a psychological repulsion in the young people?this will
show that the aim has not been attained, that the method has proved to be
inadequate and the compulsion in vain. Let the child brought by our will
express a desire to remain there through his own will. Then you will have
justified your action.
And again we say: it is not only natural, psychological effects that take
place in children's souls in church, but the action of grace. Our whole
concern should be that the soul of the baby, child or youth should not be
closed to holy impressions, but should be freely opened: and then it will
no longer need effort, force or any other form of self-compulsion; it will
be nourished freely and easily and joyfully.
There is one thing that must not be forgotten: human nature requires at
least a minimal degree of active participation. In church this can take the
form either of reading, or of singing, or of decorating and cleaning the
church, or of some other activity, even if it is only indirectly connected
with the services.
The indisputable importance of the church and of communal church services
for the religious upbringing of children constitutes one of the arguments
in favour of the Orthodox understanding of the mystery of baptism: that is
to say, an argument in favor of baptizing children at a very young age, as
we do in the Orthodox Church. Baptism is the door through which one enters
the Church of Christ. One who is not baptized?which means he is not a
member of Christ's family?has no right to participate in the life of this
family, in its spiritual gatherings and in its table?the Lord's table. Thus
our children would be deprived of the right to be with us in church, to
receive the blessing in the name of the Holy Trinity, to communicate the
Body and Blood of Christ. And however we may influence them in our family
at home, however much we might teach them the Gospel, we would be depriving
them of the direct action of heavenly grace, and at best we would arouse a
thirst for faith in them?but we would still be keeping them far from the
heavenly light and warmth, which comes down, regardless of our human
efforts, in the mysteries, in all the services, in holy prayers. How
grossly mistaken are those religions which recognize only adult baptism!
The holy maidens Faith, Hope and Charity, and the holy young bride
Perpetua, who became martyrs, are witnesses to the fact that adolescence is
an age prepared even for the highest active participation in Christ's
Church. The baby in his mother's arms in church who cried out, "Ambrose for
bishop!", and by his exclamation determined the choice of the renowned
Ambrose of Milan for the episcopal cathedra?this baby is a defender of
children's rights to an active participation in Christ's Church.
And so let us take some trouble over our children: first let us give them
the chance to take more part in church?and in a wider and more elevated
form than just giving the censer to the priest; and secondly, let us adapt
ourselves somewhat to our children when praying together with them.
Let the children be conscious that they are members of Christ's family.
Let the children come to love church!
*Taken from Orthodox Life, Vol. 27, No. 3 (May June 1977), pp. 29-33. A
related article worth reading is "The Challenges of Orthodox Youth Ministry