As a priest and father, it is one of my greatest hopes that my three children—Lily, Gabriel and John—would grow up to be faithful Christians. Indeed, for me, this hope exceeds all others. At this moment, I don’t care what kind of work they will choose, whether they will marry or stay single, what their socioeconomic status will be—as long as they are faithful to Christ and His Church, I will be happy.
I am sure that many of you share, or have shared my aspirations in regards to your own children. And I am certain also that you have asked the question that I ask myself almost daily: how is this to be accomplished? How do I, as a parent, live and interact to ensure that my kids mature into adults of real and lasting faith?
I would be misleading you if I said that there was any sure-fire answer to that question. The very nature of Christian faith presupposes a fundamental freedom in the human person, freedom to choose or reject a relationship with Christ. Without this freedom, both God’s love for us and our love for Him are meaningless.
This means simply that after we have made our best efforts to direct our children along the Way we have chosen, they must make a choice of their own, and they must continue to make that choice daily for the rest of their lives. Faith, in the Orthodox view at least, is a dynamic and continuous reality. Faith is bound up with daily faithfulness. Faith is clinging to Christ, moment by moment, and our children, once they have matured, must cling to Him by themselves, without our help or intervention.
That being said, what is our “due diligence”? How can we “speak the truth in love” (see Ephesians 4:15) to our children in the hope that they will accept our proclamation? In future articles, I will offer some guidelines to formal catechesis. Today, however, I would suggest above and beyond all educational strategies or resources, the most important factor in bringing up children as Christians is your personal example as a parent.
One of the biggest mistakes that Christian parents often make is to confuse catechism for education. We begin with the externals. Isn’t there a book I can read and teach to my kids? Isn’t there a curriculum I can implement? Isn’t there a moral system that I can somehow drill into their little minds? We want solutions in a box, simple equations into which we can feed our kids, from which they can emerge as believers.
Now, I have nothing against formal education, curricula, moral systems, rules and so on. They have their place and I hope to discuss them in future articles. My point is, we need to get our priorities straight. Educating our children in their faith doesn’t go from the outside in, but from the inside out. The words of our catechism can only be meaningful to our kids if we first demonstrate their meaning in our own lives.
How we can be witnesses to our children of a living relationship with God on a daily basis? Before I answer that question, I must make a basic point: being an effective witness to our children does not necessarily mean that we have to be paragons of moral perfection. What we do need is an attitude described best in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We are willing to grow along spiritual lines... We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.” This fundamental mind-set will be crucial in determining whether or not our children will uphold us as spiritual role models and follow our path of faith.
Seeing Us Pray
Having resolved on a path of spiritual progress rather than perfection, our children should witness two basic activities in our lives. First and foremost, they should see us praying. This doesn’t mean we need to be overtly pious. Even someone who is fumbling towards the very existence of God can be a model of prayer as they cry from the depths of their soul, “If you are out there, reveal Yourself to me!”
As long as our kids see us involved in this kind of real, consistent and honest conversation with God, we will succeed in offering them a strong witness of faith. They will come to the accurate conclusion that Dad and/or Mum are sacrificing time and effort to reach out for God, which must mean that He is somehow important...
Of course, none of this will be effective unless the optics are correct. By this I mean that we should not only be involved in the effort of regular prayer, but that our children must also see us in the effort of regular prayer. It won’t hurt for them to “discover” you praying on one or two occasions. And if you set aside times for regular prayer, it is worth saying that you are “going to pray” within the reach of their little ears.
You may feel a bit self-conscious about exposing your prayer life like this, but remember that being a parent is a public role that involves a certain amount of staging for the good of our children. Think of all the conversations you avoid having in front of them and ask yourself why it is should be so strange to make personal prayer a matter of family discussion. Then consider the goal: to inculcate in your children the awareness that you are engaged in a living relationship with God. In the end, isn’t it worth a little discomfort?
Seeing Us Repent
Along with seeing you pray, your children should see you repenting daily. As I said earlier, they will not ultimately care about your imperfections, as long as you took an attitude of willingness to grow and progress along spiritual lines. Inwardly, such growth and progress involves the effort to pray; outwardly, it involves the effort to say sorry and make amends.
A story from early Christian literature tells of a traveler in the desert who came upon a monastery. Observing the monks, who were hermits, he finally asked one of the brothers, “What is it that you do every day in your cell?” The monk replied, “We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We fall down...”
Such is the spiritual life. What counts in the end is not whether we have fallen, but whether we are struggling to rise again. As parents, this means that the most powerful witness of our faith will depend on whether or not we have the humility and the courage to “get up” by repenting of our mistakes in the presence of our children.
This is perhaps the most difficult parenting challenge that we will face. It means apologizing to our spouses, our colleagues, friends, acquaintances and even strangers—in plain sight of our kids. Most importantly, it means making amends to the children themselves—a humbling and even terrifying prospect.
Difficult as it may be, however, we must answer the call to be witnesses of repentance to our children. If they do not see this key piece of our spiritual life, all our prayer, all our Church attendance and external piety will count for nothing with them. They will simply dismiss us as prideful hypocrites, and rightfully so.
According to Jesus, love for God and love for neighbour are the two benchmarks of faith (see Matthew 22:36-40 and elsewhere). The extent to which you and I respond to these benchmarks will be all-important in shaping (if not determining) what path of faith our children will choose to follow or abandon.
If, as parents, we can manifest a love for God in a willingness to live a life of prayer (however imperfectly), and if we can demonstrate a love for our neighbour in a willingness to say sorry and make amends for our wrongs to those around us (especially in relation to our families), then we will have set in place a sound image of faith before the little ones who have been entrusted to us, and for whom we will give account on the Last Day.
More next time on some ways to go about catechizing your children at home.