Children in the 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 under stand 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 prostration s-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 under- standing 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. There is the door to a correct Orthodox Christian up bringing. Enlightenment, compunction and joy, as they awaken in the infant's growing consciousness are an external indicator of the act 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 c h u r c h 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 en- lightened 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 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 child r e n 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 ex tent that it creates a psychological repulsion in 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 your 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 free1y and easily and joyfully.
There is one thing that must not be for gotten: 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 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 communicate the body and Blood of Christ. And however we may influence them in our family at home, how ever 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 baptisms.
The holy maidens Faith, Hope and Love, and the holy young bride Perpetua, who be- came 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 chi1dren 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!