Recently, a concern was voiced by some parents of young children regarding the difficulty of having their youngsters sit through our “long worship services.” Having been a parent of young children for many years with a wife who basically functioned as a single parent every Sunday and feast day, I am aware of how difficult it is to a young Orthodox Christian family. I realize that each Divine Liturgy is a struggle, trying to keep our children attentive and involved, wondering whether they and we are benefitting from the time and effort. This work is further compounded by the fact that many of us have not grown up ourselves in Orthodox worship. Standing for long periods of time, working hard to stay present and cut off intrusive thoughts, and entering into a rhythm and atmosphere so different from our everyday experience is even hard for us adults.
The Church has some very definite things to say about the presence of young children in the church services as full participants. Ever since the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, infants on the fortieth day of life have been brought to the Temple (church) to be blessed, dedicated and officially welcomed into the corporate worship life of the church community. From New Testament times until the present day, children have been baptized and chrismated as infants. From the day of the their baptism, they have been made full members and communicants of the holy mysteries of the Church. If young children are not expected to be in church, why does the Church bless both the mother and her child on the fortieth day and baptize and confirm them soon thereafter?! Of course, we know that they are clothed in Christ and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they can be totally immersed in the life of the Church. The wisest of all men, King Solomon, affirms this truth: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov.22:6)
The Church is the Body of Christ, and it is also one big spiritual family. As members of the same Body, we are called to come together to congregate, to meet God and one another and to exercise love and work out our salvation in common as one. This inevitably means that from time to time there is going to be a little noise, a little movement, because we have little ones in our midst. They do not yet have the same attention span to stay focused as long as adults. These little ones are in training. This is why we have a “Young Family Room,” which is an extension of the Nave. It is NOT a “Cry Room,” where chaos and running around are encouraged, but it is a place for our young ones to be when they are not quiet enough to be in the Nave. It is their place of transition as they learn how to worship and participate in the Divine Services in a way that is respectful and fitting to the other members of their spiritual family.
I repeat here the words of Solomon: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Believe me, and I speak from experience, if we persevere in this struggle to bring our young children to the worship services while they are young, they will soon learn to love worship. It will become a part of them, and they will feel at home in the Church. Experts have long said that the bulk of our personality and our sense of our “self ” is formed in the first five years of life. Along with the grace of baptism and chrismation, the foundational experience of our young ones in Orthodox worship will be deeply imprinted on their souls; it will become a part of their spiritual DNA.
Allow me to interject two brief examples. A priest had regularly brought his children to church from their fortieth day. One day when one of his children was only two, he took her with him on a house blessing. While preparing for the service, his child was in another room playing and seemingly inattentive. Once the priest started the house blessing, however, from the other room this young child began chanting the responses. You can imagine how amazed and thrilled the priest was to see how much his child had absorbed just by being present at the various services. He said nothing, but throughout the rest of the service, he was accompanied by a two year old chanter.
A second example comes from my own experience. When our oldest was only 3 or 4, we had to be somewhere on a Saturday that prevented us from celebrating Vespers at our church. Presvytera and I decided we would do as much of the Vespers from heart while driving home that evening. We started, but quickly forgot how Psalm 103 continued after the opening line. Suddenly, from the back seat our young daughter proceeded to recite the entire Psalm from memory. We were astonished and learned a powerful lesson about the importance of bringing our children to church even when we are not sure they are even paying attention. It is during these formative early years that our children are like sponges, picking up and retaining all the sights, sounds and smells of Orthodox worship.
We should never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit in our children’s lives or the powerful effect the Orthodox Church’s rich, sensorial worship services can have on young children who do not seem to be paying attention. If they see that God and the Church are important to us, it will become important to them. Our commitment to the worship life of the Church will communicate this same priority to them. Once in the church, they will see the Kingdom of Heaven all around them through the architecture, the icons, the vestments, the candles, the incense, the chanting, etc. They will hear the prayers, the petitions, the hymns and the preaching. They will taste and see that the Lord is good. All of these sensory stimuli will create an indelible mark upon their whole person that will draw them closer to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let us all rise above our doubts as to whether this is of benefit to ourselves and our children. Let us ignore the insidious thoughts that are sent to us by the evil one and heed the words of our Lord: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mt.19:14) If we as parents live our faith at all times and teach it to our children in both word and deed, namely bringing them to the Divine Services of the Church, they will grow up close to our Lord. My dear parents, hang in there and have patience. This season of bearing and raising children is brief. Your efforts will bear fruit before you even realize it. I have seen it happen to countless children whose parents were faithful. Not only will the holy and blessed worship life of the Church form and transfigure our children, but your loving and sacrificial efforts will also positively change your lives as well.