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Portland, OR, United States
I am finishing up my midwifery apprenticeship and plan to be a real midwife early in 2014!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Children in Church

One part of being a priest's wife that I really love is being such an integral part of a church community. Coming into such a warm and loving parish was a true joy for me. We had come from kind of loose ends, dangling at the Metropolis (Paul worked as deacon to Met. Anthony, and then later as the chancellor, but didn't exactly have a parish assignment) and at St. Nicholas Ranch, neither of which provided real community, other than the small group of people who lived near the Ranch in order to be close to the monastery (or live in the monastery) that is adjacent to the Ranch. But our parish here in Portland is so large that it can be very overwhelming. After 2 1/2 years I *still* have people come to me and say, oh, you're Fr. Paul's wife! Not to mention all the people whose names I may or may not have known at one time but it simply not possible for me to learn them all. But slowly, gradually, I am getting to know more and more people at our church.

One wonderful way of getting to know the families in our church has been house blessings. In most Orthodox churches, the house blessings are done quite soon after Epiphany, which is in early January. The theme of water runs from Christ's baptism in the Jordan to sprinkling our homes with holy water to remind us to keep each part of our regular lives holy.

Anyway, it's been a pleasure to get to know many families in this way--we've spread out house blessings to about one a month, and we go for dinner and stay for a few hours and really get to know the family one-on-one.

Yesterday we had a house blessing and it was more than just getting to know the family, it was also a reminder of something that has been important to us since we first had children and have now....well, it's so easy to forget the issues of young children in church! Our children were 11 and 8 when we came here, and they are now 14 and 11, and we haven't had to deal with some of the challenges that young families face, here in Portland. Our children, for the most part, are still and quiet in church, and both of our kids participate in the service--Hibi as a choir member and Zac as an altar boy.

But in speaking with this family who has kids ages 8 months and 5 years, I was remembering the plight of the parent who dares to bring their children to a quiet church. This is especially prevalent in larger churches like ours, unfortunately--the larger the church, the more it's expected that if children are going to be there, they have to be absolutely silent. And that is just not a realistic expectation of young children. There are many, including certain hierarchs, who think that parents should not bring their young children to church. And that is just wrong. Children belong in the church because children ARE the church. In the Orthodox church, our children are full members as soon as they are baptized, which occurs as early as 40 days old, usually somewhere between 3 and 8 months old. They are part of the body of Christ and to try to keep them away from the body of Christ is to cut off part of the body. The church cannot survive if we have this attitude toward children.

Some say that they want a quiet space to worship God. That if there is a child making noise, their worship is interrupted. I would say that if quiet is necessary (as I think it is--even to mothers of small children!) then perhaps some quiet contemplation at home or in another private setting is in order. Church is for the purpose of corporate worship--the whole community coming together for one purpose. Not for one individual to have quiet contemplation.

And unfortunately, church is often not a place of support for young families.

I have so many stories from when our children were small! I'll share a couple of them.

When Hibi was a baby, we were visiting a church we hadn't been to before. We'd met the priest once before, though. So, when we walked into the nearly-empty humongous church and saw the priest walking down the aisle, we thought it was just to greet us and were surprised. But it wasn't just to greet us. He did greet us, and then said in the warmest voice, that his church has some very special seating reserved just for families of young children! We could sit in either the last row, or in the second to the last row. Oh, how special we felt! (Sorry, couldn't help putting a bit of sarcasm in there.) If a church is trying to be a welcoming place to young families, telling them they can only sit in the back is the wrong approach. Children are small people with small attention spans. It really helps if they can see and interact with what is happening in front. We always sat in the front or near the front with our small children....and still prefer to be in the front (though the choir stands in the balcony...). If you want to save some seating for young families, save the aisle seats (and whoever thought of having the center aisle as an aisle that's not okay to walk down? Parents often need it to take their children out for a diaper change or a change of scenery before re-joining the congregation).

I guess the only other story I'll share right now is just a short anecdote where I was made to feel absolutely awful. I don't even remember what this woman said to me, but someone caught me in the narthex of church once and let me know that she thought I was way too lax in letting my children be noisy in church. I suppose this story is not only to remind us that children should be in church, but also to remind people of the plight of the presvytera. (And others who have to parent alone in church.) The priest's wife does not have the help of her husband in church, she has to parent alone, in one of the most difficult situations to parent. Church is not an easy place to be a parent of small children, because of all the expectations put on parents, plus the expectations of the priest's family, and she has to do it on her own. In this situation I did not go back into church, where I'd been headed, but to the bathroom where I had a long cry. I was so upset. It is emotionally draining to deal with small children in church all by yourself, especially if the children are not naturally docile (where do those children come from, anyway?). Please be merciful and helpful to parents of small children, especially to parents who are alone in their church-time parenting.

Paul will be using this reminder to educate the parish in being a welcoming community for all members of the church. I'm glad for it, because I can remember just wishing that the priest would say these things!


DebD said...

thank you so much Pres. Elizabeth, this was a lovely article. I'm also blessed to be a in parish that welcomes children (and it's a fairly large parish too). We even have several Baba's (or Yayas) that are not only supportive but give the complainers a hard time. LOL

They are part of the body of Christ and to try to keep them away from the body of Christ is to cut off part of the body.


mariagwyn said...

One of the aspects of the Orthodox Church which attracted my mother many years ago was how welcoming it was to children. She was amazed and gratified at the freedom children had to sit, stand, walk around, sing, even (quietly) play during the liturgy, and the freedom of parents to take the child in and out of the sanctuary when necessary (those spectacularly not-so-quite moments kids do so well). The low level of chaos and distraction that accompanies children was welcome in the Orthodox church like no other church she visited. This was the kind of church in which she wanted to raise her infant daughter. Had it been otherwise, she would never have become Orthodox; nor would the aforementioned infant: me.

Matt said...

My late pastor used to remind the parish every year that the noise of children is holy and pleasing to God.

BTW, I tagged you in a meme.

magda said...

I'm having to realize that not everybody shares Fr. Nick Triantafilou's philosophy: "Where are you going? If *you* need to leave, fine, but the baby stays here. He's not bothering anybody." (Called the mother by name, stopping service.) Now that we're away from seminary and in a parish, I am missing the little ones wiggling away from their parents so that they can run up front and kiss the icons or venerate the relics. I will never forget having one father hold up his infant son in the front row throughout all the services so that he could see everything, too.

Contrasted to here, when I was looking forward to bringing this baby to the Resurrection service next year, being told by a parishioner that it was inappropriate.

What I want to know is, how do you get the *older* crowd to hush up? Aren't they supposed to know better?

Elizabeth said...

Deb--how wonderful that your parish has more in support than not! I hope that our parish can strive for that.

Mariagwyn--I don't want to say that we've never had that experience--we have. And those churches are wonderful. There was one notable one in the Boston area in which, by communion, the din would begin to drown out the priest! There was one boy with autism and I always thought, how wonderful that he has a place to go, because I knew of no where else that he'd be welcome, as he'd often shout out during church.

Matt--your comment is similar to what Metropolitan Anthony, our late diocesan bishop, used to say. He chastised priests on more than one occasion for not being welcoming to children. (And I'll check out your meme!)

Magda--how the seminary has changed! There was one priest, whom I love but....he will go nameless. When I'd bring little Hibi (known as Carissa back then) he would sit just inside the altar. When Carissa would make any little sound, I'd see his arms raise quickly in frustration! It was frustrating to me--but I think the seminary just hadn't fully adjusted to the idea of having young families in attendance at the school, and hopefully we helped pave the way for the young families that are there now.

And my children have *always* attended Pascha services. I've never understood why people wouldn't bring their children! I hope you won't listen, Magda, and will bring your baby.

Mimi said...

I also agree, part of what I LOVE about Orthodoxy is the inclusion of children and the acceptance that their Liturgy is to be there (and sometimes outside) week after week.

I'm sorry you have had some less that great experiences, exasperated sigh.

Peregrine Groover said...

Great post! We've always kept our kids in Church with us, and it was great to come to the OC and learn that this is the norm, not the exception! Before Fr. Jerry came, our previous priest and his wife had seven kids who were active and allowed to be kids. It was such a blessing to me and helped me to relax a bit about what I expect of my own children in church.

Laurie said...

Thanks so much for a wonderful post! I am a person who values quiet meditation, but like you, I think church is a time of COMMUNITY worship, and that community is--and should be--beautifully messy and gloriously noisy.

When Matt and I returned from Iran and were traveling around speaking about our experiences, Ramona (who was 18 months)changed from an incredibly social child to a clingy, fearful child. Her whole world had changed, and we were in a different place virtually every night. She started completely (and understandably) melting down any time we left her with yet another strange babysitter or in yet another nursery situation. I started keeping her with me whenever possible. In one church I was sitting at the back, and she was making very little noise, but a woman came up and tapped me on the shoulder and told me "we have a nursery." I said thanks, but that I was going to keep her with me, because new situations scared her. The woman's response? "She'll never get used to it if you don't put her in." I kind of shrugged, and she said, more pointedly, "Well, if she's disruptive and you don't want to use the nursery, you can also take her to the foyer." I was the one crying in the bathroom that day.

Elizabeth said...

Mimi and Rebeca--I'm so glad your experiences in the Orthodox church regarding children have been positive! And I've also been very glad that, for the most part, children have been welcome in the parishes we've attended. I think the Orthodox church is more welcoming than some churches--I've heard stories about the Catholic church (I don't have any personal experience with that one) and I know that in the church I grew up in, it would have been to commit a faux pas to keep kids in church past when they were supposed to be in childrens' church, or if they were babies they were supposed to be in the nursery.

Laurie--so good to hear from you! I was hoping you'd revived your blog, but alas. I'll have to live with disappointment! If you do, ever, please do let me know!

But I'm crying right along with you. That's really a terrible way to "welcome" a newcomer. I just can't imagine what's going through people's heads! Although, I think there is a definite generation difference--in "their" day you weren't supposed to "spoil" babies by giving in to their needs. And I would consider them needs, not manipulations, as some want to call them. Good for you for standing your ground and giving Ramona what she needs--and know there are other mothers who have been in that bathroom before you!

By the way, Laurie, we'll be in Boston this summer....any chance of meeting you in person?

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

I don't know if I can agree with Matt's late pastor in saying that the noise of children is holy and pleasing to God. Pleasing maybe, but holy? Sheesh!

I guess I'm too theological.

We had the blessing in our four-son family to have a space of nine years between Jacob and his three younger siblings. As an only child for his first nine years, Jacob got "the treatment" from his mom and dad, and consequently was a perfect child in church. Actually, at the beginning of our Christian family life, regular and structured daily prayer time and bible reading got not only Jacob but his brothers as well the kind of self-control to "be good in church" in a way you seldom see today.

Going back to the nine year span between Jacob and Andrew, our oldest son took on the role of dad #2 in managing his brothers. In church services, from the first to the last, the dad (me) was the primary caretaker. I carried them around the temple during services if they got restless, quietly talking to them, and getting them interested in what was going on. Mom only took charge of them when they were still babies and especially still nursing at the breast. But once they were weaned, it was my job and joy to carry my sons aloft to see the ceremonies, or sit tight with them in my lap to teach them according to their age and capacity, from bible, prayer book or icon, or whatever I had on me (and I often had a lot of these peripherals with me). Jacob helped, when he wasn't being an altar boy.

When I look around me today, and see the kind of behavior that goes on with children in church, I think it's different from my experience, but not necessarily bad.

The one thing that we used to do at HT that hasn't been done for a dozen years is group the children with their peers during services, and not have them sitting with their parents. I guess at heart I am still a kibbutznik, and I believe strongly that kids need to form early the strong relationships with their non-family peers that help cross-gird society. It also helps them to stand on their own with God, and not to depend on their parents' faith long after they're old enough to do so.

I'm of the school of thought that there are two manifestations of church: The family is the intimate church, where respect and self-control is fostered and cultivated. The temple is the societal church, where the virtues acquired and reinforced at home are put to good use.

When I see disorderly behavior in children (or in adults) during church services, I can only surmise that the home church is not happening. And that's a pity, because the home church is 90% of it, and the temple only 10% for most people.

Finally, I've often sympathized with the plight of presvyteres having to deal with their kids in church, while papa is in the altar. What I have noticed, though, is that in most cases, various women of the congregation would usually help the presvytera, if the kids were getting too much for her. What happened to you sounds to me like a very cold parish.

Interesting subject.

Joel said...

so so so so glad you posted about this. i am definitely one of the moms with loud, wiggley young children at church. my 5 yo is good for about a half hour and my 2 year old is good for about 15 minutes. i have wished for a place to share my frustrations with other orthodox mamas. when we first started going to church, we were one of the only couples with children. now, fortunately there are probably 3 or 4 that come regularly so the noise of our kids is not the only sound. our church mostly has older people, but they have accepted our children and are very pleased that we bring them for the eucharist every sunday. most of them have grandchildren that are not around, so i think it gives them hope for future generations of believers. i have even had several women give me clothes for the boys and me. thanks again for posting this. i will link to it on my blog.

Elizabeth said...

Roman--thanks for your thoughts. And I commend you for being a proactive dad before it was fashionable for dads to take so much responsibility with their children! I do agree with Matt that the sounds children make are holy--they are making a joyful noise. Metropolitan Anthony always held children in highest esteem, even commanding us to keep our children in church (once when it was appreciated, after being told by others that we'd have to take Carissa out if she was noisy; once when Zachary was *screaming* during a *4 hour* epiphany service....and I really would have preferred to take him out!). When I spoke of certain hierarchs not liking children to be in church, I certainly was not speaking of him!

I agree with you about the family being the...I guess "intimate church" is a good way of putting it. Children need to first have a setting at home where they can see the principles of the faith put into practice, before they can find any value in the parish church. I don't necessarily agree though that disorder in church by children (or adults) means they aren't getting that at home. Maybe you'd like to clarify what you mean by "disorder?"

And yes, in retrospect I think the church where I had that one bad experience was a cold parish. Actually, it was before I was a presvytera, but was a diakonissa, and my husband was not serving at this parish. It was where my children and I found a home because the church used more English than others in the area....but I wonder if we didn't sacrifice something for that. Because I never did feel at home there. Ah, but sometimes it is difficult to find a home. I hope we can become more and more welcoming of newcomers, and embrace those who are not even necessarily newcomers.

Monica! Always nice to hear from you. And it's always interesting to hear what your experience in Romania is.

There were times when I'd just barely get into the pew before I had to turn around and take my kids back out. I think, looking back, I'd really wish to encourage this younger me to have more patience with my children. Because they are little for such a short time and there will be plenty of opportunity for standing in church for the whole liturgy! I just hope others will also have patience.

Shamassy Monica said...

Came over from the other Monica's blog and so glad to find you.

What a timely post for me. I just spent Saturday night and Sunday morning mortified at how much my 1 year daughter wants to walk around during church.

If I hold her she screams, but if I put her down, she goes on trip, waving at everyone she passes by, biding her time until she can excape the watchful hands of parishioners and make her way toward the alter...

I walk her back and forth holding her hand along the back wall, but that only lasts so long. So much to learn, I have, about raising my little ones in Church.