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Bringing up Children in the Church


Imitating Hannah and inspired by the Prophet Samuel, who spent his childhood years in the Temple, we should be careful to instill an ecclesiastical way of thinking in children.


Samuel in the Temple

So far we have been considering the major figure of the Prophetess Hannah, the mother of the Prophet Samuel. From now on, we shall carefully examine the life of her son, the Prophet Samuel, who will be the focus of everything said in this and following chapters. He was a great Prophet, who never distressed or annoyed God (to speak in human terms); God rested upon him. He also played an important role in the life of Israel.

Samuel was the son of God’s good pleasure, as we saw earlier, and his life was connected with the great events in the history of the people of Israel. He anointed Saul King of the Israelites, and later, when Saul lost God’s grace, he anointed David King. We shall follow him from his childhood until his death. We shall see the afflictions he suffered, but also the lamentation of the people, when they lost this great Prophet.

As soon as Samuel was weaned, when he was around three years old, he was offered and dedicated to God by his devout mother, Hannah. Holy Scripture tells us, “They left him there before the Lord and went away to Ramathaim, and the child performed the services before the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest” (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:11). His mother dedicated him to God, leaving him in the Temple before the Lord and Eli the priest. Holy Scripture goes on to describe Samuel’s presence in the Temple. “As a young boy, Samuel was serving before the Lord wearing a linen ephod of a servant” (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:18). He stayed in the Temple wearing a kind of priestly vestment made of linen, which covered his shoulders, chest and back. With it he wore a little coat, which his parents brought him each year when they came up to the Temple to offer sacrifice to God. Samuel lived apart from his family, residing in the Temple. From an early age he had the great privilege of experiencing life beyond the family. Transcending the biological family and belonging to another, spiritual family develops and expresses unselfish love.

As time went by, Samuel became more and more devout and dear to God and other people. Holy Scripture says, “The child Samuel led his life and he grew and matured and found favour both with the Lord and with men” (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:26).

The three verses that we have quoted show Samuel and his work in the Temple during his childhood years. Three main points stand out. The first is indicated by the phrase “before the Lord”, and is connected with the Temple, where God dwelt. The second is Samuel’s work and ministry in the Temple, as shown by the phrase “[he] was serving before the Lord”. The third is linked with the presence of holy people. Samuel grew up with the priests, such as Eli. Holy Scripture says, “… and the child performed the services before the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest.” This gives us the opportunity to refer to the Temple, the worship and ministry that took place within it, and also the significance of the holy Fathers for our life.

The Temple and its Importance

The Greek word ‘naos’, which signifies both ‘temple’ and ‘church building’, comes from a verb meaning ‘to dwell’, and denotes the place in which God dwells. The Christian church building evolved from the Tabernacle of Witness and from the Temple, which Solomon built at God’s command and with His blessing. As we know, every religion has its temples, the special places where worshippers fulfil their religious duties and pray to God.

The whole of the Old Testament clearly shows that the worship of God is linked with a particular place, where God’s good pleasure is expressed. In the beginning this function was performed by the altars where sacrifices were offered. We know about Abel’s altar, upon which he offered sacrifice to God, and God smelt the sweet savour and was pleased. We also find altars in the lives of Noah, Abraham and Jacob.

At God’s command, Moses constructed the Tabernacle of Witness, which was the model for Solomon’s Temple, to be constructed later.

In the beginning the Church used houses for prayer, later the Catacombs, then, once the persecutions ceased and the Christian Church was free, special places began to be built, which were dedicated to God. There the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered, as well as the daily prayers of Christians to God.

Of course, from a theological point of view we can state that God does not have a particular location, as He is the place where everything is. The whole earth belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and its fullness, the world and all who dwell therein” (Ps. 23[24]:1). However, as St John of Damascus says, we can describe God’s place as being where “His energy is manifested”. Just as in ancient times God’s energy was manifested at the altars and in other places, so now the same happens within Christian church buildings. The sacred building or temple becomes “a place where his glory appears”.

It is repeatedly made clear in the New Testament that Christians, who are members of the Church and members of the Body of Christ, are temples of the All-Holy Spirit. “You are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16), says the Apostle Paul. This has two meanings. The first is that every Christian who is a member of Christ is a temple of the All-Holy Spirit. This does not actually apply to every Christian, but to those who share in God’s illuminating and deifying energy. St Basil the Great underlines this important truth. He says that someone is a temple of the All-Holy Spirit when his nous, which is the principal part of the soul, is not troubled by cares and unexpected passions. When someone’s nous has unceasing prayer and remembrance of God, he is a temple of the All-Holy Spirit. St Nicholas Cabasilas stresses, “Nothing visible can truly be God’s temple and His altar except human nature.” The second meaning is that all those who make up the Church, the Body of Christ, taken together as a whole, are called the temple of the All-Holy Spirit. Since these Christians, who are God’s real temple, assemble in a special place to worship God, that place is also called a temple and a church.

It is in this second meaning that a place of worship is called a temple or church. St Symeon of Thessaloniki, commenting on the church or temple, says that, although it is made of inanimate material, nevertheless it is the house of God, because it is sanctified through divine grace and the prayers of the bishop. It is not like other, ordinary buildings, but is dedicated to God: “It is rich in God’s grace, as He Himself dwells in it, with His glory, power and grace.” Because the house of God has been sanctified, it is called a holy House. In fact, St Symeon of Thes-saloniki says more. Because every church is dedicated and consecrated in the name of a particular saint, it is not only God’s dwelling-place, but also in some way the dwelling-place of the saint whose name it bears. The saint to whom the church was dedicated, “lives there from then onwards as though in his own home. He dwells there in an immaterial way through his soul, but often he also dwells there through his holy relics, which are placed there, and works miracles by means of God’s power and grace through the relics as well. Because we too are twofold [soul and body] we receive gifts twice over.” Since the grace of God also enters material objects, “We see very clearly that truly divine powers act in church buildings. Angels and saints appear, wonders are worked, requests are granted and cures are bestowed.”

Speaking about the parable of the unforgiving servant, St Gregory Palamas says that it can be interpreted in ecclesiological terms. The place where the ruler stands and settles accounts with his servants is the sacred church building, specifically the sanctuary, where the bishop’s throne is situated. The saint says that Christ, “has His royal throne within the holy veil, as in the heavenly dwellings,” and sits and converses with His servants, the Christians.

We cannot understand these things rationally, but the saints experience them. If we acquire pure spiritual senses, and especially if our nous is illumined, we shall grasp these realities. We shall realise that the church building is not simply a structure or somewhere ordinary, but the house of God, and the house of the saints to whom it is dedicated. As we saw earlier, St Symeon of Thessaloniki says that the saints dwell there as well. Because we lack spiritual experience, we are quick to deny these things, especially this last point about the saints to whom the church is dedicated living there. If, however, we consider that the saints live in a different dimension of time, we can understand this to some extent. If different laws apply in space, beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and if on the moon, due to the different composition of the atmosphere, conditions are different, this applies much more with regard to spiritual matters. The holy Fathers refer to the existence of ‘eternity’, ‘ages without end’ and ‘time’. God lives in eternity, the angels and saints in the ages without end, and we in time. Because we live in time, it is impossible for us to understand the conditions in eternity. God is everywhere present and fills everything, whereas the angels and saints, although not everywhere present, can change place and cover vast distances in a few seconds.

The saints are aware of the presence of God in churches, which is why St John Chrysostom calls them harbours in the ocean. Our life is often storm-tossed and churches are spiritual havens. St John of Kronstadt says ecstatically, “O sacred church, how comfortable and pleasant it feels to pray under your domes! Where can prayer be more ardent than in church, before the throne of God and beneath His gaze? In church the soul is softened by contrite prayer and abundant tears flow down… The Church is the school of faith and worship, founded by God Himself. It is the treasury of heaven on earth… In the holy temple we ourselves become the temple of the Holy Spirit through the prayers, the words of God and the Mysteries.”

Unfortunately most of us lack this awareness. We are not overwhelmed by longing and eagerness to be in God’s house. David said, “I chose to be an outcast in the house of my God, rather than to dwell in the tents of sinners” (Ps. 83[84]:11). St John Chrysostom, rebuking us for being lazy about going to God’s house, says that, if someone invited us to go to “lawless theatres”, many would eagerly rush. When, however, they invite us to the house of prayer, “many hesitate”. He actually says that this mentality shows that we are worse and lazier than the Jews, who had a great longing to go to the house of God.

Samuel was “before the Lord”, because the Temple was the place where God’s glory was manifested.

Worship and Children

It is said of Samuel that he did not simply stay in the Temple but “performed the services before the Lord” from his early childhood. This ought to be interpreted as meaning that he took part and helped in the services, as is clear from the clothes that he wore. He also prayed in the Temple. This shows his complete participation in the worship of God.

God was worshipped in the Temple. As in ancient times, so also in the life of the Church, children are not excluded from the worship of the people of God. Through holy Baptism, children too are members of the Church. Not only did children always take part in gatherings for worship, but they also took part in prayers of repentance. We have many examples of this.

The Prophet Joel announces to his contemporaries a great divine visitation on account of the sins of the people. At the same time, however, he exhorts them to repent, in the hope that this terrible trial may perhaps be averted. In particular, he urges them all, including infants still at the breast, to offer penitent prayer. He writes, “Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, call out the elders, and gather the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom go out from his bedchamber and the bride out of her bridal chamber. Between the porch and the altar, the priests of the altar, ministering to the Lord, will each be weeping and will say, Ό Lord, spare Your people…’” (Joel 2:16-17). The participation of infants in this prayer of repentance has a twofold significance. Firstly, it shows that no sin is simply a personal event, but has cosmic dimensions. Thus the whole community ought to pray to God. Secondly, the prayer of infants, who pray in their own way, may be heard by God.

The Old Testament Book of Judith refers to a prayer of supplication to God offered by all the people. When they were informed that Holofernes and Nebuchadnezzar were destroying the sanctuaries, “all the men of Israel” prayed to God, and this included the whole people of God. “And all the men of Israel and the women and the children living in Jerusalem prostrated themselves before the temple, and put ashes on their heads and spread out their sackcloth before the face of the Lord” (Judith 4:9-11).

The participation of children and infants in public prayers and gatherings has another profound purpose apart from those already mentioned. Children learn what their real family is and who its members are. They also acquire experiences of worship of God, and these childhood experiences will play an important role in their later development.

We see in the Psalms of David that God prepares praise “from the mouths of babies and nursing infants” (Ps. 8:3) and accepts their prayers.

The New Testament preserves an account of the participation of a child in worship, specifically in worship at night, combined with teaching. In Troas, after the celebration of the Mystery of the Eucharist, the Apostle Paul, because he was going to depart the next day, “continued his message until midnight.” Then a certain young man called Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, “was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third storey and was taken up dead” (Acts 20:7-9). Eutychus not only took part in the Divine Liturgy but also attended the Apostle Paul’s long talk, which lasted until midnight. This sets an example to parents, that they cannot and should not deprive their children of services in church, even vigils and talks, although the children may not understand rationally, because they acquire experiences in a way beyond our comprehension.

Patristic theology states that all human beings have a noetic faculty, as all are created in the image of God. Children too have a noetic faculty, including infants. In fact, because their noetic faculty has not yet been polluted, it is purer than our own. Their rational faculty, however, is not yet developed, so they do not pray with our own received forms and images. Babies also pray to God, but in their own fashion. As time passes, and as all their mental powers develop, they understand things differently, but usually their nous is darkened and obscured by the darkness of their surroundings. It is possible for the presence of children in worship to be more intense than our own presence. They may pray better than adults.

From his infancy, Samuel was found worthy by God to minister to Him in His Temple. He took part in all the services there. He acquired a sense of worship and liturgy. He was kept pure in both body and soul. As he grew older, his nous was not darkened by the surrounding darkness, but was kept pure. For that reason, he was counted worthy of experiencing great things, as we shall see below. He received a great revelation from God because, as we said earlier, even babies and small children have a noetic faculty and are able to receive divine revelations.

In fact, a contemporary monk of the Holy Mountain says that, sometimes when infants laugh and we do not know why, it is because they see their angel, whom all of us have but cannot see.

Samuel also came into contact with the people of God. Then as now the distressed and suffering took refuge in the Temple to beseech God and to refer their problem to Him, as Samuel’s mother, the blessed Hannah, had done earlier. So he listened to people’s unhappiness and acquired a deep sense of love for them. We shall see this later on, when we analyse the way in which Samuel led the people of God.

St Gregory Palamas says that the All-Holy Virgin, who entered the Holy of Holies, developed this noetic faculty, lived hesychasm intensively, directed her nous into her heart and from there was caught up to God. She attained to deification and so was found worthy to become the Mother of Christ. At the same time, however, she participated in the services, listened to the problems and sorrows of the people who came to the Temple, and so felt compassion for the suffering and afflicted. We could say that the same applied to Samuel, with certain differences.

In addition, Samuel met holy people who came to the Tabernacle of Witness, and would no doubt have had significant experiences as a result of these encounters. On the Holy Mountain venerable old Elders used to tell me how much they benefited when, in the early stages of their monastic life, they met Elders who spoke wisely and whose words were the fruit of their personal experience.

Three factors, therefore, – the Temple, worship in the Temple and holy people – played an important role in Samuel’s life. When someone lives in this way, without great theories and teachings, he develops naturally and his whole personality is formed. It is as though he were in his mother’s womb. The unborn baby increases in size in its mother’s womb without making great efforts. It grows precisely because it sits and waits, and eventually the moment comes for it to be born. The same happens in the spiritual womb of the Church, which is the place of worship and the whole liturgical and eucharistic community. Without formulating exalted theories or taking part in endless discussions, one grows spiritually by participating in gatherings for worship, and helps one’s children to develop even more.

Bringing Up Children in the Church

Everything we have said so far, prompted by Samuel’s presence in the Temple, gives us the opportunity to look at the elements that contribute to the good upbringing of children in the Church. This is a burning issue for parents. We ought to state, of course, that it is impossible to go into details about this important subject here. We shall, however, emphasise certain points that are indispensable for bringing up children well in the Church.

Children’s ecclesiastical training begins before they are conceived, with the ecclesiastical training of their parents, at the time of their conception, during pregnancy, and after they are born. Upbringing in the Church is very different from any other sort of humanistic and even religious training. I make the distinction between ecclesiastical upbringing and religious upbringing because the Church is something different from all the religions that exist today. Parents pray for the child that will come. They pray when it has been conceived. In particular, the mother, who carries it in her womb, prays and takes Holy Communion, and subsequently nurtures the child with prayer. A contemporary spiritual father says something very significant: in order for someone to learn to pray, he must also have the blood of parents who pray. Once the child is born, the parents do everything laid down in the Church’s typikon: naming, offering in church on the fortieth day after the birth, Baptism, Holy Communion and taking part in the gatherings of the faithful for worship. In accordance with the earlier analysis, however, all these things can be summed up in three elements that are essential for Orthodox upbringing. The first is the place of worship, the second is worship, and the third is holy people and saints.

Children ought from the earliest age to love the church, the place where God dwells and where the glory of God is manifested. We all retain many such experiences from our childhood, when we were asked to clean the church, to help with rebuilding or decorating it. I can add that, pointless as they may seem, even the games that children play in the area around the church have much to offer and leave indelible impressions on their soul. In fact, without attempting to say too much, various experiences of this sort during childhood help people in later life.

The Russian ascetic, St Theophan the Recluse, who wrote many books on asceticism, said that he owed much to the services and vigils that he attended in church as a child, but also to the games that he played outside the church.

Father Gheorghiu, a Romanian priest in Paris, describes in one of his books his childhood experiences of his life in church. He was the son of a priest and had the blessing of seeing the church continuously and taking part in the services held there. He writes that, in church he gradually experienced the dogmatic truth of the Church. Seeing the icons, he experienced the presence of God and communion with the angels and saints. He did not learn about the priesthood from books, but from his father, who was a priest. Through the services he experienced the fact that the Church is the Body of Christ. And through frequent visits to the cemetery he realised that the Church is the mother of the dead and the living. He describes most eloquently how he reached the point of understanding the mission of the priest, who is everyone’s father, and not only exclusively his own father.

In church the child will live the Church’s life of worship. Worship will play a major role in his later development. It will leave him with lasting impressions, which will not easily be lost. Personally, I retain the best impressions of when I used to help the priest in the sanctuary to celebrate the Divine Eucharist, of later when I took part in the church choir, and when I stood with the choir and we chanted Byzantine hymns. Even today I vividly remember many pieces of music, such as the Cherubic Hymns by Phokaeas and the versions of the Polyeleos sung by the chanter in my parish. I have clear memories of the services on Good Friday, litanies, vigils, attending nocturnal Liturgies in monasteries, and so on.

Many people say that children do not understand worship, so they do not need to take part in it. But this is untrue, as we have said already. The rational faculty is not the centre of the human being. Besides the rational faculty there is the nous and other functions of the soul, with which one can approach the truth. How, for instance, can a baby understand its mother’s love or the feelings of the people who approach it? How can a child understand the drama that is likely to unfold at home? The same applies to worship. The presence of children in worship is not merely a matter of form, but essential. According to tradition, the Thrice-Holy Hymn, “Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal have mercy upon us”, was the inspiration of a child who, during a litany in Constantinople for deliverance from an earthquake, heard this hymn sung by angels. He told St Proclos, and thus it became customary to sing it in church during the Divine Liturgy.

Children should attend church with their parents and their whole family. In this way they feel that they belong to a worshipping community, which is their wider family. It is very important for them to pray with their parents, not at separate Liturgies. Of course, this may happen sometimes, when a child attends the Divine Liturgy with pupils from his school. But these Liturgies for schoolchildren cannot and should not be separated from the Liturgies of the eucharistic community and regarded as independent. Attending church services ought not to be associated absolutely with school, lest it should cease when school ends.

There is, of course, a problem when babies and young children cause a disturbance in church during the service. It ought, however, to be emphasised, that we who are older should be more patient. We should be more aware of the fact that infants too are members of the Church and make their presence felt in worship by crying. This ought not to annoy us. We too as children caused a problem by being restless, and others were patient with us. All the same, mothers should use their discretion. When they see that the child is tired, they ought to try everything, perhaps even temporarily leaving the church to soothe him. Clearly we should all realise the value of the whole family gathering together for worship, including the older generation, parents, children and infants.

Apart from the place of worship and the services, at which they will take Holy Communion and in which, depending on their age, they will take part personally, another essential element in bringing up children in the Church is acquaintance and contact with holy people. When we refer to holy people and saints, we mean those who are associated with Christ, who are dwelling-places of the All-Holy Spirit, living icons of Christ and tabernacles of God’s glory. Holiness does not have a moral meaning, but a spiritual one. It is participation in the life of Christ and sharing in the uncreated energies of God. The saints participate in Pentecost. It is a matter of great significance to meet someone holy during our life.

We all appreciate the importance of St Gregory Palamas in our Church, as well as the importance of his theology for Orthodox ecclesiastical life. However, we should not forget that he was the child of holy parents, who brought him up completely within the atmosphere of Orthodox Tradition. His parents also made sure he had a spiritual father. In fact his biographer, St Philotheos Kokkinos, describes a miracle performed by the Saint’s father when they were on their way to visit a holy ascetic, who was the family’s spiritual father. St Gregory must also have been impressed by the lessons given by St Theoleptos of Philadelphia, who was his teacher, but also practised noetic prayer and the Orthodox hesychastic life. If we add to this the climate then prevailing in Constantinople, which influenced St Gregory Palamas, we can complete the picture of his life as a child, and see the important role it played in his later development.

Another typical example is St Basil, who expresses his great gratitude to his grandmother, Macrina. He praises Macrina, because from her he learnt “the words of the most blessed Bishop Gregory”. St Gregory, Bishop of Neocaesarea, was the spiritual father of Macrina, St Basil’s grandmother. She brought up her grandchildren with the teaching and recollections of that holy man.

An elderly man in the region of Kozani was asked what had made the most impression on him in all his years of life. He replied, “When, as I was a little boy, I was counted worthy to kiss the hand of St Kosmas Aitolos.” This made such a great impression on him that it determined the whole of his life.

St Symeon the New Theologian says that for a time, when he was young, he went far away from God and the Church. What restrained him, however, was that he used to visit his spiritual father, even though he did not follow his advice. Only love and veneration for his spiritual father helped him to return to the Church and become a great saint.

I know many men with families who try to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain every year with their sons, because they want to bring them into contact with holy spiritual fathers, so they will have people to rely on in the future course of their life.

This also means that children associate with and love bishops, who are canonical shepherds of the Church; priests who serve in church; deacons, and all those who exercise a pastoral ministry in the Church. Parents ought to invite devout priests to their home, because this is very significant for the life of their children. Such events have left impressions on all of us.

Ecclesiastical Life and the Home

In parallel with all this, good ecclesiastical upbringing requires that the routine at home, where the child is growing up, is inspired as faithfully as possible by the Church’s typikon. This, to be sure, is problem with wider implications. Everyday life should be linked with the life of the Holy Eucharist. When we attend the Divine Liturgy, we should acquire the liturgical ethos, which is sacrificial, an ethos of self-offering. We must learn to live in our interpersonal relationships, in the course of everyday life, as we live during the Holy Eucharist, because severing daily life from eucharistic life creates many problems.

The same should happen as regards bringing up children in the Church. A Russian theologian writes on this issue, “We loved the church like our mother, like our country, like God. We were inspired by it. For us it was a place of sanctification and a source of enthusiasm. We had nothing more beautiful or better…The Church’s typikon regulated life in our home as regards fasts, feasts, services and prayers. For us it was self-evident and inviolable, like a natural law, that we would keep the fasts, especially the strict rules of Great Lent.”

A profound impression is made on children by shared evening prayer, when the whole family says Compline together and all the members, depending on their age, say part of the service. Let no one claim that this is impossible, because I know many families that pray together. If this form of shared prayer is difficult, the pious mother can pray with the children. Let them say Paraklisis. A priest could be invited to perform the Blessing of Oil in the home. He could read Paraklisis or bless the house. Devout parents can think of many things to do in order to adapt, to some extent, the routine of the home to the typikon of the Church. At the very least, they can pray before and after meals. In this way the children will understand that God sends the food, and we ought to thank Him. They will also realise that we must have God’s blessing for all the actions in our life.

Metropolitan Dionysios of Kozani observes, “What comes first in people’s lives is always upbringing, in this case, upbringing in the Church…our Christians must be taught what is said and done in Church, and learn to love the people and things of the Church. Unless we start from here, we do not make Christians, because, if we do not have people with the mind of the Church, we do not have Christians.”

The significant comment has been made that young people who learn to attend church, visit monasteries, venerate holy icons, sing the Church’s hymns, love iconography, and generally enjoy and understand the Church’s art, will not easily distance themselves from the Church, even if they go through difficulties and are cut off from ecclesiastical life for a while. Parents ought to bring up their children in such a way that they can easily return after their temporary departure. It is very important that the children should retain a good memory and image of God and the maternal affection of the Church.

If parents are aware of the Church as a mother, they will inspire this attitude in their children. If they feel differently about the Church, the children will adopt the same attitude.

Imitating Hannah and inspired by the Prophet Samuel, who spent his childhood years in the Temple, we should be careful to instill an ecclesiastical way of thinking in children. We should involve children with the church, with worship and with holy people and saints. We should also attune the routine of the home to the typikon of Church. Then our own efforts will be easier and less laborious and painful.

by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos