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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Thoughts on Religious Education of Children [1]

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Author: Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

I am absolutely sure that any person who understands them and can convey his faith to them can deal with children – not only head, mental knowledge on religious topics, but the burning of one’s own heart and understanding of the ways of God. It seems to me that, ideally, this should be done by parents at home or by those people at the church who are capable of this. There are families where children are well educated in the Orthodox way, but on average, it is more difficult for parents to teach their child than a priest, because a child listens to a priest differently. True, it is usually difficult for a priest to do this: he has divine services, rites, and various other duties.

At home, we created a parish school 38 years ago, and it has been growing ever since. There is a lesson twice a month after the liturgy; then the children are taken to play in a nearby park so that they get to know each other better. It is very important that they make up a family, which in the future will be a parish community. In the summer we organize a camp for them. We started with a small group, and this year (1987 – Ed.) we will have a hundred people. On your scale, this is a drop in the ocean, but on ours it is a lot. The children live together for two weeks. There is prayer in the morning and in the evening; there are classes on the subjects of faith in groups, classes in needlework, sports, hiking. And this creates relationships between children that allow them, when they grow up and reach the age at which teenagers rebel against their parents, to share their impressions or seek advice and help not at school or on the street, but to go to their campmates, on Sunday school, that is, according to the Church, in the end – and receive, of course, a completely different kind of answers.

Before growing up to the measure of a Christian, a person must be just a person. If you read the parable of the goats and the sheep in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the question is clearly posed there: were you humane, did you grow up to the measure of a real person? Only then can you grow to the extent of communion with God… Therefore, it is necessary to teach a child truthfulness, fidelity, courage, such qualities that make a truly human out of him; and, of course, compassion and love must be taught.

If we talk about faith, then we must pass on the Living God to the children – not the charter, not some formal knowledge, but the fire that Christ brought to earth so that the whole earth, or, in any case, every believer, would become a bush burning, burning, would be light, warmth, revelation for other people. And for this we need to pass on the Living God as an example of our life. My spiritual father told me: no one can depart from the world and turn to eternity, if he does not see in the eyes or on the face of at least one person the radiance of eternal life … This is what must be conveyed: the Living God, the living faith, the reality of God; everything else will follow.

I am not delighted when children are taught methodically, let’s say that the life of Jesus Christ proceeded in such and such a way. Children do not need awareness, but those things that can reach them; we need a living contact that can excite the soul, inspire. We need not just history as History. Let the stories be scattered, – in due time they will find their place. It is very precious that a child often knows more about God and the mysteries of God than his parents. And the first thing parents must learn is not to interfere with his knowledge, not to turn experiential knowledge into a brain catechism. I do not wish now to denigrate the catechism as such; but it happens that the child knows – and he is forced to formulate. And at that moment, when, instead of knowing with all his gut, he was forced to memorize some phrase or some image, everything begins to die out.

As I have already said, it seems to me that it does not really help a child to know all the facts from the Gospel as facts. Of course, if you love someone, you want to know what happened to him; but first you need to fall in love, and then start collecting facts. I remember teaching the Law of God at the Russian Gymnasium in Paris: the children were told the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, they had to memorize either a troparion or a passage from the Gospel; and all this “should have been” done, for all this marks were put on a par with arithmetic or natural science. And this only ruined the living perception, because it doesn’t matter in what order what happened?

But, on the other hand, the gospel facts and stories about them are so full of interest and beauty that if the goal is not to memorize, but to familiarize children with this miracle, something can work out. In London, I worked with children from seven to fifteen years old for six years. There were too few of them to create age groups; and it was very difficult to “teach” them. So we sat around a long table, took a gospel passage and discussed it together. And sometimes it turned out that a nimble seven-year-old boy could be a much more lively conversationalist than a fourteen-year-old boy, and the difficulties were smoothed out. It depended on receptivity, on reaction, not only on the mind, but on all sensitivity. This is how we went through the Sunday Gospels, the holiday Gospels. At first I told them the Gospel as vividly and colorfully as possible, using here and there a phrase from the text, but not necessarily reading it all, because very often the Gospel text is too smooth, the children’s attention slides over it. Then we discussed it, and gradually approached to read the text as it stands in the Gospel. In my opinion, it is necessary to create a lively interest and lively love, a desire to know what is next and why.

On other occasions we discussed moral issues. Let’s say, I remember, the boy Andrei broke a window at home, and we asked him to explain to us: why does he break windows at home? I do not want to say that beating a neighbor is more justified; but why did it occur to him? And there was a big, lively discussion between the children about why this could happen. And gradually, in the course of the discussion, phrases from the Holy Scriptures began to emerge, describing or characterizing the moods that the children expressed. And these children once said to me: but this is amazing! Everything that is in us: both good and evil – can be expressed in the words of the Savior or the apostles. It means that everything is there – I am all in the Gospel, I am all in the Epistles … This, I think, is much more useful than memorization.

That’s all my, very meager, knowledge about the upbringing of children. I myself was not a believing child, until the age of fifteen God did not exist for me, and I do not know what they do with a child in order to bring him up in the faith. That’s why I don’t take on small children; I take on children only when I can talk to them, that is, from the age of ten, from nine. I only know one thing: you need to pray over a child. A pregnant woman must pray, must confess, take communion, because everything that happens to her happens to the child she is expecting. When a child is born, you need to pray over him and for him, even if for some reason you do not pray with him. And in order to pray together, it seems to me, we need to look for prayers (it is permissible to compose them) that can reach the child – not in general to the child, but precisely to this child. How he lives, who he is, how, being himself, he can talk to God – only parents know this, because they know how their child speaks to them.

Another: we manage to turn into an unpleasant duty what could be pure joy. I remember once, on my way to church, I stopped by the Losskys (we lived on the same street in Paris). They gather, dressed three children, and the fourth stands and waits, but they do not dress him. He asked: “What about me?” And the father answered: “You behaved in such a way this week that you have nothing to do in church! Going to church is an honor, it is a privilege; if all week you behaved not like a Christian, but like a demon, then sit in pitch darkness, stay at home…”

And we do the opposite; we say: well, go, go, repent, tell the priest… or something like that. And as a result, meeting with God is becoming more and more a duty, a necessity, and even just a very unpleasant caricature of the Last Judgment. First, they instill in the child how terrible and terrible it will be for him to confess his sins, and then he is forcibly driven there; and this, I think, is bad.

We have children confessing from the age of seven, sometimes a little younger or a little older, depending on whether they have reached the age when they can have a judgment about their actions. Sometimes a child comes and gives a long list of his sins; and you know that mother wrote down the sins, because these various misdeeds jar something on her. And if you ask a child: “Do you really feel that this is very bad? – he often looks, says: No … – And why do you confess this? – Mom said…”

This, in my opinion, should not be done. We must wait for the moment when the child already has some moral ideas. At the first confession, I do not raise the question of how much he sinned, and with what, and how (I do not give you myself as an example, I just tell what I am doing). I say something like this: “Here, you have now become a big boy (or: a big girl). Christ has always been your faithful friend; Before, you just took it for granted. Now you have reached the age where you can, in turn, become a true friend. What do you know about Christ that attracts you to Him?..” For the most part, the child talks about this or that, what he likes or what touches him in Christ. I answer: “So you understand Him in this, you love Him in this and you can be faithful and loyal to Him, just as you can be faithful and loyal to your schoolmates or your parents. You can, for example, make it a rule for yourself to find a way to please Him. How can you please Him? There are things you say or do that might hurt Him…” Sometimes children say things themselves, sometimes they don’t. Well, sometimes you can tell: “Are you lying, for example? Are you cheating in games?..” I never talk about obedience to parents at this stage, because this is the way parents often use to enslave the child, using God as the ultimate power that will affect him. I try not to confuse the demands of their parents and their relationship with God. Depending on who this child is, you can offer him different questions (about lies, about this or that) and say: “That’s good; please God that you will no longer do this or that, or at least you will try not to do it. And if you do, then repent, that is, stop, say – Lord! Forgive me! I turned out to be not a good friend to you. Let’s make peace!..” And come to confession so that the priest can tell you: “Yes, since you repent and regret, I can tell you on behalf of God: He forgives you. But think: what a pity that such a beautiful friendship was broken … “

Fasting for children should be carried out reasonably, that is, in such a way that it would not be continuous and meaningless flour, but would have an educational quality. It seems to me that it is more important for a child to start a fast with some kind of moral feat. We must offer him, give him the opportunity to limit himself in where delicacy, greed is more manifested, and not in the quality of this or that food. It is necessary that he does this as much as he can, in the consciousness that by this he affirms his devotion to God, conquers certain negative inclinations in himself, achieves power over himself, self-control, learns to control himself. And it is necessary to gradually increase the fast, as the child can do it. It is clear that there is no need to eat meat: vegetarians never eat it, and yet they live and prosper, so it is not true to say that a child cannot fast without meat. But, on the other hand, one must take into account what a child can do for health reasons and for his strength.


[1] The text was published in the journal “Orthodox Conversation” (1992, no. 2-3). These are precisely Vladyka’s thoughts on this topic, collected from his various conversations and speeches.

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