Welcome to Raising Saints. I was recently looking at a website for Orthodox Christian educators, when I saw that a teacher posed a question to the group about a Sunday school student who intentionally failed his final exam. Now there’s a question: what happens if a Sunday school student fails a test? Does he fail the class? Do you hold him back a year or expel him? If you don’t, what does that say about your test? If you told the kids that they had to pass this test, then they’d better pass it, right? I wonder: what does it mean if you send a student away, telling him that he’s failed at Orthodoxy.
Many people wrote in thoughtful answers, suggesting that this was a pastoral issue, to be resolved between the priest and the boy and his family. That’s excellent advice: let the priest and the family work it out and follow whatever resolution they achieve. That’ll get the Sunday school teacher right out of this mess.
But how did he get into this mess in the first place? Based on the comments I read on that site, it seems that nearly half of our Orthodox Sunday schools give exams at the end of the school year, while the other half do not. I’ll tell you right up front: the Sunday schools with which I’ve been involved have never tested students, and I’m not looking to start. At one point, we talked about testing our high school students, giving them end-of-year exams to see how effectively we’d taught them the basics of the faith and to identify areas in which we need more work. I’ve just never been comfortable with the idea, in part because I could see that dilemma looming large: what if someone fails? Will we hold him back? Declare him an inadequate Christian? Tell him he’d better start studying up if he’s ever going to get to heaven, if he’s ever going to mass enough information to become a good Orthodox Christian?
What really struck me is how it might impact a student’s spiritual life if we graded them. Failing a test might feel like the Church just rejected you. I can imagine a bitter 40-year-old man telling his friends that the Orthodox Church failed him, rejected him—so he left. What will God say to that Sunday school teacher, who lost his precious sheep like that?
Conversely, getting a perfect score might feed a student’s pride and inhibit his ability to be repentant and humble. Hey, if he’s getting straight As in Sunday school, he doesn’t even need confession. We could be creating Pharisees with good grades. As far as I can tell, testing is fraught with danger for the kids, so why would we do it?
In the end, I suspect that the real motivation for testing is to make the teachers feel better. We teach these kids, we pray for them, and we never know if we’ve done it well. We plant seeds and we hope that they’ll take root. It’s hard to trust that the Holy Spirit will do its work and to hope that the kids will have trusted our words and have taken them to heart and that they’ll continue to grow in their love of Christ for years after we finish teaching.
It’s not easy to trust. It’s not easy to teach a Sunday school class, week after week, wondering if what you’re saying is really getting through and whether your kids are really hearing your message. We all like a pat on the back, an “atta-boy” for a job well done, and sometimes I think we seek one out when we give our kids a written exam. We want some reassurance that we’re good teachers, and so we write up an exam and we pass it out so that when the kids all pass with flying colors, we’re assured that these long months were well spent. We can even show the parents and the parish council what a great job we’re doing.
The tests are really for us, for the adults, to make us feel good about our curriculum and our approach, to help us feel good about ourselves as teachers and parents. Ultimately, you might be able to test how much Church history a child has retained, or how many sacraments they can describe, but you can’t test whether they’re going to pick up their cross and follow Christ. You can’t test anything that matters. You can’t grade them on whether or not they love Jesus, or whether the seeds you’ve planted are suddenly going to flower when they need them the most. 30 years from now, when they’re burying a loved one or sitting at someone’s sick bed, you’ll never know that. We’re just going to have to trust.
When I think about this idea of testing, I think about St. Euphrosynos. You may know him as the cook, the culinary saint whose icon is in countless kitchens, a friendly face offering a bough of golden apples. If you’re not familiar, or really, I should say, if you’re not in love with St. Euphrosynos yet, get this book right away: The Boy, A Kitchen, and His Cave by Catherine K. Contopoulos, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Technically, this is a children’s book, and your kids will probably love it, but I’ve learned so much from this book and from this saint—get it for yourself, and share it with your kids if you get a chance.
I don’t want to give away the whole story, but I’ll tell you this: Euphrosynos was not a learned man; he was really very simple. He couldn’t read and write. He couldn’t do math. But he loved Christ and the Theotokos and all the saints with all his heart. At one point in his life, he found himself in a monastery, filled with very academic, learned men. Euphrosynos was not one of them. He was not a scholar. Indeed, he was not even a monk. He was a servant, employed to cook in the kitchen and to scrub the floors. He was happy to serve these men of God with a humble heart, and whenever he had some free time, he’d head off to his cave to pray.
The monks in that monastery argued over matters of theology. They wrestled with one another, working to articulate the holy answers to the great questions of their day. Euphrosynos looked at them with awe, and couldn’t begin to understand the complexities of their grand discussions. One night the abbot of the monastery dreamt he was in paradise, and guess [whom] he found there—St. Euphrosynos, who it seemed was allowed into paradise every night. There, in dreamy paradise, he gave the abbot a branch of apples, and when the abbot awakened, the apples were still there, and he understood that this was more than a dream.
The abbot knew exactly what God was trying to teach him: Euphrosynos, with his complete lack of academic knowledge, possessed a faith greater and more pleasing to God than any of the learned, scholarly monks in that monastery. Euphrosynos’ beautiful, quiet worship and his humility, his loving service to others, made him a great saint. Euphrosynos did not love money or things. He didn’t love fame or fortune. He just loved to serve others and to spend quiet time in prayer. He loved Christ with all his heart, and that’s really all that God wants from us.
Whenever I get carried away with Sunday school, or even with this podcast, I think of St. Euphrosynos. I remember that God wants our hearts. Salvation’s not an academic pursuit. We’re saved by following Christ, by loving him and giving ourselves over to him. St. Euphrosynos’ faith grew alone in a cave, with just a tiny icon. He was living the faith, praying and serving and emptying himself out. When Christ talks about the Last Judgment, he talks about whether or not you’ve fed the hungry and visited those in prison. He does not talk about what books you’ve read or whether you’ve scored about average on a multiple-choice Scantron test.
The Christian path is a lived faith, so when we’re teaching it, we need to teach by example and by sharing the journey with our students, our children. We need to build a relationship with them, to bond with them, so that they’ll hear us and take our words to heart. Then we need to let go of our desire to know whether or not this teaching worked. We’re planting seeds for Christ, and we need to let him handle his harvest. Someday you may see an old student and find out that you changed their life, that you inspired them with your good example and your loving words, or maybe you’ll never hear anything. I just pray that none of us ever hears that someone left the Church because we told them they weren’t good enough or that they hadn’t retained enough information. I pray that no one ever walks away from Christ because of something a Sunday school teacher did.
In the Scriptures, St. James begins his third chapter by admonishing us, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” We have to be careful, because children are a great blessing, and when we steward God’s children, we’ll be held accountable for our actions. If we really want only to serve God and to serve these children, then we don’t need final exams. We don’t need confirmation that our words are sticking. We can be laborers in God’s vineyard, planting seeds and praying, and trusting that it’s not us or our brilliant explanations that will speak to our children’s hearts. We offer what we can. We nourish them to the best of our abilities, but God makes up for what we lack, and in the end, he’s the one doing all the work that matters.
Holy St. Euphrosynos, pray for us!