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What is a Child? What is a Parent?

Reflections on Children and Prayer

In this three-part mini-series, Dr. Daniel Opperwall (author of We Pray from Ancient Faith Publishing) presents a reflective commentary on the meaning of prayer, children’s relationship to Orthodox prayer, and the role of Orthodox parents in helping guide children to a fuller experience of prayer.

August 2017

What is a Child? What is a Parent?

In Part II, Dr Opperwall first discusses the Orthodox understanding of children and their role in the Church and spiritual life, then briefly considers the topic of parenthood and its meaning, especially in relationship to prayer.

August 25, 2017 Length: 8:07

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Greetings in Christ! This is Dr. Daniel G. Opperwall of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College in Toronto, and author of the recent children’s release, We Pray, from Ancient Faith Publishing.

Welcome to Part II of a three-part podcast mini-series on children and prayer. In the first part of this series, we discussed a simple but elusive question: What is prayer? Here, in the second part, I would like to pose a similarly simple but elusive question: What is a child? And in conjunction: What is a parent? In Part III of this series, we’ll bring the two together and talk about the prayer lives of children and a little about how to cultivate them.

So what is a child? As with the question of prayer, you may find that this one is more difficult to answer than you expect. This is especially true for many in the modern world, where many conflicting approaches to children float around. The Orthodox Christian tradition, modern and ancient, offers, I think, a surprisingly simple but often truly profound response to the question, “What is a child?” Children are people. They are, in the eyes of God, whole human beings, just like any adult, from the very moment of their conception, for as long as they live, and into his kingdom beyond. Children are partakers of the one human nature and therefore, by way of the incarnation of Christ, they are adopted sons and daughters of the Almighty God, here and now consummating this adoption through baptism, the Eucharist, and participation in the rest of the life of the Church, just like adults.

The Church’s understanding of the complete humanity of children is the reason for which we baptize and chrismate infants, bring them to Communion right away, keep babies and children in church throughout regular services and the Divine Liturgy, and begin teaching them from the very beginning about the meaning of our faith and the life in Jesus Christ. In the Orthodox life, there is no essential division between adults and children, no grown-up way of being Christian that differs fundamentally from the child’s way.

In an essential way, then, children are exactly the same as adults in the Orthodox Church, yet we know quite well that while children are complete people in the eyes of God, they are also people at a particular stage of development that therefore have certain limits as well as advantages in the life of the faith. On the one hand, it would be absurd to expect a six-year-old to serve on a parish council or as a priest or to understand the detailed history of the Nicene Creed. Children’s intellectual and physical capacity is obviously not sufficient for such things. On the other hand, however, we were taught by the Lord himself that we adults must, in fact, become more like children if we are to find our salvation in him. They have certain spiritual advantages: a purity of faith, an easy credulity about the truth, and a resonant joy in God’s love, just to name three.

Think for a moment about the sound of a child’s voice singing in church. I hope you have had the joy of hearing such a thing. On the one hand, when children sing, they often forget the words, struggle to stay on key, sing much too loud, often drop in and out. For these reasons, we are tempted to keep them quiet in church. Children’s voices can be quite distracting, it is true, sometimes too much so, yet when children do sing in church, they sing with a joy and purity that adults are almost entirely incapable of. They are not self-conscious. Their faith and love for God is obvious for all to see. Their emotions are clearly on display.

The sound of a child singing is usually not musically beautiful, certainly not refined, but it is nearly always spiritually beautiful, and more true, in some ways, for its lack of refinement. This, I think, sums up what a child is from an Orthodox point of view. They have a tremendous amount to learn. There are endless details of knowledge and technique that they must uncover, a myriad of new skills and ideas that they must encounter, yet they are also complete people, with their own kind of complete faith, an especially beautiful kind that we adults can and very often do learn from.

To put it another way, Christian children have a relationship with God right now that is in many ways even fuller than our own, but if they are going to keep having a relationship with God as they grow older, then they will need to learn what it takes to have a more adult faith. With each passing year, a child’s needs change—spiritually, physically, and mentally—as they become adults, and indeed our needs keep on changing as long as we live. As they learn to ask more complicated questions, we need to introduce children to the Church’s more sophisticated responses. As they encounter pain and suffering, we must teach them how Christians offer these things to God. As their lives become busy and distracted, we need to teach them how to find spiritual tranquility and a connection with the Lord.

This leads us to the question of parenting. Now is not the time of a detailed discussion of Orthodox parenting. On that subject, allow me to recommend Philip Mamalakis’s book, Parenting Toward the Kingdom, which provides a lot more detail and expertise than I can. Here I just want to think very briefly about a parent’s overall calling, given what I have said about children, so that we can discuss the issue of prayer specifically in the next part of this series. To define that parental calling, let me quote Dr. Mamalakis briefly. He says:

Parenting is the process of shaping and guiding our children’s souls in and toward God’s love through the tasks that need to be accomplished and the struggles of daily life.

Parents are the most essential spiritual resource that their children have, though the rest of the community plays a big role. We, more than anyone, guide them, know their specific needs and challenges, and spend far more time with them than anyone else. Yet it is not our business to create a relationship between God and our children. That relationship begins at baptism, or indeed at conception itself, and is created by God and the child together. Nor are we trying to teach our children to turn into “real adult Christians,” or something of the sort, one day in the future. Rather, we are people charged with teaching a group of much younger people what they will need to know to maintain the fullness of their relationship with Christ as they change and grow. It is an enormous task, and perhaps the highest of Christian callings.

Given what we said about prayer in the first part of this series, there is obviously no question that one of the things we must teach our children to do is to pray, starting as soon as they begin to become verbal, and continuing for the rest of their lives. Given what we have just said about children, we must recognize that in teaching our children to pray, we are doing two things at once. First, we are teaching them to connect with God through prayer right here and now, exactly as they are, whatever their age and mental capacities, whatever their limits of vocabulary or understanding. And second, we are guiding them to pray a little more like adults as they grow. This, once again, is not because adult prayer is better, but because our children’s prayer lives will need to grow as they do.

If all this is true, then, it is now time to begin thinking about how to help our children pray and to keep learning to pray. That is the topic we will explore in the next installment of this series, when we will tie together this and Part I. Thanks again for listening. May God bless your families and your prayers, and pray for me, a sinner.


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