My priest, Father Achilles, graciously allowed me to interview him about various topics that my readers are curious about. The first topic was on how to handle issues that are delicate for women. We wrapped that up and moved on to more practical, everyday concerns many of us have. Of particular interest to my readers was the question of how to create an atmosphere that fosters spiritual growth, especially for Orthodox families.
CS: Another issue that, especially converts, convert women want to know is, what would you say about setting a proper tone and atmosphere in the home that is conducive to spiritual growth for everyone and especially for the children. There are so many traditions that I know nothing about that, I think a lot of times are assumed by the cradles in the church that everybody just knows this stuff, that this is just what you do. But we don’t! There is really no “manual” for everyday Orthodox life.
FA: Sure, yeah. Well, it’s, again, an important question. It’s sort of a broad question, and I think I would begin, just by simply reminding any Christian that the way we commune with God is through prayer and through the sacraments and that, in order to be prayerful, there has to be a certain amount of quiet. So, while I have four children in our house and depending on what time of day you walk in, I don’t mean necessarily quiet ten hours of the day but, you know, for any Orthodox family, I would really encourage parents to seriously consider how much media is on and what type of media and for how long. Many families today just have the TV on from after school until bedtime without even thinking about it, it’s just running in the background. So, there are practical things I would begin with.
So, while our homes are not monasteries, they are small churches and I would at least do a few things that are conducive to prayer. You aren’t going to find a radio or TV blaring in a monastery. So, that’s where I would start, to try to at least create the space where kids (and ourselves) we can have the space and opportunity to be prayerful.
CS: What about introducing a family prayer life. If a family is looking to start introducing something regular, where would you recommend they start? And how strict should they be with their kids in participating, say toddlers versus teenagers, especially for newly converted. What would you recommend?
FA: First of all, I would recommend having it. Ideally, morning and evening. Morning can be a lot more hectic with a lot of families than evening, so at the very least, say evening prayers together before bed. They don’t have to be extremely long. I mean, to begin with, especially with different age groups. With my experience with my own family, and as a priest what I would recommend is to at least to use an Orthodox prayer book but not necessarily do the entire set of, say, morning prayers.
CS: See, I wonder about that, because, I have the Jordanville, and a lot of my friends, that is what we use, the Jordanville Prayer Book. And doing all of the morning prayers, that is a 45 minute commitment, at least, to go through every single one, and I wonder, is it ok to select certain parts and, if so, which parts should I be prioritizing over others? And I’m positive other moms are wondering that, too. How much “cutting back” is just being lazy and how much of it is being practical? What is a minimum we should always get in?
FA: Again, this is my personal opinion based on my family and having younger kids. I think it’s important to have a bare minimum. Even in the morning, even if you’re extremely rushed, a minimum of five to ten minutes of prayer as a family. That might mean doing the opening prayers, keep a regular set and do them everyday. That way the kids also learn the prayers, by heart, and then eventually learn how to read them, if they’re younger kids. I don’t know exactly how many there are, but there are maybe ten or so prayers between that and the closing prayers. Maybe alternate those middle prayers on different days. Do one or two on Mondays, one or two on Tuesdays, and just kind of rotate them.
CS: So the kids get exposed to all of the different prayers through a rotation without expecting your three year old to sit through a half hour of morning prayers.
FA: Right. Exactly. And sometimes I ask families if they are praying at home, as a family, and they will say, “Yeah, we pray the Our Father at night before bed.” And I say that’s a good beginning, but just to do one single brief prayer, well… it’s always good to pray but it is better, to me, to just stop what we’re doing and, with all the distractions of the day, it takes me five minutes just to, kind of, get the words of prayer out of my mouth before my heart can catch up sometimes to an attitude of prayer. So I think it’s good sometimes, even with very young kids, to try to establish that regular five to ten minutes of prayer. And then, according to your family, and their ages, to increase it.
You know, I have a goal for my family. We haven’t reached it yet, but our goal for evening prayers is to pray the small compline together as a family every night. Which, I think we probably can do it now. My youngest is 11 and they’re certainly mature enough to do it and I think if, timewise, it is about a five to ten minute jump from what we are doing now. So, God willing, I just need to get leading with that.
CS: Speaking of leading, since my audience is women, what if you are the more spiritual in the household, the woman. The one that really cares deeply about these things. Are we overstepping our bounds if our husbands are ok with it, if we are the ones leading the prayers? If they husband doesn’t really want to be involved or he says he is too busy but he says it’s fine for us to pray with the kids. Is that ok?
I’m not suggesting we should be criticizing our husbands for not stepping into that role. That’s not what I’m asking. Is it ok for us to step into the role as a spiritual leader where the kids are concerned rather than to forego it altogether? Is it better to step into that for the kids’ sake or is it better to kind of force the husband and say, if we are going to have it then you are going to have to step into this role?
FA: The general answer is “yes.” Someone has got to be leading the children, and, I mean, if the father is not, it’s fine and good that the mother would lead the house prayer. But I guess my only other thought is that, I would try to encourage that, if there is going to be family prayer, that it might be better to find a common amount of short prayers to do together and then allow someone to leave. Or, if you have the desire to pray more, either later or earlier you can devote yourself to prayer alone. In other words, I think it’s, even statistically, if you look at some of the studies that have come out recently, children who see mom and dad participate in church together have a much, much higher retention, for lack of a better term, rate. You know, statistically, and I hate to throw that word out. But, there is proof they stay in the church compared to when one parent only is involved in the church.
CS: Is it particular, if the father is more involved it is more likely the children will stay involved? I mean, that wouldn’t surprise me.
FA: That is what I have read, yes.
CS: What about… I know with my husband, it is more he doesn’t want to say the prayers. He will, but he would just rather not. He would prefer that I read them and that just makes me uncomfortable, like I’m leading prayers but he’s my husband so, as a woman that just makes me feel uncomfortable. Because, I wonder if it’s wrong. If I had assurance it was ok then I would feel more comfortable with it. What do you think about that?
FA: I don’t think it matters who’s reading them. If you are standing there together in unity of spirit and unity of mind.
CS: A lot of it for him is that he feels he is a poor reader. So it’s a psychological barrier, he says, “I’m not a good reader and you’re a good reader so could you just do the reading” kind of thing. I always cringe because I think, “Is this an ok role for me to step into?”
FA: Oh sure, especially considering that’s his reason, sure. And I would also encourage families to alternate and have children read some of the prayers as well. I have been really impressed at how, the kids retain the prayers better by memory than I do. If they read them themselves then they tend to remember them. It becomes a part of their lives.
CS: It is about time for vespers. Thank you! I really appreciate your time.
FA: No, it was great. God bless.