Orthodox America

“Feed My Lambs”  

For years now there has been a growing concern in this country over the quality of education. Children are finishing the elementary grades without having mastered the three R's. The high school drop-out rate has attained such proportions that some communities are considering financial incentives for students to stay on and graduate. As Orthodox pastors, parents and educators, are we as concerned about the spiritual education of our young people? We should be.

      A notice in the foyer of a church belonging to the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission reads: Are You sure your grandchildren will be Orthodox? 

Years ago, when most Orthodnx lived in countries with a strong Orthodox majority Greece, Russia, Serbia, Romania this was hardly an issue. Today, however, this question is extremely relevant, both to those in the diaspora and to) those in mission parishes. In ethnic parishes it used to be that many children absorbed Orthodox piety and stability from their immigrant grandparents the 'babushki' and 'yayas'. But this generation is rapidly dying out. Parents who are converts, who have "learned" Orthodoxy, tend to be more conscientious in teaching their children about the Faith. It takes time, however, to integrate Orthodox traditions into family life, and their children's Orthodox roots tend to be shallower than those of children raised in families born into a long Orthodox heritage. In both cases, peer pressure bred in a society at odds with the Orthodox ethos demands a strong counter-balance. Unless a serious commitment is made to the Orthodox education of our children, we can expect no improvement in the tragic drop-out rate among our teens and young people.

      As Bishop Theophan the Recluse makes clear in his Path to Salvation, religious upbringing begins at the cradle. Here, and for the next few years, Orthodoxy holds an advantage over other faiths. First, from infancy a child is a full-fledged member of the Church, inasmuch as he partakes of Her sacramental life through Baptism and Holy Communion. Second, the divine services of the Orthodox Church appeal to a young child's senses: the bright colors of the vestments and icons, the candles, incense, chanting. The absence of pews makes it feel less confining to a child. (A certain amount of movement is usually tolerated in the toddler years, although this does not mean that a child should be permitted to run about to the point of distraction.)

       Most children enjoy being able to participate in the Orthodox services--crossing themselves, venerating icons and lighting candles; older children can serve as acolytes or sing in the choir. Even greater participation is possible at home. As soon as they are able, children should learn and begin to recite prayers before and after meals and some morning and evening prayers. Children also enjoy helping in feast day preparations and traditions: dying eggs at Pascha, decorating the house with greens at Pentecost...

       All this should be encouraged. It is vitally important, however, that these physical activities be joined to an understanding of why they are done. They are designed to uplift the soul to God, but without meaning the outward beauty of Orthodoxy and its great wealth of traditions are reduced to culture and custom which cannot provide a true foundation for faith in the later years.

       It is surprising how much even young children can grasp. They readily absorb explanations concerning the unseen world of angels; they accept God's love for them; they delight in the wonders of His creation. As children grow in understanding they should be introduced to the different feasts and to the lives of saints, beginning with their own saint and perhaps those whose icons are found in their home and in their parish church. Gradually, children should come to know the meaning of the various parts of the Liturgy and other services. Prayers should be learned not simply by rote, but with an under standing of what they mean and whom they are addressing A young girl returned from Russian camp and proudly told her priest that she had memorized the Lord's Prayer--in Slavonic Asked ii she knew what it meant, she answered "No". Unless a child has some understanding of what the prayers mean, one cannot expect that his heart will be engaged in converse with God

      The difficulty today of educating a child in the Orthodox faith is compounded by the fact that our Orthodox population is so scattered. With the exception of a few urban clusters, Orthodox families tend to be fairly isolated from one another. It is important for children of all ages to be able to share with their Orthodox peers the "growing pains" and joys of belonging to a "peculiar people" (I Peter 2:9). Orthodox families would do well to spend time together, vacations, go on pilgrimages. It is time to give thought to forming Orthodox communities; in England, an Orthodox boarding school is soon to open its doors. What a splendid idea!

      The religious education of children is the responsibility primarily of parents, but it is also a pastoral concern. "Feed My lambs," our Lord commanded Apostle Peter. Every parish, no matter how small, should have a program of instruction for the children, and parents must be actively supportive of such efforts. Only by providing our young people with a proper religious education will we ensure that they do not drift away from the Church out of ignorance of their Faith. Only through such education can we ensure the future witness of the Orthodox Church--not as some lovely cultural centerpiece but as the very ark of salvation and the Body of Christ.