Children in Church

Every Christian mother considers it one of her primary obligations to teach her child prayer as soon as his consciousness awakens — 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 assimilate 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 — we can see in this his uplifted state of soul, wherein he is involuntarily influenced. 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, 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 is especially true concerning 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, that they 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 instantly see the effect of the sun on our own health. In Russian literature we have edifying 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 rework 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 up, 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.

The 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 a 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. If, however, this remains just compulsion, and to such an extent that it creates a psychological repulsion in the young people -this will certainly show that the aim has not been attained, that the method has proved to be inadequate and the compulsion fruitless. Let the child brought by our will express a desire to remain there through his own will. Then you will have justified your action.

Again we say: not only natural, psychological effects 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 opened freely. Then it will no longer need effort, force, or any other form of self-compulsion, but it will be nourished freely, 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, serving in the altar, 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 in the religious upbringing of children constitutes one of the arguments in favor 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 partake of 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 participate more in church — 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!

Father Alexander.org

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