On September 10, 2011, St. Joseph Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas, hosted the 2011 Orthodox Christian Parenting Retreat. The speaker was Fr. John Peck, priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Prescott, Arizona, and the topic was “Orthodox Christian Parenting in the 21st Century: Guiding, Guarding, and Discipline for Parents, Grandparents, and Godparents in the Orthodox Tradition.”
In my family, when I grew up, we had two boys and two girls, and I remember asking my mom which is easier, boys or girls. This is a woman who had a lot of experience with both. And she said, “Well, boys are hard, but they get easier. Girls are easy, but they get harder!” Fr. James will tell you more about that, I’m sure.
Once a child gets past that sort of initial stage where they really don’t know the difference between good and evil, around the age of seven, in classical paidea, they’re at a stage which Dorothy Sayers, in her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” she calls it the “Poll-Parrot stage.” They’re sponges; they absorb everything.
This is another important time when you have to be careful to guard the doors of perception of your children. There’s a reason for this. St. Theophan the Recluse is probably the best writer about how things are affectable in the soul. There are three powers of the soul: the mind, the will, and the heart. In the Philokalia, they’re called the intellective, the appetitive, and the incensive aspects of the soul, but they’re the powers of the soul. And they have curative exercises.
A child who’s been protected from the world—and by the world I mean temptations and passions and things they shouldn’t see—at this point is actually pretty well off. We’ve protected them from things they shouldn’t see, and hopefully they’re not watching Tinky Winky or Teletubbies or things like that, to waste their time—and those things are a waste of time. Not all television is, but most of it is. Just like most of the internet is a waste of time. I’m not afraid to say that, because I spend a lot of time on the internet.
St. Theophan reminds us that kids at this age, they absorb everything, and they really do. I taught my boys at an early age—to my regret—how to memorize things really fast. We have a lot of memorization games, turn things into songs, lots of Bible verses, because all of my programs, which I’ll explain in a little bit, are done in a particular way which encourage memorization. The bad part of that is that they only memorize the stuff they’re actually interested in memorizing. And stuff that you said that you’re not repeating correctly. They’ll remember exactly what you said and give it back… That’s not really what you said.
Guarding the doors of perception is very important at this point. It’s not just about guarding against profanity or pornography or any of the other really lewd things that push the envelope for parents very often. I want to say this very clearly, and I know you all know this. I know you all know this, but I want you to remember it.
If you don’t protect your children, if you don’t go to bat for your child, nobody will do it. If you’re not their number-one advocate, and I’m not talking about going against teachers—if you’re not your child’s number-one protector and advocate, nobody will do it. You have to do it. And at this stage, of course, you’ve gotten more accustomed to the fact that your child is not completely controllable, but a seven-year-old child, in your head, you still think like they’re four years old. You’re always a little behind developmentally in terms of how you view them. When I have dreams, my son Joseph who’s 17, is always four in my dream. Always. I have no idea why, but that’s just how he appears in my dreams.
If we have to guide our children’s minds and their will and their heart, we’ve got a lot of work cut out for us. We can’t keep them in a bubble, but we have to repel certain things. For example, there are certain movies that look kinda funny that can be grotesque to a child, that they desensitize to. Well, my children don’t desensitize real well; they just cry. My son wanted to watch, I think, Mars Attacks. Remember that movie, when they’re running around? That really upset him a lot. I didn’t think it would. I apologized to him; I said, “I’m sorry. I had no idea it would upset you so much.” I didn’t even want to watch it, but it taught me something about the doors of perception that is really important.
There’s plenty of time for your children to be jaded as adults. Teaching them the right choices to make at this age I think is very important. St. Theophan, in talking about the powers of the soul, says this is how we train the powers of the soul. I don’t want to forget them; that’s why I wrote them down. He says for the mind, these are the exercises. They cure the mind of the pollution that we put into it, the things that we’ve taken on.
First, reading and hearing the word of God, the writings of the Fathers, and the lives of the saints.
He says that hearing the word of God is best done in the morning, the lives of saints some time after lunch, and before bed, writings of the Fathers. Well, obviously, you’re not going to do that with a seven-year-old, right, but, just as the child hopefully has seen you pray over them and with them and for them for seven years, now they can actually hear something else important. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing, literally, the preaching of Christ, hearing the word of God, hearing the Scriptures.
There’s a reason our worship is composed almost entirely of quotations from Scripture. If you’re not aware of that—it is. I know, because I had to look it up when I was in seminary, and I actually turned it into a book. I super-scripted all the little Scripture quotes into it, until I got so sick of it I just didn’t do any more. Somebody once told me there was 110 Old Testament and 90 New Testament quotes in the Divine Liturgy. Trust me: there’s more than that just in the first 10 pages of the Divine Liturgy. And I know, because I looked them up.
Once a year, I do an instructional Liturgy in my parish, where I stop and explain at each point what’s happening, where it’s from, where these words are from in the Scriptures, and for newcomers, because they don’t know, and for other people who have never seen it before. My boys are tired of hearing it, because they hear it every year. They’ve grown up hearing it their entire lives.
But first and foremost, if our children aren’t hearing the Scriptures from us, if they really don’t see us read the Scriptures out loud—and by the way, you should always read the Scriptures out loud; they’re literature. Many of you have seen this: it’s a New Testament and Psalms for Orthodox Christians, Military Edition, a little pocket edition, put out by SCOBA. It’s really nice. I think it’s an RSV edition, so it has icons in the front and back, prayers and everything.
The thing that’s nice about this, I discovered recently. I was preparing to hand one of these to a serviceman that was coming back from Afghanistan. They said, “Oh yeah, I know that.” They weren’t Orthodox. I said, “You know this?” He goes: “Oh, yeah. There’s hundreds of them over there. Everybody on the line has one of these, and when he leaves, he hands it to us who come on to that position.” That’s good. They have an Orthodox Bible and Orthodox prayers on the lines in Iraq and Afghanistan and Korea and Bosnia. That’s good work.
When it comes to learning the Scriptures, I don’t think simple memorization is enough. Fr. James mentioned that I wrote several workbooks. One’s called Bible Drill. I’ll give you a brief outline in what that was and why it was successful. Every year in Canton, Ohio, when I was there, there was Vacation Bible School, and each Orthodox church would take a turn hosting it. We hosted it one year, and the next year a larger church hosted it, but the cut-off was age 11. If you were ten and younger you could go, but 11 and up, you couldn’t go.
My parish had a bunch of teenage boys with mothers that had had teenage boys up to here. They said, “Father, you have to do [something]. I’m going to kill ‘em! He’s driving me crazy. You’ve got to do something. Help us.” I said, “Okay.” So I created this program, and it was a booklet that had nine ranks. You start as a private, you go all the way through sergeant-major, but it wasn’t easy.
It was ten memorizations you had to memorize word-for-word, Bible memorizations. You had to be able to find the Lord’s prayer and the Ten Commandments in the Bible—both locations. You had to know all the books of the Bible—Orthodox Bible—in order. Fast days, feast days, names of the Apostles: you had to memorize it all. The only passing score was 100%, and you had four days to do it. Not only that, but I made them wear little green hats. They had camouflage shorts on, dog tags that had their name on it and said “Bible Drill.”
And I took them out every day, and I tested them with the young marine’s physical fitness stuff: how many pull-ups, push-ups, and you score them, and here’s your score. Well, in the young marines, if you get 200 you pass, or you get a star. If you get 200. I said, “You know what? 200 is passing. If you get 300, you’ll get a bronze star. If you get 400, you get a silver star. And if you get 500, you’ll get a gold star.” And these boys killed themselves to get those stars. It was amazing, and I told them, “It’s not going to be a success, I’d consider this a huge failure if all of you don’t promote.” So I would stand there and give them the verse, and they’d have to recite it for me—it’s all in the book.
At the end of the first year, very successful, we continued the program into the fall and did it in the following summer, and again, to my surprise, the boys did well because, to test to the second rank, you had to recite all the stuff for the first rank first, then the second rank. Everything was cumulative. So over time, these boys are really packing a lot of information away, and none of them are A-students. They did real well, and some of them actually made it to level five which was sergeant. When they got sergeant, they got to wear a really cool black t-shirt and it had a skull on the side, a quote from Sirach. We made it as fun as we could. We had a war banquet at a local Chinese buffet, and we gave them the medals. We gave them just little trinkets, right, but, man, that was important.
So the following summer, the mom who asked me originally to do this said, “Listen, I’ve got all these girls now. Can’t you create a girls’ program?” Sure. So I changed all the ranks and the pictures, and I changed it from Bible Drill to Bible Divas.
Now, I’m trying to figure out what motivates girls, because boys’ll kill each other for a gold star. They will. When I was in Royalton, Illinois, a parish there with my sons and two other boys—that’s the youth group. I had them memorize something each week, and I put up a chart on the wall, and I can’t say it’s a gold star chart. I’ll say it’s an axios: it’s an axios which means “well done; you’re worthy.” Well, after about the fourth week, the son of the deacon comes to me and says, “Man, I’d throw myself in front of a moving car for an axios.” Couldn’t believe how motivated he was by this.
So Bible Divas, I changed the names of the ranks from “Private” and “Sergeant-major” to “Singer,” “Chanter,” and you get to be “Diva,” and the top rank wasn’t Sergeant-major; it was “Prima-donna Diva.” Once you got to the Sergeant level, instead of wearing a little pin, you wore a tiara. And the tiara got bigger with every rank. I’m not joking. Those girls killed each other for that tiara. And the thing was, they weren’t competing for it, they were just competing against themselves. If you got the score, you got the award.
So before I left, we had 60 kids in this program. I was totally exhausted by the end of the week when we did this, but what I found out was that having a tiered, incremental program was super successful. In the Orient, if you’re taking judo or karate, you start with a white belt, and what’s the next belt?
No. It’s black. But Americans like the yellow belt, then the orange belt, then the red belt. We like that very much. There’s only 15 ranks between white belt and black belt, and I’ll get them all. Yeah, Father’s into that: Yeah! Totally it. And it’s true. The American system has inserted all these different levels and ranks because we like moving up the ladder.
I have a silver cross, and it’s the cross I was ordained with, but in the Russian tradition, you go from a silver cross to a gold cross to a jewelled cross, and a bunny hat to a crock-pot to a giant crock-pot… All these different things to show that you’re moving up the ranks. Well, that’s because guys love that! We do. We want to earn it. And I told the boys, I said, “Listen. Here’s the trick. If the only passing score is 100%, then if you earned it, you really have earned it. And once you’ve earned it, it can never be taken away from you.”
And I actually did a presentation on this for the Illumination Learning webinar last year. I talked about how these programs have to be tiered; you have to have a lot of ranks, they have to be incremental, and, in my opinion, they need to be cumulative, so as you test for each rank, you have to test for the knowledge of all the previous ranks. Somebody asked me once, “Well, who would actually ever do that?” I actually had kids that took me an hour and a half to test, but they tested through all nine ranks, both boys and girls. They actually did it.
Believe me, that is a huge amount of information. I mean huge, like 300 Bible verses, knowledge of all kinds of crazy stuff, where it is in the Bible, lot of faith information. These kids were loaded with information, and it was fun for them, too.
Finally, when I got to Prescott, I did the same thing with my altar boys. I actually just started a program. This is the acolyte’s handbook. You can look at it, by the way, but I’m doing something similar. Not quite as intense, but the boys have nine ranks. It starts with “Server,” “Torch-bearer,” “Boat-bearer” (that’s incense boat), “Porter,” “Crucifer” (the guy who carries the cross), to “Thurifier” (the person who carries the censer), “Sacristan,” and “Ecclesiarch.” And the way it works is they’re going to have a special medal that has a cross on it, and they wear a colored ribbon. The first one is white, the last one is black, and it goes: white, yellow, light blue, maroon, red, purple, green, navy blue, and black. So everybody in the church will see at what level they’re at. And again, I expect it to be very successful because I sent three boys, age seven, home with this, and the parents called me the next day and said, “He was up all night reading that book.”
We underestimate our children’s abilities to learn things. We need to stop doing that. I’ll be honest. Let me be very up-front about this. There’s not a lot of great Orthodox material for stuff like this. The reason I created the Preacher’s Institute website was because there was no website for Orthodox preachers, and I needed one. That was the same reason I created the Journey to Orthodoxy website: because I needed a place to send inquirers who wanted to see the stories of people from their own background who became Orthodox. Are they still happy? What are they doing? What do they have to say about their journey? That’s why I did those things. That’s why I’ve done these things, why I created Bible Drill. I needed that information. But I’ll tell you what I told another priest. I said, “Look, Father, try anything. Even if it’s wrong.” I don’t mean morally wrong; you know what I mean. Even if he fails: try it.
A friend of mine, one of my deacons, is a professor of business, and he goes to Romania every year, ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain. And he said, “It’s interesting: when you come here, Eastern Europe has a very different mindset about business.” I said, “Well, how so?” He said, “It’s the Wile E. Coyote of business. If somebody tries something, and it doesn’t work, no one ever tries it again. Rather than saying, ‘Oh, if you move that tree next time, maybe you’ll get the Roadrunner.’ They just don’t bother with it again. In America, we’d say, ‘I’ll fix that. Shoot, that was easy. I see the problem there. We tweak it; we try to make it work better.’ There, it’s a much more difficult thing, moving on.”
In the same way, when it comes to educating our children in the faith, a lot of times we’re trying to think of what’s been done in the past, which, by the way, is good and useful, but we’re not tied to that. Be creative about it. There’s no wrong way to teach children to learn the Scriptures. And if the source of all evil in the Church, like St. John Chrysostom says, is the lack of Scriptural knowledge, then we can’t do anything wrong.
I grew up singing Bible songs and little things here and there, verses. I don’t plan on changing those songs to an Orthodox version of it, but we can write ditties ourselves. My point is simply this: the kids don’t know. They don’t know what’s brand-new and what’s centuries-old. All they know is what you’re teaching them, what you’re presenting to them, and at this stage, they can absorb everything. I mean everything. They’ll pick it up.
Therefore, you have to show them what’s important. What is important? The first thing I teach the boys in my groups [is]: What’s the Gospel? This is a good question. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to make you answer.) But in my new member class, the first thing I tell new members is, “If I ask you, ‘What is the Gospel?’ what would you say?” And people would say, “Be nice to each other,” “God loves you,” “The New Testament,” “Jesus,” you know, whatever the answer is. [I] say, “That’s not what the Bible says. The Bible says the Gospel is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.” St. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15:3-8:
I delivered to you that which was delivered to me, that Jesus Christ came to earth, that he suffered in accordance with the Scriptures, that he died, that he was buried in accordance with the Scriptures, that he rose from the dead on the third day, and that he appeared to [and he lists all the different groups that Jesus appeared to] and lastly, he appeared to me.
Well, you can sum that up by saying: “Jesus Christ, crucified and risen—that’s the Gospel.” That’s also my criteria for preaching. You have to say the name “Jesus.” You’d be surprised. And you have to explain the crucifixion and resurrection at every sermon. The reason is because you’re always going to have people come to church who are never coming to church again, or who are never going to come alive to church again. They must hear the Resurrection. Your kids need to know what the Gospel really is, what it actually is, and what it is is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. That’s Good News. You can always explain why it’s good news, why it’s what “Gospel” means, but the core of it is Christ crucified and risen.
If your kids know that, you don’t have to worry about somebody telling them that it’s something else. Again, at this stage, you’re going to load them with information. You want to load them with information. Work on the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Just do me a favor: when coloring the icons is done, give it some Scriptural meaning. Don’t do a constant round-robin in your education program so that the kids are coloring the same icons of the same feasts every year. Introduce new requirements. Improve and increase the requirements for them to earn the star, earn the tiara, earn the rank, whatever.
But the advantage is that they’re going to grow up thinking that everybody knows this stuff. Everybody knows where it says in Isaiah the ox and the ass would be at Jesus’ manger. Everybody knows this. What do you mean you don’t know that?
When I was in college—and some of you may have had this experience—my roommate wasn’t Christian. A nice guy, smart, but he’d never been to church. He didn’t know who Adam and Eve were. He didn’t know who Noah was. I was flabbergasted! I said, “What do you mean, you don’t know who Noah is?” He goes, “Who’s Noah? I’ve never heard of him.” You see, up until then, it was part of our culture. It’s not part of our culture any more.
This is why specific instruction has to take place, why these stories have to go… If you ever wonder the people, the prophets that Islam considers to be the prophets of God—they’re not the Old Testament prophets; they’re the prophets there are stories about, because Mohammed heard the stories from his Christian wife, stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph. Those are all the prophets. They don’t talk about Isaiah or Azariah or some of the old prophets and kings. There’s no stories about them, so they’re not included. They’ll say, “Yeah, everybody,” but they don’t know who they’re talking about.
This is an important thing, because the world is trying to constantly tell your children, my children that we all worship the same God, and it’s really all the same. Well, I’ve been around a little bit, and I didn’t grow up Orthodox, so believe me when I say, “It’s not the same at all.” It’s not the same, and it’s not just a different way of doing things. We’re talking about doing different things.
The number-one thing that made Israel the people of God was not their belief in one God, and not their belief in the one true God. It was that they worshiped the one true God as he had instructed them to worship him. They were a worshiping community. That defined everything about them. Why do you think we take Liturgy [as] so important? It’s such an important part of our faith, because it defines everything else. If worship is at the core of and the origin of human culture, then it’s pretty important, and if a lack of Scriptural knowledge is the source of all evil in the Church, then we have two important things.
What does the Psalmist say? “Your rod and your staff comfort me,” right? Well, a rod is like a baseball bat. It’s what you beat off predators with. And a staff is what you use to guide the sheep back onto the path. I’ve actually seen. I grew up in Michigan. They actually have those. The rods are good. They’re good for beating, beating the predators. That’s what these are: the chance to beat off the predators and to guide back to the right path, which is the path of salvation.
Here’s the beautiful part of it: the path of salvation is not a rocky road. It’s a huge rut. It’s so well-trod. It’s so easy once you’re into it, to stay in it. We have a feeling that it’s like a precipice, that it’s too easy to fall off either side. Well, in some ways, that’s true for us who are still infected a lot by the world, but for the kids it’s an easy path. It’s straightforward. There’s a wall on each side. You have to climb out of it to get off that path, and that’s what we want them to perceive: It’s safe on this path, it’s a straight path, and all you have to do is continue on the path.
When I was in Alaska, I saw something very unusual. By the way, if this is your case, I apologize; I’m not trying to insult anybody. They would take the babies up for Communion, but the mothers would never take Communion. Then they would go home and they would take a big wad of chewing tobacco, and they would say, “See this? This is bad for you,” and shove it in their mouth. Well, it doesn’t take a child very long to realize, “Hey, I think we’ve got this backwards. I think that Communion must be bad for you because my mom won’t touch it, and the chewing tobacco must be good because she’s always eating it.” That’s tragic. That’s very tragic.
One of the things in the Orthodox tradition that we do understand is that, for beginners and therefore for children, the primary method of obtaining grace for spiritual beginners of any age is the Holy Eucharist. Prayer, fasting—all that comes later, as you advance in spiritual life. But the primary method of obtaining sanctifying grace is the Eucharist. That’s why we take babies to communion. They don’t know how to pray. They don’t know how to fast. They don’t know how to confess. But they know how to eat. For us who are spiritual beginners, it’s important to realize also that the primary way of obtaining grace is Communion, and the primary way of preparing for Communion is confession. No doubt about that.
St. Theophan continues when he talks about sanctifying the mind. He mentions studying the God-given truths of the faith. In short form, basically what amount to a catechism. We don’t have a really good catechism in English, but it’s things like memorizing “Jesus Christ is one person and two natures,” followed by “What is a person? What is a nature?” Well, the easy way to say that is: “A person is who you are. A nature is what you are.” When we say, “Jesus Christ is one person, two natures,” we say his nature: “What is he?” “He’s God and he’s man: two natures.” “But who is he?” We say, “He is God.” Memorizing things like that. Real simple, but important because they’re beneficial. Asking questions, St. Theophan says, of people who are older and more experienced than yourself. Well, this is what we have elders and clergy for.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been a priest now for almost 15 years. I spend 99% of my time doing things I was never trained to do. One of the things I was trained to do in seminary was to answer questions, so never call the priest and say, “I am so sorry to bother you because I know you’re busy, but I want to ask you a question.” He’s like, “Yeah, man, I’m all over that! That’s actually what you trained me to do! Ask away!” Those are good.
And then finally, mutually beneficial discourse with friends: talking about these things. Talking about the faith. Talking about the Scriptures. Talking about the spiritual life. That’s beneficial. All these things are curative things for the mind. They put the mind back on God. They put it back in that rut, which is the path of salvation.
Now, the other part, which is very important for kids at this age, is to train the will. How do you cure the will? Because the will does what we want it to, but we also prepossess it to do things we don’t want to do. We form habits we don’t like, and then we don’t resist them. For what it’s worth, the origin of the word “passion” is “passive.” I’m “passive” before this desire; I don’t resist it. That’s why we say, “Reject the passions. Make your body and your mind subject to your will.” Well, that means your will has to be properly formed.
How do you do that? St. Theophan says, “Obedience to the whole Church rule.” No exceptions. No excuses. Do what the Church says. Do what the Church has always done. Not like a slave, but like a son. “I do this because I love my father. I do this because this is good for me and good for everyone.” Dads, don’t make excuses for not fasting. Don’t make excuses for not following the 2,000-year tradition of the Church. Pretty simple, but let’s face it: there’s a lot of touchy issues. There’s a lot of touchy issues.
When someone asks me, “Do women cover their heads in your church?” I say, “Some do; some don’t.” But the ladies in my church also know: don’t ever ask me to do the opposite of the tradition. Nobody’s going to hit you in the back of the head because you’re doing something different, but if you ask, you’re going to get the answer. And you shouldn’t ask a question like that anyway. “Father, I’ve been fasting for three days. I really did well, but could I have a blessing to have a steak today? I’ll do well the rest of the fast.” My answer is always, “Listen, do whatever you want, but I’m not blessing it, no.”
Actions have consequences. Words have consequences. Always. And kids get this, by the way. Submission to the whole Church rule is the opposite of cafeteria Christianity. It doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect in everything; it means that you can’t abandon anything just because you don’t like it. You’ve got a weak spot? The Church rule fixes that.
For those of you who are not aware or have not experienced this, keeping the canonical fast, reading the prayers, reading the daily Scripture, tithing, offering on top of tithing—all these things [as a whole] are greater than the sum of their parts. Together they work very, very powerfully on a person’s sanctification. By themselves, they’re pretty good. Together? They’re even better. But all in one, they work exponentially more powerfully. That’s why the Church suggests them. The reason that people don’t know that is because they don’t actually do them all. But when you actually do take the Church practices, your life changes very powerfully. That’s why we don’t mitigate them. That cumulative power in someone’s life, why would we take that away? That’s the super-vitamin. We want you to have it, or at least have access to it, so that you can sanctify your own life.
St. Theophan says also, “To sanctify the will, submission to civil order, family duty, these are conduits of God’s will also, and obeying your conscience.” St. Simeon the New Theologian says, “You want the fast way to salvation? The fast way to sanctification? Obey your conscience. When it tells you to get out of bed in the middle of the night to pray, do it. When it tells you to do something good, some good deed, just do it immediately. This is a fast way.” And it actually is a fast way, because what you’re doing is you’re unloosing the bonds that you’ve set on your will previously. It’s like you tied your own will up, and now you’re untying it and letting it do what it’s meant to do, what it’s supposed to do.
This is what we want: people’s powers, the natural powers of the soul, to return to their natural state. This is why the Fathers always talk about, for adults particularly, to wear out, constrain, and emaciate yourself. You wear your flesh out; it wears out the muscular system. You constrain yourself; this constrains the nervous system, makes it light and free. And you emaciate yourself, that is, you fast, so that your body is not sluggish, and your powers are available at all times. It actually works. Just imagine that: this anthropology really really works.
Here’s the thing: when your children are raised in a house where this is happening, they’re affected by it. You don’t have to sit there in a chair and [say], “This is what we do. This is the time to fast. It’s the time to tithe. It’s the time to pray. It’s the time to read the Scriptures—aloud.” Again, always read the Scripture aloud. They’re literature; they’re meant to be heard. Throughout the Scriptures, it talks about, “Blessed is he who reads and hears the words of the prophecy.” You have to hear it.
And then, finally, the heart. The heart is that incensive part of the soul which activates to make the difference between love and being in love, between anger and rage, between desire and lust. This part of the soul is very important, what’s called the heart, the inner, the deeper inner part of the soul.
Number one: attendance at holy Church services. Because over time, it stops becoming something we do, and it becomes an opening of the kingdom of God. The mystical nature of our worship becomes evident and affects the deep heart of the person who is there, not just observing but participating. In fact, over time it becomes impossible to just observe the services of the Church. One must always participate.
Somebody asked me once. They became Orthodox; they said, “I’m not used to making the sign of the cross,” and they asked me, quietly, “Father, come here. I’m a little embarrassed. Do you ever make the sign of the cross without thinking about it?” I said, “Here’s what I want you to do: I want you to make the sign of the cross at least a hundred times a day, okay? And you tell me at the end of the week if you can do it without thinking about it.” Seriously. It’s hard to do if you do it all the time. You can’t not think about what you’re doing. You’re blessing yourself. It’s some credal statement that you’re saying without speaking. It’s important. And I said to her, “No, in fact, if anything, I find myself praying a lot more every time I do it.”
For those of you that have never experienced this, sometimes I’ll be driving down the road in my truck. I have a truck with 320,000 miles on it. I love it. In Arizona, if you have a white pick-up truck, you’re like in the club, so I’ve got this truck with over 300,000 miles on it. It doesn’t look like it, though; it looks nicer. So for the first time in my life, I actually feel cool. And sometimes I’ll be thinking or talking about something, and I’ll make the sign of the cross, and my sons turn to me instantly and say, “What is it!? Does something need prayer?” And I just say, “I was thinking about something, and I wanted to pray.” It’s not complicated, but if you’re used to making the sign of the cross, you know from experience you can’t do it mindlessly.
Your children are formed more powerfully by attending Church services—and again, not just the Sunday services, but the full cycle of services. They’re formed very powerfully by these services. Prayer, of course—and by prayer I don’t mean prayer mumbling into your pillow at three in the morning—important. “I meditate on you in the watches of the night from my bed.” Things like that. Of course, that’s important. But actual verbal prayer during certain parts of the day. Before and after meals. Before bedtime. Getting up. Before school. Doesn’t have to be a long litany of memorized prayers, but get your children in the habit of praying when they go out and when they come in, when they begin and when they end, when they’re thinking and when they’re not thinking.
And that’s your job. That’s the environment you have to create for them. Icons, crosses, sacred objects. Why is this so important? “Simplicity, it’s just as beautiful as anything else”—well, yeah, that’s not really true, is it? If it was, we’d all be wearing burlap sacks, saying, “Your burlap sack is beautiful! I really like that potato stamp on it. That’s really very nice.” No. We are people who love beauty, and we have eyes. We’re not disembodied intelligences. This is important, too.
Your kids—most of them, not all of them, but most of them—are visual learners. That means they learn better by seeing things, whether it’s ink on paper in the holy Scriptures or whether it’s an icon or a cross or some other image. Those things teach and mean things. But just as there are normal things, secular things, profane things, and sacred things, so there are normal images, normal things to see, secular things to see, profane things to see, and sacred things to see. You have to learn to worship with the eyes. They need to learn that in our tradition, iconography is not just pretty pictures; it’s dogmatic iconography, which is why you can never have a Jamaican Jesus or a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Nordic Jesus. It has to be true to the prototype.
I’m kind of a stickler about iconography, because when I came into Orthodoxy, I really didn’t like it very much. When I found out it was a dogmatic statement, then I got interested. Then I started reading, things like Icons of God the Father. It’s a very Mormon theology, but it’s not a good Orthodox theology, because that’s like us singing a song that says, “We have seen the Father with our eyes.” Well, you don’t see the Father with your eyes; that’s Mormonism, that God the Father was just a guy, came down, had relations with the Virgin Mary, and Jesus was born in the natural. That’s heresy; it’s false teaching. That’s not Christ becoming God in the flesh. That’s why iconography’s important.
And, of course, up until recently, I think Byzantium had a 25% literacy rate? That was sky-high in the ancient world. That was huge. Everybody else had about 5%. Literacy. Not even being able to read well. But when you come into church, you didn’t have to read anything. You can see all the salvation history, from Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, the prophets, the Apostles, and all the events in the Life of Christ—you saw them there. And then when the Scriptures were read, you’re hearing what you’re seeing. Great teaching tools!
That’s why I’m—this is being recorded, so I’m going to be careful. New media is just media. It’s not anything scary. People do abuse it and use it for purposes that aren’t good, but they did that early on with the printing press. They used it to deceive; they used it to mock. People use media one way or the other. I say it needs to be used for good. It needs to be used for education. It needs to be used for apologetics. It needs to be used to bring beauty into people’s lives. That’s a hard sell for some people in the Orthodox faith, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter that it’s a hard sell for them.
You can’t wait for people to give you permission for something you know needs to be done by the Gospel. You just go and do it. And these things have to be done. That’s why I have websites. That’s why I’ve done some of the goofy things that I’ve done. Again, just trying to get started.
For what it’s worth, early on in my priestly career, I met John Maddex who started Ancient Faith Radio, and this is how we met: He came to my parish and he said, “I hear you’ve started an internet radio station.” I said, “Yeah, here, come into my office.” So we had our sound system hooked up to the computer so that we would literally broadcast our service live on the internet every Sunday, and during Holy Week, all those services, so that they were all live. We weren’t trying to get people to stay home; we just thought if somebody’s where there’s no Orthodox church, and they don’t want to hear a canned recording, they can hear it live. They can hear us make a mistake; they can hear somebody cough; they can hear a baby scream—they can be there like it’s live.
So we were talking a little bit, and he said—and if you don’t know John Maddex, he worked for Moody Radio Network. He’s the most brilliant mind in radio today, without a doubt. Undisputed. So much vision. So much knowledge. So it was a great honor to meet him; I knew who he was. And he said, “Well, would you mind if I ... tried doing this?” I said, “No, are you kidding! I’m only doing it waiting for somebody like you to show up. Here, take it all! Go ahead!” He said, “Well, when are you going to actually show me the set-up?” I said, “You’re sitting on it.” The entire radio station was in the computer he was sitting [at]. He goes, “That’s it?” “That’s it. I know you will do a better job. And look! Ancient Faith is reaching people all over the world, who write and say, ‘This has changed my life. I get to hear things I could never hear before. This is magnificent. And then I can click on the music station, and I can listen to Orthodox music all day long.’ ” It’s a great thing, when the right people are doing the right things.
The final one that St. Theophan mentions is obeying the holy customs and traditions of the Church. And that’s just simply: we make the sign of the cross like this, we do this, we do that. This is the way the Church does it. Partly because this is the Church’s culture, and we want people to absorb the Church’s culture. It’s not Byzantine; it’s not Syrian; it’s not Slavonic or Russian or Romanian. It’s the heavenly culture. This is how we talk to each other; this is how we receive each other. We greet each other in different ways. This is the way it’s done in Orthodoxy. And that’s important. We want people to have an understanding that when we say, “Christ is risen!” the answer is: “Truly he is risen!” or “Indeed he is risen!”
When I was in college, apartheid was still a big deal and Desmond Tutu—I knew who he was—but then I heard there was a lot of noise about somebody named Nelson Mandela. I said, “Who’s Nelson Mandela?” My friend turned to me and said, “John the Baptist. Desmond Tutu is John the Baptist for Nelson Mandela.” I was thinking, “Ohhh. Now I know who Nelson Mandela is. He’s the important guy. He’s the one Desmond Tutu’s been preparing the road for.” It made it very clear. But you can’t say that to everybody else, or they don’t know what you’re talking about. “He’s John the Baptist? I thought he was white.” It’s very odd.
When we begin to form ourselves, to purify the mind, to purify the will and set on the right path, to purge the heart by these curative exercises, we become more sanctified. These practices our kids will just assume it’s how you do it: it’s how we do it in our family. This is the way it’s always been done. They won’t remember. What they will remember is that it was important. It was important enough to teach.
Frankie Schaeffer talks about learning the sign of the cross from some woman named Stella or Sophie or something. It was “Do what I do.” She shows him Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Significant look. “Now make the sign of the cross.” All these things are designed to teach, because, let’s face it, for the last 1200 years, Orthodoxy’s been under persecution everywhere almost, and every bit of teaching had to be packed into every practice. That’s why they’re so pedagogical. They’re so edifying.
Very important that the kids learn these basic things, because, don’t forget, in spite of how much we would like to say the opposite, the external person actually conforms the inner man. The inner person is conformed by what we do. We like to say, “No, no, no, no. What’s inside me is not the same as what’s outside of me.” Yeah. Sure. But the truth is that what you do is what you are.
That’s why Orthodoxy has so much to do and so much for kids to do. There’s smells, there’s sounds, there’s bells, there’s men with stringy beards and funny clothing, and they’re running around, and everybody’s singing together—that’s the other thing children notice. There’s a symphony of activity, and you know what a symphony is, right? Everybody’s saying something different and singing something different, but all together it’s glorious.
When they go and they see everybody doing what they’re doing, they get it: this is what we do. Everybody’s fasting: this is what we do. Everybody’s praying: this is what we do. It’s a matter-of-fact thing for them, and while it’s a struggle for some of us that convert—I still love cheeseburgers on Fridays, even though I don’t eat them—for my kids, it’s not an issue.
My brother’s a Roman Catholic. It’s my only brother, and he used to visit us during Holy Week, because he really liked the Holy Week services, but he didn’t like Good Friday because we weren’t eating anything. So he would disappear, and he’d come back with a couple cheeseburgers. And he just said, “Man, I just can’t do it. I just cannot do it.” Well, my sons lambasted him for that. They just walked up to the car and said, “Yeah, that looks pretty good. Does it taste good?” Oh, they were merciless! They were terrible! “I bet that tastes real good on Good Friday, the day that Jesus died on the cross.” I said, “You probably should be nicer to Uncle Jim.” They said, “Yeah, we know. He’s a big boy.” And they love him; don’t get me wrong, but this is how it was.
I don’t preach at home. I don’t point my finger and say, “This is how we do it,” blah blah blah blah blah. I love my kids; I have fun with them, but they actually know what I believe. Now, I’m a sinner. I make mistakes. Things come out of my mouth that I wish did not come out of my mouth. I do things I wish I hadn’t done. We’re all that way, and I’m not exempt from that. But even when I had to punish the boys, I’d look them in the eye and say, “Look, you know I love you, but what you did was wrong and you’re going to get it.” And I always started that way. I didn’t want love to be associated with pain, but I wanted them to know I’m not doing this out of anger; I’m doing this because I love you, and you’re an idiot.
One last thing, then we’ll ask some questions. I really want to reinforce this idea, especially for children, of youth, from ages 7 to 14. They’re very observant, even when it looks like they’re not paying attention. I know they’re never listening, but every chance you have to show, tell, and demonstrate standing at a moral crossroads, and that there are consequences for that—again, as I said before—this is how a Christian makes that decision. This is how a believer makes the decision.
And, in some ways, and not setting up to fail, but in some ways you’re being put to the test. You’re being tested. If God is testing you, it’s not so that you’ll fail; it’s so that he can reward you. He loves to give rewards. You love those gold stars? Wait till you see heaven: even better. If it’s the devil, he’s setting you up to fail. He’s trying to give a gotcha. So the truth is, it’s not a matter of choosing God and the devil; it’s a matter of you choosing the real you or the failure you. That’s all.
“Well, what if I make a mistake?” Look, if you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes! That’s another thing I see in our culture today. As soon as you make one mistake, you’re exempt from anybody listening to you ever again. “Look, you’re a sinner, so why should I listen to you?” Everybody’s a sinner. That’s what the Bible’s filled with. Soloman, the wisest man on earth, how wise was he? He was so wise he worshiped idols. Good call! David, a man after God’s own heart: “I’ll just kill this guy because—I won’t touch him—but I really want his wife.” Gee, there’s nothing lower than that. And yet, in spite of all these sinful things, in spite of all these failures, God saves.
God can save David, and here’s the thing. I think it says this in the Philokalia, too. Why are we surprised when we fail? Do we love God as much as Peter? No. He blew it. Do we know God as well as David? No. He blew it. Are we as wise as Solomon? No! He blew it! Are we as strong as Samson? No. Each one of these men failed. And yet we still hold them up as heroes, precisely because they’re not perfect, but still saved.
We can be saved, and we shouldn’t be surprised: they blew it; we’re going to blow it! They sinned; we’re going to sin. We don’t want to, but if it happens, why is it such a shock? “Gosh, I can’t believe I did that.” Even St. Paul said that: “Why do I keep doing the things I hate and not do the things I want? I’m struggling inside myself.” Okay, Paul’s just like us in this way. Your children don’t need to see you being perfect; they need to see you embrace the struggle.
Let me repeat that: “embrace the struggle.” Put it over your computer. Put it over your office. Embrace the struggle, not resist it, not despise it: embrace it. That’s picking up your cross. That’s Christian courage. That’s the kind of courage we see in the martyrs. I love the Persian martyrs; they’re so tough. They just didn’t care. Tortured miserably. Talk about despising death. They were awesome, fearless, even mouthy in the face of death. I love that sort of stuff. It’s really heroic.
Teach your children to observe embracing the struggle. Back at seminary, we called it “wrestling the angel.” You probably know someone that has wrestled the angel. You see them struggling with something in their life. It’s not always a sin. Sometimes it’s a virtue. And it’s going to change their life, and they’re not going to win the fight, but they’re going to get the blessing. They’re wrestling the angel. They’re embracing the struggle. Your kids don’t need to see you be a constant winner. They need to see you overcoming your struggle, prevailing for the blessing, falling and getting up.
Obviously, don’t sit down with your four-year-old and say, “Guess what sins I committed today, son.” But you do want to be able to say, “Look, yeah, I made a mistake, but I won’t make it again. I’ve learned, and that’s what I want you to do.” Kids’ll go, “Oh yeah, I get that. Okay. Can I have cereal, Mom?” It’s real simple.
And by the way, that Cap’n Crunch story. I promised I would tell that, right? This is a true story. In 1980, I met my wife. She was the ex-girlfriend of one of my friends on the floor. I was always encouraging, “Yeah, we’re in college. Go get her!” Well, that didn’t work out so well, I guess, and in early 1981, we, as people who are interested in each other, talked all night long. So we decided we’re going to go to breakfast together.
And my wife recounts it, exactly correct. She went back to the dorm room. She put on sensible shoes. She had a blouse and a sweater. And she did everything very sensibly. She got granola with yogurt, orange juice, toast, showing me how sensible she was. She sat down, and I came with a tray of four heaping bowls of Cap’n Crunch, and she looked at me with great horror, like: “Aren’t you trying to impress me?” And all I said was, “You gotta have breakfast with the Cap’n.” And I sat down, and we’ve been together ever since, and that’s a true story.
It’s true, but here’s the thing: she knew right up front what to expect, and it’s all worked out well. We’ve enjoyed the date for over 30 years now, and very very happily married. I love married life. I love married life. It’s so much easier than single life. And I know—and this actually happened once—that if I call my wife, and I say, “I need you,” she’ll drop everything and come to my side. I was in serious pain one day at seminary, and that’s all I said to her: “I need you.” She said, “I’m on my way,” and she took me to the hospital.
I can’t tell you what a great help it was to have a partner like that, and at this age, that partnership is very important. If you’re like me, when you have the baby, you start thinking about all the rules you’re going to need in the future. What if Jimmy says, “Daddy, can I spend the night at Hector’s house?” And you say, “Ask your mom.” And [he asks his] mom, and she says, “Ask your dad.” What are we going to do? Well, we tried to figure out all those rules in advance. Of course, did we succeed? No. But we had so many of the rules laid down, in agreement, that when it came to making up a new rule on the fly, we had a massive amount of consistency. It made it much easier. It made it much easier to make up new rules on the fly. It made it easier to be consistent, and children really need a lot of consistency. We need consistency.