Orthodox America

  “Quench Not the Spirit” - The Task of the Christian Educator

by the V. Rev. Vassily Zenkovsky, Director of Religious Education at St. Sergius Institute, Paris 

The Christian educator faces a hard yet inspiring task: to awaken and strengthen the religious life of the child. The task is inspiring because religious growth brings forth in a young soul the flowering of all its spiritual gifts, unfolds a perspective of eternal life and brings the radiant image of Christ into a child's heart. There is an inexpressible beauty in childish faith, in the naive prayers of childhood and as we adults witness the awakening of this new life, we seem to share its brightness. But the task of the educator, penetrating into the world of the child's religion, is also hard, for almost everything in our present environment is opposed to spiritual life; everything leads the soul away from God and from His eternal truth. Technical achievements fascinate our young people and they grasp at all the advantages that technical progress puts within their reach. Life itself becomes a kind of technical assignment, for is not the whole world operating according to rational and well organized rules? Is it not sufficient to know these rules, to adjust oneself to them in order to find happiness and solve all conflicts? The tragic element of life is veiled, disguised, removed to some obscure comer, and it is difficult under these conditions to bring to children the message of the Cross, to disclose to them the need for spiritual effort. In our modern world, we adults are lulled by the sense of our civilization's environment; we become spiritually drowsy, trivial. The bright inner world of the child's fantasy is focused from the very beginning on the superficial, external aspects of life. Under such conditions, how can we awaken a thirst for spiritual life? How can we light the fire of a soul's yearning for eternal truth?

      Religious education is often deformed, replaced by an appeal to the external faculties of the human soul--to the child's intelligence, to his emotions and his activity. Information about God, about Jesus Christ and the Theotokos, about saints and church history, which are necessary as a means of bringing the soul nearer to the other-worldly values, grow to be an end in themselves; i.e., they remain unrelated to the process of coming nearer to God. Of course, this information and knowledge is necessary, for without knowledge our spiritual life cannot mature and take shape. But spiritual life as such does not consist in knowledge. The Russian philosopher Keslov made a good distinction between knowledge about God and knowledge of God: knowledge about God includes our ideas about God, the way we visualize our Lord's earthly life, His death and resurrection. But all this is only knowledge about God. Knowledge of God, on the other hand, is our life with Him and in Him. All the knowledge we acquire about God should merely serve to bring us nearer to him: knowledge about God should give shape and expression to those spiritual experiences through which our hearts are drawn nearer to God. But if there is no spiritual life in our heart, then all the knowledge we acquire about God remains worthless.

      Spiritual life means standing before God. It means a living consciousness of God, a soul's unfolding.... Spiritual life is--seeking God, and finding Him, it is directing our entire being toward Him. it is living with Him and in Him. We can and should give sufficient attention to the external forms of life, but our soul should be withdrawn in God. We can and should take care of our families, carry out our social and professional duties, but over and above this we should be constantly conscious of our Heavenly Father whom we love and to Whom we surrender our soul completely.

      Spiritual life is hidden within us. Saint Peter spoke of the hidden man of the heart, of a meek and quiet spirit which is in the sight of God of great price. Yes, spiritual life remains hidden in a man’s heart. This is precisely why it is possible to slumber spiritually, i.e., to live in such a way that the entire power of our attention, all our spiritual forces are devoted to external values and we remain unconcerned about the need of our spirit to live with God. Many good and kind people remain spiritually asleep and sometimes the moment of awakening comes only with the end of their life.

      But if spiritual life remains hidden, it is at the same time unavoidable and indestructible. On the surface of our soul, in our conscious mind, we art' completely possessed by externals, but underneath this busy and agitated existence, in the hidden depths of our being, there goes on a process of spiritual life. Unfortunately, it remains inactive and does not influence our conscious life and our behavior. Spiritual life in a human being is determined by the presence in each soul of the image of God. The radiance of grace is constantly penetrating our soul, but if our spiritual life is suppressed into an air-tight compartment, this power of grace cannot affect us; cannot help us. This is the evil of our times in this secularized world in which our entire culture is separated from God and from his Church. Science, art economic life, politics, social activity--all these forms of human activity have become autonomous, have drifted away from God.

      Under these circumstances, how can we establish a link between the external life of our heart and mind and the hidden life of the spirit? This is the basic and ineffably difficult task that faces the Christian educator. Religious instruction is, after all, only a part of religious education. Religious instruction is important, but it will be fruitful only if a process of spiritual life goes on, however faintly, if the hidden life of the spirit is not completely separated from the rest of our inner life. The very difficulty of Christian education, its very toil, consists in reestablishing m the human being its spiritual oneness, wholeness, m opposition to the trend of our times. The Christian educator has only one way of achieving this: his own spiritual life. Only if the educator lives himself in his own spirit can he awaken, call forth the hidden power of the spirit in a young heart. We have to "instruct" our children, we have to tell them about God's creation of the world, about man's happy existence in paradise and his fall, about the promise of the Messiah, about Mary the Mother of our Lord, about the Incarnation of the God of gods, and about the new life He brought us. But all this knowledge, however necessary it is, can remain a dead capital in our heart, without illuminating or vitalizing our spirit. This is the common danger faced by the modem Christian world, by modem culture: Christ is not forgotten, but He is not a living experience; the Kingdom of God and His righteousness is not sought after “First”, as the Lord taught us. Other, external values, are the object of this seeking.

    Yes, the path of the Christian educator is hard indeed. It is a difficult task to establish a link between the hidden life of the heart and our external active life, with our superficial emotional experiences. The truth was expressed a long time ago: “Education is first of all self-education.” We cannot simply “teach Sunday school,” give our children religious instruction, if we ourselves do not live the truth of the Gospel. We can light a fire in the hearts of our pupils only if our own hearts are aglow.

    It is a difficult task, but there are few joys greater than the one we feel when we are able to reach the hidden life of a young soul.  When we come in touch with it ourselves we gain depth and enlightenment. Anyone who has experienced this joy in his work with children, has found his vocation. Let the words of St. Paul remain alive in his heart: “Quench not the Spirit” (I Thes. 5:19).