The Question (Betty Randolph)
Much of the Southeast suffered an ice storm this past December. The southeast does not ‘do’ ice or snow very well. We spent four days without power. The evening of the third day (Saturday) we went to stay with parishioners who had had their power restored. As we sat around the dining table. Ali (a bright eleven year old) asked the question. “Miss Betty, what would happen if you didn’t go to church every Sunday? I mean, would you get in trouble or something?” I chuckled and went on to tell Ali that, “I go to church every week because I want to go. I go to work because I have to; I go to church because it is the most important thing that I do.” Ali accepted my answer but both her question and my banal answer have come back to me numerous times. Children are wonderful and are often so much more perceptive than we adults. As an educator, I have learned to listen carefully when children ask questions because they often tell us more in what they ask us than in the answers they give to our questions. Ali’s question said volumes. She spoke to me on many levels but I had answered only on the surface.
I know Ali better than I know the other students in my Church School class. Ali and her mother lived with us for a few weeks last year when there was a gap between when they had to move from their apartment and the closing date of their new house and she attends the school where I am the Principal. We interact often and on many levels. We have an open and affectionate relationship. She knows my values and life style and is at ease with me. Ali has a very quick and inquiring mind. She is often analytical and ponders things deeply. I am still reeling from her question my first week as her Church School teacher, “How can God be His own Father?” In her comfort, Ali dares to ask what she truly wants to know. It would be well to know all of our students the way I know Ali.
Several things were obvious in Ali’s question about going to Church. It is easy to see that she sees church as a ‘should’ and that she knows I go to church every Sunday but does not understand ‘why’, and to her there might be a penalty involved if I did not go.
I suspect this type of thinking is all too common for many of us. We all have different stories from our youth about ‘having’ to go to church. The church and our parents had numerous ways to get us there. I remember a young man in our church who told me he could not understand why one of his peers attended so sporadically. He said that he was raised to understand that “You go to Church on Sunday; it is just what you do.” I found it interesting that he never told me ‘why’; you go. Sadly, I suspect that man of us have still not figured out why we should want to go. As I answered Ali’s question, I gave no reason of substance to help her understand.
As I pondered this I came to some conclusions that I want to share. I am an educator and as such I have lots of experience is communicating facts. My school has very high student achievement (lots of facts) and is ranked as one of the best in the state. I am proud of this. We spend considerable planning, time, and effort in teaching children how to reason and to organize information. This is critical in the realm of secular education, but Church School needs to be different. There is an additional element in Christian Education and Ali’s question shows me how I am missing the mark.
When Christian Education is only about facts we miss an important dimension. We miss the mystical and without the mystical we cannot teach the fullness of our faith. It is so much easier to just teach ‘facts’ – ‘facts’ are cut and dried and quite measurable. We think we must understand everything and often try to act as if we do. Too often this deception becomes our reality. The truth is we cannot understand everything because it is just too complex for our limited minds. Still, we continue in our intellectual pride. We stand with our Curriculum Guide in hand, and hide our real selves behind it. As the get older our students often turn away as they understand the shallowness of our words, when we cannot give an answer, when we do not answer the questions that they are afraid to ask. Many of us are uncomfortable sharing the spiritual sides of our lives. We would rather be thought of a smart, as logically reasoning, as clear thinkers, and we are not really comfortable with paradox. Yet what is our faith if not permeated with paradox?
When we were at St. Andrew Church in Eustis, Florida, we had a young family that used come when they visited family several times a year. They had a beautiful Mongoloid daughter who would gaze and smile so intensely when she was brought up for communion. Someone said that they thought she must see the angels around us and it seemed so. I personally wondered if she could see the gathered Communion of Saints who worship with us. But do we share things like this with our students? Or do we think them sentimental? Have you never turned around in church just to check who was there because you felt the presence so strongly? Were you aware of the Communion of Saints worshiping with us or did you toss it off as imagination? Do you share your experience or do you think your students (or their parents) might judge your behavior rather strange or emotional, etc.? If we just stick with the facts we can measure, can we really share our faith?
There are some within the Orthodox Church today who believe that we do not need Church School . They think that children will just absorb Orthodoxy (they way they did) by attending Liturgy. Fr. David has a deep appreciation of classical music that I admire. I doubt he understands the mechanics of music because the only type of instrument he learned to play was the drums. Still he deeply understands and deeply appreciates music. When I questioned this he told me that in the upstate New York school system where he grew up the school regularly played classical pieces on the public address system and the students were required to ‘just listen’. He does not remember being taught about music; he simply absorbed music and learned to appreciate it. However, appreciation is not enough when it comes to our faith.
Others within our church want to model our Church Schools after what they knew in the Protestant Churches they left. You learn a lot of ‘facts’ in a Protestant Sunday School class. You mostly learn ‘facts’ about Bible stories (we will not even talk about who’s interpretation these ‘facts’ might be). It suffices to say that most information packaged is in nice understandable bundles of information and memory verses. It is all about learning. If you know enough ‘facts’ about the Bible and about God (as the particular denomination understands Him) then you will know God. If this were true, Church School would be much easier. ‘Facts’ are easier but they not enough when it comes to our faith.
We must be careful not to fall to either extreme because Orthodoxy is far too complex to fit in either extreme. Our children need to understand the basis of their faith but they must also understand the mystery. They cannot understand the mystery unless we show them it is all around them. We must allow them to recognize it. They must know it is okay to embrace mystery even if they do not understand. This reasoning goes counter to all our culture communicates, it goes counter to what children hear in school and see in the media. We must teach them the difference between magic and mystery. Magic is trivial. Mystery illustrates our inability to even begin to comprehend on God’s plane; it is vast and embracing. Children need to know that truth is truth. Truth is not relative; truth is eternal. .They are not going to learn these things in school- not even in a good school like mine. This is a Church/family responsibility and if I am missing the mark, I expect others are also.
Children and older folks appear to be more open than others to spiritual experience. Maybe this is really because the young have not yet learned to hide (or reject) their experiences and the elderly may no longer care what we really think. We really cannot know but I expect we, as adults, unwittingly extinguish the spiritual experiences of the young. Maybe this is because we cannot explain their experiences and it is not acceptable to say “I do not know” or perhaps we just do not think about it. As teachers, we must become persons that young people can ask what they really want to know without fear of being patronized. We must become ‘safe’ persons for them to share their experiences.
My mother called me this week. That is no small thing. By the rules in my family, my mother does not call me- I call my mother. When her number came up on the caller ID, I felt a little uneasy—if my mother was calling me, then something must be wrong. The conversation began with, “Betty, I have to talk to someone about this, please do not tell me I’m crazy, I think your sister would tell me I’m crazy." She told me what she had been praying about and I relaxed into listening mode as my mother shared a ‘spiritual experience." She only asked if I thought it could be real, she did not ask for me to judge her experience. .Therefore I could honestly say that, “Yes, it could be real." When I told this she replied that she knew that I would understand and that because of her experience she was “sure that there is something after this life." I could only thank God for His grace as my mother had a very difficult year with the death of two of her children and now she was beginning to heal. I am thankful that my mother thinks me to be a ‘safe’ person to share her experiences. I need to work harder to be a ‘safe’ person for the students in my Church School class.
I need to consciously and deliberately begin to share my own spiritual experience in ways they may understand. I need to share my prayer life and tell my students about how our daughter told me about the angels shortly before she died. And that sometimes when I enter the empty church I know that I am not really alone and that miracles still happen though not always they way we want them to happen. I will tell them that sometimes we really do hear the voice of God in our hearts and what that is like. Most importantly, I will listen very prayerfully as they ask questions and tread ever so lightly as they begin to dare to share their experience.
Only after a safe and open spiritual environment has been established can my class begin to prayerfully walk through the mystery and awe of the Divine Liturgy and talk about what is happening spiritually (not just what we or the priest are doing but what is happening around us). Only after a safe and open spiritual environment has been established will it make sense to tell my students that when the priest enters the royal doors with the Gospel book, he opens the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven for all of us. Only after a safe and open spiritual environment has been established will we be able to talk about the reality of the Communion of Saints or what really happens during Confession (not just what we do during Confession). Only after a safe and open spiritual environment has been established will they begin to see that it does not matter that we do not understand how the bread and wine is changed in to the body and blood of Jesus- all that matters is that it does happen. Only after a safe and open spiritual environment has been established will Ali and my other students begin to understand that God does really come among us during the Divine Liturgy.
Then Ali will know the reason I go to Church each Sunday.
Betty Randolph is the Christian Education Diocesan Coordinator for Miami and the Southeast of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.